“Law & Order: SVU” Adds Its Voice to the “Trans Debate” with the Confusing, Horribly Depressing “Transgender Bridge”

On Wednesday night, Law & Order: SVU threw its hat into the Transgender TV Revolution game with an episode called “Transgender Bridge.” This is far from Law & Order’s first time dealing with a transgender storyline. The show has featured Kate Moennig as a trans woman, a trans girl who’s dad was shot by her school counselor who turned out to be a surprise trans woman, and what seems like dozens of murdered trans sex workers.

I’m still trying to process what exactly it was that I watched. There was so much that made me feel confused or angry or just completely lost that I’m having a bit of trouble organizing my thoughts.

https://youtu.be/l8wS13m1it4

The episode starts with a scene I thought I’d never see on TV: A 15-year-old girl, who we later learn is named Avery and is a fan of photography and graphic novels, gets up from her bed and we see her completely topless. That makes no sense, right? But it’s okay, because by seeing her topless we learn that she’s trans. I guess what we’re supposed to understand is that male actors — even if they’re playing teenage female characters — can be topless on primetime network TV. Then there’s another scene later where we see her breasts again. Janet Jackson taught us that even an impossible-to-see glance of half a nipple is a fine-worthy scandal, and based on the rules of society that says girls and women can’t go topless, this should have not happened once (let alone twice) in one episode. In a world where things made sense, or at least a world where trans women were seen as women, the FCC would have taken away NBC’s broadcast permit.

That’s the thing though: According to Law & Order, NBC and the FCC, trans women are men, so it’s okay for them to be topless. At least that’s what seems to be happening. Last night a few million people saw a fictional teenage girl’s boobs on NBC. One has to wonder, if a male actor were playing a cis woman character in a TV show, would that character be able to go topless? It doesn’t make sense.

LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT -- "Transgender Bridge" Episode 17001 -- Pictured: (l-r) Dante Brown as Darius McCrae, Christopher Dylan White as Avery -- (Photo by: Michael Parmelee/NBC)

Dante Brown as Darius McCrae, Christopher Dylan White as Avery (Courtesy of NBC)

It also brings up the question of why Law & Order decided to go with a male actor for the role. I feel like if you’re going to do an episode that’s about trans people and how they’re discriminated against, and you filmed the episode after Dallas Buyers Club and after Orange is the New Black and after Transparent, you really should hire a trans actor. Basically, if you’re going to try to make a statement about trans people, you better have a trans person involved. Otherwise you’re just contributing to trans people being silenced.

The actual crime was disturbing, but in a different way from your average SVU crime. It wasn’t especially graphic, but how can you not be deeply disturbed when you’re watching a teenage girl being pushed around and called “he-she,” “tranny” and “freak” while other teenagers pull at her skirt demanding to see what she’s got under there. The attack ends up with Avery falling onto one of the boys, 15 year old Darius, causing the others to tease “she likes you, Darius!” followed by Darius pushing her off of him and off of the park bridge they were standing on.

Logic would tell you that since this episode was Law and Order’s Big Attempt at taking part in the Transgender Tipping Point, that scene would have been the last time Avery was misgendered, at least without people correcting the misgendering. This episode, however, paid no attention at all to the rules of logic. Right away the police officer at the scene tells Detectives Rollins and Carisi “she’s not a she” when referring to Avery. When Rollins replies with the one word question “transgender?” the officer replies with the desperately insensitive “Boy dressed as a girl, that makes her a special victim, right?” At least he got her pronouns right that time.

Throughout the rest of the episode, the boys who were attacking Avery call her “he,” and even “he-she.” This continues into the police station and all the way up to court. Misgendering a trans person is an act of violence, so, again, it’s completely bizarre that the police, the lawyers and judge would all let these boys continue to act out violence against the trans girl they attacked. Surely making sure they used the correct pronouns would be an easy way of helping them “learn their lesson” or rehabilitate or whatever the police and court system’s goal is.

An injured Avery identifies her attackers before she succumbs to her injuries.

An injured Avery identifies her attackers before she succumbs to her injuries.

