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At “Trans Takeover” Picket at Netflix, Writers Push for Representation: “Let Us Make You Money”

Picketing at Netflix on Thursday afternoon took a celebratory turn as trans and gender non-conforming writers hosted a block party-esque picket at the corner of Sunset Blvd. and Van Ness Ave. aimed at improving their visibility both within the industry at large and in their own guild.

The event from the Writers Guild of America’s Trans/Gender Non-Conforming Writers Subcommittee, called “Trans Takeover Thursday,” featured a “mini ball,” honoring the ballroom tradition originating in queer communities of color (prizes were awarded for “cutest pet,” “best outfit” and “best sign”). Attendees were encouraged to wear blue, pink and white, referring to the traditional colors of the transgender Pride flag. Writers packed the sidewalks surrounding Netflix’s Hollywood offices, with hundreds attending (the Writers Guild estimated 800 appeared). Picket signs with messages like “We’re here, we’re queer and we can do this all year” and “They/them causing mayhem” were hoisted into the air.

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It was all in the service of showing “that there are so many of us,” says writer Kam Alyse (Walker), one of the organizers of the event. A key goal of the subcommittee, which only formed officially within the last year at the union, is advocating for more trans stories told by trans writers. “We want to remind people that not only are we out here and we’re supporting our union, but hopefully our union will also be supporting us,” they said.

Trans representation is still generally paltry in entertainment, notes writer and actor Jen Richards (Mayfair Witches, Mrs. Fletcher). “And when it has been there, it’s been non-trans people playing us in shows written by non-trans people and in movies written and directed by non-trans people. ” She added, “We’re proof that the talent is here and no one can tell our stories better than we can.” Issues that organizers want to tackle with their subcommittee include what they say is a problem of trans writers not being included in telling stories about trans characters or being brought into projects at the last minute and/or only as “sensitivity consultants” and a rash of portrayals of trans people as “lonely and struggling,” says writer-director Jules Byrne (UCB Comedy Originals).

WGA West president Meredith Stiehm, who spoke at the event and served as one of the judges during the mini-ball, noted that the jubilant event was still taking place in the context of a strike. “It’s great to see so much spirit and the people are making it fun out here and energized, but we know that this is not fun. You know, this is a strike. This is not what we want to be doing,” she says.

WGA Members Strike outside of Netflix on May 18th, 2023
WGA Members Strike outside of Netflix on May 18th, 2023

The significance of holding the event at Netflix was acknowledged on at least one picket sign during the event: “Chapelle can’t write it all by herself!” it read. The company, of course, sparked controversy in 2021 when it aired a Dave Chappelle comedy special, The Closer, in which the comedian made remarks that were denounced as transphobic. At one point that year, hundreds of protesters held a rally in support of the streamer’s trans staffers engaging in a virtual walkout outside of Netflix’s Hollywood offices. A Netflix staffer was also dismissed for allegedly leaking information (the staffer has denied this charge) about the Chappelle special. The streamer stood by Chappelle during the dustup (even as co-CEO Ted Sarandos admitted he “screwed up” in responding to staffer concerns), later releasing his comedy special What’s In a Name? in 2022.

Netflix also in 2022 made changes to its company culture memo that were perceived as responding to the Chappelle uproar the previous year. “Not everyone will like — or agree with — everything on our service,” said the revised note. “Depending on your role, you may need to work on titles you perceive to be harmful. If you’d find it hard to support our content breadth, Netflix may not be the best place for you.”

Leo Aquino, a screenwriter and journalist who was present, had also attended the 2021 Chappelle rally. Thursday’s WGA picket was a “nice little bookend” to that experience, they said: “Netflix just stays fucking up, so it was pretty cool to be able to yell ‘trans rights’ over and over again in front of their offices.” As a writer who is not yet a WGA member but aspires to be, Aquino says they are scared particularly by the AMPTP’s alleged response to the WGA’s AI proposals — proposing that both parties attend an annual meeting on technology. (The AMPTP has said in a statement that the issue “requires a lot more discussion.”) “I’m really out here putting my heart on the page. So it’s really disheartening to feel like they think they can replace us with computers,” Aquino said.

WGA Members Strike outside of Netflix on May 18th, 2023
WGA Members Strike outside of Netflix on May 18th, 2023

SAG-AFTRA’s announcement that its national board had called a strike authorization vote the previous day was also a topic of conversation on the line. Stiehm said she was “very surprised” by the announcement but “pleased and proud of them and fully support them as they’ve been supporting us.” SAG-AFTRA actor and stunt performer Max Calder (Red Notice, Jungle Cruise) had joined the picket in solidarity with the writers and said he was planning on voting “yes” to authorize a potential strike. “A lot of the concerns with the acting and stunt sides are very similar to what the writers are concerned about, mainly residuals,” he said.

The WGA has been on strike since May 2 as they remain deadlocked with employers over issues of writers’ room size and duration, residuals, wage floors and artifical intelligence. Studios and streamers, represented in talks by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), are currently negotiating with the Directors Guild of America before the latter’s contract expires on June 30, and the WGA and employers have not yet set a date for when they will return to the bargaining table.

In the meantime, guild members are endeavoring to make the daily picketing entertaining and occasionally informative with events like Thursday’s. Says Richards of the WGA subcommittee’s message to the industry at large with the “Trans Takeover” picket, “We want to give them an opportunity to succeed, to do the right thing, to have a positive impact and to make money from doing it, which they can do when they work with us.”

Added event organizer and writer Jacob Tobia (Little Mx. Shunshine), “Let us make you money. We’re more than happy to.”

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