Transgender characters find their role

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Although long known to the gay community, breakout star Candis Cayne became a household name this year with her recurring role as the male-to-female transgender character Carmelita on ABC's "Dirty Sexy Money."

She also made history as the first transgender actress to play a transgender character in primetime, and she even shared an onscreen kiss with William Baldwin. "It just never would have occurred to me to cast a person that wasn't transgender," says creator and executive producer Craig Wright. "The minute Candis walked through the door, there wasn't a single ounce of opposition."

This was a bold step for a network at a time when most LGBT ground is broken on cable. With two cable networks -- Here! and Logo -- providing dedicated gay content, and numerous other cable networks featuring LGBT characters in original miniseries, documentaries and dramas, the LGBT experience is being portrayed with more complexity than ever.

According to Neil Giuliano, president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, which is holding its 19th annual Media Awards on Saturday at Hollywood's Kodak Theatre (with additional ceremonies in New York, South Florida and San Francisco), "There are fewer gay characters on the broadcast networks than there have been in over a decade ... but the characters that do exist are more fully realized and authentic than characters we've seen in the past, so progress is being made."

While gay characters are enjoying fewer but meatier roles, transgender characters have never seen so much airtime. ABC has led the way, garnering 11 GLAAD nominations, three of which credit the depiction of transgender characters on "Dirty Sexy Money," "Ugly Betty" and "All My Children." However, even though Cayne has won enormous praise both for her performance and for what her inclusion means for the transgender community, the vast majority of transgender roles on television are still not played by transgender actors.

According to some producers, it is not studio opposition that makes it so difficult, but rather the challenge of casting roles from the relatively small talent pool of transgender actors. "We didn't know whether to go with a real transgender or whether to go with a woman," says "Ugly Betty" creator and executive producer Silvio Horta. "We saw some transgender actors, but it ended up being that the couple that we found just didn't have the chops." So when the show revealed that editor Alex Meade had disappeared for two years to complete a transition from male to female, including full sexual reassignment surgery, creators turned to actress Rebecca Romijn to fill the high heels of the newly metamorphosed Alexis Meade.

Although gender identity is certainly a central facet of Alexis' character, her feud with her brother, her troubled past and her efforts to rebuild damaged relationships have taken center stage. "The audience's response to the character is more about the character and less about the character being transgender, " Horta emphasizes.

While the audience understands that shows like "Ugly Betty," with its playful melodrama and soap opera-style plot twists, are not to be taken too literally, portraying a transgender character is nevertheless a delicate operation. "The challenge is, while exploring the fun of it, also keeping it real -- knowing that this is something that people go through," Horta says.

ABC isn't the only network getting it right. Other GLAAD nominees touching upon the transgender experience include WE tv's documentary about transgender women in prison "Cruel and Unusual," MSNBC's special "Born in the Wrong Body: Girls Will Be Boys," a segment of CNN's "Paula Zahn Now," and episodes of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and "The Tyra Banks Show."



Still, many producers believe that there is a great deal of progress left to be made. "Unfortunately, I don't think the industry itself has changed much," says Showtime's "The L Word" creator Ilene Chaiken. "I would like to see a procedural where, for instance, Dylan McDermott's character just happens to be gay."

In the world of crime dramas, LGBT characters are traditionally relegated to the role of victim or killer, but this still provides opportunity to showcase and develop them, if only for one episode. "(CBS') 'Cold Case' has been consistently representing gay and transgender characters since its inception," says executive producer Veena Sud. This year, the show was nominated for a GLAAD award for its "Boy Crazy" episode, which tells the story of the murder of a transgender woman in the 1950s.

Although it has been a banner year for transgender characters on television across the board, not all members of the LGBT community have received their share of the spotlight. As "The L Word" looks to wrap its sixth and final season, Chaiken worries that its departure will create something of a vacuum for lesbian characters. "I was hoping that by the time the show ended we would be able to pass the torch to another show," she says. "But sadly, if 'The L Word' went off the air right now, there would be no other major representations of lesbian characters on television."

Over its six seasons, "The L Word" has developed a diverse following. According to Chaiken, it appeals to women as a show that depicts their struggles and experiences regardless of sexual orientation. "And of course, I know of a lot of straight guys who got hooked on the show while watching it with their girlfriends," she adds.

It is just this kind of crossover appeal that gay networks like Here! and Logo hope to achieve. According to Here!, the LGBT market in America represents 15 million loyal customers and an estimated $610 billion in buying power. "The market is as diverse as any mainstream market," says Paul Colichman, founder and CEO of Here! Networks. "The LGBT community is made of people from all races, ages and socioeconomic backgrounds, so it is truly a melting pot." Unfortunately, the major networks have yet to fully mobilize this market.

"Traditional networks are still in the 'Amos 'n' Andy' stage with gay America. They need to wake up," says Colichman.

With increasingly diverse audiences embracing shows featuring LGBT characters, gay networks making inroads on cable and transgender characters breaking into primetime, "Dirty Sexy Money's" Wright is hopeful that the LGBT community will see more representation in both network and cable programming. "We're at a point now," he says, "where if you put together an ensemble cast for a television show, you would probably feel something was missing if there wasn't a gay or lesbian or transgender character."   
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