In September 2015, NBC aired an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit titled “Transgender Bridge,” about a transgender teenager named Avery. In the course of a 42-minute episode, Avery is attacked, is hospitalized, schools the SVU detectives in trans 101, forgives her attacker, and dies. The boy who pushed her off a bridge (causing the embolism that killed her) is convicted of second-degree manslaughter, though lead detectives Olivia Benson and Sonny Carisi argue against pursuing the case so harshly. Law & Order: SVU has a long and complicated history with transgender representation. In the rare cases when trans characters appear on the show, they’re usually white trans women who “pass” as cis and are played by cisgender actors (both male and female).
Usually, their characters are overdramatic sex workers, victims, or villains. These representations make it seem as if transgender identity is restricted to trans women who pass as and are mostly white. Avery isn’t the first depiction of a transgender child on the show (the first, a girl named Hailey, appeared in the 2009 episode “Transitions”), but “Transgender Bridge” marked the first time on the show that a transgender character had been positioned in a seemingly positive and sympathetic light. There are several scenes in which the detectives fumble to understand Avery’s identity, but they still use the proper terminology, pronouns, and name, which SVU has not done in the past. Avery’s parents and lawyer also accept her, another departure from previous episodes depicting trans characters.
In 2014, a Time magazine cover story declared a “transgender tipping point” in media and in the culture at large. Since the Law & Order franchise touts plotlines “ripped from the headlines,” it’s no surprise to see the tale of a transgender teen. Along with recent reality TV shows focused on trans children, like I Am Jazz and Jacob’s Journey, Avery’s story recalled the suicide of Leelah Alcorn, a trans teen whose online suicide note was reposted by media outlets and trans activists, resulting in widespread debate about the rights of trans children. After Alcorn’s death, websites cropped up to communicate support and express mourning. Some declared her the patron saint of transgender people. The language of sainthood suffuses SVU’s depiction of Avery as well, especially as she forgives her attacker while still in the hospital suffering from injuries that will ultimately kill her.
When Avery’s therapist remarks at her funeral that “Avery’s legacy [is] tolerance, love, and forgiveness,” Avery completes her transformation from typical trans teen to patron saint in the time it takes for the cisgender characters to express guilt at her treatment and find absolution in her death. Both the real-life Alcorn and the fictional Avery represent a trend of turning trans kids and teens into symbols, saints, and signs as a way for the cisgender public to situate their guilt and then absolve themselves of responsibility. Such stories show the systemic ways transgender people and transgender women in particular have been oppressed and silenced in narratives that claim to be about them. Used as a tool rather than written as a person with complex feelings, wants, and desires, the transgender character always becomes a sign for the cisgender writers and audience to interpret for themselves.
In her 2007 book Whipping Girl, transgender theorist Julia Serano isolates two main trans tropes that show up in our pop culture: the deceptive and the pathetic. The deceptive trans person hides their identity until the big reveal moment when they are found out, often violently. This then codes the transgender character as a deceiver or villain: The Crying Game’s Dil, Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry, and the atrocious Ray Finkle in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. The pathetic trans character, meanwhile, doesn’t pass, and thus can’t be deceptive, and they usually require help from cis people. Serano lists Roberta Muldoon in The World According to Garp as an example, and Transparent’s Maura Pfefferman is another. Though different at the surface level, these two tropes achieve the same objective: They posit the cisgender character as the hero who either defeats or uplifts the transgender character.
Over the years, the pathetic trans character has evolved a new form: the “mythic” transgender character. In her article “Rise of the Gender Novel,” Canadian trans author Casey Plett remarks that many novels with transgender (or intersex) protagonists, such as For Today I Am a Boy by Kim Fu, Annabel by Kathleen Winter, and Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex, are so similar it’s “flat-out weird.” Casey observes that in each of these novels the protagonist is:
a chosen one, a lone wolf plodding on against adversity. They do no wrong; they remain gentle and stoic in the face of difficulty. Whatever imperfections they show are forgiven, usually by dint of gender trouble….This might make for inspiring reading, but it’s odd to spend a few hundred pages with someone who goes through hell and emerges with all the flaws of a Disney hero. The reader scarcely knows anything about the characters’ inner lives.
