Moving Beyond Brandon Teena

Hilary Swank won an Oscar for her portrayal on Brandon Teena (right) in Boys Don't Cry.
Hilary Swank won an Oscar for her portrayal on Brandon Teena (right) in Boys Don’t Cry.

By Erin Rook, AfterEllen

Just 10 years ago, if you wanted to find media depicting transgender men, your search would have started and stopped with Boys Don’t Cry (1999). It wasn’t until 2006 that Moira became Max and The L Word got its first T, and television got its first fully developed trans male character. In that lonely time before The L Word, Brandon Teena—the young trans man whose tragic, hateful murder is the inspiration for Boys Don’t Cry—was the only point of reference in popular culture.

Transgender visibility has made incredible strides since then, but the media still has a ways to go toward meaningful inclusion. Collectively, popular media seems to be getting the memo that difference is interesting—and perhaps surprisingly familiar once you’ve spent some time with it. That growing awareness has led to more visibility for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender folks. Orange is the New Black star Laverne Cox is becoming a household name and Redefining Realness author Janet Mock not only broke into the New York Times Bestsellers list, she was recently named a contributing editor for Marie Claire magazine and regularly appears on TV talking about diversity in the media. And yet, portrayals of trans men continue to be particularly few and far between. 

Waiting for Will & Grace

In 1889, Oscar Wilde wrote in his essay The Decay of Lying that “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life,” explaining that though the London fog had existed since time immemorial, no one seemed to notice its beauty until “poets and painters taught the loveliness of such effects.” In a similar way, the representation of LGBTQ people in popular culture encourages greater understanding of and appreciation for our lives. 

When Will & Grace became a breakout success—despite debuting just after Ellen was cancelled for being “too gay”—it changed both media and social landscapes. The average TV viewer had never had a gay man in their living room and, to the pleasure of those involved in the show’s production and gays across the country, viewers invited them to stay. Will & Grace became the highest rated sitcom among the vital 18-49 set from 2001 to 2005 and earned acclaim for educating the public and advancing gay rights. 

Vice President Joe Biden told Meet the Press in 2002 that the show played a key role in his support for marriage equality, saying: “I think Will & Grace probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody has ever done so far.”

But unlike gays and lesbians, trans men are largely still waiting for an invitation to spend weekday evenings in Americans’ living rooms.

The most prominent current examples of trans male actors and characters on TV are Cole, a kid who ends up in a group home after his parents kick him out for being trans on ABC Family’s The Fosters (played by nonbinary-identified actor Thom Phelan) and Dale, a trans man who has an awkward date with one of the main characters on Amazon’s Transparent (played by stand-up comedian and trans guy Ian Harvie).

While it’s absolutely exciting progress, neither is a Will & Grace moment for trans men. (To be fair: Trans women haven’t had their Ellen yet either.) We’re still in that edgy fringe space, where shows that care as much about storytelling as they do ratings are willing to take a chance on us. And that lack of visibility has real world implications. 

A 2013 Pew Research survey indicates that fewer than 1 in 10 Americans say they personally know someone who is transgender. For the more than 90 percent who don’t know a trans person in real life, media portrayals are their only glimpse of trans lives. For those of us who live in a bubble where “Max’s facial hair” is a pretty basic cultural reference, it may be hard to fully grasp just how invisible trans folks in general, and trans men in particular, are to the world at large. 

Before sitting down to write this piece, I took a quick (and by no means scientific) poll of friends and acquaintances to see how that spotty visibility translates into real awareness. I asked: “Not including people you know personally, how many trans women can you name? How many trans men?” Everyone I quizzed was a progressive individual, with some personal familiarity with trans folks. At least three of the nine people were LGB-identified. Nearly every one expressed embarrassment at how few trans people they could reference, let alone call out by name.

For many, Laverne Cox was the first (and sometimes only) person to come to mind. Others identified (by name or by contextual reference) writer Janet Mock, Matrix director Lana Wachowski, Miss Canada Jenna TalackovaAgainst Me’s Laura Jane Grace, models Andreja Pejic and Lea T, CEO Martine Rothblatt, pro tennis player Reneé Richards, actress and early trans activist Christine Jorgensen, Pfc. Chelsea Manning and Silverton, Ore., Mayor Stu Rassmussen

The only trans man anyone could mention by name: Chaz Bono. (One friend recalled seeing something about an NCAA basketball player—Kye Allums). Three couldn’t think of a single name. While none of these friends mentioned Thomas Beatie (known as “the pregnant man”), he comes up among my coworkers surprisingly often, since I live and work in the city where he gave birth to his children.

