The Evolution Of Trans Representation In Hollywood

Courtesy of Netflix
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.
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“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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September 1975: Pat Caddison (Robert Reed) in Medical Center

In one of the earliest depictions of a trans character on TV, Robert Reed, who played Mike Brady on The Brady Bunch, appeared in a two-part episode of Medical Center called "The Fourth Sex." He played a doctor who decided to undergo sex reassignment surgery. The transition storyline may not seem like anything extraordinary now, but it was ground-breaking to feature a trans character on TV the time. Reed was nominated for an Emmy for his work.
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September 1975: Beverly LaSalle (Lori Shannon) in All in the Family

Norman Lear, the creator of All in the Family, wanted to present LGBTQ characters to the primetime-watching public. In one All in the Family storyline, "female impersonator" Beverly LaSalle, played by real-life drag queen Lori Shannon, ends up in the Bunker family living room. After a slightly tense introduction, Edith and Beverly strike up a real friendship. Beverly's actual gender identity is never full elucidated, and the characters use the pronoun "he."

While certainly relying on tropes and making jokes about gender, All in the Family nonetheless featured one of the first sympathetic portrayals of a gender non-conforming character.

Still, this portrayal ends in death, a common fate "sympathetic" trans characters met in 20th-century film and TV to make a point about trans people's plights. In the episode "Edith's Crisis of Faith," Beverly and Edith's son-in-law, Mike, are mugged. Beverly is murdered. According to Mike, the assailants had "figured out what he was," and Beverly died because "he was different." Edith has a breakdown and questions why God would allow her friend to be die so gruesomely.
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April 1977: Linda Murkland (Linda Gray) in All That Glitters

In 1977, All That Glitters, another Norman Lear production, broke ground by featuring TV's first transgender TV regular. Linda Gray played Linda Murkland, a transgender woman who marries a cisgender man in the show's finale.

The forward-thinking show took place in a woman-dominated United States, where women were executives of the Globatron company and men were their secretaries and househusbands.
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September 1977: Jodie (Billy Crystal) in Soap

Billy Crystal's character, Jodie Dallas, pushed boundaries for LGBTQ representation on TV. Jodie often wore women's clothes, and told his mother he wanted to transition into being a woman so that he could marry his boyfriend. Eventually, Jodie realized he wasn't transgender, and stopped wearing his mom's clothes.
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October 1977: Edie Stokes (Veronica Redd) in The Jeffersons

In an episode of The Jeffersons, another Norman Lear creation, George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley) anticipates a visit from an old friend from the Navy. When he opens the door, George is greeted by Edie. George's old friend was now living her truth as a woman. By the end of the episode, Edie and George have reverted to the warm rapport of their Navy days.

In terms of Lear creations, this scene in The Jeffersons is an improvement on All in the Family's earlier depiction of gender non-confirming individual. Edie is transgender, not a "female impersonator," and her storyline ends in friendship and acceptance, not murder.
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July 1980: Dr. Elliott/Bobbi (Michael Caine) in Dressed to Kill (1980)

In terms of transphobia, this movie was a disaster. Dressed to Kill's climactic revelation comes when the killer is revealed to be Dr. Elliot's female alter ego, who murdered any woman her "male side" was attracted to. As Dr. Elliot's psychiatrist explains, "There was Dr. Elliot, and there was Bobbi. Opposite sexes inhabiting the same body—the sex change operation was to resolve the conflict. But as much as Bobbi tried to get it, Elliott blocked it. So Bobbi got even by killing a female patient who has aroused Dr. Elliott’s masculine self.'"

By making its central trans character out to be delusional, unstable, and violent, Dressed to Kill greatly perpetuated the trope of the "transgender killer" seen in other movies like Silence of the Lambs and Psycho.
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July 1982: Roberta Muldoon (John Lithgow) in The World According to Garp

Roberta is a former tight end for the Philadelphia Eagles who now lives in a home for abused and troubled women, run by Garp's (Robin Williams) mother. In the film, Roberta lends her generous, unceasing emotional support to her dear friends. Roberta Muldoon is considered to be one of the first sympathetic trans characters to appear in a mainstream movie.
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May 1986: Renee Richards (Vanessa Redgrave) in Second Serve

This television movie, for which Redgrave was nominated for an Emmy, is based on an autobiography of a professional tennis player name Renee Richards. After Richards' transgender identity was discovered, she fought the United States Tennis Association in court so she could play in the women's league without undergoing chromosome testing.

