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.
In film, Eric Schaeffer’s film Boy Meets Girl won Best Feature at The Iris Prize, the UK’s biggest LGBT film festival. Read more, HERE.
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.
Well Lucy shared a link to this on my FB page so I guess I’m going to share some thoughts. Back in the early sixties I was one of the pioneers, although of course I didn’t know it at the time, in that I did the almost unheard of thing of at least partially transitioning. These days we read about youngsters daily, in my day as far as I knew, there was just me.
Now what is even more amazing is that I managed to do what I needed to do without attracting any particular publicity of hostility. I know I was thought of as eccentric, but beyond that no-one thought it particularly odd that this child went around doing mostly typical girl things, wearing skirts to school, and telling people “I’m not a boy I’m a girl in disguise.”
Unlike many with the condition I had a fabulous childhood and indeed my troubles only really started in my teens when I started to seek medical help to complete my transition. What followed was something of an odyssey which was only finally resolved with gender confirmation surgery in the mid 1980’s. Even so that means I’m now 30 years down the track from all that.
In between I’ve worked as an engineer on a component of the NASA space shuttle, I’ve done some videotape editing for the BBC, I’ve built a property empire, I’ve worked with one of the armed forces, I’ve gained an MA in creative writing and written three novel and a screenplay that I’ve not seen fit to try and publish. Finally I’ve raised a family with my late same sex partner who died just over a year ago, and now I’m a third year medical student training to be a doctor, and intending to work till I drop.
In short I have lived and it has been glorious.
However while I think a lot of people are aware of my past, it is my past. I hope no one today would describe me as a “trans character.” I am a person with a trans history, but as the DSM V manual of psychiatry acknowledges, the condition of gender dysphoria has an exit when those feelings are no longer felt. For me that was about 30 seconds after I woke up following surgery, because for me it was never a problem with social gender, it was all about the physical bits.
Now of course for someone without the benefit of my easy childhood that might be reversed, and that I think is an important thing to realise here because we talk about trans characters as though trans was a single thing – but it isn’t – its more like fruit – it’s a class of things all of which are subtly different.
So my view is that trying to portray a “trans character” is a somewhat thankless task, because fundamentally there is as much variation in that demographic as there is in any other.
Also in a sense the “typical” charactersistics that someone might choose to identify are in a sense marks of failure, as most transpeople would want nothing more than to go unremarked as their declared gender. So if there is “something about them” that would tend to be felt as a mark of failure. That’s why I think many trans people so intensely dislike the very portrayals that to non trans eyes seem to perfectly “nail it.”
The best example I can give is the recent Jared Leto portrayal which was universally and passionately despised by every single trans person I know, literally without exception, while being lauded by almost everyone else.
Unlike many, I was part of the 1980’s trans scene, and indeed I met many just like the Jared Leto character so they did exist. However they were the ones that we all felt sorry for, because in our eyes they hadn’t quite “got there” – but of course that made them more visible than those of us who had, and so those failings of presentation went on to become the standard media perception of what we were about.
In point of fact it still happens. In general the ones you notice – are in fact not the definitive… It’s like being an editor. A very great VT-editor, I think it was Chris Wadsworth of Blackadder fame, once said to me if you can see where I’ve been then I’ve failed, because good editing should be completely unobtrusive.
And that in a nutshell is my attitude to all this. While writers continue to try and write “trans characters” they fail – because to write a “trans character” is to write a character who has failed to fully become themselves.
If you want to write a character that I like and can identify with, they write me an interesting character no different from ANY other character – oh and by the way just in passing, almost as a minor asside, hardly worth mentioning actually, well… they just happen to be trans as well…
You get the point I hope? Because that is the reality – not all flummery and ostentatious crap its just another ordinary aspect of a character. If you were writing me you would write a character for whom the most impressive thing would be that if I play my cards right I can have been both a rocket scientist AND a brainsurgeon… then there would be a long list of other interesting facets, and finally the fact that aged 5 I happen to have switched gender with my families support would hopefully be so far down page 103 that you almost wouldnt notice it.
I mean growing up as I did for me there’s no big deal, its just … life, and I wouldn’t change it. What I personally don’t want to see is writers making a big production number out of it. That sets my teeth on edge and makes me want to switch off.
