A rainbow of role models

May 17 was IDAHO, the International Day Against Homophobia, which commemorates the World Health Organisation’s 1990 decision to remove homosexuality from the list of mental disorders. Millions marched around the world in protest and celebration. In London, Lady Gaga served as guest editor for Metro. And anthropologists uncovered a gay caveman, although probably not deliberately for IDAHO.

While The Flintstones may have been having a gay old time in the vintage sense of the word, pop culture can be a powerful tool in opening minds en masse. It’s a positive sign of the times that there are an ever-increasing number of LGBT characters that transcend stereotypes and, for the most part, avoid cheap laughs.  In celebration of the WHO’s 21-year-old decision – an event worth marking everyday – here are my 10 favourite transgendered performances on film and television. If you haven’t caught these yet, I strongly recommend that you do!

Lee Pace as Calpernia in Soldier’s Girl

Soldier’s Girl is a bleak indictment of the US army’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, based on true events. It’s difficult to watch, particularly with its depiction of a horribly graphic homophobic murder. I may have preferred not to watch it altogether were it not for Lee Pace’s luminous turn as Calpernia Addams, the pre-op burlesque singer that captures the heart of Private Barry Winchell. Pace is marvelously femme, with a streak of vulnerability peeking through a glamorous veneer, and the relationship between Calpernia and Barry is subsequently very believable and tender. The underrated Pace elevates the film above being another made-for-TV morality tale, and leaves you with a lot to chew on in terms of issues facing transsexuals and those that love them, especially in the face of military machismo.

Darren Criss as Blaine in Glee

Kurt is far and away Glee‘s breakout star, and casting a love interest that met the expectations of his legions of admirers was no doubt a monumental task. Darren Criss as Blaine has more than risen to the challenge, and has quickly, and deservedly, become a fan favourite in his own right. Blaine has been an outstanding confidant for Kurt, and is self-assured without being smug. He’s proud of who he is and willing to wear his heart on sleeve, whether it’s serenading a Gap employee or stepping in to dance with his newly-elected Prom Queen boyfriend. He’s also not afraid to explore his possible bisexuality – which is often more contentiously and falsely portrayed than homosexuality – even when that involves going on a date with Rachel Berry.

Felicity Huffman as Bree in Transamerica

Transmerica is a terrific movie, and Feicity Huffman is a revelation as Bree,  who is forced to confront her past – in the form of a sullen teenaged son she never realised she had –  in order to be approved for a vaginoplasty. Bree is both prim and awkward, battling with fatherly feelings as she looks to gaining the body she has long desired. Huffman’s Bree wins out over Hilary Swank’s Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry any day. But maybe that’s because I prefer to be entertained while I’m being put through the emotional wringer.

Ian Gomez as Javier in Felicity

Coffee shop manager Javier’s nurturing nature ensures his place as the defacto parent figure for the motley youths that populate Felicity. For all his exaggerated Latino camp qualities, he’s by far the most responsible adult, consistent with his affections and attentions in a way most characters can’t count on in their actual parents. It’s just a shame that the Felicity Powers That Be saw fit to unrealistically dissolve his marriage, which was obviously done in order to create new storylines for the character and embed him deeper into the group.  Still, more Javier is no bad thing.

Eric Stonestreet as Cameron in Modern Family

Like Javier, Cameron is, at first glance, the typical ilk of TV gay, with a flare for the dramatic and a passion for Broadway. But he’s also sensitive to the way gay men are feminised, as his partner finds out when trying to treat him on Mother’s Day. He’s more comfortable with his camp than the uptight, self-conscious Mitchell, and is as happy playing American football as he is in his daughter’s princess castle.

Ian Somerhalder as Hamilton in Young Americans

Young Americans is one of my ultimate guilty pleasures, and the Twelfth-Night-esque romance between Jake (Kate Moenig) and Hamilton (Ian Somerhalder) was by far the best part. (Definitely better than Bella and Scout’s possibly incestous hijinks.) Jake is impressively gender-bending as a straight girl crossdressing to gain her movie star mom’s attention, but it’s Hamilton who is truly IDAHO-worthy. He is willing to express feelings that are incredibly strange to him, whatever the consequences and regardless of gender. If only we’d been able to see more of this intriguing relationship develop – me and Miss Thropist agreed that we would happily trade the last three seasons of Dawson’s Creek for just another season of its addictive spin-off.

Nelsan Ellis as Lafayette in True Blood

Oh why can’t they permanently kill off Sookie and Bill, and focus on True Blood‘s MVP Lafayette? The short-order cook is all kinds of fabulous, with a fierce fashion sense  and a pillar-box pout. He’s also powerful in stature and in personality. He’s overcome a difficult childhood and holds down several jobs to keep his mentally unwell mother in care she needs. Even the undead would be loathe to cross him – not that they haven’t tried.

Lauren Mollica as Aggie in Itty Bitty Titty Committee

Itty Bitty Titty Committee is an often grating film about lesbian empowerment, filled with shrill types causing wanton mayhem. Transman Aggy, played by skater girl Lauren Mollica, is the only man allowed to join Clits in Action (CiA), and is by far the sweetest and most likable member, a listener rather than a shouter. Unfortunately, he’s often treated rather shabbily by the other characters – one drunkenly sleeps with him and then acts revolted when presented with breakfast in bed. Nonetheless, I appreciate the portrayal of a transman who is masculine rather than macho, and conciliatory rather than aggressive. Transgendered performances often run the danger of subscribing to masculine or feminine extremes, mocking those who don’t fit neatly into either.

Carla Gallo as Libby in Carnivale

When we first encounter Libby, she initially seems sexually forward and coarse, the unsurprising result of being born into a cooch-dancing family, where gyrating for drooling men and servicing them for extra after the show is simply par for the course. But beneath her bold exterior, Libby has managed to retain a sense of innocence, as seen through her growing closeness with Sophie.  With her new friend, she is soft, loyal and protective, and begins to look to a life beyond the carnival. Sadly, Sophie cruelly exploits her good intentions.

Shay Mitchell as Emily in Pretty Little Liars

Pretty Little Liars is the kind of over-the-top show that you can’t help watching. It’s so bad it’s good. At first the depiction of Emily coming to terms with lesbianism seemed rather trite and overdone, but it has become increasingly nuanced. Shay Mitchell is lovely as the athletic Emily, who has to contend with a religious family and bullying at school, but the most interesting aspect is her interactions with other characters. Emily’s mum admitting she loved her daughter but needed more time accepting her sexual orientation, was heartbreaking – and realistic. It spoke to the way that coming out to your parents is made even harder by both parties having to discuss having a sexuality identity in the first place. It’s also sweet how Emily’s fellow Liars are wholeheartedly behind her, arranging for her to have a special goodbye with her girlfriend, and expressing surprise to delight to find she has a “type”. The latter is cheesy, but again, feels true to life. Now, if only they could find her a decent girlfriend… one that isn’t way too old to be in high school or a Cruel Intentions wannabe.

3 thoughts on “A rainbow of role models

  1. This is a lovely list, and I agree with almost all of them (except that I haven’t seen IBTC). I want to shower this with hearts!

  2. Pingback: Come Out & Play « Pop Culture Playpen

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