Trans* Characters Are Increasingly Portrayed By, Surprise, Actual Trans* People!

It’s no secret that trans* stories and perspectives have been largely absent from mainstream television and film. When trans* characters (overwhelmingly trans women) do appear on screen, they are often derided as a source of ridicule or disgust, as in films like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and The Hangover 2. As an article in GOOD points out, trans women are usually portrayed as predatory and deceitful; as if our purpose in life is to “trick” poor unsuspecting straight cis dudes.  The media sometimes conflates and confuses trans women and the performative femininity of drag queens. Katy Perry recently proclaimed that she “can’t be a full tranny every day of the week.” Even sympathetic documentaries and films often essentialize the trans* experience by focusing on the physical aspects of transition(think shots of a trans woman applying makeup or a trans man binding), thus creating a narrative in which a “man becomes a woman” or vice versa. Such depictions ignore the basic fact that I have always been a girl and Sebastian has always been a boy.

The stars of Gun Hill Road (Harmony Santana is on the right)

Given the dismal media track record, I was excited when the New York Times posted an article on Thursday about the growing number of trans* actors actually portraying trans* characters in television and film.  The article focuses on the upcoming film Gun Hill Road, which stars a Latina trans woman named Harmony Santana. I’ve only see the trailer, but I think it’s great that trans women of color are finally getting the opportunity to tell their stories in an accurate and respectful manner.  The article also acknowledges the harsh economic reality that many trans* people face. Ms. Santana, for example, currently lives in an LGBTQ group home in the Bronx.

It’s so wonderful to see trans* characters actually portrayed by real trans* people. In contrast, films like Boys Don’t Cry and Transamerica star cisgender actors in trans* roles. Here’s why this is problematic: in the first example, a trans man is portrayed by Hillary Swank, a cis woman, who cannot truly understand either the trans* or male experience. In the latter film, Felicity Huffman plays a middle-aged trans woman. It’s great that a woman was cast in this role, but a film that depicts the struggles of a marginalized community should probably include an actor who actually understands those struggles. (Many may argue that’s what acting is all about, however.)

Rashad Ernesto Green, the director of Gun Hill Road, admitted that he auditioned several gay men and drag queens before casting Ms. Santana in the film. “But they didn’t have the essence I was looking for. There’s a difference between someone who’s pretending to be female and someone who actually believes they are.” Congrats on this realization, Mr. Green, but let me help you with that last sentence: There’s a difference between someone who’s pretending to be female and someone who actually believes they are is. I’m surprised by how many people struggle with this concept. A couple of months into my own transition, one of my friends exclaimed that a movie should be made about my life. “And it could star Jude Law! Or James Franco! They’re both so pretty in drag!” To which I responded, “Um, thanks but no. I’m a woman- why would I want male actors to portray me?”

TRANS

DRAG

DRAG

 

Final thoughts on the NYT article: it’s great that trans* people, especially trans*women of color, are increasingly given opportunities to share their stories and make their voices heard in the mainstream. I’m really excited to see the film, and it’s good to know that more and more directors are learning the difference between trans* and drag. My only concern is that trans* actors will be restricted to portraying only trans* characters- this would be a shame, because it would both ignore a lot of talent and reduce us to merely our trans* experiences. I can only speak for myself. Being trans is an important part of who I am, it certainly doesn’t define me as a person.  So Zooey Deschanel, if you’re looking for a co-starlet for your next film, I’m your gal ♥

Profile photo of annika

I'm a 23 year old femme lesbian living in SF. Once upon a time, I was a USC frat boy ;) I ♥ music so please recommend your favorite artists to me!

annika has written 21 articles for us.

49 Comments

  1. Thumb up 1

    Please log in to vote

    Great article, as usual!

    ‘Understanding their character’s experience’ is what I do think that’s what acting should all about though, just like straight actors should be able to portray gay people.
    But I agree that, just like we rarely ask cisgender males to portray cisgender female on screen, it’s just as nonsensical never to hire trans* folks (and that’s what I didn’t like about Boys don’t cry…). (<— Hope that makes sense, I just woke up!)

    Also w/r/t to your last sentence, I'd indeed like to see trans* actors get cast everywhere, for any role. And the fact that more and more of them get hired gives me tremendous hope.

  2. Thumb up 1

    Please log in to vote

    I’ve always thought that if I could somehow be famous I would wait until I got to the top of my game to come out to the media. Not because I’m ashamed, but because I think it does a lot more good for someone to be well known and then come out than to fight hard for your principles, be open about your sexuality from the beginning and then never make it. While you could argue me with me about this (and it would certainly be best if you could be open from the beginning and still make it to the A-list regardless) I think the most important thing is being able to reach as many people as possible with your message and that’s something that’s only possible if you’re relatively famous.

