Lately, I've been watching television and feeling my heart blow up with happiness. Because there are finally trans people — real trans people, not cis actors doing some parody of transness — on my TV screen. After years of waiting, I’m seeing versions of myself and people I care about in a way I never have before.
Over the summer, I watched Pose and witnessed vivid representations of the real humanity of transgender people — our warmth and our community — as they dealt with everything from competitive drag balls to finding new families in New York City after being rejected by their biological relatives, often because of their gender identity. And when I turned on the season opener of the CW’s Supergirl and saw trans activist Nicole Maines playing a superhero, I wasn't prepared to be overcome by so much joy. As I watched Nicole's first few episodes on Supergirl, I found myself rooting for this particular hero way more than I root for heroes in my escapist fantasies. I felt like I was being rescued.
I have always believed that for marginalized groups, like trans people, seeing ourselves in media is important. Recently, though, I've felt this in my bones, as more and more trans people are given opportunities in television, movies, books, and in all the performing arts. When I see the reality of trans and nonbinary people represented in media, at a time when so many people (including members of the federal government) are trying to erase us and deny our existence, it becomes even clearer how much our presence in the public eye matters.
The cast of Pose and Nicole Maines are just a few of the many young trans and nonbinary performers who are stepping into the public eye and redefining how the world sees us. Not long ago, I talked to seven young trans and nonbinary performers, including Nicole, about what it's like to represent our community in the spotlight. Some are actors who opened up about feeling “too trans” to play certain roles, others are singers who don’t bring up their gender identity at all in their music, but they shared their personal journeys here. Many also talked about finally feeling comfortable in their skin and wanting to create a future with more nuanced trans characters in film and television.
Before transitioning, Jayna was practicing ballet, but back in January, she shared on Instagram a beautiful picture of herself doing ballet in a black leotard and white tights. She wrote, “This is me. This is who I am. I’m a #transdancer I’m so so excited and proud to be going on this amazing journey with people that are so supportive and loving.” The photo garnered hundreds of likes and tons of attention, especially after Orange Is the New Black star Laverne Cox linked to it on Twitter. Now Jayna's dancing as her true gender, and striving to get to dance all the iconic ballet roles that every girl wants. "I really wasn't expecting all this attention," she says. But her friends encouraged her to be herself, and to share her real identity with the world — and this changed everything.
Nicole joined the cast of the CW's Supergirl this past season, playing Nia Nal, who becomes the future-seeing superhero, Dreamer. Previously, Nicole made waves as a high school student when she was a plaintiff in a lawsuit over whether she could use the girls' bathroom. Even though Nicole started doing theater when she was in middle school, it's only been in the past few years that her activism has turned into an acting career. Her breakout role came in 2015, when she played a trans character in an episode of Royal Pains. Now she's fighting alongside Kara Zor-El to save the world on the CW. Every time she walks onto set, Nicole says she can't believe how lucky she is — she feels "insanely dumbfounded" to have this opportunity.
Ryan became a spokesperson for LGBTQIA causes at age 13, and was appearing on Larry King Live and The Tyra Banks Show as a young trans teenager. As the only openly trans kid at his high school, he fought for trans people to be able to use the correct bathroom, to have their chosen names printed in yearbooks, and to be protected from bullies. He started speaking at other high schools and won the first Harvey Milk Memorial Award. And now, just like Nicole Maines, Ryan has turned his activism into art — becoming a successful singer-songwriter, whose song "Daughter" has become an anthem with its brave lyrics about coming out as trans. Ryan says he gets lots of messages from young trans people saying that his music has helped save their lives. "I'm excited that 'Daughter' helped so many people," he tells Teen Vogue. "I hope I continue to put music out that has an impact on people."
Jacob is an actor in New York City, who played a nonbinary character in a play called hir and performs as part of the Trans Voices Cabaret. Jacob started to think about transitioning when he was 14 or 15, but held off because he was in dance school, surrounded by girls. And when Jacob did come out in his senior year, he was in the position of playing a female character in the spring musical, even though he was credited in the program as "Jacob." People were "surprised, and definitely confused" by the name change, Jacob tells Teen Vogue. After high school, he took a year off from performing to start taking hormones and have surgery, "so that I could ease my way back into acting without the confusion or the backlash."
