'Maybe our show can be part of helping people become less afraid'
Tony Phelan and Joan Rater are the husband-and-wife showrunner duo behind CBS’ legal drama Doubt, starring Katherine Heigl and Laverne Cox. Here, Rater shares how their transgender son Tommy influenced the series. Doubt premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET. on CBS.
In our family, we have this fantasy. Remember the show Wife Swap? A country wife and a city wife switch houses for a week and in the end, everyone learns something? Well, our fantasy is about having a show called Trans Swap. And it’s not really a swap. We invite people who think being transgender is scary or weird or wrong over to our house to meet our family that includes our transgender son, and in the end, they see that he’s really sweet and not scary.
How would we convince them? First of all, we’d make pasta. And garlic bread. Because who doesn’t love that? And although we’d have cleaned the house for them (because, I mean, you clean for company), we’d show them our junk drawer in an effort to be real. It’s disgusting. Batteries, old hair brushes, random keys, a sock, our dead dog’s ashes. I know! Disgusting and not organized and so normal. We’re normal —transgender people and their families! We have messy drawers and bedtimes and bad hair days and we love carbs. And pie. I forgot about the pie that our son will bake for dessert because he loves to bake!
See our vision? A cozy night in our house where people see that we’re all a lot more the same than different. And our differences are okay; we can talk about them over pasta. We can learn something new about one another. Tony and I think that if people met our trans son, they’d be so busy loving his baked goods that they’d forget to be scared. We want to be ambassadors to normalize trans stuff. But because we can’t have all those people over to our house (the logistics, the travel, the amount of garlic bread), we wrote a TV show instead.
Okay, that’s not why we wrote the show. At all. We wrote it because we love law shows. And we came up with Doubt when we wondered what would happen if a defense attorney developed romantic feelings for her client. We thought about who this woman was and what about her life made the idea of crossing this line with a client possible. And as the character of Sadie Ellis came into focus (played by the incredibly funny, smart, gifted Katherine Heigl), we started to imagine the law firm she worked in, who else worked there, and that one of the other attorneys was transgender. Our son had recently told us he was transgender, so it was on our mind.
When Tommy told us he was transgender, we didn’t know anything about gender identity, so we got really scared. Like panicked and crying and what does this mean and why does he want to change his gender? (Which isn’t really what is going on. Our son probably always was a guy, just born in a female body, but we didn’t understand all the complexities just yet. We mostly were like, “Wait, so what do we call you and are you going to have an operation?”) We felt scared, but Tom provided us with links to read up on trans stuff and we talked to people we knew and loved who said things like, “It’ll be fine.” And even though we couldn’t really see how it would be fine, we let these smart people calm us down. And once we were calm we realized NOTHING ABOUT OUR TOM HAD CHANGED — except his name. That did change, and that was hard to handle. Not gonna lie. Although then he chose a new name that so suited him, those sad feelings passed.
Tom was still the same funny, smart, sloppy, Sondheim-obsessed teenager he had always been. He still had his college applications due. He still needed to get to school and walk the dog and pick up his clothes and stop eating chips and salsa in bed because it could attract ants. He was still the EXACT same person he was before he told us he was trans, only now he was happier.
Once he told us, he felt relieved and was able to be more himself. He became even funnier and nicer, and when I asked him to bring down the empty salsa containers, he did it with an apologetic smile, not a grumpy snarl. And he baked more things. Tarts and cakes and homemade bread! And it was kind of a miracle to our family to see this person that had been sad become happy. We watched this child of ours who had felt so awkward for so long start to feel more comfortable in his own skin.
And then we got to create a trans character as a member of the ensemble of Doubt so that people who didn’t get to witness the miracle of a person being brave enough to be their authentic self in real life could see it on TV. They could meet Cameron Wirth, as played by Laverne Cox, and fall in love with her because she’s funny and smart as hell and passionate about her clients and gorgeous and needy and lonely and all the things the rest of us are. (Although she’s really organized, so my guess is her junk drawer wouldn’t look like ours.) My point is, we think people are going to love Cam. And once they get to know her, her being trans won’t be scary or alienating. It’ll feel normal. And if we can do that, if we can broaden the idea of normal even a little bit, it’ll be a good thing. It’ll save lives. Trans people commit suicide at crazy high rates. Like 25 times the normal rate. That’s gotta stop. And maybe our show can be part of helping people become less afraid.
Now here’s another thing: Don’t tell anyone, but Tony and I are both pretty liberal, so loving transgender Tom wasn’t hard. But we have witnessed families where it’s hard. We remember meeting this dad whose daughter had just come out as trans and the dad Could Not Deal. He couldn’t say “she” or use her new name or tell anyone on his side of the family. He was so ashamed and upset and angry. And his wife was upset and the daughter was sullen and I did not have high hopes for this family. But after a few weeks of meeting other parents of trans kids and hearing them talk about their struggles and joys and surprises, and meeting some of his daughter’s new trans friends, I saw this dad who Could Not Deal begin to relax. And listen. And eventually cry. And say “she.” And use his daughter’s new name. I saw love and grace and it wasn’t easy or always pretty, but damn if I didn’t have a lump in my throat when he talked about telling his very religious mother, and how she said she still loved her granddaughter. And he was so grateful and relieved.
So I’ve seen the grace that can come from understanding your fears. And although that’s not WHY we wrote Doubt, it’s cool that we get to bring some of that into your homes each week. So turn your TV on to CBS, Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. And pass the garlic bread.