Suddenly transgender is all over the television dial. “Transparent” has won awards. Laverne Cox of “Orange is the New Black” was propelled to the cover of Time Magazine which declared that we had reached “The Transgender Tipping Point”. And following close on the heels of those shows are a number of reality TV offerings including celebrities Jazz Jennings and Caitlyn Jenner. Finally, first-hand transgender point of view is sought on interview shows.
Of those I mentioned, only Jeffrey Tambor in “Transparent” is not actually transgender. He is only an actor playing a role. And we know that he isn’t the first actor or actress in a television series to play a transgender character. But who was?
Billy Crystal as Jodie Dallas in “Soap” would be a good guess. But while Jodie cross-dressed at times, he was considered gay, not transgender. Anyway, there was someone a little bit earlier than the beginning of “Soap”. And there would be an interesting connection.
I stumbled upon the information quite by accident. I was having an e-mail discussion with a friend about baseball in general. We were discussing my favorite team, the Dodgers, and two topics in particular: the number of good bunters on their World Series teams in the 1960’s and Hollywood’s penchant for tabbing these handsome, athletic young men for cameo roles, either as themselves or to provide eye candy for women viewers. One man in particular fit both lists: Wes Parker.
I looked up Parker’s screen roles on IMDB. Most of his television credits are the one-offs that I mentioned. There was one exception. He appeared on a show that was way ahead of its time. Many might consider it outlandish even now.
Wes Parker is an example of a great looking Dodger player who was snatched up by Hollywood during his career and was able to continue to get roles afterwards. For his first credited role as an actor on large or small screen, he played himself on an episode of the “Brady Bunch”. According to his IMDB profile, he eventually would appear as an actor on 8 television series, two TV movies (one uncredited), one movie and two voice acting jobs on video games. Other than “All That Glitters”, he only appeared twice on two TV shows, “Police Woman” and “Police Story”.
“All That Glitters” was originally released in a soap opera format on a local Los Angeles syndicated television station with Norman Lear hoping to duplicate his success with “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”. It ran five nights a week for 13 weeks from April 18 to July 15, 1977 (a few months before “Soap’s” premiere in September). It is also the one that debuted the first transgender character in a TV series.
The show portrayed the world (and of course America in particular) as if women were the dominant gender throughout history. Yes, it was women who still gave birth, but they were also the movers and shakers in industry and politics. Men stayed home to take care of the house and children, or worked as secretaries and wait staff to try to attract spouses. The show started with good ratings, but they rapidly declined and the show was cancelled once the 65 episodes in the can had aired.
Parker was not the first transgender character. He played one of the young, attractive trophy husbands. No the distinction of being the first transgender character in a regular TV series goes to none other than Linda Gray, much better known as Sue Ellen Ewing on both incarnations of “Dallas”. The irony is that the show matched the last name of Billy Crystal’s character on “Soap”.
Gray played an MTF transsexual model. Lear personally cast her in the role, perhaps because of her square jaw line.
In fact, it was in April of the following year that “Dallas” made its television debut. In retrospect, it was good fortune for Gray that “All That Glitters” flopped. It made her available when casting for “Dallas” commenced.
While the story about the first transgender character on a television series is interesting trivia, the focus of this post is Wes Parker. He symbolized something significant to me when I was in my late teens and early twenties. And I see parallels between his life and mine as I review both of them.
Of course I rooted for Parker because he played for the Dodgers during his entire 9 year major league career, appearing in at least 100 games each year. He was talented enough to make the major leagues on the defending World Champions after only one minor league season, jumping over Class AA and AAA levels in the process. Many knowledgeable baseball observers felt that Parker was not only the best defensive first baseman in the league, he was also the best defensive centerfielder. He was the National League Gold Glove first baseman for his last 6 seasons as a player. He was named to baseball’s all-time Gold Glove team in 2007. He is the only player (other than Ken Griffey, Jr. who won’t be eligible until next year) to not be in the baseball Hall of Fame.
He was also considered by many to be one of the best bunters to have played the game. He led the NL in sacrifice hits during his first year as a regular in 1965.
Parker was frustrating to me as a fan because you knew he had more talent than his numbers demonstrated. He admitted at the end of his career that because he came from a wealthy family, he wasn’t hungry as a player and didn’t live up to his potential. Before the 1970 season, he decided that he was going to work hard to prepare himself for the season, work hard in spring training and work hard throughout the season. He wanted to see what he might have been capable of during his career. As a result, his numbers were far and away better than any other season.
But he couldn’t put himself through the extra work ever again. He played two more seasons at his usual reduced offensive output and then deliberately retired after nine seasons so no one would be able to waste an HOF ballot on him.
While Parker was frustrating on a fan level, on a human level I can see our similarities. Outside interests and forces led us to underperform in life, sabotage what could have been greatness and settle for mediocrity and only brief flashes of excellence.
But Parker also meant something to be in terms of physique. He was 6’1″ and 180 pounds during his playing career. In fact, based on pictures of him when he was in his late 60’s, only his wrinkles let you know he was past his prime. Otherwise, he still looked like he was in playing condition.
During part of my childhood, I prayed that I would wake up with a girl’s body. By the time I reached my late teens, I gave up on those prayers. Furthermore, it became quite obvious that I was never going to become very big physically. I actually got mad at God and told Him, “If you were going to give me a male body, couldn’t you at least have given me a good male body? I don’t have to be huge.” It was Wes Parker’s physique that I held up as an example. I felt I could be a star athlete with that body. (For the record, now that I have shrunk slightly, I am within a millimeter of the average U.S. woman’s height and 45-50 pounds less than the average weight.)
In other words, if God had caved to my demands (as if!), I might have been the Caitlyn Jenner of my time. However, I probably would have done it in baseball. Power was the main thing I lacked in baseball. I already knew most of the fundamentals. I could throw for distance and I was quick enough to have developed into a pretty good goalie in ice hockey. I threw out base stealers in the only game I caught in high school and I threw out a runner at the plate from the outfield. I even hit over .500 my senior year, but they were all singles.
But yes, I am basically satisfied with my body now, with one major exception. (Is there anyone, transgender or cisgender who is totally satisfied? I will let you guess what my major exception is.) It just would be really nice to have the wealth of a star athlete. I would have been coming into the prime of my baseball career just as free agency was part of the game. A great centerfielder was the one thing the Dodgers lacked for their great years in the mid-1970’s to mid-1980’s. I would have been quite a thrill to have followed in the footsteps of Duke Snider, my first baseball hero. But being a star at any position for any team would have been fabulous.
But that wasn’t part of God’s plan for me. And it still remains to be seen how that plan will work out in the end. I can only say that God only has a Plan A. He doesn’t need a Plan B. He is not an “oops” God.
I still have a question nagging at me, but about male athletes, not about me. We are beginning to see how many male to female transsexuals gravitate to male-oriented and macho professions or interests: Navy Seals and Marines and many other soldiers; police officers and firefighters; intelligence service agents; airline pilots; bodybuilders; mountain climbers. In that light, the surprise is not Caitlyn Jenner. The surprise is why not more? Is the macho code that much stronger for ex-athletes than it is for those in the military, police or fire fighting? Is the quality athlete pool that much smaller? Just like Linda Gray was the first actress to portray a transgender character on a television series and now there have been quite a few, is Jenner just the tip of the iceberg in the world of athletics? Who’s next? And will we also see some female to male athletes coming out?
Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? – Matthew 6:27