Neighbours’ first trans character might not change the world, but she could change lives | Allison Gallagher | Television & radio



On Friday evening, the Australian soap opera Neighbours will introduce the show’s first trans character in its near-35-year run.

The story of Mackenzie Hargraves – played by the Australian trans activist Georgie Stone – centres on the character befriending Yashvi Rebecchi, a fellow student at her school; revealing that she is trans; being accepted by her new friend; having her classmates stand up for her right to use the female bathrooms.

It’s the latest example of a welcome trend in television, which is gradually becoming more of a platform for identities that have traditionally been locked out of the mainstream media. Representation on screen might not help disadvantaged or vulnerable groups achieve equal rights in any real way but it does help displace white, cis, straight and able bodies who have been seen as the universal human identity for too long.

For many people – particularly marginalised people – seeing themselves reflected in pop culture can be deeply meaningful. For young people who are struggling to see their place in a world where they are markedly different from the “norm”, it can affirm their very existence. It can feel like hard, undeniable proof of personhood.

The activist and actor Georgie Stone plays Mackenzie Hargraves on Neighbours, a character she pitched to the show last year.

The activist and actor Georgie Stone plays Mackenzie Hargraves on Neighbours, a character she pitched to the show last year. Photograph: Sarah Enticknap

Stone pitched the character herself last year, and has been developing the storyline alongside writers. This is worth celebrating, because while we’re seeing more and more trans characters on our screens, actual trans people have often been locked out of telling our own stories. From Hilary Swank portraying a trans man, Brandon Teena, in 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry, to Jeffrey Tambor’s tenure as a trans woman, Maura, on Transparent (up until his firing in early 2018), the idea that trans people should be the ones playing trans characters has been largely radical for the film and TV industry to accept.

But that’s slowly shifted. The critically acclaimed US drama series Pose, for instance, is based in New York’s queer ballroom scene of the 80s and 90s, and its cast is made up predominantly of LGBTQ people of colour. Trans actors such as Indya Moore, MJ Rodrigeuz and Angelica Ross all play trans characters on the show, a step forward for the industry that’s been a long time coming.

In Australia, across three decades, Neighbours has obtained a certain legacy status in the hearts and minds of many who grew up watching it. Arguably that makes it an ideal platform for inclusive storytelling, and Stone’s involvement isn’t the first time the show has presented viewers with progressive content. While Magda Szubanski officiated Australian TV’s first gay wedding last year on the show, back in 2004 Neighbours aired a much-publicised “lesbian kiss” by the characters Lana Crawford and Sky Mangel.

According to an article in the Age, the onscreen pash was attacked by the usual corners for “making homosexuality look cool”. Newsflash to those squares: homosexuality is cool.

Being trans is also pretty cool, I think, and having a trans person on a TV show with a reach like Neighbours is cool too.

It’s hard to say exactly how much tangible progress on screen representation offers. As we’ve seen since the “boom” in trans visibility over the past five years or so, visibility and rights are not mutually inclusive.

But at a time when politicians and publications (including, on occasion, the UK arm of this one) have made trans people’s – and in particular young trans people’s – existence a target for “debate”, there is some nice, uncomplicated good in a young trans person playing a young trans character on a beloved, long-running program.

If longstanding viewers couldn’t think of a single trans person before, now they can.

If a young trans person has never seen someone they could relate to onscreen, now they will.

And to that one young person, it could mean an awful lot.

Mackenzie Hargraves comes to Neighbours on Thursday at 3.30pm in the UK, on Channel 5; and on Friday 30 August at 6.30pm in Australia, on 10 Peach