Visibility matters: Transgender characters on film and television through the years
At the start of 2015, few, if any, would’ve guessed that it would be a landmark year for transgender people. Thanks to actress Laverne Cox, former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner, “Transparent” creator Jill Soloway and countless others, people nationwide can say they know of someone who doesn’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. Despite the increase in visibility, the representations of transgender people on screens large and small have a long way to go. Below, with the help of GLAAD, we have compiled a list of some of the media images of trans people since the early 1950s. This list includes some of the most high-profile stories, some of which were considered well-done for their time, while others were problematic at the time and remain so today. This list does not include the hundreds of trans characters who have appeared in numerous legal or medical shows, usually as fodder for sensational storytelling.
‘The Danish Girl’
Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne plays the lead in a film based on the life of Lili Elbe, one of the first people to undergo gender confirmation surgery.
‘Pretty Little Liars’
“Pretty Little Liars” reveals that “A” is Ce Ce, who was once Charles. For a show perceived to be inclusive regarding lesbian, gay and bisexual characters, LGBT advocates were shocked that the show chose to make the central villain a young trans girl. The reveal played into stereotypes of trans people as psychopathic killers.
‘I Am Cait’
Caitlyn Jenner was the most visible transgender person in 2015 following a number of high-profile interviews with Diane Sawyer and Vanity Fair magazine about her decision to disclose her transgender identity. The ratings for her E! reality show “I Am Cait” faltered week to week, but the show was renewed for a second season.
After hearing that her boyfriend/pimp cheated on her while she was in jail, a sex worker and her best friend set out to find him and teach him and his new lover a lesson. The film is lead by transgender actresses Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor.
ABC Family’s docu-series “Becoming Us” follows an Evanston, Ill., family as they adjust following a parent’s transition.
‘The Prancing Elites Project’
The Prancing Elites from Mobile, Ala., is a dance troupe of four black, gay men and a transgender woman who compete in a style of dance called J Setting. Oxygen aired the first season of their docu-series “The Prancing Elites Project,” which will return for a second season in January, 2016.
‘The Bold and the Beautiful’
In 2013, “The Bold and the Beautiful” introduced a new character named Maya Avant, (played by non-trans actress Karla Mosley), who became a fashion model and the girlfriend of Rick Forrester. In 2015, the show revealed that Maya is a trans woman who transitioned many years before. After disclosing her past to Rick, they wed in the first wedding on daytime TV to include a trans character. The show also added trans actor Scott Turner Schofield as Maya’s trans friend, Nick.
‘Boy Meets Girl’
Michelle Hendley is a trans actress playing a transgender woman in a small town in Kentucky who is looking for love. “Boy Meets Girl” was written and directed by Eric Schaeffer.
Amazon’s “Transparent,” in which Jeffrey Tambor plays a transitioning Maura Pfefferman, premieres. The show’s first season won two Golden Globes for Tambor’s role and for comedy series. The series also includes Alexandra Billings and Trace Lysette, two trans actresses playing supporting roles, as well as numerous trans people working behind the scenes.
Chronicling the initial night of the historic Stonewall Riots in New York City, “Stonewall” was criticized for having a non-transgender, white actor as the protagonist. By most accepted accounts, the night was kicked off by drag queens, trans women and street kids. A character based on Marsha P. Johnson, played by Otoja Abit, was highlighted in the film. The second lead, played by Jonny Beauchamp, was based, in part, on trans activist Sylvia Rivera.
In the episode “House and Home,” “The Fosters” introduces Cole, a trans teenager played by out trans actor Tom Phelan. Over the course of 10 appearances, viewers see Cole undergo his medical transition as the actor underwent his own medical transition during the year and a half he appeared on the show.
‘Dallas Buyers Club’
In the Matthew McConaughey-led film, Jared Leto plays Rayon, a fictional trans woman with HIV. Both won Academy Awards. There was controversy regarding casting a non-trans actor to play Rayon, and regarding the way Leto talked about the character in media interviews. Trans activists staged a protest outside the Academy Awards that year.