For context into the year 1986, the Times review of the movie seeped with condescension about gender identity: "The actress proceeds courageously into the disquieting world of 'gender confusion.'"
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December 1990: Denise Bryson (David Duchovny) in Twin Peaks

"It's a long story, but I actually prefer Denise now," Denise Bryson tells her old coworker, Agent Dale Cooper, after seeing him for the first time in a while.

"Okay," Cooper replies, nonchalantly. And that's what it was: Okay.

Twin Peaks' representation of a trans character stood out in an era when representation was not...the best. The '90s were marked by big "reveals" of trans characters in films, when men in multiple films reacted with horror when discovering their partners were trans (The Crying Game, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective). Even if certain aspects of her portrayal haven't aged well compared to media representations today, Denise Bryson in Twin Peaks stuck out in the '90s as a more positive portrayal.
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February 1991: Jame Gumb/Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs

Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), the film's central antagonist, has a penchant for cutting off his victims' skin, so he can make a costume of female skin and hair. It's revealed that Bill was too psychologically disturbed to undergo the gender reassignment surgery he wanted.

Silence of the Lambs and Buffalo Bill continue to be referenced to this day as a prime example of transphobia in media representations. As Lilly Wachowski wrote in her coming out statement, "Though we have come a long way since Silence of the Lambs, we continue to be demonized and vilified in the media where attack ads portray us as potential predators to keep us from even using the goddamn bathroom. We are not predators, we are prey."
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November 1992: Dil (Jaye Davidson) in The Crying Game

The marketing for The Crying Game did not indicate that Dil, the protagonist's lover, was trans. That's because IRA member Fergus (Stephen Rea) doesn't know Dil's trans — he just knows she's the girlfriend of a British soldier (Forest Whitaker) his group had captured. After Fergus discovers Dil's "secret," they choose to continue their relationship.
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January 1994: Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis) in Tales of the City

Enigmatic and aloof, Anna Madrigal quietly watches over her bustling San Francisco townhouse in this TV adaptation of Amistad Maupin's Tales of the City, a series of books that centered on the Bay Area's LGBTQ community over many decades.

When she took the role of Anna, Dukakis said she "knew nothing" about being transgender. She was affected by the way her role was received by the community. "I didn’t know there were all these individuals who felt so… acknowledged. I mean, I had no idea what it would mean to people. I only thought in terms of my work and my acting. So then I obviously became involved in fundraising and publicity and so forth, but… that affected me," Dukakis told AV Club.
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February 1994: Lois Einhorn (Sean Young) in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective

Transphobia in comedy hit an all-time high with this scene in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. After Ace (Jim Carrey) puts together that Lois Einhorn (Sean Young) is a man, he throws up violently, cries in the shower, and then reveals Lois' genitals to a room full of people.

Trans women in '90s comedies like Ace Ventura were often law-breakers who deliberately hid their trans identities, as Meredith Talusan points out in a Buzzfeed article. Consequently, "the exposure of these women becomes synonymous with 'catching' them; there’s no meaningful difference made between finding out a woman is trans and discovering that she’s a criminal," Talusan writes.
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August 1994: Bernadette (Terrence Stamp) in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

In this Australian film, three friends take a road trip through the Australian Outback on a tour bus named Priscilla. Adam (Guy Pearce) and Anthony (Hugo Weaving), are gay drag queens, and Bernadette (Terrence Stamp) is a transgender woman.

"The fact that the film has endured for 20 years and still continues to have a high circulation value as a 'cult classic' in gay male subcultures (whether through the soundtrack, the Broadway show, or even just the film itself) speaks to its importance as a text that attempted to represent more authentically bisexual, gay, and transgender stories to an audiences that were mostly unfamiliar to these plights," wrote Nathan Smith for Out on the occasion of the film's twentieth anniversary.
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December 1997: Ludo (George Du Fresne) in Ma Vie En Rose

Ludovic is an eight-year-old [CUT:boy]WHO WAS BORN MALE who knows, more than anything, that She was supposed to be born a girl. "My other X fell in the garbage," Ludo tells her parents, when trying to explain what must have been a great cosmic chromosome mixup. Ludo sees things one way — she has a vivid dream world in which she dresses like a princess and uses a wand. The bumbling adults, relying on rigid notions of gender and queerness, see things another way. Despite their confusion, Ludo's parents never stop supporting their kid in this heartwarming film.
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November 1999: Agrado (Antonia San Juan) and Lola (Toni Cantó) in All About My Mother

With All About My Mother, Pedro Almodóvar, a Spanish director, showed he was light years ahead of American representation of trans individuals. Two of the main characters in All About My Mother are trans. Esteban (Eloy Azorín) is searching for his father, who now lives as a woman named Lola. And though Agrado, the main character's old friend, is not on the screen for long, her rousing speech about her perception of womanhood will stay with you.

