“There is a gap, though,” I added. Yes, the portrayals of trans people on screen have improved from 20 years ago, when I watched the commodification of black trans women on TV shows like Maury and The Jerry Springer Show. But if “progress” is trans actors portraying trans characters on Sense8, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and Euphoria, then it seems to have come at the cost of Blackness.
I was a senior in college, and serving my second year as the theater club’s president, when screenwriter, director, and producer Ryan Murphy announced the cast of his show Pose would include trans femmes of color: MJ Rodriguez, Angelica Ross, Dominique Jackson, Indya Moore, and Hailie Sahar—all of whom are Black. As an Asian actress, I envied the actors and thought, Why not me?—which speaks to the collective misinterpretation of equity as a shortage of opportunities. My jealousy was greedy and unjust, insensitive to the pre-existing boxes and limitations of acting jobs for Black trans people.
Unprecedented casting aside, Pose still centered its characters’ stories at the intersection of being trans and Black. It wasn’t portrayals of gendered “trickery,” as it had been on Maury and The Jerry Springer Show, but the storytelling was still focused Black trans women’s pain.
Meanwhile, white actors are granted opportunities to tell stories that go beyond their gender. In Sense8, Naomi, played by Jamie Clayton, is a hacker in a fiercely committed interracial relationship with another woman. Although Naomi’s transness is acknowledged and honored, it is not the center of her story. In The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, trans masculine and non-binary character Theo, portrayed by Lachlan Watson, has a brief scene of coming out to his friends, who effortlessly begin to use the pronouns “he/him”,” and it’s barely a plotline; he continues to be part of a larger story about Sabrina, a teenager caught in between her witch life and her mortal life. Both Naomi and Theo are white.
And in Euphoria, Hunter Schafer plays Jules, a high school student whose story acknowledges her transness intentionally, as a way of combating the possibility that others might dismiss her transness because of her privileges. During an interview with BUILD Series, Schafer herself acknowledged: “It doesn’t go without saying that I’m white, I’m skinny, and I pass.”
So, what does it mean to say things are better now for trans actors? It means disregarding the fact that white trans stories have profited from Black trans women’s struggle to be seen. It’s a false privilege to say “look how far we’ve come,” when “we” does not include Blackness and Black trans women still strive for the same nuanced progress in TV and film.
“The privilege of being a white trans character is that only the trans aspect needs addressing,” says James Robinson, LCSW, a Black and white biracial therapist in New York City who practices psychotherapy with artists, largely of color. He indicates, on the other hand, how the acknowledgment of race is a tightrope balance in itself. “It’s hard to portray Black characters in general; if they aren’t portrayed in experiencing trauma, then the audience might resist and the story might receive backlash because of a denial to that character,” says Robinson. “And if you do acknowledge their trauma, then in some ways the character becomes a monolith.”
As an Asian trans woman, I fall outside of the white trans representation, but as an actor, I have been able to benefit from the work of the Black trans women who showed themselves on screen before me. I felt this firsthand when Black trans women were in the audition room for a short film lead role that eventually chose to cast me. I’ve even been complicit in the ignorant celebration of white trans actors making their way in the industry as just “trans actors” and not “white trans actors.”
Psychologist Justin Hopkins, PsyD, who specializes in trauma-informed care for individuals whose identities are on the margins, says the issue is complex. “No trauma ever begets or justifies another trauma. There are simply varying degrees of pain that yearn and demand the fullness in which they are experienced,” he explains. “As white trans people recognize their desires to be visible, it is still harder for their black trans counterparts to have what [they themselves] thirst for.”
And the art of acting in itself plays a role in people’s personal hunger to be seen. “People pursue any types of jobs and passions in which they feel driven from a soul level,” Dr. Hopkins explains. “If you are someone who spent your life being invisible or having aspects of your core identity denied, it can feel incredibly rewarding, although demanding, to have a vocation where you are seen, praised, and affirmed under the bright lights. There is something satisfying and gratifying to the ego—perhaps necessarily so.”
It is no coincidence trans actors feel driven about their career; it is cathartic to deliver a performance and feel recognized in return, especially when celebrated in masses. However, that is no excuse for letting the trajectory of on-screen success irresponsibly move in a direction that leaves Black actors behind.
So, I want to ask trans actors who are not Black: What’s in it for you? Can you fight just as long and just as fiercely as you are now if you get nothing out of this? Can you agree you have been benefiting from the path Black actors paved?
This is not to say trans representation on-screen isn’t improving. It is crucial for non-Black trans actors to acknowledge the racial gaps in the progress. To fight for our Black trans kin and expect nothing in return. To acknowledge what it has taken to get to where we are in the industry. And, at the very least, to responsibly pay forward what is owed.
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