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Leo Sheng Headshot

Another Reason to Love The Fosters -- as if We Needed Another

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There are two people in the picture above. Callie is on the left. She is a young, straight woman who was born female and identifies as such (also known as 'cisgender'). She's bounced from foster home to foster home with her little brother, always with a protective watch over him. She is currently living with the Fosters, a same-gender couple, and is "in love" with one of her foster brothers. Unless you watch the show, how could you know such personal details? Is it visible? Can you just "sense" it, whatever that means? No? Ok.

When you look at the individual on the right, what do you see? There's no wrong answer. Except maybe "kangaroos." That would be wrong. Again, unless you watch the show, how could you know that he is a transgender man? At first glance, he could be described as a "butch" woman. But, as I stated before, *he is a trans man. What does that mean, exactly? Transgender is a word to describe a person whose assigned gender at birth does not match the gender they identify with. For example, the person on the right may have been born with female reproductive organs and was proclaimed a "girl" by the doctor, but later self-identified as a boy and eventually as a man. You with me so far?

Now, let me explain why this is such a big deal; at least, why I feel it to be a milestone in "family" television. This character's name is Cole, portrayed by Tom Phelan. He is a "juvenile delinquent" living in a group home with other "juvenile delinquents." Unfortunately, he was placed in a girls' home. Since that's not how he identifies, you see the problem, right? The episode brought up this issue, and in my opinion, handled it quite well. Anyway, this character, this possible new beacon of hope for other youth like himself, has introduced an identity that most other "family" programs wouldn't. To transparently shed light onto this particular minority group is still something that a lot of us in 2014 are shocked by, as it goes against the status quo of underrepresentation.

Although some may be quick to point out that he's white, and that there are societal privileges associated with that, his gender identity sometimes overshadows those privileges. By this I mean that although he's white, he's not always acknowledged or recognized as a man -- especially by other residents in the group home. If one can overlook the fact that he's "Another white, queer person," then cool! If it's hard to accept when we still don't see many trans POCs (people of color), then I understand that as well. I say this as a Chinese trans man who is still learning about race, privilege and other intersecting identities.

This young person graced our screens for the first time a few nights ago and has brought another dynamic to this show, which as a whole, is a milestone in and of itself. Here is a series where a biracial, lesbian couple adopt children of other races and raise them with love and compassion. Before this program aired, this was the best fairytale untold.

With the show's premise somewhat explained, let's come back to Cole. Look at his body language, what he's wearing, his hairstyle. This picture is a screen shot from the episode, posted on Maia Mitchell's Instagram (the actor who plays Callie). The creators of this eye-opening show have taken the time, and risk, to add another personality into their ever-growing cast and intertwining story lines. It's evident that when you're working with someone as talented as Tom Phelan clearly is, the character of Cole literally comes to life. While Cole does not represent every trans-identified person, his presence has already grabbed our attention.

The fate of this character is still unknown. However, in his few moments of screen time, we've already born witness to several of the struggles some transgender folks may endure: chest binding, incorrect pronouns, blatant disregard for preferred name and ridicule -- all of which I can, unfortunately, empathize with. But, then again, that only adds to the authenticity, doesn't it?

Still in its first season, The Fosters has proven to be an influential and educational show about family and love. It indeed showcases that "DNA doesn't make a family; love does." Every single one of its characters, both main cast and supporting, has their own story to tell -- talents and flaws, beliefs and ideals. There is not a single person who's perfect, but that's ok; they're human.

Whatever happens with the rest of the season, I hope that we'll be able to watch Cole find his own happiness. We are past due for a positive, transgender persona in television -- one who we can take seriously and love at the same time, one who isn't the butt of everyone's jokes. Don't get me wrong, I'm grateful for the few movies and shows that have previously depicted transgender/gender queer individuals, i.e. Degrassi: The Next Generation. On a program like this, though, where acceptance is a major theme, I'm optimistic that Cole will become a role model for other youth who may be fearful and have never seen anyone like themselves on the big/little screen. I know I would have wanted to see someone like Cole when I was 13-year-old and coming to terms with my own identity.