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Caitlyn Jenner and the spotlight on transgender stories

06/02/2015 06:00 EDT | Updated 06/02/2016 05:59 EDT
The Diane Sawyer sit-down, in which then Bruce Jenner revealed he feels like a woman, attracted some 17 million viewers.

The interview gave 20/20 its highest ratings in 15 years, and catapulted Jenner, a former Olympic hero and reality TV star, into a new kind of stardom as an unofficial spokesperson for transgender people.

- PHOTOS | Caitlyn Jenner and 13 other transgender celebrities

It also was an impeccably groomed preview of her upcoming reality series, which launches on E! in July.

Jenner's eight-part "docuseries" is expected to further thrust her life as transgender woman into the mainstream, doing what Will & Grace and Ellen did for the gay community in the 90s, and what The L Word and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy continued to do in the the early 2000s.

Building momentum

The mainstream visibility of trans stories is a part of a larger trend, says transgender actress Michelle Hendley.

"There has definitely been momentum building up over past couple of years with trans rights movement," said Hendley, who stars in the coming-of-age romantic comedy Boy Meets Girl.

But the 24-year-old Missouri-born actress says Jenner's seemingly sudden change fails to represent the real journey trans people take when embracing their gender identities.

- VIDEO | 'Caitlyn's story is not typical,' says transgender actress

"Transition for a lot of people is a slow methodical process and takes a lot of time and it's very expensive," explains Hendley, who documented her transition on YouTube. 

She also says depictions of trans people should focus on the emotional changes, instead of the outer appearances.

"[Jenner] and other trans people who come out publicly are embracing who they are," she says, "and that's more powerful than any makeup or beauty shoot they do."

Changing in the public eye

Lucas Silveira, the Canadian musician best known as the frontman of the alternative rock band The Cliks, was the first transgender man to be signed to a major label.

He was also the first trans man voted "Sexiest Canadian Man" in a reader poll by music magazine ChartAttack.com in 2009.

Despite receiving international recognition, Silveira says transitioning in the public eye hasn't been easy.

"It was very different than I thought it was going to be," explains Silveira, who started hormone therapy about six years ago. 

"A lot of people talk about when you transition to male, you gain privilege. But I live a very public life, so a lot of that privilege was actually taken away," he said.

"I lost a lot of my fan base that was queer and lesbian, because I think they started feeling like they couldn't identify with me."

When it comes to identifying with representations of trans people on television, the Toronto-based artist says it's important for creators to expand their focus beyond what he calls the "narrow-minded sect of trans life": white men becoming women.

"This is why I love Orange is the New Black so much," says Silveira, "because of the character Laverne Cox plays." Cox plays a black, transgendered woman on the Netflix prison series.

- VIDEO |  Laverne Cox on Orange is the New Black and blazing trails

"To me, she's been one of the greatest representations of the trans narrative, because it doesn't speak always to the same one that we always see."

Trans-positive lineups

Dramas like Orange is the New Black and the acclaimed series Transparent are leading the way in an increasingly trans-positive TV landscape.

This summer, ABC Family will premiere Becoming Us, an unscripted show that chronicles the life of 17-year-old Ben Lehwald of Evanston, Ill. as his father Charlie transitions to become Carly. 

The TLC cable network is premiering a series about a transgender 14-year-old called I am Jazz on July 15, and in April Discovery Life aired New Girls on the Block about a group of transgender friends in Kansas City.

This Friday, Netflix will premiere the global dramatic thriller Sense8 which features transgender actress Jamie Clayton in the main role.

The series was created in part by the Wachowski siblings, the movie-making duo behind Bound and the Matrix trilogy.

Lana Wachowski, one half of the American filmmaking two-some, became the first major Hollywood director to come out as transgender.

But offscreen, with transgender people who aren't rich and famous still facing rejection, unemployment, even high suicide rates, the road to equality might still be bumpy.

"We always talk about the pretty parts," says Silveira, "we don't talk about all the struggles people go through." 

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