Writer and producer Joan Rater reflects on televising trans narratives

Joan Rater brings powerful incite and humor to the narrative of gender transformation during her talk “Transforming My Family” in Choi Auditorium at Occidental College in Los Angeles on Sunday, March 4, 2018. Spruce Bohen/The Occidental.

Joan Rater, producer and writer from “Grey’s Anatomy,” gave a talk in Choi Auditorium March 5 about having a transgender son* and her family’s journey to acceptance. Rater spoke to an audience of students, faculty and community members — including many of Rater’s family, friends and colleagues — with her frank and humorous take on her experience. The Writing and Rhetoric Department, Media Arts and Culture (MAC) and Oxy Arts sponsored the talk.

Rater produced and wrote for shows including “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Doubt,” “Madame Secretary” and “Law and Order.” She earned a Writer’s Guild of America award in 2006 and was nominated for two primetime Emmys in 2006 and 2007, both for her role as a producer on “Grey’s Anatomy.”

In her talk, Rater spoke about her son Tom Phelan’s coming out story, the difficulties in getting family members used to the idea, Phelan’s experience on the ABC show “The Fosters” and the importance of representation in television. Rater also talked about the positive side of having a trans child.

August Barringer (junior) said she enjoyed Rater’s talk.

“Her talk was just so amazing, and from everything she said she seemed to be the model of a supportive parent to a trans child,” Barringer said. “That was really cool, that was amazing to hear how she was proud of her son for being himself.”

After leaving “Grey’s Anatomy,” Rater created a show on CBS called “Doubt” with her husband, Tony Phelan. One of the characters on the show, Cameron “Cam” Wirth, is a lawyer who is transgender.

“I wanted to have a trans character who just was trans. It wasn’t about her being trans, it wasn’t about her transition, it wasn’t about her trans identity — although all of that would probably inform who she was, but it was just about her being a lawyer. [Cam] was played by Laverne Cox who had until this point only played sex workers or prisoners,” Rater said. “[Trans people] are just people like anybody else, and so often I think you see them portrayed poorly and I just wanted to show trans people as human beings.”

According to Rater, she was inspired to create her talk after the 2016 presidential election and hopes to continue spreading her message around the country at schools and community centers.

“I decided to do it after Trump was elected, and I had this moment where I wanted to do something more than I was doing,” Rater said. “I was worried about all of the administration’s rollbacks on a lot of marginalized people including transgender people. I also felt strongly that once you knew and met a transgender person and they became human you no longer could think the same way — you no longer could sort of hate them or marginalize them.”

Rater said that the experience of having a trans son opened her up to a new way of thinking.

“I think that for parents, there’s a lot of ‘oh gosh, oh no, this is scary,‘ and what gets lost in it is how awesome it is to be the parent of a trans person or to have a trans person in your life. It opens you up in ways that maybe you weren’t open before, it challenges you in the best ways, it introduces you to ways of thinking that maybe you wouldn’t have otherwise. I think it makes you a better person,” Rater said.

Professor Julie Prebel, chair of the Writing and Rhetoric department, knows Rater because their children went to elementary school together. According to Prebel, when she heard that Rater had been giving these talks, she saw an opportunity to bring Rater’s message to Occidental.

“Joan is incredibly intelligent and incredibly funny, and I think that she just has a way of seeing things — seeing issues and the world and reflecting on those that I think will make us all connect in some way to whatever she’s talking about,” Prebel said. “She delivers information on what is a very serious topic in a way that [is] humorous and honest.”

Aria Devlin (first year) left the talk feeling inspired for the future.

“I really liked how honest Rater was in her own account of going through Tom’s transformation and journey,” Devlin said. “She talked about the promise of a future in which transgender people are recognized and normalized in television, and much wider on a societal level.”

Rater ended the talk by reminding the audience to use their power for the better.

“We can’t stay silent and hope someone else does the work,” Rater said.

*Rater used the pronouns “he” and “him” to refer to her son throughout the talk, even in reference to times before Tom Phelan was known as “he.” She explained that this was because although Tom Phelan may not have gone by “he” in the past, he was still a “he.” She also used the term “trans son.”