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A Look Back at 2011 for Transgender Actors in the Media

Date December 23, 2011
A Look Back at 2011 for Transgender Actors in the Media

I started off 2011 by attending the Sundance Film Festival for the first time. I was only there for a few days but got to see the films Becoming Chaz and Gun Hill Road. I left the film festival feeling infinitely inspired as an actress, artist, and trans woman. I was certain that the game would be forever changed for trans folks in the media because of these two films. Chaz Bono, the subject of Becoming Chaz, of course, went on to have a groundbreaking year for transgender visibility. Harmony Santana, the transgender actress who plays Michael/Vanessa in Gun Hill Road, has won critical raves and public adulation for her moving performance as a teen struggling for paternal acceptance as she begins her gender transition. She was recently nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for her role. She is the first trans woman to be so honored.

2011 has been a notable year for other transgender actors in film and on television, as well, including yours truly, though my films have yet to be released. What's notable for me, I think, is that I got the opportunity to play dynamic, complicated characters in six different independent films in one year. I have never done six films in one year. This suggests to me that more films are being written and produced with transgender characters and that there is a willingness to hire trans actors to play these roles. In the case of two of the films, I got to play characters that weren't written as transgender. This seems like very good news for transgender representation in the media.

The day I returned from Sundance, I had a call back for the film Musical Chairs. Musical Chairs is a film about wheelchair ballroom dancing, which is very popular in Europe and Asia, though it has yet to find the same popularity in America. I play Chantelle, a flirtatious busybody who is an old-fashioned romantic at heart. Chantelle is transgender and a paraplegic. I got to learn how to do a tango and waltz in a wheelchair and in the process developed a new respect and admiration for people with disabilities. The film is directed by Susan Seidelman, who directed Desperately Seeking Susan, She-Devil, and the pilot of Sex and the City, among other gems. Musical Chairs comes to theaters nationwide in March 2012.

In the independent film Carl(a), I play Cinnamon, the self-destructive best friend of the title character. Both Carla and Cinnamon are transgender. Carla is played by the young trans actress Joslyn Defreece, who makes her feature film debut with Carl(a). It was a pleasure getting to know Joslyn and working with her. She has a beautiful, raw, emotional instrument and was utterly committed to bringing truth to every moment of her tour de force of a performance. Carla is saving for reassignment surgery by some unconventional means. She meets a guy and falls in love, but he doesn't want her to have the surgery. I was so excited about this film because this is a very real story I have seen time and again over the years with people in my life but have never seen it told in a film so truthfully. The film also co-stars Mark Margolis and Gregg Bello. Carl(a) is currently being shopped to film festivals internationally.

In an article about transgender performers in the December 8-14, 2011 issue of Backstage, Simi Horwitz writes, "Casting director Sig De Miguel ... looks forward to the time when a character's transgender status is incidental to the script and an actor's trans identity is irrelevant to casting. 'You may be born male, but you're a woman now,' De Miguel says." De Miguel represents a growing number of industry professionals who are open to casting trans actors in roles that aren't necessarily written as trans. He cast three of the films in which I acted in 2011. He also cast Harmony Santana in Gun Hill Road. In 36 Saints, one of those films, I play the effusive party promoter Genesius. Nowhere in the script does it say that she is transgender, nor is it inauthentic to the story that she is.

The highest profile fictional transgender film character of 2011 was the controversial role of Kimmy in the blockbuster The Hangover 2. The role was played by transsexual adult film actress Yasmin Lee. I had the pleasure of briefly meeting Yasmin a few years ago. She seemed very sweet. I hope this high-profile role has opened other doors for Lee.

On television the transgender actress Jamie Clayton made her acting debut on the HBO original series Hung. Jamie was, of course, my first choice of co-stars for my short-lived VH1 makeover show TRANSform Me. I often joke with Jamie about having given her her first job in TV when she's now a huge star. It's been a pleasure to watch Jamie's growth as an actress and artist firsthand while studying with her at The Studio here in New York City. Jamie's second episode of Hung, the seventh of season 3, is surprisingly educational about trans identity, as well as being very moving. Ray, trying to bond with Kyla, Jamie's character, initiates a conversation about his son, whom he suspects is gay. Kyla asserts, "I'm not gay. I'm a woman." Ray asks, "When did that start for you, being a woman?" She replies, "When did you start being a man?" It's a beautiful, smart episode that shows Ray's character overcoming his transphobia.

Candis Cayne returned to television in 2011 with a guest-starring role on the new USA network show Necessary Roughness. In 2007 Cayne, of course, became the first trans woman to have a recurring role on a primetime television show. Four years later more trans actors are working in mainstream films and on television. I look forward to seeing what other milestones are ahead for the growing group of us working transgender actors. The sky feels like the limit.

 

Follow Laverne Cox on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Lavernecox

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