As part of GLAAD’s “Future of LGBTQ Inclusion on TV” program at TCA, Nick Adams, GLAAD’s Director of Transgender Media & Representation, introduced a panel titled “Transgender Trends on TV Today,” which, as the title entails, focused on the representation of the transgender community in media.
He was joined on the stage by Laverne Cox (Orange Is the New Black), Alexandra Billings (Transparent, How To Get Away With Murder), Shadi Petosky (creator of Danger & Eggs), Rhys Ernst (producer, director on Transparent) and Jill Soloway (creator, Transparent, I Love Dick). From military bans to the mocking of trans activists on the radio to the tragic murders of trans women, the trans community has been the topic of many recent headlines, which is why Adams points out the importance of transgender representation on TV.
“Eighty-seven percent of people know someone who is lesbian, gay or bisexual and only 16 percent know someone who is trans,” said Adams. “And everything they know about the trans community, they are getting it from media, which is why we need authentic representation.”
Adams says that of the 260-plus LGBTQ characters on television, only 11 are transgender — and three of them are on Transparent. GLAAD aims to see more representation that goes beyond the normal “transition narrative” that can be likened to an LGB coming-out story.
“Transition narrative are most useful within the community,” said Cox. “They are not problematic, but it becomes the only thing people focus on. My life got way more interesting after I transitioned.”
“It’s a blip,” adds Petosky, “It feels like it took a day or an hour.”
Soloway said she recently started watching Transparent from the beginning and points out how shocked she was to see how the transition narrative seemed slow, and sees where they are coming from. “Fortunately, I was having my education in public,” she said. “My ignorance was laminated with the kids’ level of ignorance.”
With the murders of trans women of color happening as of late, Cox says, “We have to tell these stories because lives are on the line.”
In telling such stories, Ernst says, it’s important to keep up with what’s happening and focus on the best and most authentic. “There’s a responsibility, but you don’t want it to become handcuffs on how to express creativity,” he said. “By being more specific and human, it becomes universal. Increasing representation and complexities makes for a more kaleidoscopic view.”
During a recent episode of radio show “The Breakfast Club,” activist Janet Mock was ridiculed and a guest jokingly said he would kill a transgendered women if he’d unknowingly slept with one. The panel was in agreement in how this is why there needs to be more authentic representation of the transgender community on TV. Billings said the radio show dehumanized and devalued Mock and that there is a “feminization of the American male” stigma that is attached to the trans community that fuels transphobia.
“If you want us to come out as who we are, create a space where when I divulge my history so I don’t get killed,” said Billings.
“There’s never an advantage of killing trans people,” said Cox. “There’s a lot of misconceptions who trans people are. It’s crucial to have representation on TV to go beyond those tropes and it’s a crucial part of making policy.”
The uptick of recent inclusion of actresses like Billings and Cox have been good for progress, the panel agreed, but it still doesn’t erase many missteps of the past — and for Soloway, one of the biggest missteps was a certain Saturday Night Live sketch.
“‘It’s Pat’ was such a hateful thing to do to non-binary people,” said Soloway. She said the sketch starring Julia Sweeney that spawned a 1994 movie was anti-trans propaganda, but we didn’t understand it at the time.
Despite the progress the trans community has made in TV, there are many in the general public who “don’t believe” in identifying as transgender. When the topic was brought up to the panel, Soloway said, “It isn’t an identity issue, it’s a human issue.”
When posed with this argument from a naysayer, the Transparent creator brought up the topic of being intersex — when a person is born with sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male. “Imagine if what you see externally, you can see internally,” she said. “People understand that they are real.”