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A Big Year on the Small Screen

A Big Year on the Small Screen

While a lot of work remains to be done, the 2006-2007 television season saw some important milestones for transgender people.

Last year, for the first time, we saw transgender characters in recurring roles on popular television programs, as opposed to one-episode, single-season cameos. In prime time, viewers of the popular ABC sitcom Ugly Betty saw the return of Alex Meade as Alexis (played by actress Rebecca Romijn). And during the day, viewers of ABC's long-running soap All My Children witnessed Zoe (played by actor Jeffrey Carlson) deal with her transition to female.

ABC was very careful to seek the guidance of media watchdog GLAAD about Zoe's character and chose to cast a male actor for the role, resulting in a very realistic and perhaps even overly sensitive portrayal. And while Ugly Betty's story line does not lend itself to educating the public about transgenderism, Alexis has managed to avoid many of the stereotypes and sensationalism that have characterized transgender roles in the past.

I suppose we can forgive the casting of the gorgeous Romijn as Hollywood's idea of a trans woman, in much the same way we still watch The L Word in spite of its slick L.A. lesbian chic. And I have to admit I had fun imagining myself in Zoe's place as she fell in love with the very cute Bianca (played by actress Eden Riegel), the lesbian character known for participating in the first romantic kiss between two women on a daytime soap opera (All My Children in 2003).

Previously, the closest we had come to a recurring transgender character was on the CBS show The Education of Max Bickford in 2001. Actress Helen Shaver (of Desert Hearts fame) played Erica Bettis, a 40-something professor at an all-female college who had just returned to work after her sex-reassignment surgery. While Shaver played the part very realistically and her character dealt sensitively with some real-life transgender issues, Erica quietly disappeared from the show after only a few episodes. Some say that was the beginning of the end for the series, which was canceled only a few weeks later.

Of course, all of these television transgender roles have been played by nontransgender actors and actresses. But here we have a milestone too. This season saw trans woman and actress Candis Cayne as a murder victim in the episode "The Lying Game" on the hit CBS series CSI: New York. Her role, too, was a step up for the whole CSI series, in which transgender characters central to the plot have previously appeared only as murderers--Paul Millander in 2002 and Dr. Lavalle in 2004--although it's true that some transgender people did have ancillary noncriminal roles in that 2004 episode.

In spite of that progress, CSI still has a long way to go. Cayne's character was a confusion of transgender types. She clearly presented as a woman and yet was shown using the men's room, probably because the writers thought that's what we do when we have not had sex-reassignment surgery. Even though there was nothing about her character that felt like a gay man in drag, the murderer responded with the "ick factor" over the thought that he kissed a "guy," offending many LGBT viewers in the process. And when the victim's body was discovered, the detective declared that "Jane Doe is actually a John," as if all transgender people are involved in sex work. Even the episode's title was a slur against trans people who have not had surgery.

On the serious side, there was a huge milestone achieved this past season thanks to the ABC newsmagazine 20/20. Barbara Walters devoted an entire program to an informed and sensitive look at the issues of transgender children. For many viewers, it was their first exposure to trans kids and--more significant--an introduction to amazing parents who understand and do not reject their child's gender non-conformance. ABC further posted additional helpful information on its Web site, including a comprehensive list of resources for parents.

But as good as that 20/20 episode was, this past season also included one of the worst televised documentaries in recent memory. MSNBC's Born in the Wrong Body set a new low for the portrayal of transgender women. Virtually every camera shot seemed to be of a trans woman putting on lipstick or pantyhose, as if that's the overriding reason someone would transition to female. This is yet another example of the sexism we trans women are subjected to, as I wrote about in my last column.

It's too bad, because that documentary also featured some very insightful and useful segments from an interview with Simon Aranoff, deputy director of the National Center for Transgender Equality.

Speaking of Simon, his Trans Media Watch blog highlights another problem we had last season--the f word. No, not the one you were thinking of. Transgender people have an additional f word--freak. Radio talk show host Michael Savage used it in reference to murder victim Ruby Ordenana, as if transgenderism justified her murder. OK, so Savage's show is not on TV, but his rant did make nightly news broadcasts.

Glenn Beck of CNN has used the f word in the past, and Tucker Carlson of MSNBC has come oh, so close. Even mild-mannered movie critic David Edelstein used it a few weeks ago on the CBS Sunday Morning program, referring to trans characters in Hairspray and Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

In spite of these glaring problems, the 2006-2007 television season clearly built on the strength of two breakthroughs from the year before: Transamerica, the popular big-screen feature starring Felicity Huffman, and TransGeneration, the Sundance Channel series about four transgender college kids. But while we may have moved up from murderer to victim on CSI, I have a feeling the writers are unlikely to make any of us star detectives in the upcoming season.

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Joanne Herman