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Doubt's Creators Are Transforming TV for Their Trans Son

Doubt's Creators Are Transforming TV for Their Trans Son

Doubt's Creators Want to Make the World Better for Their Trans Son

For Tony Phelan and Joan Rater, the fight for transgender representation on television is personal.


LGBT audiences might best know Doubt, a new CBS legal drama, from its casting. In her portrayal of attorney Cameron Wirth, Orange Is the New Black's Laverne Cox is the first transgender actress to play a trans series regular on network television. Cox follows trans pioneers like Candis Cayne -- who was a recurring character on ABC's Dirty Sexy Money -- as well as Jamie Clayton, a star of Netflix's Sense 8.

What is lesser known about Doubt are the allies behind the scenes who helped make this TV history happen. Tony Phelan and Joan Rater, a married couple who are the show's creators, have a trans son named Tom. (Fans of The Fosters may know Tom, an actor, from his role as Cole.) Ever since their son came out to them at age 16 -- he's 20 now -- LGBT issues had become "a part of our world," they said. They wanted to share this world with CBS viewers.

"We wanted to make sure that we told those stories" in Doubt, Phelan said in a recent interview with The Advocate. In the character of Cameron, an Ivy League-educated lawyer and mentor, the creators wanted to portray a three-dimensional person and not a sensational stereotype.

It was this understanding of the need for a broader diversity of LGBT representation on television that ultimately attracted Cox to the role. Dismayed by Hollywood's offerings of trans roles, which seemed limited to sex workers, prisoners, and drug addicts, Cox was reportedly thrilled to read the part of a lawyer who had moved beyond issues like coming out and transitioning. Within 24 hours of the pilot's release, Cox's management called Doubt's team.

"She's read the script, this is her part. She's gonna fly herself out to L.A. and audition for you," said a representative, as recounted by Phelan.

"When we were writing the part we had Laverne in mind. But we were pretty convinced we wouldn't be able to get her, because she was on Orange Is the New Black," said Phelan, referring to the actress's role of Sophia Burset on the popular Netflix series. When Cox did audition, the Doubt team was amazed.

"She just blew us all away in the room. She was tremendous," Phelan said.

Cox's role was not limited to acting. Throughout production, she was consulted on her character's development. And her advice was taken. Cox made a point of telling writers that her character, in order to be realistic, needed to have a group of transgender friends. And so a scene showing Cameron with her girlfriends was created. In addition, Phelan and Rater hired a trans writer, Imogen Binnie, who was "instrumental" in crafting storylines for Cameron, including a relationship she develops with a cisgender man.

As a result, much thought and care was invested into creating a character who is trans but is not defined by her gender identity. Fighting stereotypes, she is human, not a victim or a villain. And as a defense lawyer, she fights alongside cisgender members of her firm -- a diverse team played by Katherine Heigl, Dule Hill, Dreama Walker, and Elliott Gould -- to help others.

Ultimately, the goal of this representation is to change hearts and minds, and to show the normalcy of trans people in a time when they are being otherized, attacked, villainized, and killed in the real world.

Laverne Cox

"I wanted to show Laverne's character is this multidimensional person," said Rater. "It's my belief that you'll just love her and you'll get invested in her life. Her being trans won't be something that you're always thinking of or aware of or talking about."

In some ways, Phelan and Rater, who were born in conservative areas of the Midwest, wanted to take viewers on a journey similiar to their own. When Tom first came out, "it was a bit of a shock," Rater recalled. But the moment soon passed.

"I looked in his room, which was a mess. And I realized he was still funny and smart and a slob and into theater -- and he was trans. He was just the same person he had been the day before. But now I have this new knowledge about him," she said.

After Tom came out, Phelan and Rater, wanting to learn more about trans issues, read books on how to be supportive and joined a support group for transgender youth and their parents. Called Transforming Family, the organization met at the Los Angeles Children's Hospital and was indeed transformative for its participants.

"It's really been kind of a great, eye-opening experience, both to educate yourself and to see in so many ways that you being supportive for your kid is incredibly important," Phelan said. "As Joan said, they haven't changed. They're just revealing more and more of themselves to you."

Phelan, with emotion in his voice, articulated the joy of "seeing your child fully declare themselves and understand themselves, and seeing how once that's done, they are just so much more fully themselves -- so much more happy, so much more able to be in the world, so much more fulfilled."

By casting Cox -- one of Tom's role models -- his parents have also been able to return that joy. "Oh, my God! We're the most popular parents around," Rater exclaimed. "How many parents [can say], 'You want to come and hang out with Laverne on the set today?'" Phelan added.

