- More TV shows are featuring transgender actors and characters.
- Laverne Cox started on Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” and has since become a superstar and trans activist.
- FX’s “Pose” stars multiple trans people, including MJ Rodriguez, Dominique Jackson, and Indya Moore.
- Hunter Schafer from “Euphoria,” Tom Phelan from “The Fosters,” Elliot Fletcher from “Shameless,” and Josie Totah from “Champions” are all young transgender actors changing the landscape of television.
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As TV continues to become more progressive, more shows are welcoming transgender actors and characters.
In the past, trans roles were given to cis actors, like Jared Leto and Eddie Redmayne, both of whom were nominated for awards for their portrayals of trans characters. But today, transgender actors are taking on these roles and bringing visibility to the community. Television series are at the forefront of this change.
From A-listers like Laverne Cox to new stars like Hunter Schafer, these are the trans celebrities changing television for the better.
Laverne Cox got her start on “Orange Is the New Black.”
- Jason Merritt/Getty Images
Laverne Cox jumped into the spotlight in 2013 when she started playing Sophia Burset on Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black.” In the show, she played a transgender inmate in a women’s prison.
Cox appeared in a few other TV shows like “The Mindy Project,” “Dear White People,” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” But the actress has rebranded as an activist for transgender rights.
“It’s amazing that in various parts of the country, young people are still struggling who are LGBTQ+. And I think it’s because we still, culturally, have this very rigid idea of what women should be,” Cox told HuffPost. “And because of that, young people are being bullied, particularly LGBTQ youth. There’s unprecedented visibility for trans folks now, but we’re being attacked more than ever before.”
Asia Kate Dillon stars as Taylor Mason in “Billions.”
- Bryan Bedder/GettyImages
In 2016, Asia Kate Dillon earned a spot on Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black,” playing Brandy Epps, but most people know them as Taylor Mason on Showtime’s “Billions.” By playing Mason, Dillon has become the first non-binary actor playing a non-binary character on TV.
Dillon told “Good Morning America” this role helped them better understand their own identity.
“In that moment it crystallized for me, that it was going to be OK for me to never change my body if that was my journey and I was still valid as a non-binary person and a trans person,” they said.
Dillon made headlines in 2017 when they spoke out about the Emmys’ gendered award categories.
“It’s not the first time I’ve thought about this, but it was certainly the first time where I felt like I had a unique opportunity and a platform to engage in the conversation about questions that I had,” Dillon told Variety.
In response, the MTV Movie & TV Awards created a gender-neutral acting award category, which Dillon presented that year.
Most know Alex Blue Davis as the first trans actor on “Grey’s Anatomy.”
Alex Blue Davis got his start in TV on shows like “2 Broke Girls” and “NCIS,” but he is best known for his role on “Grey’s Anatomy.” Davis plays an intern, Dr. Casey Parker, who is an openly trans man.
Showrunner Krista Vernoff said she re-wrote Parker’s coming out plotline several times. Ultimately, the character says, “I’m a proud trans man, Dr. Bailey. I like for people to get to know me before they find out my medical history.”
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Davis said the line was monumental for him.
“What’s cool about the show, the episode and Krista’s vision for this character is he’s about way more than being trans,” Davis said. “I cried at the table read, it was very moving for me. I’ve been waiting for a moment like this on TV my whole life. I am so honored I got to say that line on TV because it’s a long time coming.”
Dominique Jackson is making a name for herself on FX’s “Pose.”
Dominique Jackson is known for her role as Elektra Abundance on FX’s groundbreaking show “Pose.”
In season one, her character decides to get sex assignment surgery – commonly referred to as “bottom surgery” – and Elektra lost some friends and her boyfriend over the decision.
“Throughout the years, many people have had this misconception about being transgender and they have always come from their comfortability,” Jackson told Metro. “But we also have to realize that having gender-affirming surgeries, it is a personal journey. Every trans person’s journey ends in a certain place. My version of complete was bottom surgery. A lot of people just thought we did this surgery because it’s always about ‘getting a man’ or something like that.”
Jackson will take her acting chops to Starz’s “American Gods,” where she will play a goddess.
Outside of acting, Jackson has also written a book titled “The Transexual from Tribago,” which chronicles her personal journey.
MJ Rodriguez is also known for her work on “Pose.”
