The Other Big Transgender Television Moment You May Have Missed

Jazz Jennings’ documentary series premiered while Caitlyn Jenner was being honored at the ESPYs.

Jazz Jennings on the red carpet at the 2015 ESPY Awards on July 15. (Photos: Getty Images)

Jul 16, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

The ESPYs are to sports what the Oscars are to movies, but until Wednesday night, the annual awards show was primarily watched only by fans of the nation’s top athletes. This year’s ESPN broadcast, however, attracted the largest audience in its 22-year history, thanks in part to Arthur Ashe Courage Award recipient Caitlyn Jenner.

The Olympian’s uplifting speech about transgender acceptance generated a spike in viewership and helped the show—which was broadcast on ABC for the first time, rather than ESPN—garner more than three times the Nielsen household ratings of last year’s telecast, according to Variety.

Jenner wasn’t the only transgender icon making waves on television Wednesday night. As the 65-year-old reality star used her acceptance speech to advocate on behalf of transgender youths, 14-year-old transgender teenager Jazz Jennings’ new documentary series, I Am Jazz, premiered on TLC. The show, which takes its name from Jennings’ eponymous YouTube series, follows the South Florida teenager as she deals with mostly normal middle school drama, along with the pressure of being an unofficial spokesperson for the transgender movement.

That two networks featured transgender role models during the same prime-time TV slot would probably have been unheard of even a year ago, when the world had yet to meet Caitlyn Jenner and the only high-profile transgender figures on television were Laverne Cox on Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black and Jeffrey Tambor’s character Maura on Amazon’s Transparent. While both shows are critical successes, they’re only available via online streaming services.

So, Why Should you Care? Jennings’ TLC show and Jenner’s forthcoming E! series I Am Cait may signal a new era of transgender visibility on television. The shows come on the heels of ABC Family’s Becoming Us, the Ryan Seacrest–produced reality show about teens with transgender parents, and NBC Nightly News’ two-part series on transgender kids Jacob and Malisa, which debuted in April—around the same time as Jenner’s historic coming-out interview with Diane Sawyer, which scored record ratings for ABC.

It’s no surprise, then, that Jenner’s Arthur Ashe Courage Award helped bring a new relevance—and a much broader audience—to this year’s ESPYs. During her acceptance speech, Jenner admitted that she’d never met another transgender person until coming out several months ago. The majority of Americans would likely identify with that statement: Just 9 percent say they personally know someone who is transgender, which makes Jennings’ and Jenner’s visibility and storytelling on television all the more important.