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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Toronto MU chapter.

It’s not surprising to hear that trans stories have often been overlooked in television and film. It took many decades for gay characters to have authentic stories about them shown in media, but it was just as hard, if not harder, for trans characters to have that same treatment. Many stories depicting trans characters were seen in cliches, such as the crossdressing cisgender man for comedic effect. If not for comedy, then as murderous villains out to kill the ‘normal’, straight, cisgender protagonists. When trans storylines did start appearing in movies and TV, they were a step forward in trying to center the narratives on them and being more sympathetic portrayals. What was wrong with these, however, were that many of them had cisgender actors playing trans roles. Some were better than others, but it is necessary to have actual trans actors playing trans roles. That’s why for this list I am featuring five trans female performances that everyone should pay attention to. These are shows and movies that have authentic trans female performances, played by actual trans female actresses. 

5.  Eve Lindley as Simone in Dispatches from Elsewhere



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The most recent show on this list is one that many of you may not be familiar with, but is an incredibly unique experience to check out. Dispatches from Elsewhere comes from actor and creator Jason Segal (From How I met your Mother and The Muppets) and follows four ordinary strangers who are bound together after stumbling across a puzzle in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Titled Dispatches from Elsewhere, it’s a mysterious challenge spread across the city where players visit different places and solve codes and secrets to open up a world of creativity and magic. Sound confusing? That’s because it is, but one that’s more about the characters at its center rather than the plot itself. 

One of the four leads is Simone, a trans woman who is the first person Jason Segal’s character, Peter, meets in the show. When we meet her she is bubbly and energetic, excited to figure out the mystery behind this game. We soon find out, however, that Simone is plagued with lots of self doubt, constantly second guessing herself, with a wall up that is hard to crack. One of the messages the show likes to tell the audience (literally in the fashion of breaking the fourth wall) is that we are like the four main characters on screen. They don’t exclude Simone from this relation, saying that we are her if we’ve ever doubted ourselves or had trouble accepting who we are and how others view us through their lenses. Simone works at an art museum and through her particular knowledge she is able to solve some of the show’s mysteries. 

Eve Lindley is able to present a character who’s relatable but also highly clever. She brings heart, empathy, and realism to the part that you can’t help but love her because you see so much of yourself in her. Never is this character looked down upon because of who she is. Never is she pitied or deemed less important than the other characters. What’s so refreshing to see is that she becomes a main romantic love interest which is hinted at throughout the show. The storyline is as beautiful as it is heartbreaking. It does tackle some of the anxiety and hardships that trans people have to go through when falling in love, but it’s never exploitative. It’s not solely focused on a trans woman falling in love, but about two people falling in love and making a connection they never knew they needed. The show itself is not my personal favourite on this list. It has its issues and it doesn’t quite achieve the ambitions it reaches for as well as it could have. The one element that stands out is Lindley’s performance. Hers is a character with depth who has a real arc and growth. It’s not perfect, but her performance is definitely a reason to check it out. 

4. Jamie Clayton as Nomi Marks in Sense8


From the imaginative, beautiful, and brilliant minds that gave us The Matrix and Cloud Atlas, The Wachowski Sisters’ series Sense8 is boundary pushing television like no other. It follows 8 people around the globe who all become psychically linked to one another. Each of them from different cultures around the world, they are all hunted down by mysterious figures that see them as a threat and must band together to protect themselves. All the while they are becoming mentally and emotionally connected to one another, feeling each other’s joy, pain, and empathy. One of the main leads of the eight is Nomi, a trans woman living in San Francisco with her girlfriend Amanita. In a series that is about emotions and sharing a connection with other people, it’s so easy to fall in love with Nomi as a character. Jamie Clayton broke ground playing a trans character who wasn’t defined by being trans. There are of course themes that explore Nomi fighting to be accepted for who she is. Her parents, especially her mother, is transphobic, consistently deadnaming her and intentionally using the wrong pronouns. There’s more to her character though, as she is a genius hacktivist who can track down anyone at any time. With Amanita, who is also a hacker, they possess some of the show’s sweetest, most powerful moments as women who are smart, educated, powerful and so in love it’s unbreakable. 

