Why is careful trans representation on TV important? Orange Is the New Black star Laverne Cox put it the most simply — and best: "Lives are on the line."
At a panel convened by GLAAD at the Television Critics Association summer tour, Cox, How to Get Away with Murder and Transparent's Alexandra Billings, Transparent producers Jill Soloway and Rhys Ernst, and Danger & Eggs creator Shadi Petosky discussed how TV could best enrich their stories.
"The transition narrative is powerful," Nick Adams, director of transgender media and representation at GLAAD, says. "But it's very difficult to write if you haven't lived through it, and it's very difficult to cast, and it also tends to reduce that to being the only interesting thing about us. Somebody recently said — I think it was Jen Richards — 'Imagine if every TV show you guys watched was about puberty? You'd want something different after a while.'"
When asked to describe the best and worst trans depictions they recall from their childhoods, members of the panel unearthed some cringe-worthy examples.
Ernst recalled being 9 years old and seeing a trans man on a talk show. "The way he was depicted was so sad and horrible and pitying and everybody sort of stared at him like he was such a freak, and it was just mortifying," he says. "I immediately identified that I was like him and had this moment of shock and horror that I didn't want to be like that sad image. I kind of walked outside and decided I knew that was who I was and I knew I needed to get rid of that."
Soloway recalled a surprising example. "Pat on Saturday Night Live, which was a hateful, hateful, awful thing to do to non-binary people," she said. "We didn't understand that at the time, but looking back at that, what an awful piece of anti-trans propaganda that was."
The group ended on a hopeful note. "I just got a [six-episode] gig on a show called Goliath, opposite Billy Bob Thornton, in a non-trans role," reported Billings. "I have no idea what happened, I really don't! Because I didn't audition for it ... I'm really shocked. I'm so grateful, and also, I was just hired as an actress to go do this thing..."
"Because you're right for the part," Cox interrupted.
"I was gobsmacked by the fact of it," Billings continued. "I think things are changing. We certainly have to have more of [it], and Hollywood's changing."