The Evolution Of Trans Representation In Hollywood

Growing up in London in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Jake Graf couldn’t find himself in any of the TV or film characters he saw. “I knew pretty much as soon as I could speak that I was a boy in the wrong body,” Graf, now an actor, writer, and filmmaker, told Refinery29. “The fact that I didn’t see myself in society, on the street, in media or anywhere else made for a lonely and isolating experience.”
Graf’s first exposure to what he was – a trans man — came, for him, in the most disturbing form: The 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry. According to Graf, everyone attending the film knew it would end with Brandon Teena’s (Hilary Swank) gruesome rape and murder, after a group of small-town boys discover Brandon’s trans identity. The Oscar-winning Boys Don’t Cry became a landmark film for LGBTQ issues. But for Graf, who was 17 or 18 at the time, the film’s ending — and its implicit association of trans identity and doom – left a lasting trauma.
“It was the most horrific representation that you could ever possibly see as your baptism into saying, ‘Oh look, there’s me on screen.’ I honestly think that put me off transitioning for another ten years,” Graf says.
The state of transgender representation in TV and film has changed significantly since Graf’s coming of age when, he describes, "trans women were either portrayed as sex workers, murderesses, the kind of body being wheeled out of the gurney, or the butt of the joke."
Graf has made multiple short films about trans individuals, and was in the movie The Danish Girl. They aren't the only filmmaker working to depict more — and better — trans stories onscreen. Let's track the progress Hollywood has made in journeying away from the tropes Graf described.
Gender and sexual orientation are both highly personal and constantly evolving. So, in honor of Transgender Awareness Week, we're talking about the importance of language and raising the voices of the LGBTQIA community. Welcome to Gender Nation, where gender is defined by the people who live it. Want to learn more? Check out our Gender Nation glossary.
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