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The long history of transgender people on reality TV shows

The long history of transgender people on reality TV shows
Big Brother 17's Audrey Middleton. (Photo by Sonja Flemming/CBS)

In 2015, we learned that one of the cast members of Big Brother 17 is a transgender woman.

This seemed groundbreaking both for broadcast reality TV and for the CBS show, which has a relatively narrow casting profile (i.e. it nearly always casts the exact same types of people).

Trans people were just entering national consciousness for some people because of Caitlyn Jenner‘s high-profile transition.

But the truth is: there were quite a few reality stars before them—and many to follow.

Chaz Bono
Chaz Bono (Photo by s_bukley / Shutterstock)

While I was aware that there were transgender people on UK shows (including the winner of BBUK in 2004 and 2012) and US cable reality TV, when I mentioned that this was groundbreaking, I was focusing on broadcast shows that weren’t just one-off episodes.

Even still, I totally forgot about Chaz Bono on Dancing with the Stars. Even though I wrote about how important his casting was, it just didn’t register four years later.

Perhaps that’s because, although the show includes biographical elements, it’s a competition focused on dance, not one that focuses as much on people’s lives.

Before him, there were others. Cable, as usual, was ahead of broadcast. The CW broke broadcast ground first by casting Isis King on Top Model.

I still think Audrey’s casting on BB17 was groundbreaking and important, especially because—unlike those before her—there’s now 24/7ish public access to her life as she plays this game.

That’s new and offers a lot of possibility, though I still worry about this particular show’s ability to handle it. Big Brother is not a series that has shown it’s capable of handling sensitive issues well in the past.

But ultimately, it’s a good thing. And for those who wonder why or wonder why we should care, it does matter.

Even if you don’t care about television’s role in social change by humanizing people who viewers may never have interacted with before, it’s unquestionably true that diversity makes for better television.

Out trans people on reality TV shows

Survivor Game Changers, Zeke Smith
Zeke Smith during episode 7 of Survivor Game Changers, during which Jeff Varner outed him. (Photo by Jeffrey Neira/CBS Entertainment)

Here’s a list of transgender people who’ve been series regulars on US reality shows, and were out at the time of filming. (Please let me know if I’ve forgotten anyone!)

  • Alexis Arquette, The Sureal Life, 2006
  • Miriam, There’s Something About Miriam, 2007
  • Calpernia Addams, Transamerican Love Story, 2008
  • Laverne Cox, I Want to Work for Diddy, 2008
  • Isis King, America’s Next Top Model, 2008 and 2011
  • Katelynn Cusanelli, The Real World Brooklyn, 2009, and The Challenge, 2010 and 2011
  • Chaz Bono, Dancing with the Stars, 2011
  • Dennis Croft, Small Town Security, 2012
  • Ari South, Project Runway: All Stars 3, 2013
  • Monica Beverly Hillz, RuPaul’s Drag Race 5, 2013
  • Laura Jane Grace, True Trans, 2015
  • Carly, Becoming Us, 2015
  • Jaimie, AiYana, Kassidy, Chloe, Macy, and Robyn, New Girls on the Block, 2015
  • Audrey Middleton, Big Brother 17, 2015
  • Caitlyn Jenner, Call Me Cait/Keeping Up with the Kardashians, 2015
  • Jazz Jennings, I Am Jazz, 2015
  • Zeke Smith, Survivor Millennials vs. Gen X and Survivor Game Changers, 2016 and 2017
  • Peppermint, RuPaul’s Drag Race season 9, 2017
  • Gia Gunn, RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 4, 2018
  • Gottmik, RuPaul’s Drag Race 13, 2021
  • Kylie Sonique Love, RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 6, 2021
  • Kerri Colby,  Kornbread Jeté, Jasmine Kennedie, RuPaul’s Drag Race 14, 2022
  • Jackson Fox, Survivor 42, 2022

This story was updated in March 2022, on the International Transgender Day Of Visibility, to include trans cast members who appeared on reality shows after its initial publication.

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means.

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