Transgender characters that changed film and television

By Matt Kane, Associate Director of Entertainment Media at GLAAD | By

At least on television, depictions of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people in the media have finally begun to increase and diversify in the last decade or so, but depictions of transgender characters remain comparatively infrequent. Even today these few depictions are often unfortunately problematic, but there are also many films and television shows that deserve recognition for complex and truthful depictions of transgender characters.

These are by no means the only ones, but a handful of some of the most memorable characters we’ve seen over the years that helped changed the way audiences viewed the transgender community. For more information, visit our Transgender Awareness Week page and list of related events from around the country

The World According to Garp (1982) – Based on the celebrated novel by John Irving, the film adaptation costarred John Lithgow as transgender former football player Roberta Muldoon who lives in a home for abused women run by the protagonist’s mother.  Roberta is considered by many to be one of the first sympathetic transgender characters in a film made for a mass audience.

Second Serve (1986) – One of the most famous transgender women in history, professional tennis player Renee Richards, was given the made-for-TV movie treatment by CBS in 1986. She was portrayed by actress Vanessa Redgrave, and her acclaimed performance garnered her an Emmy nomination.

Tales of the City (1993) – Certainly one of popular culture’s most beloved transgender characters, the enigmatic landlady Mrs. Madrigal is in many ways the heart of author Armistead Maupin’s San Francisco-based book series, Tales of the City.  Years after it was first published, Tales was adapted into several mini-series and movies on PBS and Showtime that featured Olympia Dukakis as the matriarch Madrigal.

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) – Though it’s well known for its extravagant drag performances, Priscilla is also remembered for Terrence Stamp’s touching performance as the sensible and mature transgender performer, Bernadette, who eventually finds love in the outback with a mechanic named Bob.

Ma Vie en Rose (My Life in Pink) (1997) – When this French film was released in 1997, gender non-conforming children were still an unknown or controversial topic for most audiences.  But this humane and beautifully shot story of a young child who identifies as a girl despite community and family pressure to conform struck a powerful chord with critics and viewers alike.

Boys Don’t Cry (1999) – The murder of Brandon Teena and his friends remains one of the most tragic hate crimes of the last several decades, but relatively few people knew Brandon’s story until Kimberly Pierce adapted it into the scripted film Boys Don’t Cry in 1999.  Hilary Swank took home an Oscar for her portrayal of Brandon, and millions finally learned who he was, six years after his death.

Southern Comfort (2002) – There have been many documentary films about the experiences of transgender people over the years, but Southern Comfort remains one of the most personal and the most unique.  Chronicling the life of trans man Robert Eads, the film follows Eads as he falls in love with a transgender woman named Lola before eventually succumbing to terminal cancer.

Normal (2003) – HBO produced this scripted film about a Midwestern factory worker who comes out as transgender.  Tom Wilkinson stars as husband Roy, who announces he is transitioning into Ruth.  Though she’s initially shocked, wife Irma (Jessica Lange) eventually decides to stand by Ruth despite rejection by members of their community.  Both Wilkinson and Lange were nominated for Emmys and Golden Globes for their roles in the film.

TransAmerica (2005) – As is the case with many films focusing on transgender lives, a highly celebrated performance helped TransAmerica reach more mainstream audiences than might otherwise have seen it.  Felicity Huffman starred as a transgender woman named Bree whose life is complicated by the discovery that she has a runaway son she never knew about.

TransGeneration (2005) – Still the high bar for films or television programs concerning transgender lives, Sundance Channel’s TransGeneration was an eight-part documentary series that followed the lives of four transgender young people making their way through college.  Beyond examining the emotional and medical realities at different stages of transition, the series emphasized the very human experiences these young adults were going through, including family drama, academic stresses, and their hopes and dreams for the future.

Ugly Betty & Dirty Sexy Money (2007) – Even after gay men and lesbians became more common on television, for decades transgender people were regulated to sporadic and often problematic appearances.  Programs like The Education of Max Bickford and The L Word presented groundbreaking storylines with regular and recurring transgender characters, but things hit a high point in 2007 when two different shows on a broadcast network featured transgender characters in primetime.  On ABC’s Ugly Betty, Alexis Meade went from behind-the-scenes villain to a more complicated role as a ruthless magazine publisher.  Around the same time, the network premiered the series Dirty Sexy Money, which featured a recurring transgender character named Carmelita who was portrayed by transgender actress Candis Cayne.  It was the first time a mainstream broadcast network had featured transgender characters in such prominent storylines, which were followed by millions of viewers.

America’s Next Top Model (2008) – The long running CW series America’s Next Top Model featured its first transgender contestant in 2008 when it introduced Isis King in its eleventh season.  King went on to become an outspoken advocate for the transgender community, and even competed on the show again during a recent “All Stars” season.

The Real World (2009) – The longest running reality show on television, MTV’s The Real World has included a number of gay, lesbian, and bisexual housemates over the years, but it was in 2008 that it finally included a transgender one.  Katelynn Cusanelli took part in the show’s Brooklyn-set twenty first season, and introduced MTV’s viewers to an Italian-American, martial arts-practicing, self-described computer geek who dreamed of one day marrying her boyfriend Mike, and also happened to be transgender.

Dancing with the Stars (2011) – Despite the fact that the show focuses on competitive dancing, Chaz Bono’s appearance on the hit series Dancing With the Stars caused a huge stir when he participated last year.  His casting sparked weeks of debate between conservative pundits and those celebrating his appearance as a triumph for transgender visibility.  Ultimately however, Bono showed he was a competitor like any other, persevering through grueling routines, performance anxieties, and his own hopes and self-expectations.

Degrassi (2010-2013) – Thanks to TeenNick, US viewers are able to enjoy the Canadian institution that is teen soap Degrassi, which has featured a number of gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters, particularly in the last decade.  In 2010, the show added transgender teen Adam Torres, whose realistic storyline nabbed the show a Peabody award and an Emmy nomination.  Embraced by Degrassi fans, Adam quickly became one of the most popular boys on the show. He appeared in 128 episodes, allowing the show’s writers to tell a diverse range of stories about Adam – from dating problems, to band competitions, to everyday school drama.  Sadly, Adam’s character died this past summer in a car accident, and the show used the death of this popular character to draw attention to the dangers of texting and driving.

Glee (2012-2013) – Glee has consistently been one of the most inclusive shows on television thanks to several gay, lesbian, and bisexual teen characters that have been major parts of the show since its launch.  Last year, viewers were introduced to new character Unique Adams; a transgender vocal powerhouse who eventually became a full time student and glee club member at McKinley High.  This season, Unique’s role has been upgraded, making her the only regular transgender character on scripted broadcast or cable television.

Orange is the New Black (2013-) – The increasing prevalence of digital distribution has led digital content providers into the the content-making business themselves, resulting in some of the most exciting original series in years.  Among them is the Netflix series Orange is the New Black, which tells the stories of several inmates at a women’s correctional facility.  One of the breakout characters in the series is Sophia; a transgender inmate played by transgender actress and advocate Laverne Cox.  Sophia’s storyline touches on real-life issues faced by incarcerated transgender women while also creating a complex portrait of a character driven by her (sometimes conflicting) desires to be true to herself and preserve her family.

*Note: This post is an update of the original, which first ran November 19, 2012.