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Bringing Transgender Lives to Light

Actress/producer Whoopi Goldberg has teamed with Oxygen to develop Strut, a reality series that follows the lives of several transgender models that premieres on the network Sept. 20. Goldberg, Strut’s executive producer, recently spoke with Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead about the show, as well as her key role in ABC’s daytime talk show The View, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. An edited excerpt follows.

MCN:What should viewers expect fromStrut?

Whoopi Goldberg: It’s kind of amazing. Most people don’t realize that there have been transgender models for years. We’re dealing with real people in the show. We deal with parents and kids and brothers and sisters, and religion, as these folks are trying to find their way on the runway. We’re trying to hit on a lot of different levels while understanding that this is not something new.

MCN:It’s not something new, but it may be new to many Oxygen viewers. Do you have any concerns about what viewer reaction will be to these young men and women profiled in the series?

WG: I don’t. People will either get it or they won’t. We’re hoping that this will help reach people who may not be aware of it, but also people who are struggling with it. One of the things that people keep saying is “God doesn’t make mistakes” … I always say, “God does not make mistakes, but Mother Nature will mess with you forever.” We get quadruplets and twins — we have hermaphrodites that are born.

There are so many things that happen to us as human beings that when someone says, “I don’t think I’m in the right body,” why would you doubt that? It’s not like it’s going to make them popular; they do it because they realize that there’s some difference that they need to deal with.

We see what happens when people are closed off to folks who are different — there’s a high rate of suicide, we get a high rate of folks working in the sex industry because no other industry is accepting. What they don’t realize is that they’ve known folks like this for a very long time, whether its male-to-female or vice versa. So we’re not telling you what to think — we just want you to know that you need to be aware when talking to people that you have to be respectful.

MCN:What does Oxygen bring to the table?

WG: The ability to put it on the air without anyone going, “Can you make them more like women?” They didn’t do any of that. They thought that this was an important conversation to have given what’s going on in the world. These are folks who have been modeling for a while, and it’s pretty brave to let folks know who you are, where you are going and what your dreams are. That’s what this is about. We didn’t want anything salacious.

MCN:Do you see this show potentially reaching beyond Oxygen’s traditionally female-skewing audience?

WG: I do. There are a lot of folks that we will never know that are affected by this very issue, whether they’ve begun the transition, or they’re thinking about it or want to talk to someone about it, or are looking for answers. We may be able to help them and make them feel better about the world they’re living in. We can say, “You’re not alone — we’re here and here’s what people are doing to change the conversation.” I’m really proud of all of our models, because it’s not an easy thing to come out and say that I’m different — here’s what I’m going through and here’s why I’m going through it. Here’s what I believe, and I have a parent that believes something different. I hope people will watch it with an open mind and an open heart.

MCN:I’d be remiss if I didn’t congratulate you on the 20th anniversary ofThe View. Did you thinkThe Viewwould reach the 20-year mark when you started?

WG: I had no idea how long I’d been on the show. (Laughs.) This was Barbara Walters’s idea, so congratulations to her.

MCN:Do you thinkThe Viewhas transcended the talk show category and become more of a trend-setter for the genre?

WG: I came to it late and I never watched it before I became involved in it, so I don’t know where they came from. I think it has spawned a lot of other shows, but they can’t do what that show does. That show has the ability to talk about everything from sex to politics, and everyone has a different opinion. I see lots of people trying to do it, but I don’t see anyone doing it as well as The View has.