So my advice is – if you want to write trans well, just write an interesting character.
Totally agree, Jenny – I often say to writers “not a “great female character”, a character who **just so happens** to be female”. I think the primary goal of all good representation of *whoever* is make them ALL just good characters, rather than representative of “issues”, with the default character the heteronormative white dude, 18-40.
Portrayal of trans people in the past has been far too ‘stereotypical’ of what non-trans people think trans people are like. However things are starting to improve … but they still have a long way to go. As a writer who is also a clinical psychotherapist and 15 years post op transwoman, I feel that I can speak for both sides of the fence.
Growing up in the 1950’s I knew nothing about gender and just felt wrong, but in those days it wasn’t something you could just come out with and say, ‘Hey mum, they got it wrong. I’m a girl.’
So I tried to be what people told me I was. I didn’t play the girly games or do girly stuff because I was scared shitless of what would happen to me, and when I finally did ask for help from my GP in my mid 20’s I got referred to a psychiatrist and then a psychology group who were using experimental non-ethical group therapy practices to ‘cure me’. They thought gender and sex were the same thing and unfortunately far too many people still do. Their therapy screwed me up even more and it took me another 20 odd years to finally admit the truth. Had things changed? NO. My then GP basically told me to get lost and that the NHS wouldn’t help me, and I’d have to go private! So I did, and 18 months later using money I couldn’t afford, I completed my transition. I was one of the lucky few, and my wife stuck with me. OK, our relationship is different now and in many ways better. We lost a few people on the way, mainly relations and supposed good friends (and good riddance to them) but those who supported us proved their worth.
Since the early nineties I had been an activist and worked with the police, councils and many organisations and appeared numerous times on TV and radio to increase understanding. As a psychotherapist I specialised in Gender Incongruence and helped many people. I was chair of GIRES for a while and also founder of Sanctity, a group for pre-married couples who wanted to stay married after one party transitioned. So I think I’ve done my bit and got a pretty good track record over the years.
And yet even people who claim to want to use trans characters in a more enlightened way don’t help themselves. e.g. The Transparent team said they wanted to employ a trans writer. I wrote to them and didn’t even get the courtesy of a reply. Eastenders want to include a trans character. I wrote to them offering help, but they haven’t given me the courtesy of a reply either.
Gender Incongruence is the ‘in thing’ at the moment (the new vampire) and I am fearful that we are going to get a load of new books, films and TV written by and featuring non-trans people in trans roles. OK, it’s a serious problem that there are so few trans actors, and another problem that most of them are young … where are the middle aged or older trans actors?
If we want to see realistic drama involving trans people then production companies have to wake up to the fact that this is a very complex condition that needs an inside view before it can ever be acceptable to those of us who have been through the trauma of being born trans.
Hi Emma, you’ve done great work, more than just “your bit” IMHO. The worry with anything “issue-led” is that it becomes the next big thing and fades, it’s true – which is why it’s important there should be incidental trans characters, in the same way there has been incidental BAME characters or gay characters. People are people, not representations of issues and everyone’s stories are important. It’s time for change. As for Transparent and Eastenders, unfortunately most places simply don’t reply to unsolicited stuff, so it’s hard to know if your letter didn’t get through to the right person (yet!). Here’s hoping something comes of it for you AND they bring in their own advisors and trans writers 🙂
Totally agree. When the BBC were looking for a story with a trans character I submitted one of my scripts where the transwoman was just one of 4 main characters and her transness (is that a word) was actually a sub-plot. It was a time-travel satire on modern life which I have to admit I was really proud of and was quite surprised it didn’t make the short list. That is the problem with the BBC. When they go for something they want in totally in your face and ended up with a non-trans authors entry which is all about the trans person – and what a shite title ‘Boy meets Girl’. Excuse me while I just stick my fingers down my throat. At least they are using a trans actor.
… AND they bring in their own advisors and trans writers …
That’s just what I’m afraid of! They have done this before for advice and mostly use the wrong people. To be honest I’m terrified that a programme as high profile as Eastenders will screw this up and we’ll end up with something that just carries on with the stereotypes that keep cropping up. God help us if they get someone from ‘Beaumont’ for advice!
Well you and Jenny have got my vote Emma, if I need advice I know where to go! Xx