Increasing Visibility and Transcendence of Trans People of Color Narratives in Television Series

By Grey Gamboa & Rachel Wang

Image: Time

Following what was deemed the Transgender Tipping Point in 2014 as coined by Time Magazine, the visibility and emergence of transgender representation was at an all-time high, signaling a new wave and dramatic shift in transgender narratives (Time, 2014). Prior to this point, depictions of transgender people—individuals whose gender identity does not align with their birth sex– were a rarity (GLAAD, 2016). And even if a transgender character was included in television storylines, they were often ridiculed, seen as deceptive, put as a butt of a joke, and were typecast to minor roles. 

With that said, this new era has evolved and allowed for the transparency of authentic and complex spaces for Trans people of color to be better understood and normalized in our society. Not only do these representations help to showcase intersectional stories that are often suppressed in media, but they also help to break societal structures such as hegemonic masculinity and the fluidity of identity that exists outside of a binary. The following essay well help to highlight Trans people of color narratives and actors who have helped to change the game through three sub-categories: (1) The Power of Intersectionality in Trans WOC Narratives, (2) Challenging/Subverting Hegemonic Masculinity through Transmasculine Narratives, and (3) Beyond the Gender Binary: Emerging Gender Non-Conforming/Nonbinary Narratives.

  1. The Power of Intersectionality in Trans WOC Narratives:

MJ Rodriguez — Pose (Blanca)

Image: Pinterest

MJ Rodriguez plays Blanca Evangelista in Pose, a Puerto Rican transgender woman who continuously shows her strength and resilience in the face of adversity after becoming a house mother and fighting for transgender spaces to be supported and affirmed during the 1980’s. In the first season, Blanca struggles to cope with the fact that she tested HIV positive during the height of the AIDS epidemic, as many loved ones around her continue to get sick and later hospitalized throughout the show. In addition to her HIV status, it is later revealed in season two after a family member of her’s dies that she was rejected from her family due to her gender identity and hadn’t spoken to them for years as they believed she was illegitimate and confused. This narrative not only helps to highlight that trans women of color are still among one of the most vulnerable populations in the US, as they face a multitude of challenges ranging from social stigma to physical violence (Solomon, 2018). Pose not only helps to create more visibility to these narratives, but it also helps to call attention to the unacceptance that can be found in black and Latinx communities as families can ostracize or kick out family members due to seeing their children as only their biological sex.

“I never thought in a million years that people would be able to take me seriously as an actress, and now, being a part of the Golden Globes, that’s just a stamp of approval that people are seeing me as the actress I am.”

-MJ Rodriguez (Malkin, 2019)

MJ Rodriguez, in an interview with Variety, notes she always wanted to perform and do so as her authentic self (Malkin, 2019). At the age of 26 she was able to do just that when she landed her role as Blanca with Pose—“which was the first show to hire more than one transgender woman of color and to provide various representations of transgender identities throughout the series” (Thomas, 2019). Though everything isn’t sunshine and rainbows Rodriguez knows firsthand there is still a lot of work to be done for the transgender community as the suicide rates are high, and violence and brutality continues to be a prominent issue. With that said, MJ uses her platform and fame to help educate, empower, and shed light on her personal experiences as an activist and supporter of her community (Malkin, 2019).

Laverne Cox — Orange is the New Black (Sophia)

Image: Save LGBTQ

Laverne Cox played Sophia Burset in Orange is the New Black, a transgender black woman who expressed sincerity, kindness, and level-headedness during all the chaos and drama in prison throughout the duration of the show. She often was found working in her salon within the first season, helping the other women upkeep their hairstyles and individuality as characters. Her work as a hair stylist also doubled as a therapist for the other inmates to discuss personal matters and seek advice. Though Sophia is affirmed as a woman on the show, she is the only transgender character in the prison, leading others to often ridicule, insult, and give transphobic commentary towards her — even sometimes act on hate crimes. Another strain she must deal with inside the prison is the decrease in her hormone prescription, resulting in severe dysphoria and a loss of hope in her support for medical care. To further complicate and add on to her multitude of issues, her son has been unsupportive, resentful, and angry about her transition since she came out and refuses to visit her. Though her wife has been supportive of her throughout her journey, Sophia expresses pain in losing her relationship with her son and the severing of their bond. Sophia’s character and narrative not only help to highlight some of the conflicts trans women of color have to deal with in everyday life when it comes to facing transphobia, rejection from loved ones, and receiving gender affirming care, but her storyline also sheds light on trans folx discovering their identity and transition later in their life.

