"Transgenderism - From the 70s to Today"
By Mark Harris
A sports figure comes out as transgender, and the general public is riveted by her
story, which is met with everything from bigotry to curiosity to empathy. All at once,
the subject seems to be everywhere from op-ed pages to dinner-table conversations.
Transgender stories -- this time fictional -- start to gain a toehold in popular culture.
The highest-rated sitcom on network TV takes some tentative steps toward exploring
the fluidity of gender identity by having a gay cross-dressing performer as a recurring
character. A popular medical drama wins an Emmy nomination for a two-part episode
about a doctor who undergoes gender-reassignment surgery.
The year is 1976. Transgender Americans are, for the first time, having a moment.
And then interest subsides. The caravan moves on. And the moment is over.
How did it take 39 years for us to get all the way back to the starting line?
Four decades ago, while the quest of Renée Richards (born Richard Raskind)
to be permitted to play tennis in the women's draw of the U.S. Open galvanized the
country's attention, and shows like All in the Family and Medical Center began dabbling
in what was then called transsexualism, Bruce Jenner was on his way to winning a gold
medal in the decathlon at the 1976 Montreal Olympics and landing on the cover of a
Wheaties box. Cut to April 2015, and Jenner was No. 1 again, now as the subject of a
ratings-topping interview with Diane Sawyer that drew 21 million viewers in which he
(the designation Jenner preferred at the time) spoke about his lifelong journey toward
becoming the woman the world now knows as Caitlyn.
This time, transgender issues were handled with more knowledge and sensitivity than
they were in the 1970s, when a People magazine interview remarked coldly that
Richards' "buttocks are flat, her breasts are small" and smirked that she could end up
the "King of the Virginia Slims circuit." But Jenner was also less alone. In the past year,
the Amazon series Transparent, about a dad who comes out as trans to her three
varyingly sympathetic adult children, has won Golden Globes for best comedy series and
best actor (Jeffrey Tambor). Trans actress Laverne Cox appeared on Time's cover and
returns as trans inmate Sophia Burset when the third season of Orange Is the New Black
is released on Neflix June 12. The final season of Fox's Glee featured a subplot in which
Coach Shannon Beiste (played by Emmy nominee Dot-Marie Jones) had reassignment
surgery, a story line that climaxed with the appearance of a 200-person trans choir. The
producer of daytime's The Bold and the Beautiful surprised actress Karla Mosley by telling
her that her character would be revealed as trans. Netflix's new sci-fi thriller Sense8
features a trans characer (played by trans actress Jamie Clayton) as the focus of one of
ts eight intertwining plotlines. And, of course, reality TV is deep in the mix: Aside from
I Am Cait, Jenner's own upcoming E! docuseries about her transition, there's ABC
Family's 10-part Becoming Us, about an Illinois high school junior whose father is trans.
We are, in other words, right on the verge of a network meeting in which the producer of
a new series says, "What about a trans character?" and the executive replies, "Oh, that's
so last year." Congratulations, trans Americans -- you are now pop culture's flavor of the
When I talk to Cox, she's been thinking about Caitlyn Jenner. We discuss the media's
handling of the situation. Would they have been less supportive if Jenner weren't such a
beauty? "For me, this isn't just about trans women," says Cox. "This is about being a
woman. We are evaluated by the way we look constantly."
"But it's tricky. When I pose for the cover of a magazine, we're in hair and makeup for
hours, so it would be hypocritical of me to say we shouldn't be focusing on the way women
look. Let's pull back the curtain and acknowledge that yes, I'm on the cover of
Entertainment Weekly, and makeup has been done, there's a lot of fake hair. But then,
that is not why I'm on the cover. I'd like to think I'm on the cover because I'm a talented
actress and I have a lot of intelligent things to say." She's right. That's exactly why she's
on the cover. We don't just care about the most famous transgender actress in America.
We care about Laverne Cox.
- Entertainment Weekly, 6/19/15.
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