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What TV Writers Get Right (and Wrong) About Telling Transgender Stories

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GLAAD's Nick Adams walks us through his outreach in Hollywood to improve how shows prepare transgender roles and what must come next for the community.

You think your Netflix queue is full? You haven't met Nick Adams.

The head of transgender media for GLAAD, Adams spends his days training Hollywood's leading showrunners and screenwriters how to tell transgender stories faithfully on the small screen.

While transgender programming has skyrocketed in just the last year, Adams has been working with TV shows since he joined GLAAD in 1998.

"I transitioned myself around that time," he says. "I've been working on trans media images ever since. It was only this last year that GLAAD made the decision to establish transgender media as a standalone program."

As Adams lists the shows he has worked with, you can understand why transgender media deserves its own program.

"For years, we would have peaks of media interest. But writers really weren't that interested in telling the stories of trans people," he says. "Now, Hollywood doesn't show any signs of returning to that baseline lack of interest we had for so long."

Adams engages shows and networks about series that feature a transgender character--whether during a one-off episode or a series regular. He provides general trainings on pronouns, transitioning, and coming out. He challenges writers to ask themselves--what does a really groundbreaking transgender character look like today?

So far, writers have been very successful. From teenage dramas like Faking It--where Adams brought in three actual transgender high schoolers into the writing room--to the soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful, he has seen scripted transgender characters explore complex stories.

But challenges remain--chief among them the careful nuance between writing a gay character and writing a transgender character.

"Writers will often take what they know about the gay experience and overlay it on a transgender character--as if it were completely the same," Adams says. "Coming out as gay can be very empowering. But disclosing your gender history--you're already seen as your authentic self. Now you have to worry if you'll be seen as lying or deceptive or fooling people."

Adams recently advised comedy Young and Hungry when the show guest starred transgender actor Ian Harvie as main character Gabi's uncle. Gabi deals with the news of his transition as she watches a bowling game.

"I told the team, don't let the main character out him as trans to everyone in the bowling alley," Adams says. "This character is comfortable in himself, in living his authentic self. He doesn't want to be the 'trans' guy on the bowling team. He just wants to be a guy on the bowling team."

Even more than navigating coming out, Adams wants to see how TV can handle transgender relationships. He saw some progress on this during his work with The Bold and the Beautiful, when longtime character Maya actually came out as transgender and started a relationship with Rick.

"When trans people come out, they often get hit with the question, who's ever going to love you?" Adams says. "We need to undercut the assumption that trans people are unlovable."

Trans love is the next TV frontier, as shows like Mistresses--also guest starring Ian Harvie--and Freeform's The Fosters and Dead of Summer spark romance between cisgender and transgender characters in different combinations.

More than anything, though, Adams wants more--more shows, more openly transgender actors, more screen time. He looks forward most of all to Doubt, starring Laverne Cox.

"As far as I now, there's not a single series regular transgender character on primetime broadcast or cable," he said. "We need that, and hopefully that's what this show will promise. We need to get invested in transgender people's lives. We need to see them in our homes, every week. Right now, we just don't have that on a major broadcast network."

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