There are several movies coming out featuring trans characters played by cis actors (people who identity as the gender they were assigned at birth), but where are the movies with trans characters played by actual trans actors?
By only showing cis actors in trans storylines, films make it seem as though that’s the only palatable, marketable way for an audience to view those stories. This is unfair to all of the trans people in the audience, because for them, the struggles trans characters face are a part of their daily lives, not something they are able to switch in and out of for the glamour of a Hollywood film.
Below is a list of movies with trans characters, played by trans actors; keep reading to find out more.
1. Paris is Burning (1990)
Paris is Burning is a documentary chronicling New York’s drag queens and “ball culture” (an underground LGBT movement in which people walked, or competed, for trophies) in the 1980s. The film features the lives of ball culture star and “House Mother” of House of Xtravaganza, Angie Xtravaganza; drag queen and fashion designer Pepper LaBeija; choreographer and voguing trailblazer Willi Ninja; drag queen Dorian Corey; sex worker and aspiring model Venus Xtravaganza; and performer Octavia St. Laurent, among other notable LGBT performers of the time.
It is important to note that while the movie does a great job of depicting these performers’ stories, the film’s white, cis, lesbian director Jennie Livingston has come under criticism for profiting off the stories of trans performers of color. In fact, several prominent performers in the film tried to sue in 1991 in order to receive a larger chunk of the documentary profits, but dropped their cases soon after.
2. Happy Birthday, Marsha! (January 2016)
I am beyond thrilled to see this movie; it chronicles the life of black transgender icon and activist Marsha Johnson before and during the Stonewall Riots of 1969. Marsha Johnson and Latina trans activist Sylvia Rivera were the women who started the revolutionary Stonewall Rebellion, and this film finally gives them the recognition they deserve.
In the film, rising trans actress Mya Taylor and trans actress/model Eve Lindley play Johnson and Rivera, respectively. The film was co-directed, written, and produced by trans writer and artist Reina Gossett and filmmaker Sasha Wortzel. According to the film’s Kickstarter, production finished this summer.
3. Tangerine (July 2015)
This film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and has been shown in small theaters across the United States. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to see it, as it hasn’t played at any theaters near me, but it’s being lauded by cis and trans consumers alike for its gritty, realistic depiction of the Christmas Eve shenanigans of two trans sex workers Sin-Dee (played by Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (played by Mya Taylor, also the star of Happy Birthday, Marsha!).
While many movies use “sex worker” as the tragic fallback career option for its trans characters, Tangerine isn’t out to bring its audience to tears. The film is meant to be funny, intimate, and real; it follows two best friends trying to get to the bottom of Sin-Dee’s boyfriend’s alleged infidelity while she was in jail. It sounds like it might make the leading ladies the butt of the joke, as trans women in media are often shown, but both Rodriguez and Taylor collaborated heavily with director Sean Baker (who filmed the movie on an iPhone 5s) on the film’s dialogue, according to this review.
When I had the idea to write this article, I knew that movies starring trans actors playing trans characters would be pretty scarce; however, once I actually started compiling this list, I was still shocked by how little I could find. I didn’t want to make a list of just tragic, sob-inducing documentaries showing the trans murder rate; of course these films are important, but they certainly shouldn’t be the only media depiction we have of trans people.
Hopefully these films are just the beginning of newer, more positive ways of showing trans characters, and will encourage more directors to begin casting talented trans actors.