Wednesday night's episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, entitled "Strip Maul," contained the latest in the show's long history of offensive and defamatory portrayals of transgender people.
The episode begins with the police walking up and down the Fremont Street area of Las Vegas, arresting several people all of whom are intended to be seen by the show's viewers as freaks and weirdos. In fact, one of the officers says, "That's why I'm here. You deal with the whack jobs [emphasis added] and I do the evidence collecting." Another officer says while looking at the people arrested, "Full moon tonight."
One of the people arrested and taken to the police station is obviously a transgender person. The show cast a masculine-appearing male actor, and put him in a sparkly dress and exaggerated make-up, intending to create the stereotypical "man in a dress" version of a transgender woman.
Once all of the "whack jobs" are at the police station, an officer looks at the transgender woman's driver's license. Viewers see a man's picture on the license while the officer says "Josh McClure, Florida license." The transgender woman immediately corrects the officer and says, "It's Joslyn." Joslyn then goes into hysterics about protecting her "unborn child." When an officer asks if she's been drinking, Joslyn violently attacks the police officer and is restrained in a chair. As she is restrained, the officers all refer to her as Joslyn, but one of the officers also calls her "Sir."
In the next scene, Joslyn has been released from the chair, but now she is even more hysterical, claiming that her water has broken and the baby is coming. She again violently attacks everyone in the room, grabs a pair of scissors and repeatedly stabs herself in the stomach. The show lingers on a shot of her bloody body lying on the floor of the station. Immediately after the commercial break one of the detectives says, "Hospital said our pregnant transvestite was D.O.A."
Later, two doctors are conducting an autopsy on Joslyn, with one of the investigators present to watch. During this scene, Joslyn is referred to as a "male Caucasian" and everyone in the room refers to her with male pronouns. Male pronouns are used no less than 11 times during a short 1 minute, 13 second scene. The characters also refer to her as "delusional," and it is unclear whether they mean that she was delusional for thinking she was a woman or for thinking she was pregnant. Or both. Shortly thereafter another investigator again refers to her as a "pregnant transvestite."
Ultimately it's revealed that Joslyn was smuggling drugs in her stomach. Some of the packets had burst leading to her desperation to get them out of her body.
Referring to this character repeatedly as a "transvestite" is disrespectful and inaccurate, since the simple fact that she referred to herself as Joslyn suggested she lived as a woman. A glance at GLAAD's Transgender Reference Guide would have led the producers to conclude that the word itself is derogatory, and in any event should never be used to refer to someone who lives fulltime as a woman.
But the disrespect shown by the doctors and the investigator during the autopsy scene is particularly revolting. Many transgender people live in fear that during a medical emergency or after death their true identity will not be respected by authorities or even by their families. In 1995, a transgender woman named Tyra Hunter died at the scene of a car accident after paramedics stopped providing life-saving measures and openly denigrated her with epithets after uncovering her genitals.
If this were a one-time occurrence on CSI, this episode would still be an exploitative, sensationalistic, defamatory portrayal of a transgender person. However, as GLAAD recently noted in its report about transgender characters on television over the past 10 years, CSI has repeatedly foisted these type of portrayals upon the American public.
Since its premiere in 2000, GLAAD has monitored the following CSI episodes:
* A three-episode series culminating in the episode "Identity Crisis," featuring a psychotic female-to-male serial killer named Paul Millander who murders his own mother and then kills himself
* An episode called "Abra Cadaver" involving a murdered transgender woman left in a golf course sand pit in which one of the show's leads comments on the dead woman's "franks and beans" as he's uncovering her dead body
* A bloody episode called "Ch-ch-ch-changes" about a transgender woman performing illegal sex reassignment surgeries in a public storage unit, resulting in the death of one transgender woman in a botched surgery and the murder of another transgender woman who was a witness
* And just last month, a trans character was randomly killed in a shoot-out in a diner, which apparently had nothing to do with her being trans, but was yet another dead transgender woman on this show
This list does not include multiple defamatory portrayals of transgender and intersex murderers and victims on CSI: Miami and CSI: New York. Furthermore, all of these episodes air repeatedly in syndication, so their damage is not limited to their original airing.
The timing of the current episode is particularly insulting as it occurs one week after the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance, which commemorates the (at least) 72 transgender people murdered over the past 12 months: 16 killed in the United States and the 56 killed elsewhere in the world. (The number of murdered transgender people is probably higher, because the victim's transgender identity may not always be understood and reported correctly.)
While CSI and other police procedurals use lurid, sensationalistic stories to reinforce stereotypes of psychotic transgender "whack jobs" in an effort to get ratings, transgender people, particularly transgender women of color, are dying at an alarming rate.
The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs found that, in 2011, 40% of murders against the LGBT community were against transgender women, particularly women of color. Seventy-eight percent of transgender youth reported being harassed in school, 35% physically assaulted, and 12% sexually assaulted, according to a 2011 report from the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
Studies have shown that Americans are much less likely to know a transgender person than they are to know a gay, lesbian or bisexual person, therefore the role of the media is even more critical in promoting understanding and shining a light on the very real discrimination and violence faced by the transgender community.
The creators of CSI need to take a long look at how they've portrayed the transgender community over the years and realize their show has directly contributed to the climate of fear and ignorance that claims the life of one transgender person every month. They have squandered the opportunity to allow their viewers to get to know transgender Americans in a real and meaningful way.
It's possible for police procedurals to tell transgender stories in a way that's fair, accurate and inclusive. In fact, the CBS show Cold Case received six GLAAD Media Award nominations, two of them for episodes that included transgender characters, "Boy Crazy" and "Daniela."
We ask CSI to use episodes like these as a model going forward, or if they can't do that, just stop using transgender characters in the show. This type of visibility, transgender people don't need. In fact, it's killing us.
NICK ADAMS is GLAAD’s Associate Director of Communications.