    Anyway, I think this would be especially fantastic if a trans* person did it. Mostly because when uneducated people know that a person is trans when they initially see them they are immediately looking for signs and they like to proclaim that they “can always tell when a person is trans*” Can you imagine if Brad Pitt or some other sex symbol came out as FAAB?! That would be friggin sweet. It would destroy that perception that you can tell when a person is trans and if the person was some hot action hero guy or sex symbol girl it would probably do a lot to destroy transphobic peoples perceptions that trans people are somehow less male or female than cisgendered people.

    I’m impatiently waiting that day.

  3. Thumb up 1

    Please log in to vote

    I agree that it’s great that trans* actors are getting more opportunities in film… but I really don’t think it’s necessary (as you seem to be implying) for a trans* actor to play a trans* character. You said yourself briefly “(Many may argue that’s what acting is all about, however.)”. Well yes. Exactly. Would you argue that Cate Blanchett couldn’t accurately portray Bob Dylan in ‘I’m Not There’? Obviously the trans* male experience can be very different to the cis male experience but I really see no reason why actors can’t cross boundaries of gender, race and sexuality.

    Either way, it is also great that transpeople are finally getting the opportunity to portray trans characters. It says something about the film industry when projects can be helmed by and starred in by people who want to tell their own stories.

    • Thumb up 2

      Please log in to vote

      If trans* characters were already common in mainstream television and film, and trans* actors were given the same opportunities as their cisgender counterparts, I would totally agree with you. But that’s not what the reality of the situation is today.

      I just think that since there are so few accurate/non-sensationalized portrayals of trans* people and stories in the mainstream, it doesn’t make sense to cast cis actors in the handful of trans* roles that do currently exist.

      • Thumb up 1

        Please log in to vote

        I guess I agree with you there. Supposedly it all boils down to that bullshit notion that lgbtq films are more ‘accessible’ to a non-queer audience if the roles are played by non-queer actors.

  4. Thumb up 2

    Please log in to vote

    What is noticeable is that English speaking countries are way behind the curve in having trans people play trans characters. Countless films in Europe, Asia and Latin America have had trans roles cast with trans performers (not always… but usually) and this has been so for the past 15 years. There are a large number of reality tv shows in countries throughout the world which have featured trans people. India, Turkey, Italy, Brazil and Pakistan have tv programs featuring a trans host or judge. Italy and Spain have had nationally known trans women actresses who have appeared as non-trans characters. The Big Brother franchise has had trans participants in numerous countries… in the USA, nada.

    But other than one or two glimmers of change (like Gun Hill Road… a small indy film) it’s actually not really evolving in this country. There are a number of films/shows in production where non-trans people are playing trans characters. And in an upcoming tv show, Chloe Sevigny is appearing (as advertised) ‘a pre-op MTF transsexual hit man.’ In the upcoming US film K-11, two different trans roles are being played by cis-actresses. Yes, the series ‘Hung’ is going to use a trans performer in a role… but we haven’t seen that yet and I have serious questions about whether that announcement was largely being used for PR purposes. It’s been done before. Even Candice Cayne, who received a lot of publicity as the first trans actor on US tv in Dirty Sexy Money, had her part minimized shortly after the series started and was killed off early in the 2nd season. Personally, I think the Times article is overly optimistic although I’m glad they gave Ms. Santana some props and pointed out the shame of how she’s still living in a shelter. :(

  5. Thumb up 2

    Please log in to vote

    Thanks for this article, Annika! I just finished reading Julie Serano’s Whipping Girl a few weeks ago and she spends a lot of time talking about the media’s offensive and polarizing representation of trans women. Like you said, trans women are often portrayed as deceitful and predatory because they are “tricking” cis men. Then there are the times when trans women are used for an element of “humor” and are constantly ridiculed for their identity. She also talks about the way in which a lot of television shows and documentary films will focus on the transition rather than other parts of the person’s life, which, like you said, try to make the experience seem artificial. Anyway, what I am basically saying is that everyone should pick up a copy of this book and read it because it is so relevant.

  6. Thumb up 1

    Please log in to vote

    This is neat, but I’m more interested in seeing more trans directors. When you have an ignorant bigot who goes to gay men and drag queens before finally hiring “someone who thinks they are a woman” for a trans role, it’s kinda unlikely that the movie is going to be directed all that well in terms of getting it right.