Before landing her role on “Pose,” MJ Rodriguez appeared on TV in shows like “Nurse Jackie” and “The Carrie Diaries.” But it’s her role as Blanca Rodriguez on “Pose” that really catapulted her into the spotlight.
Rodriguez told Metro that she sees this newfound attention as an opportunity to represent the trans community.
“[It’s] invigorating in a way we get to be ourselves and live out loud. Intimidating because there are so many things that come our way. And with what we have to deal with and the responsibilities that we have, [it] can be a little overwhelming,” she told Metro. “Just making sure that we speak for our community in the right way and that we do the work that needs to be done that a lot of people out there aren’t doing. Whether through our craft or speaking on a platform that we need to be speaking on.”
Indya Moore also appears on “Pose.”
Indya Moore started as a model, but they really made a name for themselves when they were cast as Angel on FX’s “Pose.” As a trans and non-binary person, they became a mainstream success, booking even more modeling gigs and eventually becoming Elle’s first trans cover model.
In that cover story, Moore said activism is one of the most important parts of their life.
“When I’m around people having conversations about their day, I’m looking at them, like, ‘What could they possibly be talking about? How are we not talking about deconstructing white supremacy right now? How are we not trying to save trans people?'” Moore told Elle. “I don’t know who I am outside of someone who’s just trying to be free and find safety for myself and for others.”
Jamie Clayton is known for her role in Netflix’s “Sense 8.”
Jamie Clayton is known for her role as Nomi Marks on Netflix’s “Sense 8.” In the series, Clayton plays a trans hacker who develops the ability to see into the minds of eight other people around the world.
When the show ended in 2018, Clayton joined Netflix’s “Designated Survivor” as Sasha Booker.
Outside of TV, Clayton has become an activist for trans rights, especially trans visibility in Hollywood.
“Actors who are trans never even get to audition for anything other than roles of trans characters,” she tweeted. “That’s the real issue. We can’t even get in the room. Cast actors who are trans as non-trans characters. I dare you.”
Hunter Schafer stepped into the limelight with HBO’s hit “Euphoria.”
Hunter Schafer’s only acting credit to date is her role as Jules on HBO’s “Euphoria.” Though her acting resume is small, it’s impactful. Her character is one of the only trans characters on TV that doesn’t actually struggle with her identity.
“There need to be more roles where trans people aren’t just dealing with being trans; they’re being trans while dealing with other issues,” Schafter told Variety. “We’re so much more complex than just one identity.”
Tom Phelan stars in a groundbreaking role on “The Fosters.”
- Broadly/ YouTube
Like Hunter Schafer, Tom Phelan has a short list of acting credits, but his role in “The Fosters” is revolutionary. He has become one of the first trans actors to play a young trans character. In the show, his character, Cole, tackles taking hormones and experiencing misgendering.
He told The Hollywood Reporter that while his character is great for trans visibility, he worries that it won’t make that big of an impact.
“We’ve come a long way with being in the public eye, but in terms of lessening violence, there hasn’t been a lot of change,” he said. “Media representation is great, but it’s not going to promote visible, genuine change. Media representation is for the community and for young trans kids and it’s for people looking to see themselves. I don’t think it’s for the rest of the world. Its primary function is to serve as a looking glass so that people who feel lost and confused can look and see themselves.”
Elliot Fletcher has had recurring roles on some of the biggest shows on TV, like “Shameless” and “The Fosters.”
In 2016, Elliot Fletcher took on his first trans role on MTV’s “Faking It.” Since then, he has continued playing trans characters, like Trevor on Showtime’s “Shameless” and Aaron Baker on “The Fosters.”
“I happily tell people [that I’m trans] because my goal in life is not only to become a successful musician but also, a trans advocate. I have so much love for my trans family and I want to spread that love as much as I can,” he told the New York Times.
Josie Totah transitioned after starring in NBC’s “Champions.”
- AT&T/ YouTube
Prior to transitioning, Josie Totah appeared in a number of TV shows, including “Jessie,” “Glee,” and “Liv and Maddie.” Right before coming out, she starred as Michael Patel in NBC’s “Champions.”
In 2018, she announced that she was transgender and prefers she/her pronouns. She continues to act, appearing in “The Other Two” and “No Good Nick.” In early 2020, it was announced that Totah will be the lead in the “Saved by the Bell” reboot.
