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Emmerdale raises the bar for transgender representation on TV:

How does Ash Palmisciano’s debut measure up to the other UK soaps with trans characters?

Hats off to Emmerdale! That’s 90% of our top four soaps which have now introduced a transgender character.

Let me explain. I am well aware that all four shows (Eastenders, Coronation Street, Hollyoaks and now Emmerdale) have had trans representation. However, while Coronation Street no doubt had good intentions when introducing its trans storyline, in the shape of Hayley Cropper, the fact that Hayley was actually a cis woman, playing a trans woman, means they lose points!

Emmerdale on the other hand,  as with Hollyoaks and Eastenders before it, has taken the proverbial bull by the horns and cast (successfully it would appear) a trans character, played by a trans actor. And the world didn’t implode! Not only did the world not implode but the actor, Ash Palmisciano, was praised for his performance and the show itself was heralded for its progressive approach in tackling difficult story lines.

As a member of the trans community, I see steps such as this as a huge victory. With trans stories gaining so much negative media coverage, having some trans positive representation on mainstream TV (the episode which introduced Ash’s character, Matt Barton, was watched by nearly 7 million viewers) is proof that our existence is becoming more accepted. This is such a vital message to younger and older people alike, who feel alone and afraid that their truth will have negative consequences if it is revealed.

Now that Emmerdale has taken the plunge, it will be interesting to see how the character plays out. Whether the show will use this as an opportunity to (gently) educate and inform viewers about some of the day-to-day challenges we face. In doing so, perhaps the viewing public will be less quick to judge. Perhaps they will gain a level of understanding and, who knows, even sympathy, when debating issues such as the use of public toilets or other gender specific spaces. I expect it will depend on how brave Emmerdale is, and how vitriolic the back-lash.

ITV has a real opportunity here for character development and it is one which I hope will be more in line with Annie Wallace’s role as Sally St. Claire, in Hollyoaks, than Riley Carter Millington in Eastenders, both of whom joined their respective casts in 2015. Of Eastenders’ move to cast Carter Millington, Paris Lees said: “It’s the biggest thing to happen for the transgender community in Britain this decade. … As a pop culture moment this is massive and a sign of the times.”  

And she was absolutely right. However, in a recent interview, Riley explained that, once his character’s coming out storyline had run its course, there was little in terms of opportunity for character development. Instead he was ‘shipped off’ to France to become a chef – hardly the step change needed to increase awareness and understanding of transgender issues among the wider viewing public. In her role as a no nonsense headteacher (and under the guidance of equal rights group All About Trans), Hollyoaks’ Wallace seems a much more likely vehicle for change.

It is so easy to have an opinion – a nice, loud, shouty opinion – on so-called controversial topics, but many of those who shout the loudest have never even seen a transgender person in the flesh, let alone had a conversation with one. If we are to really seep into general consciousness, our story lines need to be regular and as interesting and meaty as those of our cis counterparts.

Furthermore, while we are on the subject of wish lists…I look forward to the day when a trans actor is cast in a cis gender role, now THAT would be truly progressive.