What it means to be transgender in Hollywood today

There are more faces of transgender people in front of and behind the camera.

July 30, 2018, 4:13 AM

Silas Howard began his career as a director making independent films about outside characters.

His first feature, "By Hook or By Crook," featured gender nonconforming characters and premiered at Sundance in 2002.

A decade and a half later, Howard, who is transgender, is at the center of the Hollywood mainstream, directing episodes for TV shows such as "Transparent," "The Fosters," "This Is Us" and Ryan Murphy's latest FX series, "Pose." Howard's latest film, "A Kid Like Jake," about parents raising a gender-expansive son, stars Claire Danes, Jim Parsons and Octavia Spencer. It premiered at Sundance earlier this year and, following a limited run in theaters, is now available on Amazon and iTunes.

"It's a big shift," Howard told ABC News. "We're seeing so much talent. We are seeing shows that are told from the ground up. It is so authentic and it is so universal and that’s an exciting thing to witness."

Just this week, the CW's "Supergirl" announced that it had created the first transgender superhero -- and cast a transgender actress, Nicole Maines, in the role. The week before that, Scarlett Johansson dropped out of the role of a transgender man after she came under fire from transgender activists.

Nicole Maines attends Comic-Con International 2018 on July 21, 2018, in San Diego.
Mike Coppola/Getty Images

"I am thankful that this casting debate, albeit controversial, has sparked a larger conversation about diversity and representation in film," she said in a statement after announcing she would no longer play Pittsburgh 1970s and '80s prostitution ring leader Dante "Tex" Gill, who was born Lois Jean Gill but identified as a man.

Rain Valdez, an actress and producer/director, calls the current shift in trans visibility a "movement."

"It's a revolution," she told ABC News. "We have always been in this world, existing and thriving. It's exciting to me that we're finally asking for our seat at the table, to tell our stories because no one can tell them better than we can."

She added, "We're happy to share. But it has to work both ways. Assumptions about trans folks have to be interrogated, doors have to be opened and invitations must be sent."

Johansson's decision was applauded by the same transgender actors and activists who criticized her.

"Cheers to learning & growing! I hope you’re still producing the film Scarlett. What an incredible opportunity to put your words into action even further! YAS! Let’s get lunch and talk!" Jamie Clayton, who starred in Netflix's "Sense8," tweeted.

Alexandra Grey, who played Elizah Parks on "Transparent," said she was glad to see people speak up. She said the "Supergirl" news and the queer musical dance series "Pose," with a largely transgender cast, also could not have come at a better time.

"The Jerry Springers and the Maurys (Maury Povich) of the world have made such a mockery of trans life," Grey said, adding that "Hollywood wasn't doing anything different" when it cast cisgender men in the role of transgender women. Cisgender refers to people whose gender identity matches the sex that they were assigned at birth.

Grey pointed out that actors like Jared Leto (in "Dallas Buyers Club") and Jeffrey Tambor (in "Transparent") went on to win Oscars and Emmy awards for their transgender roles. And when it came time to collect those awards, she said the public was reminded that "at the end of the day it’s just another man in a wig," sending the wrong message about what it means to be a transgender person.

"I wouldn't mind cisgender folks playing trans roles if we lived in a different world where transgender people were more accepted," Valdez said. "In the last 150 years of filmmaking, Hollywood has repeatedly portrayed transgender characters in a way that has been detrimental to our survival."

Jeffrey Tambor appears as Maura Pfefferman in the Amazon show, "Transparent."
Amazon Prime Video

She added, "Hollywood has a huge influence on how society and culture are shaped, which is why authentic representation matters. We need to be humanized in the eyes of society."

The shift in casting for transgender roles has more producers and casting directors looking specifically for transgender or gender nonconforming actors.

Howard said he "wanted to cast authentic" when it came to finding an actor to play the title role of 4-year-old Jake, even though the film is more about the people around him. "I didn't want to put a little boy in a dress who didn't want to be in one."

In the end, the casting director found 5-year-old Leo James Davis, who brought some of his own dresses to the set and whose parents, Howard said, describe him as a "boy who likes beautiful things."

For director Justin Ward, when it came time to cast the transgender role in his independent feature "Relish," "It never crossed my mind," he said, not to use a transgender actor. "In this day and age, you would never cast a white man to play a black man. This is the way to look at (transgender casting) now."

Tyler DiChiara in the film Relish.
Zusha Goldin/Ohana Films

Ward cast novice actor Tyler DiChiara, 18, who immediately fell in love with his character, Kai, one of five teens outcasts who escape a private treatment facility.

"The thing with this character, he’s not victimized," said DiChiara, who is transgender. "He’s a strong independent man."

He continued, "Kai is the life of the party. Other than his issues of being trans, he’s just a man who happens to be trans. I felt like I went through everything that Justin wrote in this script...fear of the future...getting into relationships. The only thing different about Kai is that he is trans."

Ward just wrapped post-production and is looking for a distributor, but already the cast was featured in Variety. And DiChiara has found his calling. At a recent audition, he went for the part of a cisgender man.

"I was just a gay man, a regular man," he said. "That actually made me tear up. I'm going for a cis role. It's crazy how this world is changing."

But Hollywood still has a way to go when it comes to trans people of color.

"Even with all these great wonderful things, as a black trans actor, I don’t feel like I’ve really had a chance," Grey said, adding that she struggled to find work after her role on "Transparent" ended in 2017. She booked several guest roles but none were recurring characters.

Alexandra Grey is featured in the August 2018 issue of Gay Times magazine.
Aaron Jay Young/Gay Times

Although she auditioned for a role in "Pose," which features many transgender women of color, she didn't get it. Still, she's happy to see many of her friends working and the show green-lighted for a second season.

Besides working to create more content for women of color, Grey is fighting for more opportunities for transgender actors to play cisgender roles.

"We can play reporters, detectives, attorneys and all of these other things," she said. "That’s the next step."

Valdez agrees but says Hollywood is not there yet.

"I wasn't out publicly as trans until three years ago," said Valdez, who started working in Hollywood long before the movement. "Prior to that, I navigated the industry as a woman, which is a challenge in itself. I created and produced cisgender roles for myself to play, I've done theater in cisgender roles, I studied acting through cisgender roles and I mainly auditioned for cisgender roles."

Then Valdez was cast as Miss Van Nuys in "Transparent," and she came out. Since then Valdez has also worked behind the camera as a producer on "Transparent," and she recently completed Ryan Murphy's directing initiative. But she has also seen her opportunities for cisgender roles dry up.

"I am rarely ever afforded the opportunity to audition for a cisgender role. They are few and far between," she said. "It is very validating when I do get them because I am being asked to simply show up as an actor. My hope is that continues to happen."

Said Grey, "I’m not asking for anything to be handed to me. I'm just asking for opportunities to get into the room."