Monica Roberts

Dear Hollywood Writers

Filed By Monica Roberts | March 04, 2008 3:49 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Media, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: African-American, Monica Roberts, movies, open letter, transgender, tv shows

Dear Hollywood Writers,
Now that the strike is over and you are back at work writing scripts for either what's left of the television season or in preparation for next fall, I have a request.

While I am deeply appreciative along with the rest of the transgender community for the wonderful job you are doing on Rebecca Romijn's character, Alexis Meade, on Ugly Betty, and that great leap forward in having a transwoman play a transwoman in Dirty Sexy Money, when it comes to transwomen of color, you are still stuck in the demeaning stereotype of having us play prostitutes.

We African-American transpeople are literally under attack by people who hate us. We are struggling mightily within our own communities to dispel negative perceptions and myths about us that are perpetuated in no small part by some of the shows you create.

I was disappointed to find out that Kerry Washington in the upcoming indie movie Life Is Hot In Cracktown was going to be playing a transgender hooker.

The ironic thing is that it didn't start out that way.

Back in 1977, The Jeffersons broadcast an episode entitled "Just A Friend" in which George's old Navy buddy transtioned in the 25 years they hadn't seen each other and became Edith Stokes. The dialogue of Edith's character, played by Veronica Redd, accurately depicted the anguish a transperson goes through and was sensitively and thoughtfully handled.

But that's been the high point of African-American transgender characters on television. Most of the time when we aren't being depicted as hookers, we get killed in the first five minutes of the show or become the butt of jokes. As much as I love Tyra Banks, I didn't like the 2004 All of Us episode where she played Dirk's brother who had transitioned to become Roni. It came off as cartoonish.

The most realistic character so far from an African-American transgender standpoint in this century so far has been Sheryl Lee Ralph's portrayal of Claire on the short-lived Showtime show Barbershop: The Series for six episodes in 2005.

The reality is, dear Hollywood writers, that 90% of African-American transpeople do not earn their living from doing sex work, and we're more than fed up with repeatedly seeing that stereotype of us in movies and shows.

I have transsistah girlfriends who are accountants, IT professionals, supervisors in Fortune 500 companies, even mothers raising children. When are we going to get some balance and see a transsistah in an Alexis Meade type role?

I asked this question on my blog, so it bears repeating in the text of this open letter:

Is it so hard for you, Hollywood writers, to create an African-American transgender character that fits the reality of the 90% of us who don't partake of sex work to make our living? Is it that difficult for you to craft an African-American transgender character that isn't the punchline of a joke or doesn't end up dead in the first five minutes of the show?

If it is, then give me a call. I'll be happy, for a fee, to create a positive African-American transgender character for you.


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Just for clarification, the white trans woman in Dirty Sexy Money is also a hooker.

The unfortunate reality is that many trans women are sex workers, no matter their color or ethnicity. The discrimination they face - we face - can leave an individual with a very limited amount of options. Given the opportunity, trans women can be productive members of mainstream society. Until those opportunities become available, we can expect to see trans women "on the stroll". And their negative portrayal in film. It is up to our generation - those that have found a way through the quagmire -to help our little sisters find their way. Getting an inclusive ENDA passed would be a good start. And I have no problem with beating up on Hollywood for their negative portrayals, either. We need to be portrayed as human beings - not sex objects like Candice Cayne or Rebecca Romjin - but as the ordinary women that we are.

Oh, TV! If people would just stop watching so much and start listening to each other more....

I know, the images and narratives it promotes are powerful. But I can't get past the idea that people should be watching less in general.

Then again, I'm a computer junkie, so I have no place to talk!

Wait - you mean you don't turn tricks on the side, Monica? Here I thought you were just your usual successful careerwoman like Julia Roberts with bigger boobs.

These stupid stereotypes are ridiculous. It's like how all Arabs are terrorists, all Asians are math whizes and all accountants are white. Wouldn't it be great if all TV was like Star Trek where they just put in everyone doing everything without judgement?

I may be stating the obvious, but it may not be that it's so difficult to write the part, but working it into the story so that it is believable rather than a short-lived stunt.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | March 5, 2008 6:22 AM

To the degree that popular culture is a reflection of reality, rather than reality itself, I understand your annoyance. "Queer as Folk" could not have been made in 1977, but it too is a wild exaggeration of lifestyle. Reality is usually far ahead of popular culture. Don't blame the writers. Remember it is POPULAR culture and Peoria Illinois is not ready. And, I would add, who cares? Media is only about the money. You may have heard of Vito Russo who wrote "The Celuloid Closet." After meeting him at an early "Gay convention" in Bloomington Indiana in 1974 he spoke to our group and stated: "We know we will have arrived when a story line can include Gay characters and not be about Gay characters." Keep the faith my Dear, EVERYTHING IS GETTING BETTER.

One of the things that I'm painfully aware of and know from my people's 400 years in North America is that, like Andre Agassi usewd to say in his commercials, 'image is everything'.

It's why Jasmyne, I and others can't stand Shirley Q. Liquor. It's why the African-American community went off on the Don Imus comment last year. It's why the NAACP keeps constant vigilance on Hollywood. It's why ESSENCE magazine has embarked on a 'Take Back The Music' campaign.

There are sexy, talented transwomen running thangs in businesses. Some of them happen to be transwomen of color. But you wouldn't kow that based on the TV coverage, and sadly but true, the first exposure that many people have of transgender people is from television.

I'll take someone sharing my ethnic heritage portraying an Alexis Meade type character over a tranny hooker any day.



Frankly, Monica, I am more concerned about the women on the street than their portrayal on television. They need options, they need opportunities. They need education and they need employment.

I don't mean to take away from your position. I am as tired as you are of seeing transgender women - and anyone of color, for that matter - being portrayed according to stereotype. I can't sit through a Martin Lawrence film, and he doesn't portray himself as a prostitute. I am tired of seeing "folksy criminals" and absurd policemen. I find it all demeaning. Quality shows? I think about "Homicide, Life on the Street". Of course, they don't have a role for a transgender detective. That said, I don't know of any transgender detecives. Policemen, yes. Detectives, no. We are still being discriminated against in real life. How can they portray us as anything but victims in drama?

As for Alexis Meade, she is still a comedic figure - just more comic relief in a TV comedy. Not exactly a serious role model for young transwomen. I would like to see actual transwomen portraying transwomen in some serious roles. We just have to get them there in real life, first. And that is a tall order. An inclusive ENDA would be a start. Only a start. I am going to let Hollywood worry about the movies. We still have too much work to do.

Jeri,
You have to worry about image as a minority.

I have to point out something. Diahann Carrol's 1968 'Julia' was a breakthrough role for rican-Americans. That led to Sherman Helmsley's George Jefferson and eventually Dennis Hasybert playing the president.

Rebecca Romijn's role is critically important to the transgender community as a counterbalance to the negative propaganda being put out there.