“Man on the Land,” the ninth episode in Transparent’s second season, takes place at the 42nd Idyllwild Wimmin’s Music Festival—a gathering that bears a strong resemblance to the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which was held for the last time in August 2015. In typically self-absorbed Pfefferman fashion, Maura, Sarah, and Ali pitch their tents unaware that trans women aren’t welcome there. Maura’s eventual realization that many of the festival-goers don’t see her as part of their community is traumatic and traumatizing, but the episode finds opportunites to show a range of perspectives.
We see why some of the festival’s founders—women who “drove the plough” and “cleared the woods” to establish the place—want to keep it for women-born-women. Maura gets to explain why she feels she has a right to be there, too. And Leslie Mackinaw (Cherry Jones), a lesbian poet and academic who is also Ali Pfefferman’s latest crush, gets to wax lyrical about never having felt totally free “until my first summer here, walking around buck naked in the woods under a full moon” and to explain why separatism is exclusionary: “There are ladies here, they save up all year long. They get here, and they feel protective, and they end up spewing hate.”
I talked to the episode’s writer, Ali Liebegott, who attended the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival in 1999 to perform with Sister Spit, about how the episode came about.
Michigan’s policy of trans exclusion was one of the most visible areas of conflict between lesbian feminists and trans women. Was it always on Transparent’s radar?
When we started to think about Season 2 and Maura’s journey, it emerged really early as a place where Maura could go and find conflict. You could see that it would be the perfect setting for dramatic TV, so it was a really natural choice.
Women’s music festivals have been on a couple of TV shows, but there’s usually an element of mocking the people who go to such events. There’s gentle ribbing here, but this wasn’t a disrespectful representation.
No. For me, it was always a goal that you could see the history, and see the necessity of that land for [the women who] founded it, the history they had there. Even when we were doing the shooting, and we had 500 background women, we were really trying to capture the freedom that it represented for women of all body sizes and types to be empowered to go naked. I know there are women who go every year, who save all year to go there. It’s their haven. The question of the episode is what happens when Maura wants that safe space, too.
Yeah. She absolutely deserves that space, and yet I understood the perspective of the women who created the land. It was very smart to show a lot of different perspectives that aren’t in themselves crazy or wrong.
We were trying to show the complexities of the conversations. I hope that came across.
At the end of the episode, you flash back to Berlin, and the Gestapo attack on the Institute for Sexual Research. Are you drawing a direct parallel between trans-exclusionary women’s spaces and the Nazis?
I wouldn’t want to make any light reference to Nazis, but I think it’s interesting to think about what would have happened if none of those books had burned. I’m 44. One of the things that has been a real shift in my perspective as a queer person is that as the queer community grows, and gets more rights, there’s more in-fighting. I remember a more unified time when there were fewer fractures. During the AIDS crisis, the queer community was more unified.
We were really lamenting the idea of what if the institute had just kept going, and there was progress from that point? What would that mean for all these people who’ve suffered all this time?”
You’ve also acted on the show—you play Tiffany, who works at the condo complex where Shelly lives, and you were in the crowd at the music festival. What’s it like to combine acting and writing?
It was really fun. Shooting that episode was intense. We were outside of Los Angeles for a week. It was 100 degrees. It was 500 extras. It was the Indigo Girls. It was epic. The Indigo Girls scene felt like you’d attended an Indigo Girls concert.
I’m sure it’s ridiculously hard work, but is being a writer on Transparent as much fun as it seems?
It’s great. It’s so different than writing books. My work has been so ghettoized in my lifetime, I’m mostly astounded that I’ve lived long enough that my queer experience has become a commodity.
This interview has been edited and condensed.