On Television, More Transgender Characters Come Into Focus

Apr 23, 2014
Originally published on August 10, 2015 9:44 am

Over the past year or so, I've looked at how TV's expanding universe represents gays and lesbians and working women. This piece about transgender representation feels like an important part of the same project.

It started when I realized a few shows I've enjoyed over the past 12 months (Orange is the New Black, House of Lies) as well as one I used to enjoy much more (Glee) feature transgender or genderqueer main characters. Once I watched the pilot of Transparent, a new series on Amazon that's just been picked up for a full season, it became clear that now might be a great time to consider trans representation on TV.

This piece looks specifically at scripted dramas. The gifted actress Laverne Cox pointed out during our interview that for a long time, one of the only places to see trans people in popular culture was on daytime talk shows. And trans people have also appeared on reality shows, from Chaz Bono in Dancing With the Stars to Ru Paul's Drag Race, which recently had to apologize for using a term seen as a slur by many trans people.

Focusing on scripted dramas meant thinking about issues such as the specificity and the politics of casting. Casting cisgender actors to play transgender characters is a contentious point for many within the trans and genderqueer communities. (The debate received a lot of attention when cis actor Jared Leto, was nominated for --and won-- an Oscar for playing a transwoman in the movie Dallas Buyers Club.) Scripted drama is also a way to look at how trans people are being written into the narrative of American culture, not as marginal outsiders or issue-related guest stars, but as valued and beloved central players.

(That said, transwomen, rather than transmen, seem to be getting more attention in scripted television right now. There is a transman character on the ABC Family show The Fosters, and in recent years, The L Word and Degrassi also featured transmen characters. But those shows haven't enjoyed the visibility or buzz of Glee or Orange Is The New Black. And in a different aside, it's also well worth mentioning that during their interviews, both Laverne Cox and Jill Soloway, who created the show Transparent, highly recommended the book Whipping Girl, by Julia Serano, as critical to their own intellectual journeys.)

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Not too long ago, it was remarkable to see gays and lesbians featured as central characters on television shows. There was "Will and Grace" and that was pretty much it. But now gay characters are all over television.

And slowly, as NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, we're seeing the same thing happening with transgender characters, too.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Partly why we're seeing more transgender characters on shows like "Glee" and "Orange is the New Black," is simply because there are more openly transgender people. That's why Matthew Carnahan created a gender-queer main character on his show "House of Lies."

MATTHEW CARNAHAN: You know, often times now I'll walk into Starbucks and a barista will be some gender-fluid person, and I'm so happy to see that, that this person is allowed in a corporate environment to be the person they are.

ULABY: Historically, television has been less welcoming. Maura Keisling runs a major group that advocates for transpeople. She says until recently, finding them on scripted shows meant looking in the alleys and street corners of crime dramas.


MAURA KEISLING: When you saw transwomen of color depicted in the media, they were almost always sex workers. Or dead sex workers. White transwomen were usually serial killers or sex workers.

ULABY: The actress you heard just a moment ago playing a sex worker on "Law and Order" is a trans woman. Laverne Cox is used to TV exoticizing transpeople.

: It is an exploitative relationship and it's sensationalized relationships to trans bodies and identities.

ULABY: But that's beginning to change. Cox is a breakout star on the Netflix show "Orange Is the New Black," about inmates at a women's prison.


ULABY: Her character was busted for credit card fraud while trying to cover her medical needs. Cox says one of her favorite scenes on the show was a total 180 from "Law and Order." It's when a guard tries to solicit sex from her character.


ULABY: Right now, Cox says she's enjoying a few big shows with scripted trans characters who are fully realized human beings.

: I love Unique on "Glee."

ULABY: Unique on "Glee" is a teenaged boy who identifies as a girl.


ULABY: And Cox loves another child character on the show "House of Lies."


ULABY: That character is the son of a high powered management consultant played by Don Cheadle. His son, Roscoe, sometimes wears girl's clothes. And he's figuring out his sexual identity.


ULABY: The show's creator, Matthew Carnahan, modeled Roscoe on real kids he knows, friends of his own children's.

CARNAHAN: I wouldn't actually ID Roscoe as transgender but gender-fluid.

ULABY: This season, Roscoe has turned 14 and he's started dating another gender-fluid kid



KEISLING: I think that Hollywood does to some extent see transpeople as an opportunity to do something new and quirky.

ULABY: Maura Keisling, of the National Center for Transgender Equality, says that used to be the job of gay and lesbian characters. But gay has become a little passe.

KEISLING: It's not as shocking any more and it's actually been Hollywood that's helped normalize that.

ULABY: Just like with gay characters a few years ago, there's a lot of sensitivity about how transgender people are portrayed. The cable reality show, "RuPaul's Drag Race," recently apologized for using the term she-male, a word many transgender people despise. And there's been some pushback about a new series on Amazon called "Transparent."


ULABY: Transparent stars Jeffery Tambor, probably best known for playing the crooked patriarch on "Arrested Development." He is, in this series, literally a trans parent, a father struggling to tell his adult kids he's transitioning into a woman.


ULABY: "Transparent" was created by Jill Soloway who's written for and run a number of shows, including "Six Feet Under." She wrote the part with Jeffrey Tambor in mind.

JILL SOLOWAY: He's got this tall, paternal warmth with this really sweet kind of feminine caring side. He's got a sort of lyricism in the way he speaks and the way he moves.

ULABY: Soloway says she's become acutely aware of how transwomen's issues are women's issues.

SOLOWAY: There's a certain flavor of misogyny that is only saved for transwomen.

ULABY: And that's reflected in the disproportionate amount of violence transwomen face. They stick out more than transmen. They're more vulnerable. That visibility and visual difference might also be why we're seeing so many more transwomen than transmen on television right now.

Some transgender activists are criticizing "Transparent" because it's cast a non-transgender actor, Jeffrey Tambor, in the role. But Maura Keisling points to Jared Leto in "Dallas Buyers Club," and Hilary Swank in "Boys Don't Cry."

KEISLING: Those portrayals have really helped educate the world about us. It's sometimes the right character, the right script and the right actor just come together.

ULABY: And after all, it's only fair she says. Soon, she hopes, she'll start seeing trans actors getting cast in non-trans roles.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.