For 20 Years, Law & Order: SVU Has Given a Voice to a Silenced Transgender Community

on September 27, 2018, 9:39pm

Last night, I celebrated three tiny, new chin hairs. This afternoon, I have an appointment to receive my 10th testosterone hormone shot. I’m 31, but I never thought I’d be here, making progress in my transition as a transgender man. I didn’t think I’d see a day past 30.

Although I never saw myself taking my own life, I also could never envision a life like the one that I have now. When I was younger and thinking about the future, it was either blurry or something that resembled a distant fairy tale — it was never mine to own, never mine to aspire to, never mine to build.

To say that I was detached from reality wouldn’t exactly be accurate, but before coming out, there was a sense that I had no real control over my life as I had no real control over my body. I had my thoughts, feelings, and opinions, sure, but these entities only existed in the abstract. When I’d catch my reflection in a car window or clothing store mirror, I’d immediately be jolted back to my twisted, warped physical world, the one where my body didn’t align with my mind, where the internal and external were at constant odds. For three decades, it was as though I were a stranger in my own home.

December marks one year since publicly identifying as transgender. There were plenty of things already in motion that ultimately led up to my finally coming out, but as I look back on the incredible journey thus far, I’m reminded of many notable moments in which I was confronted with the truth of myself. They weren’t always positive experiences, and I didn’t always respond positively to them, but every instance was like a piece of the puzzle that was my identity.

To coincide with the 20th season of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, premiering this week on NBC, I’m specifically recalling one of those pivotal moments: the first time I watched an SVU episode whose plot centered around a transgender person.

In April 2003, just a few weeks shy of my 16th birthday, I watched a season four episode called “Fallacy”. The story focused on Cheryl Avery, a transgender woman who had committed murder in order to avoid being outed. It was the first time I’d seen a transgender character on mainstream television. More importantly, it was the first time I’d heard anyone voice out loud the pain and suffering that I felt, but could never quite understand or fully articulate.

Those who identify as transgender tend to experience higher rates of mental health issues. It’s estimated that out of the entire trans community — about 1.4 million here in the US — at least 40% have attempted suicide, compared to 4.6% of the overall general population. Nearly half of all trans people also report having been assaulted at least once in their lives. These dismal numbers come on top of the news that 2018 is on pace to be one of the most deadly (if not the deadliest) years for transgender people. At least 44 trans women, mostly of color, have been murdered on account of their identity in the last 18 months.

This is all happening at a time when transgender people are perhaps receiving more mainstream exposure than ever before. There’s been tremendous progress, but it’s important to note the fight for acceptance and understanding is still very much in the early stages.

svu 2000s For 20 Years, Law & Order: SVU Has Given a Voice to a Silenced Transgender Community

Detectives Stabler and Benson, Captain Cragen, and Assistant District Attorney Alexandra Cabot

As you can imagine, the conversation regarding the LGBTQ+ landscape in early 2000s was drastically different. In high school, I was part of the Gay-Straight Alliance, which was comprised of maybe four or five people on a good day, and generally looked upon with, at best, ambivalence and confusion. At that time, the spectrum regarding sexual orientation and gender identity was super limited: You were either gay, straight, or bisexual. Transgender was rarely a word brought up in conversation — it was difficult enough to establish a group addressing the concerns of gay people. That’s not to say other experiences and communities didn’t exist, obviously, but they were not in any way visible to the extent that they are now.

And so I proceeded to assign myself a label. Because of a conservative, Catholic upbringing, I couldn’t bring myself to identify as gay. I thought that bisexual would be the least offensive of the two. When my family would ask if I had a boyfriend, at least I could say, “Not… yet,” instead of an outright “No, never.” By calling myself bisexual, I was leaving the door open for the possibility of one day being with a man, thus fulfilling society’s standards of a heteronormative relationship as a cis woman.

But I was lying to everyone around me, and more importantly, I was lying to myself. And I knew it. What I didn’t know, however, was who I really was. I forced myself into this box because I felt there was nothing else out there that spoke to or resonated with me. Who was I? What was this feeling that I had? This very strong disconnection between my mind and my body?

I buried it shamefully, figuring that I was alone, there was something wrong with me, and that this was a secret burden that I’d have to carry on my own. I pretended to know how to put on makeup and dress up in skirts, and I feigned many crushes on boys in order to keep up with the box I’d chosen. I cried many nights. I drank my dad’s beer late at night to ease the aches. Every evening before falling asleep, I thought, “Hey, tomorrow might finally be the day when everything falls into place. Tomorrow, all these feelings will be gone and I will have successfully convinced my body that I am a bisexual being.”

It never happened. And so I buried more and more and more.

Then Cheryl Avery came into my life.

The SVU episode “Fallacy” opens with what appears to be the accidental death of a man named Joe. Upon further investigation, though, Detectives Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and Elliot Stabler (Chris Meloni) discover that their suspect, Cheryl Avery, is actually a transgender woman and that she killed Joe in order to keep him from outing her to Eddie, her cis male lover.

Avery says that she planned on keeping her identity a secret until she could afford sexual reassignment surgery to become “a whole woman” for Eddie. According to her, if Eddie knew the truth, he’d be disgusted with her, and she couldn’t stand to be without him. “I figured I’d lose him, the first man that loved me as a woman,” Avery told Detective Benson. She also perceived Joe’s threat of outing her as one of aggression and violence against her.

