This month marks 20 years since the world premiere of Boys Don’t Cry, Kimberly Peirce’s fictionalized retelling of the true story of a transgender man, Brandon Teena, and the events that led up to his tragic murder. Hilary Swank, who played Teena, won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance, and the movie earned a GLAAD Award. But the rapturous reception it received back then would never happen in the Hollywood—or the world—of 2019. Two decades of education and activism have gradually led to a new understanding about what it means to represent trans stories responsibly, one that highlights just how problematic it can be for cisgender actors (see: Jared Leto, Eddie Redmayne and Jeffrey Tambor) to be nominated for and win prestigious awards for playing transgender people.
That greater level of awareness hasn’t solved everything: movies continue to cast cisgender actors in trans roles, like Elle Fanning in 2015’s Three Generations and Scarlett Johansson in the forthcoming Rub and Tug, which she dropped out of following public outcry. The accolades for Leto, Redmayne and Tambor aren’t ancient history; they happened within the past five years. And while television series like Transparent and Pose have offered much-needed representation for transgender women, trans men have been almost completely ignored, outside of very few depictions. Those we have seen have often been problematic: most notably, in 2006, Showtime’s The L Word introduced a universally unlikable trans character, Max (portrayed by transgender non-binary actor Daniela Sea), whose coming-out storyline was fraught with stereotypes and met with transphobic reactions and a devastating story arc.
But a new class of transmasculine actors playing trans male roles is beginning to change the narrative—and it’s largely happening on the small screen. These roles are revolutionary not only in their casting of trans actors, but for their three-dimensionality, allowing for stories which move beyond experiences of coming out, trauma and transphobia, both external and internalized. Across broadcast, cable and streaming networks, transmasculine actors are bringing a new level of visibility to the screen. NBC’s Good Girls, Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy have regular trans male characters, played by trans actors. Simultaneously, nonbinary actors (who do not identify with any specific gender) like Billions‘ Asia Kate Dillon and 13 Reasons Why‘s Bex Taylor-Klaus bring unprecedented representation to wide audiences.
“Trans men and nonbinary people have largely been invisible on television,” says Alex Schmider, Associate Director of Transgender Representation at GLAAD. “Historically, I don’t recall a time when there were more than two or three trans men on TV at the same time. Including trans men as characters, and as actors playing them onscreen, communicates a basic but very important message: men of transgender experience exist.”
The dearth of transmasculine roles is caused at least in part by the limited number of transmasculine people inside writer’s rooms. As a result of their underrepresentation, many showrunners who include trans characters in their projects reach out to GLAAD, Schmider says, for help in everything “from story idea to script, from casting to media training, to publicity to community outreach.” Still, there are too few showrunners hiring trans writers, whether or not their shows have trans-specific content and characters. There are currently two out trans male writers in writers’ rooms: Thomas Page McBee, on Tales of the City and The L Word: Generation Q, and T Cooper, who works on NBC’s The Blacklist.
Logan Rozos says he was cast as Star Child, a homeless trans teen on OWN’s David Makes Man, from Moonlight co-writer Tarell Alvin McCraney, when GLAAD reached out to his acting coach looking for a young black or Latino trans man between the ages of 16 and 20. Ian Alexander, an Asian-American transmasculine actor, found a casting call for the part of Buck Vu on Netflix’s The OA on Tumblr, the blogging platform where, alongside YouTube and social media, he says he first had exposure to the transmasculine community.
“I wasn’t seeing anyone on TV and definitely not in movies,” Alexander says of the lack of people who looked like him. “I think by getting the role on The OA, it made me realize I could be successful as an actor, and that’s when I truly considered myself to be an actor. Because before I’d [assume], ‘There are no opportunities for people like me.’”
