TransAmerican Love Story: The Reality Show A Decade Ahead of It’s Time
We’re all familiar with The Bachelor… it’s now in its 118th season or something like that. The ABC reality dating show features a traditionally attractive man and an entire harem of beautiful women who would argue, sabotage, backstab and claw their way into the heart of the leading man in a heated competition for his affections.
ABC turned out several spin-offs, including The Bachelorette where the tables were turned and a Woman took center stage as a dozen men tried to romance her in a bid to be the last man standing. The idea being here that, after eliminating all the contestants until one remains, the two new loverbirds would take a Disney-like chariot and drive off into the sunset to live happily ever after. Probably in the suburbs. The problem is, it rarely happened that way.
While the Bachelor was in its prime, garnering huge ratings for ABC, in 2008 LOGO, a much smaller, niche cable network, along with World of Wonder, the studio that would later bring us the cultural phenom, RuPaul’s Drag Race and critically acclaimed films like The Eyes Of Tammy Faye and Party Monster premiered a quaint but little known show that ran in a similar theme.
That show was TransAmerican Love Story. In a format similar to the Bachelor and the Bachelorette, it centered itself around a beautiful woman looking for love, and her would-be possibilities… but there was one glaring difference:
That woman was Calpernia Addams. A Transgender woman.
Calpernia wasn’t just a random casting choice. She was the perfect choice. Her story read like something out of a Nicholas Sparks novel. It was hopeful and then tragic. You see, Calpernia was the subject of the critically acclaimed true story, Soldier’s Girl.
In 1999, Pvt. First Class Soldier, Barry Winchell was stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Just 21 at the time, he met a local showgirl from Nashville who performed regularly at a popular Transgender revue. The two, over the course of time, fell in love.
The military was still heavily subscribed to its stifling “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy regarding LGBT enlistees. Although Pvt. Winchell exhibited no shame in his developing relationship with his nightlife princess, for the sake of his status in the military, it had to be kept secret. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before members of his platoon discovered what he had not disclosed, and he endured brutal harassment at the hands of his comrades-in-arms. It began with name calling. Typical homophobic abuse that the military is notorious for. Insults like “You F*cking f*ggot” were hurled at Winchell until, in a tragic turn of events, on the morning of July 5, 1999 two of his bunk mates murdered him while he slept in the barracks.
Calpernia Adams was Pvt. Barry Winchell’s girlfriend.
Soldier’s Girl was nominated for a plethora of awards, and won Lee Pace a Gotham Award for Breakthrough Performance. Pvt. Winchell’s murder was formative in the national discussion about- and although many years later, the ultimate removal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.
Calpernia endured every girl’s worst nightmare. Love, and then loss of what could have been her own happily-ever-after to the grotesque consequences of hate. She became an international, keynote speaker on Trans rights and an important figure in shaping Trans awareness and acceptance.
TransAmerican Love Story never exploited Addam’s past tragedy. It was simply a girl looking for love. It embraced a significantly more upscale tone than The Bachelorette; There were not hot tub make-out sessions or behind-closed-doors antics, but it managed to stay entertaining. Unlike most Trans-oriented media, it wasn’t overly dramatic or sensationalized. It kept a fun, frivolous beat, putting the potential suitors through a myriad of competitions, but also revealing enough about them for Addams to slowly whittle down her options. In fact, it managed to achieve the near impossible: You were watching a Trans woman and not thinking about her Trans status. You were championing for her to find love.
The show was groundbreaking, although not World Of Wonder’s first Trans-related venture. It had formerly produced docu-style, heavier fare like Sex-Change Hospital and TransGeneration which, while educational in context, lacked the innocuous buoyancy and charm of TransAmerican Love Story.
There’s never been anything like it since, sadly. It premiered in February 2008, an entire decade ago. Most Trans youth have never heard of it. They’re used to seeing themselves on-screen primarily as sex-workers (Tangerine) or portrayed by Cisgender men and women (Jared Leto in “Dallas Buyers Club,” Eddie Redmayne in “The Danish Girl,” Elle Fanning in “3 Generations,” Matt Bomer in “Anything” ect.) Always, Trans characters are struggling with their Trans identity. They’re rarely just people.
We live in a different climate now, one more hostile towards Trans individuals politically, but socially, of a generation decidedly more self-aware and resistant to stigma. Today, TransAmerican Love Story would be a ratings hit. Regardless, I must not downplay it’s relevance. About a year ago, I wrote an article wherein I discussed the struggle that men willing to date Trans identifying women experience. A show like this would bring that topic to the table for a much broader discussion without the political pretext of banned words, military bans, redacted protections, which are best left for other types of programs. As audiences, we deserve the right to get lost in romance, titter with unbridled optimism and feel like we can access that without having to constantly be dissected by the mainstream media. The great thing about TransAmerican Love Story was the humanizing- the sheer normalizing of a Trans woman. It’s the show we deserved… and our society needed.
World of Wonder has shifted their focus more predominantly toward Drag Queens nowadays. The success and reach of their central series, RuPaul’s Drag Race has reached monolithic proportions, embedding itself in mainstream culture. It’s a fantastic show that has done immensely positive things for the gay community in terms of visibility, with frank discussions about HIV, eating disorders, family rejection and acceptance. It’s given viewers a look behind the curtain in a fashion not dissimilar to TransAmerican Love Story- by passively educating. Audiences are most receptive when they’re learning something without ever realizing they are. Unfortunately, RuPaul’s Drag Race titular host has determined that Transgender individuals do not qualify or his race.
While The Bachelor spinoffs have had 16 million episodes and there’s even been a (disastrously made) gay themed version, none have achieved the level of significance that TransAmerican Love Story did in 8 episodes; Including introducing us to the most incredibly sweet and probably the first, Trans Man on network television.
I won’t say more. You don’t need spoilers. You need to watch it. It’s available on Amazon.