“We must not be cheap in regards to the way we look. Because a woman is more authentic the more she looks like what she has dreamed for herself," she says in front of an audience.
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October 1999: Brandon Teena (Hilary Swank) in Boys Don't Cry

At the time of its release, Boys Don't Cry was revolutionary: It affirmed that Brandon Teena's (Hilary Swank) gender identity was valid, even if other people in the movie were adamant that he was a woman. Yet, as trans actor and director Jake Graf told us, the movie's legacy in the trans community is troubled.

In her essay "On Being “Brave”: Watching and Re-watching Boys Don’t Cry," Evelyn Deshane writes of the similar effect Boys Don't Cry had on her perception of her own trans identity.

"Up until this point, all the films I’d seen with transgender people had them dead by the end. And it was always a brutal, bloody ending. I was 22—only a year older than Brandon Teena. During that first full-bodied realization, all I could feel was despair, not hope."
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March 2003: Ruth Applewood (Tom Wilkinson) in Normal

After 25 years of marriage and approximately 50 years living as a man, Ruth Applewood (Tom Wilkinson) tells her wife, Irma (Jessica Lange), that she identifies as a woman — and that she plans to have gender reassignment surgery. Irma stands by Ruth, even as her coworkers at the factory, and her own kids, struggle with the transition. Normal emphasizes the importance of accepting people for who they are. As Irma finds, love is stronger than conventional notions of gender.
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December 2005: Transamerica

In Transamerica, Felicity Huffman plays Bree, a transgender woman who reconnects with her son. After Transamerica came out, the editors of Advocate wrote an op-ed discussing whether Transamerica "transcended" its hiccups in portraying a transgender person.

"Transsexual people talking about the movie will overwhelmingly say they liked Transamerica and that it’s good for the trans community. If you press them, however, they will also note parts they didn’t like. Three main critical themes arise — the film’s inaccuracies about the process of transition, its unrealistic stereotyping, and the fact that a transsexual woman did not play the lead role," the op-ed read.

While the editors write Transamerica won't succeed in clearing up misinformation, it succeeds as a movie "with gut-wrenching lessons on the diversity of humanity."
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September 2007: Carmelita Rainer (Candis Cayne) in Dirty Sexy Money

In Dirty Sexy Money, married politician Patrick Darling (Billy Baldwin) has a torrid affair with a transgender woman, Carmelita Rainer. For her work as Carmelita, Candis Cayne made history for being the first transgender actor on network TV.
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January 2007: Alexis Meade (Rebecca Romijn) in Ugly Betty

When Ugly Betty starts, the former editor-in-chief of Hudson Magazine had been presumed dead for two years. Then, in the 13th episode of the first season, a mysterious masked person appears. Fourteen million people were present to see who was behind the mask: Alexis Meade, the editor-in-chief of Hudson Magazine, who is living her truth as a woman.
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July 2010: Adam (Jordan Totosey) in Degrassi

Degrassi was known for its frank portrayal of issues that teens face, from pregnancy to addiction. In its 10th season, Degrassi introduced Adam, who, according to GLAAD, was "the first transgender teen character to appear as a series regular on a scripted TV show." Adam is initially introduced to his peers as a boy, and is later given an opportunity to explain his transition experience in the two-part episode, "My Body is a Cage." Over the course of 128 episodes, Adam became a beloved character.

"Adam was not solely defined by his transgender identity, and fans of the show could see that transgender people face the same challenges — and have the same successes — in school and love that all teens face," wrote Nick Adams for GLAAD.
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April 2012: Wade "Unique" Adams (Alex Newell) in Glee

Unique Adams — the self-proclaimed "love child of Kurt and Mercedes" — was a series regular on Seasons 4 and 5 of Glee. Unique sings for Vocal Adrenaline, New Directions' rivals. With encouragement from Kurt and Mercedes, she performs at Regionals as Unique, not as Wade.
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November 2013: Rayon (Jared Leto) in Dallas Buyers Club

Leto won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his work in Dallas Buyers Club. He played Rayon, a transgender, HIV-positive sex worker. Though the film received critical acclaim, many individuals in the LGBTQ were disappointed that, yet again, a cisgender man was cast to play a trans woman.