‘Orange Is the New Black’
Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” premieres with transgender actress Laverne Cox as Sophia, who committed credit card fraud to fund her transition from male to female, since insurance will not cover it. Cox made history as the first openly transgender woman nominated for an Emmy Award in 2014 for this role.
‘The Glee Project’
“The Glee Project,” Season 2, includes a young trans person named Tyler Ford.
“Dancing With the Stars”
Chaz Bono’s appearance on the 13th season of “Dancing With the Stars,” a popular, mainstream reality show, brought his story to millions of viewers who cheered him on and voted for him to advance every week. He was eliminated Oct. 25, 2011.
OWN airs “Becoming Chaz,” a documentary about Chaz Bono’s transition.
‘Gun Hill Road’
In this film, an ex-con returns home to the Bronx after three years in prison to discover his wife estranged and his child (Harmony Santana) embracing her transgender identity.
The VH1 makeover reality series “TRANSform Me” featured trans hosts Laverne Cox, Jamie Clayton and Nina Poon helping women find their inner and outer beauty. Cox produced and starred in the show, making her the first trans person to produce and star in her own TV series.
About the Woodstock Festival of 1969 and directed by Ang Lee, this movie is based on the memoir “Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, a Concert, and a Life” by Elliot Tiber and Tom Monte. Liev Schreiber plays Vetty von Vilma, a transwoman.
‘The Real World: Brooklyn’
“The Real World” has included a number of lesbian, gay and bisexual housemates over the years, but its Brooklyn season, the 21st of the franchise, included its first trans cast member with Katelynn Cusanelli. (There hasn’t been another trans housemate since.)
‘America’s Next Top Model’
“America’s Next Top Model,” the long-running CW series helmed by model-turned-business woman Tyra Banks, featured its first transgender contestant Isis King in its 11th season.
‘I Want to Work for Diddy’
Trans actress Laverne Cox, now famous for her role in “Orange Is the New Black,” appears on “I Want to Work for Diddy.” She didn’t win, but the show was awarded the GLAAD Media Award and led to VH1 working with her to produce her own show in 2010.
‘Dirty Sexy Money’
“Dirty Sexy Money” introduces transgender actress Candis Cayne as Carmelita Rainer, who was involved with Billy Baldwin’s Patrick Darling IV. Carmelita was killed off in a 2008 episode, but her death was not related to her being a transgender woman.
‘A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Aruajo Story’
The Lifetime movie “A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Aruajo Story” tells the true story of trans teen Gwen Araujo who was killed in an anti-trans attack in 2002 in Newark, Calif. After her death, Gwen’s mother advocated for the Gwen Araujo Justice for Victims Act, which put California on the record opposing a defendant’s use of societal bias against their victim in order to decrease their culpability for a crime.
Felicity Huffman plays Bree, a transgender woman, who goes on a road trip with her long-lost son Toby (Kevin Zegers).
‘Breakfast on Pluto’
This dark comedy stars Cillian Murphy as a transgender orphan looking for her mother in Ireland and London in the 1970s.
The film adaptation of the Pulitzer- and Tony Award-winning musical about folks in the East Village of New York City dealing with a number of social issues is known for highlighting members of the LGBT community. A memorable character was that of Angel, a trans person played by Wilson Jermaine Heredia.
“South Park” airs “Mr. Garrison’s Fancy New Vagina,” which mocks trans people by comparing transition to wanting to be a dolphin or to be black. This was followed by three years of Garrison being portrayed as a stereotype of a balding trans woman. On April 9, 2008 in the episode “Eek, a Penis!” Mrs. Garrison reverts to Mr. Garrison after regretting his transition.
A Thai biographical sports film, “Beautiful Boxer” tells the life story of Parinya Charoenphol (played by Asanee Suwan), a trans Muay Thai fighter, actress and model.
