“As a historian, I’ve just seen this for so long, and it’s such a longstanding trope,” Stryker said. “It’s like a trans person is someone who is deeply deranged and is a danger to other people and kills people out of their own sense of being psychotically flawed.”
Yet research indicates that transgender people are far more likely to be victims of violence than the rest of society.
There could be several reasons for this. The Covid-19 pandemic has heightened isolation, financial strain and other forms of stress. Transgender people face greater risks of being forced into unemployment, poverty, homelessness or sex work, making them more vulnerable to violence.
“I think once you have that framework in place, then it’s easy to see the trans person as a dangerously psychotic person,” said Stryker.
Many of the transgender characters we grew up reading about or watching reflect this fear.
Alex Schmider, associate director of Transgender Representation at LGBTQ media monitoring organization GLAAD, told CNN that the “conflation between gender nonconformity and this serial killer trope” was part of the reason “people so misunderstand who trans people actually are.”
“Media is such an informant of culture and public understanding. And these representations that we see on screen do not just live on screen, they affect people’s lives … we’ve seen that in a lot of the policy and legislation that’s been introduced over the past few years, in narratives about trans people.”
“We know that people conflate this, they don’t make the distinction,” she said. “There is a very determined, concerted campaign to justify discrimination against trans people specifically using these manufactured fears.”
“I can’t sleep at night knowing that kids are feeling how I felt when I was growing up. And [Rowling’s book] is part of a much wider problem of transphobia and anti-trans prejudice that we’ve got in the UK where basically trans people are being scapegoated,” she said. “It’s sick.”
A representative for Rowling declined to comment to CNN.
Lees says that even as one of the most privileged trans women in the UK, she wants to leave the country. “It’s not a safe place for trans people,” she said.
“I’ve experienced violence. I’ve experienced sexual harassment … you want to drag out this old trope of ‘man puts on a dress and goes around killing women.’ It’s unkind, it’s unfair and it’s unrealistic. I just don’t understand why we are focusing on the imagined threat that trans people present rather than the very real documented violence that we know trans people face.
“The media is absolutely refusing to talk about the fact that we face horrific violence as a community, and that we are being pushed in many cases to suicide.”
Beyond villains and victims
Violent portrayals aren’t the only problem with how transgender people are shown on screen.
More than half of the tracked episodes were rated negative/defamatory, 35% good to problematic, and just 12% outstanding, according to GLAAD.
The most common profession for fictional transgender characters was sex worker; a fifth worked in the sex industry. Anti-transgender slurs and dialogue featured in many episodes and storylines, the study found.
Numerous films and TV shows in recent decades — from “The Cleveland Show” to “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” — feature cisgender straight men vomiting repeatedly after learning they had touched a trans woman.
But transgender representations in pop culture are gradually expanding beyond negative themes.
Laverne Cox’s standout performance in “Orange is the New Black” in 2013 paved the way for a broader range of transgender characters, from “Transparent” to “Billions” to “Grey’s Anatomy.”
Schmider says that when cisgender actors play trans characters, “that can often reinforce the misguided notion that being transgender is a costume, it’s dress up, it’s performance, when in fact, transgender people are living full, authentic lives.”
In the “Disclosure” documentary — which looks at the depiction of transgender people in movies and television — actor Jen Richards says: “Having cis men play trans women, in my mind there’s a direct link to violence against trans women.”
Behind the scenes
Schmider says that culture is still “countering 100 years of misrepresentation and inaccurate stereotypes” of trans people.
“We’re still in a place of getting beyond transition narratives, getting beyond focusing on the trauma and the tragedy of trans people’s lives … the hope is to have more nuanced and complex portrayals,” he said.
V Varun Chaudhry, assistant professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, told CNN he believes changes in the past few years are driven by trans people working in writing and production.
“We’ve seen a really beautiful explosion of trans sensibility, one that’s been really diverse, and bred in large part by the work of Black trans folks like Janet Mock [writer, director and producer of ‘Pose’],” he said.
Ryan Murphy’s “9-1-1: Lone Star” made history this season by casting Brian Michael Smith as broadcast TV’s first Black transgender male actor and character to be a series regular.
But Chaudhry says we still need “more diverse people who are behind the scenes.”
White men still dominate Hollywood, Broadway and publishing, he said. “When that’s the case, it’s always going to trickle down into representation that’s limited. So I think there needs to be real concerted effort at every single level to include people in the conversation and to expose the normative conventions that we have.”
However, the experts warn that greater visibility can also put trans people at risk. Stryker says vulnerable individuals may become targets for “unresolved aggression, anger, hostility, confusion.”
Visibility “is both necessary for changing people’s opinions” and a potential problem, she says. “Visibility can be a trap that actually accelerates violence against the most marginalized.”