Prior to Doubt‘s premiere back in February, Laverne Cox was tasked with making the rounds to promote the show. She went to the Grammys, the morning shows and late night to talk about her role as Cameron Wirth on the new CBS legal drama. At every stop, she was asked about her moment at the Grammys, where she broke from the script and encouraged the audience to Google Gavin Grimm, the 17-year old Virginia kid who took his battle to use the bathroom corresponding with his gender identity all the way to the Supreme Court.
Cox took the opportunity to comment on the broader effort to undermine public accommodations for trans folk. She said, “What people should know about these bathroom bills that criminalize trans people — criminalize me going to the women’s room — is that these bills are not about bathrooms. They’re about whether trans people have the right to exist in public space.”
And that is where our public conversation about trans folk seems to begin and end: the right to exist.
Doubt, which CBS cancelled after two episodes but is airing throughout the summer, allows us to imagine a world where a different conversation is possible.
Cox plays Cameron Wirth, an Ivy League-educated lawyer who works at a boutique New York City law firm called Isaiah Roth & Associates. Roth’s reputation is the stuff of legends — Cameron’s father’s admiration of Roth’s defense of the Black Panther is what drew her to his firm. She joined at 26, the same year she came out and began transitioning, and while she strives to be every bit the social justice warrior Roth was, she’s determined to do it while being her authentic self.
The strength of Cameron, as a lawyer, is her ability to sympathize with her clients. It’s easier in some cases (like her defense of the Hudson University student fighting back against her unpunished rapist) than others (like the mentally disturbed man who pushes a woman off a subway platform or the meek librarian who imagines eating her co-workers for dinner). You suspect that her sympathy for others is rooted in her own experiences, but the show never fully examines it. Within the firm, her trans identity barely warrants a mention.
But Doubt allows Cameron Wirth to navigate more than just her work. Cameron goes out with her colleagues — to Hamilton and for happy hour celebrations — and has friends she can call on when she needs advice. And, best of all, Cameron gets to find love.
She runs into Peter Garrett (Ben Lawson), a former study partner of hers from law school. It doesn’t strike me until much later that Peter knew Cameron, pre-coming out, at Yale, and that she caught his eye, post-coming out, at a professor’s funeral. To its great credit, the show never mentions it.
Peter is relentless in his pursuit of Cameron, asking her out multiple times before she says yes. He charms her (and me, TBH) with his boyish good looks and his humor. He never shows a stitch of nervousness about dating a trans woman and the fact that he doesn’t makes Cameron even more nervous about dating him. And so Cameron does what every other woman who’s ever been nervous about dating someone new does: she calls her girlfriends.
— Angelica Ross (@angelicaross) July 9, 2017
Those girlfriends are two other trans women played by actual trans women (Angelica Ross and Jen Richards) and, suddenly, a normal conversation between three friends feels monumental.
Beyond the tremendous step forward this scene represented for trans women, there was also part of me that wanted to pull up a chair to that table and share high-fives with Jen Richards and Angelica Ross, because the moment felt so familiar. It was the conversation I had with my friends when I considered getting into my first interracial relationship or the first time I thought about dating a woman who had previously identified as straight. It’s a conversation that Aziz Ansari’s character, Dev, has on his first date with Sona (Pallavi Sastry) on Master of None — when does dating one too many of one type of person cross the line into fetishizing? Anyone who’s ever been othered has had some version of that conversation and it’s a reminder of our shared humanity.
Cameron’s dating someone when she meets Peter — a famous professional athlete nicknamed MVP — who, within the confines of his apartment or hers or a room at the Four Seasons, if its a special occasion, is the perfect boyfriend. Outside that, though, he won’t be seen with her. It’s that treacherous mix of the shame that society heaps on men for loving trans women that keeps the relationship closeted and the bigotry that convinces trans women they don’t deserve better that makes Cameron reluctant to chase the possibility of something better with Peter.
