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Docu-series to take transgender experience mainstream

ABC Family's “My Transparent Life” could significantly reduce prejudices that plague the transgender population.
TV Personality Ryan Seacrest speaks onstage at an event on Oct. 10, 2014 in Los Angeles, Calif. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty for Variety)
TV Personality Ryan Seacrest speaks onstage at an event on Oct. 10, 2014 in Los Angeles, Calif.

Building off what has been a groundbreaking year for transgender people in the media, ABC Family announced on Thursday it has a new documentary series in the works that will focus on a teenage boy dealing with his father’s transition.

"My Transparent Life" is the latest TV show to feature the experiences of a transgender person, following in the footsteps of Netflix’s "Orange Is the New Black," and Amazon’s "Transparent." With Ryan Seacrest Productions (RSP) and a major television network at the helm, however, this docu-series stands to pull the transgender community further into the mainstream than ever before, where it could significantly reduce prejudices that plague the population.

"At RSP, we love family stories, and we couldn’t be more excited that ABC Family is helping us share this heartwarming story of how an ordinary teenager [Ben] grapples with a challenging and unexpected family situation," Seacrest said in a statement. "We feel audiences will find Ben’s story relatable on a number of different levels, because at the end of the day, family is family unconditionally."

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If indeed, audiences do find Ben’s story “relatable,” it could have a major impact on promoting tolerance and acceptance of transgender people throughout the country, much in the same way shows like "Will & Grace" and "Modern Family" helped shift attitudes toward gay men and lesbians. “'Will & Grace,'” as Vice President Joe Biden put it when he came out in favor of marriage equality two and a half years ago, “probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody’s ever done so far.”

Gay rights advocates have long said that knowing someone who is gay or lesbian strongly correlates with support for marriage equality. The psychological theory behind that phenomenon is known as the Contact Hypothesis, which says that the best way to reduce prejudice between majority and minority group members is to foster meaningful contact between the two. We see evidence of this theory all the time, such as in a recent study published in the journal Science that found support for same-sex marriage jump among voters who’d had a single conversation with a gay canvasser.

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Edward Schiappa, a comparative media studies professor at MIT, has conducted several studies that illustrate the Contact Hypothesis through “parasocial,” or mass mediated contact -- like watching someone on TV -- as opposed to interpersonal contact -- like having a conversation with a gay canvasser. “Because our brains evolved eons before electronic media,” Schiappa explained via email, “we process the stimuli we receive from mass media the same way we do live and in person contact.”

So what does all this mean? Basically, Schiappa’s research shows that watching gay and lesbian characters on TV decreases prejudices among viewers. The problem for the transgender community, however,  is that there haven’t really been that many transgender characters on TV for prejudiced viewers to watch.

“Trans representation on mainstream television networks has been relatively light,” said Matt Kane, associate director of Entertainment Media at GLAAD, to msnbc. “There have been trans characters on shows like 'Dirty Sexy Money,' 'Ugly Betty,' and 'Glee,' but there haven’t been any kind of TV programs that put a trans character in such a central role on any of the major networks.”

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Internet streaming providers are beginning to change that trend. Through Netflix’s wildly popular series, "Orange Is the New Black," trans actress Laverne Cox was catapulted to national stardom, becoming a powerful advocate, the first openly trans actor ever nominated for an Emmy, and the first transgender person to ever grace the cover of Time. Following on Netflix’s heels, Amazon this year rolled out its critically acclaimed series, "Transparent," whose creator is committed both to telling the story of a fictional transgender character, and to advancing the careers of actual transgender TV writers.

On Thursday, the same day that ABC Family announced its forthcoming docu-series, "Transparent" received two Golden Globe nominations, while "Orange Is the New Black" received three.

Though it’s unclear how much of "My Transparent Life" will focus on the transgender father as opposed to the teenage son, LGBT advocates are encouraged to see a main trans character leap from internet TV providers to a traditional platform. “I don’t think it’s a mistake that the most groundbreaking trans presentations are coming from content creators that are breaking molds in many other ways,” Kane said. “Amazon and Netflix were creating stories that mainstream, traditional cable outlets haven’t been eager to tackle.”

ABC Family has a long history of LGBT-inclusive programming, GLAAD notes, earning its second “Excellent” rating in the organization’s annual Network Responsibility Index. Currently, the network’s show, "The Fosters," has the only recurring transgender character in a prime-time scripted series, and "My Transparent Life," which is unscripted, will undoubtedly build off that reputation.

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Off screen, though, transgender people -- particularly transgender women of color -- still struggle throughout the country. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP), the majority of victims of hate violence homicides in 2013 were transgender women. And last week’s slaying of 21-year-old Deshawnda Sanchez marked the 12th murder this year of a trans woman of color in the U.S., the National LGBTQ Task Force notes.

Schiappa said he has “no doubt” that people watching "My Transparent Life" would “A, learn something and B, become more understanding and tolerant.” For the transgender community, either result would do a world of good.