From 'Surreal Life' to Laverne Cox's 'Diddy' Breakout: 9 Reality TV Shows Starring Transgender People
By A. Raymond Johnson
Following a standout year in scripted TV, transgender people are making big moves in the world of reality TV thanks to several new shows -- and we’re not talking about Bruce Jenner or the Kardashians.
Discovery Life's New Girls on the Block, which premiered in April, follows a group of trans women in Kansas City, Mo., and ABC Family has ordered My Transparent Life, a show that aims to be the real-life version of the Emmy-award winning Transparent.
Yet, this is not the first time audiences have seen trans people in the confessional booth--for more than a decade we have been a part of TV’s reality culture.
Here's how the representation of trans people has evolved--and what we can hope to learn from the past about what not to show on TV, no matter how real you’re trying to get.
The Surreal Life (2006)
Alexis Arquette--whose famous siblings include actors Patricia, Rosanna and David--appeared in the sixth season of VH1's celebrity housing experiment shortly after she came out publicly about transitioning. Arquette brought basic “Trans 101” info to the show. While her big personality inspired some moments of drama, it was nothing compared to housemate and former video vixen Tawny Kitaen.
This UK dating competition show (which aired on Fox four years after its 2003 British debut) was the first reality show to star a transgender person and, unfortunately, it's pretty much the worst. Miriam, a trans woman model, has six contestants competing for her attention...but none of the men are told she is transgender until the finale. The “Surprise, she's a man!" punchline continued to be a hurtful joke--and in fact led to lawsuits and monetary settlements, so networks take note: this is a very expensive insult to make.
I Want to Work for Diddy (2008)
The illustrious Laverne Cox got her start on this VH1 competition show and despite one contestant claiming early on they wouldn't work with her, Cox's competence, professionalism, and humor won them over. Cox was eliminated halfway through the competition--but our world is all the better for it, because she went on to produce two television shows herself, TRANSform ME (more on that below) and Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word. Oh yeah, and then she got an Emmy nomination for her role as Sophia on Netflix’s hit series, Orange is the New Black.
Tyra Banks actively courted transgender model Isis King for the 11th cycle of America's Next Top Model and though she didn't win, King was popular enough to return for the show’s all-star competition. During her original cycle, King let the cameras show details of her physical and medical transition, including hormone injections. And fans were given a dose of reality surrounding body issues when judges and photographers questioned her ability to confidently model in skimpy clothes and swimsuits. Later, when King appeared on The Tyra Banks Show, Banks connected her with Dr. Marci Bowers--both a trans woman and surgery specialist--who offered her an all-expenses paid gender reassignment procedure. King let the world see so much of her medical transition, but many trans advocates now push for a move away from narratives that focus solely on trans people's physical transformations.
Real World: Brooklyn (2009)
It took 21 years, but when The Real World -- the original reality TV show -- returned to New York for a third time, MTV introduced its first openly transgender housemate, Katelynn Cusanelli, while keeping up the tradition of delivering dramatic teachable moments. Cusanelli was willing to be out about being a trans woman for the show, but preferred to do it on her own terms when it came to the actual conversations with housemates. Eventually, housemate JD (aka Anderson Cooper's ex-boyfriend) blabbed to all the straight guys in the house before she got a chance to personally come out. Note: non-consensual outing of trans people is never cool.
Cox never got a chance to work for Diddy, so instead became the first African-American trans woman to star in (and produce) her own television show, VH1’s TRANSform Me. The show aired for one season and each of the eight episodes focused on an everyday woman getting a makeover and lifestyle mentoring from Cox and two other trans women, Nina Poon and Jamie Clayton. Interspersed between makeup and fashion advice are inspiring messages about being in their body and finding self-confidence as women. Several of the contestants had never encountered a trans woman before the show, but their new experiences proved how easy it actually can be to integrate new language into our everyday lives.
RuPaul's Drag Race (2010-2013)
The Logo hit series has ruffled feathers with the use of transphobic words, such as "tranny" and "she-male," but the show has also featured several drag queens who were trans-identified. Sonique, Kenya Michaels, and Carmen Carrera came out after first appearing on the show, and season five’s Monica Beverly Hillz became the first contestant to come out during the competition. RuPaul responded by saying “I invited you here because you were fierce,” then saved her on the runway, reassuring Monica that she deserved to be on the show. All four of RPDG’s trans contestants demonstrated that drag was not just for the boys.
Chaz Bono became the first trans person to slip on ballroom shoes, as well as the first prominent trans man to regularly appear on prime time TV. Bono made it pretty far into the dance competition with the help of his effusively supportive partner Lacey Schwimmer, and over the course of the show he discussed his transition candidly, both the emotional and physical aspects. DWTS marks the first reality show where no drama or negative reactions from fellow cast mates about his identity were shown on camera--Bono was accepted as a man from day one. Not bad, ABC.
Small Town Security (2012-2014)
This AMC reality show focused on a collection of characters working in a private security firm in a small town in north Georgia. Among them was Lt. Dennis Croft, a trans man, who was accepted by his co-workers, challenging most notions Americans have of life in the Deep South. Over the course of three seasons, we saw Croft go through a legal name change, chest reconstruction surgery, and navigate his complicated relationship with his boss, Joan. Ok, yes, Croft was a bit kooky -- with stories of past lovers brought back to protect him from aliens--but so was everyone else at the office. He fit in just fine.