Eventually, though, worn down by his dogged pursuit, Cameron relents and kisses Peter for real. They go out on six dates…and then, finally, when Cameron’s able to trust that her relationship with Peter has enough of a foundation beneath them, they have sex.
It’s totally normal, but, on television, it’s totally not.
The first time I watched, Cameron and Peter started kissing with the hotel room’s door open and I was already preparing myself for the door slam, the one that inevitably shuts us out of the intimacy. No cishetero couple makes me feel that fear — when Sadie (Katherine Heigl) and Billy (Steven Pasquale) have sex for the first time on the show, it’s in the kitchen and we watch them slowly kiss and undress, as a song builds to an emotional crescendo in the background. After years of watching LGBT storylines, I’ve been conditioned to expect the door to close, the show to cut to commercial and then return with a shot of Cameron and Peter, basking in the afterglow. That’s what happens to our storylines and, as they kiss, I’m preparing myself to be happy with those romantic crumbs.
But then Peter slams the door and we’re still inside the room. The scene’s too short — far shorter than Sadie and Billy’s sex scene — but we’re in the room. Doubt lets us see a trans woman and the man who loves her and it’s glorious. I may have cheered the scene…and replayed it about a dozen times…mostly for the history, but also for how damn good Laverne Cox looked in her bra and underwear.
Our trans editor, Mey Rude, loved this scene too:
These scenes where Peter is kissing and sleeping with and pursuing Cameron, especially when they’re in public are some of the most important pieces of trans media I’ve seen. Most trans women are murdered by partners because society teaches men that they should be ashamed that they’re attracted to trans women. Yet here’s a story on network TV that’s in-your-face confronting and challenging that narrative. It’s putting out a call for men who love trans women that they gave nothing to be ashamed about and that they have no reason to keep it a secret.
Whenever I’m asked about how we can lessen the amount of murders of trans women of color, the main thing I say is that we need to tell men over and over again that loving a trans woman doesn’t make you gay, it doesn’t make you wrong and it’s absolutely nothing to hide or be ashamed of. Doubt is doing an amazing public service by bringing this conversation to the public eye.
When we see Peter and Cameron again, they’re in family court — her, defending Heyward, a young black man who ran from the cops after being caught tagging a pillar; him, the rising star in the DA’s office sent to make sure the excessive charges stick. The tension between them is thick but it’s more about the case than their relationship.
Later, they’re relaxing together on the couch — Cameron getting her Olivia Pope on, sipping wine and watching TV, while Peter works on his arguments for court the next day. The tension from the courtroom carries over into their personal relationship and Cameron decides it’s time to disclose. Peter’s agreement happens so fast that Cameron doesn’t even think to question it (meanwhile, I’m at home, yelling “Don’t trust him, Cam!” at my TV). She’s shocked the next day when Peter calls in sick and another Assistant District Attorney shows up in court.
After notching another win, Cameron waits outside Peter’s apartment, carrying some chicken noodle soup, when a definitely not sick Peter strolls up. He tries to explain, but Cameron’s heard this song before and she lays it out for him.
“You’re okay with dating me, but this morning it hit you, you could actually be in a room full of people staring at you, judging you, because of me,” she explains. “Suddenly things got real, you panicked, so you called in sick.”
Peter cops to what he did and says he only needed a day but Cameron is unmoved. She took a chance on Peter because she thought he was different, that he offered her an opportunity at love out in the open, but he’s not and Cameron refuses to be anyone’s secret again.
So good. And painfully familiar. Dating a trans woman may be new to each man we meet, but men who lack the strength we deserve is old to us. https://t.co/ujAlOEmgf3
— Jen Richards (@SmartAssJen) August 6, 2017
What happens next is, again, standard fare in any romantic storyline — guy screws up, guy attempts to apologize by sending lots and lots of flowers — but it feels different when it’s centered on a black trans woman. The next day, Peter shows up at the firm and, despite initial attempts to avoid him, Cameron agrees to talk to him in her office.