When the show does try to tackle the “trans issue” through the two detectives having a conversation about Avery, they continue to trip over their own feet. The conversation goes like this:

Carisi: “What makes a boy decide he wants to be a girl? What is it? Is it that he likes boys and doesn’t want to be gay?”
Rollins: “Um, there’s a difference between gender identity and sexuality, Carisi.”
Carisi: “Yeah, yeah. You know, my parents, they think this is all about getting attention.”
Rollins: “You were a 14 year old boy once, would you or any other boy you knew put on a skirt if it didn’t come from a really real place?”

Which, all of that is sort of right, but also doesn’t do a great job of explaining what being trans is like to the audience, who is obviously being represented by Carisi here. Both Carisi and viewers leave the conversation learning nothing other than being trans comes from a “really real place.” Really though, would it have been that hard for Rollins to say, “You see, that’s the thing, Avery’s not a boy who decided he wants to be a girl, she’s a girl who decided she wanted to stop pretending to be a boy.” Transparent already did this conversation perfectly, just follow their example!

Eventually, Avery dies from her wounds and then the episode is truly without a trans person to speak out for trans rights, or making trans people safe or valuing trans lives. I was going to say how ironic is it, but really, how perfectly fitting with how society really works is it that this episode killed off its lone trans character halfway through and instead made it all about the cis people around her.

The rest of the episode focuses on how they decide to charge the 15-year-old Darius as an adult, resulting in him going to prison for seven years, which is vile and evil and cruel, and how forgiveness is important in cases like this. There’s even an expert witness, a doctor, who testifies that Darius couldn’t have acted out of hate for Avery because he didn’t have enough experience with trans people to hate them, that he was motivated by insecurity and fear and the need to prove he was straight and a real man to his friends. The doctor blames the attack on Avery, precisely because she was trans. He says “Avery was someone very different from the biological boys Darius knows. Someone ‘other’ in ways that were threatening to a boy just beginning to mature sexually and emotionally.” I guess that’s a pretty good excuse for violently attacking a trans girl.

I can say that this was better than it could have been. Avery had a name and lines and she wasn’t the butt of jokes, and the overall message of the episode was that trans people have it hard. And while she was misgendered throughout the entire episode, her parents and lawyer used the correct pronouns, and any time a slur was used, we knew that it was bad that the person was using that slur. It seemed like Law & Order was trying to do the right thing, they just didn’t want to put in the effort that it would’ve taken to do a good job.

LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT -- "Transgender Bridge" Episode 17001 -- Pictured: (l-r) Adrienne C. Moore as Cheryl McCrae, Dante Brown as Darius McCrae -- (Photo by: Michael Parmelee/NBC)

Pictured: (l-r) Adrienne C. Moore as Cheryl McCrae, Dante Brown as Darius McCrae (Photo courtesy of NBC)

At one point in my notes I wrote “I’m really happy that they didn’t murder this trans girl,” only to watch her die in the hospital two scenes later. That’s how the whole episode went — any time I would get hopeful, they would let me down again. The only good thing about this episode was when Darius’ mother appears and she’s played by Adrienne C. Moore, better known as Black Cindy from Orange is the New Black. I just don’t understand how when there are so many trans people out there willing and able to work with and for TV shows to make sure they get their trans storylines right, we still get episodes like this. In the end, we have a dead 15-year-old trans girl, a Black 15-year-old being sent into the Prison Industrial Complex, a bunch of devastated parents and absolutely no feeling that justice was served or that anything positive would come out of the situation.

This is not how you advocate for trans people to be treated as human beings in society, this is how you advocate for a misanthropic worldview.

Mey Valdivia Rude is a bisexual Latina trans woman living in Los Angeles. She's a writer, comic consultant and a trans activist. She's a bruja, a femme, a pop princess and she loves comic books, witches, dinosaurs and crying. She has a cat named Sawyer and a very successful twitter.

Mey has written 575 articles for us.

43 Comments

  1. “At one point in my notes I wrote “I’m really happy that they didn’t murder this trans girl,” only to watch her die in the hospital two scenes later. That’s how the whole episode went — any time I would get hopeful, they would let me down again.”

    This sums up everything.

