The Lady and the Dale is a new four-part documentary series on HBO exploring an audacious 1970s auto company founded by a mysterious entrepreneur, Elizabeth Carmichael. Carmichael rose to prominence when she announced a new, fuel-efficient, three-wheeled vehicle during the gas crisis in the early 70s. As she wins over investors and buyers, eager to get their hands on this new type of car, a mystery unfolds regarding Carmichael’s past. It turned out that Liz Carmichael was a trans woman who transitioned several years before she founded the company.
Co-directed and executive produced by the brilliant Zackary Drucker, The Lady and The Dale uncovers a story of a transgender woman who has been, until now, nearly forgotten. Zackery is an artist, cultural producer, and trans woman who has performed and exhibited her work in museums, galleries, and film festivals around the world, including the Whitney Biennial 2014, MoMA PS1, Hammer Museum, Art Gallery of Ontario, MCA San Diego, and SF MoMA, among others. She is an Emmy-nominated producer for the docu-series This Is Me, as well as a producer on Golden Globe and Emmy-winning Transparent. She also stars in the Netflix documentary Disclosure, about the history of Hollywood’s portrayal of trans people.
We’re thrilled to chat with Zackary about her work on The Lady and The Dale and what she thinks Liz Carmichael’s story is all about.
GLAAD: How did you first learn about Liz Carmichael and the Dale car?
Zackary Drucker: My first knowledge of Liz Carmichael came from my friend Jay Duplass who called me in the spring of 2019 with this wild story. I was surprised to have never heard of Liz because I have always been so captivated by trans and gender diverse people throughout history.
Quite honestly, I was skeptical at first. I wondered if the world was ready for a complicated and nuanced woman like Liz, who made so many questionable decisions in her life. I wondered if Liz’s experience would connect to trans people today. But I came to see that the themes of Liz’s life as a trans woman are absolutely still relevant today.
Liz is a lot like other public figures who cultivated cults of personality in the 1970s, and those types of people are still around. Compare her to entrepreneurs today who over-promise on products that they have not yet created. Liz’s story is a microcosm of many things that have become dominant in our lives today: media saturation, opinion-based journalism, narcissism, resentment of government regulation, among other things.
Without giving away too many spoilers, there is a point where Liz is involved in a court trial, and the judge rules that legally she’s a woman and should be referred to as such during the proceedings. How important was it in terms of trans history for Liz to demand that her gender be recognized during the trial?
Liz had no medically supervised or legal transition, and being an outlaw on the run, she did not have documents that reflected her true identity as a woman. Being a libertarian provided a great cover for Liz to refuse to participate in federal or state bureaucracy in creating her company and in having any official documentation for herself. Trans people before Liz had tried to assert their true identities in court, but were denied. So, Liz’s victory in court does represent an achievement, a turning point, for trans people in the legal system. The judge required lawyers and witnesses to refer to her as Liz and use she/her pronouns.
When people write about early trans pioneers, they may mention Christine Jorgensen, Renee Richards, Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, and Flawless Sabrina, but Liz Carmichael is never included as part of our trans history. Why do you think her story is not as well known?
It’s possible that the mainstream media’s accusation that Liz was a man masquerading as a woman to commit fraud and evade the FBI became the dominant narrative about her legacy. As happens with many trans people, the media exploited her story and then threw her away. It takes a second look, and a deeper understanding of what it means to be transgender, to see her efforts to live authentically as heroic.
Liz is far from the perfect “trans role model.” She committed crimes, she misrepresented certain facts about her life, but she was also someone who loved her kids and her wife. She was someone who invented herself out of whole cloth and survived during a time that was extremely hostile to trans people. What do you make of all the facets of Liz’s story?
There is no perfect trans role model because there are no perfect people. I don’t think we can be full humans if we’re not allowed to make mistakes and be flawed. Oedipus Rex is not the heroic story of a one-dimensional person, so why should modern storytellers be required to simplify complicated trans lives? I hope that people are inspired by Liz’s resilience and her tenacity. And I hope that people give themselves allowance to be flawed humans as well.
Watching the series, I couldn’t help but think that Liz might have had a very different life if she was living today. She was clearly intelligent and charismatic. But as a trans woman in the 1960s, she couldn’t put her talents to use and be her true self at the same time.
She absolutely would have had a different life today; maybe she would’ve been elected to congress!
You did an incredible series for Vice where you profiled 13 trans women who were trans at a time when we were not part of the cultural conversation the way it is today. As a ’90s kid, what draws you to telling the stories of older trans folks?
I want to tell their stories because they give us hope. They provide perspective on where we’ve been, what we’ve gone through, and what we need to do to achieve a righteous future. Knowing the paths that have been forged by our predecessors fortifies us in the present.
Check out The Lady and the Dale available now on HBO and on HBO Max.