Juliana Joel Made History Playing the First Trans Character on Disney Channel & She’s Just Getting Started
Even while talking through Zoom with a spotty Internet connection, Juliana Joel’s confidence, charisma, and undeniable charm beams through the screen and lights up my dreary office. Perhaps it’s because the actress just made history for playing the first transgender character on the Disney Channel with her role as Nikki on “Raven’s Home.” All I know is that we just met, but speaking with her feels like catching up with a prima who I haven’t seen in years. We connect over our experiences growing up as queer Puerto Ricans in Catholic homes and making careers in spaces that weren’t made for us.
Case in point: Joel has always wanted to act in films and TV, but even after attending performing arts schools her whole life, she didn’t believe that what she saw on the screen was attainable for her.
“Coming from this small Puerto Rican family, I didn’t know anyone in the entertainment industry,” Joel tells Refinery29 Somos. “I honestly thought you had to be born into that world to have a chance to be in it.”
But when her character Nikki first appeared on “Raven’s Home” — a spinoff of Raven-Symoné's beloved "That's So Raven" — on July 8 in an episode aptly titled “The Fierce Awakens,” it is immediately clear that Joel is right where she belongs. In fact, while Nikki was originally only supposed to appear on “Raven’s Home” for two episodes, Joel’s performance and commitment to claim space for herself has led to the role being expanded. On the show, Nikki is an aloof yet charming assistant to Raven Baxter. While she may not be the best at her job, Nikki often manages to save the day for the whole crew, and she makes everyone laugh while doing it.
“To live a life full of so much rejection and so much hate, and to then choose a career that is 90% rejections, you have to really want it, and you have to really know who you are,” Joel says. “Now I’m able to walk into these rooms and onto these sets without seeking validation and just enjoy the moment.”
While the historic role is Joel’s biggest part yet, her success hasn’t come overnight. After moving from Florida to Los Angeles to pursue acting as a young adult, she had a difficult time trying to embody other characters because she often felt like she was acting out a gender that wasn’t her own in her everyday life. After taking several years to figure out who she is, and most importantly, letting go of the need for anyone to validate who she is, she made the decision to transition. Once she did, she continued to give acting — as a career, and no longer as part of her personal life — all she has.
Playing Nikki has been nothing short of joyful. When Joel first started acting, the representation of trans people on television was limited to nameless corpses on “Law and Order: SVU” and other tragic characters that do nothing to show viewers the character’s humanity. Nori Reed, who created the character of Nikki, has given Joel the opportunity to play a role that is not just another tragic storyline, but instead someone who is funny, compassionate, and undeniably human. “[Nikki] is just there to make you laugh, and I love that because we are just people. Trans people are just people,” she says.
Joel also appreciates that Nikki exists on a show for young people, who get to acquaint themselves with trans people and stories through a positive, fun, and multidimensional character. “The reality is that most [people in] this country have never met a trans person, let alone knows and engages with one personally,” Joel says. “What they see on TV about us is how they form their opinions and what they start to believe. We need to put [our stories] out there until they become the norm.”
Still, working on Disney Channel as a trans Latina comes with many emotions. Earlier this year, LGBTQ employees at Disney, and queer Disney fans across the world, protested the company after learning it initially refused to denounce Florida’s homophobic and transphobic Don't Say Gay legislation that prohibits teachers from speaking about LGBTQ+ issues in the classroom. While she’s grateful that the company supported her character, and of all the strides Disney has made toward LGBTQ inclusivity with trans characters in “Owl House” and “Baymax!,” Joel does not see Nikki’s place on Disney Channel as redemption.
“I’m not taking Nikki’s character as a way for Disney to think that everything’s hunky-dory and that they’re truly supportive of and allies to the community,” she says.
While she is on the network, however, she intends to provide representation of trans people that she and so many others have always wanted to see and deserve, like ensuring that her Latinidad is celebrated as much as her transness. For many queer people of color, it is common for us to sever off one identity when we are honoring another: in Latine spaces, we may have to dial down our queerness; in queer spaces, we have to dial down our Latinidad.
“People talk about having a seat at the table, and I’m here trying to fill two seats: the Puerto Rican one and the trans one,” Joel says.
As many industries are emphasizing diversity and inclusivity, Joel knows that being included doesn’t always mean being supported or accepted. In moments like these, she encourages other trans people of color not to let their ideas of what the world may not accept about them stop them from following their dreams.
“Your life is a movie. You are the star,” she says. “The movie won’t be made if you don’t show up to set every day and create it.”
Up next in her own dream-fulfilling journey: playing Steph in Netflix's sci-fi martial-arts action film "Absolute Dominion" out in 2023.