“I not only get to live out my childhood dream on a version of my favorite show,” Juliana Joel said. “I get to do it as my authentic self.”
Raven Simone is a Disney Channel staple. Millennials were raised on the kooky charm that was That’s So Raven. Now, Simone is proving the enduring power of her place at the network, by not just continuing to be a star of its programming, but by making television history while doing so. Her sitcom, Raven’s Home, just featured its first trans character, a first for the titan of children’s TV.
Staff writer Nori Reed wrote in an emotional social media post, “I think I may have created the first ever trans character for the Disney Channel!” She continued to explain her own ties to the Disney Channel. “I grew up in Christian County, Kentucky, a rural community that wasn’t the most hospitable to me as an Asian and closeted queer kid. Like many kids across America, I loved coming home from school and turning on the Disney Channel, a wonderful escape from the challenging environment that I was living in.”
And yet Reed struggled, as many queer youths, to see herself reflected back on the screen. “Growing up as a young queer person, I never got to see [my] own experiences and identity reflected back to me on the TV screen. This unfortunately provided a very clear message: This world isn’t for you.” But thanks to the evolving times and identity-focused show creators, that’s shifting. Reed credited Jed Elinoff and Scott Thomas “for being all in.” She explained, “Early on in the room they looked at us staff writers and said if there are any queer characters you have in mind we are here for it and we support you.”
Juliana Joel portrays the character, whose name is Nikki. She used her social media to celebrate the moment as well. In a moving story that she wrote on Instagram, she explained that she grew up wanting to be an actor on That’s So Raven, but that she thought her chances of doing so were slim because of her Puerto Rican heritage, and later, that she’d never appear on Disney because of her age or because of her being trans. She admitted that she cried in her dressing room once she got on set.
“It was a moment where it hit me that I not only get to live out my childhood dream on a version of my favorite show…I get to do it as my authentic self and with a character that is openly trans,” she wrote. “But it was really more than just being on the show. With all of the anti-trans hate and narratives in media and society, it was a win. I claimed a dream and space for myself while so much of the world is trying to erase me & my community. And now I get to be that person I wish I had to watch on TV growing up. So never tell yourself it can’t happen because it can, in ways you never dreamt possible.
The episode, titled “The Fierce Awakens,” aired this week as part of the show’s fifth season. It will no doubt be a salve to queer youth everywhere who long to see themselves represented on screen. This is a positive step forward for the Disney company as a whole, which has had a dicey past when it comes to supporting the LGBTQ+ community. Hopefully, the inclusionary move is a sign that the network is dedicated to supporting queer kids through representation in this troubled time when many lawmakers are making things even more difficult for trans youth.
Disney has not yet responded to a request to confirm that Nikki is the network’s first trans character.