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Our Lady J breaks new ground for gender representation

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Our Lady J is making several Pride appearances. (Courtesy Troy Pes)

“All I wanted to be was a preacher’s wife, so I could play the piano and tour the world as a music minister,” Our Lady J says. “The world had something else in mind for me.”

A pianist and singer-songwriter who has been a writer and producer on three seasons of Transparent — as well as on Pose, Ryan Murphy’s new show about trans women of color in 1980s New York — she will be in San Francisco this weekend in several capacities. She’ll be at the Trans March this Friday afternoon, topic and length of speech yet to be determined. And then after the Pride Parade wraps up on Sunday, Our Lady J is scheduled to perform three songs, one of them an original and another a Dolly Parton cover.

“I’m the biggest Dolly Parton fan in the world, and I just want her to adopt me as a late-in-life adoption,” she says, adding, “Dolly helped me with one of my trans-related surgeries. So she’s in me forever and ever.”

That would be Boob Aid, her 2009 benefit concert starring Taylor Mac, Jake Shears, and others. As with her hero, born and raised in rural Sevier County in East Tennessee, Our Lady J grew up in an evangelical milieu in Pennsylvania’s Amish country. Referring to herself as an “educated hillbilly” and a “hustler,” she notes that she never fully left the church. Instead, through her “Gospel for the Godless,” she abandoned the dogma and retained the praise. The idiom stayed the same, in other words, and after recording an album with a gospel choir she believes it’s only a matter of time before the world welcomes a transgender gospel singer.

“It takes a lot of charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent to excel in a world that is expecting you to fail,” she says. “As a child, I just wanted to be a classical pianist, but really, what I found out was that I was a storyteller. Even though the classical world wasn’t ready for an LGBT artist at the level that I wanted and demanded in my profession, Hollywood was ready. So I walked through that door gladly and gratefully.”

At first, it might sound strange that gender identity might be a greater barrier to entry in classical music than in the image-obsessed and considerably more superficial world of film and television, but Our Lady J — who, it should be noted, was the first out trans women to play Carnegie Hall — disagrees.

“To be perfectly honest, it’s an art form that peaked in the 19th century,” she says. There are a lot less positions available to fill to have an actual career. With television, there’s just much more opportunity there. TV is willing to take more chances on new artists.”

Transparent’s groundbreaking nature — and internecine woes — have been amply documented. Having debuted this month on FX, Pose expands on territory that the Jennie Livingston’s documentary Paris Is Burning looked at in 1990: drag-ball culture. The source of now-common terms like “realness” and “reading,” it’s a testament to creativity and resilience and a glimpse at how Black trans women in Upper Manhattan reconfigured prevailing white, heteronormative standards of beauty. Run through the Ryan Murphy machine, Pose bursts with high drama and defiant monologues, akin to Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling but about an even more marginalized subculture. Support from John Landgraf at FX made it happen, Our Lady J says — and it’s the network’s most expensive show to date.

And whereas on Transparent she was the only transgender writer out of 10 in the room, the ratio on Pose is different.

“The writers’ room for Pose was half the size it was for Transparent, so I’m much more involved,” she says. “Also, Janet Mock is in the writers’ room as well, so it’s been incredible that two of the five writers are trans.”

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