From “Euphoria” to “Pose,” transgender actors are more visible and celebrated today than ever before. Still, the road to representation hasn’t been easy, and these performers face a unique set of challenges in the industry. Here’s what several trans actors have to say about their own lived experiences.
“The Umbrella Academy” Credit: Christos Kalohoridis/Netflix
“Transgender” is an umbrella term that encompasses a spectrum of diverse gender identities and expressions. People who identify as trans have a gender identity that differs from the one that was assigned to them at birth based on physical characteristics. More specifically, being transgender might mean:
Not identifying with the gender you were assigned at birth
“By definition, to be transgender means to identify with a gender other than that associated with the sex you are assigned at birth—as opposed to being cisgender, meaning you identify with the gender associated with the sex you are assigned at birth,” explains Gale Easten, a nonbinary trans actor.
Living outside the social norm
“To me, as an American, just existing as a trans person is a form of protest against the homogenization of gender and sex by Western colonization,” Easten says. They add that gender identification goes beyond physical characteristics; biology cannot be reduced to chromosomes.
“To me, being transgender means operating outside of the social norm,” adds trans actor Kian Johnson. “Our existence is constantly being denied, invalidated, and endangered, and that’s just a part of life for us.”
There is no one way to be transgender. “Trans people may take medication, get gender-affirming surgeries, and change their names; or they may do none of those things, and they are all still valid,” Easten says.
Trans actor Kellan Oelkers concurs. “I think that being transgender means you went on a journey to find some peace. Every trans person’s experience can be so different. It’s hard to give just one definition,” he explains.
“Pose” Credit: JoJo Whilden/FX
Lack of representation
Historically, trans roles were often cast with cisgender actors, which made transgender people feel “invalidated in their identity,” according to Adam Odsess-Rubin, the founding artistic director of National Queer Theater. He says this lack of representation allowed for transphobia and erasure to permeate the theater industry. In recent years, trans actors are more often cast to play trans characters, but still may “deal with being misgendered, dismissed, or being deemed ‘difficult’ when bringing up issues in the rehearsal room or the theater,” Odsess-Rubin adds.
“The vast majority of popular media features exclusively cisgender characters,” Easten agrees. “Viewers often dislike even the slightest hint of queerness in shows, because they just don’t want to see it. The stories of trans people aren’t told, and even when they are told, cis actors are cast to play them.”
When transgender people are represented onscreen, it’s often as characters who promote harmful stereotypes. “From what I see in the media, when projects cast an openly transgender person, they tend to put that actor in a box and either expect them to go to extremes with stereotypical femininity or masculinity. Or they choose to only focus on struggle and pain, which can be an aspect of someone’s trans journey,” Oelkers says. “But I think there’s also a lot of joy that I’d love to see portrayed more often.”
One common type of misrepresentation involves cisgender men dressing up as—and acting like—society’s traditional idea of women for comedic effect. “This trope likely was born as a result of women being forbidden from performing in Europe until 1660,” Easten says. “In modern times, intentionally choosing to use a man in feminine clothing for laughs is not only bad, but also dangerous, because it can encourage real-life harassment and violence against trans women.”
Difficulty coming out
Since acting is a highly visible career, it’s often especially difficult for trans performers to come out. “When I auditioned for my first professional theater job out of college, I had been on testosterone for about a year and passed really well,” Oelkers says. “The team didn’t know I was trans when I auditioned, so later on, I had to decide if I wanted to share this part of my life with my cast mates and colleagues. Now, I’ve started to be more open about being trans, which will hopefully help pave the way for other trans folks out there.”
“As our society stands right now, being trans means [having] to face ignorance, hatred, and violence every day,” Easten says. “This is especially true for Black trans women, who historically face significantly higher rates of murder and assault. Every day, it seems new legislation comes out banning trans people from certain activities and restricting access to health care.”
Lack of support
Many trans actors experience a lack of much-needed professional support. Trans actor Michaela Jaé Rodriguez, who won a Golden Globe for her performance on “Pose,” told Today that she hasn’t always found support in the industry. “There were times where I would sit and just overthink about how someone would assess me in the world,” she said. “I had family members who loved and adored me, so that was the easiest part, right? I had a pillar and a foundation. But outside, in the world, you just never know what’s going to come your way.”
Easten finds that many people in entertainment are only supportive of actors who are “straight, cis, and white.” Still, they say that “in the face of hatred—in spite of the hatred—the queer community comes together and supports each other.”
Trans actors are often expected to offer dramaturgical feedback in a way that tokenizes their lives and experiences. “It is usually asked of the trans person in the guise of: ‘You’re the expert here—tell us about your whole experience!’—which sounds like it’s helpful, but it can be damaging and exploitative,” Johnson says. “There should be specific resources on hand for these types of questions, instead of relying on your one trans actor to explain the trans experience.”
DFree/Ga Fullner/Kathy Hutchins/Shutterstock
A GLAAD study called the Where We Are on TV Report found that of the 775 series regular characters scheduled to appear on scripted broadcast primetime programming in the 2021–2022 season, there were 42 regular and recurring transgender characters, up from 29 the year before. Of those, 20 were trans women, 14 were trans men, and eight were nonbinary trans characters. These characters appeared on 25 dramas and 11 comedies.
