LOS ANGELES (Variety.com) - Next year, Laverne Cox will play an Ivy League-educated lawyer in the CBS series "Doubt," making her the first transgender actor to play a transgender series regular character on broadcast television. It's a looming historic moment for television, and one in a series of recent turning points that indicates change and acceptance for the transgender community.
In 2015, Caitlyn Jenner's Vanity Fair cover launched with viral force followed up by her reality series "I Am Cait." In 2014, Amazon found a juggernaut in "Transparent." The year prior, Cox was starting to become a household name for her performance in "Orange Is the New Black" and her transgender activism. Yet, almost one year after Jenner's announcement, transgender representation on television is still leaping over hurdles. "We still have a long way to go," says Nick Adams, GLAAD's director of programs and transgender media.
In its report on the 2015-16 television season, GLAAD found that out of the 271 regular and recurring LGBT characters in scripted broadcast, cable and streaming programs, only seven were counted as transgender, and only one a transgender man. As historic as Cox's upcoming role on CBS may be, it's just as much a reminder of how underrepresented and invisible the transgender community has historically been in television.
Many of the shows that are incorporating transgender stories and performers -- and there are positive examples -- are making a concerted effort. MTV's scripted show "Faking It," for example, recently added transgender actor Elliot Fletcher for a five-episode arc in its third and final season. To find their actor, showrunner Carter Covington and the "Faking It" team enlisted GLAAD to help publicize a nationwide casting call for transgender actors, similar to how "Glee" recruited a 200-person transgender choir for the episode "Transitioning" during its final season. This time, Fletcher would be more than a voice in a crowd.
"Giving transgender actors even small roles in scripted programming gives them the opportunity they need to be able to take on bigger roles."
GLAAD assisted the show by reading scripts and guiding the storytelling, as well as bringing in a panel of transgender youth to tell their stories. Covington says the process was "incredibly helpful in making sure we told this story honestly and truthfully, but also with optimism because the trans youth we spoke to were incredibly inspiring." And from the extensive casting process, the show also hired about a dozen transgender actors to play background and small speaking roles.
Covington says that creating his role, and casting Fletcher, was a much more involved process than it would have been for a cisgender role of the same size. But it was important to cast a transgender actor. Especially since Fletcher's character, Noah, would almost certainly be placed under a public microscope.
"It is a delicate line to want to try and create a character that's real, and allow it to be human, flawed and all those things," he says. "But also know that there is such little representation that every move this character makes will get much more scrutiny, and be extrapolated much more than the other characters on the show."
"Transparent" showrunner Jill Soloway also specifically worked to bring on transgender talent for her show, which is how Our Lady J became a writer for seasons two and three. But the transgender writer and performer is quick to point out that she is not alone -- the show employs many transgender people above and below the line.
All That 'Jazz': "I Am Jazz" star Jazz Jennings, center, breaks down stereotypes on TLC. Courtesy of TLC
"It's hair and makeup. It's wardrobe. Our director's assistant this year is trans. There are people in the camera department. This season we have two new trans actors," she says. And, she adds, the transgender people are keeping up with their cisgender co-workers across the board. "And not just keeping up, but shining brightly."
But similar to the external pressures that Covington felt on "Faking It," Our Lady J wears many hats including artist, activist and role model. "I did feel a lot of responsibility, and I still do," she says, "to connect with the community, and to make sure that I'm representing the community well."
The hope is that eventually transgender roles won't have to be scrutinized -- that there will be so many fully formed characters that being transgender will become a non-issue. And light is shining through the cracks in such shows as Netflix's "Sense8," run by the Wachowskis, transgender women, and featuring the character Nomi Marks, played by transgender actress Jamie Clayton. Hulu's "Difficult People" added transgender actress and activist Shakina Nayfack, and Fletcher will also join Freeform's "The Fosters" for its fourth season.
But while transgender roles in scripted television sometimes struggle to get beyond exposition dumps and dramatic reveals, unscripted shows have been a haven for giving voice and depth to transgender lives. Not to say every unscripted show is inclusive -- popular reality shows like "Survivor" and "The Amazing Race" have never included an openly transgender contestant. But shows like Jenner's "I Am Cait," or the similarly titled "I Am Jazz," about transgender teen Jazz Jennings, help normalize the transgender experience. Unlike the dramatized and fictionalized depictions of trans lives in scripted television, Jennings says the TLC show has allowed her to "not only continue to live [her] life authentically, but to share that authenticity with other people."
"It is a delicate line to want to try and create a character that's real, but also know that there is such little representation that every move this character makes will get much more scrutiny."
She also posts on social media and her YouTube channel, which she says exposes her to the hatred that many people still feel toward the transgender community. [Hatred that is apparent in recently national controversy over multiple states' anti-transgender bathroom bills.] But other times the feedback is inspiring.
"People say that I've been able to not only change their lives, but save their lives," Jennings says. "They wouldn't be alive if it wasn't for my message."
Within television the fear is that, if transgender people are not able to tell their own stories, they will never emerge from the stereotypes that Adams says television has perpetuated for decades -- tropes like the notion that all transgender people are sex workers, mentally unhinged, serial killers, or some combination of the three. And these tropes are still visible, like a highly criticized transgender role in "The X-Files" reboot that Slate called "a caricature." "When shows reinforce those factually inaccurate, one-dimensional stereotypes about transgender people," Adams says, "it's really disappointing to see."
However, little glimmers of positive transgender visibility on television exist. The daytime soap "The Bold and the Beautiful" portrays Maya Avant, played by cis actor Karla Mosley, transitioning and dealing with judgments, but ultimately finding love and acceptance. Showrunner Bradley Bell says Maya's character was written to show "how transgender people are, just as everyone else, trying to navigate life, find love, happiness and fulfillment."
But while good intentions help, the industry would ideally get to a place where transgender performers can separate activism and artistry. Until then, Adams suggests a place to start: "Giving transgender actors even small roles in scripted programming gives them the opportunity they need to be able to take on bigger roles," he says. The hope is that those larger roles will transcend magazine covers and television screens, and weave acceptance into the fabric of our hearts and minds.