Sammy is a singer-songwriter who calls her music "Maryland sparkle pop," plays in a bunch of bands, and runs Deep Sea Records. She started performing when she was 13, and didn't come out as a girl until she was 19. "I had to learn to sing with a bra constricting my chest, [and] to sing in a higher pitch, with a more feminine resonance," she says. But even with these challenges, she feels much more comfortable than when she was "pretending to be a boy." Sammy has been touring a lot recently, and finds that house-party crowds are more respectful, and crowds in bars are less attentive and more likely to misgender her. "Some people seem kind of confused about what's going on onstage, with my music and my transness," she tells Teen Vogue, but says there are also plenty of supportive people.
CJ is a nonbinary theater artist in Philadelphia. "I was trained in school as a soprano, but I don't exactly fit the visual description of performers who most frequently land soprano roles," they tell Teen Vogue. "At the same time I was figuring out I was not a woman, I was playing two very different types of female roles," they add. "One was more clownish and comical, almost in the world of drag, while the other was more grounded and serious. Trying to find myself in the midst of portraying those extreme opposites was definitely a unique challenge." But now that they feel more confident in their identity as a nonbinary person, they feel more comfortable playing female roles, exaggerated or muted.
Theo is a nonbinary actor in Chicago who has done a ton of stage work and has also appeared in a number of films and web series. They're also training to do silks at a circus-performer school. Before they came out, acting was "fun and playful, and a place for me to dress up pretty and pretend I was someone else," they tell Teen Vogue. It wasn't until 2018 that Theo started to try and be out professionally as a nonbinary person: "I was just figuring out how to say 'f*ck it' and be myself in the audition room, and not care about what others thought." And it's been paying off, as casting directors become more aware of nonbinary people, and more open to looking beyond the usual pool of cis actors.
The Challenges of Finding the Right Roles While Out as Trans
When Jacob Michael returned to acting after taking a year off for his medical transition, he had to start from scratch, because he didn't have anything on his resume that he felt comfortable sharing.
And when Jacob started playing male roles, especially when his character wasn't explicitly labeled as trans, he worried that he was "too trans" to play a cis male character — or that he wasn't acting masculine enough. This fear was due purely to the fact that "society has done a magnificent job convincing us that trans equals abnormal," he says. This feeling was compounded by audience members who tried to reassure Jacob that they couldn't tell he was trans, praising him for being "realistic" or "convincing."
Meanwhile, Theo Germaine says that casting directors aren't sure what "box" to put them in — and, in fact, they've put up two different headshots: one more masculine, one more feminine. "I am 'he'd' and 'she'd' all over the place," says Theo, who mostly gets approached to play trans-masculine characters. "I think so many of us are all auditioning for the same handful of roles," says Theo (something that Jacob has noticed, too). They've also gotten called in to audition for the magical creatures in Shakespeare plays: "the fairies and the witches," as if their nonbinary gender makes them magical or otherworldly.
"This year, in more 'mainstream' castings, I’ve started to see 'nonbinary' listed in breakdowns, which is encouraging,” adds Theo.
Nicole Maines says that her managers and agents are careful to show her only the casting calls that are “respectful" treatments of trans characters, rather than stereotypical trans roles or trans people as victims. "We're all kind of on the same page about what I am willing to do versus what I am not willing to do," she says.
CJ Higgins feels like audiences are starting to be more receptive to seeing trans and nonbinary people onstage, but it's still an uphill battle. "A group of people picketed Shakespeare in Clark Park's genderful production of Twelfth Night," they say, "and as a part-time box office manager, I have heard some less-than-favorable remarks from people regarding queer presence in art." But at the same time, CJ feels like more young people are eager to use art and theater to challenge the gender binary.
Jayna Ledford, meanwhile, has been struggling with the very binary world of dance since she was a small child in Indianapolis, when she wanted to wear a leotard, the same as all the girls in her class. "I was just thinking [that] we all had to wear the same uniform," she says.
Now that Jayna has come out as trans, she's seen a lot of dance companies close their doors to her. Before transitioning, she had been in demand as a male ballet dancer, but there's much more competition among ballerinas because scores of women are competing for the same handful of roles. "I think it was hard for people to understand why I wanted to do this," says Jayna. People kept warning her that "it's going to be much harder for you as a female."
Becoming a Star by Embracing Their Most Authentic Self
Theo says it's taken them a long time to get comfortable with themself, but then realized that "the theater/film world is so binary." In school, "we were all told we had to figure out how to brand ourselves," says Theo, or, basically, "how to put ourselves in boxes." In addition to figuring out whether they wanted to be a "character actor," a "leading man," or an "ingenue," Theo had another question to grapple with: "What gender box am I in?"
