Back home at her Hillbilly estate in rural Missouri, Van Barnes gears up for another rough ride in the backwoods on the seat of her husband’s motorcycle. Wearing a ripped ball cap, outdated glasses and a pair of scuffed jeans, you’d never guess she was rubbing elbows with Hollywood elite at the SAG Awards just a month ago.
Living out of her suitcase three to four months out of the year is typical for Van, assistant to Jeffrey Tambor on Amazon’s Golden Globe winning show Transparent. She’s used to the late nights, high pace and the occasional LA party. Oh, and she loves the camera. Whether she’s working behind the scenes of Transparent or dining with the cast of E!’s, I Am Cait, Van is a Hollywood natural. But don’t let those luscious blonde locks and that dazzling smile fool you; Van Barnes is a country girl at heart.
With a knack for television and film, Van set her sights on The City of Angels. Long before she became a consultant for the show’s first season, she knew that Transparent would be groundbreaking. After attending an infamous LA party with the show’s writers, Van knew that she had to get involved.
“They loved me,” she says. “They called me the next day and asked me if I could meet.”
First premiering in 2014, Jill Soloway’s Transparent documents a family’s life after their father, opens up about identifying as a female, named Moira. Poignant, sincere, revolutionary and humorous, Transparent’s ability for tackling hot topics — such as “the bathroom issue” — is just as strong as the show’s cast with Jeffrey Tambor starring as Moira, and Gabby Hoffmann, Jay Duplass and Amy Landecker as her self-obsessed children.
Moira’s skeletons are not the only ones stepping out of the closet. The questions the show asks like “will you still love me if?” not only capture the fear and complexities of coming out as transgender, but the domino effect it has on families, Van says.
“That’s how families and relationships work: when one person finds their authenticity or truth, other people start feeling comfortable with that person, and they start letting out their secrets,” she explains. “It’s very infectious when you can live that level of authenticity.”
The shows honest portrayal of transgender issues runs deep in the storyline, most of which are based on the real life experiences of transgender individuals. Van’s own experiences living in New York City in the 90s crafted the persona and wise words of Devina, Moira’s mentor in season one, played by transgender actress, Alexandra Billings.
For Van, the show’s ability to break barriers and push transgender issues to the forefront is what makes it such a success.
“It’s really rewarding knowing that people are watching this show and taking it all in,” she says. “It’s actually changing their views and opinions, especially with trans* issues that they might not have known about before.”
It was only a matter of time before Van’s wit and personality piloted her onto another show. This time, things got a bit more real.
Riding on the back of her husband’s motorcycle, the wind flowing through her hair, Van rolled right into the arms of E!’s I Am Cait. After hosting a dinner for Caitlyn Jenner and the show’s cast on season one, she caught the eye of the show’s producers.
“They knew I was worth the time,” she laughs. “I got on the show by being naturally me.”
Joining the show as a secondary character wasn’t just a moment in the spotlight for Van, but a chance to rekindle old friendships. Shooting with Candice Cane, whom she danced with at Webster Hall during the 90s, and Zackary Drucker, Associate Producer of Transparent, felt more like play and less like work.
“Anytime you’re around sisterhood, it’s always a party.”
It was during the show’s second season that things hit close to home for Van — literally. With Missouri Pride in her heart and her motorcycle ready to go, Van brought I Am Cait to St. Louis.
While the episode featured Van and Caitlyn riding motorcycles, throwing back a few beers at a local biker bar and even a cameo from Scott Disick, the trip had deeper roots for Van and the women.
Hand in hand, Van and the cast gathered around the Transgender Memorial Garden in The Grove in honor of Transgender Day of Remembrance, an annual observance of individuals lost due to anti transgender violence. Having cameras capture the commemorative moment was an opportunity to cast a light on the issue, and to showcase the progressive work being done in St. Louis.
“I wanted to propel St. Louis,” she says. “I’m so proud of the trans* community here. The Metro Trans Umbrella Group and the Trans Youth of St. Louis are doing phenomenal things.”
You can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t the country out of the girl. Whether she’s sipping wine with Hollywood’s A-list or pumping gas at her local gas station, Van is always a country gal.
Back home at her eight acre “Hillbilly Estate,” there is a sense of of belonging. Gardening, kayaking, strolling through the fields with her dogs; it’s not your typical L.A. lifestyle, but it’s the one Van knows and loves. For her, back road riding with her husband takes the cake over any LA party.
When it comes to striking the perfect balance between the backwoods and the backlots, she gets advice from the original Backwoods Barbie.
“I take my cues from Dolly Parton; she is one of my chosen mother aunties,” she says. “She’s endearing to people, she’s really humble. I’m just the same person everywhere I go.”
Living rurally comes naturally to Van, but openly living as transgendered in the rural Midwest becomes less of a way of life and more of a symbol. In a small, conservative town, discrimination and violence towards the LGBTQ community is common, Van says. Many transgender individuals flee their homes and blood families for safer, more inclusive communities in the city.
But Van urges them to embrace their hometowns and openly live in the country. Visibility is key to acceptance. Living a stealth life and hiding your own authenticity is an idea that should be buried in the past when solidarity is a synonym to safety.
“I challenge myself to live rurally, because that is what is inside my heart,” she explains. “There is no reason why I should have to leave where I feel at home.”
The future looks bright for Van, and it’s not just the glimmer of Hollywood light. While the third season of Transparent is marching straight ahead, she doesn’t lose sight of the LGBTQ issues in the rearview mirror. Discrimination, especially employment-related, is one of many barriers still facing transgender individuals. Even if an establishment accepts and supports the community, fear of losing business stops many from taking a strong stance and hiring transgender employees.
But there is hope, even if it comes from tragedy. Following the mass shooting this June that tragically killed forty-nine victims at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, LGBTQ issues were brought to the frontlines of mainstream news. As atrocious as the incident was, it created an opportunity to have a conversation.
“People who were on the fence, now they have to pick a side,” she says. “They are now realizing that they can’t just say ‘LGBTQ issues don’t affect me,’ or ‘I’m not a part of that.’”
Her belief that people are good and love will prevail keeps her hopeful for the future of the LGBTQ community. While discrimination in the workplace is still one of the largest barriers faced by transgender individuals, large corporations are trailblazing diversity initiatives to create a more welcoming environment.
The transgender movement is also picking up on the feminist movement, Van says, taking it somewhere nobody thought it would. Breaking the gender binary, and removing classification of individuals as either male or female is at the top of the agenda, and a close reality. Teaching people to stop persecuting transgender individuals and becoming kinder and gentler to all is just as crucial.
For Van, her biggest source of hope comes directly from the LGBTQ community. Before anything else, she says, LGBTQ individuals know how to stick together and fight.
“There’s something innate inside of LGBTQ people. We are survivors by nature.” V
by Romana Mrzljak