“In my mind, media representation for transgender people is a life or death issue,” said GLAAD’s Director of Transgender Representation Nick Adams at ‘The Power of TV: Trans Visibility in Storytelling’ panel on Thursday night. “Humans are creatures who want to see themselves reflected back from the screen. When you look to the media and see nothing, it really makes you feel like there is no future for you, no place for you in the culture.”
Hosted by The Television Academy Foundation and moderated by Adams, the panel delved into the experiences and challenges facing the transgender community in the fight for visibility and representation on screen. Panelists included director Lilly Wachowski, “Pose” executive producer Steven Canals, “Grey’s Anatomy” actor Alex Blue Davis, “Transparent” actress Alexandra Billings and “Queen Sugar” actor Brian Michael Smith.
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Billings revealed that she had been on the verge of suicide before seeing herself represented on television for the first time when three transgender women appeared on “The Phil Donahue Show” in 1980. “At that moment, I sat at the edge of the bed and said out loud, to the universe, ‘Oh there I am’ and I put the pills down,” she recounted. Reflecting on the advances that have been made in the intervening years, Billings said she was hopeful, but emphasized the importance of continuing the fight.
“What we have to do is not only educate ourselves, but also educate the people who disagree with us the most,” she continued. “I’m talking about education that is factually based. It’s hard for us to separate our emotion, I understand that, but it needs to be factually based and come from a foundation of empathy. Not just niceness. Santa Claus is nice. We need to get serious about this revolution. Television and film, art is the reflection of the human experience. If these portals are open, there is hope and we have to grab it.”
Lilly Wachowski spoke of the long history of transgender characters being played by cisgender actors, which she said made it hard for her to fully invest in their performances. “To be honest, for me, the first images that really struck a chord with me were trans women in pornography. It was something that unlocked in my brain that I saw these wonderful, fearless performers becoming desirable. In my head, I could take the leap where I felt like if I could be desirable, then maybe I could be loved; and for me, that’s one of the keys that trans people have to struggle through. Will somebody love me?”
Davis and Smith said they have been encouraged by the fan response to their characters. “What’s interesting is that they have embraced me as an actor also,” said Davis, whose “Grey’s Anatomy” character’s trans identity wasn’t revealed for several episodes. “There’s more out there about me than just the fact that I’m trans. I see this with other trans actors also. People are becoming interested in who they are, who I am, who my friends are, who my family is.”
Smith explained that he receives a lot of emails from the parents of trans children, especially in the black community. “I answer questions from people all the time because people want to know and they reach out to me like a real person so I’m like, ‘this is what happened with me and my mom.’ It just solidifies the power of being authentic and telling stories right.”
Adams noted that currently there are 11 shows featuring transgender actors in lead or recurring character roles, with a total of 15 trans actors on appearing on screen today. Canals, who made history by casting five transgender actresses as leads on “Pose” said he feels there is still a lot of work to be done. “Success for me will be when our women can go off beyond “Pose” and be cast in any role,” said Canals. “And they are not being specifically called as a trans woman to play a trans character but they are just hey, you are a really wonderful performer and we love you for this role.”