This isn’t meant to be an excuse for taking another life, and despite a few questionable comments Stabler makes in the episode, SVU overall makes it clear that the crime falls within a very gray area in terms of what’s morally right, what’s justified, and what counts as a mitigating circumstance. The biggest takeaway for me, however, was how much I saw myself in Avery. This realization was incredibly jarring and something I had never ever felt before. Here was someone vocalizing my concerns and emotions — the fear of our truth being aired without our permission, the longing to be loved for our true selves. Here was someone giving a proper word to what I was experiencing: This was the first moment I thought I could be transgender.

cheryl avery For 20 Years, Law & Order: SVU Has Given a Voice to a Silenced Transgender Community

Cheryl Avery in “Fallacy”

Other scenes in “Fallacy” only confirmed this revelation. Later, when asked about her childhood and how she came to identify as transgender, Avery said she knew as early as age seven and often went to bed dreaming of becoming a girl. I distinctly remember being five and wanting to do everything my father did and feeling confused and distraught that I could not. Then, feeling doubly frustrated that I couldn’t reprogram my own brain to be whatever society expected of me.

“It’s not something you can change,” Avery explained to a psychiatrist on the show. “It’s me, it’s how I feel, and I can’t be anything else.” How many times had I come to this conclusion, but forcefully denied it? Too many.

She went on to endure bullying in school that often turned violent, and was eventually ostracized from her own family. In a scene in which Detective Benson interviews Avery’s parents, the denial they still have about their child is nothing short of toxic. “HIS NAME IS CHARLIE!” Avery’s father screams, refusing to acknowledge Avery’s new chosen name of Cheryl. “God doesn’t make mistakes,” said her mother, insisting that Avery should have known to stick with whatever biological body she’d been given.

I’ve thankfully never had such vile conversations with my own family, but they’ve certainly conveyed the feeling that my being transgender doesn’t align with this picture or future that they had created in their minds for me. I wasn’t the person that they had expected me to become.

Avery is ultimately found guilty of killing Joe and sent to prison. However, because she was biologically born male, she is sent to a male prison. She has the option of stopping her estrogen hormone treatment in order to avoid being a target while behind bars, but the thought of letting her body undo itself and become masculine again is not one that she entertains for even a second. In her eyes, Charlie Avery no longer existed, and she’d rather risk everything before falling back into her old life. Sadly, she is assaulted and gang-raped while in prison.

In what I consider one of the most powerful scenes of the entire episode, the Assistant District Attorney handling the case, Alexandra Cabot, is seen noticeably struggling with the jury’s verdict, even though it was technically her job to convict Avery. She wonders why she feels so lousy about the conclusion, and Detective Benson replies: “Because you look at Cheryl and you can’t imagine what it’s like to feel your own body is a mistake.”

The words hit so close to home in that instant, the rush of emotions was overwhelming. I broke down in tears. I was speechless. At one point, I remember my shame and self-hate took over, and for a split second, I was even repulsed by Cheryl. It was all too real.

But when the smoke finally cleared, the clarity settled in: I grew to finally acknowledge that I was like her; I was transgender. The acceptance of this fact was a powerful, affirming act in and of itself and something that I’ll never forget.

“Trans people are owed protection, dignity, rights,” tweeted Hargitay, who has dutifully and poignantly played the role of Benson all 20 years of SVU and is an activist off camera. “The community has my unwavering allyship as we fight for these truths.”

“Fallacy” aired some 15 years ago at a time when story lines involving transgender people were nearly nonexistent. The crime procedural is not without its flaws, but its commitment to speaking on behalf of marginalized groups and victims of all varieties (rape, domestic abuse, transphobia), and in such a humanizing, authentic manner, is what’s kept the series relevant and necessary. Avery’s voice was my voice, and hearing her speak my truth when I felt silenced by my own confusion and dysphoria in many ways saved my life.

SVU has gone to produce a handful of other transgender-centric episodes, including this year’s “Service”, which addressed Trump’s military ban on transgender people. In the episode, a Sgt. Jim Preston is reluctant to come forward about a crime that he witnessed because he feared the military would find out he was a transgender man. To help get justice for the victim of the crime, he eventually does come forward, putting himself at risk for retaliation among his ranks.

“So proud #SVU so loudly stated tonight that trans rights are human rights. That members of our military — regardless of gender identity — should be proud to be exactly who they are,” Hargitay said on Twitter shortly after the airing of “Service”. “To show that LGBTQ+ representation on TV need not be only about victimhood, but can be about heroism … that the liberation of marginalized groups must be hand in hand, intersectional, and in support of one another.”

Today, SVU could probably stand to include more LGBTQ+ stories, but I believe strongly that the NBC series started a dialogue long before most other shows and helped to pave the way to the kind of transgender media representation and exposure that exists now.

These days we have role models like the mighty Laverne Cox elevated to an incredibly visible platform. When we criticize cis actors like Scarlett Johansson for taking on the role of a transgender man, we are promptly heard. When idiotic politicians in power take away trans rights, we find allies near and far and push back. When musicians express transphobic views, we hold them accountable.

There’s still so much to be done, so much headway we need to make, I know, but we are making progress. Like the tiny sprouts of chin hairs that I see as a result of my hormone shots, every little step — even a random SVU episode from 2003 — is a tiny victory worth celebrating.

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