  2. I was on the streaming site I use because I lack cable and saw this episode name and was pretty sure it wasn’t going to be good. Blarg, it’s so upsetting how much the television people continue to fuck this stuff up.

    • I imagine you’re someone who makes a practice out of misgendering trans women at every opportunity, and that’s why you don’t like to classify it as violence? Even though you probably identify as a feminist, and it’s pretty much basic feminism that emotional abuse = violence?

    • Hey Tara, here’s some ways that it most definitely is:

      *Every time someone refers to you by a gender that is not your own, it outs you to people who might not otherwise know. Potentially subjecting you to violence or your identity being disregarded.

      *Every time someone refers to you by a gender that is not your own, it makes you feel vulnerable about your self worth and ability to ‘pass,’ or even god forbid, just wear the clothes and expression you want to wear to make yourself happy. You feel more aware of a binary. You feel more aware of whenever, even if you wanted to, you could even fit at all.

      *Every time someone refers to you by a gender that is not your own, you have to acknowledge the fact that you are ‘different’. You are other, and they, frequently, were born into the gender they were assigned; you, frequently, weren’t.

      And finally, every time someone refers to you by a gender that is not your own, you have to remember that you can’t just be ‘whatever gummy bear rainbow you are’ but are, sometimes first and foremost, trans.

      And that is sometimes wonderful.

      And that is sometimes terrifying and exhausting.

      Because being trans is something special and incredible – the friends, the community, the incredible strength and power – but being trans, or being marginalised or different, is also being more at risk of violence, poverty, poor mental health, of people yelling at you on the street, of difficulties finding special people to be with who are not entirely awful, and of course of other compounding difficulties.

      Yeah, sometimes people make mistakes, and that’s understandable, and that’s human. But repeated, uncorrected mistakes…that’s different. Ignoring your pronouns, thinking they know better than you do, constantly ignoring your right to self autonomy, identity and expression?
      Fck yes, that’s an act of violence.

    • Misgendering is a rhetorical tool used by transphobes to open a trans person to attack. It is an act of othering which depersonalize a and dehumanizes, outing or delegitimizing the target in the eyes of witnesses. In our society that attack is often very physical. Brutally physical. Cis people don’t just hurt and kill trans women. They rip us apart. If you misgender a trans person, you may be an instigator of actual endangerment of life and livelihood. I’m not one usually wont to deploy lefty diction; but how on earth can such stakes NOT be violence?

      If you don’t believe it’s that serious? Well, you obviously don’t live on this planet. I heard a quick blurb in the news this week about yet another trans woman murdered, in Texas. I will not go to research the story, as the last such murder I read about was of a trans woman cut into itty bitty bits and buried in a swamp. I have enough nightmares. And yet it goes on and on, with such reports as only exemplary of the general trend.

      • I’m sooooooooo extremely late to this conversation. So since misgendering someone is an act of violence, I think I can safely come to the conclusion that if a white person calls me a ni**er I can consider that an act of violence. Right? After all, that would cause me fear and emotional and mental duress.

    • I’m sooooooooo extremely late to this conversation. So since misgendering someone is an act of violence, I think I can safely come to the conclusion that if a white person calls me a ni**er I can consider that an act of violence. Right? After all, that would cause me fear and emotional and mental duress.

  3. I didn’t watch this episode, but I’ve been catching up on season 16 on Netflix recently, and I don’t know if there’s been a turnover in writing staff or just a major downhill trend in quality on L&O:SVU lately. So many feminist themes undermined by the end of the episode, sometimes by Olivia Benson.

    The episode based on the UVA fraternity rape incident was particularly egregious – Benson told the college president that the victim had set feminism back 30 years. The episode based on GamerGate was also awful; the brutalized woman game developer concluded at the end of the episode that she’d gotten what she deserved, and would not try again.

    This show has always had an ambivalent-at-best feminism, but I can’t get through the newest episodes without rending my garments.

    • they turned over the writing staff entirely right when stabler left and they brought in all the new guys. i loved that show SO MUCH but finally dropped off last season. i just don’t care about rollins’ gambling or nick’s anger or whoever that other guy is and i miss captain cragen pulling a monkey out of a basketball.