“It is revolutionary for any trans person to choose to be seen and visible in a world that tells us we should not exist.”

-Laverne Cox (Jones, 2014)

Laverne Cox’s character marked a significant shift in the representation of trans identities as prior to her role trans portrayals were predominantly negative and/or stereotypical i.e. prostitutes (Thomas, 2019) or people who intentionally deceived others (Gillig, 2016). With her increasing visibility as Sophia, Cox was able to utilize her fame as a platform as a form of advocacy and education while being featured in Time Magazine, Catie Couric, NPR, and an interview with Janet Mock on MSNBC (Thomas, 2019).

2. Challenging/Subverting Hegemonic Masculinity through Transmasculine Narratives:

Chella Man — Titans (Jericho)

Image: NewNowNext

When observing art that objectifies the male body, many artists will choose to highlight “manly” features, such as a perfectly toned body that shows no sign of disability or handicap. Hegemonic masculinity can be described as, “…the embodiment of traditional and stereotypical masculine norms and values…such as aggression, power and dominance…[and] heterosexuality” (Giaccardi et. al, 2016). Because hegemonic masculinity leans heavily into men presenting themselves with these “manly” qualities, Superheroes tend to traditionally resemble and embody hegemonic masculinity. However, this is not the case with Chella Man playing the character, Jericho, on DC’s Titans. As a character, Jericho is handicapped in the sense that his vocal cords were damaged in a fight and Jericho has to communicate through sign language. As an actor, Man was born deaf and uses sign language and lipreading to communicate with others. Man is also a transgender male, which goes against the social construct of superheroes being the ideal, heterosexual male that is seen saving the day. Granting the superhero role of Jericho to Man, helps to break down walls that the hegemonic masculine paradigm we see so often in superheroes and their respective actors. Another encouraging aspect of Man playing a superhero character is the fact that other superhero roles have mostly been given to white males. Examples include: Iron-Man, Thor, Captain America, The Flash, Batman, etc. The sad reality is that many of the sidekicks for these white, male, heterosexual superheroes are people of color. One article points out that, “Iron Man has Terrence Howard and Don Cheadle’s War Machine…Captain America has Anthony Mackie’s Falcon…Thor needs Idris Elba’s Heimdall…and Jacob Batalon’s Ned acts as Spider-Man’s best friend and tech support” (Smail, 2019). The emergence of Man, a trans person of color, playing a non-sidekick comic book role, provides a beacon of hope that these roles can be played by individuals that don’t fall in line with hegemonic masculinity. 

Logan Rozos — David Makes Man (Star Boy)

Image: Wherever I Look

Toxic masculinity is a dangerous concept that has poisoned the minds of men of all ages. The socially constructed expectations for men to be strong, independent, dominating, etc. has driven some men to compare themselves to see who’s “manlier” or to think of themselves as less than a man. When looking at the role of Star Child from David Makes Man, one can begin to see how Logan Rozos portrays this character and how he breaks down the walls of toxic masculinity and stereotypes of what it looks like to be a man. In the show, Star Child is described to have “…[looked] out for those in need” and to have “…[paid] for David’s bus fare…solely because he wants to help David out in some way” (Danee, 2019). These acts of kindness and care are socially seen as more “mothering” and “feminine” acts, as one person expresses empathy and concern for another. Expressing “feminine” emotions of affection is the antithesis of what toxic masculinity says on how a man should “feel” and “act”. David Makes Man is an example of what it looks like to break down toxic masculinity while also aiding in the journey towards greater representation of trans male characters played by trans male actors. 

