Talking to a friend about the recent conservative outrage surrounding Chaz Bono on Dancing with the Stars, my friend said to me, "Could you imagine people calling for boycotts and protests if it were a black person cast?" I, of course, immediately thought of the history of black folks on television and how in the 1950s and early 1960s it was rare to see black people on television. When we were on television, the roles were often very limited and stereotypical. I have often mused that the current state of trangender representation in the media is comparable to that of black folks on television in the early to mid-1960s.
I recall raising a similar comparison between civil rights struggle for African Americans in this country with that of transgender Americans during an interview with Touré for the now-defunct BET show, On the Black Carpet. Touré, who I believe is a brilliant and insightful thinker and not taking this position himself, noted that many black folks would contend that they didn't choose to be black but would say that being transgender is a choice. I recall saying to him that the only choice for me was whether I would live in denial and shame or live in my truth. After an adolescence of denial, I chose the truth. I also said that there is evidence that transgender and third-gender people have existed throughout history. Various indigenous cultures have documented third-gender traditions. People who don't fall within the traditional gender binary model have always existed. The question of choice is really irrelevant. Trans people are here. We always have been, and we aren't going anywhere. As part of the fabric of a diverse America, we should have civil and human rights, and our faces need to be seen and our stories told on television and in the media. The interview never aired on BET.
Those like Dr. Keith Ablow and others who have called for people to boycott Dancing with the Stars have suggested, among other things, that their beloved show is no longer "family-friendly." I found this ironic considering that Chaz is famous because of his family. His parents are, of course, Sonny Bono and Cher. Trans people are sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles. We are best friends and confidants. To suggest that trans people aren't family-friendly denies the reality of families in America. My brother has been present for every one of my transsexual-related surgeries. My mother and brother both support and love me unconditionally. I am a sister and a daughter who happens to be transsexual. Cher's very public support of her son reminds us that Chaz and all transgender people are somebody's child. We are part of families. Though it's not always the case, many of our families remain close with us through our transitions and after. My family has. Those stories need to be told on television.
Families with transgender children were the subject of a recent Primetime Nightline special. Whenever I see TV segments on transgender kids, it reminds me of when I was a kid growing up in Mobile, Ala. feeling like a girl though everyone was telling me I was a boy. Watching this special, I recalled how I, like Jackie, one of the kids profiled, was terrified of going through puberty. I would go to sleep most nights praying that I would wake up a girl the next day. Unlike Jackie I didn't feel safe to confide these feelings in anyone when I was 10 years old. Watching the segment about Jackie and her parents, who decided to allow her to take medication to prevent puberty, I found myself simultaneously happy for Jackie and jealous that my prayers to arrest puberty and wake up a girl never got answered. Watching these stories about trans and gender-nonconforming kids has helped me recover a childhood I spent in denial, shame and self-hatred. I now know, even though I felt so alone, that there were other kids just like me, because these stories were told on television.
I cried watching Chaz dance his "cha cha" on the premiere of Dancing with the Stars. It has been a dream of mine for years to see more trans people integrated into shows like this. That's why I decided to do a reality show myself three years ago. I watched him thinking about the fear, anxiety and excitement I experienced when I was shooting I Want to Work for Diddy. At that time there hadn't been any trans people on these kinds of competition shows. A few days before Chaz made his first appearance on the premiere of Dancing with the Stars, Isis King returned to America's Next Top Model: All Stars. Isis became Top Model's first transgender contestant a few weeks after I Want to Work for Diddy premiered in 2008. Not unlike Chaz, Isis's inclusion on Top Model back then became the source of much conservative outrage and Fox News fear-mongering. No such outrage has accompanied her return. Perhaps the gender police were too busy freaking out about Chaz. At any rate, a more mature and self-actualized Isis returned to Top Model: All Stars, a true all-star. She won best photo of that week, and her trans identity was not an issue.
We have come a long way since 2007 and the watershed moment of Candis Cayne becoming the first trans woman to have a recurring role on a primetime television show with Dirty Sexy Money. We still need more transgender storylines with trans actors on scripted television. But so many actual trans people have been on television since then and, more importantly, represented with humanity. We still have a long way to go, but yes, it has gotten better.