Where Are All The Trans People On Television?

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GLAAD has just released its third annual Trans Images on TV report, a survey of representations of the trans community on television in the past year. And while there’s more visibility than ever, that’s not saying much.

The LGBT watchdog reviewed 13 new scripted episodes with one-off or non-recurring trans characters that aired since November 2013. Of those, 6 (48% ) were considered “defamatory” by GLAAD (and that’s actually an improvement of 8% from 2012.)

Another 5 (39%) fell in the range of “problematic to acceptable,” with only only two episodes (15%) considered “outstanding”—Drop Dead Diva’s “Identity Crisis” and Orphan Black’s “Variable and Full of Perturbation,” which both focused on trans men.

Anti-transgender slurs and dialogue continue to prevail, with 39% of the episodes reviewed containing transphobic or problematic language—often spoken by popular or sympathetic characters and left unchallenged.

Related: First Transgender Sitcom, “Boy Meets Girl,” To Hit British Airwaves

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 12.54.05 PMDiving deeper, GLAAD reports:

* Candis Cayne returned to CBS’ Elementary as Sherlock Holmes’ housekeeper, Ms. Hudson, for one episode. “Ms. Hudson is a multi-dimensional character whose identity and storyline don’t hinge on her gender identity, and she is precisely the type of transgender character we need to see more of on television,” writes GLAAD.

* Many comedies continued to use trans people as punchlines, including FX’s Chozen, which saw the two lead characters trying to ruin each other’s reputations by setting each other up with trans people and selling the photos to tabloids.

* TV One’s Love That Girl aired an episode centering on the core cast of friends scheming to break up the date of their friend Latrell and a beautiful woman when they found out the woman happened to be trans. Even worse, the trans woman herself was portrayed as being deceptive for refusing to disclose her transgender status before the date began.

* CBS’ Two and a Half Men had a two-episode storyline last December about Alan dating a trans woman. Initially, while Alan was surprised, he was happy to continue dating her. The storyline quickly descended, however, into  countless jokes about Paula’s “male traits.”

The good news is there are more trans characters that are a regular part of casts than ever before. Laverne Cox earned an Emmy nomination for the role of Sophia Burseton Orange is the New Black and Amazon Prime’s Transparent, starring Jeffrey Tambor as trans woman Maura Pfefferman, has been renewed for a second season.

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 12.56.13 PMRelated: Laverne Cox On Cover Of Time Magazine

Additionally:

ABC Family’s The Fosters introduced Cole, a trans boy uncomfortably living in a group foster home for girls. Cole is notably played by a trans actor, Tom Phelan.

Transgender student Unique (Alex Newell) was a series regular on the most recent season of Fox’s Glee. The show transferred focus to New York late last season, but the upcoming final season will see a return to Ohio and may feature Unique again.

Showtime’s House of Lies most recent season included Lex (Bex Taylor-Klaus), a self-identified “boi” who dated gender non-conforming teen Roscoe.

One a less uplifting note, while there are more trans characters on TV than ever, hardly any are played by actual trans people: Laverne Cox scored a guest role on Faking It, and will appear on Bravo’s new scripted show Girlfriends Guide to Divorce, but her presence on Season 2 of OITNB was greatly reduced.

And while trans actress Erika Ervin has a recurring role on American Horror Story: Freak Show, her character has not been identified as trans, and is part of a morally compromised band of outsiders.

We hope that in short order we’ll see trans and gender-nonconforming actors appear on television as regular characters—a lawyer on Law & Order: SVU, a crimfighter on Arrow, maybe even a prince or two on Once Upon A Time.

Dan Avery is a writer-editor who focuses on culture, breaking news and LGBT rights. His work has appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, Time Out New York, The Advocate and elsewhere.
@ItsDanAvery