We still have a long path ahead of us in the fight for transgender rights and representation, but Friday night's Diane Sawyer 20/20 interview with Bruce Jenner was a revelatory moment in the history of trans visibility. The result — which included Jenner came out at transgender, revealing that he is "for all intents and purposes... a woman," — was educational, respectful, groundbreaking and viewed by millions. Hopefully, by sharing his story, Jenner's bravery will inspire others struggling with their gender identity, as well as help make changes to the way the media handles subject matter such as this one. There's still a lot of changes to be made in how the media handles trans subject matter — the worst moments in the representations of transgender characters in television indicate that — but, in recent years, there have been some great portrayals of transgender characters as well.
In most mainstream movies and television, transgender characters are usually cast as either the punchline or the victim. From Ace Ventura: Pet Detective to basically every CSI episode ever, the tone used to write for trans characters is usually mired in ignorance, stereotypes, and flat-out disrespect.
Yet, some filmmakers, artists, and comedians have managed to approach the subject matter with humility, candor, and depth. Not every portrayal on this list is perfect — in fact, almost all of them cast a cisgender actor in the role of a transgender character — but all of them do their part to bring awareness and compassion to a community that rarely get either.
Here are some of the most touching and meaningful depictions of trans characters in TV and film (and here's hoping for more):
I sobbed my way through every episode, burst into tears when it won the Golden Globe for Best Series, and — even though I've watched the show from beginning to end three separate times — I started to weep a little when I was watching clips to include for this post. The series is a beautiful, funny portrayal of Maura, a transgender woman who recently came out to her family relatively late in life. Jeffrey Tambor, who portrays Maura, deserves all the Emmys, but more importantly, the show fills out the supporting cast with a bevy of talented transgender actors.
Inside Amy Schumer
There was a lot to celebrate from this week's premiere of Inside Amy Schumer, including her "Amy Goes Deep" interview with transgender adult film actress Bailey Jay. Although Schumer received some criticism for her trademark irreverent tone, the segment ultimately gave an open and respectful platform for Jay to talk openly about her life and path to self-acceptance. Not to mention, that Bailey Jay is anything but a victim; quite the opposite, Jay has mostly found acceptance wherever she goes, and the interview is a refreshing reminder that being transgender doesn't mean living a life of tragedy.
Always willing to dive in to controversial issues, Season 10 of the hit Canadian high school drama introduced Nick, a transgender male who is struggling with his gender identity. While the depiction has the usual dose of Degrassi teen angst, the portrayal works largely because Nick has the self-possession to earnestly demand respect from those around him.
This 2005 indie featured Desperate Housewives' Felicity Huffman in what remains one of the most brilliant performances from that decade. Huffman plays Bree, a transgender woman who receives a call from a son she fathered 18 years prior (when she was going by the name "Stanley"). A slice-of-life road-trip dramedy, Huffman plays Bree as a witty, sensitive trans woman trying to find her way through life. Personally, I'm still astonished she didn't win an Oscar for this one.
Orange Is The New Black
The darling of Internet television, Orange Is The New Black exploded onto the scene two years ago with a brutally honest, unapologetic portrayal of life in a women's prison. Transgender actress Laverne Cox, who portrays a transgender female named Sophia in the series, stood out as an immediate fan favorite, and she has spoken in length about what the show has done for trans visibility.
While Bad Education does unfortunately fall into the portraying-trans-people-as-victims category, the masterful way in which the subject matter is handled by director Pedro Almodovar make it a must-see. With an NC-17 rating, the film is not for the weak of heart; however, if you have the fortitude to handle themes of drug use and sexual abuse, then you should check out this masterpiece.
Hedwig And The Angry Inch
The cult indie classic based on the Off-Broadway show of the same name, Hedwig and the Angry Inch featured John Cameron Mitchell reviving his role as the titular Hedwig. It's a musical that pulls no punches in telling the story of a botched sexual reassignment surgery victim who becomes one hell of a rock star. If the above clip doesn't sell you on what a delight this movie is, your heart is made of stone and you should seek out a cardiologist.