It’s Trans Awareness Week, the week leading up to Trans Day of Remembrance on November 20th. When we say that Autostraddle is website primarily for queer women, we want to be 100% clear that that includes queer trans women and that it’s important to honor trans women year-round, not just in obituaries. So all week long we’re going to be spotlighting articles by and about trans women, with a special focus on trans women of color. We hope you’ll love reading everything as much as we’ve loved writing and editing it.
It seems like filmmakers are practically jumping at the chance to make movies about trans people right now. This year alone we’ve seen Tangerine, About Ray, Stonewall, Grandma and The Danish Girl, all featuring trans characters. However, this increase in trans characters hasn’t exactly resulted in an increase in positive representation. Most of the movies I mentioned featured cis actors playing the trans roles, and most aren’t really what you would call happy stories for the trans characters. This is how trans representation in movies has been for as long as I can remember.
So, when I say that this is the list of the 15 Best Trans Woman Movies, I should make it clear that most of the movies on this list aren’t necessarily that great in the area of trans representation, and I don’t think that any of them are perfect. They are, however, better than most, and they did mean a lot to many of the trans women who watched them. So, while most of these movies might not be great examples of trans representation on the silver screen, they are the 15 best movies featuring trans women according to trans women.
The trans women who I polled were women who have written for Autostraddle and other sites, including me, Devan Diaz, Lexi Adsit, Gabby Bellot, Raquel Willis, Savannah, Drew, Nicole and Sadie Edwards; writer and editor Jamie Berrout; author Ryka Aoki; trans activist Cherno Biko; Her Story co-creator and co-star Jen Richards; Transparent producer and one of the creators of “This is Me,” Zackary Drucker; writer and illustrator Annie Mok, Drunktown’s Finest and Her Story director Sydney Freeland, Black Girl Dangerous writer Princess Harmony Rodriguez, TSER Director and co-founder Eli Erlick and Transparent actress Trace Lysette.
Many of the trans women I talked to couldn’t name more than two or three movies they thought were good, some could only name one, a few couldn’t even name one. One of the women I asked, Devan Diaz said that she finds it hard to watch films with trans characters because they ring so false for her. It doesn’t feel like she’s seeing herself reflected in the movie.
Most films I’ve seen that have included trans characters/actors have been for the cis gaze. It’s always the same story of the person going from point a to point b, but we never see the life beyond transition. We never see cis characters and actors ask critical questions about gender the way that seems required of trans people in film. I think if we want to be more inclusive we all need to confront identity and who we are, and that means interrogating misogyny and transmisogyny in film.
Another woman, Jamie Berrout, said that it’s hard for her to watch these movies because it’s too difficult for her to not empathize with the trans women on screen, who are usually being mistreated, either by the other characters, the narrative itself or the filmmakers.
Whenever I see trans women characters there’s an immediate connection where I try to identify with them and match up my experiences to what they’re going through in their fictional lives. When a trans woman character is treated badly by her part in the film or by the plot or by being portrayed by a cis person then that means I’ll be suffering along with her. And I’m not using that “when” lightly — watching a movie that features trans women is almost always a painful, invalidating, anxiety-causing experience. The question isn’t, “Will this movie hurt me?” it’s, “Which of these possible ways of hurting me will this movie employ?” and “Is there something about this movie that makes it worth being insulted and humiliated for a couple of hours?”
Still, there are some movies that some trans women do like, and do relate to. These movies aren’t assured to work for all trans women, but if you’re looking for a movie that at least some trans women think represent them well, these are your best bets.
15. The Matrix
Not only is The Matrix one of the most revolutionary action and science fiction films of the past 30 years, but it’s also probably the most famous movie written and directed by a trans woman, and as Ryka Aoki told me, “We should not focus only on the beautiful ones in front of the camera, but also the brilliant trans women behind the camera, as well.” Although she wasn’t out at the time, Lana Wachowski co-wrote and co-directed this film about a group of hackers/freedom fighters who start a revolution against the robots who are enslaving earth. As Annie Mok pointed out, the film was also full of trans symbolism.