Some of the most famous trans actors to perform on stage and screen include:
- Alexandra Billings (“Transparent”)
- Jamie Clayton (“Sense8”)
- Laverne Cox (“Orange Is the New Black”)
- Ian Harvie (“Transparent”)
- Dominique Jackson (“Pose”)
- L Morgan Lee (“A Strange Loop”)
- Trace Lysette (“Transparent”)
- Indya Moore (“Pose”)
- Elliot Page (“The Umbrella Academy”)
- Peppermint (“Head Over Heels”)
- Michaela Jaé Rodriguez (“Pose”)
- Angelica Ross (“American Horror Story”)
- Hunter Schafer (“Euphoria”)
- Leo Sheng (“The L Word: Generation Q”)
- Brian Michael Smith (“9-1-1: Lone Star”)
- Rain Valdez (“Razor Tongue”)
“Euphoria” Credit: Eddy Chen/HBO
Listen to trans people
“Every trans person has a different experience and point of view,” Oelkers says. “I’d advise people to relieve themselves of their expectations and assumptions and just be open to learning something new.”
Do your research
“As a cisgender theater professional, I see it as my responsibility to educate myself first and foremost,” Odsess-Rubin says. “If I don’t understand the nuances of trans identity and the proper language I should be using [when] working with trans actors, I will undoubtedly do harm even if I’m well-intentioned.”
Cast trans actors
Hire trans actors (including for roles not written for trans people) and provide a safe and equitable space for them. “Trans actors are extremely versatile due to living life playing many different characters,” Easten explains. “Many trans people go through life donning different hats in different environments as a form of protection, but also to fit in better in less-informed circles. We know how to alter our personalities and how to hide in plain sight, if necessary, but also how to let go and unmask. This translates well into an acting career. We are already chameleons and shapeshifters—what more could you ask from an actor?”
Hunter Schafer, who played Jules Vaughn on “Euphoria,” stressed the importance of casting trans actors in an interview with the New York Times. “I think it’s always preferable that a trans person plays a trans person. One, because [there are] enough cisgender actors in Hollywood, and two, because trans people can bring levels of experience to the trans experience that they might be portraying,” she said. “A cisgender actor might be able to conceptualize and get it down to a T but won’t have the experiences in their back pocket that they can bring forward to use for that character. Trans people deserve to see themselves represented on their own TV screens, not being inhabited by people who might not completely understand them.”
Focus on diversity at all levels
Johnson would like to see more trans people working throughout the industry. “I believe trans actors could be better supported by having other trans people in the rehearsal room and in the theater community in general,” he says. “Hire trans dramaturgs, stage managers, LDs, costume designers, sound designers, directors, producers—you name it. To that end, the better answer would probably be normalizing hiring marginalized people of all kinds.”
Be an advocate
“Anti-trans legislation and rhetoric has created a hostile environment for trans actors across the country,” says Odsess-Rubin. “We all have a responsibility to hire, care for, and celebrate trans actors who are providing positive representation for trans people everywhere. At the end of the day, trans actors are workers; all workers deserve to be treated with fairness, safety, and respect.”
If you want to learn more about how to support the trans community in the arts and elsewhere, look into advocacy groups like Ring of Keys, the Trans Actors Guild, the National Center for Transgender Equality, and GLAAD.
Jamie Clayton on “Sense8” Credit: Murray Close/Netflix
These tips can help you navigate the unique challenges you may face as a trans actor in the industry.
- Express yourself: The Human Rights Campaign advises that how you choose to share your chosen name and pronouns is up to you, but it’s good to have an action plan in place in advance. You may want to start by going to your union rep or the production company’s HR department to discuss your pronouns, name, and transition plan (depending on where you are in the transition process).
- Know your rights: Whether or not you come out to the people you work with is totally up to you—but once you do, the HRC advises, “there is no need to use anything but your chosen name and pronouns with your colleagues.” No matter your plan for transitioning and/or coming out, “it is important to know your rights and find allies who can support you.” Although laws vary from state to state, the federal Civil Rights Act is usually interpreted to include protection against discrimination based on gender identity.
- Find community: “It’s hard to do this alone,” Oelkers explains. Building community with other trans people and allies in the industry can provide much-needed support. “Find spaces that celebrate you for who you are,” Odsess-Rubin suggests. “Seek out productions and producers who have experience working with trans and gender non-conforming actors and will support you fully without tokenization.”
- Use resources: Check out resources like the Trans Actors Guild, Trans Lab, Gender Explosion, Transgender Training Institute, Project Am I Right, Ring of Keys, local advocacy groups, and your project’s DEI representative.
- Be flexible: “While it is very rewarding and magical, the world of acting is filled with rejection,” trans actor Caspian Faye (“Kingsman”) told GenderGP. “You have to be ready to make sacrifices.” Strive for adaptability, but be sure to set and stick to your boundaries.
- Recognize your strengths: How you treat yourself matters, advises trans actor Mason Alexander Park. “Other people notice the way that you talk to and treat yourself.” Exuding confidence in yourself and your abilities can help others see you the same way.