Trans Identity on Television

Are we seeing the same old faces? By Joe Ippolito

Courtesy of Joe Ippolito

Maybe it’s just me, but I continue to see the same trans faces on national television. It does not feel to me like the diversity of the community and the multitude of the issues faced are being represented here. As trans activists, we have an obligation to speak out about this and – if needed – step away to make room for other faces who have disproportionately not been represented. There are all kinds of stories and experiences out there and they need to be recognized, valued and shared.

Before sitting down to write this blog, I asked myself exactly how it could benefit the larger transgender community. I wondered how I could effectively get the message I am trying to convey across. And I questioned how a white, trans man – with a certain level of economic privilege – could articulate this message without sounding trite, judgmental, or divisive towards my trans brothers and sisters who, while passionate and genuine in the work they are doing, continue to be part of the “same old faces” phenomenon.

There is really no easy way to make this point – and doing so may piss people off. But I am a firm believer that transgender exposure, when done in an empowering, tasteful and appropriate way on national television, is an important and integral part of our movement. However, I also feel it is important to make sure those “faces” are representative of the larger transgender community and the multitude of experiences, issues and identities that exist within it.

It’s safe to say that we are all over the Maury Povich-type debacles that have marginalized and hurt this community for the last two decades. Progress is being made, and we are finally getting to a point where – on certain levels and in certain places – our lives, experiences, bodies and identities are being taken seriously. On the flip side, I also recognize that there is still much work to be done, and part of that work includes exposing the public to other types of transgender faces in order to ensure the experiences and issues faced by the community are being accounted for, valued and understood.

The point is not to call specific people out because that just feels counterproductive. The point isn’t to attack, hurt others or minimize the important work these longtime advocates are doing for the community. The point is to ask these same people if their stories are truly representative of the diversity of this community. And it’s to remind them that, while their story is important and valid, it may be only one of many stories out there that need to be told.

I’d also like to press upon these advocates to consider using their status, popularity and privilege to encourage media outlets to bring other new faces into that mix. We should insist that the next time we are asked by one of these media outlets to appear on national television, to point out the importance of inviting more diverse, new faces into the spotlight, even if that means someone’s stipend or payment is lessened, or they don’t end up being the “star” of the show.

Wouldn’t it be great if the next time you tune into a “trans” show on OWN or CNN, you see that the diversity of our community is being represented more fully, and that the usual people are replaced by or – at the very least – seated next to new faces with new stories to tell?

Joe Ippolito, PsyD., LCSW, has been a national transgender activist for more 11 years. He is the founder and chair of Gender Reel. He’s also an organizer with the Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference, a clinician, a researcher, a writer and an educator.