Among the first words in The Matrix are “CALL TRANS OPT,” flashed in green on Neo’s MS-DOS-style screen. This movie was written by a 90’s trans woman anime nerd (with white girl dreads, unfortunately…) — as my friend Maggie Eighteen pointed out, the Wachowski siblings took heavily from the 1995 Ghost in the Shell movie. Several essays explore transness in the film. When I watched it on VHS with my housemates recently, I would have taken a drink every time something obviously trans happened, but I’m sober so at each instance I just yelled out “TRANS!” and held up my fist.
14. Drunktown’s Finest
Another movie written and directed by a trans woman, this time a trans woman of color named Sydney Freeland, Drunktown’s Finest also co-stars a trans woman of color playing a trans woman of color. This film is about three interconnected young Navajo people, including a sex worker and aspiring model Felixia played by newcomer Carmen Moore. Freeland and Moore bring an authenticity to a trans woman’s story that’s rare in film, and even more rare for a Native American trans woman.
The only “Based on a True Story” on our list, A Girl Like Me tells the story of Gwen Araujo, a young trans Latina, who was beaten and murdered by a group of men who attacked her after they found out she was trans when she was just 17 years old. The film, which originally aired on Lifetime, stars J.D. Pardo as Gwen and won the 2007 GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Movie for Television. Drew said that she latched onto the film because “it was one of the first movies I ever watched that was inclusive of someone with not only trans experience but also who was a person of color.” For Sadie, the film marked a turning point in how she viewed trans experiences.
I was probably in the 9th grade, it was a time when I had finally been able to give a name and a face to what was going on with me and seeing films like this were a big influence on that. I spent more than one night I’m sure, sitting and weeping to this movie. It was my one of my first exposures to the brutality and denial that so many trans women, most significantly trans women of color, face in just being themselves. It’s haunting and kind of beautiful, for Lifetime standards, but like most tragic real life trans narratives it’s sometimes pretty hard to watch.
12. The Crying Game
The Crying Game is probably one of the more famous movies with a trans character, but not really for a good reason. This movie’s about an IRA fighter, Fergus, (played by Stephen Rea) who kidnaps a Black British soldier, Jody, (played by Forest Whitaker) and, after bonding with the captive and hearing stories about his girlfriend Dil (played by Jaye Davidson), later meets and falls for her. This movie is, for the most part, a pretty touching love story between Fergus and Dil, even after he finds out she’s trans. The famous scene, however, is when Fergus first sees that Dil is trans, the same time the audience does, causing the viewer to gasp and Fergus to vomit.”The Crying Game was one of those movies I avoided for a very long time. Not really because of the film itself, but the mythos surrounding it. Its been referenced time and again in pop culture because of just how ‘shocking’ the reveal is,” Sadie said, “Once I got around to seeing the film itself, though, I saw a lot of the tenderness and the complexities of the plot. Where others saw the disgust, I saw the love story, the part that said that a trans woman could find love, even with all her parts.”
Directed and written by the legendary Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, Todo sobre mi madre, also known as All About My Mother, features a trans sex worker named Agrado played by a trans woman, Antonia San Juan, who’s the main character’s old friend. It’s also one of the most-awarded movies featuring a trans woman, taking home the Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, as well as dozens of other international awards. For Savannah, “the relatable, charismatic trans woman character Agrado and her relationships with the other women in the film balanced well with transfeminine Lola, who was essentially the film’s ever-absent (but still humanized) antagonist.”
This was ranked #91 on our list of the 100 Best Lesbian Movies of All Time, and one of the lesbians in it is Judy, a trans woman played by Peter Outerbridge. It’s not necessarily that this movie is quality that makes it beloved, though, as Annie Mok told me.
Better Than Chocolate is a bad movie, but it’s gleefully bad and weirdly addictive — Autostraddle cartoonist Archie Bongiovanni once busted open a broken laptop with a hammer to get at their DVD copy. I recommend it without irony partly because of the legit sweet subplot starring a trans lady character, the nightclub singer Judy. Judy is a gay nightclub singer, and at one point the protagonists of the movie beat up a girl who harasses her in a bathroom. This movie has multiple montages and ends, as Archie pointed out, with a literal explosion. It’s cute, but only watch it with a friend or two so you can laugh about how, overall, it makes no sense.
