So far, the big breakthroughs have all been on the younger end of the spectrum: the first transgender winner of an Indie Spirit award for acting arrived in 2015, the first transgender person to be nominated for an acting-centric Primetime Emmy dates back to 2014, and there’s still never been a transgender actor nominated for an Oscars. For many of them, getting any kind of role in Hollywood is worth celebrating, but it’s rarer still for them to lock down a seemingly obvious next step: getting cast as a transgender person.
Few trans-centric stories have made it to the screen over the years, and the vast majority of them have seen pivotal roles go to cisgender actors, from Elle Fanning to Matt Bomer, Eddie Redmayne to Hilary Swank. The tide, however, is starting to turn. Here are a dozen talented transgender actors who have also played transgender roles on the screen, both large and small.
Vega stars in Sebastián Lelio’s lauded “A Fantastic Woman” as Marina Vidal, a transgender woman who falls in love with the handsome Orlando (Francisco Reyes), only to have him unexpectedly pass away after their luminous love story unspools during the film’s first act. The film then tracks Marina as she grapples with her grief and Orlando’s family, who reject her and their cherished relationship. As IndieWire’s Jude Dry wrote last year, “As a transgender woman herself, Vega was a vital creative voice on the film, beginning her collaboration with Lelio as a creative consultant before taking on the role of Marina. Vega’s creative role, in addition to a radiant performance that’s worthy of an Oscar nomination for best actress, goes a long way in making ‘A Fantastic Woman’ an authentic transgender film.”
2. Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, “Tangerine”
Back in 2015, the stars of Sean Baker’s breakout “Tangerine” were the subject of the first-ever Oscar campaign for transgender actresses for their work as Alexandra (Taylor) and Sin-Dee (Rodriguez) in the charming , Christmas-set buddy comedy. While neither were ultimately nominated for the Academy Awards, Taylor walked away with an Independent Spirit for her work, making her the first transgender actor to win an award at the annual independent film ceremony. During her acceptance speech, Taylor said, “There is transgender talent. There’s very beautiful transgender talent. You better get out there and put it in your next movie.”
3. Harmony Santana, “Gun Hill Road”
While Taylor was the first openly transgender actor to win an Indie Spirit, she wasn’t the first to be nominated — that honor belongs to Santana, who was tipped for her work in the 2011 drama, “Gun Hill Road.” The Rashad Ernesto Green-directed feature hinges on such honest casting, as it follows a husband and father who returns home from a prolonged stint in prison to find that his wife has had an affair in his absence and that his child (Santana) is in the process of transitioning. The filmmaker reportedly found Santana at the Queens gay pride parade and, having previously struggled to find the right person to embody the character of Vanessa, was struck by Santana’s spirit and the fact that she was just beginning her own transition.
4. Alexandra Billings, Trace Lysette, and Ian Harvie, “Transparent”
Despite recent allegations of sexual misconduct against Jeffrey Tambor, Jill Soloway’s lauded Amazon series has a strong track record of casting actual transgender people in a slew of supporting roles. Those performers include Billings, who has long played the character of Davina, along with Lysette, who has a recurring part as Shea (and who notably emerged as a love interest for co-star Jay Duplass during one of the series’ more finely tuned relationship arcs). Both actresses star as educators at a local LGBT center, both of whom become close with Tambor’s recently transitioned Maura. Harvie, who previously broke barriers as a trans standup comedian, made his acting debut on the series, appearing as possible love interest for Gaby Hoffmann’s Ali Pfefferman, who subjected him to plenty of assumptions about how trans men are perceived by society.
5. Brian Michael Smith, “Queen Sugar”
Smith first appeared on the Ava DuVernay-created series as Toine Wilkins, a transgender police officer and long-time friend of the character Ralph Angel, in 2017. For Smith, the part was a huge step, both professionally and personally, because while he had appeared on a number of shows during his burgeoning television and film career (including “Girls” and “Blue Bloods”), he had always portrayed straight men. For “Queen Sugar,” Smith embraced his identity both on-screen and -off.
6. Laverne Cox, “Orange Is the New Black” and “Doubt”
The barrier-breaking Cox becoming the first openly transgender person to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award in the acting category for her role on the Neflix series (in 2015, she won a Daytime Emmy Award in Outstanding Special Class Special as executive producer for “Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word,” which made her the first openly transgender woman to win a Daytime Emmy as an executive producer). The visibility of her work on “Orange,” thanks to her recurring role as transgender inmate Sophia Burset, rocketed Cox to fame, and she’s long been hailed as a trailblazer for other trans actors and activists. In 2017, Cox joined the cast of CBS’s short-lived legal drama, “Doubt,” in which she starred as trans lawyer Cameron Wirth. While the series was canceled before its first season ended, it allowed Cox to break another barrier: she became the first transgender person to play a transgender series regular on broadcast TV.
7. Elliot Fletcher, “Shameless”
The young actor has managed to rack up a number of impressive roles during his burgeoning career, including parts on teen-friendly shows like “The Fosters” and “Faking It,” but his 2016 role on Showtime stalwart “Shameless” offered Fletcher his juiciest role yet. As Trevor, Fletcher originally arrived on the series as a transgender man who works to help runaways and homeless teens, before his role sprouted to include a romance with Ian Gallagher (Cameron Monaghan), one of the members of the central Gallagher clan the series follows. Trevor’s identity as a trans person is hugely informative to the relationship, as the violent (and perviously very closeted) Ian freaks out when he discovers the truth of Trevor’s background, echoing his own coming out earlier in the series.
8. Indya Moore and Mj Rodriguez, “Saturday Church”
Damon Cardasis’ vibrant musical fantasy follows a teen boy (Luka Kain) struggling with his own gender identity who finds solace and hope at a local LGBTQ gathering space, the eponymous Saturday Church. The film also served as the feature debut for both Moore and Rodriguez, who appear as transgender compatriots that help guide Kain’s Ulysses on his journey of self-discovery. Incidentally, they’ll both be seen in Ryan Murphy’s upcoming series “Pose,” having been cast for lead roles in the new series (which features a mostly transgender cast) after their cinematic debuts.