Transgender TV may be having its day - but that didn't stop unenlightened reports of a 'gender-bender EastEnder'

Katie Glover
Monday 12 October 2015 15:19
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Riley Carter Millington will become the first transgender actor to play a transgender character in a recurring role in the UK
Riley Carter Millington will become the first transgender actor to play a transgender character in a recurring role in the UK

The big news this week (in our house at least) is that EastEnders is to have a new transgender character, called Kyle, played by 21-year-old Riley Carter Millington. Great news for trans visibility – y’know, as long as they don’t do a Springer and make him a heroin-addled armed robber/serial killer/paedophile/scum-of-the-earth-general-bad-person. Past experience tells us not to be too optimistic, but there’s something different about this bold new step in trans TV.

Firstly, Kyle is being played by a real transgender actor. Remember the bad old days when white performers used to black up to play black roles? Well, some bright spark had a great idea one day, probably in the face of the Race Relations Act, and decided that maybe, just maybe, black performers could play black parts. It was a radical idea at the time, but it got us somewhere a bit more positive. And that’s what we’re seeing in the baby steps of producers who are cautiously beginning to take a chance of trans actors playing trans parts.

Secondly, Kyle is a female-to-male transgender person - someone hardly ever seen in the public eye, even by trans standards. I doubt that Dot Cotton and viewers of Dot’s generation would even know that such a person exists, so Kyle will be giving visibility to an almost unheard-of subsection of the transgender community. Of course, we can count on Dot to voice her suspicions - “I don’t know what the world is coming to anymore, what with boys dressing up as girls and girls becoming boys! Now where’s that service wash gone?” – but we can also, hopefully, count on the EastEnders storylines proving her latent prejudices wrong.

The eagle-eyed among you might now be thinking, ‘Hold on a minute… Didn’t Corrie already get there first, nearly 18 years ago, with their Hayley Cropper character?’ That’s true – and again, it was an important baby step for visibility. But Kyle, as a transgender actor and a female-to-male one at that, is taking things to indisputably new heights.

It seems like the floodgates have suddenly opened for transgender actors in the last few weeks, with trans people being cast in all kinds of televisual feasts from Hollyoaks to Doctor Who. Male-to-female transgender actor Rebecca Root just did a fine job in the BBC sitcom ‘Boy Meets Girl’, even if the series fell a little flat in its efforts to avoid any controversy. Nevertheless, transgender certainly seems to be becoming the new disco - on TV at least.

Poor Riley Carter Millington is already being given a predictably hard time by certain members of the press, however, and he hasn’t even appeared in a single episode yet. When the news broke on Friday that Riley would be playing Kyle, the Yorkshire Post announced it to their readers with the astonishingly unenlightened tweet: ‘It’s a gender-bender EastEnder!’ Meanwhile, transgender Doctor Who actor Bethany Black is steeling herself for the kind of shock/horror reaction most of us have come to expect. She confirmed her new job by posting about it on her Facebook page with the added message: 'Now to sit back and wait until The Mail realises the BBC have cast an open trans lesbian in a family show.'

Jabs aside, though, my principal concern with Kyle’s introduction is whether or not we can depend upon storyline guru Alex Lamb and his writing team to get Kyle’s narrative right. It’s unclear whether or not they’ve employed some female-to-male transgender writers or advisers to discuss issues like sensitivity, humour, controversy and the psychological impacts of living in an often transphobic world – but I hope that they’ve taken this important step. Equally, while remaining sensitive to the unique experiences of trans people, I hope that they don’t fall into the trap of ‘Boy Meets Girl’, where everything was Blue-Peterised to the extent that it had no value. We don’t need sickly sweet pandering; we just need a realistic portrayal.

A little birdie at the Beeb tells me that Kyle will feature heavily in the end of year finale, so while I have to admit that I haven’t paid proper attention to ‘Enders since Dr Legg was in it, I now have a renewed interest in the service wash and everything that happens in between. The lay of the land is very different now to how it once was, and it seems like Kyle might be the mainstream beacon we were all hoping for.

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