“This week, I’m going off to college. I’m also going to continue my acting career, and I am so excited to do both things as myself,” she wrote in a Time article. “I plan to play roles I haven’t had the opportunity to play. And I can only imagine how much more fun it’s going to be to play someone who shares my identity, rather than having to contort myself to play a boy. I’m going to gun for those roles, be it a transgender female or a cisgender female. Because it’s a clean slate – and a new world.”
Jen Richards produced and starred in the web series “Her Story.”
Since then, Richards has appeared in “Nashville,” “Better Things,” and “Tales of the City.”
Outside acting, Richards also works to promote trans visibility and to fight for trans rights. For example, she founded the Trans 100, which honors and recognizes people and organizations that are doing good within the trans community.
She has also been vocal about the importance of casting trans people in trans roles.
“If they cast a cis woman, they’re ultimately saying a trans woman is a type of woman,” Richards told Variety. “They cast a cis man, they’re saying that, at the end of the day, a trans woman is a kind of man. Right from the moment you cast a man as a trans woman, you’ve already proven that you are out of step.”
Alexandra Billings is most recognizable for her role in “Transparent.”
Alexandra Billings is the first transgender person to play a transgender character on TV when she took the role of Donna in 2005’s “Romy and Michele: In the Beginning.” Since then, she has appeared in “How to Get Away with Murder,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “ER,” “Eli Stone,” and “Goliath” as a trans character. But the actress is best known for her role as Davina on Amazon’s “Transparent.”
She has also been outspoken about cis-gendered people taking trans roles. In an op-ed for HuffPost, she explained her frustrations with Jared Leto’s Oscar-winning performance in “Dallas Buyers Club,” in which he played a trans woman. She especially found it frustrating that the actor didn’t acknowledge the trans community in his acceptance speech at the Golden Globes.
“He spoke about shaving his legs, he spoke about his backside in his bikini, and he spoke about a Brazilian wax he never got because it seemed to be too much trouble,” Billings wrote. “What he didn’t speak about was the transgender woman he played, or the millions of other transgender people in the audience, or the hundreds of millions of people around the world who are living with and dying from the AIDS virus.”
Trace Lysette has appeared in “Transparent” and the movie “Hustlers.”
Trace Lysette began her acting career in 2014, playing Shea on Amazon’s “Transparent.” Her character is an openly trans woman who is a yoga instructor and educator.
Lysette made headlines in 2017 when she came forward and accused her “Transparent” co-star, Jeffrey Tambor, of inappropriate sexual behavior while on set.
“Despite multiple uncomfortable experiences with Jeffrey, it has been an incredible, career-solidifying honor to bring life to my character, Shea, on Amazon’s ‘Transparent,'” the actress wrote in a statement at the time. “Working on the award-winning series as a low-income trans woman with active roots in New York’s ball culture is a rare opportunity most of my sisters are not given.”
Tambor, who later left the show, responded to the accusations by saying he accepted he was not a perfect coworker but that he had “never been a predator – ever.”
Outside of “Transparent,” Lysette has appeared on FX’s “Pose” and “Hustlers.”
Brian Michael Smith stars as a trans man in OWN’s “Queen Sugar.”
Brian Michael Smith has been earning acting credits since 2011, appearing in TV shows like “Gossip Girl,” “Girls,” “Chicago P.D.,” “Blue Bloods,” and “After.” But in all of these shows, he played a cis straight man. It wasn’t until 2017, however, that Smith came out as trans through his character on OWN’s drama series “Queen Sugar.”
As the trans community pushes for more trans actors to play cis roles, Smith is proof that it’s possible.
“There weren’t a lot of trans male roles when I started out,” Smith told NBC News. “I was really trying to be cautious about [choosing a trans role] because it was something I was interested in, but I wanted to make sure that it resonated with me, and it would have a positive impact on trans and non-trans people alike.”
Nicole Maines is portraying the first trans superhero on CW’s “Supergirl.”
Before acting, Nicole Maines was the subject of several documentaries that focused on the trans experience. In 2016, she was profiled in HBO’s “The Trans List,” and in 2018, she was profiled again in “Not Your Skin.”
She then moved into acting, becoming the first trans superhero on TV. Maines plays a reporter named Nia Nal on CW’s “Supergirl.” The character is eventually turned into a superhero named Dreamer.
“I’ve been doing a lot of auditions lately because a lot of different shows have been really eager to tell the story of transgender people,” Maines said at Comic Con. “It seems only fitting that we have a trans superhero for trans kids to look up to. I wish there was a trans superhero when I was little.”