Reality TV Gets Transgendered

In the second season of MTV's pioneering reality show "The Real World," the seven housemates played a game in which they anonymously asked each other personal questions to get better acquainted. It was going fine until Beth Anthony, who just so happened to be a lesbian, objected to the questions she was getting--every one was about her sexuality. Not her background, interests, family or education--just the fact that she happened to like women.

Fifteen years have passed, and it's hard to imagine such a scene playing out on a modern reality show: gays and lesbians have become a staple of reality-show casts. The story arc about the girl from the Corn Belt with "traditional values" forced to confront her prejudices seems silly now, on the few occasions we see it played out anymore. But reality shows are, at their cores, social experiments (remember the racially segregated season of "Survivor"?), and as acceptance of gays has increased over the years, in part because of pop culture, two reality shows have chosen a new minority to throw into the mix: the transgendered.

VH1's new show "I Want to Work for Diddy" and the CW's "America's Next Top Model" (now in it's 11th season) both feature transgender women--Isis Tsunami on "Model" and Laverne Cox on "Diddy," though she was just eliminated. In "Diddy," Laverne's gender identity didn't loom that large. The show is an "Apprentice"-style competition in which contestants fight for an entry-level job for hip-hop mogul Sean (Diddy) Combs, including making sure he has Heinz ketchup at arm's length at all times. (Diddy didn't get to where he is by accepting less than the best.) Laverne was mostly just another candidate fighting tooth and nail, shockingly, for an awful, entry-level job. However, she did encounter some resistance from Boris, a stout, brusque brute who vowed not to work with her, using a fuzzy biological and religious argument as his basis. He soon caved.

The far more interesting story belongs to Isis. The 22-year-old was living in a homeless shelter in New York when "Model" came calling. The contestants from last season had a challenge in which they posed with homeless young people to, ahem, raise awareness of the issue. Though she was placed in the background, Isis stood out, at times outshining the contestants. Host Tyra Banks asked about her, and only later found out Isis was transgender. Banks invited her to join the cast anyway.

"Model" has always been inclusive. One of the show's judges is Miss Jay Alexander, a runway coach who is a man but whose gender expression is decidedly female. But the inclusion of Isis as a cast member changes the game because of how her gender transition informs her performance and therefore the competition. Judge-photographer Nigel Barker is impressed by her seemingly innate modeling savvy. But it's not innate, of course. It's rehearsed. Where the other girls in the competition take their beauty and mannerisms for granted, Isis doesn't. She had to work for them. Her gender transition isn't a liability in the competition, it's an asset.

But naturally, we're back to the convention of reality-show cast members reacting to sharing space with a kind of person they've never encountered before. And the girls on "Model" haven't been as quick to adapt to the situation as was Boris. "Model" isn't a coed competition (like "Diddy"). Isis wasn't born a woman, the less-tolerant girls reasoned, therefore she doesn't belong in the competition. Many of them haven't hesitated to express their discomfort.

Mind you, also living in the house is Elisa, a woman who doesn't like to label her sexuality but says she's made a hobby of broadening the horizons of straight women. The girls in the house don't make a fuss over Elisa; in fact, Clark, the blonde she'd been eyeing since day one, makes out with her in a hot tub. Gay panic just isn't what it used to be; plenty Americans have close relationships with a gay person--2 in 5, according to Pew Research. But given that 1 percent of the population is transgendered--that's the estimate given by the National Center for Transgender Equality--the odds are much lower that people personally know a transgender person. This is as much uncharted territory for viewers who invite Isis into their homes as for the girls living with her.

Is all this a little exploitative? Sure--they're still reality shows, and that's the nature of the beast. But reality shows have done a lot to spark conversations about sexuality, to make gays and lesbians seem less weird and exotic, to introduce out-and-proud gays and lesbians to people who might never have met them otherwise. By casting transgender people, reality shows put themselves in a position to have that effect again. Sure there has been scripted fare about the topic--"Transamerica," for example--but reality TV has a more transformative effect. Reality shows are largely agenda-free: there's no writer pulling the strings (for the most part). There are real people reacting in real and unexpected ways. Sometimes those reactions will be ugly. Other times not, as in the "Model" scene where Isis asks Analeigh to distract her with funny faces while she gives herself a painful hormone injection. The message comes through: acceptance of those different than you--so easy an aspiring model can do it.