Transgender Stories, Characters Are at a Turning Point in TV History

Craig Tomashoff
Clockwise from Left: Jessica Miglio/Netflix; Discovery Life; Scott Garfield/ABC; Amazon Studios (2); Michael Desmond/The CW

TV Transgender Characters

Candis Cayne figured her life had changed in 2007, when she landed a recurring role as Billy Baldwin's mistress in the ABC series Dirty Sexy Money. What she wasn't prepared for, however, was how many other lives she'd eventually change as well.

"My first realization that this was about something much bigger than just me getting an acting job was when I was at an event for equality after the series started, and they showed a clip of me with Donald Sutherland," Cayne recalls. "The whole room stood up and applauded, and I knew in that moment that this was truly about moving society in a positive direction."

Scott Garfield/ABC

Not only was her character a transgender woman— one of few on TV to be more than a murder victim or punchline—Cayne herself was the first trans woman to nab a recurring role in a primetime series. But getting transgender characters into the television mainstream was slow going—until recently.

Now, the niche shows from streaming outlets that pushed trans issues into the spotlight are garnering high-profile recognition, while a new crop of reality and scripted shows could bring new visibility to trans experiences on cable and broadcast TV. Amazon's Transparent, the story of a family adjusting to their patriarch becoming their matriarch, is about to start shooting its second season after taking home Golden Globes for Best Comedy Series and Best Actor. Laverne Cox from Netflix's Orange Is the New Black (which returns for Season 3 in June) made the cover of Time magazine last year. AOL On's documentary series True Trans, hosted by musician Laura Jane Grace, premiered in the fall; it will soon be joined by three cable reality shows featuring trans stories–ABC Family's Becoming Us, TLC's All That Jazz, and Discovery Life's New Girls on the Block. Daytime soap The Bold and the Beautiful now includes a transgender character. And as pilot season heats up, a handful of new would-be series featuring trans characters (and in some cases, such as the pilot Myrna, trans actors and producers as well) are being shopped around to the networks in hopes of landing on the fall schedules.

"2015 looks amazing for us. When we look back on this year, it's going to be considered a historic time," says trans actress Trace Lysette, who appears on Transparent and is currently filming a role in a pilot from the creator of Ugly Betty.

"I don't know if I can use the word 'better,' because that allows us to have rest, when in fact I think what's going on is a revolution of sorts," says her Transparent co-star, trans actress Alexandra Billings. "It's not just a gender revolution. It's a cracking in our political system, in our emotional communities. All of us, whether we're LGBT or an LGBT ally, can finally feel we're in the midst of a positive change."

Amazon Studios

From Invisible to Mainstream

In some ways, trans characters and actors are now where gay characters and actors were two decades ago, when shows like Will & Grace and Melrose Place premiered and Ellen DeGeneres came out on her sitcom. "We see how far gay characters have come—they're a natural part of the TV universe now because that's the world we all live in. We want to see the same thing happen for transgender people," says Nick Adams, director of communications and special projects for LGBT advocacy group GLAAD.

Adams points out that we're not quite there yet: Trans characters are still few and far between on broadcast and major cable networks, and not all trans roles have been worth applauding. A GLAAD study found that between 2012 and 2013, 54 percent of trans characters on episodic television were defamatory while another 34 percent ranged from problematic to simply acceptable. But just as gay characters have diversified, there is momentum for meaningful trans characters. "We look forward to a day when trans characters are not an exotic thing or a joke or a big reveal," Adams says. "They're more and more a part of the world we live in and television should reflect that."

"This is the next stage of the civil rights movement," adds Paul Barosse, executive producer of the upcoming ABC Family's Becoming Us, formerly announced as My Transparent Life. The show, premiering this summer, follows a teenager as his father transitions from male to female. "In the past 25 years, the movement allowed gay people to live a mainstream life. Trans people are still a novelty right now because there's been so much curiosity about them and yet we haven't seen too many on television yet. I hope in three or four years that we stop seeing them as trans and just see compelling people with different issues and unique challenges."

Which is precisely why Karey Burke, ABC Family's executive vice president for programming and development, opted to put Becoming Us on the air. The network, she says, is "putting the spotlight on people making brave decisions to embrace change. The goal is to open up hearts and minds to the heroic experience not just of the family in our show but to people in trans communities everywhere."

Hence, there's an irony in this sudden spate of trans-specific shows. Networks that used to treat trans men and women as people who stood out from the crowd are now eager for them to blend in. Discovery Life's docu-series, New Girls on the Block, which premieres April 11, is a perfect example. The five-part show follows the lives of a group of transgender women in Kansas City, MO, but the network insists that their gender issues had little to do with getting New Girls on the air.

"Our first reaction to the pitch was that the women felt really relatable and identifiable," says Julie Meisner Eagle, Discovery Life's vice president of programming and development. "They are honest and open with their lives and it's refreshing to see that. Our intention isn't to educate viewers about the transgender community, but people will really get to understand what being transgender is. You get to know them as you would any other TV characters, and feel like they could be your friends."

Why Representation Matters

According to Adams, 90 percent of Americans say they know or work with a gay, lesbian, or bisexual person; however, only 8 percent say they know someone who is transgender. Since so few people have any experience with trans men and women, he says, "they will learn through the media. So it's very important not to promulgate stereotypes." If TV viewers see that transgender people depicted as "psychotic serial-killing sex workers," he continues, those images become real because they have nothing else to compare them to.

"TV is kind of the messenger to middle America, a way for us to connect with people we might ordinarily not interact with," Transparent's Lysette explains. "If you can see a trans person in your living room, that person becomes human to you. So it's extremely important for us to have that visibility. We're so much more than victims and hookers. We have parents and siblings and people who love us too."

Seeing trans people on screen can literally be a lifesaver, as Transparent's Billings discovered from personal experience. Growing up in the 1970s, she thought her feelings of gender dysphoria were signs that she was crazy. One summer day when she was at the end of her rope, Billings says, "I decided to take a bunch of my mother's pills. I went into my bedroom, sat on the edge of my bed, and turned on my TV. There was Phil Donahue, with these three beautiful and amazing women I didn't even realize were trans till the middle of the show. And I thought, 'Oh, there I am!' So when I think about the importance of Transparent, I go back to that moment."

Reality series have traditionally been ahead of the curve, and there have been a few positive trans portrayals over the years, including Katelynn Cusanelli from The Real World and Isis King from America's Next Top Model. The next challenge is to not only get more trans actors into scripted series, but to also get them playing more than just trans roles.

Transparent has weathered its share of criticism for casting cisgender male actor Jeffrey Tambor as Maura Pfefferman, rather than giving the part to a trans woman. "I'm encouraged by the increased presence of trans women in the media but disappointed that supposed 'artists' are casting non-trans people to play transgender people," says trans actress Bianca Von Krieg, who has appeared on Glee and HBO's Looking. "That's the equivalent of casting white actors in blackface to be Roots."

Nonetheless, Billings praises her series for being an "honest journey" that is just starting a mainstream discussion of transgender issues. She jokes that when she "read the script before auditioning, it was the first time I'd tried for a part that didn't require me to be in a hospital or wearing a hospital gown. I could see she is interesting and funny and speaks like a normal person who happens to be trans."

It's been eight long years since Cayne broke through with Dirty Sexy Money and "was in constant e-mail conversation with people [who were] saying, 'Thank you so much! My family is so much more understanding of me now!'" It may have taken TV a long time to transition into more realistic portrayals of transgender men and women, but, she says, "at least we're in front of the camera more now and not just on Jerry Springer."


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