9. The Queen
The Queen is a documentary chronicling the Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pageant of 1967, which was a drag queen pageant hosted by Flawless Sabrina, and won by Rachel Harlow, who would go on to transition after the contest, and featuring, among others, Andy Warhol as a judge. Zackary Drucker says that The Queen isn’t only a good movie, it’s an important historical artifact.
It’s so important that we know where we’re coming from. The Queen is a rare look at pre-Stonewall queer communities, and reveals a time before gender identity distinctions were cemented — all cross-dressing was a felony whether you were a gay man in drag, a trans woman, somewhere in between, black or white, young or old. Watching this group come together over one of Flawless Sabrina’s pageants (“The Nationals”) in 1967 and talk about the draft in Vietnam, family, and living underground, is a tremendous inspiration for today’s trans movement.
The Queen features legends like Crystal LaBeija and has a really interesting behind the scenes look into trans history.
8. Pay it No Mind: The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson
This documentary, which you can watch on Youtube is mainly made up of interviews with the legendary trans activist and Stonewall instigator Marsha P. Johnson, herself. Cherno Biko says it’s “life changing,” and “the most comprehensive archive we have of Marsha. I love that it’s free and on YouTube and more accessible to the girls. Too often we only focus on Sylvia and only think of Marsha as an afterthought. By centering Marsha, this film cemented her place in history as one of the mothers of this movement.” She added that her favorite part “is when they talked about her being called Saint Marsha and how vendors in the flower district cared for her because they considered her holy. This film inspired me to invest and act in Happy Birthday Marsha.” Lexi Adist added that this “documentation of Marsha P. Johnson, in which very little has been written or documented about, is extraordinary! Her struggles and life are a story worth witnessing. I’m just sad it hasn’t received as much fanfare or visibility as other films. Marsha is an icon and grandmother to our modern community and she deserves to be recognized for her labor.”
A film by Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey, this is the rare example of an older film actually starring trans women. Jackie Curtis, Candy Darling and Holly Woodlawn. Drucker says that Women in Revolt “is a hoot. Also improvised (like Woodlawn’s earlier film with Morrissey, Trash), [Woodlawn, Curtis and Darling] interpret the fledgling 2nd wave women’s liberation movement with campy flair, organizing their comrades under the moniker ‘P.I.G.’ or ‘Politically Involved Girls,’ becoming lesbians, embezzling money from socialites, among other antics.” She adds that “I love that in both films the transgender actresses were playing cis characters — so ahead of its time.”
6. Wild Side
Wild Side, a 2004 French/Belgian/British film about a trans sex worker named Stéphanie, stars Stéphanie Michelini and won several awards when it came out. Nicole says that what she loves most about the film is that “it manages to be about a trans woman’s life, without sensationalizing it. It touches on so many struggles, feelings, and themes that I relate to, and have lived, without making them Stéphanie’s entire life. Being trans isn’t all of who I am, it’s only part of who I am, and this film portrays that better than many other trans related shows/movies that I have seen.” Also, she adds, “about 7 seconds of this film feature Evangelion, so that’s also a win.” Drucker agrees, saying that “Wild Side is sexy, unpredictable, and features a menáge-a-trois relationship in which a trans woman is the object of desire — weak knees thinking about this one.”
The first film in our top five is this 2001 Italian film about, again, a trans sex worker. In this film, Ingrid de Souza, a Brazilian trans woman, plays Fernanda, a 19-year-old Brazilian trans woman who travels to Milan in order to work as a sex worker and get enough money for her surgery. Like Women in Revolt, this is a rare film to actually star a trans woman. According to Trace Lysette, “the key word for me is authenticity, Princesa is a look into the life of a trans girl who journeys away from home, like so many of us do, and takes matters into her own hands to finance her gender transition while struggling to find a sense of community, family, and love all while dealing with the pressures of a world that leaves little space for us to thrive. It’s the rawest, truest narrative around the trans female experience I’ve seen.” Savannah adds that “one thing I think it does successfully is that it manages to neither condemn nor exotify her life on the streets.”
