The Presence of Transgender Characters

Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes, narrates the story of Robin Vote, along with her struggles and relationships, on her journey to happiness. Throughout the novel, characters from multiple backgrounds are introduced with the common denominator of knowing Dr. Matthew O’Connor. Dr. Matthew O’Connor pretends to be a real doctor, which leads characters to trust him and consult him for advice in their times of struggle. Dr. Matthew O’Connor is revealed as transgender to the readers when Nora walks in on the doctor wearing a “woman’s flannel nightgown,” “a wig with long pendent curls that touched his shoulders,” and saw “laces, ribands, stockings, and ladies’ underclothing” hanging out of his drawers.”(85) In the fourth season of Glee, a popular television show about a group of high school singers and dancers, a new character is introduced named Wade, or Unique. Wade chooses to wear men’s clothing to school to avoid harassment by his fellow classmates, but identifies as a woman named Unique when he performs. Both Wade and Dr. O’Connor come from unsupportive backgrounds involving a lack of acceptance and ultimately compromise their true identities in order to satisfy society’s standards. Including transgender characters in literature and media can be controversial, but addresses important challenges and threats these individuals face everyday.

When Dr. Matthew O’Connor’s family discovered his identity, they responded by sending him off to join the military, where served “in a little town where the bombs began tearing the heart out of you.”(25) As a punishment for being transgender, Dr. O’Connor was forced to witness and endure the gruesome sights, such as the guillotine, from World War I. Towards the end of the novel, Dr. O’Connor rants about the different situations the characters have spoke to him about when he is drunk in a bar. At this point, Dr. O’Connor can no longer deal with the other characters problems, along with the challenge of hiding his true identity. He claims he “lived his life for nothing” and “the end” is “now nothing, but wrath and weeping.” (175) His years of having to cope with others problems, while secretly dealing with his own, ultimately led to his degradation. Similarly, Wade from Glee struggled to reveal Unique to his friends and family. Wade joined Glee Club because he “wanted to be somewhere where different was celebrated.” Although Glee Club was traditionally known for their acceptance, Wade comes to a meeting dressed as Unique and is ridiculed by his peers. The other members question Wade by stating “I thought you said you would only wear that for performances.” Wade was initially shocked by their responses, but agreed to change per their requests.

In the 1920s, legislature in the United States and other parts of the world targeted LGBTQ members of the community, forcing individuals to hide their identities in order to avoid punishments from the law and rejection by other community members. Despite the changes made to legislature, LGBTQ individuals still face discrimination and harassment everyday and are often the victims of hate crimes. Given the setting of Nightwood, Dr. O’Connor had no choice but to hide his identity from the public and could only dress how he truly desired  within the confinement of his house. In Glee, Wade wore men’s clothes, accompanied by mascara and eyeshadow. After seeing his makeup during lunch one day, other members of the club recommended he “save his makeup for performances to avoid complicating their fragile relationship with the football and cheer teams.” In the episode, a cheerleader proceeds to call Wade cruel names and throws a slushie in his face. Barnes inclusion of a transgender character is believed to be one of the first known accounts in literature, and Wade was the first openly transgender character on Glee. In addition, there still remains a lack of representation of transgender characters in television and movies today. It is important to continue increasing the presence of LGBTQ actors and actresses to promote acceptance and diversity, as well as bring attention to the struggles still apparent today.

Barnes, Djuna. Nightwood. Faber & Faber, 2015.
Murphy, Ryan, et al. “Glee ‘The New Rachel.’” Season 4, episode 1.