  7. Thumb up 1

    Please log in to vote

    really interesting article annika – even after watching it so many times, i never once thought about the fact that hilary swank was completely portraying someone she has no identification with in Boys Don’t Cry.

    also drag drag trans is the new duck duck goose

  8. Thumb up 1

    Please log in to vote

    I don’t see how it’s necessary that trans people play trans characters. Straight people have played gay characters, Middle Eastern people have played Mexican characters (Yes, I’m thinking about Sarah Shahi playing Carmen on the L Word), and so on. I think the most important thing should be getting an actor who can sell the storyline, because the audience isn’t going to be anymore persuaded by whether someone is really trans or not, but they will be persuaded by good acting. I look at Degrassi and I think the actress is doing a great job portraying Adam and has created a likable, popular, three-dimensional character. If it were a real trans kid who couldn’t act, I don’t think fans would be rooting as hard for Adam as they are now.

    But it could also be other things: Adam is young and hasn’t transitioned yet, so having an actress portray him makes sense. Also, Adam is a FtM character. I think MtF characters might be tougher for a straight male actor to sell without, as you point out, making it look like some guy dressed in drag. I think of All My Children’s storyline about a MtF and, wow, it was so offensive on so many levels, including the awful acting and that the character only sometimes seemed to dress as a woman and the whole thing seemed like an excuse to have the show’s lesbian hook up with a man who, yes, appeared to be a man. I agree in the article that a lot of people, casting directors included, don’t get it and think trans characters are just supposed to dress up in drag. So it’s great when there are trans actors who have the chops to carry a role. But I do think we’ve seen non-trans people pull off the roles well, as in Boy’s Don’t Cry and Degrassi. Still, I can’t recall any good FtM portrayals.

    • Thumb up 1

      Please log in to vote

      To get real… if trans people can’t even play trans roles, then we’re not likely to get ANY roles. Yes, there have been trans actors who’ve played non-trans roles (actress Aleshia Brevard played in several films in the 1960s while living in stealth) but these days that’s pretty much impossible for us to do given the Internet. So basically, if there’s no room for us to portray non-trans people, and trans people are regularly portrayed by non-trans people… then what space is there left for us to inhabit in commercial film and tv? That’s really the heart of the matter. And moreover, so often our very images are used and exploited as synonyms for ugliness, maudlin soap opera or trashiness and that gets perpetrated double when non-trans people portray us.

      • Thumb up 1

        Please log in to vote

        A valid point. It’s a struggle for many minorities. I mean, I think some people were genuinely upset when they learned Artie on Glee is played by a guy who can walk. Personally, I think the fact that they (trans people, quadriplegics, whatever minority, etc.) are being represented on TV (and positively, as something other than a punchline or a villain) is the most important part. I do see your point, I just disagree that it matters if the actor is trans or not.

    • Thumb up 1

      Please log in to vote

      One small but important correction to “Adam is young and hasn’t transitioned yet”– Adam has transitioned. He’s living as Adam. He hasn’t had any surgeries that we’re aware of (and who says that he will?) but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t transitioned.

  9. Thumb up 1

    Please log in to vote

    Hey! Great article, but don’t be so quick to draw boundaries between drag and trans*. While drag, drag, trans might be an awesome replacement for duck, duck, goose, we need to keep in mind that drag people and trans* people are by no means two separate groups. Tons of drag performers I know are trans*. Some of those drag queens are female, just like you.

    • Thumb up 1

      Please log in to vote

      Drag = performance
      Trans* = state of being

      I am a trans girl. I can choose to *do* drag if I want to but I *am* trans. The exaggerated performative femininity of male drag queens has nothing to do with my inner sense of gender. I see what you are saying, and yes, some trans* people do drag; so do many cis people- but that doesn’t mean that there is anything inherent about drag that provides insight into the trans* experience.

      • Thumb up 1

        Please log in to vote

        Well, to be fair, I didn’t say there was anything inherent about drag that made it essentially trans*. Nor do I think that is the case.

        But I still think you’re perhaps portraying too narrow a view of what drag is. Not all “male drag queens” do perform “exaggerated performative femininity” — you can find just about any kind of performance you want at a drag show — there are so many thousands of people doing drag all over the world, with so many thousands of permutations of gender identity and expression and ideas of what “drag” is anyhow that I don’t think it makes sense to talk about us all (I’m a drag king, by the by) as though we constitute a discrete group. We’re simply too diverse.

        I don’t think that the kinds of messages about gender that one gets during a drag show should be taken as the “drag” community trying to say something about the “trans*” community. It might be better to talk about drag as what it is: a flexible, malleable type of performance art that some people “do,” and which, as you said, may or may not be connected in either the performer’s or the audience member’s mind to some form of trans*, genderqueer, LGBTQIA or what-have-you identity.

