Trans Actors For Trans Characters

As a trans actor, I understand my characters' angst and pain on a level that cis people cannot even begin to grasp.

When I was 15 I appeared on the “Larry King Live Show” and came out as transgender to my entire extended family and high school all at once. That was in 2009. At that time, I only knew of one transgender man in real life, saw about three trans guys on YouTube and that was about it for positive portrayals of transgender men in the media. Most of the trans guys I did see on YouTube were transitioning with testosterone and because that was something I didn’t really see myself doing, I didn’t see myself represented anywhere. I felt alone and invisible. All of the trans guys that were in mainstream TV and movies (which was very little) weren’t actually played by actual out and open trans guys. They were played by cis females.

A couple years ago, things started to shift. Major network television started hiring trans actors to play trans characters to tell trans narratives at a higher rate than ever before. I started to see myself represented more. I felt more connected with society and with the media. I didn’t feel as invisible. I knew that there was finally a little room for me to be an actor when I was asked to be in Lauren Wolkstein’s “Collective:Unconscious” series which premiered at SXSW and is now on Netflix. I played a young gym student who had just came out as transgender.

There are so many roles for cis characters and very few for trans characters.

Currently, I’m acting and singing in a musical workshop production of “Cotton Candy & Cocaine.” Within the incredible story and music written by EllaRose Chary and Brandon James Gwinn, about struggling to make it in Las Vegas, are Minnie and Blazer. Minnie is a cis-gender latino man and Blazer is an androgynous trans guy. Together they make this beautiful bi-racial gay/trans couple, the type of couple that exists in real life but is so rarely portrayed in the media and performing arts world.

I am playing Blazer, the super-tough androgynous trans guy, who busks day and night and loves Minnie with all his heart. I get to play a role that actually speaks to who I am at my core. I get to give this character a voice, which gives trans people a voice and narrative that they can finally relate to. I get Blazer. He’s punk rock and passionate. He wants to leave his mark on the world and actually make a difference. I was him when I was first transitioning and I am him now.

I think it’s powerful to play this trans role as a trans person, because I get Blazer’s angst and pain on a level that cis people cannot even begin to grasp. I can tap into what it’s like to be so new in transitioning from one gender to another and to feel hurt when people don’t understand my identity and mis-gender me. I can portray this transgender character in an authentic way because I am a transgender person myself.

I believe that casting trans actors to play trans characters makes the production more authentic. However, I wanted to get the opinion from people on social media. I asked Instagram “How do you feel about cis actors playing trans characters in TV, film, musicals, etc? Do you think it’s ok? Why or why not? Please post your opinion!” I got over 175 mixed responses. Some people saying it’s wrong, that it’s like having a white character play a role that was written for a black person, and others saying that they didn’t have a problem with it at all. I felt mixed about it for a long time, because I do want the opportunity to play cis characters too because there just aren’t that many trans roles. If a trans person can play a cis character, shouldn’t a cis person be able to play a trans character? However, the trans community is still so oppressed that we need to make space for trans actors to play trans characters. There are so many roles for cis characters and very few for trans characters. There’s a lot more opportunity for cis actors. I think It’s sort of unlikely that I’ll get cast to play a cis character because my gender is so ambiguous. However, I do have hope that things are changing and that the world isn’t as binary as it used to be.

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I asked one of the writers, of “Cotton Candy & Cocaine,” EllaRose why she wanted to have a trans character in her story and she said

It’s important to us to show how issues of gentrification and displacement impact an entire community, particularly folks who are marginalized and it would have felt disingenuous not to include a trans character in that narrative. We’re also really committed to telling stories that celebrate all kinds of queer love that don’t end in tragedy. And part of our artistic mission is to write stories that include characters of all identities ― because that reflects the world we live in ― but where those characters identities aren’t the story. This isn’t a musical about what it’s like to be trans, that’s not our musical to write, it’s a musical about a changing community and trans people are part of our community so they are necessarily a part of our story.