Elliot Fletcher, who has played trans roles on MTV’s Faking It, Showtime’s Shameless, and Freeform’s The Fosters, says the lack of transgender men onscreen inspired him to get into acting in hopes he could provide representation for others like him, having grown up without any at all. He’s hoping that his success on television, combined with the increasing openness of casting directors to all kinds of actors, will lead to more opportunities for other queer and trans people.
“More transmasculine people are probably stepping forward and becoming comfortable with the idea of being on television and being an actor or feeling like, ‘There are several trans people on TV—I can do that, too,” he says.
Trans male actors also face the question of whether or not to come out professionally, and whether to pursue transmasculine or cisgender roles, or both. Brian Michael Smith has been working steadily in television since 2011, with roles on Girls, Chicago P.D. and Blue Bloods, but he didn’t publicly disclose that he was a trans man until a 2017 episode of Queen Sugar, in which his character, a police officer and friend of series principle Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe), was also revealed to be trans.
“I started acting playing cisgender parts and I found that I was interested in playing more transgender parts, but no one in the industry knew [I was trans],” Smith says. “So I wasn’t getting any opportunities to play the transmasculine roles that may have come down the pipe. That was one of the biggest reasons I wanted to be out.” Since coming out, Smith says, he’s been given opportunities to play more trans characters, which Alexander says has also been the case for him since appearing on The OA.
Up until recently, Chaz Bono hadn’t played any specifically trans male roles—his major television roles on American Horror Story: Roanoke, American Horror Story: Cult, and Bold and the Beautiful were cisgender characters (though he says he has one forthcoming he can’t speak about just yet). Still, he says that playing trans roles isn’t a priority for him.
“I’m a character actor, and what makes me the most happy is to play somebody who is the farthest from me as possible,” he says, adding that he’s probably different from younger trans actors today, of whom advocacy is often automatically expected. Bono says he spent 25 years as an advocate for the LGBT community, and now he simply wants to be a working actor. “It’s a dream I’ve had since I was 14 years old,” he says.
Despite recent gains, transmasculine actors say whether to play cisgender or transgender roles is not always up to them. There is concern about being typecast and only considered for trans parts in the future. There is also the burden of feeling the need, or being asked, to educate cisgender writers. This sometimes requires them to relive traumatizing moments from their transitions or experiences of transphobia that can be painful to revisit. But there is a general consensus that the importance of visibility for trans men and transmasculine people is worth these drawbacks, and that having transmasculine people involved in the creation of trans and nonbinary characters is not just critical for people watching at home, but good for an industry in which transmasculine stories have largely been untold.
Trans creators who have received opportunities behind the camera are still few and far between. Those with the most visibility came through the Transparent route: creator Jill Soloway, who identifies as nonbinary, brought trans men Rhys Ernst and Silas Howard on to produce and direct episodes of the Amazon series, and now both directors have made their own features.
“The decision-makers are listening, and it can only do more good, especially in times like these where legislators are making laws that make it difficult for trans people to live their lives,” says Smith, who was just cast as a series regular on 911: Lonestar and also has a recurring role on the new L Word reboot. “They’re pushing for these laws because they don’t know any trans people. If they can see representations of trans people in the media, it’ll maybe help them understand the actions they are taking are harming actual people.”
On the 2019 Netflix reboot of Tales of the City, Latinx actor Garica plays Jake, a young trans man in a relationship with a cisgender lesbian, who questions his sexual identity after taking a romantic and sexual interest in men.
“Jake’s story on Tales of the City is just one trans story out of the many, and no two stories look alike,” Garcia says. “In no way is he the representation for all trans men. We can be fluid in all type of ways.”
With more transmasculine characters, audiences will be able to see far more diverse transmasculine experiences than one violent narrative from 20 years ago.
“I consider it a great privilege and opportunity to be able to be someone’s first point of contact with the trans community,” says Rozos, “and the first time they realize they have common humanity with trans people.”
Correction, Feb. 2
The original version of this story misstated Daniela Sea’s gender identity. They identify as transgender non-binary/non-conforming, not as cisgender.