7 Ways Pop Culture Has Increased Transgender Visibility
After decades of operating within largely white, cis experiences, the Film & Television industries seem to finally be committed to making strides (though sometimes rather small ones) to increase diversity and embrace the world we live in, rather than the oddly homogenous one we often see on-screen. And while the change doesn't always come as swiftly as it should, for the past few years, Hollywood has thankfully doled out a number of movies and series that offer greater visibility to the transgender community.
And while I'm happy to praise those programs that have done great work for the trans community, it's important to acknowledge that there's still plenty of work to be done. First, there's the dispiriting trend of casting cis actors in transgender roles. Despite the increased interest in trans stories, there seems to be a lingering resistance to allowing transgender people represent themselves in film and television. And, as well-intentioned as projects like Transparent and The Danish Girl may be, they can just as easily insult the community as they try to bring awareness. So, in honor of the 2017 International Transgender Day Of Visibility on March 31, let's shed light on the films and series that actually give a platform to trans voices. It's a short list, but it's a start, and an important one at that.
1. Nomi's Story On 'Sense8'
Created by Matrix masterminds The Wachowskis — who are both transgender — Sense8 is a sci-fi brain-twister about eight strangers from across the world who discover they're telepathically connected. One of the main characters, Nomi, is a trans woman and hacktivist living in San Francisco with her girlfriend, Amanita (Freema Agyeman). But what's striking about the role is that while Nomi's transition is a part of her character, it doesn't define her. As Nomi-portrayer Jamie Clayton told After Ellen,
“There’s so much more to Nomi than her transition, her trans-ness ... The thing that I love about Nomi and Amanita’s relationship ... is it’s such a middle finger to anyone who has a more conservative view of what a relationship is supposed to look like ... [T]hey’re interracial, and they’re trans, and they’re lesbians. And so it’s this new way of looking at healthy love and saying it doesn’t have to look like what you were taught it’s supposed to look like. And I love that. I think it’s extremely important."
2. The Way 'The OA' Introduced Buck
Sense8 star Clayton similarly praised another Netflix series, The OA, for newcomer Ian Alexander's nuanced portrayal of Buck, a trans teen who fits seamlessly into the story arc without making his transition a narrative focus.
“You included a trans character, but it had zero to do with the story, because trans people just exist. I’m trans, I exist, I’m sitting here," she told The OA's co-creator Zal Batmanglij during a February panel, per The Hollywood Reporter.
3. Sophia Burset From 'Orange Is the New Black'
One of Netflix's first breakout original series, Orange Is the New Black is a compelling, compassionate examination of life in prison for the fictional women of Litchfield Penitentiary. The show has diversified its storytelling with a wide-ranging depiction of race, sexuality, and gender, but one of its most affecting performances comes courtesy of Laverne Cox, who plays transgender inmate Sophia Burset. Not only has the character's fully realized identity helped to expand trans representation on-screen, but it's widened Cox's platform as an LGBTQ activist, too.
When Cox became the first transgender actor nominated for an Emmy for the part in 2014, GLAAD President & CEO Sarah Kate Ellis released a powerful statement that spoke to the impact of Sophia's character and Cox's role in the series:
"Today, countless transgender youth will hear the message that they can be who they are and still achieve their dreams — nothing is out of reach. Laverne's success on a hit series is a clear indication that audiences are ready for more trans characters on television."
4. Candis Cayne's Role On 'Dirty Sexy Money'
Candis Cayne broke ground as the first transgender actor to play a recurring trans character on primetime network television when she starred as Carmelita on Dirty Sexy Money from 2007 to 2008.
In an interview with TODAY, Cayne said before landing her Dirty Sexy Money role, she'd accepted the fact that she may not be able to do the work she wanted to an industry largely catered toward cisgender actors. She said,
“You know, when I started my transition 10 years ago, I kind of came to realization that I probably wouldn’t work anymore, which was really heartbreaking for me because it’s my passion and I love it. But there were things that were important to me that I needed to finish and fulfill in my life."
5. Caitlyn Jenner's Journey On 'I Am Cait'
A docuseries following Caitlyn Jenner's life after her much-publicized transition, I Am Cait was an addition to transgender representation on-screen that received mixed reviews. Though limited by Jenner's perspective as a white, affluent trans woman, the show helped elevate the stories of Jenner's trans peers who were featured on the show, sparked national dialogue, and addressed pertinent issues like race, poverty, and violence. As trans activist Andrea Jenkins wrote in The Guardian,
"The most important aspect of the show was Caitlyn’s seemingly sincere concern with creating more awareness about the pressing issues affecting many in this community, including highlighting the issue of teen suicide with the heartbreaking story of Kyler Prescott, a 14-year-old who took his own life shortly before his newly corrected birth certificate arrived.
For all of the attention that Caitlyn has received from ESPN to clothing designers, making her the most famous trans person in the world, I was impressed with her concern about how she’s received in the trans community and, like her, I hope she 'gets it right.'"
Starring Kitana "Kiki" Rodriguez and Mya Taylor — both transgender women — Tangerine is a raw, gritty, hilariously real revenge comedy about a transgender prostitute who tears across the city in search of her cheating beau. In an interview with Rolling Stone, director Sean Baker recalled Taylor asking him to make two promises about the film:
"She said, 'There are two things you have to promise me, Sean. You have to show what it's really like out there — how hard it is, especially for trans-women of color who are forced to resort to prostitution for a living, because there's nothing else for us. You have to be brutal, even if it's not PC.' Then she took a long pause and told me, 'And you have to make it hilarious. If we wouldn't laugh at this, then what's the point?'"
7. TLC Reality Show 'I Am Jazz'
Now nearing its third season, TLC's GLAAD award-winning I Am Jazz follows Jazz Jennings as she navigates life as a transgender teen. The docuseries is heartwarming and poignant, balancing both trans-specific issues and the day-in-the-life struggles of adolescence. Watching Jazz embrace her identity with confidence may serve as an empowering touchstone for trans kids, while the show's charmingly mundane elements make her experiences feel more tangible to audiences that may otherwise be less informed.
Speaking to the impact of Jazz sharing her story with the public (specifically tied to the teen's 2011 documentary, also called I Am Jazz), transgender activist Janet Mock wrote on her website,
"It ... made me insanely proud that there has been progress. When I was growing up, transitioning as a high school student was groundbreaking, and to medically transition at all was a feat to the generations of trans women and men before me. Now to see that there are kids who are going into kindergarten, like Jazz, as the gender that speaks to their soul, filled me with hope."
These films and shows are already changing the conversation around trans civil rights and offering more visibility to the community. Now, we just need more projects like them to follow.