The conversation that follows is stunning in its plainness. It is expertly crafted by transgender novelist Imogen Binnie, beautifully shot by Rob Greenlea and skillfully delivered by Ben Lawson. Your heart breaks for Cameron as she listens to Peter recite all the ways in which society promotes hypermasculinity, at the expense of trans women, while celebrating Peter for interrogating that toxicity so plainly.
— Laverne Cox (@Lavernecox) August 6, 2017
“I realized that I was gonna have to either learn to live without those rules, or learn to live without you. Turns out, none of this is actually complicated. At all,” Peter proclaims. “If you’ll have me, I want to side with you. No matter what. No matter where, and no matter who.”
He invites her to meet his friends and colleagues at a fundraiser that night. I cheered so loudly after Peter finished his rom-com-worthy speech I didn’t hear Cameron’s response — I only wondered why they’re weren’t making out yet.
I rewound to discover that Cameron’s responded to Peter’s invitation with a firm no. Completely unmoved by his monologue, Cameron reminded him that aside from making her feel bad, he’s responsible for the loss of trust in their relationship. How can she believe that he won’t disappear again?
Sadie convinces Cameron not to judge Peter by his worst act and she tracks him down at work. She apologizes for holding onto her anger and agrees to be his date to the benefit. On the car ride to the event, Peter reveals that he’s being vetted to become acting District Attorney. Cameron’s happy for him but realizes that the fundraiser just became a much bigger deal. She offers him an out but he doesn’t take it — he meant what he said.
And Cameron Wirth, a black transgender woman, gets to step out of a town car, dressed to the nines, into the arms of a man who loves her, like a princess at a ball.
As I mentioned, CBS cancelled Doubt after just two episodes. I wish the explanation for running the show’s backlog was as simple as, “Well, the network already paid for it, so they might as well,” but that seems unlikely. In the past, CBS has yanked shows like We Are Men, a comedy starring Tony Shaloub, and Viva Laughlin, a musical dramedy, and they were never heard from again.
— Laverne Cox (@Lavernecox) June 20, 2017
It seems likely that CBS is trying to shield itself from some of the bad publicity it’s received recently related to its lack of diversity. Earlier this summer, queer actresses Kristen Vangsness and A.J. Cook nearly left their longtime jobs at Criminal Minds over the lack of salary parity between them and their male co-star, Matthew Gray Gubler. Soon after CBS settled that dispute, Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park took a similar stand but couldn’t come to an agreement and the pair walked away from their roles on Hawaii Five-0.
Last week at the Television Critics Association summer press tour, CBS Entertainment President Kelly Kahl proclaimed, “Every single drama on our air has at least one diverse character.” One. Diverse. Character. As if that were something to celebrate.
It’s proof that CBS (and its all-white casting departments) doesn’t understand and is not prioritizing real diversity or representation. So for Doubt to have gotten through the doors at CBS to air for even one season feels momentous, like the forces of good managed to sneak this one past the CBS gatekeepers. After all, with a cast lead by a woman (Heigl), with two black men (Dule Hill and Kobi Libii), a trans woman of color (Cox) and another woman (Dreama Walker) in supporting roles, Doubt is probably CBS’ most diverse show in years.
And while I should be mad that CBS is probably using this show as a shield, I’m not.
This has been one of the most demoralizing years for trans news in recent memory. We see it across the political landscape. In North Carolina, transgender activists, represented by Lambda Legal and the ACLU, announced legal action in response to the state’s latest anti-transgender policy, a supposed repeal of anti-trans HB2, HB142. In Montana, after being rebuffed by the legislature, the right-wing is taking their anti-trans bigotry to the people, hoping to secure 25,800 signatures to gain access to the November 2018 ballot. Meanwhile, in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Dan Patrick continue to push their version of a bathroom bill through a legislative special session. Last week, the Texas Senate voted, 21-10, to advance SB3 to the House, where past efforts have stalled due to a more pro-business conservative leadership. Then, of course, there’s Donald Trump, who is moving quickly to ban trans people from military service. And the pandemic of murders that continues to plague trans women, most especially black trans women
But these challenges to trans existence aren’t purely political. They also infest our media and pervade popular culture.
