From Boy Meets Girl to Orange Is the New Black: Meet the new transgender faces of TV

True-to-life transgender characters on mainstream television have been neglected  for too long. But a host of new shows reveals that change is in the air

Boy Meets Girl sounds like scores of sitcom treatments the BBC receives each year: Leo meets Judy, they bond over drinks and arrange a date. His mother despairs of her 26-year-old son seeing a 40-year-old woman but he’s absolutely besotted.

Except that this isn’t Cougar Town transplanted to the North of England. Nor is it May to December with the sexes reversed. Because Judy is transgender and played by transgender actor Rebecca Root. And Boy Meets Girl is funny, sensitive and progressive but unquestionably a mainstream comedy. Transgender characters on television are undergoing a transition – already Modupe Adeyeye’s Hollyoaks character has revealed herself to be a transgender woman – and now a British comedy is poised to confirm this transition.

In the US, trans actor Laverne Cox has won plaudits for her role as Sophia in the acclaimed prison saga Orange Is the New Black, which returns to Netflix for a second season on 6 June. Cox, who was controversially left off Time’s recent 100 Most Influential People list, despite receiving more reader votes than cover stars Beyoncé and Rihanna, has claimed that she was inspired by Candis Cayne in 2007’s Dirty Sexy Money, the first transwoman to have a recurring role in a primetime show.

Now, one of Dirty Sexy Money’s writers, Jill Soloway has created Transparent, starring Arrested Development’s Jeffrey Tambor as Mort/Maura, a transgender woman coming out to her family. The first US show to dramatise every step, with Mort/Maura living in the identity she plans to transition to before having surgery, the pilot found Mort/Maura struggling to tell her “selfish” adult children, as they in turn grapple with gender, sexuality and body-image issues of their own. Orange artfully depicted Sophia before and after transition by casting Cox’s twin brother, though creator Jenji Kohan initially wanted Cox to play both.

But these are cult series. Orange is a Netflix production and Transparent one of the first commissions of its online rival Amazon-Prime.

By contrast, Boy Meets Girl reminds me most of Gavin & Stacey – a broad-appeal, romantic comedy featuring an endearing but “straight-ish” couple, surrounded by mildly eccentric family. But Root and Harry Hepple as Leo also have some of the best lines, eliciting big laughs from the opening, revelatory scene. And more besides.

Modupe Adeyeye as transgender character Blessing Chambers in ‘Hollyoaks' Modupe Adeyeye as transgender character Blessing Chambers in ‘Hollyoaks'

“We had laughs, we had gasps, we had ‘oohs’, ‘aahs’ and some crying,” Root says of those who saw the pilot, one of four audience-tested at the BBC’s Salford Sitcom Showcase last month. Some won’t make it to television but both  Citizen Khan (BBC1) and Hebburn (BBC2) previously featured at the event.

“It’s a real mix of emotions,” Root reflects. “Judy speaks to people because she’s over 40, single, lives with her mum and doesn’t have a great job. And she’s transgendered. But that’s almost incidental. She’s got heart and spirit and people really warmed to that.”

When transgender characters appear on  television at all, they’re “tragedies or monsters” argues stand-up Bethany Black, whose own semi-autobiographical comedy for the BBC, about her transition, surgery and “coming out” to family and friends, was dropped when Sky Atlantic commissioned the transsexual assassin drama Hit & Miss in 2012. And in comedy, tragedy and monstrosity usually leads to mockery.

“Nine times out of ten, the stock joke is ‘and she had a penis!’ It feeds into this idea that transwomen particularly are trying to trick straight men into sleeping with them, making them accidentally gay,” she says. Black praises David  Tennant’s Davina in a 1993 episode of Rab C  Nesbitt as “one of the first trans characters on British television with any sense of sympathy towards them”, while acknowledging that the closing scene involves her “tricking” Mary Doll’s lecherous boss into a dark cupboard fumble. Otherwise, she adds, portrayals tend towards “a big, hairy man in a dress with all these traits to be laughed at”.

That’s the charge levelled at Irish sitcom The Centre, where Gary Cooke’s character Nuala has been panned as “played for cheap laughs” by Broden Giambrone, chief executive of Transgender Equality Network Ireland. “Not only is she referred to as ‘King Kong in a thong’ but there are references made to her surgical status, her hormone levels, body hair and Adam’s apple. At no point is the audience laughing with Nuala, they are laughing at her.”

In US comedy especially, transgender characters are seen as an opportunity for stunt casting, a chance for Hollywood stars to send up their beauty and status, as with Kathleen Turner in Friends, Rebecca Romijn in Ugly Betty and Chris O’Donnell in Two and a Half Men. Black appreciates films like Dallas Buyers Club  “trying to move trans issues into the mainstream” but says Jared Leto’s award-winning performance “has caused a lot of upset”.

“Throughout the entire film everyone refers to her as ‘he’ and is never corrected. A trans actor would have picked up on that. The Oscar and critical praise heaped on Leto was basically for backing up what people believe rather than portraying an emotionally real character.”

Chloë Sevigny as Mia in ‘Hit & Miss’ Chloë Sevigny as Mia in ‘Hit & Miss’

Affirmative action is arguably long overdue. Boy Meets Girl only auditioned transgender actors for Judy and the sitcom is one of two projects in development at the BBC as a result of the Trans Comedy Award, an initiative set up in conjunction with the Trans Comedy group, who awarded £5,000 and development to the best comedy scripts depicting “transgender characters and the transgender experience in an affirming manner”.

Root says: “Trans people are a minority. But for every person like me who’s made a conscious step to do something about the feeling we’ve had all our lives, there are plenty who’ve gone part-way or not at all yet. The BBC should reflect the lives of the rainbow gendered because that’s what we pay it to do. If it’s picked up, and they cast another trans actor who’s better than me, it would still be a fabulous piece to be seen on British TV. The public are ready for it.”

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?
    Season's finale brings the end of an era for top coaches and players across the continent

    The end of an era across the continent

    It's time to say farewell to Klopp, Clement, Casillas and Xavi this weekend as they move on to pastures new, reports Pete Jenson
    Bin Laden documents released: Papers reveal his obsession with attacking the US and how his failure to keep up with modern jihad led to Isis

    'Focus on killing American people'

    Released Bin Laden documents reveal obsession with attacking United States
    Life hacks: The innovations of volunteers and medical workers are helping Medécins Sans Frontières save people around the world

    Medécins Sans Frontières's life hacks

    The innovations of volunteers and medical workers around the world are helping the charity save people
    Ireland's same-sex marriage vote: As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?

    Same-sex marriage

    As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?
    The underworld is going freelance: Why The Godfather's Mafia model is no longer viable

    The Mafia is going freelance

    Why the underworld model depicted in The Godfather is no longer viable