Last night’s episode of the TNT police procedural drama Major Crimes used the subject of gender dysphoria, formerly known as gender identity disorder, as a backdrop. The writers presented characters conveying arguments on both sides of the issue, and—wonder of wonders—they refrained from tilting the playing field by having likable characters present one side of the argument and unattractive monsters express the opposing point of view.
Importantly, the child’s parents are shown to be sharply divided on the issue, and neither is likable at all. The immense difficulty of dealing with their child’s condition over the years has damaged them greatly, as it has also done to their other son. A couple of dialogue exchanges within the family also suggest that the child’s condition might not have been a truly overpowering, immutable compulsion and that alternative measures might have enabled him to live comfortably as a boy with the passage of time.
The story deals with the murder of a child, age 13, who was born a boy but identifies as a girl and has been murdered after being subjected to a good deal of taunting and aggressive humiliation by some of his peers. Other than a teenage thug who mocked the victim and posted online a picture of the child’s genitalia, none of the characters is truly villainous, and the thug gets his just desserts. What is particularly interesting about the episode is the way the showmakers refrain from deciding the issue for the viewer. The narrative does not take a stand on (1) the extent to which gender dysphoria is genetic and largely immutable in most individuals who experience it, and (2) what is the appropriate response when this condition appears to manifest in very young, prepubescent children.
Ultimately, the central characters of the show—Captain Sharon Raydor, her estranged husband, and Lt. Provenza (my favorite by far)—state agree on one thing: whatever is the truth about the child’s condition, the right response is sympathy and understanding. But there’s a further subtlety: it’s easy to say that when you don’t have responsibility for the child. The agony the child’s parents have gone through, when they clearly both love the child and want what’s best for him, shows that there just aren’t any easy answers.
Adding further interest is the continuing subplot involving Cap. Raydor’s teenage ward, Rusty, who has been rescued from homelessness and a stint of male prostitution. Recent episodes of the show have teased viewers with the suggestion that Rusty might now have homosexual leanings. Yet it would be incorrect to suggest that this means the producers are implying that Rusty is genetically inclined toward homosexuality. To have been lured into selling sexual favors as an alternative to starvation does not in any way suggest a genetic inclination toward that activity any more than stealing things implies that one has a genetic predilection for larceny.
Last night’s episode included the presumption on the part of Raydor’s estranged husband that Rusty is a homosexual, based on Rusty’s reluctance to go out on a date with a pretty girl in Rusty’s school. At the end of the episode, however, it is made clear that Rusty’s desire to avoid the date was based on his discomfort at being accompanied by a police guard (because he is a witness in a forthcoming murder case and threats have been made on his life). He suggests to Sharon a way in which the date can take place, she agrees, and the characters cheerfully depart for the evening.
Of course, it may turn out that, down the road in future seasons if any, Rusty will ultimately find that he doesn’t like females sexually, or that he’ll struggle with his sexuality, or that he’ll function as a heterosexual and be quite happy with it. The point is, we don’t know, because there are no pat answers about how something as complex as the human mind works. And that is a welcome bit of humility on the part of the showmakers. And that may be what makes it possible for the people behind Major Crimes to depict people in the throes of moral dilemmas without indulging in easy moralizing of their own.