Moving Beyond Brandon Teena: The slow path to visibility for transgender men in the media

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Just 10 years ago, if you wanted to find media depicting transgender men, your search would have started and stopped with Boys Don’t Cry (1999). It wasn’t until 2006 that Moira became Max and The L Word got its first T, and television got its first fully developed trans male character. In that lonely time before The L Word, Brandon Teena—the young trans man whose tragic, hateful murder is the inspiration for Boys Don’t Cry—was the only point of reference in popular culture. 

Daniela Sea as Max on “The L Word”max

Transgender visibility has made incredible strides since then, but the media still has a ways to go toward meaningful inclusion. Collectively, popular media seems to be getting the memo that difference is interesting—and perhaps surprisingly familiar once you’ve spent some time with it. That growing awareness has led to more visibility for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender folks. Orange is the New Black star Laverne Cox is becoming a household name and Redefining Realness author Janet Mock not only broke into the New York Times Bestsellers list, she was recently named a contributing editor for Marie Claire magazine and regularly appears on TV talking about diversity in the media. And yet, portrayals of trans men continue to be particularly few and far between. 

Waiting for Will & Grace

In 1889, Oscar Wilde wrote in his essay The Decay of Lying that “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life,” explaining that though the London fog had existed since time immemorial, no one seemed to notice its beauty until “poets and painters taught the loveliness of such effects.” In a similar way, the representation of LGBTQ people in popular culture encourages greater understanding of and appreciation for our lives. 

When Will & Grace became a breakout success—despite debuting just after Ellen was cancelled for being “too gay”—it changed both media and social landscapes. The average TV viewer had never had a gay man in their living room and, to the pleasure of those involved in the show’s production and gays across the country, viewers invited them to stay. Will & Grace became the highest rated sitcom among the vital 18-49 set from 2001 to 2005 and earned acclaim for educating the public and advancing gay rights. 

Vice President Joe Biden told Meet the Press in 2002 that the show played a key role in his support for marriage equality, saying: “I think Will & Grace probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody has ever done so far.”

But unlike gays and lesbians, trans men are largely still waiting for an invitation to spend weekday evenings in Americans’ living rooms.

The most prominent current examples of trans male actors and characters on TV are Cole, a kid who ends up in a group home after his parents kick him out for being trans on ABC Family’s The Fosters (played by nonbinary-identified actor Thom Phelan) and Dale, a trans man who has an awkward date with one of the main characters on Amazon’s Transparent (played by stand-up comedian and trans guy Ian Harvie).

Thom Phelan on “The Fosters”cole

While it’s absolutely exciting progress, neither is a Will & Grace moment for trans men. (To be fair: Trans women haven’t had their Ellen yet either.) We’re still in that edgy fringe space, where shows that care as much about storytelling as they do ratings are willing to take a chance on us. And that lack of visibility has real world implications. 

A 2013 Pew Research survey indicates that fewer than 1 in 10 Americans say they personally know someone who is transgender. For the more than 90 percent who don’t know a trans person in real life, media portrayals are their only glimpse of trans lives. For those of us who live in a bubble where “Max’s facial hair” is a pretty basic cultural reference, it may be hard to fully grasp just how invisible trans folks in general, and trans men in particular, are to the world at large. 

Before sitting down to write this piece, I took a quick (and by no means scientific) poll of friends and acquaintances to see how that spotty visibility translates into real awareness. I asked: “Not including people you know personally, how many trans women can you name? How many trans men?” Everyone I quizzed was a progressive individual, with some personal familiarity with trans folks. At least three of the nine people were LGB-identified. Nearly every one expressed embarrassment at how few trans people they could reference, let alone call out by name.

For many, Laverne Cox was the first (and sometimes only) person to come to mind. Others identified (by name or by contextual reference) writer Janet Mock, Matrix director Lana Wachowski, Miss Canada Jenna Talackova, Against Me’s Laura Jane Grace, models Andreja Pejic and Lea T, CEO Martine Rothblatt, pro tennis player Reneé Richards, actress and early trans activist Christine Jorgensen, Pfc. Chelsea Manning and Silverton, Ore., Mayor Stu Rassmussen

The only trans man anyone could mention by name: Chaz Bono. (One friend recalled seeing something about an NCAA basketball player—Kye Allums). Three couldn’t think of a single name. While none of these friends mentioned Thomas Beatie (known as “the pregnant man”), he comes up among my coworkers surprisingly often, since I live and work in the city where he gave birth to his children.

Chaz BonoLogo TV's "RuPaul's Drag Race" Season 6 Reunion Taping

So, what does it mean when our cultural touchstones for trans men are Chaz Bono and Thomas Beatie? I mean no disrespect to either, as they’ve both done their best to use the media’s often harsh spotlight for good. But if this is the entirety of what the more-enlightened-than-average person knows about trans men, we’re in trouble. Many people still don’t know what “transgender man” means. I’m going to go out on a scientifically-unsupported but anecdotally-reinforced limb and say that the vast majority of Americans don’t know trans men exist. When they hear the word “transgender” they picture a trans woman, male-to-female crossdresser or a drag queen. This is problematic on a number of levels, but the gaping hole in awareness of trans masculine identities is particularly troubling. It would be sort of like if the public was generally aware of gay men (and full of misguided and stereotypical assumptions about them), but didn’t know that lesbians existed. Or vice versa.

Those who know we exist, know us primarily as the son of Cher or “the pregnant man”—who, despite Beatie’s work promoting reproductive justice and marriage/divorce equality for trans folks, is largely seen by the public as a curiosity and an anomaly. 

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