Ian Alexander — The OA (Buck) 

Image: Insider

Ian Alexander plays Buck Vu in The OA, a transmasculine teenager who is a part of his high school choir and is seen as an outcast as he is misunderstood by father- who still refers to him by his deadname – and from his peers. Buck is revealed in the show to be his chosen name, and he secretly progresses with his transition by buying hormones on the low from his friend Steve. Throughout the first part of the show, Buck is recruited like 4 other high school outcasts for a mysterious project that is led by The OA. Though the others were very skeptical about the mission and where The OA’s whereabouts were towards the end of the show, Buck was always seen as the first to believe and last to let go, providing constant support and loyalty to the people he cared about. In addition to his compassion towards others, he also shows empathy and breaks down when Jesse overdoses. Buck’s overall narrative in the series helps to highlight and subvert hegemonic ideals as his identity goes outside of the White and cisgender dichotomy, and his behaviors stray from the aggressive, dominant archetype we find in representations of masculinity in media (Giaccardi et al, 2016).

“Being in an environment where people just fully accept my gender has helped my mental health so much. Since moving to LA, I feel like I’ve just had so much clarity and so much peace with who I am, which means I can dress however I want, I can present however I want because no one’s gonna question my identity and the validity of that.”

-Ian Alexander (Ramos, 2019) 

Ian Alexander notes in an interview with Deadline that Buck has allowed him to have a deeper understanding of his identity, as well as a feeling of community and support during his time on set (Ramos, 2019). He notes in many ways The OA saved his life as he was in a dark place at the time of filming, and the show even helped his parents understand his gender and use his preferred pronouns (Ramos, 2019). Ian as an actor additionally helps to subvert what is societally seen as more masculine traits by living his life without the need of starting hormones and by continuously being casted in transmasculine roles. 

3. Beyond the Gender Binary: Emerging Gender Non-Conforming/Nonbinary Narratives:

Jacob Tobia — Shera and the Princess of Power (Double Trouble)

Image: Deadline

Jacob Tobia plays Double Trouble in Shera and the Princess of Power, a nonbinary shapeshifter mercenary who doubles as a spy for The Horde. Mischievous and chaotic to everyone in the show, they remain fearless and well in tune with their power as they face head on powerful characters without falter. Double Trouble is often seen in articles of clothing that are more gender neutral with a punk edge by showing off a bit of skin in their outfits. (Disclaimer: clothing should not be gendered, and expression is fluid for everyone, there is no one way to look or present as a certain gender.) One of the most notable moments to the show is when the most villainous character Hordak effortlessly refers to Double Trouble with they/them pronouns highlighting even the most evil person on the planet doesn’t misgender people (Brown, 2019).

“I’m tired of gender nonconforming people not being on screen. I think it’s time that stops.”

-Jacob Tobia (Mania, 2020) 

One of the unique aspects of Etheria, the universe in which the show is set is the spectrum of gender identity and sexuality that is included in characters and who they date. Double Trouble’s ambiguity further enhances the show beyond educating others of nonbinary issues by preventing the limitation of perfection by presenting some of Double Trouble’s flaws. Noelle Stevenson, one of the creators of the show noted in an interview with the LA Times that although education is legitimate, she wanted Double Trouble to shift away from being squeaky clean and perfect and instead incorporate more messy and villainous characters who were antithetical to the heroes and princesses in the show (Brown, 2019). Jacob also notes there isn’t always a need to educate audiences on this topic, as the show is targeted for Gen Z who is already aware of the fluidity that exists outside of binary society socially constructs, so Double Trouble in this case is just a fun character who helps to normalize and be inclusive of nonbinary identities into existing spaces (Brown, 2019). 

JayR Tinaco — Another Life (Zayn)

Image: IMDB

JayR Tinaco is a non-binary identifying actor that plays a character named Zayn on the TV show Another Life. In the show, Zayn is the ship’s medical officer that also identifies as non-binary. The genuine visibility that JayR Tinaco’s character receives on this show allows audiences to understand how non-binary characters are able to naturally mesh within an ensemble cast. In Another Life, Tinaco’s character is a, “…medical officer [that] can live truthfully and honestly and get to be a fully realized character with an area of expertise (and also some romance!)” (White, 2019). Being able to represent a “normal” non-binary character played by a non-binary actor that is also a person of color, is a progressive step towards acceptance, understanding, and representation. The ability to represent a non-binary character without making them hyper-visible deserves applause for seeing these individuals as “normal” instead of “exotic” and allows for the opportunity to add characteristics and other details to the character that makes them unique in different ways. 

“It’s so interesting to me because playing Zayn really has lead me to understand and realise my own non-binary identity.”