So, what does it mean when our cultural touchstones for trans men are Chaz Bono and Thomas Beatie? I mean no disrespect to either, as they’ve both done their best to use the media’s often harsh spotlight for good. But if this is the entirety of what the more-enlightened-than-average person knows about trans men, we’re in trouble. Many people still don’t know what “transgender man” means. I’m going to go out on a scientifically-unsupported but anecdotally-reinforced limb and say that the vast majority of Americans don’t know trans men exist. When they hear the word “transgender” they picture a trans woman, male-to-female crossdresser or a drag queen. This is problematic on a number of levels, but the gaping hole in awareness of trans masculine identities is particularly troubling. It would be sort of like if the public was generally aware of gay men (and full of misguided and stereotypical assumptions about them), but didn’t know that lesbians existed. Or vice versa.

Those who know we exist, know us primarily as the son of Cher or “the pregnant man”—who, despite Beatie’s work promoting reproductive justice and marriage/divorce equality for trans folks, is largely seen by the public as a curiosity and an anomaly. 

Where the Boys Are (and Where They Aren’t)

At the moment, Ian Harvie (as Dale on Transparent) and Tom Phelan (as Cole on “he Fosters) are the only openly trans masculine actors and characters currently on American television. And while both shows have an impressive reach, neither is exactly mainstream, and are pretty obviously queerly-oriented from the get-go. The Fosters is about a biracial, lesbian couple raising five children (biological and foster). You probably aren’t tuning in unless you’re at least comfortable with lesbians. Transparent is, front and center, a story about the late-in-life transition of main character Maura (played by cisgender actor Jeffrey Tambor) and features prominently a host of other LGBTQ characters. You’re probably watching this show because one of your queer friends said, “Hey! You should watch this. If you don’t have Amazon Prime, you can sign up for a 30-day free trial, which is plenty of time to binge watch the first season.” Unless you work someplace particularly awesome (or really queer), these shows probably aren’t a topic of water cooler conversation.

They’re also on somewhat peripheral networks. ABC Family—which started as an offshoot of Pat Robertson’s televangelism in the 1970s and is still required to air the 700 Club daily despite multiple changes in corporate ownership—is a cable channel. If you have a basic cable plan (or a device that streams video from the web), you can watch it—and about 2 million Americans regularly tune in. However, 7.4 million Americans don’t subscribe to cable or satellite TV

Amazon is, well, Amazon. Voted “Most Likely to Ship Your Last-Minute Gifts by Christmas,” the retailer’s $79-a-year Prime service hasn’t quite sold itself as a destination for television and movies the way, say, Netflix has. Or Hulu. And while it’s tempting to compare the success of Transparent to Orange is the New Black, Amazon has fewer subscribers than Netflix (some of whom may only be there for the second-day shipping) and it’s unclear how many people have streamed Transparent. (You can watch the pilot for free here.)

The only other current TV show to feature a trans male character is BBC America’s Orphan Black which this summer included Tony Zwickey, a trans clone of main character Sarah Manning (played by cisgender actress Tatiana Maslany). But the character has only appeared in one episode so far, and the show’s producers said he may or may not reappear.

Before Transparent and The Fosters, Canadian TV show Degrassi: The Next Generation, which airs in the United States on TeenNick, made waves for including an FTM character, Adam Torres(played by cisgender actress Jordan Todosey), who appeared in 136 episodes from 2010-2013. But while that show received critical acclaim for its realistic portrayals of issues affecting youth, at the height of its popularity it only reached about 1 million Canadians and about half a million Americans. (Adam was killed in a car accident at the end of his time on the show.)

When it comes to network TV, the only out trans man actor or character to ever appear (outside of crime dramas) was Chaz Bono on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars in 2011. It was a big deal in that it put a trans man in front of millions of Americans (excluding those who followed the advice of Fox News’ quack psychiatrist Dr. Keith Ablow). That fact, combined with Bono’s existing celebrity status as the child of a pop icon, contribute to his being arguably the best-known trans man in America. But at the same time, a dance competition show can only shed so much light on what it means to be transgender, and Bono has not always been the ambassador the trans community would like him to be.

In 2002, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation featured a storyline about a serial killer who is revealed to be a transgender man. The character, Paul Millander (played by cisgender actor Matt O’Toole) appears in three episodes. This was the only repeat role I could find on network TV.