The director of Dallas Buyers Club, Jean-Marc Vallee, said he "never" actually considered casting a trans person for the part. "I'm not aiming for the real thing. I'm aiming for an experienced actor who wants to portray the thing," Valle told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp, according to an Advocate article.

In a Time Magazine op-ed, Steve Friess succinctly expressed his gripes about Rayon's character, who he considered to adhere to tropes often seen in entertainment — namely, trans women being sex workers who struggle with addiction. "There are no stereotypes about transgender women that Leto’s concoction does not tap. She’s an exaggerated, trivialized version of how men who pretend to be women — as opposed to those who feel at their core they are women — behave," Friess wrote.
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July 2013: Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox) in Orange Is the New Black

Sophia is one of the inmates in Litchfield State Penitentiary, where Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) goes after being convicted for a crime she'd done 10 years prior. As we learn, Sophia is a former firefighter who ran into trouble with credit card fraud to fund her transition. Her wife supported her through the process, but their son struggles with his father's new identity.

Sophia is a fantastic character — kind, outspoken, brave. But since Season 3, Sophia has been placed in solitary confinement indefinitely. While the portrayal of a transgender character by a transgender actress is an important progression, some criticize the endless slew of difficulties heaped upon Sophia. "Seriously, stop making terrible shit happen to Sophia, show. Just stop," reads an article in Autostraddle, a website for queer women.

Orange Is the New Black had the positive effect of sending Laverne Cox's career skyrocketing. Now, she's a vocal trans activist in addition to being an actor — and she's a collaborator with Beyoncé.
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June 2014: Ricky (Michelle Hendley) in Boy Meets Girl

Somewhere in rural Kentucky, a woman is caught in a love triangle. The premise sounds like a typical rom-com, only there's one difference: The protagonist, Ricky, is a trans woman, and is played by trans actor Michelle Hendley. Ricky navigates between affection from her old friend, Robby (Michael Welch), and a full-blown affair with an engaged woman named Francesca (Alexandra Turshen).

In his review of the film, Frank Scheck of The Hollywood Reporter wrote, "[Boy Meets Girl] presents a moving and honest depiction of transgender issues that should be seen by any young person struggling with his or her identity."
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February 2014: Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor) in Transparent

Transparent has been revolutionary in its discussion on gender identity and sexuality, especially in its characters Ally (Gaby Hoffman) and Maura (Jeffrey Tambor). Though Tambor isn't trans, the show has also showcased trans actors like Alexandra Billings and Hari Nef.

When casting Maura, showrunner Jill Soloway told The Daily Beast that Tambor “reminded me a lot of my Moppa pre-transition. We felt that this was a story of a late transitioning person who looks a certain way, doesn't necessarily have that passing privilege.” They conceded that “none of those benchmarks would work for me any longer.”
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February 2014: Davina (Alexandra Billings) and Shea (Trace Lysette) in Transparent

Maura's two best friends, Davina and Shea, are played by trans actresses. In preparation for the fourth season, Billings and Lysette visited the writer's room and shared their own histories.

Lysette told Out that her favorite part of the job is audience response. "Alexandra and I grew up not seeing ourselves on TV and, if we did, it was usually on something like Jerry Springer or Maury playing the 'is it a man or a woman' game, or the occasional cis actor playing us getting murdered and stuffed into a toilet or some shit. The fact that they get to see a trans body on TV playing a trans character validates them and lets them know that they are worth it and they are worthy of success and love and they can dream," she said.
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January 2015: Coach Beiste (Dot Marie Jones) in Glee

After five seasons on Glee, Coach Beiste reveals that he indentifies as a man, and is planning on transitioning. "I've felt like this my whole life," Beiste explains to Sam (Chord Overstreet), when he's coming out as trans.

"My biggest thing is just being respectful," Jones shared with The Advocate on playing a trans man. "The last thing I want to do is disrespect anybody in what I'm portraying, and to do it respectfully and with class, and with dignity and pride, and I could not have been prouder than I was that day [that we filmed those scenes]."
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June 2015: Nomi Marks (Jamie Clayton) in Sense8

In Sense8, eight geographically disparate individuals' senses are inextricably linked. One such individual is Nomi, a transgender woman and hacker extraordinaire living in San Francisco with her fiancée. Clayton, who plays Nomi, is also transgender.

In addition to having inclusive plot-lines, Sense8 has transgender individuals in the writing room. The show was created by Lana and Lilly Wachowski, who are both trans women.

