The death of Leelah Alcorn, an American transgender girl whose suicide in December 2014 gained international attention sparked a nationwide debate, bringing transgender awareness into a spotlight. Leelah, only 17, was isolated from friends and forced to attend conversion therapy in hopes that she could be ‘’cured’’. While Barack Obama has recently condemned this dangerous therapy, Leelah’s untimely death is a harsh reminder that this issue is far from resolved. The reality of this situation is that her story isn’t unique. In fact, the size of this problem is reflected in the statistics recorded in a recent survey carried out in the United Kingdom, revealing that 48% of trans people under the age of 26 have at some stage attempted suicide. The media have a responsibility to represent and raise awareness. In America, GLAAD (The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) is a non-governmental organization established in 1985, which strives to promote understanding, acceptance and equality by monitoring media representations. Matt Kane, associate director of the organization comments on the awareness raised by any trans character in the media, stating “In absence of actually knowing someone who is LGBT, sometimes seeing a story about them on television or in film is the next best thing to fostering understanding and empathy for people”.
In the United Kingdom, The arrival of Julie Hesmondhalgh’s transgender character Hayley Anne Cropper onto the cobbles of Coronation Street in 1998 marked the first transgender role on serialized British TV. Since then the representation of the trans experience has shifted more and more into the public eye. Both Hesmondhalgh’s portrayal, and the Coronation Street writers and researchers received praise from transgender groups. 17 years later, Eastenders’ own writing cohort has announced that they are currently looking into the development of a trans character to debut in Albert Square. In an episode last year from Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks. Modupe Adeyeye’s character Blessing Chambers revealed her past life, being born as Tyson Delaney. Channel 4 also commissioned a sitcom for this year and made British TV history by casting trans woman Bethany Black in the role of trans woman Helen Bears in Russell T Davies’ Cucumber as a side role and in its sister anthology show Banana as a protagonist of one episode. The episode features a symbolic moment in which Hesmondhalgh makes an appearance that metaphorically immortalizes the passing of torch between Hesmondhalgh, a cisgender woman who played a transgender woman, and Black, a trans actress and comedian. But why did Eastenders take 17 years to begin to think about representing trans issues?
In December last year, the BBC published their second Equality Information Report. Just before this was released, acting director of the BBC Tim Davie said ‘the BBC aims to be the most creative organization in the world but to achieve that our content has to speak to all of our audiences’. Along with companies such as BAFTA and ITV, the BBC is now part of the creative diversity network, which ensures promotion and celebration of diversity, similar to the GLAAD organization in America. BBC’s action plan states that their content and output will ‘deliver high quality programming which reflects modern Britain accurately and authentically’. BBC has become aware of its lack of trans representation, and has also taken note of the accuracy of this representation. It is possible that the announcement of a trans character is in the works that came from executive producer of Eastenders Dominic Treadwell-Collins was in response to this realization. The report summarizes in the following point; ‘At the BBC, we are focused on highlighting more female voices in news and current affairs in particular, and ensuring trans people’s life experience is accurately portrayed’. However, the announcement from Treadwell-Collins came with a specific condition for the new role, the requirement for a trans actor to play the role. He has said it is a necessity in order to tell the story convincingly, but does this mean that only transgender actors should be given the opportunity to play transgender roles?
In film, the controversy of a cisgender actor playing a trans role has risen before. In fact, the issue swings endlessly in and out of news. In 2014 Jared Leto starred in Dallas Buyers Club, as ‘Rayon’, a HIV positive transgender woman living in Texas in the 1980s. His performance won him best supporting actor at the 2014 Oscars, and raised trans awareness, yet his performance, achievement, and acceptance speech garnered intense criticism from the trans community. Many questioned why he was cast, and others were disappointed he didn’t mention trans people while retrieving his accolade. At the Oscars ceremony later this month, Eddie Redmayne is in competition for his second award for Best Actor, starring as transgender icon Einar Wegener in the Danish Girl (2015). However, Redmayne has spoken out about the controversy, stating it’s a valid discussion to be had.
Eddie Redmayne as Trans Icon Einar Wegener in The Danish Girl (2015 Focus Features).
Meanwhile in US television, Laverne Cox, a transgender activist who is quickly becoming a household name in America, has notably thrived in her role in Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. She plays a trans woman incarcerated in prison for credit card fraud and has stated it has given her a platform to speak out about transgender rights. However, she has also placed her concerns into the public arena. ‘Trans need jobs’ states Cox, but she personally can’t hold anything against actors such as Redmayne and Leto, stating that ‘wanting to play a wide variety of roles is the nature of being an actor’.
Even though this topic resurges from the shallow yet foggy depths consistently, and regardless of how late the BBC is to consciously represent this minority with accuracy, having more trans characters in the world of film and television can never be seen as a negative decision. With trans youths facing daily intolerance and rejection alongside bullying, the writers of East Enders have a great responsibility in handling the introduction of this new character to the square. The awareness generated by this introduction could hopefully generate wider understanding, empathy and acceptance.
Words by Harry Faint
This has been taken from Rushes Magazine – other features and interviews can be found at rushesmagazine.com