Transgender people experience higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts than the general population, and are frequent targets of hate-motivated violence. In a 2012 study of trans mental health and emotional wellbeing, the largest of its kind ever conducted in Europe, over 90 percent of respondents reported having been told that “trans people were not normal.”

How The Media Is Helping The Black BGT Mental Health Crisis

A proliferation of trans characters and storylines in the media—and on television, in particular—has had a positive impact, not just for raising public consciousness but also in offering validation to trans populations.

The House Ball Community (HBC), depicted in several recent series, has long been a vital source of structure and support for its trans members in urban centers (more on that later).

“There’s no question that media representations are really, really significant, in two ways,” says Robert Thompson, PhD, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Newhouse School of Public Communications. “Number one, how media representations inform populations who are not part of those represented; and secondly, how media representations deliver a sense of normalcy to people who are part of the population is represented.”

Case in point: The Netflix documentary Disclosure, which begins streaming June 19, investigates the history of trans representation in Hollywood through interviews with actors and creatives, including Laverne Cox of Orange Is the New Black, who also serves as an executive producer.

One statistic cited early on puts the issue in perspective: 80 percent of Americans don’t know a trans person—and that can often be true of trans people themselves. So depictions in popular culture, however faithful or problematic, offer hugely important points of reference.

When those touchstones evolve from casting trans people as punchlines, murder victims, or murderers themselves, as was so often the case for decades, to more nuanced and truthful representations, the impact can be profound.

(Courtesy of GLAAD)

Trans artists and activists interviewed for the documentary describe their earliest memories of seeing gender variance on screen; however wrong-footed, or often offensive, those depictions may have been, they at least offered a glimmer of reflection. As children and young adults, trans people often understand their identities through the mediated lens of pop culture.

This isn’t just a trans phenomenon; it’s been the same for many cultural issues. “For most of the population, TV was the single biggest storytelling form during the network era,” Thompson says. Whatever made it onto the primetime series was watched by tens of millions of people from the 1950s through the ‘80s and “in some ways became the tacit normal,” Thompson suggests.

Shows like All in the Family (1971-79) and St Elsewhere (1982-88) were known for pushing the envelope, including with groundbreaking storylines featuring trans characters. “Once it was on television, it was this consensus kind of culture; it had been given the seal of approval of existing,” Thomson says.

The Evolution of Trans Portrayals In The Media

From proof of existence, representations have grown significantly more complex, especially over the past decade, to include a growing catalog of thoughtful and revealing portrayals of trans lives and experience. Thompson points especially to Cox’s role on Orange Is the New Black, which famously landed her on a 2014 cover of Time magazine beside the headline “The Transgender Tipping Point,” as well as Transparent and most recently, Pose.

Pose is, I think, one of the great masterpieces of television in the last several years,” Thompson says. “Even if you don’t watch a show like that,” with all the choices now available to television consumers, “its influence, its existence stretches beyond simply the program itself to all the other ways in which it penetrates the culture.”

The House Ball Community Promotes Mental Health

One of those ways has been to further spotlight the House Ball Community (HBC), in which participants, many of them trans, engage in competitions that combine modeling, dance, personal style, and other aesthetic skills.

The House Ball Community, also the focus of a new reality competition series called Legendary on HBO Max, has served as an essential support system to its trans members for decades. Widely introduced to popular culture through the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning, HBC has long been an integral organizing structure for black and other non-white trans people in urban areas, who are among America’s most vulnerable populations.

“The House Ball Community is really a place where [members] can be themselves and be accepted, and not be judged for how they express themselves,” says Christopher Balthazar, a research project director in the Department of Psychiatry at Cook County Health and Hospitals System, where he works with the local HBC population.

“Acceptance, feeling connected with people who are like you, being able to have fun, all of those things promote mental health,” he says. “It helps to affirm identity; it also promotes self-esteem and self-efficacy,” through the accomplishment of performance and competition.

The work of Balthazar’s research team proves the positive impact HBC has on the physical and mental wellbeing of its members. Through recruiting and training leaders to disseminate health information, Balthazar and his colleagues utilize the community’s structure to promote strategies for HIV prevention and foster mental health.

“A lot of people who have a higher status within the community,” often known as legends or icons, “tend to provide mentorship, especially if they’re in a house parent role,” Balthazar says. “That is really the jewel of the House Ball Community, its structure and the culture of supporting each other.”

“There is genuine excitement,” Balthazar says, within the community around series like Pose and Legendary.” For those who aspire to Hollywood careers themselves, the shows offer hope that their dreams may be possible. Others are simply happy to see people like themselves finally visible, in all their complexity, to the outside world.

“Having positive representations can only succeed in changing the conditions of life for trans people when it is part of a much broader movement for social change,” says historian Susan Stryker, PhD, founder of the Transgender Studies Initiative at the University of Arizona, near the end of Disclosure. “Changing representation is not the goal, it’s just the means to an end.”

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Last Updated: Jun 18, 2020