ABC Family’s sitcom “The Fosters” is notable for not only its inclusion of a two-mom family, but for the character of Cole, an FTM teenager who finds himself placed in an all girls’ group home. Also notable is Cole’s actor, Tom Phelan—who is a transgender person of the non-binary type.
Cole identifies as fully male, using the common pronouns “he/him/his.” In a situation that many transgender people will find painfully familiar, this doesn’t prevent an uncaring system from assigning him a foster care placement based solely on the “F” identifier in his file.
In contrast, though Phelan is also transgender, they don’t identify as male or female, and prefers to be referred to with the singular pronouns “they/them/their.” Regardless, it’s surprisingly rare to see a transgender character played by a transgender person. Most common are castings such those seen in “Dallas Buyers Club,” where a cisgender man played a transgender woman.
Recently, they sat down for an interview with SheWired to talk about the show.
Asked why they think ABC Family is actually making the effort to “get it right” regarding LGBT issues, especially transgender issues, Phelan said, “with all the issues they’re addressing, I think trans people come up as a logical demographic to address. With the growing popularity of Laverne Cox and Orange Is The New Black, I think we have a growing visibility in media. Everyone at The Fosters is really great, and I think they just wanted to provide some representation.”
Regarding the accuracy of ABC’s representation, they said, “It was pretty spot-on. I mean, there are a few things about Cole that don’t represent the whole of the trans community, that have been misread. For example, Kiara says in one episode that Cole was ‘born in the wrong body.’ Obviously that doesn’t apply to all trans people, but it does apply to this specific character…Honestly, I don’t think there was anything in the script [that was inaccurate], nothing where I was like, ‘no, I won’t do that.’”
SheWired also asked, “What do you hope viewers will learn about trans people from your portrayal as Cole?”
“Just that trans people are real, we exist, and we’re not going away,” Phelan said. “It’s really important for [cisgender]people to educate themselves. I really hope they take that away. Learn the terms, learn the pronouns, and get used to it because we’re staying here.”
The first season finale of “The Fosters” is scheduled to air on March 24.