  4. Are we sure that the person who plays Avery is not trans* in real life 🙂 ?

    I do think we should have more trans* people playing trans* parts.

    The thing that stuck out to me were the tangles: the perpetrator was a young cis male black teenager from a lower class that was committing a hate crime/assault against a more wealthy white trans* female teenager; both kids, supposedly good sensitive people who like graphic novels and yet one committed a crime (why?); and the overarching narrative of the city needing to set an example that hate crimes/violence against trans* people cannot be tolerated/ how do we keep from ruining another black life by sending them to prison as a child?

    I think that Law and Order was right to highlight those tangles — They did not do a good job modeling what treatment of trans* people should be, but I think that is not what they were trying to do…..they are reflecting society and societies problems.

    Although not appropriate to assume that showing a trans persons chest (no matter the gender) is OK, I think that maybe in the beginning they showed it as a mode of showing common humanity…and later they showed the police walking in without making sure she was dressed as a conversation piece for the viewer…they may have actually been trying to highlight that this behavior may not have been OK.

    All that said, thank you for writing an article about this episode 🙂

    • Common humanity… uh, no, I really doubt that one. Let’s get real, what they really wanted to do was show her penis (as has often been done when shows try to ‘out’ and shame a woman as trans) but they can’t do that on broadcast tv, so they went for the next option.

      I do very much agree with you about the inherent racism of framing this as “black intolerant kid attacks a white trans kid who is safe in her own more advanced community.” It’s not the reality of the vast majority of anti-trans crime and it’s perpetuating the false idea which was promoted post-Prop-8 that “it’s the black community which is responsible for homophobia (and transphobia).” Shame on NBC and shame on Comcast for showing this crock.

    • you are correct! the episode was based loosely on an incident in oakland over a year ago where an white wealthier agender amab persons skirt was set on fire by a black low income cis boy on a city bus. the entanglement of the system and how it intersects the city setting an example and the boy asking for forgiveness is exactly how the trial played out.

  5. As soon as I saw that one character was white and trans and one was a black kid, I knew where this was going. I have a HUGE problem with the fact that they decided to have the victim be white and the perpetrator be black. 9/10 that’s not how that shit plays out in real life, and it plays into stereotypes about the relationship (or lack thereof) between black America and LGBT America. It honestly just felt like a punch in the gut. And that the victim was white AND upper class with married parents and the victim was black AND poor with a single mom. It just frustrates me.
    Like, just think about it: it’s literally straight out of all those accusations that led to black boys being lynched or at the very least having the shit beat out of them. Vulnerable young white girl gets attacked by a dangerous and rapey black boy.
    That said, I thought Adrienne C. Moore’s performance was great, despite how short her parts were. She was devastating. I cried.
    I get what they were trying to do, but c’mon. I’m kind of disappointed that you failed to talk about the choice of the characters’ races in this piece. C’mon now. It was in your face. Immediately. Hell, the episode even referenced it quickly a few times, like they kind of knew it was an issue (which felt so disjointed. Like, are you going to talk about it or not, SVU. Make up your mind.)

    • The episode was based on the incident in San Francisco when the white agender kid from an affluent family was set on fire on a bus. I’m pretty sure that’s where the racial casting choices came from, but it doesn’t mean they had to do the same thing — after all, they changed the real story in other ways, including making the agender kid a trans girl and having her die instead of merely being injured.

  6. Wow, what a mess of inaccurate and damaging stereotypes. “He didn’t have enough experience with trans people to hate them”; how is experience a contributing factor to prejudice when the very definition of prejudice is opinion formed beforehand, ie without the actual experience? The lack of meaningful interaction with a minority group is the very foundation of hate crimes.
    And don’t even get me started on the “threat” to masculinity which then has to be violently fought off and how we should totally sympathize with the fragility of traditional masculinity.
    This must have been incredibly stressful to watch.

  7. What’s depressing is that the 2003 episode with Kate Moenning was extremely well done. It wasn’t flawless (they could have, for instance, cast a trans actress), but so much more respectful than this mess.

