As a society, sexual identity definitions and LGBT acceptance continue to push forward, it should come as no surprise that transgender actors are becoming more commonplace in the acting world. Of course, this is largely the result of a society that is becoming more accepting of transgender people, resulting in more transgender roles within the mainstream media. However, transgender roles aren’t always given to transgender actors. In fact, sometimes they’re given to cis-gender actors, a practice which has the general public split on opinions. Which way is the right way? Is it truly important if an actor’s sexual identity matches that of the character that they’re playing, or rather is this an overanalysis by a sensitive society? Let’s find out!
Modern Changes Taking Place in the Society
Trans rights are no doubt a modern issue. As a society, we are currently struggling with transgender issues such as bathroom access, access to healthcare, legal recognition, and sports regulations, among others. People generally fall on one side or other of the issues: they strongly support or reject transgender rights. This divide (as well as a desire to be alongside like-minded singles) has resulted in many venues, clubs, and services being offered specifically to the T branch of the LGBT such as transsexual dating sites. Online dating is a safe space away from society’s pressure and allows transgender and transsexual singles to have a romantic life they always dreamed about without struggle to reveal their gender identity at the last moment.
Normalization and acceptance lead to representation, so of course, media is something consumed by people of all gender identities, and opinions varied on the casting choices when it comes to transgender characters, but now trans people can represent themselves on the silver screen. This may seem like a trivial issue, but here’s why this achievement matters.
Why Is It so Important to Involve Non-cis Actors
Casting a cisgender actor to play a transgender character is akin to casting a white actor to portray a Black man. Blackface went largely out of style by the 1960s and today is considered extremely offensive. Besides being a mockery of African-Americans in general, it’s fairly obvious that a non-Black actor wouldn’t be able to accurately reproduce the emotions and experiences of the Black character, having no relation to them personally. Similarly, allowing cisgender actors to portray transgender roles places them in a role where they have no experience, no insights, and no personal relation. While whether or not it’s offensive comes down to personal opinion, for the sake of stellar performances, it simply makes sense to cast actors who personally relate to the characters they’re tasked with portraying. This strategy has been used in many of the great LBGT movies, and thankfully, transgender people are accurately represented in at least some of our modern-day shows. Here are a few examples:
Shows Where Trans Characters Are Played by Trans Actors
- POSE: MJ Rodriguez, Indya Moore, Dominique Jackson – POSE is a show that follows Latio & African-American dancers & models who are part of New York’s LGBT drag ball culture. The show features many transgender actors/actresses, including MJ Rodriguez (who plays a transgender woman named “Blanca Rodriguez-Evangelista”), Indya Moore (who plays a transgender female sex worker named “Angel Vasquez-Evangelista”), and Dominique Jackson (who plays Elektra Evangelista).
- The OA: Ian Alexander – The OA (Original Angel) centers around Prairie Johnson, a woman who reappears after being missing for seven years. Despite being blind, Prairie can now see! Obviously, this reappearance and apparent miracle attract the attention of government authorities, and Prairie is tasked with avoiding them while attempting to retrieve missing people from an alternate dimension with the help of her friends. One of these friends is Buck Vu, a transgender Asian man played by Ian Alexander.
- Orange Is the New Black: Laverne Cox – Orange Is the New Black centers around Piper Chapman, a mid-thirties woman who is suddenly convicted for smuggling drug money for her girlfriend (even though she had committed the offense ten years prior). While in prison, she makes friends (and enemies) with the other inmates, one of whom is Sophia Burset, a transgender woman played by Laverne Cox.
- Euphoria: Hunter Schafer – Euphoria follows a group of teens and their experiences with drugs, sex, friendship, and life in general. Although the series stars Zendaya (a well-known singer & actress) as “Zue,” perhaps more notable is the performance of Hunter Schafer, who plays Zue’s transgender female friend.
- Supergirl: Nicole Maines – If you’re familiar with the world of Superman, then the world of Supergirl should be fairly familiar as well. The show centers around Supergirl (AKA Kara Zor-El), who is a distant cousin of Superman. She eventually befriends Nia Nal (also known as “Dreamer”), who is a transgender superhero played by Nicole Maines.
Whether to be non-offensive, produce accurate character representations, or simply diversify the movie/television industry (which is largely dominated by cis-gender actors/actresses), it’s important that media leaders make a move to include transgender actors/actresses in their productions. After all, while transgender individuals share many of the same challenges as cisgender people (such as poverty, family issues, or the fear not to find love without using specific safe spaces in the form of online dating services), their experiences are unique to them as a whole and cannot be accurately represented by non-transgender actors. The stories should be told by those who relate to them best: transgender actors.