Changing the Channel on Gender

How TV shows are (or aren’t) demonstrating trans culture

By Samantha Reilly

Fox’s Glee jumped on the bandwagon of transgender plot lines in its episode, “Transitioning,” which premiered on February 13.

The return of Coach Beiste (Dot-Marie Jones) in his new male identification is the latest in a series of television transitions that are starting to make the screen look a lot more like the real world.

There is no official statistical data of the number of trans people in the United States, but there is no doubt that gender dysphoria exists, whether or not the U.S. Census lists it on a form. So when a hit series like Glee takes on the challenge of portraying a trans person on screen, people are bound to take notice. 1.8 million people watched the “Transitioning” episode of Glee, which is only one example of trans depiction on screen.

“I think there are a lot of new TV shows that are portraying transgenders in a more realistic way,” freshman english major Homa “Sam” Hajarjan, said. Hajarjan works as an office assistant in the LGBTQ Equity Center.

Other trans characters include Dale (Ian Harvie) from Amazon’s Transparent, Cole (Tom Phelan) from ABCFamily’s The Fosters, all the way back to Adam (Jordan Todosey) from TeenNick’s Degrassi.

In regards to Laverne Cox’s character on Orange is the New Black, Hajarjan said, “I really appreciate how she has problems. She has a family. She has character. She has different issues that don’t have to do with her just being trans.”

Fiona Jardin, Graduate Assistant in the Multicultural Involvement and Community Advocacy Office said that there seems to be less understanding of trans people than of lesbian and gay identifying people, which forces trans students to explain or justify their identities.

“It’s not an undergraduate student’s job to educate the people. They should just be allowed to be who they are without having to explain,” said Jardin. “If they want to know more, then it’s up to them to seek out the people who are willing to educate, rather than just find the token person they know and assume that they’re there to ask questions of. There are plenty of opportunities to learn on campus.”

University of Maryland contains several resources and accommodations pertaining to gender identity. A Residence Hall Association pilot program for gender-inclusive housing began in the fall 2013 semester and as of the fall 2014 semester, the university health insurance offers covers gender reassignment costs. Several buildings now include gender-neutral bathrooms as well.

“There’s much more to be done, but I think that we’re not doing too badly,” said Jardin. “We’re on the right track, for sure.”

Jardin said the same for the portrayal of trans people in television, calling it an “incremental” process.

Hajarjan said of the LGBTQ Equity Center, “I realize that it’s a really strong community. That gives me the impression that people’s perceptions are starting to alter and people aren’t as discriminatory anymore.”

The introduction of a transformed Coach Beiste is one small step in the long process of integrating trans people into popular culture and enhancing cultural competency and awareness.

“It’s like the portrayal of any culture on television,” said Jardin. “You can’t portray a complex multi-part culture in one character on one show.”


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