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Becoming Us: Could this be making ‘characters’ out of the trans community?

Thanks to pioneering women like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner, the transgender community is finally becoming part of the mainstream dialogue. And ABC Family is joining the conversation in a big way with their new docuseries, Becoming Us.

The series follows Ben, 16, a typical Midwestern teenager with one exception — after his parents’ divorce, his dad began transitioning.

In the series opener, Carly reveals to Ben that she soon plans to have the necessary surgery to become a woman in the anatomical sense of the word. Despite a solid support system including his mom Suzy, sister Sutton and girlfriend Danielle (whose own dad, Sallydan, is also transitioning), Ben clearly still struggles over the notion of losing his father.

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It goes without saying — but I’ll repeat it for emphasis here — the series is progressive, particularly for a network like ABC Family, historically geared toward traditional family (and frequently teen girl) fare.

Produced by Ryan Seacrest, Becoming Us speaks to the milestone moments the trans community is currently enjoying, while addressing that which we don’t see in the public eye: the impact transitioning has not just on the person transitioning, but also on his or her family.

But in the comment thread for the show’s premiere, a motif seemed to emerge. Viewers, although praising the show for its courage, felt that many of the people portrayed in the show felt “like characters.”

Unauthentic. Scripted. Overly produced, even.

(In full disclosure, unless you feel like starting your day by getting proverbially sucker-punched in the gut with vitriol, I wouldn’t recommend falling down the rabbit hole that is the comment forum. Do yourself a favor and just don’t go there. People will disappoint you.)

On account of this, these viewers worried Becoming Us wasn’t going to be a sincere reflection of the transgender journey. They feared that, instead of moving the cause forward, it could be regressive if other viewers were turned off by these caricatures of the family being featured.

Admittedly I, too, felt at times while watching that Ben and some of the other “stars” of the show felt a little… contrived.

Then again, he’s 16 years old and trying to process a monumental shift in his life. Perhaps he — and often Carly, in my opinion — come off as scripted because their nerves necessitate a little extra coaching.

Or, as I suspect, Seacrest is trying to make a show about a progressive and not yet totally destigmatized issue more palatable to mainstream viewers.

Hence the cutesy little visual effects and the pseudo-scripted asides. No matter how relevant and necessary this show is, it won’t survive without the support of the viewing public.

Sure, there are moments that feel scripted. But there are so many more moments that so beautifully capture the dynamics of a family in the midst of transitioning — because the truth is they are all “becoming us.” The transgender journey is not a solo one.

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There are moments where your heart goes out to Carly’s ex-wife, Suzy, who seems to be such a sweet and empathetic soul and who was, by all accounts, a loving and patient partner.

There are moments (so many for me) where you adore Ben’s girlfriend, Danielle, for being such an incredibly decent human being.

“That’s how society should work, and it doesn’t,” she tells her dad. “People don’t even have to accept it — they just have to tolerate it enough to keep their mouths shut. It just makes me angry, because I want you to live the life you want to life.”

In that same tender scene, she says to Sallydan, “I grew up with you being different, and I think that’s made me a better person.”

There are moments you are so proud of Carly and moved by her story. “It was either I go this road, or I end up buried. My transitioning has been the healthiest part of my life,” she says.

And there are moments your heart aches for Ben, who can’t seem to wrap his head around all of this. He’s struggling in school — “People are rude and I just don’t want to deal with it” — and grappling with his emotions — “The person that made me will not have the thing that made me anymore.”

But there are also those moments where you realize they are dealing with much of the same kind of stuff we all deal with in our families: expectations, pressure, tension… and yes, love.

When Carly chides Ben for wanting to take online courses instead of going to class, you think, “She just doesn’t get it.” You don’t think about how she was once a he. You think she is a parent, and parents just don’t get it sometimes.

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When Ben, well, kind of acts like a brat, you don’t dislike him for it. You chalk it up to the big changes in his life and, largely, to the fact that most teenage boys have a chip on their shoulder.

Ben sums up the show’s central thesis best as the opener comes to a close, pondering aloud, “Who knew my dad would become a woman at the same time I was becoming a man?”

So my sincere hope for Becoming Us is that viewers give it the benefit of the doubt, like I intend to do, because Ben and Carly both have amazing journeys ahead.

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