Off the page, transgender kids fare no differently. Reality TV shows, police procedurals, and newspaper articles turn trans kids into a mixture of the pathetic and mythic trans tropes. Take this two-sentence opening from a 2013 New York Times piece about trans kids: “Coy Mathis was born a boy. But after just a few years, biology succumbed to a more powerful force.” Calling her trans identity a “more powerful force” turns it into something external—something that can be inferred as divine. Not only does this suggest Mathis is saintlike, but it also robs her of any agency, as though she had no role in realizing and declaring her gender identity.
In other depictions of trans children, notably in reality TV and viral YouTube videos, the transgender kid’s desire is presented as a mysterious force, the child merely a passive cipher. The child themself is rendered mute onscreen while the cisgender parents and doctors create videos in which their own acceptance, rather than the child’s identity, is what’s praised. Though Avery is fictional, her story has real-life consequences for trans people. Forgiving her tormentors may seem like a step in the right direction, but Law & Order: SVU’s history of shoddily representing trans characters—and the fact that the episode’s writers are cisgender—changes the context. When cisgender people write characters like Avery, they are acknowledging, on some level, that they may not have been representing transgender people fairly before. Characters like Avery are their attempt at absolution, a way to say that they’ve learned from past mistakes. But what results too often feels like self-congratulation.
At the end of the episode, Avery’s legacy must be forgiveness because she’s literally made to forgive by the exact same people who are asking for absolution. By doing so, the writers and producers lap up the praise for tackling the “transgender tipping point” in their show. In order to enact this forgiveness, Avery also needs to undergo a traumatic event and experience transphobia—the same transphobia she’s forced to forgive moments later, as if it never occurred. All of this ends up leading to the startlingly familiar way that transgender people’s concerns are pushed aside. Instead of trans people’s concerns, what’s heard is cisgender people’s guilt. Then, cisgender people are praised for their acceptance and tolerance of difference.
Broken down this way, the episode loses its positive and sympathetic power, and Avery becomes much like other depictions of trans women who end up dead by the time the credits roll (see: The Danish Girl and Dallas Buyers Club, among others). It’s also important to note that by making Avery’s attacker a person of color, and also writing him sympathetically by portraying him as penitent, SVU’s writers further complicate their own “positive” depiction by pitting two marginalized groups against one another. Having Avery forgive the actions of her attacker, Darius, seems to violate the viewer’s sense of justice, but charging Darius as an adult also seems like too much. The audience is put in a double bind, and the episode ignores the complex intersections of race and gender.
Before SVU gave us Avery, there was Hailey, a moody and rebellious transgender teenager. Like most people her age, she’s far from a saint, but, like Avery, when she first appears onscreen she’s seen taking off her bra. Because both Hailey and Avery were played by cisgender male actors, SVU was able to show both of their bare chests without troubling the FCC, a detail that is crucial. As writer Mey Rude pointed out in a response to “Transgender Bridge” on Autostraddle, “In a world where things made sense, or at least a world where trans women were seen as women, the FCC would have taken away NBC’s broadcast permit [for showing Avery topless].” The two depictions, years apart, suggest that SVU has not fundamentally changed its position on transgender people or transgender kids.
The two seconds of screen time garnered by those chests are indicative of the cisgender gaze: The audience, writers, and producers want to know what’s underneath the transgender person’s clothing, and they think they deserve to know. Transgender people, especially in stories that are ostensibly about them, are still symbols that cisgender audiences use to establish difference—difference they then forgive themselves for noticing. Our culture’s complicated relationship to transgender children doesn’t end at the cisgender writers’ room or the predominantly cisgender audience. The focus on transgender children in the “transgender tipping point” also becomes a way for an older generation of trans adults to look back on their lives and reinterpret their own positions.
