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Orange Is the New Black Joins Growing Trend

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Trans actors breaking into the big leagues.

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The first season of Orange Is the New Black airs Thursday, July 11 on Netflix.

by Aisha Bouderdaben

Visibility for the “T’s” in the LGBT community has been growing in recent years, what with prominent transgender figures such as Laura Gabel (who came out last May) and Lana Wachowski (who came out last July) helping to raise awareness. Television programs have also been reflecting this trend, and visibility is on the rise on the silver screen as well.

Candis Cayne, a successful transgender actress, was introduced in CBS’s spin on the story of Sherlock Holmes, Elementary, as Miss Hudson, and even Glee features a transgender character named Unique.

Netflix has taken this route with their new series Orange Is the New Black, which they have renewed for a second season even before the release of the first season on July 11.

A women-in-prison drama with some laughs, Orange follows the main character, Piper (Taylor Schilling), and her trials while serving fifteen months for possessing a suitcase full of drugs. There is a colorful supporting cast, and flashbacks occur to provide the audience with insight as to why each inmate is there, giving plenty of room for flexibility in the plot.

Among the supporting cast is Laverne Cox, a well-known transgender activist and woman of color. She plays Sophia, a trans woman who, pre-transition, was a firefighter.

Cox tells Buzzfeed, “I don’t know of a trans character on television played by a trans person that has as much humanity as this character.”

The weight of this statement is depressing because of how factual it is.

Janet Mock, another transgender activist who, like Cox, is also a woman of color, has said on her blog, “As a trans woman, there’s rarely a time when I’ve been able to applaud the portrayal or someone’s commentary on a woman like myself in mainstream media.”

The main stories involving trans characters usually fall into horribly repetitive patterns: the character is found dead and people solve the murder mystery or learn a lesson about hate crimes, or the character is turning tricks on a dirty street corner.

“I’ve literally played a prostitute about seven times,” Cox told Buzzfeed.

The Center for American Progress released a study last October which revealed that women make up the majority of the gay and transgender community, with women of color being more likely to identify as gay than their white counterparts. Gay and transgender women—and specifically women of color—are more likely to be raising kids, which suggests that the “typical” gay and transgender family faces gender and racial discrimination, along with the usual issues faced by the rest of the LGBT community (such as economic problems, or being denied the right to get married).

The reason this is so important, as Trans Student Equality Resource statistics show, is that 80 percent of children who identify as transgender do not feel safe because of their gender identity. With startling numbers and percentages—such as 41 percent of trans individuals attempting suicide, or 30 percent of trans women being incarcerated—it is important for these stories and lives to be shown and talked about. Trans youth benefit from having characters and public figures to connect with and look up to.

In a world where one in twelve trans women is likely to be murdered (a number that increases to one in eight for trans women of color), it is not only important for young trans individuals to see themselves on television and know that they’re not alone and that they have a future, but also for the general public to understand that there is so much more to a trans person than their genitals or a plot device with a tragic back story.

What’s even more important about the need to increase positive representation in the media is that the public needs to see people with lives not defined solely by their gender identity, but as human beings with real problems, such as having issues with spouses and children post-transition.

Not only does Orange portray real people with real problems, but Sophia is a trans woman played by an actual trans woman.

Previous attempts by straight actors to portray trans characters (such as when Chloe Sevigny played a trans woman for the UK’s TV series Hit & Miss) have made some trans people recoil and protest—especially when Sevigny admitted to The Daily Telegraph that she had “cried every day” when they put the prosthetic penis on her.

“Then looking in the mirror . . . it was weird,” Sevigny continued. “I was lonely and I felt really unattractive. I was confused about my desirability—was I desirable?—in having put that on, and having men see me with that on.”

Some will argue that these casting decisions give straight people more insight into the life of someone who wants to transition. But with so many accomplished and talented trans-identified actors out there, why aren’t transgender roles being given to people who can play them because they have lived them?

Transgender visibility is certainly on the rise. Just last April, DC Comics introduced a new trans character named Alysia, who is also a woman of color. This is just the type of positive representation that needs to happen more often.

With fictional transgender characters becoming more visible in print and on screen, it paves the way for real-life transgender people to be understood and accepted in day-to-day life.

This is Aisha Bouderdaben’s first contribution to OutSmart magazine.

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Aisha Bouderdaben

Aisha Bouderdaben is a contributing writer to OutSmart magazine.

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