The following article was written by Flinders University social work expert Damien Riggs and originally published on The Drum.
There was much to celebrate at the Golden Globes this week, beyond the individual recipients of awards.Most notable was the fact that the new Amazon television series Transparent, which debuted in 2014, won awards for both Best Television Series – Comedy or Musical, and Best Actor for Jeffrey Tambor. In the series, Tambor plays the role of Maura, a transgender woman whose experience of transitioning is portrayed in the first season of the show. Already critically acclaimed for its representations of transgender people, many have argued that the two awards further demonstrate the mainstreaming and thus acceptance of transgender people.
This, of course, is true, though it only tells one part of the story. A second part of the story is told within Transparent itself. Across the season we witness Maura’s journey as she lives her life as a woman, in the context of close, complex relationships with her children and ex-wife. As an older transgender person, and as is the case for many transgender people who grew up in the 50s and 60s, Maura had children in the context of a heterosexual marriage, while living as her assigned sex.
Transparent thus provides a relatively accurate depiction of what has been frequently documented in research, namely that many older transgender people delay their transition due firstly to social, and then familial, expectations.
Also accurate (to a degree) are the mixed reactions that Maura receives from her family. Whilst on the whole her children and ex-wife are accepting, there are many moments in the season – often difficult to watch – where their responses border on disrespectful. In my own research, undertaken with Jennifer Power and Henry von Doussa, many of our older transgender participants who had children in their younger years reported limited acceptance from their families of origin (specifically their parents and siblings).
Sadly this mirrors international research documenting high levels of rejection and often violence within families when a family member transitions. Conversely, the majority of our participants experienced caring ongoing relationships with their own children. Again, this mirrors international research.
Still to be told, however, is a third part to the story. Lacking from Transparent are representations of younger transgender people having children after their transition. Figures released by Medicare in 2014, a year after it removed restrictions on certain items (such as the restriction of pregnancy and labor related items to people with a female gender marker), indicate that more than 50 men gave birth in Australia in one year alone.
Beyond transgender men giving birth – an experience publically documented in the parenting journey of Thomas Beattie in the United States – growing numbers of transgender people become parents in a range of ways. These include fostering (as a growing number of agencies welcome transgender applicants), a partner giving birth, partnering with someone who already has children, or entering into a co-parenting arrangement.
We need to acknowledge that into the future it is possible that growing numbers of young transgender people will seek to become parents. This requires responses from medical professionals, particularly with regard to the storage of gametes for young transgender people who have gone through the puberty associated with their assigned sex.
Most recently, some Australian clinics have begun offering the option for young transgender people who have not entered into puberty to have germ cells stored, with the intention that in the future developing technologies will allow for these to be utilized in the creation of an embryo. Options such as these are vital, as they allow young transgender people the option in the future to have children to whom they are genetically related, without having to go through a puberty that does not accord with their gender identity.
To return to Transparent, although the first season had much to offer in terms of its inclusion of a transgender parent in a lead role, there are many other aspects of transgender parenting still to receive mainstream media coverage. Furthermore, despite the importance of the two Golden Globes, it is notable that the award to Tambor is complex. Certainly, his portrayal of Maura was sympathetic, realistic, and moving, but it is notable that the role of Maura was not played by a transgender woman. There are transgender actors in the series, and certainly it is not mandatory that a transgender actor plays a transgender character. Nonetheless, it is important to keep in mind that the positive reception of the series perhaps tells us more about the terms on which transgender people are offered space within the media, rather than necessarily reflecting a wholesale shift in public attitudes.
Given what we know of the ongoing violence perpetuated against transgender people – and transgender women specifically – it is important to remember that series such as Transparent only tell one part of the story. It will be interesting to see what stories are told in the next season.
Damien Riggs is an Associate Professor in social work at Flinders University and an Australian Research Council Future Fellow. He also runs a small private psychotherapy practice in which he specialises in working with transgender people.
We value local independent journalism. We hope you do too.
InDaily provides valuable, local independent journalism in South Australia. As a news organisation it offers an alternative to The Advertiser, a different voice and a closer look at what is happening in our city and state for free. Any contribution to help fund our work is appreciated. Please click below to become an InDaily supporter.