In Season 1, a “Nip/Tuck” episode titled “Sophia Lopez” was about a trans woman who comes to the practice to have an obvious scar removed. Sophia (played by Jonathan Del Arco) is lonely and goes out on a date with Dr. Liz Cruz, the lesbian anesthesiologist. Though an initially positive portrayal, the show went downhill in representing trans people, including 11 episodes with Famke Janssen playing Ava Moore, a gay man who had a “sex change” because he was in love with a straight doctor played by Alec Baldwin. The series ended after six seasons in 2010 with transgender actress Candis Cayne as a trans woman who comes to the doctors asking them to reverse her transition because it’s too hard to find men to date.
“Soldier’s Girl” on Showtime was based on the true story of U.S. Army Pfc. Barry Winchell, who was killed by fellow soldiers after they learned he was dating a trans woman, Calpernia Addams. The film, starring Troy Garity as Winchell and Lee Pace as Addams, was nominated for several Golden Globe and Emmy awards, and received a Peabody Award.
The HBO film “Normal” followed a Midwestern factory worker (Tom Wilkinson) who came out as a trans woman named Ruth. Although her wife, Irma (Jessica Lange), is shocked but chooses to stand by Ruth despite rejection by members of their small town community. Wilkinson and Lange were nominated for Emmys and Golden Globes.
This documentary follows the final year in the life of Robert Eads, a trans man. Eads was diagnosed with ovarian cancer but couldn’t receive treatment because doctors refused him based on his identity.
‘Sex and the City’
“Sex and the City” came under fire for an episode called “Cock-a-Doodle-Do!” in which Samantha moves into a new neighborhood but is kept awake by trans sex workers working outside her apartment. The episode involved multiple slurs aimed at the trans women, as well as Samantha dumping a bucket of water on them.
In the pilot of “CSI,” audiences were introduced to Paul Millander, a man suspected of murder but ultimately cleared. He returns in the episode “Anonymous” in Season 1, and it’s revealed he’s a serial killer. In his final appearance in Season 2’s “Identity Crisis,” it’s revealed that Millander is a transgender man who killed his own mother, then took his own life. GLAAD cites this as one of the most defamatory and offensive portrayals of a transgender character in the history of Hollywood.
‘Boys Don’t Cry’
The film is a dramatization of the real-life story of Brandon Teena, a trans man played in the film by Hilary Swank, who is beaten, raped and killed by his male acquaintances after they discover he is a transgender person.
‘All About My Mother’
Originally titled “Todo Sobre Mi Madre,” this Spanish-language movie stars a mother (Cecilia Roth) in search of her son’s father after the son got killed in a car accident. The father is a transgender woman played by Toni Cantó. The mother also has a transgender friend, played by Antonia San Juan.
The CBS series “L.A. Doctors” aired an episode called “Been There, Done That,” about a young trans boy having a medical crisis after self-medicating with testosterone. While falling into the typical “your hormones are killing you” trap, it was one of the first scripted transgender male characters.
‘The Brandon Teena Story’
Brandon Teena was a trans man who was raped and murdered in Humboldt, Neb. The documentary “The Brandon Teena Story” inspired the subject of the Academy Award-winning 1999 feature film “Boys Don’t Cry.”
On “Ally McBeal,” Wilson Cruz played a young trans sex worker who ends up dead. Ally goes to the morgue to put makeup on the character’s face to ensure she’s buried as her true self. Another trans character was introduced in November 2000 on the show when Lisa Edelstein guest starred in five episodes as a transgender woman suing her employer for firing her when she refused a mandatory employee physical.
‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’
The Clint Eastwood-directed picture, adapted from a John Berendt novel, starred Kevin Spacey as Jim Williams, a man on trial for murder, and John Cusack as John Kelso, a writer covering the case. Transgender actress the Lady Chablis played a trans woman.
‘The Drew Carey Show’
“The Drew Carey Show” introduced Drew’s brother Steve, who is a cross-dresser. In an episode titled “The Bachelor Party”, Steve comes out to his parents. However, as the seasons progressed, Steve began a relationship with Mimi, who made him stop cross-dressing.