-JayR Tinaco (SBS, 2019)

For Tinaco, playing the role of Zayn was more than an acting job – it also served as an important journey of self-discovery. Prior to playing the role of Zayn, Tinaco had identified as transmasculine; however, while taking on the role of Zayn, they grew to realize that they identified as non-binary. It is clear that the presence of LGBTQIA+ roles are not just for the sake of representation – they’re also playing a part in shaping the actors that take on these roles. For individuals that identify as non-binary, they have expressed that, “[They are] not comfortable being called ‘he’ or ‘she’ (Young, 2019) existing beyond the gender binary. Another Life respects the pronoun usage of Tinaco’s character by having Zayn express that they would prefer to use the pronouns of “ze” and “hir”. This step towards acceptance is a good indicator that more doors will be opened to representing actors that are non-binary people of color.

Indya Moore — Steven Universe: Future (Shep)

Image: Out

Indya Moore plays Shep in Steven Universe: Future which was a limited series that served as an epilogue to the Steven Universe show that ran from 2013-2019. Shep is introduced in the episode “Little Graduation” as a nonbinary character who has currently been dating Sadie for the past two months and the two of them are in a band together. Throughout the limited series, Shep is referred to by others with they/them pronouns. They also are often seen wearing gender neutral clothing and they are introduced, when meeting others, as Sadie’s partner. Calm and collected, Shep also helps to save the day by easing Steven’s mind after he accidentally traps all of his friends in a closing gem dome. Giving Steven life advice, they advise him that even though he is fearful of his friends growing distant, he needs to let them be free and live their own lives instead of quite literally trapping them.

“I don’t know who I am outside of someone who’s just trying to be free and find safety for myself and for others.”

-Indya Moore (Yuan, 2019)

Steven Universe’s past 6 seasons have been praised for its groundbreaking and inclusionary representation winning over a legion of queer fans for its tender exploration of gender and sexuality (Smith, 2020). Rebecca Sugar—the creator of the show—has noted in the past that all the gems in the show are nonbinary and can use she/her pronouns. Rebecca Sugar herself identifies as nonbinary (she/her & they/them) and so does Indya Moore (they/them) in real life (Henderson, 2020). 

Counter-argument:

Though these emerging transgender people of color narratives help to deviate from hegemonic patterns and bring visibility to identities that are often overlooked i.e. trans women of color, transmasculinity, and nonbinary roles, the media industry is still seen as a problematic landscape by attempting to continue in the hiring practice of casting cisgender actors to play transgender roles. Some examples of this include Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl (2015), and Elle Fanning in Three Generations (2015). While the TV industry tends to do a better job at portraying transgender storylines more authentically and with actual trans actors as opposed to film, both are liable in being exclusionary towards trans people of color representations as they are heavily saturated by white transgender storylines that only make up a fraction of the transgender population. The examples we’ve included in this essay are few, but hold the potential for more change.

Image: Elle

Conclusion:

It goes without saying the era following the Transgender Tipping Point has revolutionized the way in which we see transgender people of colors stories and narratives be brought to a new light. Whereas before, these characters were rare to the public eye, or were often given harsh and negative stereotypes. This new generation of media brings hope to the future in which we know by fostering authentic and complex spaces of transparency and by redefining what we once saw as the social standard for identity. The new fluidity of self and what being transgender means has no specific answer, but it is through the emergence of new trans people of color narratives that we are able to better understand some of the struggles and oppression that can be faced in the intersection of our identity and what it means to be a woman. Additionally, narratives and stories listed like the ones above make us think about societal structures and how masculinity traits and characteristics aren’t as rigid as we may have though. Lastly, the nonbinary narratives listed above help to support the dichotomy that gender is not binary but is a spectrum of inclusivity. The fight however has just begun in normalizing these trans spaces – rejecting problematic casting, and bridging the gap between the saturation of white trans bodies with trans stories of color. 