A few weeks ago, Janet Mock visited The Breakfast Club, a New York-based syndicated morning radio show on Power 105, to talk about her new book, Surpassing Certainty. The reputation of the self-proclaimed “World’s Most Dangerous Morning Show” preceded it, Mock writes in her recounting of the incident for Allure. “I had watched previous interviews over the years and was familiar with their provocative and oftentimes problematic brand of talk.”
You can watch the interview in its entirety here, but we know how it plays out, in part because we’ve seen it play out in interviews with trans women before. It’s Mock with Piers Morgan back in 2014. It’s Cox and Carmen Carrera with Katie Couric. It’s the popular invasive obsession with trans women and their bodies, without any actual concern for trans women. The fact that Mock’s appearance — and the level of disrespect she was subjected to — isn’t the story here, tells you all you need to know about the burden that society puts on the oppressed.
Soon thereafter, a clip from a separate Breakfast Club interview emerged: this one featuring comedian Lil’ Duval.
why are [black] men so obsessed with being ignorant? idegaf about political correctness, but it’s this fixation on this narrative. pic.twitter.com/U94iUB2o4k
— T$BIGGIESMALLS (@fatfemme) July 29, 2017
The same people who interrogated Mock just days earlier, used her image as a prop for some low-budget comedian’s justification for violence against trans women and laughed along as they misgendered her. A movement quickly built online to #BoycottBreakfastClub, including a petition from the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, and Raquel Willis’ call for everyone to stand up and proclaim #TransFolksAreNotJokes. Offline, Patrisse Cullors, Ashlee Marie Preston and Blossom C. Brown confronted Breakfast Club host, Charlamagne Tha God, at Politicon.
Eventually, Charlamagne responded to the criticism, never apologizing for show’s role in egging Duval on, but reinforcing that they “don’t condone those kind of hate crimes at all, not even a little bit.” He promised that the Breakfast Club would continue to provide “a platform for the voiceless.”
Charlamagne reiterated that message in a statement to the New York Times over the weekend, but added that there needed to be more discussion about transgender people disclosing their gender identity to sexual partners. “To me, anytime you take away someone’s power of choice, it’s criminal,” he said, still trying to justify his actions.
In the time since the Breakfast Club boycott began, we’ve seen legendary comedian Dave Chapelle devote 20 minutes of his set at Radio City Music Hall to making jokes at the expense of trans people, and reality show D-lister Derick Dillard launch a transphobic attack at Jazz Jennings and their shared TV network. Hardly one day passes without an instance of trans people’s right to exist being questioned.
Doubt posits there’s a way for cis people to just stop. To stop challenging trans people. To accept that trans people exist and let them live their lives. To stop asking every trans person, and trans women, in particular, to teach us Trans 101 every time they step into a room. To agree that unless you’re romantically involved with a trans person, you don’t get to ask them about their genitals. Doubt proclaims this truth loudly and clearly: Trans people are not responsible for transphobia, misogyny and toxic masculinity. It is on cis society to fix that by ourselves.
Representation is powerful, but representation rarely comes without personal exposure. Norman Lear penned the first transgender character on television in 1977 — a veteran on The Jeffersons — as a reflection of the trans women at the helm of the gay rights movement during that time. Tony Phalen and Joan Rater are successful with Doubt in part because they don’t have to imagine a world where trans people are fully accepted: they live it. Their son is Tom Phelan, a young trans actor whom you might recall from his stint as Cole on The Fosters.
Doubt gets its trans representation very, very right. It’s not a perfect show. Still, I’ll treasure it for it’s revolutionary representation of trans women in pop culture, for how it made Laverne Cox a better actress for whatever ground she chooses to break next, and for how it allowed me, in the midst of so much transphobia, to imagine a world that is better.