Publication: Sissy Screens
“Humour is the great unifier,” asserts multimedia artist, producer and advocate Zackary Drucker during our recent conversation in Melbourne. “I think it’s a common denominator—a way to reach people that maybe aren’t sympathetic to the cause.”
While she’s a celebrated artist whose photography has exhibited at the Whitney Biennial and whose production credits include the Golden Globe and Emmy-winning Transparent and the Emmy-nominated series of docu-shorts This Is Me, Zackary continues to sell personalised doormats featuring her face via her website (tagline: ‘For only $100 you can wipe your feet on my face for a lifetime’).
“Trans people have become a lightning rod because we represent a modernising world.”
It’s this brand of unassuming humour underpinning trans authorship and representation that punctuates Zackary’s work. Her last short, Mother Comes To Venus, is a case in point. Presenting a quasi-futuristic, post-tipping point Hollywood where trans and gender diverse people have seized the means of cultural production, Mother boasts an almost-exclusively trans and/or non-binary cast and crew. It stars Alexandra Grey as Venus, a black trans powerhouse agent, and queer rapper Mykki Blanco as the universe’s most celebrated pop star. The only cisgendered character is Venus’s hapless assistant: “her gender and sex are synonymous,” she explains to a chorus of pitying replies, “she’s been that way since birth.”
A gentle antagonist, Zackary has spent her career at the front of the culture wars. “Trans people have become a lightning rod because we represent a modernising world. I feel like this is a moment when people who’ve always been on the margins are becoming more empowered and accessing tools of cultural production… [T]here is a resistance to that and the status quo feels threatened by it, as if our empowerment takes something away from them.”
It is in this climate, she stresses, that it’s important to nurture talent across the gender spectrum. “I think it’s crucial that we encourage and promote trans and non-binary people to create as much content as possible because it takes all of us putting our voices out there. Our community is not a monolith by any means, we all come from such different positions.”
“It’s crucial that we encourage and promote trans and non-binary people to create as much content as possible because it takes all of us putting our voices out there.”
And as Zackary’s work highlights, it is a community built on the backs of elders: “Knowing that this path has been blazed for us and that we’re continuing work that’s been done by previous generations of feminists and trans and gender diverse people empowers us in the present.” Fittingly, her work often pays homage to matriarchs both familial and ‘transcestral’. She has collaborated with her mother, Penny Sori, on a number of projects; most recently the short Southern For Pussy, where they trade bon mots and continue a playful, intergenerational dialogue established in an earlier video work FISH: a Matrilineage of Cunty White Woman Realness.
Considerable reverence and screen time is also given to her ‘fairy godmothers’ Flawless Sabrina, Holly Woodlawn and Alexis Delago: “I think of them as artists in the medium of life, moving through the world in ways that were unprecedented.” Flawless occupies a special place in this pantheon; Zackary met the pioneering drag artist and activist as a teen and the two remained close friends and collaborators until Flawless’ death in 2018.
Another formative influence was author and gender theorist Kate Bornstein. Growing up in Syracuse, a small city in New York State, Zackary read Bornstein’s seminal biography Gender Outlaw at fourteen: “Kate’s writing and her expansion of the category of transgender allowed me a way of seeing myself that I didn’t have.”
The impact this had on a young Zackary was powerful and has informed both her gender politics and her art practice. From an early collaborative photographic project Relationship, documenting her six year relationship with then-partner Rhys Ernst while they were both transitioning, to recently authoring The Gender Spectrum Collection, Broadly‘s stock photo library featuring images of trans and non-binary models, Zackary’s photography has expanded the representation of trans and gender non-conforming people. It’s this art-as-advocacy approach that also marks her curatorial work, including a stint guest editing the ‘Future Gender’ themed issue of photography journal Aperture in 2018, a landmark edition dedicated to the representation of transgender lives, communities, and histories in photography.
“My most tangible offer to the community was creating a pipeline for trans and non-binary people to work in Hollywood.”
But it’s Zackary work in television that has arguably left the greatest impression on the cultural landscape, particularly her work on Transparent. She met the series creator Jill Soloway at Sundance Film Festival and Jill then reached out to Zackary and then-partner Rhys for film recommendations to pass onto their parent who had recently come out as trans. Shortly after, they were re-introduced through mutual friends while Jill was writing the Transparent pilot. Zackary asserts: “It was definitely a paradigm shift. It was clear from the first page that the story had the power to really impact our culture. And it did.” Originally brought on as consultants on the pilot, the pair signed on as the Associate Producers when the show was ordered to season. Zackary worked her way up the producorial ladder, finally landing as supervising producer on the show’s finale.