Works Cited

Brown, T. (2019, November 20). ‘She-Ra’ on Netflix: Why its new non-binary character is so important. Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/tv/story/2019-11-05/netflix-she-ra-princesses-power-nonbinary-double-trouble

Danee, C. (2019). The Revolutionary Trans and GNC ‘Found Family’ In ‘David Makes Man’. Shadow and Act. https://shadowandact.com/the-revolutionary-trans-and-gnc-found-family-in-david-makes-man

Giaccardi, S., Ward, L. M., Seabrook, R. C., Manago, A., & Lippman, J. (2016). Media and modern manhood: Testing associations between media consumption and young men’s acceptance of traditional gender ideologies. Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, 75(3-4), 151–163. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-016-0588-z

Gillig, G. (2018). More than a Media Moment: The Influence of Televised Storylines on Viewers’ Attitudes toward Transgender People and Policies. Sex Roles, 78(7), 515–527. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-017-0816-1

GLAAD. (2016). GLAAD – Where We Are on TV Report – 2016. Https://Www.Glaad.Org/Whereweareontv16.

Henderson, T. (2020, January 9). Meet Shep, Indya Moore’s Nonbinary “Steven Universe” Character. Pride. https://www.pride.com/geek/2020/1/09/meet-shep-indya-moores-nonbinary-steven-universe-character

Leighton-Dore, S. (2019, July 30). Australian actor JayR Tinaco’s role in “Another Life” helped them come out as non-binary. SBS. https://www.sbs.com.au/topics/pride/agenda/article/2019/07/30/australian-actor-jayr-tinacos-role-another-life-helped-them-come-out-non-binary

Malkin, M. (2019, June 19). ‘Pose’ Star MJ Rodriguez Says Simply Being Trans Is Activism. Variety. https://variety.com/2019/tv/news/mj-rodriguez-pose-activism-1203246568/

Man, C. (n.d.). Chella Man. Chella Man. Retrieved November 14, 2020, from https://chellaman.com/contact

Mania, G. (2020, June 15). Jacob Tobia: “Gender Is Simple for Nobody.” Paper Magazine. https://www.papermag.com/jacob-tobia-sissy-2630833955.html?rebelltitem=14#rebelltitem14

Mocarski, K. (2019). The Rise of Transgender and Gender Diverse Representation in the Media: Impacts on the Population. Communication, Culture & Critique, 12(3), 416–433. https://doi.org/10.1093/ccc/tcz031

Ramos, D.R. (2019, April 2). ‘The OA’s Ian Alexander Is The Future Of Trans Visibility In Hollywood. Deadline. https://deadline.com/2019/04/the-oa-ian-alexander-netflix-lgbtq-trans-diversity-reprsentation-inclusion-1202585939/

Rozos, L. (2019, November 21). Logan Rozos Acceptance Speech Parity Awards November 21, 2019. Parity. https://parity.nyc/logan-rozos

Simon, Y. (2019, December 30). Indya Moore Voices a Nonbinary Character on “Steven Universe: Future.” Remezcla. https://remezcla.com/film/indya-moore-shep-nonbinary-character-steven-universe-future/

Smail, G. (2019). White Hero, Sidekick of Color: Why Marvel Needs to Break the Cycle. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/mar/15/white-hero-sidekick-of-color-why-marvel-needs-to-break-the-cycle

Smith, R. (2020, January 3). Pose star Indya Moore is playing a non-binary character in Steven Universe and we have no moral choice but to stan. PinkNews. https://www.pinknews.co.uk/2020/01/03/indya-moore-steven-universe-future-shep-non-binary-character/

Solomon, S. (2018). Media’s Influence on Perceptions of Trans Women. Sexuality Research & Social Policy, 15(1), 34–47. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13178-017-0280-2

Steinmetz, K. (2014, May 29). The Transgender Tipping Point. TIME.Com. https://time.com/magazine/us/135460/june-9th-2014-vol-183-no-22-u-s/

Thomas, V. (2019). Gazing at “It”: An Intersectional Analysis of Transnormativity and Black Womanhood in Orange is the New Black. Communication, Culture & Critique. https://doi.org/10.1093/ccc/tcz030

White, B. (2019). Netflix Another Life Cast: Who Is JayR Tinaco? Who Is Zayn?. Decider. https://decider.com/2019/07/26/another-life-jayr-tinaco-zayn/

Young, E. (2019). They/Them/Their: A Guide to Nonbinary and Genderqueer Identities. In They/Them/Their. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Yuan, J. (2019, May 9). Indya Moore Just Wants to Be Free. ELLE. https://www.elle.com/culture/movies-tv/a27378298/indya-moore-transgender-pose-interview/

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