Despite General Hospital’s enduring spirit — the longest-running American soap opera celebrated its 55th anniversary on April 1 — the genre continues to receive pushback from critics and viewers who believe daytime dramas are passé and out of touch. But, much like its prime time counterparts, GH frequently pulls its material from popular headlines, striking a balance between the ludicrous and the legitimate to appease both traditional and modern audiences.
In recent weeks, for instance, the writers introduced Dr. Terry Randolph (Cassandra James), the show’s first transgender character and actress. As the childhood best friend of longtime Port Charles resident Elizabeth Webber (Rebecca Herbst), Terry drops by to congratulate Elizabeth on her impending marriage after reconnecting on social media. However, when Elizabeth answers the door, the boy she’d shared her first kiss with is nowhere to be seen. It isn’t until Terry introduces herself that Elizabeth realizes time can truly change a person.
While Elizabeth was obviously confused at first, and rightfully so, she welcomes Terry with open arms, stopping only to regret that she hadn’t been there to support Terry during her transition. Franco Baldwin (Roger Howarth), Elizabeth’s fiancé, soon returns home to find the women reminiscing. While he, too, expected to be greeted by a man, Franco accepts Terry without question. The three characters spend time getting acquainted before we, the audience, learn that Terry will be transferring to General Hospital for work in the fall. Terry leaves Elizabeth’s house, but we can rest assured that the door hasn’t closed on this character.
Although James isn’t the first transgender person to grace daytime TV, her role marks a turning point for General Hospital. Overall, the soap opera remains confined to the straight, white, cisgender relationships that typically dominate mainstream media. After all, the show’s primary gay couple (which also happens to be one of its few interracial partnerships) appears rather infrequently, only emerging from the shadows when they can enhance the central storylines. In James’ case, however, writers have the opportunity to learn from past mistakes by building beyond the “token trans character” trope into which Terry could devolve if they’re not careful and consistent.
Society remains at a crossroads, you see. The transgender community continues to gain visibility, but these individuals must still fight against the discrimination that comes with being deemed “different” by those who can’t see beyond their own reflection. Thus, while General Hospital cast James, the actress, she’s adopted the role of Terry and trailblazer in one fell swoop. James has been chosen to tell Terry’s story and, by extension, the story of countless other trans individuals near and far.
Coincidentally, James’ GH debut coincided with the news that Scarlett Johansson was cast as Dante “Tex” Gill, a trans man, in the upcoming film Rub & Tug, further highlighting how pivotal and necessary trans visibility has become. (Note: After much backlash, Johansson has since declined the role.)
In response, James tweeted: “I’ve never spoken about this before but since it’s back in the news I’ll say this: while I feel cis actors have a certain social responsibility in this amazing time of #TransVisibility in the industry my real issue is with the decision makers behind the scenes.”
“It’s the directors, casting agents, writers, producers who have to do better when it comes to allowing cis actors to play trans roles. We are talented, we are here and we are ready to tell our own stories,” she added. “But as a trans actress I can tell you positive change is happening. I’m so thankful to @valentinifrank and everyone at @GeneralHospital who were committed to having a trans woman portray Terry.”
Unlike those who cast Johansson, General Hospital’s show runners specifically strived to find a trans woman to play Terry, which demonstrates an underlying understanding that has yet to permeate the entire entertainment industry. They recognized that, in order to tell Terry’s story with candor and dignity, they needed to honor the trans community by involving the trans community. After all, it’s hard to feel “represented” when someone completely removed from the experience tries to tell your story. A talented cis actress might be able to evoke emotion, but she’d never truly connect with the audience, that’s for sure.
James, on the other hand, has breathed new life into the show — and no, it’s not solely because she’s transgender. She’s has a presence, a confidence, that only those who genuinely know who they are exude. She doesn’t hesitate and she doesn’t hide. Honestly, she carries herself in a way that can inspire anyone to embrace who they are deep down.
Of course, for the foreseeable future, most will probably refer to Terry as “the trans character” and, at this moment in time, that’s okay. People who don’t know much about the trans community need to see said actors and actresses on their screens, out and proud. But, one day, society will hopefully reach the point where trans individuals are hired based on their gender identity, not their history. Being a voice for the voiceless, as James has become, carries great responsibility, but she will help blaze trails for others so, in the (near) future, other trans people will be treated as just that — people.