LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - When "America's Next Top Model" chose Isis Tsunami as a contestant for its new season that starts on Wednesday, the TV show didn't just put the first transgender woman in the running for its coveted title.
Isis Tsunami, 22, is not the first transgender person to appear on a popular American TV show. But the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) called her inclusion an "unprecedented opportunity for a community that is under-represented on television."
Isis, a former receptionist from Maryland who was born male, joins a small but increasingly visible group of transgender women on U.S. TV, as well as a growing number of actors in transgender roles on film and TV screens.
Transgender woman Laverne Cox is competing on VH1's "I Want to Work for Diddy," a reality show that started in August in which players compete for a job as assistant to music mogul and fashion impresario Sean "Diddy" Combs.
But in "America's Next Top Model," airing on the CW network, Isis joins 13 other girls living and sleeping in a house together, surrounded by cameras for the next two months as they strut their stuff on the catwalk and in photo shoots for viewers and judges.
"The show deals head on with the contestants confronting their own phobias. There's going to be support, and the reverse of that. It opens the door for the other girls and the viewers to get to know Isis and the transgender community," said GLAAD spokesman Damon Romine.
"It is an exciting time. This is all really very new in the last two years or so that we are seeing transgender people in a new light," Romine told Reuters.
Television, particularly reality shows, is playing a pivotal role unmatched by even celebrated movies like Hilary Swank's 1999 Oscar-winning performance as a young woman who decides to live as a boy in "Boys Don't Cry."
"Television is such an intimate medium. It plays right into our domestic space. Series that introduce characters who we see week after week tend to normalize those characters," said Robert Thompson, director of the Center for Television and Popular Culture.
Candis Cayne became the first transgender actress to play a transgender role on prime time U.S. TV when she was cast in the 2007 season of "Dirty Sexy Money." The drama about a wealthy New York family has been sold to networks around the world.
Other shows, such as the daytime soap opera "All My Children" and Emmy-winning comedy "Ugly Betty," have used straight actors to play transgender characters.
Reality TV, with its emphasis on putting ordinary people in strange situations and contests, also has long been a driving force in increasing the visibility of marginalized groups, including ethnic minorities, gays, and now transgender people.
"In the past, we have seen mainly negative portrayals but when audiences see real transgender people facing the same ups and downs as everyone else, it helps change perceptions," said Romine.
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte