12/22/2011 09:18 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

How ABC Can Salvage Work It

It is clear from reading public comments attached to various articles and blogs on ABC's upcoming new show Work It, which revolves around two masculine men forced by economic circumstances to seek work as women, that the general public does not comprehend why the transgender community is upset about it (also here, here, and here). (I expect similar comments to be attached to this post, so if you're writing to say, "It's just a joke," save it.) If transgender people were on a full and equal footing with the rest of society, if we were completely respected as a minority group, if we had full protections under the law like those based on race or religion, then I suppose we could view it as a little good-natured ribbing and take our lumps the same as anyone else.

The problem is that we are not. Here are just some of the findings in a survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality. Transgender people surveyed:

  • Were four times more likely to have a household income of less than $10,000 a year
  • Had double the rate of unemployment
  • Had twice the rate of homelessness

Additionally, of the transgender people surveyed:

  • 90 percent had experienced harassment or mistreatment on the job
  • 47 percent had been fired, not hired, or denied promotion because of being transgender
  • 71 percent had attempted to avoid discrimination by hiding their transition
  • 16 percent had been forced to work in the underground economy
  • 53 percent reported being harassed or disrespected in places of public accommodation
  • 22 percent had been denied equal treatment by government agency or official

We are the most discriminated-against minority group in America. This isn't a little, innocent jab at your best bud. This is kicking down people already at the bottom.

It really doesn't matter if this show is about transgender people or only about masculine-identifying men masquerading as women. The general public will still conflate the two. The jokes at the expense of the main characters will turn into water-cooler jokes about trans people. The depictions of the lives and experiences of the main characters will become the cultural assumption about the lives and experiences of trans people. ABC's ability to craft and mold cultural attitudes, assumptions, and opinions blows away anything we in the transgender community can do for ourselves.

Take for example the very premise that two men struggling in a job market that favors women can simply dress up as women and have a better shot at finding employment. This is the polar opposite of the reality for actual transgender women. It is far, far harder to find work as a trans woman than it is as a man or a cisgender woman. Long-term unemployment is an extremely common consequence of transition, and underemployment is often the best that can be hoped for. If this show is successful in convincing audiences of its most basic plot element, they will also be successful in convincing the American public that life must be pretty easy for trans women. They will have people thinking that finding work is a snap and that giving us protections from discrimination in employment would be like giving tax cuts to the wealthy. It would undermine our attempts to gain relief from the greatest hurdle we face in our survival.

And while there are those who say that because these characters are not transgender women, the story has nothing to do with the transgender community, I have to point out that what these characters are trying to do is superficially the exact same thing trans women are forced to do: find employment and navigate in a world that is intolerant and discriminatory, sometimes violently, toward men who violate masculinity. This is an outrageously difficult challenge for anyone who has gone through it, and it is always approached with enormous fear. Few people can imagine the fear experienced by the transitioning transsexual. It is hard to imagine any kind of economic hardship that could drive a masculine-identifying man to go through that, and even harder still to imagine him being successful at it. These men would be exposed for what they are by lunch on their first day on the job, probably in the first hour or minutes -- I guarantee it. For such a plot line to be depicted even remotely plausibly, these two men would be the absolute only people in their workplace who would think they were pulling it off.

This is where it becomes impossible to avoid conflating these characters with transgender people. For the premise to have any credibility, every other character in the story would just assume that these are two trans women but would be too polite to say anything about it. Thus, the story and the humor would turn on two men trying to pass as women while the audience knows that everyone around them sees right through them. Yes, this must become a story about transgender issues.

If ABC wants to salvage this show in the eyes of the transgender community, and perhaps even the larger American audience, they must commit to making it a show about, and sympathetic to, transgender people. They could use it to depict the challenges transgender people face every day. They could draw these two main characters into the transgender community, show the transgender experience through their eyes, include transgender characters played by genuine transgender actors, and make the show the transgender equivalent of Will & Grace rather than a remake of Bosom Buddies. Make the humor about the genuine experience of trying to live as a transgender person; make the victims of that humor the bigoted and sometimes well-meaning but ignorant characters they encounter, while occasionally punctuating the humor with the harsh reality of confronting prejudice and discrimination. There are indeed humorous situations in the lives of trans people, but you cannot honestly portray our lives in a Seinfeldian stream of nonstop, nutty humor. The humor must at times be poignantly interrupted by bitter reality or you will not have been true to the lives of the people you portray. You can't get a laugh showing someone learning to walk in heals without also showing the pain of not being able to go home for Christmas because your family has rejected you. If they're going to do this, they have to be fair and show both sides.