Zackary Drucker says she “was 14 years-old when Ma Vie en Rose came to my local independent movie theater in Syracuse, NY. It was the first time I saw my adolescence, my experience of being young and trans, reflected on the big screen. I have a picture of myself in front of the movie poster that was taken the night that I saw it.” Many others felt similarly about this Belgian film about a a young trans girl played by Georges Du Fresne who is trying to live as the girl she is while her school, family and communty try to stop her. Ma Vie en Rose won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film.
This poll stops being a contest when we get to the top three movies as voted by trans women. These three films were so far ahead of the others that if they got half as many points, they would still be the top three.
While the trauma of this film is understandably too much for some trans women, others found it to be one of the most emotionally authentic portrayals of trans women on screen. I loved this film and said “This movie is, above all else, sweltering and electric. Most of the movie’s slow-burning heat comes from Mya Taylor’s amazingly deep and deliberate — and often uproariously comedic — performance as Alexandra, one of the film’s two transgender main characters. The film’s crackling and bubbling energy comes from Alexandra’s best friend and partner-in-crime Sin-Dee, played with energetic hilarity by fellow newcomer Kitana Kiki Rodriguez.” These two women go on a journey across Hollywood trying to find the woman who Sin-Dee’s boyfriend cheated on her with and getting to Alexandra’s musical performance at a local restaurant. For Lexi Adsit, it was “exciting to see sex-working trans women of color characters get screen time. There are so many girls who have not had their stories told and Tangerine not only does a good job of telling it, but does so in a way that emotionally connects a mainstream audience to the characters’ struggles without losing it’s authenticity.”
When Gun Hill Road came out, many in the trans community started buzzing about the film. Not only was it a movie about a trans woman of color, but she was actually played by a trans woman of color! That twoc, Harmony Santana, took full advantage of the role she was given, delivering a powerhouse performance and earning an Independent Spirit Award nomination, making her the first openly transgender actress to be nominated for an acting award in the US. Biko says that Santana “was the first young trans girl I saw in a feature film. I shared many experiences of her character in the film and her family dynamic mirrored my own.” Raquel Willis also loves Gun Hill Road, adding that she thinks “it was an eye-opener, intersectionality-wise, to focus on a Latina trans woman and, of course, the interesting dynamics she had in her relationship.” Drew adds that “the movie tackles a lot of topics surrounding the trans community that cisgender heteronormative people might consider taboo; transphobia, transmisogyny, sex work, ‘pumping” (black market surgery)’ and more.”
Number one is this legendary documentary that focuses on New York’s Ballroom scene and the people, including many trans women of color, who built a community there. Lysette says that with this film and The Queen, she “can’t help but be overwhelmed with appreciation for the women who stood before me. Rachel Harlow, Octavia St. Laurent, Crystal Labeija, Venus Xtravaganza, the list goes on. I see the strength in them and it gives me the strength to exist unapologetically, to make things better for the next generation of girls.” Biko points out that despite the fact that the film is over two decades old and the fact that it’s director Jennie Livingston profited off the backs of the QTPOC featured in the film (only $55,000 was distributed among 13 of the people featured), “it remains one of our greatest treasures. It’s a roadmap for the children and made me want to escape Ohio for NYC. PEPPER (LaBeija). OCTAVIA. DORIAN (Corey). I could go on.” Drew adds that Paris is Burning “is just simply EVERYTHING! Dorian Corey’s sassy commentary adds a legendary effect to the already groundbreaking documentary.”
Adsit also pointed out Livingston’s continued profiting off of the film and exploitation of the queer Black and Brown people within, but also praised the film.
I want to recognize the empowerment that, as a transgender woman of color, I experience watching Paris is Burning. This film not only seduced me as a viewer, but empowered me and gave me powerful women to look up to. Dorian Corey, for instance, throughout the movie drops some of the most amazing life knowledge that you wouldn’t be able to get from your own grandmother. Venus Xtravaganza, is unapologetic in her pursuit of a beautiful life. Octavia St. Laurent, is a powerful young black woman who has the skills and ability to chase her dreams regardless of her gender history. These are stories that are epics, in their own right.
Few films showcase the brilliance of trans women of color the way that Paris is Burning does. So many trans women have found themselves in the legends in this film, finally realizing that they’re not alone and that they have a history too.