The stakes are high for Bruce Jenner, who in a highly anticipated interview airing Friday night is expected to reveal to Diane Sawyer what many have long speculated — that the 1976 Olympic champion is now identifying as a transgender woman.
But the ramifications go beyond Jenner, an American celebrity who’s spent decades in the public eye. For an estimated 700,000 transgender Americans, the interview is a milestone in how TV and the media continue to consider transgender people and issues.
Other breakthrough moments on television dramas and reality series have led to a perception in recent years that attitudes toward the transgendered may be shifting.
“We’re no longer just a punch line for comics, or just limited to that sphere,” says Dana Beyer, a transgender rights advocate and executive director of Gender Rights Maryland. “Stories about us are now of interest to the mainstream media, and not because we’re special but because we’re not just marginalized and ridiculed. We’re actually newsworthy.”
And apparently bankable. At least two network pilots are now in the works starring transgender actors in major roles: the CBS legal drama series “Doubt” with Laverne Cox and the NBC pilot “The Curse of the Fuentes Women” featuring “Transparent’s” Trace Lysette.
Several cable channels are or will be airing new series centered around transgender main characters such as Discovery Life’s first original series, “New Girls on the Block,” featuring six transgender women; TLC’s forthcoming “All That Jazz,” about trans teen YouTube activist Jazz Jennings; and ABC Family’s “Becoming Us” about a parent’s sex-change transition.
Paving the way were two groundbreaking series on streaming networks: “Orange Is the New Black” and “Transparent.” Their success suggests that television and the American public who made these shows popular have developed a more nuanced and realistic sense of what it means to be transgender.
On network TV, the recent transgender story lines on “Glee” and “The Bold and the Beautiful” appear light years removed from the old variety show model of the cross-dressing comedian.
Jenner’s interview will be so widely watched it could prove a tipping point, further normalizing Americans’ perceptions of the nation’s transgender population.
But there are risks for the community in so much attention going to a celebrity whose early 21st century notoriety came with his comical role as the befuddled husband on “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.” Many worry that perceptions will be dragged back into the sensational. As history suggests, it’s a slippery slope.
For the past three years the LGBT media watchdog group GLAAD conducted a “Trans Images on TV” report. It looked back on 10 years of transgender stories on television. The organization found that scripted transgender characters typically are psychotic killers or murder victims. The most common profession? Sex worker.
“Polls show that nine out of 10 Americans personally know someone who is lesbian, gay or bisexual, but a much smaller percentage, around 8%, say they know someone who is transgender,” says Nick Adams, director of programs and transgender media at GLAAD. “So for 92% of Americans, everything they know about a transgender person they’re learning from the media.”
Still, things have improved over the past two years, particularly on reality TV, Adams says. “Reality television has been somewhat of a bright spot in terms of incorporation of transgender people because they’re able to be themselves and tell their own stories.”
He cites the Discovery Life series “New Girls on the Block” as one example.
“It’s about six transgender women who are friends in Kansas City, Mo.,” Adams explains. “What’s really lovely about it is that it’s not about their transition or surgery or coming out, it’s just about them and their family lives, their romantic lives, about them living as friends in Kansas City.”
The new-found attention has caused growing pains for the transgender community and for the media. Covering trans issues is a minefield of seemingly new rules and terminology. It’s for this very reason that organizations like GLAAD publish guidelines on respectful ways to write about the transgender community.
Under “terms to avoid," GLAAD lists “sex change,” “pre-operative,” “post-operative” as problematic. The preferred term is “transition.”
But some high-profile transgender people who address the mainstream say that the advocacy guidelines and talking points can feel confusing and restrictive, even to them.
“The term transgender is like what Fibromyalgia is to medicine,” says Zoey Tur, a transgender woman who is a freelance helicopter reporter for “Inside Edition.” “If you don’t know what something is, you put it in the Fibromyalgia box cause it sounds really good and now you know what you’re treating. But it could be all kinds of things.”
Regardless of the pitfalls, former “Grey’s Anatomy” producers Tony Phelan and Joan Rater are excited about the new frontier of transgender issues on mainstream TV.
The couple is behind the CBS pilot “Doubt” costarring Cox of “Orange Is the New Black” fame.
“The show is about a defense attorney,” says Phelan. “As we were coming up with different characters for the three major attorneys in our firm, one of them is this woman Cameron who is transgender, but that’s not the first thing you notice about the character. Sure, it’s part of who she is, but it’s not the only thing that defines her as a person. That’s very true to the transgender people we know.”
“One of our children is transgender,” adds Rater, speaking of Tom Phelan, who also happens to be the actor who played the role of a transgender teen on ABC Family’s “The Fosters.” “Our kid is transgender, but our kid is also funny and smart. It’s one part of who he is. We’re also aware we’re at a point right now where we’d like to see more transgender actors on TV. It’s important to us.”
Zoe Dolan is a real-life transgender defense attorney who’s worked on high-profile terrorism cases and was recently part of the team representing Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, a son-in-law of Osama bin Laden. For years she’s been trying to draw attention to many of the issues now being played out on reality TV, scripted dramas and the news media on her own blog and the Huffington Post.
“The transgender community makes up a fraction of a fraction of the population,” Dolan says, “but we do what everybody else does, so the challenge for the media and the entertainment industry is to portray that world in all its complexity.”
As for the new attitudes toward transgender story lines in the media, Dolan says there’s quite a way to go.
“That mask of acceptance has yet to melt down into the epidermal layer and into people’s hearts,” she says. “The way we are considered in our work lives in society is a very different question from how people accept us on a fundamental, interpersonal level. That’s the ultimate test.”
Follow me on Twitter: @lorraineali