Sense8 is noteworthy for its trans representation because of the fact that it is both created by and starring trans women. Its showrunner is Lana Wachowski who co-created it with her sister Lilly, although Lilly was transitioning while the second season was being made. With Clayton on screen it’s electrifying. The show’s famous intimate scenes and a real care for its trans protagonist makes it one of a kind. Viewers are able to watch a strong woman like Nomi beat all odds, winning against a bad guy in a sci-fi world. The show gives her a love story that’s sensual, sexy, and has a happier ending than the typical tragic ending for most trans characters on screen. Her story isn’t just filled with struggle, and although there is a lot of adversity she has to go through, the way she empowers herself is inspiring. The way she bonds with the other senseates, who are just as different and far from her world, is the type of connection that we lack in our own world. It’s so unfortunate that the show was cancelled all too soon with Netflix ending it after two seasons, but was brought back due to popular demand for a movie special, wrapping up the story and Nomi’s arc in a beautiful and satisfying way. 

Still not convinced? Watch the powerful Sense8 Character Trailer for Nomi on Youtube now. It’s a minute long, but a perfect character introduction. I also suggest checking out the Sense8 trailer here. 

The entirety of Sense8 is available to stream on Netflix. 

3. Kitana Kiki Rodriguez as Sin-Dee and Mya Taylor as Alexandra in the movie Tangerine


The sole movie on this list, Tangerine was an eye opener for me in terms of the possibilities of trans representation and filmmaking techniques in cinema. The film follows Sin-Dee who is a hooker recently released from jail and told, by her best friend Alexandra, that her pimp boyfriend has been cheating on her while she was in jail. This leads Sin-Dee, with Alexandra following, to go down an odyssey through Tinseltown on Christmas Eve to find the pimp boyfriend and the girl he’s been cheating with. 

The majority of trans characters on screen play hookers, strippers, or sex workers. They are usually included as side characters being looked down upon. Tangerine on the other hand, although having trans characters as hookers, centers the story on them and gives weight to their narratives. Sin-Dee and Alexandra are not cliches. They are played by authentic trans actresses. The director actually went on location to find these women who were not previously trained actresses. There’s a sense of realism in their performances, like with the best of actors as you do not see people playing or pretending to be someone they are not. They feel like real people you see out on the street passing by, real people you see in donut shops and bars. I’ve never seen a more honest depiction of trans sex workers on screen. They are never glamorized, sexualized, or looked at through a male gaze nor are their lives shown as immoral and stigmatized, especially as sex workers. Seeing as the actresses actually were real life prostitutes before starring in the film, it provides a glimpse into a world too rarely seen in cinema. 

The film features a rough-around-the edges style, with harsh LA lighting as the women stomp down the street. The sound is booming with trap music and electronic beats. There’s a rush of energy and a campy, trashy quality to it that is incredibly entertaining. The lines spouted are hilarious, with both actresses selling it and serving it. The film’s beauty truly shines through in its quieter moments. It never denies these women’s fierceness to face their lives head on, constantly on the hustle, with a sense of poignancy throughout. They live on the margins of society and are not always treated fairly by other characters in the film. Audiences are able to develop a care for these women, so when they are treated as objects and disposed by the cis characters, we feel for them. It’s a testament to Rodriguez and Taylor, who command the screen in every frame they are in. The film’s strength is established through them, creating a friendship and dynamic that is unlike any other. 

The film was an incredible inspiration for me as a young aspiring filmmaker. With its unique trans sex worker story, director Sean Baker used guerilla style filmmaking techniques, such as shooting the entire film on iPhone 5 smartphones. He revealed that with their small budget they only used an anamorphic lens in combination with the FiLMiC Pro app. Matched with a unique story and dynamic characters, Tangerine might just be my favourite film about trans characters. 

Check out the electrifying Tangerine Red Band Trailer on Youtube. 

Tangerine is available to rent on Hoopla or stream with ads on Tubi TV. 

2. Laverne Cox as Sophia Bursett in Orange Is the New Black


As the most well-known name and title on this list, trans representation would not be the same had it not been for Laverne Cox’s groundbreaking performance on screen. Nominated four times for Outstanding Guest Actress in the Emmys, there’s a reason why Laverne Cox rose to the top, becoming one of the most well known faces in the trans community. What makes her performance in OITNB so special in the first place? Like all the other entries on this list, Sophia Bursett was a character who wasn’t defined by her transness. She broke stereotypes surrounding trans characters on screen and portrayed Sophia as a real human being – a real woman with real life issues like all the other women at Litchfield prison. 