  8. I feel like SVU tends to try and make these progressive episodes addressing current issues, but they always fuck it up. It really reminds me of the episode about harrassment towards women in gaming, which ended up with the message “the misogynist men who attack, harrass, and sexually assault a woman for making new games and being a woman will make her shut up and they will win”. I know that it’s meant to be all dark and gritty, but they completely destroy the characters simply to make it more dramatic.

  9. i stopped watching svu along time ago. they just plain suck at writing because its so obvious the writers don’t know what they are saying, so they just throw all these crimes against victims, drug them through hell and then don’t have the balls for a happy ending so your left with stereotypes and an oh well attitude

  10. I’ve watched this show since high school. I quit for a long time after the first “trans episode,” which … actually wasn’t even as bad as this one, but it aired several years ago? Stabler misgendered someone and Benson didn’t correct him, which is how I thought this show was supposed to go.

    I saw the trailer for this episode at the end of the pilot and decided 100% that I wasn’t going anywhere near it, not with a ten-foot-pole. You’re a lot braver than me.

  11. “I just don’t understand how when there are so many trans people out there willing and able to work with and for TV shows to make sure they get their trans storylines right, we still get episodes like this.”

    Frustratingly I think part of the problem is that not all writers/producers/media executives are willing to work with and listen to the people willing to work with them. Even if writers consult with trans advocates or work with trans actors, they can still decide to make shitty transphobic storylines. I bet some shows, like SVU, may not be invested in accurate/inclusive/non-offensive storylines. I guess that’s why we need more Jenji Kohans and Jill Soloways!

  12. I thought it was a very good show. The points about using wrong pronouns, etc are realistic. Most people, police, etc use “he” when they believe a transgender person is a male dressing as female. The boys also knew Avery as a “boy” and it upset them for another boy to dress as a girl. Darius over-reacted when Avery fell on him because the others were teasing him, and it threatened his masculinity. This is totally how males in our society act!

    I thought the best part of the episode was when Darius drew pictures for Avery, showing his true remorse and desire for Avery to recover and even for them to be friends. Avery’s display of complete forgiveness, and the parents statement in court for Darius to not go to prison were very powerful statements.

    We can stand back and criticize when we think a show doesn’t portray something the way we feel it should be portrayed, but as a non-transgender person with many transgender friends, it got a very powerful message out to the general public.

  13. I think the episode was trying to portray how things are, not how things are supposed to be. I admit, I was frustrated with the Carisi/Rollins conversation, but I don’t think that Amanda’s response to an ignorant Carisi wasn’t unrealistic. I think the episode was supposed to play both sides–everyone loses. I’m glad this episode was not always PC. What situation in the real world is?

  14. there appears to be a direct correlation between Mariska Hargitay’s alternative lifestyle haircut (general swagger) and the respectful treatment of queer, trans, and gender non-conforming people.

    they were better at not being complete fuckheads when Benson was hot.

  15. The racial politics of this episode were unspoken but still unmissable in their misanthropic nature. Because of course Avery, in all of her forgiveness and compassion, is white, and of course we spend the majority of the episode watching black person after black person repeatedly misgender this young woman and justify the assault against her while the only person who tries to seek out a bit of understanding of what it means to be transgender is the white police officer, while Finn is off comforting the defendant’s black mother. Once again, we are shown on TV a reality where LGBT and black are not only communities that don’t mix but are positioned as antithetical enemies to one another.

  16. I too believe this episode was written to show how things are rather than how they should be. Considering I work with the NYPD on a daily basis & occasionally within the transgender community. I can say from experience that the scene with the uniformed officer misgendering Avery to Rollins was sadly on point.

    I frequently have to correct or overrule my co-workers & public safety collegues in the FDNY & NYPD in regards to things like that almost EVERY time I’ve had a situation involving a trans person. Even the ‘professionals’ at hospitals like RN’s & MD’s will purposely misgender individuals based on their government ID or worse.

    Unfortunately the neanderthals still outnumber those of us that embrace an individuals’right to live as their true self, and sadly alot of them are cops, firefighters, paramedics, nurses & doctors in supposedly ‘tolerant’ NYC.

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