Trans* Roles

5 gender-bending characters in film and TV 

By David-Elijah Nahmod - Nov. 3, 2014

As the trans* community continues to gain visibility – within both the LGBT community and society at large – arts and entertainment have followed suite, incorporating transgender characters into more story lines for the both the small and big screen than ever before.

As part of Transgender Awareness Month, observed each November, Echo is taking a look back at five noteworthy examples of trans* stories on film and TV.

Because most of these projects were made before the word transgender had even been coined, these story lines might not be an accurate portrayal of the trans experience, but they stand as early attempts to open the closet door.

Myra Breckenridge (1970)

Based on Gore Vidal's best-selling, gender-bending novel from 1968, Myra Breckenridge was a film that was way ahead of its time. Raquel Welch, then Hollywood's reigning sex symbol, showed great courage in accepting the lead role of a male-to-female transwoman (transsexual was the popular term in use then) who goes to Hollywood to teach men a lesson.

A raunchy and over the top slapstick comedy, that poked mad fun at the sexual revolution of the day, this film was one of the most notorious flops of the ‘70s.

However, it's well worth reconsidering now on DVD – in part for it's then daring sexual humor and for the mad gusto with which Welch dives into a role no one else wanted to play.

The Christine Jorgensen Story (1970)

In 1952, ex-GI George Jorgensen made headlines around the world after undergoing sex reassignment surgery and reemerging as Christine. Christine Jorgensen proceeded to spend the rest of her life advocating for a trans community that had not yet come out.

Irving Rapper, who directed Bette Davis at Warner Brothers during the 1940s, tells what purports to be Jorgensen's true life story as though it were a "ladies' tear jerker" from three decades earlier. Though a bit melodramatic at times, John Hansen's portrayal of both George and Christine effectively conveys the angst of a woman who finds herself trapped in a man's body. Though the little-known Hansen gives a good performance, he looks more like a drag queen than a woman. The real Jorgensen was every inch a lady, and would not have been mistaken for a man.

This long unseen film was recently posted complete on YouTube.

Medical Center: The Fourth Sex (1975)

Robert Reed (The Brady Bunch) guest starred in this groundbreaking two-part episode of the 1970s hospital drama Medical Center. At a time when the LGBT community was invisible on the small screen, Reed (a closeted gay man in real life) played Dr. Pat Caddison, a married father who decides to undergo sexual reassignment surgery, which causes quite a stir among his family and friends.

Then a top-rated series on CBS, Medical Center showed a lot of sensitivity and courage with this thought-provoking storyline. Additionally, Reed received an Emmy nomination for the Medical Center episodes – a radical sign of acceptance for 1975.

Orlando (1992)

Sally Potter's surreal drama Orlando was based on a novel by Virginia Woolf. In Elizabethan England, an androgynous young man (Tilda Swinton) receives a blessing from a dying Queen Elizabeth I (a cross-dressing Quentin Crisp).

"Do not wither, do not grow old, Orlando," the Queen commands, offering the young man a castle and a piece of land. True to his word, the young man remains physically youthful. He resides in the castle for centuries as he dabbles in poetry and art. Along the way, he wakes up one morning to find himself physically transformed into a woman. She continues living into the 20th century. A strange and hypnotic story indeed.

Soldier's Girl (2003)

Showtime produced this riveting dramatization of a true story. Troy Garity (Jane Fonda's son) and Lee Pace star as Barry and Calpernia, a pair of star crossed, ill-fated lovers. He's a soldier on an army base in the south, she's a pre-op transwoman who performs at a local club.

Barry identifies as heterosexual and sees Calpernia as a beautiful woman. As these soul mates fall deeply and hopelessly in love, a closeted, homophobic fellow soldier flies into a violent rage and murders Barry.

Beautifully written and acted, the profoundly sensitive Soldier's Girl will open viewers eyes to the harsh realities of being transgender in an unaccepting, unforgiving society. Calpernia Sarah Addams has since fully transitioned. She now lives in Los Angeles where she’s pursuing a career in acting and singing.

We want to hear from you! Tell us about your favorite titles in Trans* Cinema in the comments below.

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