Many trans characters before her and before the others on this list, were either played by cisgender actors or fit into certain categories and boxes. Trans people were the butt of the joke, they were made fun of, they were considered villains, and their stories ended in tragedy or death. Sophia Bursett was none of those things. She had a backstory, walking us through her journey of transitioning. She owned her own hair salon in the prison. This was something so simple, yet it gave her character power, agency, and worth, as she helped the other women who needed her. She was never considered lesser than her cis-female co-stars. Her story was one of my personal favourites as it was heartbreaking. The story of how she got into prison was one of human motivation. She did what she had to do for herself, but she also then tries to make things right by reconnecting with her family. It’s safe to say that without her we would not be able to see nuanced portrayals of trans characters on screen like Nomi from Sense8 or Hunter Schafer’s Jules in Euphoria. 

Watch a short intro clip Meeting Sophia for the first time here. Check out the Orange is the New Black Trailer as well. 

The entirety of Orange is the New Black is available to stream on Netflix. 

1. The entire main cast of Pose


In 2014, writer Steven Canals was fresh out of UCLA film school with an original script about 1980’s ballroom culture set in the Bronx. After multiple rejections telling him the show was ‘too niche’ for mainstream audiences, it caught the attention of famous TV showrunners Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck (creators of Glee and American Horror Story). This collaboration led to the show airing on a mainstream network, with the largest cast of transgender actors on screen and a landmark achievement in television history for trans representation. No other show could have topped this list other than Pose

The series follows Blanca, a trans Afro-Puerto Rican woman who forms her own ‘house’ which is a chosen family for LGBTQ youth who have been rejected by their families. They participate in balls, where different houses compete and challenge each other in different categories, judged on their attitudes, dance skills, and outfits. The show is so much more than the glitz and glam of ball culture, although that is highlighted and incredibly entertaining to watch. It deals with a group of queer POC characters finding each other, supporting one another, and loving each other when no one else would. The 80s were still a time when homosexuality was still very much taboo and many queer and trans people were rejected from their own families and had to hustle to survive any way they could. Pose is a miracle – it’s a show that makes me glad that I’m living in this era of television, it’s a show that inspires me and gives me hope that it is possible to make television like this. 

As I mentioned, Pose features the largest cast of transgender actors in television history, but the majority of the cast is made up of people of colour. It isn’t a show that panders towards its audience and demographic either, as those behind the screen are minorities too, achieving just as many milestones. The inception of the show was in the hands of Canals, an Afro-Puerto Rican gay man, with Murphy who is also a gay man, being the showrunner. Its big groundbreaker was with Janet Mock, who became the very first transgender woman of colour to direct and write an episode of television. 

All these accomplishments could have been tainted had the show not been very good, but thankfully it had a stunning first season with an even better and hard hitting second one. The first season featured storylines we never see on TV, such as having one of Blanca’s children, Angel, doing her side hustle as a sex worker but falling for Stan, a white, male, Wall Street, married family man. It wrestled with themes of sexuality and exploration in an honest way that it does not get enough credit for. Showing a trans character having sex in a positive, real way that doesn’t end tragically was just something you never see. 

The second season dives deeper into its themes with the AIDS crisis and includes real life activism and groups that were a huge part of history, but were not explored heavily in TV. The heart and soul of the series is of course, the ballroom scene. This is a creative outlet for any and all types of LGBTQ+ people to express themselves and feel worthy, accepted, and authentically themselves. It is a place where they can be free, without the discrimination and rejection they face on the outside world. It’s a safe space for them, which is what every queer person needed at that time and still needs to this day. 

In a way, it feels like all the shows on this list were stepping stones leading up to a show like Pose. Each new, honest, and well-made depiction of a trans character on TV would not have happened had it not been for the milestones these shows continue to achieve. What I hope for in the future is that the entertainment industry will keep greenlighting these types of projects – stories that I can see myself in. Having stories depicting worlds that are different from mine is also something I want to see. Let’s have shows that explore more trans themes, both for trans women and especially trans men. What these shows present on this list is how far we’ve come, but also how far we need to go. Please give these shows a watch and give your support to minority stories, as I could not have written this piece had I not given my time to these works. You doing the same may just make a difference that you may not even realize. 

Watch the Pose trailer here. 

Pose currently has 2 seasons out and premiered on FX in 2018. 

Don Qarlo is a writer, movie and tv lover, as well as an aspiring showrunner. All he wants to do is tell stories with a big smile on his face. You can catch him at home watching way too much TV or outside just living his life to the fullest.
Zainab is a 4th-year journalism student from Dubai, UAE who is the Editor-in-Chief of Her Campus at Ryerson. When she's not taking photos for her Instagram or petting dogs on the street, she's probably watching a rom-com on Netflix or journaling! Zainab loves The Bold Type and would love to work for a magazine in New York City someday! Zainab is a feminist and fierce advocate against social injustice - she hopes to use her platform and writing to create change in the world, one article at a time.