It appears that CSI producers did listen to GLAAD’s critique, because when the series’ second episode featuring transgender characters aired on November 18, 2004, several efforts were made to educate the audience about the reality of life as a transgender person. "Ch-ch-changes," which carried an adult content warning before it began, was CSI‘s 100th episode, and over 31 million viewers tuned in, making this the series’ most-watched episode to date.
The episode investigates the throat-slashing murder of a male-to-female transgender showgirl, Wendy Garner. During the course of the investigation the CSIs meet with Wendy’s sexual reassignment surgeon, Dr. Mercer, who explains that all sexual reassignment candidates must live in their desired gender for one year before they are allowed to have surgery. Like many transgenders, Wendy was impatient with the waiting period and wanted to hasten the process. For this reason she was involved in a counseling group led by Dr. Mona Lavalle, where she became friends with another MTF named Mimosa.
Mimosa calls Gil Grissom and invites him to have a drink with her, and during this meeting she does her best to put a sympathetic and progressive spin on life as a transgendered person. She explains that gender is a social construction, notes the popular misconception that transgenders are crazy, and explains the trauma involved with being born in the wrong physical body. Grissom helpfully explains to viewers, "People confuse your obsession with gender with an obsession with sex," failing to understand that his use of the word "obsession" that still connotes a psychological disorder.
Meanwhile, a piece of paper found in Wendy’s possession leads the CSIs to a remote storage facility that has been turned into a gruesome operating theater, complete with the bloodied, dead body of an MTF on the operating table. The body belongs to a woman named Peaches who turned tricks at a club called the Cockpit, a magnet for men who want to have sex with transgenders. At the Cockpit, Peaches’s friends explain that Peaches wanted surgery fast, and she likely went to a mysterious doctor named Dr. Benway, who is known for fast-track sexual reassignment surgery that unfortunately sometimes goes wrong.
The CSIs soon discover that Dr. Benway is none other than Dr. Lavalle, who used to be a male medic in the U.S. Army. After leaving the Army, Lavalle/Benway was an activist who performed illegal abortions for women, and later transitioned into a woman herself. After Dr. Lavalle/Benway is arrested, she claims, "I've devoted my life to helping those cast out by gender prejudice. Where would these souls be without me?" (Incidentally, Wendy Garner’s murderer is Dr. Lavalle’s husband, who killed her after Wendy threatened to expose Dr. Lavalle’s illegal surgical practices.)
Despite its ridiculously stereotypical name, "Ch-ch-changes" marks a huge step forward in depictions of transgenders on CSI. The character of Mimosa is unquestionably the most sympathetic transgender character that CSI has ever featured. In addition, the episode overtly addresses many of the stereotypes about transgenders. Finally, Dr. Lavalle herself, despite her psychotic tendencies, is actually one of the least stereotypical transgenders to be seen on television. Unlike most MTFs seen on the small screen, she does not look like the sensationalistic drag queen type of transgender; she actually looks like an unremarkable woman.
But even though Dr. Lavalle did not purposely kill Peaches (who died during a botched surgery) or Wendy, she is not a transgender character to be proud of. Although her motives fall more into the "mad doctor" stereotype than the psychotic transsexual stereotype, the simple fact that she is both transgender and delusional about her medical prowess means that she still fits into the traditional role of psychotic transsexual.
When examining the representation of LGBT characters on CSI, it’s important to note that the series routinely depicts behavior that is viewed as "abnormal" by the mainstream. This includes the culture of swingers ("Swap Meet," 10/28/04); a man whose fetish was being treated as a baby ("King Baby," 2/17/05); people who enjoyed dressing up as furry animals ("Fur and Loathing," 10/30/03); and the culture of BDSM ("Slaves of Las Vegas," 11/15/01).
The crime scene investigators routinely examine these subcultures with both scientific detachment and some degree of personal curiosity. They rarely make negative judgments about people perceived as "abnormal" unless the crime involves harm against children or incest. The investigators themselves appear to be among the most open-minded and non-judgmental on television.
The problem is that LGBT characters appear on CSI only as victims or killers — and generally as both at the same time. Despite the show’s improvements in the last couple of years in moving away from traditional stereotypes of gay killers, it is still difficult to tell stories about killers who happen to be gay, as opposed to gay killers.
The only way that CSI can truly move beyond these limiting and harmful stereotypes is to include openly gay characters who have nothing to do with the crime. CSI could do this by including an openly gay crime scene investigator, police officer, lab technician, or expert witness.
Given that CSI is routinely the number one show on television, that would be a giant step forward, indeed.
Update: on the Thursday, May 12 episode ("Iced"), CSI included its first gay character who was neither a killer nor a victim, just a random gay college student.