"I was waiting for someone to give me permission to be my fluid, trans, nonbinary self," Theo adds. "Turns out the person who needed to give me permission was me." This is something they still work on: being their authentic self, complete with "my history, and my surgery scars, and my curvy body, and my fuzz, and my voice, and my dad jokes." But accepting all that, and bringing it to roles, makes Theo a better performer, they hope.
Likewise, Ryan Cassata used to be afraid to show any trace of humor in his public persona, because he needed to be taken seriously as a trans activist. But this past year, he's been showing off his goofier side online. Overall, these performers have found power in owning their identity.
"On my best days, I'm a much more confident performer now," says Sammy Heck. "I feel like a powerful girl, finally comfortable in my own skin, ready to bare my soul." But on her worst days, she feels like everyone in the audience is staring at her, trying to figure out her gender and "what my deal is." She's started opening shows by announcing, "Hi, I'm Sammy Heck, and I'm a girl," just to "get that out of the way."
And for Jayna, no amount of rejection can change the relief that she no longer has to dance male roles. "It just didn't feel right," she says. "I always dance a 100%, and give everything I have. But dancing male roles, it was really hard to [do that.]"
Not Every Trans Experience Is the Same
Nicole says it's a huge responsibility to be the first live-action trans superhero, because "I really gotta set the tone." She's been lucky enough to have supportive people in her life, and she's found her own identity as a trans person along the way. "I feel confident in myself," she says, but her biggest challenge is making Dreamer/Nia into a unique character, not just a stand-in for all trans people everywhere.
"Everyone's trans experience is different," adds Nicole, who's been talking to the writers of Supergirl about how to give Nia a trans identity that's different than her own. For Nicole, the goal of having more trans representation in media is to reach a place "where we can have more individual trans characters with their own stories. They don't have to represent the entire community, they can just represent their own experience."
And it was important for Nicole that Nia's story not just be about her transness. When we meet the character on Supergirl, she's already gone on her trans journey and come out the other side. "She is not a victim. She's just a person who is trans," says Nicole. "She's not a token."
We now have enough representations of the trans community that "anyone can find someone like them that's in the social media public eye," says Ryan. Sometimes at his shows, he talks about being trans, but sometimes he doesn't bring it up. "Most of my music is not about being trans."
"For a lot of people, I'm the first transgender person they've ever had to interact with," says Sammy. "I've played a lot of shows where I'm the only girl on the bill, let alone the only trans girl." Before transitioning, she adds, "I could give a mediocre performance and be praised," but now that she's a visibly trans performer in a cis-male-dominated world, she feels a lot more pressure to excel, just to be taken seriously.
Theo also hears a lot of people say, "This is the first time I've ever met someone like you," and everybody always has lots of questions. But when they answer those questions, Theo always makes sure people understand that everyone's experience is different. "I don’t want to be seen as the representative of the trans and nonbinary community," says Theo.
Building a Future That Isn’t Based on Caricatures
More and more TV shows and movies are introducing trans characters. “And more and more we're seeing trans characters' stories move [away] from the generic kind of cookie-cutter trans story," Nicole says, the kind everybody has seen before.
"It makes me cry to see so many new trans characters in television and theater, portrayed by actual trans actors, who aren't caricatures but pieces of actual narratives that we have lived through," says Jacob. Just in the past year, Jacob feels like he's seen many more trans artists coming to prominence, and audiences becoming much more supportive. Jacob has been amazed to see how many cis people and trans people, of all backgrounds, show up in the audience at the Trans Voices Cabaret.
But with the increasing visibility of trans people in the media come pitfalls. Ryan caused a controversy when he refused to be on American Idol in 2015, because he felt he was being tokenized as a trans musician. "With American Idol, I maybe had a chance for a quick way to fortune and fame, but the reality was that it would exploit an entire community even more than we are already being exploited," Ryan explains.
And Theo still feels like there are too many cis actors playing trans roles, and too many storylines that focus exclusively on a trans character's medical transition, rather than depicting trans people as three-dimensional, complex people. "I think a turning point will be when trans actors are regularly seen onstage and screen in any role," they add. Not just fairies and witches, but Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, too.
"Seeing other people in my community onscreen and onstage makes me feel safer to be myself and live my truth," says Theo. "So I hope anytime I’m performing, I can help folks feel that way, too."
"My biggest goal in life is to be the artist that my younger self needed," Sammy says. "If I had the trans role models that I have now when I was a kid, I think my adolescence and my struggle with my identity would've been a lot easier."
As for Nicole, she hopes that younger trans people will see her playing Dreamer on Supergirl and think, " can do that. I can do anything. If a trans person can be a superhero, I can really do anything.