Television has long been the final refuge for social acceptance by mainstream culture. In the 1970s, writer and producer Norman Lear created a series of television shows, beginning with “All in the Family,” which took a progressive stance towards civil rights as depicted on television. Spin-offs “The Jeffersons” and “Maude” both broke with many perceived social mores regarding the black middle class and feminism, respectively. The success of these series revealed a national comfort with socially progressive identity issues, enough to invite them into the home week after week.
The 1970s also saw the first introduction of recurring gay characters. Police procedural “Barney Miller” introduced Marty Morrison who would appear eight times through the series’ eight seasons. By 1982, the character of Lynn Carson on “All My Children” became the first openly gay character on an American soap opera, a traditionally conservative television format. What followed was a long line of social normalization through inclusion — the most prevalent period starting with Bravo’s “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” through Ryan Murphy’s Tyler Perry-ing of homosexuals on television with “Glee” and “The New Normal.”
With bisexuality a trope of reality shows and a homosexual storyline almost mandatory on any sitcom, it cannot be denied that television, as part of the media, has previously had trouble incorporating trans characters through a similar normalization that was used for homosexual characters. It was not until 2007’s “Dirty Sexy Money” that the first recurring trans character hit American television. Even today, trans characters are still only used in narrative tropes that hinge on the reveal of their previous identity, or as the butt of jokes (“…it turns out he was a she!”).
The media is only at the very beginning of figuring out how to portray or talk about trans people. “Glee” and “The New Normal” are not afraid to make off-color jokes regarding gays and lesbians, but they do so from a position of satire. Only when normalized and understood can a topic be treated as such, especially within a mass medium like television. “Glee’s” one trans character, Unique (wonderfully played by Alex Newell), is treated more as a cross-dresser — only dressing and identifying as female when it is necessary to other storylines — than a youth undergoing body dysphoria, or the psychological belief that one’s body is inherently flawed. Ryan Murphy’s inability to treat Unique with the same humor and relative nonchalance as his homosexual characters reveals even gay culture’s current failure to normalize a representation of being trans.
Despite headlines that continue to scare-quote someone’s chosen gender or even gay activist Dan Savage’s blatant transphobia (seen in his insistence on using the derogatory term “tranny”), public figures like Lana Wachowski and examples of gender fluidity such as her film “Cloud Atlas” reveal the media’s own transition to better incorporating and handling trans identities. Perhaps, as Vice President Biden suggests, being trans can be the new normal.
*“Trans” is used throughout to include all of the various identities found within the trans community.