DIVA meets Krishna Istha: “It was really important for us to show the multi-facetted lives trans people live”
BY NIC CROSARA, IMAGE BY NETFLIX
Sex Education is back baby, and it’s queerer than ever. The hit Netflix show has consistently served up LGBTQIA representation over the course of its past three seasons, and in it’s fourth and final season it delivered deeply moving and trailblazing trans representation.
Growing up, trans representation onscreen was lacklustre. The most well-known films that centred transgender characters were created by and portrayed by cisgender people. It feels truly healing and monumental to see three trans characters played by trans actors and penned by a trans writer in the show’s final chapter.
I got the chance to speak to trans writer, Krisha Istha (they/them), about penning the three trans storylines we get to see in Sex Education season four. Here’s what they had to say…
DIVA: For me, the trans storylines were at the heart of this season. We get to see both the struggles that come with being trans, as well as moments of trans joy. How did you navigate getting the balance right?
Krishna: It was a tricky thing to balance for sure! Especially when we don’t have much nuanced trans representation onscreen. It was really important for us to show the multi-facetted lives trans people live. We went back and forth in the writers’ room, trying to find the “ideal” trans storyline until we realised that any one portrayal of the trans experience (whether the struggles or the joys) wouldn’t do trans people justice unless it was balanced out by the other. Which led us to the three trans characters with different experiences – Roman with a loving family who accepts him for who he is, Abbi who comes from a religious family and has had to leave home but has moved in with Roman’s welcoming family, and Cal whose mum is struggling initially with their transition but comes from a well meaning and loving place and in time supports them wholeheartedly.
What was the writing process like and how much creative freedom did you get given when it comes to writing the arcs of the trans characters in the show?
It started with a writers room – where I joined writers Troy Hunter, Thara Popoola, Ethan Harvey, Selina Lim, Annalisa D’Innella, Bella Heesom as well as Sex Education’s show creator Laurie Nunn, Executive producer Clare Couchman and script editor Lucy Arditti – in a room for five weeks where we hashed out the storylines for every character across the season.
I felt really supported to help guide and contribute to the trans storylines, it helped that everyone else in the room were amazing allies who didn’t need much convincing! But at the end of the day, I am only one trans person and I can’t speak for the entire community. We worked with external trans and non-binary story consultants through organisations Heard (All About Trans) and Gendered Intelligence, and of course, the actors who play our trans characters Dua Saleh (Cal), Felix Mufti (Roman) and Anthony Lexa (Abbi) all contributed to their storylines too, it was a real joint effort!
What do you hope viewers take away from watching Cal’s storyline?
We are at a time when anti-trans rhetoric is at an all time high and there is a misunderstanding that trans people have an easy time getting access to gender-affirming healthcare, which any trans person with lived experience can confirm is not the case in the slightest. Cal’s storyline was really to shed light on what our experiences going through the GIC is really like and how disheartening the long waiting times can be for trans people.
I hope trans and non-binary viewers feel seen, while cis audiences who might not know much about it but have seen trans “issues” bandied about get a better insight into what our lives are really like, which is both sometimes hard but also full of camaraderie and community.
Initially, Cal’s storyline was meant to go somewhere else, but during the process of making this season one of our young trans story consultants Shay Patten Walker devastatingly passed away, and the writing team felt it important and more pressing than ever to tell this version of our story.
Cal’s mother struggles to know what to say to them, what advice would you give to parents wanting to be allies to their trans children?
Much like Cal’s mother, my own mum initially struggled with me coming out but over the years has become the best ally I could ever have.
She might not have always understood everything I was going through, but the thing that made the biggest difference to me was her willingness to listen and learn, her open mindedness and her unwavering support.
I’m in my first T4T relationship, and watching this season, I realised I’ve never seen T4T love represented onscreen. It deeply impacted me to have this gamechanging representation. What was important to you when writing Abbi and Roman’s relationship?
Yes, I’m incredibly excited by that too! I am also in a T4T relationship, and so are many in our community but often trans characters are shown to exist in worlds made up of only cis people i.e without the presence of other trans people around them and often depicted as undesirable, over sexualised or as chasing relationships with cis characters. Much like how we often see characters of colour only in relationships with white characters. It felt super exciting and important to be able to show young trans love in a nuanced and more accurate way.
It was so impactful to see the T4T sex scene between Abbi and Roman in the last episode. What was it like seeing this scene for the first time?
Episode eight was written by the brilliant Thara Popoola. But Felix Mufti (Roman) and Anthony Lexa (Abbi) fought to have the sex scene and helped with constructing it, which I think adds to its authenticity. It’s my favourite scene this season actually, because it’s explicitly a trans sex scene and it‘s of course a sweet moment in their love story while also helping to destigmatise trans bodies and our relationship to both our bodies and sex, when often we only see it represented in porn.
Sex Education opens up a lot of dialogue in the home between young people who watch it and their parents. What conversations do you hope are sparked from this season?
I hope this season helps young queer and trans people have a framework to explain things to their parents. Often it’s hard to explain how you’re feeling and what you might be going through. When I first came out, I felt immense relief in being able to point my mum in the direction of the media that existed to help her understand me better. And of course, the hope is that people who might know nothing about any of the topics covered in Sex Education get a, well… education out of it.
It’s so fantastic to see trans character arcs portrayed by trans actors and written by trans writers. As Sex Education comes to an end, what do you hope other creative teams can learn from this authenticity?
It really does make a difference to have stories told authentically by the people you might be trying to represent. We’re at a time when “trans issues” are a hot topic, and, to borrow from the disability rights movement, “nothing about us, without us” applies. I keep coming back to the Netflix documentary Disclosure, which really lays out how years of cis people telling our stories have harmed us on a political, physical, mental and community level.
But, most importantly, the best thing about “diverse” creatives is that they come to the job with a wealth of experiences and knowledge that you could never make up, helping make more interesting and exciting work at a time when a lot of things we see are the same old storylines hashed out time and time again. No more boring shows please!
Sex Education is available to stream on Netflix.
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