2014 was – according to TIME magazine – a ‘transgender tipping point’. Increased visibility of transgender people in the media – Laverne Cox, Laura Jane Grace, Paris Lees – brought the trans community into the spotlight.
Here in the UK, transgender characters are starting to become a staple of our rich diet of cops and docs, popping up as bit parts in Doctors, Holby and Casualty with increased regularity. Last year, Hollyoaks introduced a trans character, Blessing, and Paris Lees became the first openly trans person to play a trans person on UK television in a cameo on the show.
Executive producer Dominic Treadwell-Collins recently announced that he intended to introduce a trans character into EastEnders, the first in the soap’s history.
Inspired by Lucy’s 33 Experts posts, I spoke to a range of people, most of them trans, some of them with experience of writing trans characters, all of them with an interest in how trans people are represented onscreen, to find out their thoughts on transgender people on television and in film: where we are, and where we’re going.
To get an idea of where we are, I asked people who they thought were the most notable trans characters in film and television in recent years. This is what they said:
1) Claire Parker, writer/stand-up/radio presenter. While not a big fan of the show, I think Hayley Cropper in Coronation Street is the most notable recent trans character. I’ve always advocated that if you look at trans characterisation over time, a large percentage of the storylines have fallen into what I call the “four horsemen of the trans apocalypse”. In other words, the stereotypes of sex worker, murderer, victim and drug taker, or all of the above. Those stereotypes are not the case for most trans people. Hayley is a real life trans character, a woman (trans) existing and functioning in a cisgendered world where her story is everyday and matter of fact. Shopping, holidays, cinema, home life. Real life.
2) Morgan M Page, performance + video artist/writer/activist. “Most notable trans character” is a different question from “best trans character”. Obviously, in terms of notoriety, the lead on Amazon’s Transparent, or perhaps Unique on Glee. But both of those characters suffer from two major problems: firstly, they aren’t played by trans actors; and secondly, their storylines don’t really have much to do with actual trans people. Instead, their storylines revolve around the reactions cis people have to them. So they don’t even count as trans characters, because there’s nothing trans about them. Personally, I was impressed with Harmony Santana’s role as Vanessa in 2011 American independent drama Gun Hill Road. Similarly, Laverne Cox as Sophia on Orange is the New Black was a revelation.
3) Lisa Williamson, writer. I think I’ll have to go with Sophia Burset (played by Laverne Cox) in Orange is the New Black. Although her role is not large, her impact is and having a trans character played by a trans woman feature in such a popular mainstream show feels very significant. It also helps that off-screen Laverne speaks so wisely and eloquently about trans issues.
4) Debbie Moon, writer. There have been some really great trans characters over the last few years, so it’s a difficult decision, but I’m going to plump for Venus Van Dam, the trans sex worker who’s a recurring character on Sons of Anarchy. Her introduction was humorous, as a hired player in a scheme to blackmail a local businessman with incriminating photographs, but she was never played for laughs. In subsequent appearances, she’s been presented as a tough woman who’s lived a hard life and suffered abuse, but who remains compassionate, kind and determined to walk her own path, however hard. Yes, the trans sex worker is a cliche, but the writers (and actor Walton Goggins) have worked hard to make her a person.
Venus feels important to me because of her context. Though the female characters in Sons of Anarchy have always been surprisingly strong, a testosterone-driven crime drama set in a male-dominated subculture doesn’t feel like a natural place to find a sympathetic trans female. There are people watching and caring about Venus who would never watch Transparent or Orange Is the New Black, and that makes her an important step forward for representation – and a great character!
5) CN Lester, musician/writer/activist. I have a feeling Laverne Cox in Orange is the New Black is going to be a popular choice here – and is a total favourite of mine – but I’m going to say Bethany Black’s character Helen in Cucumber and Banana. I’ve been lucky enough to work with Bethany a couple of times, and I love that they got someone so smart and funny, and such an important community figure, to be the trans actress behind a relatable, real trans character.
6) Fox Fisher, filmmaker. In the UK, we are still working to increase this. Julie Hesmondhalgh who played Hayley on Coronation Street helped a lot of people because although it was a trans character played by a cis-gender person, she was very likeable and really helped to ‘normalise’ being trans, particularly for people like my mum, who is a long-time Corrie fan and took a bit of time to get to grips with my own transition. The guy who commissions Hollyoaks was telling me they had learned a lot from the Blessing trans plot-line and I am working with them to help find something more long-term, involving an actor who is very young right now. I think a focus on the youth is what’s required.
7) Rose Marshall, community worker/activist. I love the stuff produced by My Genderation because it reflects the wide diversity of the lived experiences of the trans community. People sharing their own stories is a powerful way to break down stereotypes. Also programmes like Transparent are really good at showing how a trans character fitted in to a family and that their ‘transness’ was not to be the most dysfunctional aspect of the family. Sophia in Orange is the New Black is a powerful voice for trans women of colour, and it was good to see her back story presented in a sympathetic way.
8) Elaine Gallagher, writer: I don’t go out of my way to watch trans* people in film and television, in part because it is too close to home for me, so I am made aware of characters by comments elsewhere. I have seen Laverne Cox’s character in Orange is the New Black – who hasn’t? – and Jeffrey Tambor’s in Transparent. I have also heard about the cross-dressing villain in Boxtrolls, and thankfully before I saw the film, so I was able to avoid it. For me the standout recently has been the viewpoint character in the film Tomboy. The sensitivity with which their questioning of their gender was portrayed was wonderful.
9) Caroline Clarke, Queer YA blogger. The French film Tomboy is a fascinating study of gender. The director does not put a label on the main character Laure/Mikaël who could be trans or not. It focuses on who the character feels they are, as opposed to labels. The character of Max in The L Word was also fascinating. I think it’s a general misconception that L, G, B and T people all get along and understand each other’s sexuality and gender identity. Max was originally included in this group of lesbian and bisexual women on the assumption that he was a butch lesbian, but – after coming out – he was rejected by his girlfriend because ‘she didn’t want to date men’.
10) Michael Richardson, writer. One of the best trans characters I’ve seen recently wasn’t on film or on television, but online, in the web series High Maintenance. If there’s a formula to the series, it’s the writers taking familiar characters and tropes and just turning them, ever so slightly. In Rachel, Dan Stevens plays a pot-smoking crossdresser. I think it’s what isn’t in there that resonates with me; his crossdressing isn’t played for laughs, and he isn’t crossdressing for sexual kicks but as something he does for comfort when he’s hanging around the house. When his wife arrives home to find him wearing a dress, I was so ready for her to be hysterical about it, because I’ve seen that story play out so many times. But she doesn’t – she’s only mad that he’s been smoking in the house!
11) Jo Clifford, playwright: Our absence. Far more noticeable, far more eloquent of the state of our culture, than our presence.
Find out what our experts have to say about what they want to see next from trans characters! Read part 2, HERE.
BIO: Michael Lee Richardson is a writer and youth worker based in Glasgow. In 2013, his Young Adult comedy script, Real Life Experience – about a young trans man starting his last year of school and socialising as a boy for the first time – was ‘highly commended’ for the Trans Comedy Award. As a youth worker, he set up and runs Trans* Youth Glasgow.