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Laverne Cox and Alexandra Billings talk transgender representation on TV: 'Lives are on the line'

Alexandra Billings, from left, Laverne Cox, Shadi Petosky and Jill Soloway at the Television Critics Assn press tour. (Chris Pizzello / Invision/Associated Press)
Alexandra Billings, from left, Laverne Cox, Shadi Petosky and Jill Soloway at the Television Critics Assn press tour. (Chris Pizzello / Invision/Associated Press)

Hollywood has much work to do when it comes to wide-ranging transgender representation on television, according to advocates.

While transgender visibility has no doubt been boosted by mainstream shows such as Amazon's "Transparent" and E! network's "I Am Cait," progress has been incremental. Of the 260-plus LGBTQ characters on television, according to GLAAD figures, only 11 were transgender -- and three of them were on "Transparent."

"Today, media images and representations of transgender people are about 20 years behind where media representations of lesbian and gay and bisexual people are," said Nick Adams, GLAAD’s director of transgender media and representation. "We’re sort of where LGB storytelling was in the late ’80s or early ’90s, when it comes to trans people."

Adams spoke as part of the GLAAD-sponsored panel Transgender Trends on TV Today, held Friday at the Television Critics Assn. press tour in Beverly Hills. Other panelists included Laverne Cox ("Orange Is the New Black," "Doubt"), Alexandra Billings ("Transparent," "How to Get Away With Murder"), Jill Soloway (creator of "Transparent"), Rhys Ernst (producer and director of "Transparent") and Shadi Petosky (creator of "Danger & Eggs").

The recent news cycle -- from the military ban and the murder of trans women to the ridiculing of trans activist Janet Mock on a radio show and the transphobic social media comments aimed at teenage reality star Jazz Jennings -- has illustrated the ongoing plight of the trans community. The panelists agreed that a more well-rounded representation of transgender people in the media is crucial to combating the negative stereotypes that have long prevailed.

"We’ve got to tell these stories better because lives are on the line," Cox said. "Trans people are being murdered, are being denied healthcare, access to bathrooms and employment and housing because of all of these, sort of, misconceptions that people have about who we really are."

Among the stated goals from GLAAD in bringing transgender characters to the next level is moving beyond the "transition narrative."

"For me, I think transition narratives are most useful within community," Cox said. "Transition narratives, in and of themselves, are not necessarily problematic, but I think that becomes the only thing that people focus on .... I think my life got way more interesting after I transitioned than it was during the transition."

Billings noted the educational benefits of a character's transition, but agreed it was important not to dwell on it.

"If we spend too much time on it, if we draw a circle around it, we are stuck in puberty," Billings said. "But I think there is something important about looking at that journey and what that journey is. It’s less about curiosity and more about education."

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