On The Transgender Day Of Remembrance, And The Future Of Transgender Characters And Actors


Credit: Netflix

Today is the Transgender Day of Remembrance, a moment to remember trans men and women who have lost their lives to violence related to their gender identity and performance. And this year, I wanted to mark it with a discussion of some of what’s going on for trans people in pop culture.

It doesn’t take much for trans characters or trans actors to have a good year, given how completely invisible and underemployed they are so much of the time. And when trans characters are incorporated into pop culture, it’s often as one-offs and as jokes, particularly in storylines where heterosexual cis men are mocked for their attraction to women who turn out to be transgender. But in television and web comics, four storylines about transgender characters have stood out for me in 2013, and I wanted to call attention to them today.

First are two prestige television dramas that hit highs by focusing on the lives of transgender women, and getting great–and in one case, unexpected–performances out of an actress and actor.

Orange Is The New Black, Netflix’s fourth original series, broke ground in any number of ways. It was the rare prestige drama to have women, rather than men, at its center, and to allow women, rather than men, to behave in transgressive, unlikable ways while still retaining our respect and admiration. It’s set in a women’s prison, and is frank about the disparities of the experiences of its white, affluent main character, Piper, who is serving jail time for smuggling drug money, and many of her fellow inmates, who are serving much longer sentences. And showrunner Jenji Kohan didn’t just include a transgender woman as a character, reflecting an important issue in prison practice today, but Kohan cast a transgender actress, the fantastic Laverne Cox, to play Sophia Burset.

Sophia’s arc raised a wide range of issues that face many trans people. It’s clear that she’s lucky to be housed in a woman’s prison rather than a men’s facility. Even though she’s there, a vindictive prison administrator denies Sophia access to her hormone treatments, leading Sophia to try to talk an elderly nun out of her estrogen. And we ultimately learn that Sophia is in prison for credit card fraud, which she used to finance her transition. But Sophia isn’t merely a Very Special Transgender character who’s on Orange Is The New Black to teach us morally improving lessons about tolerance. She’s a person, who has sex with her wife and has trouble letting her go, whose fraud also included trying to buy her son, distressed by her transition, the sneakers he wants. And in prison, that attempt to get estrogen out of Sister Ingalls leads Sophia to a job co-directing the prison Christmas pageant, and a renewed engagement with a faith she’d believed had rejected her. It’s a tremendous performance, and it’s done a great deal to make Cox one of the breakout television stars of the year.

Sons of Anarchy is a very different kind of show from Orange Is The New Black. It’s a traditional, male-centered anti-hero drama that airs on a cable network. But last season, the show introduced a trans woman, Venus Van Dam (Walton Goggins) whose first appearance is as a sex worker hired by the show’s motorcycle club, but who has gradually become a more important part of their community. As I wrote earlier this season:

When Venus was introduced last season, Goggins’ performance seemed like a one-off, a demonstration of just how many boundaries Sons creator Kurt Sutter was willing to push, and how far. But this season, Venus has been more deeply tied to the rest of the characters on the show. In last week’s episode, Venus went to Nero for help, and Nero’s reaction to the idea that Joey, initially presented as Venus’ nephew, was in the custody of Venus’ mother suggested a real and long-standing relationship between them. In a bit of subtle writing, supporting Venus has become one of the ways Gemma tries to ingratiate herself with Nero: last week, she was mixing up Venus’ pronouns, but this weeks, she appears to have gotten them right. And Gemma tells Jax that “Venus is like family to Nero. And he’s family to me.” And while in the previous season, Jax treated Venus like a curiosity, and Tig’s interest in her as part of the other man’s general pattern of sexual adventurousness, by this point in the series, Venus’ immaculate manners seem to have brought out some courtliness in Jax. “Hey, I guess I’m just a sucker for a pretty face,” Jax tells Venus, after hearing her plea for help

Goggins has frequently played extremely manly men, particularly ones caught up in toxic Southern conceptions of masculinity. I absolutely would have appreciated seeing Sons cast a transgender woman as Venus, both because it would be great to correct a gross imbalance in casting and employment and bring in someone with actual relevant life experience, and in part because seeing Goggins in the role is deliberately jarring, given the rounds he’s made on other FX shows. But seeing a male actor making a serious commitment to playing a trans woman, instead of treating it as a daring one-off or a joke, is a nice reminder of how actors of all genders ought to treat transgender roles as primarily an opportunity to dig into rich, fascinating characters.

Then, there’s Fox’s foundering teen drama Glee, which has exported its most interesting storylines to New York, where much of its core cast moved after graduating from high school. Back in Lima, Ohio, where the show was originally set, Glee has foundered as it’s tried to replace the characters who left town with younger versions of themselves, repeating old storylines and group dynamics. The one exception is Unique (Alex Newell), an African-American transgender teenage girl with a huge voice and an indomitable drive to succeed as a performer. Glee‘s pushed forward into some of the only new ground it’s developed in Lima with storylines like Unique’s winning roles in school plays, her parents’ anxiety about her gender presentation, her desire to date, and her school’s policies about which bathrooms she can use. Like Sophia Burset, Unique’s been an opportunity for Glee to get at policy issues without swamping the character in her educational function.

And finally, I want to tip my cap to the long-running web comic Questionable Content, which introduced Claire Augustus, a graduate student and employee at the Smif College library. The strip spent a long time letting us get to know Claire as part of a slow expansion of the world of Marten, the main character, after he seeks some direction for his life by taking a job at the library, before having her come out as transgender. By the time we learned Claire’s backstory, we were already invested in her as a character in the same way that the strip’s other characters cared about her as a friend and colleague. That commitment made for a fascinating coming out story, in which Claire decided to trust her new friends, even as her brother Clinton was terrified that she’d be abandoned at best, harassed and targeted at worst. After she came out, Questionable Content creator Jeph Jacques began to explore the possibility that Claire could be a love interest for Marten, with whom she’d become close.

It’s a relationship that would pose challenges for both characters. Marten hasn’t dated a trans woman before, and Questionable Content doesn’t treat his experience dating a bisexual woman as if it’s interchangeable. And Claire’s been so busy figuring out her identity and transition that she hasn’t had time or confidence to pursue romantic or sexual relationships. It’s rare to see sexually inexperienced characters in pop culture who aren’t treated as if they’re hopelessly immature or deeply damaged, so it’s been hugely refreshing to see Claire presented with respect and sympathy. Her dating adventures may be inflected by the fact that she’s a trans woman. But she is not the sum of her gender identity or her transition.

We’ve got a very long way to go before transgender characters appear in popular culture as frequently as lesbian, gay, and bisexual characters do. And the full incorporation of transgender characters in our pop culture would require mass media to widen its lens to more frequently tell the stories of people who aren’t white, who aren’t wealthy, who aren’t wealthy, and who aren’t male. But that’s a reminder that doing better by transgender characters and transgender actors could also be a way to foster a more inclusive popular culture that’s confident telling a much greater range of stories. This isn’t just about charity or social welfare. It’s good for all of us.