Clayton is pictured right.
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January 2014: Cole (Tom Phelan) in The Fosters

Cole, played by nonbinary actor Tom Phelan, is a transgender male teenager who finds himself in a terribly awkward position. Though he's transitioning, he's placed in a group home for girls.

Phelan's aware of the impact his character has had on young viewers.

"A lot of kids who are 14 or 15 have been telling me their stories and telling me that it’s been great to see someone like them on television. I feel really lucky to be that and share that with them. When I was 14 or 15 I didn’t know this thing existed. Characters like Cole and characters like [Laverne Cox's] Sophia on Orange Is the New Black are really important, especially for trans kids who are coming into their own and just realizing that this is something that they might be," Phelan told The Hollywood Reporter.
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July 2015: Alexandra (Mya Taylor) and Sin-Dee (Kiki Rodriguez) in Tangerine

Tangerine is famous for two reasons: It was shot entirely on an iPhone 5, and its two leads are trans actors playing trans characters.

Sean Baker was interested in telling the story of people working in L.A.'s unofficial red light district, so he hung out in the community for eight months. From that research, Baker cast Mya Taylor and Kiki Rodriguez, two aspiring trans actresses, to play Alexandra and Sin-Dee, trans sex workers who spend the movie traipsing through L.A. and looking for the pimp that cheated on Sin-Dee while she'd been in jail.
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December 2015: Lili Elbe (Eddie Redmayne) in The Danish Girl

Two years after Jared Leto won Best Supporting Actor for playing Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club, Eddie Redmayne received an Academy Award nod for playing the real-life Lili Elbe, one of the first recipients of a male-to-female sex reassignment surgery. Though Redmayne received praise, The Danish Girl was criticized for casting a cisgender actor to play a transgender individual.

Trans actors Rebecca Root and Jake Graf both appeared in The Danish Girl, playing cisgender characters.
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January 2016: Violet (Jen Richards) and Paige (Angelica Ross) in Her Story

This ground-breaking web series follows Violet and Paige navigating dating, daily life, and general mundanity — which is just what Bristol-based academic Kit Heyam says he craves in the media's representation of trans people.

“You would get the impression from watching the majority of representation at the moment that most trans people just spend all their time agonizing about their genders. The majority of us are too busy doing other things. Seeing trans people going about their daily lives would be part of a much-needed drive to humanize trans people," Heyam told Refinery29.
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March 2016: Noah (Elliot Fletcher) in Faking It

Faking It launched the career of Elliot Fletcher, one of the most famous trans actors and trans advocates in Hollywood. After breaking out on MTV's Faking It, Fletcher would go on to play Trevor on Shameless and Aaron on The Fosters. Each of his three characters — Trevor, Aaron, and Noah — are all trans men, but are all very different.

"Trevor was really open about it, Aaron is pretty low-to-no disclosure, he doesn’t tell many people. And Noah was also low-to-no disclosure, but a little bit more flamboyant [and] very outwardly gay. I want to make sure that every kind of trans experience is shown in TV and film because there is no one trans experience," Fletcher told Screencast.
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November 2016: Headspace

Jake Graf, who was mentioned earlier in the article, directed a short film which focused on the interior monologue of trans individuals going about daily life. "Headspace was something people hadn’t seen before. It was meant to show this is what happens, and maybe it’ll help you understand," Graf told Refinery29.

Graf's goal for inspiring empathy and understanding through Headspace worked. Now, it's shown in schools and HR meetings around the world.

"The result and reaction to Headspace was great. People messaged me saying, 'My kid was watching Headspace, and they’ve already watched it eight times. It’s really helped them, and it’s helped me understand them,'" he added.
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February 2017: Cameron Wirth (Laverne Cox) in Doubt

Doubt will go down in entertainment history as being the first broadcast TV show to feature a trans actor playing a trans character.

"Nearly every scene with Cameron [on Doubt] is a groundbreaking scene for a trans character on TV," Nick Adams, the director of transgender media and representation at GLAAD, told Slate.

Adams commended Doubt for showing something so far rarely shown in TV or film: multiple trans characters sitting around, talking, and going through the mundanities of daily life.
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Up next: Pose

Pose, an upcoming Ryan Murphy series about New York's vogueing scene in the '80s, will feature a record-breaking number of trans actors. Pose will star MJ Rodriguez, Indya Moore, Hailie Sahar, Angelica Ross, and Dominique Jackson, all transgender actors.

The voguing scene was explored in the groundbreaking 1990 documentary Paris is Burning. Stream Paris is Burning on Netflix if you just can't wait for Pose.

Pictured: Dominique Jackson.
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