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That time 'The Love Boat' featured a trans character

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The Love Boat

The transgender-themed “Gopher’s Roommate” episode of “The Love Boat” in 1982 would probably be considered offensive by today’s LGBT watchdogs, but did it deal with the subject as sensitively as it could 35 years ago?  Yes and No.

Today’s movies and television shows are under the constant scrutiny of the transgender community in their depiction of them and the people who portray them. It’s a touchy subject and as society has supposed to have progressed through activism and awareness it seems Hollywood keeps taking two-steps back.

That doesn’t always seem to be the case though. Jeffrey Tambor’s role in “Transparent” is an Emmy-award winning star turn. But there was a time, and maybe still, that people had a problem with it. He is a cis-gender male playing a trans woman.

And then there’s Michelle Rodriguez’s bone of celluloid contention called “The Assignment,” about a man who is given gender reassignment surgery as a way of torture and revenge. That movie definitely got the community talking and ultimately a boycott.

I’m not transgender, nor am I a woman so I rely on my friends who are to explain to me what offends them and what doesn’t. I sometimes pause before writing an article about the community because I really have no idea how it feels which makes me ignorant by default. 

Sensitivity in diversity wasn’t really a common factor in the primetime entertainment of the 80’s.

As the 70's faded into the big-haired 80’s, “jiggle TV’ became popular. Young actresses in spaghetti strap tanks went un-padded.

It lessened women even more in the name of entertainment and made no apologies for it. Besides, it was a ratings magnet.

“The Love Boat” certainly fit into that category too. It was a huge hit that ran from 1977 to 1987 where TV and movie legends were repurposed in sitcom storylines that were often farcical and insignificant.

The show certainly didn’t profoundly go into political realms it was all about love on the high seas with a crew who were as close as any situational cast. 

But in 1982 in an episode called “Gopher’s Roommate” (Season five, episode 15) the network seemed to have taken a chance on a controversial storyline about trans women. Again, it wasn’t politically correct by today's standards; a cis-female plays the role, but to its credit, neither the words transvestite nor cross-dresser are used.

It seems 35 years ago script writing legends Ben Joelson and Art Baer were a little more sensitive about the subject and were careful not to make too many jokes about it in their teleplay.

There's going to be big spoilers ahead, but good luck finding this episode, I only came across it on a cable channel called POP TV which airs nostalgic TV shows. 

The episode starred Mackenzie Phillips as Rachel Johnson a trans woman (that last name may be joke number one--a very old school slight), who comes aboard the Pacific Princess to apparently relax, but when she sees the ship's purser, Kewpie-eyed Gopher (Fred Grandy) she fears her vacation is ruined because he may recognize her and she is not ready to reveal her secret even though it comes to light that she has been through many therapies.

Indeed Gopher does vaguely recognize her, in fact not only is he smitten by her beauty, the ship’s horny doctor also gets wolfy and tries to pursue her.

In the second act, Gopher does catch up to Rachel, even gets kissably close to her during a slow dance when she finally tells him they knew each other in college. Confused, Gopher suddenly remembers he had a roommate in school named Ray.

“Gopher, I am Ray. It’s the truth.” Rachel tells him. But Gopher doesn’t recoil in disgust or terror, he responds by stepping back while trying to process what he’s just heard, he’s more pensive than panicked.

Doc interrupts the exchange with some comic relief knowing nothing about what just went down, he cuts in on their dance, “You’ll have to excuse Gopher he has so much to learn about women" (joke number two). 

Rachel meets up with Gopher the next day trying to explain her life even further, but he becomes uncomfortable with the discussion, This may have more to do with his insecurities than his empathy. Gopher strikes me as the type of man who already has some self-esteem issues and to be faced with being attracted to a trans woman that could have led to something else might be a bit hard to process.

Sadly, Rachel feels the need to apologize for telling him. This is something that I found rather disrespectful. Why should Rachel apologize for making Gopher feel bad?

Besides Gopher found her attractive before she told him about her reassignment surgery. There is an undertone of wondering how far Gopher would have gone if she hadn’t. After all, this is the “Love Boat.”

During their convo, Gopher keeps looking around to see if anyone is hearing the topic which causes Rachel to clam up, “It’s difficult for me to talk about only because it’s too difficult for you to listen to.”

“It’s a new life and I guess I have to wipe the slate clean,” Rachel says, something I think trans men and women say of old friends even today. 

Rachel's feelings now victimized by Gopher's response, she decides to get off at the next port. Gopher has had another day to think about his reaction and chases her down that night and tries to talk her out of it. 

She says she never felt comfortable as a man and was always comfortable around women so she made a decision.

“Are you happy?” asks the purser. 

“Very happy," says Rachel. "I’ve never regretted it, not for a minute. Well not until this cruise I guess I was wrong to think that I could combine my past to my present.” This line makes me think she went looking for Gopher and the meeting was not a coincidence.

Gopher begins, “I liked you as a man...” but Rachel tries to interrupt him. “Quiet lady,” he barks; crossing over into chauvinistic territory.

"Now, why shouldn’t I like you just because you’re….you’re a woman?"

In the end, Rachel stays aboard for the entire cruise and as all the guests disembark back in the Los Angeles Rachel blows Gopher a kiss as she leaves. 

The crew asks Gopher if he remembers where he knew her from. He says yes, from college football. 

"Cheerleader?" asks Isaac the bartender. 

"No, left tackle." (Final joke).

Overall I felt the episode was very sensitive to the subject. Yes, the aspect of a cis-woman was a little confusing, I think the community was focused on the AIDS crisis at the time and the acronym LGBT hadn't even been written down yet. 

I'm hoping that some of my transgender friends also saw the episode and are willing to weigh in on how writers handled it given the time, and how that's changed today.

Perhaps the "More You Know" 80's wasn't so bad for television, scratching the surface of LGBT topics. They weren't perfect, but they definitely laid the groundwork for future more progressive generations of entertainment to really mess things up. Or not.