Can trans TV characters teach audiences what it means to be trans?
The Frame hears from a trio of actors and producers about telling authentic trans narratives in the televisions shows "The Fosters," "Queen Sugar" and "Transparent."
During a Aug. 22 episode of the Freeform channel family drama, "The Fosters," new territory was explored. A teenage character, Callie, had sex with her boyfriend, Aaron. Teen sexual activity is hardly new for cable series but in this case it was a big deal because Aaron is a trans boy.
When "The Fosters" co-creator Peter Paige participated in a roundtable discussion on The Frame, he talked about the care with which they took to write this particular episode:
We had a very candid conversation in the writers' room. We ran those complicated and honest responses past people in the trans community to make sure we were telling it in ways that were honest and authentic and not offensive. And we wove those into storytelling. We wove those into the same human beats about what it means to be in a relationship with anyone, and what it means to be ready to cross the line into being sexually active with any partner. It's not so different from any story that's ever been told about two teenagers falling in love. It's just an additional circumstance.
According to a recent study from the Williams Institute, a UCLA Law School think tank, 1.4 million adults in the United States identify as transgender. But it's still highly unlikely that many Americans have ever even encountered a trans person — aside from maybe on TV.
In addition to Paige, The Frame's host John Horn recently sat down with "Transparent" writer and producer Zackary Drucker and actor Brian Michael Smith, who plays Toine, a trans cop, on the OWN network series, "Queen Sugar."
Drucker is also guest-host of the upcoming TransNation Film Festival in Los Angeles in October. Smith and Drucker are trans. Below are highlights of the conversation.
On what goes into telling authentic stories of trans people in Hollywood:
DRUCKER: Our community has been galvanized because representation is where we begin, and if that representation is not in line with lived experience and who we actually are in the world —for example, there has been a lot of criticism for roles like Rayon in "Dallas Buyers Club," played by Jared Leto, who's a cis male actor playing a trans woman. It perpetuates this notion that underneath our trans-ness is something that can be taken off. I'm a trans woman myself, and I think that the lived experience that I bring to my job in "Transparent," and all of the entertainment projects that I work on, is crucial. You can't just make it up and have this kind of created notion of what a trans experience is like. I think that the only way that our stories can be told accurately is by us.
On growing up without positive depictions of the trans experience in mainstream media:
SMITH: It was sad but it made me feel, like, Well, this is something that I'm going to have to write and produce and do ... I started to learn about my transition in the early 2000s to learn that there even was a thing about transitioning, that [a] transgender [experience] exists. You know, I had to "Ask Jeeves" ... that's how far back it was for me to find things ... I wasn't particularly looking to see this in mainstream media, but time passed and the Internet grew and the access to resources grew and more people started to advocate for more trans visibility ... and better representation in the roles. The work that Nick Adams has been doing in GLAAD, and Laverne Cox bringing real stories, that's when I really started to feel deeply encouraged that, Okay, we're moving in the right direction. And this level of visibility is the kind of thing that will really change lives and make people remember that trans people are people.
On TransNation Film Festival:
DRUCKER: TransNation [Festival] started as a benefit to St. John's Well Child and Family Center, which has a transgender health program. In terms of the film festival, we show a lot of vintage films and it's such a checkered history. There are a few touchstone examples of representations that are not entirely destructive. [laughs] But it's such an interesting history to unlock when you think about the long trajectory of trans folks or trans characters in television and film. We've pretty much always been relegated to the roles of victims and villains and plot twists and slapstick reveals.
On being able to play a trans-masculine role on "Queen Sugar":
SMITH: I had been looking for roles that explored a trans-masculine narrative for years ... But a lot of the stories that were written were focused on trans-femme narratives or were still written by people outside of the trans experience, so it was lacking a little bit of authenticity or focusing on some of the more sensationalized parts of the experience ... Six months ago a friend of mine, Silas Howard, who's a director, reached out to me and said he was helping a casting director friend of his and they were looking for a trans male. And I was like, Well, I trust Silas' work and if he's helping somebody, I want to be involved. So I threw my name in the hat and he forwarded my information on.
I come to find out that it was for "Queen Sugar" and I was really excited because I had been a fan of Ava DuVernay's work for awhile and I had been asking my representation to help me find some way to get on that show. And I was going to take a cis role, so the fact that they were exploring a ... black trans-masculine narrative ... it was just like everything I was looking for in a project ... It's a very well-written show across the board, but what they chose to explore was something I hadn't seen before in mainstream media ... a story that was focused more on the relationship and the friendship and the gratitude that comes with acceptance.
On working with the LGBTQ+ community on "The Fosters":
PAIGE: Every script we have that even mentions one of our trans characters goes straight to Nick [Adams at GLAAD], who gives us really direct, really clear feedback. We try super hard to be sensitive ... We don't actually have a trans writer in the room, but we try to build our narratives out of authentic voices. We try to build our narratives out of stories that trans people are actually telling us, or telling the world through print. So we try to be as absolutely thoughtful as we can. The main thing is we check ourselves and we listen. We're incredibly open to people [saying], Well, yes, we understand your intention here, but that's not exactly authentic. And we're the first people to want to correct that.
On casting trans characters in film and TV today:
DRUCKER: As far as casting goes, I think that Actors Access and all of the casting databases that we use are beginning to denote trans actors, so there's actually easy ways to search for them. We do a lot of speciality castings, we look for very specific things. For example, Maura, the protagonist of "Transparent," we were trying to cast a young Maura, a child actor, and we wanted a trans actor. And finding a young trans girl to play Maura was really challenging.
PAIGE: Can I ask about that decision? ... So we met Maura as a cis male who wanted to transition, that's how we came into the show. So in my mind, as a cis male I'm thinking, Oh, if you're casting younger Maura, back when he was Maury, you would cast a cis boy. But the idea being you thought because the emotional experience, because of Maura's trans-ness, that the emotional authenticity would be more honored if young Maury was trans?
DRUCKER: Yeah, absolutely, it was really a creative decision on behalf of the writers. Our Lady Jay was the writer of that episode and I think that was important for her to situate Maura as an adolescent, as a trans person, because in our adolescence we identify, um ...
PAIGE: I say that all the time. Queer adults, we all started out as queer kids ... We had a huge pushback on "The Fosters" when we did the youngest same-sex kiss in broadcast television history. And people [freaked] out on us. Even some gay people were like, Why are you showing that it makes us look like perverts? And I was like, We have got to stop pretending that gay adults didn't start out as gay kids. That's a damaging, damaging lens that we're putting on the world. And I absolutely understand that. That's really thoughtful and really fascinating, and I know you guys are really thoughtful, which I so respect.
To hear John Horn's full interview, click on the player above.