Tom Léger, an editor at the trans-focused book imprint Topside Press, remarked on this trend: “I think that some trans adults….are comforted by the notion of trans kids as a way to legitimize our experiences as adults. Trans kids become proof: a way to say, ‘Hey, we’re not crazy, look, even KIDS can be trans, it’s natural,’ as if nature had ever done anything for us.” For Léger, this focus on trans children as a means of acceptance of trans identity is problematic. He believes “this kind of re-historicizing [creates] a dichotomy where people are more or less legitimate based on their gender expression as a child.”
Transgender people, especially in stories that are ostensibly about them, are still symbols that cisgender audiences use to establish difference—difference they then forgive themselves for noticing.
Taking up the transgender child as a symbol in order to render painful histories or aberrant experiences as “natural” for transgender people who may not have been able to express their desires within a cissexist system is troubling because doing so implies that all trans people experience gender and sexuality the same way. Additionally, Léger worries that focusing on trans kids will have a negative impact on activist movements and ultimately on trans adults. He believes that when queer activism “becomes wholly focused on…bullying and homecoming kings, adults are summarily infantilized. You can be out as gay, but can’t talk about sex, you can’t talk about AIDS, you can’t talk about systemic homophobia and transphobia.”
While this engagement with transgender children and their narratives isn’t the same as SVU offering up Avery to forgive their past years of transphobic language, the use of the trans child as a symbol highlights another imbalance of power between adult and child, where the adult has the ability to make pronouncements on the child’s life and the child must remain mute. The transgender child is a potent reminder of how little power both transgender people and children have in a larger social matrix. Because the trans child exists as both transgender and child, their struggle is fuel for cisgender people and for transgender adults. Being an adult means having the ability to decide on your future, your medical care, and your name.
Leelah Alcorn didn’t commit suicide because she was transgender; she committed suicide because her parents still had power over her life and refused to let her transition. Their control was doubly dangerous because she was both transgender and legally too young to make decisions about her own life. Depictions of characters like Avery reenact not only the stranglehold that cis people have over trans people, but also the one that some adults still have over their kids and their kids’ futures. If the writers of these shows—and the audiences watching—start to view transgender children as children, not as saints to forgive us or signs to decode our pasts, then those children are allowed futures. Trans kids are often turned into martyrs because it means they don’t get to be trans adults, which is the most damaging ramification from this kind of representation.
By not allowing trans kids to grow into adults, even if it’s just on TV shows, writers take away their futures—both writers and audience members get away with not considering trans adulthood. Everyone can systematically ignore transgender adults’ struggles, plights, and desires and can instead focus on how transgender identity fits into a larger cultural narrative as a symbol of cisgender people’s acceptance of difference. Trans kids should be kids—which means we need to protect and respect them both as children and transgender people. Childhood shouldn’t be the only thing transgender kids get to experience; it should be the start of something more. One of the ways to do that is to focus more on trans adulthood—in both fiction and real life. Trans adults need to have representation on the screen, along with dignity and respect offscreen, too.
Her Story, a narrative YouTube series starring several trans women, is a good depiction of transgender adulthood that doesn’t merely parrot the standard advice of “it gets better” to trans teens struggling at home, at school, and beyond. It demonstrates that there is a future and, with time, it will actually be better. Transgender representation in film, TV, and books has changed drastically over the past 10 years alone. But it’s important to understand that while depictions of sainted or mythic characters seem positive at first glance, they place a huge amount of responsibility on the part of the transgender person. Her Story presents its transgender characters as whole, multidimensional people and focuses on the joys and difficulties of their daily lives. By not burdening these characters with the restrictive narrative and obligations of sainthood, they are free to thrive as complex individuals.