Trans* Representation in the Media

November 5, 2014 in inQueery

laverne-cox-still-from-oitnb-e49d580756fe0bb2836d4486835a2d940f8f90d6A hot topic these days is the representation of trans* people in the media. Some people claim that trans* is the new gay– now that gay rights have gained traction with the majority (60% of states have marriage equality) that it is time to focus on a more marginalized population of the LGBT community, transgender people.

Casting transgender characters in TV shows and movies is not a new occurrence. According to information collected by GLAAD, which has been cataloging the appearance of transgender characters on scripted television shows since 2002, at least 40% of the time transgender characters were cast in a “victim” role; transgender characters were cast as killers or villains in at least 21% of the storyline; 20% of transgender characters were cast as sex workers. Additionally, 54% of the 102 episodes GLAAD has documented were categorized as containing negative representations of the transgender characters at the time in which they were aired and anti-transgender slurs, language and dialogue was seen in 61% of these portrayals. Out of all these appearance, only 12% were considered “groundbreaking, fair and accurate enough to earn a GLAAD Media Award nomination.” Basically, the majority of transgender representations in the media have been negative, derogatory and offensive. (See the report on trans* representation from GLAAD).

In the past few years there has been a shift in this representation of transgender characters, most likely due to greater awareness of transgender rights as well as the addition of actual trans* people acting in trans* roles. Most notable is Laverne Cox as Sophia Burset, who portrays a transgender woman convicted of credit card fraud in Orange is the New Black, which also earned her an Emmy nomination. Cox’s presence in the media is about much more than just being an openly transgender woman playing a transgender character on a TV show. She was the first openly transgender person to be on the cover of Time magazine. She is an activist fighting for trans* rights who tackles interviews that overstep the boundaries of what is appropriate to ask a transgender person about their own transition with grace.

Last month the premiere of the Amazon original series, Transparent, brought a new perspective to how transgender people are portrayed in the media. Initially, there was (and I’m sure some still remains) much controversy surrounding Jill Soloway’s decision to cast a cisgender man as the main character, Maura, a retired professor. On the other hand, Soloway hired trans people as consultants, every other transgender person in the show is played by an actual trans* person and Soloway herself has a parent who came out as transgender later in life. And, so, what results is a very real, earnest show that not only portrays a transgender person who comes out later in life and her own struggles, but also how this coming out affects everyone else in her life, namely her children. There is a sense of authenticity represented that, hopefully, is starting a new and positive trend in how transgender people will be represented in the future.

Ultimately, in order for transgender people to be portrayed with a sense of authenticity that is not sensationalized or offensive, we need to tell our own stories. We need to create our own shows and be our own stars. In the same way that nearly every movie written and directed by a heterosexual man unrealistically portrays scissoring as a primary part of lesbian sex, transgender characters and storylines can only most accurately be represented if they are written by trans* people and are played by trans* people.

Dana Schnittman is a Guest Contributor for InQueery and a volunteer at the Pacific Center.