In addition to working closely with the show’s writers to create an authentic rendering of trans life—not only of retired LA college professor Maura Pfefferman, but of her wider circle of friends—Zackary helped implement the Transfirmative Action Program: “My most tangible offer to the community was creating a pipeline for trans and non-binary people to work in Hollywood which doesn’t [normally] happen… Employment discrimination is one of the biggest impediments to our advancement so it seemed crucial to create an inclusive set and to bring at least one person to every department.”
A landmark for trans representation and production, Transparent also offered a nuanced portrayal of a secular Jewish American family and reconnected Zackary to her cultural heritage. “My relationship to Judaism was totally rebooted by my time on the show,” she asserts. “[Growing up], I became more entrenched in my identity as a queer and trans person and forgot about how my Jewish values were informing everything that I was doing. It wasn’t until I worked on Transparent that I returned to that cultural identity and began to reincorporate those aspects into my life.”
“There are so many parallels to my transness and my Judaism and the history of both. I think that both communities have relied on assimilation and visibility for survival because our identities make us vulnerable to persecution.”
She now sees her Jewish and trans identities as complementary and bound by histories of survival: “There are so many parallels to my transness and my Judaism and the history of both. I think that both communities have relied on assimilation and visibility for survival because our identities make us vulnerable to persecution. I believe, too, that Jewish people in the twentieth century represented modernism so the Jewish emancipation act of the nineteenth century allowed Jews to move from the outlying shtetl communities in Eastern Europe into cities, at which point they modernised very quickly because they existed in these autonomous eco-systems and knew how to manage their own villages and communities. They quickly gained political and economic power in urban Europe and after about two or three generations were scapegoated for ultimately being so successful at modernisation that they had surpassed some of their non-Jewish counterparts.”
The artist’s rekindled relationship to her heritage was tested when it came to producing season four of Transparent, which sees the Pfeffermans travel to Israel. “It was the biggest challenge of all, taking on Israel and Palestine where there’s thousands of years of history. How do you accurately convey all of that complexity in an under 30 minute episode? It was daunting and I think there was a tremendous amount of education that happened behind the scenes for everybody. All of our preconceived notions about the Middle East were really tested.”
While the season was originally slated to be shot in East Jerusalem, the Transparent team decided to shoot in Los Angeles following rigorous consultations with Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) advocates. “There was a lot of healthy intellectual debate and a lot of people weighing in and a lot of feelings. It was challenging but I felt like we really persevered and created a season that could never have happened on another show. And it was because of the sensitivity and the integrity and intellectual rigour of what was happening behind the scenes.”
And, she notes: “The advantage of telling a story with many characters is that you’re able to present multiple positions. I think that Ali’s story in particular where she travels to Ramallah and experiences the West Bank and, experiences American and Western activists doing peace work and human rights activism was an accurate representation. It is one of the things I hear most often.”
“I became more entrenched in my identity as a queer and trans person and forgot about how my Jewish values were informing everything that I was doing.”
Shooting in LA proved a challenge for the art department who were tasked with recreating ancient monuments in an urban setting. They built the Western Wall in the Paramount Parking Lot, and shot key Dead Sea scenes at Universal Studios. The results are astounding but as Zackary concedes: “It would’ve been much easier to shoot in Israel.”
Not that the show has ever treaded a light path, or as Zackary understatedly puts it: “Each season presented a new challenge.” Arguably the biggest one was when lead actor Jeffrey Tambor was accused of sexual misconduct by co-star Trace Lysette and assistant Van Barnes and was duly fired from the show. This left Transparent without its trans parent, and the decision was made to kill off Tambor’s character Maura off-screen at the beginning of the feature-length ‘Musicale Finale’. This was a risky move with a risqué soundtrack (including musical numbers titled: ‘Your Boundary Is My Trigger’ and ‘Joy-a-caust’) but it worked; the Pfeffermans farewelled their beloved ‘Moppa’ with the song and dance she so deserved.
With the curtains drawn on Transparent, Zackary has moved on to other pursuits. “I am retiring to focus on being a mother and wife,” she jokes. In reality, she has a number of projects in development including a limited series for a major network. But, she modestly maintains: “my focus is creating my own work and pushing myself, as an artist and a writer, in new directions. I feel like I’m just starting to hit my stride. I think the opportunities I’ve been fortunate to find have not come too soon. I do feel like I’m ready and stable and confident in who I am and I come to every day with gratitude.”