        Of course, I’m with you that people who identify as somehow trans* or connected to the trans* community will likely usually be best suited to play trans* characters, and that their access to these types of parts is often blocked by prejudice and ignorance.

      • Thumb up 1

        Please log in to vote

        Oh! and also…

        Some people (especially people of color) do use the term “drag” as an identity marker — i.e. to mark their “state of being” and not necessarily to indicate that they’re currently involved in any kind of performance. People might say “I’m a drag king” to give an indication of their own idea of their trans* status, or say something like “I’m a drag butch” or a “drag femme” — even if they have never been on a stage before to actually do any drag. This could, of course, just be local terminology, since conceptions of drag vary so much from city to city.

  10. Thumb up 1

    Please log in to vote

    Great article Annika! As always yr commentary is refreshing and much needed!

    I’d like to point out that as a trans person I also appreciate non-trans people (of our true gender) portraying trans characters. Like Felicity Huffman in Trans America or when Chris O’Donnell played a trans man on Two and a Half Men. I think this is just as important as making sure there are trans actors (who as you pointed out should not just be pigeonholed to play trans characters), because it highlights the fact that trans women and non-trans women are both women and trans men and non-trans men are both men, and you can’t usually distinguish between the trans and non-trans of either binary gender.

    • Thumb up 1

      Please log in to vote

      I phrased that wrong. Ignore “of our true gender.” I meant when a non-trans man plays a trans MAN. When the true gender of the trans character matches the gender of the non-trans actor.

      That’s what I also appreciate

  11. Thumb up 1

    Please log in to vote

    Michael Musto wrote about this two days ago and I blink and of course it’s on Autostraddle. there is NO WAY i can wait for this film OMG Esai Morales is like my childhood hero. i love that theres SUCH a rich legacy of latino LGBTQI/Gender non-conforming characters out there in film. people who write about trans and GNC folks in the media mostly focus on the white stuff.
    http://blogs.villagevoice.com/dailymusto/2011/07/transgender_exp.php

  12. Thumb up 1

    Please log in to vote

    it’s important cause trans people need to tell our own stories. historically, oppressed people have been exploited by being kept from vocalizing their own experience, expressing themselves fully. being a part of your own healing (and as a people) is integral to liberation…

    it’s also important because if being trans is such an integral part of the role being played, WHY NOT HIRE A TRANS PERSON

    Reason the third is because there’s probs tons of trans*/GNC folks who need work (probs as in definitely/totally) and are actors so again, WHY NOT HIRE THEM.
    we see this a lot with other oppressed groups. white people get cast as people of color when there are plenty of POC willing, able, more appropriate and quite frankly better who can play the role.
    i’m still pissed wesley snipes beat out RuPaul for his supporting role in To Wong Foo…

  13. Thumb up 1

    Please log in to vote

    “My only concern is that trans* actors will be restricted to portraying only trans* characters- this would be a shame, because it would both ignore a lot of talent and reduce us to merely our trans* experiences.”

    Then I think you’d be happy to learn that Harmony Santana has another role where she is playing the role of a cis (non-trans) woman.

  14. Pingback: “Gun Hill Road” Explores Themes of Gender, Family, and Culture; Last Chance to Catch It in Theatres! | GLAADBlog.org

  15. Pingback: “Gun Hill Road” Explores Themes of Gender, Family, and Culture; Last Chance to Catch It in Theatres! | LGBT Human Rights. Gay News, Entertainment, Travel

  16. Thumb up 1

    Please log in to vote

    Annika, I love all of your pieces you’ve done on Autostraddle, it’s awesome to find a LGBT gathering place that respects all of the letters! I think just about everything that can be said about trans actors has been said, so I’ll just stick with how feakin’ cute you are! Short hair suits you perfectly, and you’re very photogenic!

  17. Pingback: Straight actors playing queer roles is not oppression Insufferable Intolerance

  18. Pingback: Straight actors playing queer roles is not oppression

  19. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    As an amateur actor and an in-transition transman, I strongly disagree. Saying that a cisgendred actor cannot play a transgendered character is like saying a Buddhist cannot play a serial killer. In my experience, acting is NOT the same as being. Acting is about finding parallels and to quote Meisner “living truthfully in imaginary circumstances”. Additionally, acting should never be therapy. In cases where an a trans(wo)man is playing a trans(wo)man, I see that potentially dredging up feelings that would actually hinder an actor’s performance and create emotional instability. That is not to say I do not think trans actors should never play trans characters however, I do not think the roles should be limited to them, just as I do not think cisgendered roles should be limited to cisgendered actors.

Contribute to the conversation...

You must be logged in to post a comment.