Trans stories find a home on reality TV following 'Orange is the New Black,' 'Transparent' success
As Laverne Cox’s star continues to rise and Olympian Bruce Jenner contemplates whether to share his transition on E!, a revolution is already taking place to bring more stories about the transgender community to the small screen. Three new reality shows are set to debut in the wake of the groundbreaking work of Orange Is the New Black’s Cox—the first transgender actress to earn an Emmy nomination—and Jeffrey Tambor’s Golden Globe-winning performance as a father in transition on Amazon’s Transparent.
On April 11, Discovery Life will premiere its first original series, New Girls on the Block, featuring six transgender women in varying stages of transition living in Kansas City, Mo. This summer, TLC will air All That Jazz, about 14-year-old activist and YouTube star Jazz Jennings, who allows cameras to follow her as she navigates suburban South Florida adolescence. And also this summer, ABC Family will offer Becoming Us, a real-life version of Transparent. The unscripted show focuses on 17-year-old Chicago teen Ben Lehwald, whose dad, Charlie, undergoes sexual-reassignment surgery to become Carly.
“I don’t really mind people seeing it,” says Ben of the intimate look at his life. (The show will also feature his mom and his girlfriend, who has a transgender parent as well.) “I want to be able to help people dealing with someone becoming trans in their family.”
No one is more aware of the trans trend than GLAAD (formerly the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), which is working with the new reality shows to provide an accurate portrayal of transgender people, who number 700,000 in the U.S., according to UCLA’s Williams Institute. But GLAAD says its job is far from finished. “While it seems like there’s an explosion of new shows, we are still very much invisible in scripted shows on broadcast TV,” says the organization’s Nick Adams.
Other than a few rare exceptions such as Glee’s Coach Beiste (Dot-Marie Jones), who transitioned from a woman to a man in the show’s final season, “the vast majority of portrayals on broadcast TV can be categorized as straight-up defamatory or inaccurate,” Adams says. “And the vast majority of times, the roles of trans characters are either as victim of violence or some kind of psychotic killer.”
At least one CBS daytime drama is trying to turn the tide. On March 18, The Bold and the Beautiful revealed that a character named Maya Avant (Karla Mosley)—who’s dating the fabulously wealthy Rick Forrester—was born male. “When is the best time to disclose that you are a transgender woman to someone you love?” says executive producer Bradley Bell. “That’s going to be some fresh and interesting material.”
Meanwhile, two projects are in development for broadcast this fall that, if ordered to series, will feature transgender performers as series regulars. Transparent’s Trace Lysette has been cast on the NBC family drama The Curse of the Fuentes Women, from Silvio Horta (Ugly Betty), while Cox will trade in her orange prison scrubs for a business suit to play an Ivy League-schooled attorney in the CBS pilot Doubt.
But for some trans people, the real progress on TV will come when the focus (finally) steers away from their gender identity. ” ‘Do you have a boy body?’ That’s the question that I often hear,” Jennings tells EW. “I say, ‘Even if I do, it doesn’t matter what’s below my waist.’ You have to judge someone for who they are inside, not their outward appearance. If everyone were able to accept people for their personality, then the world would be a better place for people of any difference.”