Trans media representation. For trans people, this visibility can make a difference.

As was famously reported a few months back, more Americans claim to have seen a ghost than
a trans person. Although they might unwittingly come in contact with trans people every day, most cisgender people know little about others who are trans and end up relying on stereotypes and tropes of trans people that have been promoted by mainstream media over the past several decades. According to Margaret J. Wheatley, “you can’t hate someone whose story you know,” so telling our stories authentically can go a long way toward bringing about understanding and showing the world just how diverse and beautiful the trans community can be.

As a child, I can’t remember representations of trans people I could identify with. When trans
people did appear, more often than not they were depicted as deviants, sex workers, or some kind of villain. One key reason I waited until my 40s to transition was because, until the dawn of the internet, I never knew others like me existed. As time went on and I met others like me online, I found that, although everyone’s stories are a little different, they are all valid and we are all worthy of love and respect.

Trans Media Representation Now

I remember thinking, if only there had been decent representations of the trans experience when I was younger. That ship, of course, has sailed, but we now have perhaps more (and more varied) trans depictions in the media than ever before. Some just show the same tired stereotypes and tropes as always, and many trans people are still portrayed in movies and TV by cisgender actors, but a growing number of representations are emerging that really don’t suck.

Here then, is my list of media representations that I think don’t suck. Of course, nothing’s
perfect, and some of these are far from it. There is something in each of these, though, that I find authentic and/or uplifting. You will notice that almost all of the actors and personalities mentioned are themselves trans and, in some cases, there are trans producers, directors, writers, and others involved. It might be possible for a cisgender person to authentically portray a trans person (a debate that rages on), but authenticity is more likely where trans people have had creative input.

Tangerine (Feature film, 2015)

Alexandra and Sin-Dee (Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez)

trans media representation - tangerine

Tangerine follows friends Alexandra (Mya Taylor) and Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriquez) through the streets of LA on Christmas Eve. Fresh out of jail, Sin-Dee finds out her boyfriend (also her pimp) has cheated on her while she was away, and she goes off to confront him after finding the girl he cheated with. Alexandra tries to catch Sin-Dee before she does something foolish.

Along the way, she fights with a John, meets up with one of her regulars, and finds her dreams dashed when no one shows to hear her sing at the club where she had to pay to perform. There are stereotypes galore, but, with a large number or young trans people (especially those of color) on the streets, there is more than a kernel of truth to these characters. Taylor and Rodriquez authentically depict the struggles of these girls’ lives. Also, this film is a great (if unlikely) illustration of the power of friendship.

Transparent (Amazon Prime Series, 2014-2015)

Maura (Jeffrey Tambor), Davina (Alexandra Billings), Dale (Ian Harvie), Gittel (Hari Neff)

trans media representation - transparent

I admit that I have reservations about Tambor (a cis man) playing newly transitioning Maura Pfefferman. Maura is the only character in this list played by a cis person, but she is also the only character in this list still in transition. Her transition and how it affects her family makes up the bulk of the story in this show, and it might have been difficult to find someone trans to portray a 60-something trans woman in the very early stages of transition. For a cis man, Tambor seems pretty authentic as Maura. As an older trans woman myself, I buy Tambor’s portrayal 99% of the time. Beyond that, Tambor is surrounded by a sizable number of trans cast members. Most notable are Alexandra Billings as Davina (Maura’s friend and ersatz guide to all things trans), Ian Harvie as Dale (a brief love interest of Maura’s daughter and the only trans man on this list), and Hari Neff as Gittel, a transgender ancestor of the Pfefferman’s who lived in Weimar Germany. Trans man Rhys Ernst is a producer for the show, and the second season saw the addition of trans woman Our Lady J to the writer’s room. That doesn’t mean that the show always captures the essence of what it means to be trans, but it seems to succeed more than it fails.

Sens8 (Netflix series, 2015)

Nomi (Jamie Clayton)

trans media representation - Sense8

Nomi is a young trans woman somehow connected to a group of 7 other people around the world. The idea that she is just another part of this group of 8, from various walks of life all around the world, is a big part of why I like this representation. Showing some of what she has to go through as a trans person (her mother tries to have her committed, for instance) without sensationalism also goes a long way toward making this character complex and authentic. So does her relationship with girlfriend Amanita (Freema Agyeman), since so many portrayals are
of trans woman attracted to or in a relationship with a man.