‘Xena: Warrior Princess’
Trans actress Karen Dior plays a trans character on “Xena: Warrior Princess.” Xena enters a beauty pageant to find out who’s threatening the contestants. Miss Artiphys tries to scare Xena, but only to prevent Xena from finding out she’s a transgender person. (Miss Artiphys is not the villain.)
‘The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’
The plot follows the journey of two drag queens and a trans woman, played by Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce and Terence Stamp, across the Australian Outback in a tour bus that they have named “Priscilla.” The film won an Academy Award for costume design.
‘Tales of the City’
Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City” miniseries included Olympia Dukakis as Anna Madrigal who is revealed in the finale to be a transgender woman. Madrigal returned for all the sequels, which aired on Showtime. (PBS dropped the series after Congressional outcry.)
‘Paris Is Burning’
This documentary is often credited for helping to bring the underground dance culture of ballroom and voguing mainstream. It highlighted the community of black and Latino gay and transgender folk of New York City.
‘The Silence of the Lambs’
Starring Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins and Scott Glenn, this horror film included a character by the name of Buffalo Bill who killed women in order make himself a suit of female skin. The film, which won Academy Awards in the top five categories, was criticized for creating another character in a long line of sociopathic transgender killers.
‘The Golden Girls’
In the “Strange Bedfellows” episode of “The Golden Girls,” John Schuck played aspiring politician Gil Kessler. Eventually Gil reveals at a press conference, “I’m not who you think I am. In 1968, I had an operation. Until that time, I lived life as part-time stenographer and mild-mannered housewife, Anna Maria Bonaducci.”
‘Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean’
This film adaptation of Ed Graczyk’s 1976 play of the same name takes place inside a small store in a small Texas town where an all-female fan club for actor James Dean reunites. As they reminisce about meeting James Dean in 1955 when he made a film in Texas, a female stranger joins them. Eventually, it’s revealed that one of the characters is a transgender person.
‘WKRP in Cincinnati’
In the episode “Hotel Oceanview,” Herb tries to seduce a beautiful woman (played by Linda Carlson) in order to land an advertising account for the station only to discover she’s a trans woman he went to school with. She is written as a predator who tricks Herb into making out with her.
In the first few episodes of “Soap,” Billy Crystal’s Jodie tells his mother he wants to become a woman so he can marry his closeted pro football player boyfriend. (He doesn’t and is one of the first main characters on a prime-time series to be gay.) This initial plot line was an example of mistakenly conflating sexual orientation and gender identity issues.
‘All in the Family’
“All in the Family” introduced Beverly LaSalle, a “female impersonator” whom Archie gives mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in his cab. She returns on Nov. 6, 1976 (“Beverly Rides Again”) and on Dec. 18, 1977, when her character is killed in a mugging. Her death causes Edith to have a crisis of faith. (Part 2 aired Dec. 25, 1977.)
‘The Streets of San Francisco’
“The Streets of San Francisco” aired an episode called “Mask of Death” starring John Davidson as a “professional female impersonator” who is another in a long line of psychotic killers. This one murders while in his female persona but doesn’t remember doing it when he’s a man.
‘The Christine Jorgensen Story’
This fictionalized biographical movie is about Christine Jorgensen’s gender confirmation surgery in 1950s Denmark. Though the overall premise of the film is accurate, many of the details are fictionalized for the continuity of the film. It was directed by Irving Rapper and based on Jorgensen’s autobiography.
In 1967, New York City hosts the Miss All-American Camp Beauty Pageant. This documentary from Frank Simon takes a look behind the scenes as the drag queen subculture prepares for this big national beauty contest. Flawless Sabrina, a trans woman, is the mistress of ceremonies.
‘Glen or Glenda’
Directed by and starring Ed Wood, and featuring Bela Lugosi and Wood’s then-girlfriend Dolores Fuller, the drama focused on cross-dressing and transgender identity. The film was semi-autobiographical in nature — Wood was a cross-dresser — and billed as a plea for tolerance.
Sources: Nick Adams, GLAAD