GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation has studied 102 episodes and non-recurring story lines scripted for television over that past 10 years that contained transgender characters. They discovered that 54% of those representations were negative, while 35% were judged between problematic and good. Only 12% were considered "groundbreaking."
As an example GLAAD singled out CSI (aka CSI: Las Vegas) for featuring a transgender serial killer who murdered his own mother, The Cleveland Show for featuring a man who vomits onscreen for a long time after discovering that he slept with a transwoman, and Nip/Tuck which featured an entire season about a psychopathic transwoman who is depicted as a "baby-stealing sexual predator who sleeps with her own son."
GLAAD also noted that transgender characters were cast as victims 40% of the time, cast as killers/villains 21% of the time, and depicted as sex-workers 20% of the time. Anti-transgender slurs, language, and dialogue were present in at least 61% of the episodes and story lines.
Besides featuring the transman serial killer, CSI also was cited for featuring scenes in which transgender murder victims were openly mocked by the shows lead characters while their bodies were being examined.
Earlier this summer GLAAD downgraded Showtime in its Network Responsibility Index from excellent because of several examples of negative and/or stereotypical transgender portrayals on Californication and House of Lies. Of the 10 scripted television episodes on Showtime in 2012 which contained transgender content, six were judged to be defamatory.
We hope that representations of transgender people on television evolve to become as diverse, nuanced, and inspiring as the community those images reflect. Media has a history of telling the world a story that transgender people are always victims or villains, instead of true depictions that show the transgender community as citizens worthy of equality and respect. On Transgender Day of Remembrance -- a day on which we remember those who lost their lives due to anti-transgender violence -- we hope television networks will think about what they can do to combat ignorance by improving their depictions of trans people.GLAAD did find some positive portrayals, noting that Grey's Anatomy, Cold Case, and Two and a Half Men have demonstrated that transgender people can be depicted positively in both drama and comedy.
--GLAAD President Herndon Graddick
For study purposes GLAAD excluded the few regular or recurring transgender characters who have appeared over the years:
Degrassi(+) (Teen Nick)
The Riches (FX)
Ugly Betty (ABC)
GLAAD expressed high hopes for the potential storylines developing on Glee (Fox) and the new series T (++) (Sundance Channel) scheduled for next season.
+: Chaz Bono did a turn on Degrassi in support of the transman character, Adam.
++: T is a new series being developed by Sundance focusing on a transman who is "reconciling his past as a lesbian activist." It will be produced by Ira Glass of This American Life and written by Dan Futterman and his wife, Anya Epstein. It is expected to be part of the 2013-14 offerings.
I'm often chastised for not telling people what they can do to help. How about this: If you see a television show with a negative or stereotypical portrayal of a transgender person, call the station and register a complaint.
It couldn't hurt.