Like a few others on this list, Clayton’s appearance is supported by trans representation behind
the camera as well. Two of the three producers, Lana and Lilly Wachowski, are themselves trans women. The only drawback I see here is how isolated Nomi is as a trans woman. You would think with two of the three main minds behind the show being trans that Nomi would interact with or at least mention other friends who are trans, but this seems like a minor problem. For the most part, this a pretty positive trans media representation.

Boy Meets Girl (Feature film, 2015)

Ricky (Michelle Hendley)

trans media representation - boy meets girl

Ricky is your typical young woman in a small Southern town, trying to find her way out, overcome the odds, find love, and pursue her dreams. Oh yeah, and she happens to be trans. What I like about this trans media representation is that, although other characters have reactions to her being trans, it is still just one small part of the story. The biggest problem I have is with the improbable happy ending, wherein even her fiercest antagonist comes over to her side. Overall, though, this is a film worth watching.

Her Story (Web series, 2016)

trans media representation - herstory

What if I told you there is a web series about trans women in which the characters were portrayed by trans actresses, and trans people were a key part of just about every role behind the camera as well? Well, there is and it’s called “Her Story.” Angelica Ross plays Paige, an attorney for Lambda Legal who meets cute, nice guy James (Christian Ochoa), and has to determine if or when she should tell him she is trans. Meanwhile, Allie (Laura Zak), a reporter from the local LGBT paper, approaches Paige’s friend Violet (Jen Richards) for an interview about what it is like to be trans. The interview leads to friendship with more than a hint of romance. Allie also learns about the biases of cisgender lesbians when her friends react negatively to her relationship with Violet.

This series is the poster child for trans representation: In trans women Richards and Ross star, and Richards co-wrote the series with Zak. Also, the director is Sidney Freeland, director of the Sundance award-winning film Drunktown’s Finest, and , oh yeah-also a trans woman. Trans people were involved in this film at just about all levels, making this probably the most representative piece of trans media representation for trans women to date.

If there is any drawback to Her Story, it is that, currently, it’s only a web series with a collection of 6 episodes running around 10 minutes each. The hope (from fans and those behind the project) is for a major outlet to pick it up and run it as an actual TV series. Here’s hoping this happens soon.

What trans media representation do you think doesn’t suck? Share in the comments below!

About The Author

Janelle Heideman

Janelle Heideman is a trans woman of a certain age who currently makes her home in Boston. An educator for decades, she also is passionate about writing and LGBT issues. When Janelle isn't singing (in an actual chorus as well as in the shower), relearning the piano, or running her mouth in a trans support group, she can usually be found reading some trashy novel.

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  • Excellent article, it really opens one’s eyes to the ever-growing LGBT movement, helping folks become more aware of it. Keep up the good work!

  • Sarah Taylor

    There is also a recent UK television series called “Boy Meets Girl”. The female lead is played by trans actor Rebecca Root. Five of the six episodes are on Facebook. (The missing one I want to see but it can be omitted. I thought it has many good aspects. Check it out?

  • To me, movies don’t make as major or long term impact on our society as a TV series character that the fans fall in love with and can follow season after season. With a front row seat on upcoming shows, I’m personally somewhat pleased by next wave of characters presenting trans people as just like everyone else in some way. In particular, I’m excited to see how Shakina Nayfack did playing the new trans waitress role on Difficult People on Hulu. Shakina has that opportunity through her character, which is introduced as a recurring guest star in season 2. Another one I am optimistic, but less hopeful about is a trans man role on ABC’s new upcoming Dead of Summer. Even though the role is a series regular, so they will be in every episode, it’s always a roll of the dice that the series will be successful. The new miniseries When We Rise, also on ABC, has the best content and representation we will be getting in the near future, but being as it’s a miniseries, the impact is in my opinion, short lived. That’s just a few of the things I’ve been involved with – and there’s more coming, and they’ve been weekly!

    • You certainly have a point. However, movie portrayals can be iconic and have an impact. But as far as pop culture, a TV show character can be huge. Laverne Cox has certainly turned the world on its ear by becoming a very well-known mainstream actress.

  • Sam

    Hey Hi , There’s also 52 tuesday, an australian movie about a mother, transitionning to male, and his struggle about the transition and about his teenage girl and their relationship around all of this.
    The role being played by Del Herbert-Jane, who identify as gender non conforming.
    Great article btw