Mike Blake / Reuters

‘Transparent’ breaks ground at the Golden Globes

Amazon’s TV series depicting trans woman wins two major awards – a ‘turning point’ for transgender community

Beyond the glitzy evening gowns, Sunday’s Golden Globe Awards broke ground, with a streaming TV show with transgender themes winning more awards than NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox combined.

The Amazon TV series “Transparent,” which depicts a Los Angeles family in which the father comes out as transgender, won Golden Globes in two major categories, marking the first time a show with transgender themes has won such accolades. Jeffrey Tambor won the award for best actor in a musical or comedy TV series for his role as trans woman Maura Pfefferman. “Transparent” also won best musical or comedy TV series.

The Big Four broadcast networks left the ceremony empty-handed.

Tambor, who is not transgender, dedicated his award to the trans community. “This is much bigger than me,” he said in an emotional acceptance speech. “Thank you, thank you, thank you, for your courage, thank you for your inspiration, thank you for your patience, and thank you for letting us be part of the change.”

The show's executive producer, Jill Soloway, dedicated her award to the memory of Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teen who committed suicide in December.

Gay, lesbian and bisexual people, characters and storylines now regularly appear on television and movie screens — from TV dramas “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Downton Abbey” to news shows hosted by Rachel Maddow and Anderson Cooper to the films “Blue Is the Warmest Color” and “The Normal Heart.” 

Starting in the 1980s and 1990s, LGBT characters — and the performers who began to come out as gay during that time — arguably played a strong role in moving the U.S. mainstream toward acceptance of gay rights.

Shows like “Will & Grace,” “My So-Called Life” and “Friends” depicted LGBT characters as part of everyday storylines, gradually paving the way for today’s sitcoms such as “Modern Family,” which features a gay married couple and their adopted daughter.

But the “T” in LGBT has received considerably less attention in popular culture than the “L,” “G” and “B.” It was only in 2013 that Netflix launched its original TV series “Orange Is the New Black,” which features trans actress Laverne Cox playing Sophia Burset, a transgender woman serving jail time.

Before that, trans characters — or actors playing them — were few and far between. In 2014, Cox was nominated for an Emmy for her role and became the first openly trans person featured on the cover of Time magazine.

“I think that 2014 was a turning point in terms of visibility for the trans community, and I’m very, very excited,” said GLAAD CEO Sarah Kate Ellis about the successes of Cox and “Transparent."

“I thought that [The Golden Globes] last night definitely showed the diversity of our culture reflected in TV and movies,” she said, also citing Matt Bomer’s win for best supporting actor in the HBO film “The Normal Heart,” which depicts the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, and the nomination of “The Imitation Game” for best picture in the drama category, which tells the story of gay mathematician Alan Turing.

Roger Hallas, an English professor at Syracuse University and the director of the school’s LGBT studies program, said there has been a distinct shift toward trans stories in popular culture over the last few years, with Cox breaking ground as a trans actress playing a trans role.

“Trans narratives, which were once seen as sort of marginal stories, have now been reignited, have gained popular and critical success,” he said, noting that he hasn’t yet watched the show “Transparent.” “What I’m delighted to see is that we’re now seeing at least the beginnings of opportunities for trans actors as well.”

Hallas said Hollywood has a long history of lauding heterosexual actors’ performances in gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender roles as groundbreaking and transformative.

For example, Jared Leto, a straight male, won an Oscar for best supporting actor in 2014 for playing the trans woman Rayon in the film “Dallas Buyers Club.” And in 2000, straight actress Hilary Swank won a best actress Oscar for her role in “Boys Don’t Cry,” as Brandon Teena, a trans man who was raped and murdered by male acquaintances when they discovered his gender identity.

But in the 1980s and 1990s, when actors such as Ellen DeGeneres and Rupert Everett began coming out as lesbian and gay, Hallas said, critics wondered if they would be able to play straight roles. Actor Neil Patrick Harris has been one of the few to recently break out of the gay box.

“There was a sort of double standard,” Hallas said. “Straight actors are perceived to be able to play any role, any sexual or gender identity … It is important that the queer, trans, lesbian, bisexual and gay actors aren’t shut out of opportunities to play those roles.”

In terms of how the transgender community views the critical acclaim for “Transparent," Rebecca Kling, a transgender performer and educator based in Chicago, said views have been mixed.

Kling, a co-director of the 2015 Trans 100, an annual roundup of notable members of the transgender community, lauded “Transparent” for its thoughtful, respectful portrayal of trans characters.

“On the other hand, it is a show written by someone who is not transgender, and the main character is an actor who is not transgender,” she said. “And I think that’s a tough balance to make.”

She said that some trans people have complained on social media about Tambor's win for playing a trans character but that others argued that the show pushed the movement forward, regardless of the gender identity of its actors.

“I think the ‘Transparent’ team absolutely deserved the accolades it is getting,” Kling said. “I also think it’s important to push the conversation toward trans people telling trans stories.”

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