Tom's coming-out "absolutely" changed how Rater and Phelan perceived diversity on television. But the couple already had experience in that regard. For nearly a decade, they worked as writers and producers for Grey's Anatomy with creator Shonda Rhimes, "a glorious experience" that informed how they crafted the makeup and soul of their own TV workplace.

"The funny and the serious that is a hallmark of Shonda's shows, I think is [also in] Doubt," said Phelan, who as an executive produce ran the writers' room alongside Rater and Rhimes.

Rater credited Rhimes with bringing not only diversity to network television, but also a new way of portraying it. Identity -- be it race, background, sexual orientation, or gender identity -- is "a part of who these people are, but not the thing that they lead with," Rater said.

"As [Rhimes] was fond of saying, 'I have friends of all different races, and we don't sit around when we get together and talk about race. It comes up, but that's not where you live.'"

This approach is part of Doubt's DNA. While Phelan said there will not be a "trans of the week" case, issues like violence against trans women and transgender-cisgender relationships will appear in this season. The couple pointed to the power of having LGBT storylines on TV in effecting social change, citing a same-sex couple from Grey's Anatomy, Callie and Arizona, as an example of fictional chracters who can influence real-life perceptions.

"People adopt these characters as their family," Phelan said. "You spend time with them every week. You see them go through their trials and tribulations. So I think that any kind of diversity, but especially diversity about gender identity and sexual orientation, on television, especially network television, is incredibly important."

This importance has taken new meaning in the light of recent political events. Donald Trump's victory in the presidential election and the rise of "religious freedom" legislation and "bathroom bills" that attack transgender and broader LGBT rights have changed how the couple perceives the mission of their show, as well as the future of their family.

"Right after the election, I got real scared in terms of Tommy about trans rights and things like that. I'm less scared now, but it's still there," said Rater. "I'm less scared now simply because I see such wonderful things that the community is doing to rise up and all that. I guess my answer is, I think our show is more important now than ever."

"We made, we wrote, and shot all the episodes before the election," added Phelan. "And so we were in a weird way making it for one America, and now we find ourselves in a different America. But as Joan said, I think it makes the stories all the more important."

Cox has already used her greater visibility to take a stand for transgender people. At the Grammy Awards, which aired Sunday on Doubt's network, CBS, Cox urged viewers to "Google Gavin Grimm" in her brief on-air time, before she introduced Lady Gaga and Metallica. She was referring to a plaintiff in an upcoming Supreme Court case, which may determine the nationwide right of transgender students to use restrooms and locker rooms that comport with their gender identity.

In the coming weeks, months, and years, trans youth may be at the forefront of the fight for LGBT rights. A recent brief filed by the Department of Justice under the newly appointed attorney general, Jeff Sessions, backed down from supporting trans-affirming education guidelines issued by the Obama administration. The move was denounced by LGBT groups as well as parents of trans kids, who submitted a letter to President Trump this week condeming the move.

In addition, many LGBT youths have felt fearful since the election, as rates of school bullying have also escalated in what educators are calling the Trump effect. For trans youth, who are so vulnerable to abuse, Rater and Phelan have a message.

"Stay strong. Know that there are places within the United States where support exists," Phelan said. The Trevor Project and Trans Lifeline have hotlines and resources available for those in crisis.

In the meantime, Rater praised the "community online" that was a "main support system" for her son before he came out. "When people say how bad computers are, I'm like, 'No, they're not.' You can reach out and find support and make friends online, and for people who maybe can't come out or are uncomfortable coming out, online communities are lifesavers," she said.

They also see their own show as part of this support system.

"The fact that those kids can watch a show on CBS and see somebody who they haven't seen before -- I think that's huge. I don't discount that at all," Phelan said.

"I know Laverne is very aware of that. Just being a presence out there and showing ... this character who's actually living a life where she's doing work that she loves. She's grappling with her personal life and her professional life, but her life has a tremendous amount of joy in it. She's leading a fulfilling existence. That's great."

For all viewers, be they from red states or blue, cisgender or transgender, Phelan hopes Doubt "gets you to think about things a little differently, opens your mind a little differently about issues, about the criminal justice system, and about our characters."

"That's the television I like, is when you really get invested in the characters and you find yourself thinking as you enjoy it."

Doubt premieres tonight at 10 p.m. Eastern on CBS. Watch the trailer below.

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Daniel Reynolds

Daniel Reynolds is the editor of social media for The Advocate. A native of New Jersey, he writes about entertainment, health, and politics.
Daniel Reynolds is the editor of social media for The Advocate. A native of New Jersey, he writes about entertainment, health, and politics.