These limited representations are not only problematic for their dearth but also for their severe lack of diversity. Aside from Thomas Beatie, all of these public trans men (and characters) are white. While queer people of color are generally less represented than white LGBTQ folks, trans women of color have emerged as clear leaders in trans and queer communities. And, at least for Laverne Cox and Janet Mock, been in many ways welcomed into the mainstream media spotlight. Make no mistake—this is important, powerful and necessary. But it begs the question: Where are the trans men of color? They are in communities, doing vital and groundbreaking work. Like Kylar Broadus, executive director of the Trans People of Color Coalition and the first openly trans person to testify in front of the U.S. Senate. Or Dr. Kortney Ryan Ziegler, the first person to receive a doctorate in African-American studies from Northwestern University, director of the documentary Still Black: A Portrait of Black Transmen, and founder of Trans*H4CK. Like Kit Yan, a critically acclaimed slam poet, Sister Spit alum, and the first ever Mr. Transman. Or Diego Sanchez, a member of Rep. Barney Frank’s legislative team and the first openly trans man to serve as a Capitol Hill staffer. 

Despite the long list of accomplished trans men of color, they are rarely seen in front of the camera. Why are trans women of color gaining visibility but trans men of color are left in the shadows? It may have something to do cultural fears and biases against men of color (aka racism), who are often perceived and portrayed as violent or unintelligent. Monica RobertsTiq MilanZeigler and other trans people of color have spoken more eloquently on this subject, but it’s a facet of transmasculine invisibility that cannot go unmentioned.

The existing visibility of trans men is also largely young, straight, somewhat dysfunctional and binary. As trans masculine folks becoming a more frequent part of the media landscape, they will only uplift the community to the extent that they reflect the diversity of trans men’s lives. 

Making it Better

So, why aren’t there more trans men on TV? Because, despite what Oscar Wilde wrote, art does still imitate life. And trans men are, for a number of reasons, far less visible in society than trans women (or lesbian and gay folks). 

That invisibility works in two ways. First, trans man and trans masculine folks are frequently mistaken for butch lesbians. Especially as awareness of female masculinity increases, well-intentioned people misgender trans men in an effort to show that they recognize masculine women as women. Second, because estrogen is a less stubborn hormone than testosterone, trans men who medically transition may blend into a crowd more easily than trans women. Unless they have not pursued hormones/surgery or are in the early awkward stages of transition, trans men are not frequently “clocked” as trans. In order to be seen as trans, many trans men have to actively out themselves—and that’s not for everyone.

There’s also the fact that, for better or worse (depending on the context), gender nonconformity is more readily accepted in people assigned female at birth than in people assigned male at birth. Think about the double standard for “tomboys” and “sissies.” It’s a double-edged sword. While trans masculinity is seen as less threatening to cisnormativity than trans femininity, it’s also seen as less interesting. As much as LGBTQ activists might like to see TV as a tool for social change, show creators are typically concerned with two things: telling a compelling story and making money. Trans people’s stories are not yet a cash cow. So, if trans men’s lives are not considered compelling, there’s little motivation for writers, directors, and producers to tell their stories. 

If trans men continue to be perceived as non-existent or uninteresting, how will they find their way to popular media? Two things need to happen to take trans men from the streets to the screen. First, we need more real life visibility. While our current trans representatives (Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, and others) have done an admirable job of taking a broad view of trans issues, with a smart and feminist perspective, they can ultimately only represent their own experiences. The incredible diversity of the trans community can never be fully represented by a small handful of people, no matter how eloquent and engaging they may be. We need to increase the profile of the trans men who are creating change and shaping communities. They are out there (check out The Trans 100 for a primer on trans folks you should know). It remains to be seen who among them will walk into that spotlight—but it must happen to set the dominoes to meaningful and widespread visibility in motion.

But simultaneous to this emergence of trans male spokespeople, we need to have trans men writers, directors and producers in a position to put trans actors and characters in front of the camera. I trust that it will happen. With powerful trans women blazing a path, and earnest allies lending a hand, we will get there. And not a moment too soon. 

While trans women (especially trans women of color) bear the brunt of anti-trans violence and discrimination, trans men and boys also struggle to stay in school, find jobs and housing, avoid harassment and assault, and ultimately, stay alive. In larger cities with substantial trans communities, it may seem like trans guys have it made. Equipped with newfound male privilege and a supportive community, they appear to navigate the world with relative ease. But in rural and suburban America, where the nearest openly trans guy may be 50 miles away, media representations of trans men play a vital role in helping people find themselves, and the support they need.

What’s an ally to do? Watch more (trans-inclusive) TV. Vote with your eyeballs. Easy, right?