Remember being a kid and being asked continuously what you wanted to be when you grew up? My answer from back then has not changed—all I want to be is myself. I know that “be yourself” seems like a clichéd motto better suited for a coffee mug or t-shirt than a life goal. But it’s what gave me my fight to continue to live. Who I was and who I wanted to be were always two different things.
Around high school, I was diagnosed with gender dysphoria. I was gendered male and expected to act like a man. Not being comfortable in my own skin was debilitating. The simplest decisions took an emotional and psychological toll: introducing myself, going to gym class, using the bathroom, putting on clothes that hid my feminine body. I knew I needed to transition, and it was only by talking to other trans people that I got the help I needed to transition successfully.
I always knew I wanted to act, but it wasn’t something I ever thought would be possible because I never had anyone like me to look up to. There were no famous transgender actresses or models—not openly, anyway—and there were no transgender characters that I knew of on TV or in movies.
As a kid in the late 90s, every day after school I watched cartoons like Cardcaptors and Sailor Moon. It wasn’t until recently that I discovered both of the original Japanese-voiced versions of these shows featured trans or non-binary characters, which were removed for a North American audience. In fact, all of the LGBT references, characters, or relationships were completely rewritten or left out. I found out that Zoisite, a quick-witted, compassionate female super-villain in Sailor Moon, was transgender in the original series. But in the new version, her gender was changed because the networks didn’t want backlash for what would be seen as a “homosexual” relationship. If she hadn’t been rewritten, her presence on a TV show that was part of my daily life would have helped me tremendously. It would have given me something to relate to. It would have allowed me and other transgender people to feel validated and worthy of being loved.
Many individuals are only exposed to trans people through media stereotypes, like a man in a dress. This is because, in the last few years, several high-profile trans characters in Hollywood were played by cisgender white men. The lack of authentic representation in theatre, movies, and shows makes it even harder for us to be taken seriously and even treated equally, and the idea that gender is a performance and not a valuable identifier of who and what we are in society threatens our safety.
One of the biggest misses in critically acclaimed and award-winning films was Jared Leto’s performance of a sick, drug-addicted sex worker in a cheap synthetic wig in Dallas Buyers Club. While there is no problem with portraying sex work, the AIDS risk, or heightened rates of substance abuse, it’s damaging if that’s the only kind of transgender woman who appears in mainstream media. It becomes a problem when no one addresses that trans women often have to turn to sex work and drugs because of stigma and social problems in daily life—issues that are seldom discussed in movies or theatre.
When a promising transgender-themed screenplay is announced, such as The Danish Girl (based on the true story of the first transgender woman to have a gender-confirmation surgery), we get Eddie Redmayne as the star. As a fan of the Pretty Little Liars series since I was a preteen, I found it extremely upsetting and disappointing that after seven years on air, the big reveal was that the villain was born male and had transitioned. I think we can all agree this is problematic: not only was the actor in the show not genuinely trans, but the writers used trans people to serve as deception, as a plot twist.
Unfortunately, there is still a long way to go. But I like to learn from those who have paved the way for actresses and models like me.
Caroline “Tula” Cossey, the former Playboy Bunny and Bond girl who’s been dubbed the first transgender supermodel, is a notorious example of someone who was torn apart by the press and public for simply being transgender. In the early 1980s, newspaper articles spent countless pages “exposing” Cossey. Although being outed against her will was distressing, it was even more disconcerting for her to not be able to walk into a casting room or grocery store, or onto a red carpet, without pervasive questions about her transition and genitalia. A newspaper article from that time, titled “I Am A Woman,” goes in depth on her fight to be legally recognised as a woman in order to be able to wed her husband. But what could have been an enlightening article about that struggle turns disgusting: it claims that because Cossey was legally recognized as male, the law says that if she were raped it would not be acknowledged as such.
In a recent Mirror article on Cossey’s two-decade hiatus, she tells the paper that she went from doing high-end photoshoots for magazines like Vogue to just riding the press circuit to prove that trans women were not a sideshow, no longer focusing on her career. The Playboy pinup she did in 1996 clearly uses her as bait, with the headline “Would YOU sleep with THIS woman?” Followed by “See inside—then decide.” While the cover is grotesque for promoting the stigma and mystery and deception of trans women, Cossey’s motivation was admirable: she used whatever platform she had left to try to get us to be seen as equals.
In the Mirror piece, Cossey also touches upon the recent success of trans actresses such as Jamie Clayton on Sense 8 and Laverne Cox from Orange Is the New Black. Laverne Cox’s character Sophia, although incarcerated, is an excellent example of trans struggles. Sophia deals with realistic issues a trans woman might face, like her lack of access to medical care and her struggle to reform a bond with her son post-transition. The show also handles the issue with sensitivity. One scene featuring Sophia’s character pre-transition featured the actress’s brother, which was admirable, because Laverne’s identity and self-worth weren’t compromised for the sake of a trans narrative.
For a trans actress like myself, the idea of reverting back on a medical, mental, and spiritual journey is extremely distressing. I have seen firsthand the types of roles that are available to transgender actresses. In film or theatre, I often see notices that I will have to be able to play the character before transition, during, and after. While I am grateful to be considered for the role—any role—a part of me dies inside. If I can’t play a male in real life without being distressed, how can I authentically perform one on camera? Under no circumstance would a trans actress find playing who she used to be comfortable, and it definitely doesn’t help anyone empathize or possibly even relate to her challenges post transition. It would be like asking someone who survived a horrible accident to relive their trauma.
I’ve had bad experiences with commercials, too. I‘ve been rejected from a national commercial because I wasn’t 100 percent visibly transgender. This confirmed to me that the company wanted to cast a transgender person simply to appear progressive and open-minded, not because they wanted to hire, support, or give opportunities to trans actresses. By contrast, I had a positive experience in a beauty campaign seeking transgender models. I was never outed as trans, but the visibility and endorsement from a major beauty brand made me feel empowered.
It’s hard to fight for our basic human rights in a world where, in most countries without a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, decisions about our political, medical, housing, and employment status are left up to other people. Even now, politicians make choices that affect us—like denying us military participation—in a way that’s as abrupt and inconsequential as if they’re choosing a breakfast cereal.
The journey and actions of trans people fighting for basic human respect in their household or on the street is not easy. But cisgender people are often at the centre of complex stories that have nothing to do with their gender identity. Why not trans characters, too? I’ve often seen film breakdowns that focus heavily on the transition process and not enough on the actual complexity of trans character’s lives. Trans people face many struggles beyond their appearances and medical journey. It is not that we need to understand how transgender people transition, but why.
Many of today’s youth, including myself, are being pushed towards YouTube and other social media sites for accurate and true storytelling of trans lives and hardships. It is truly the only platform that gives spotlight to people regardless of who they are or what they look like. This is a huge step forward in terms of visibility, awareness, and letting others know they are not alone. But there needs to come a time when trans voices in theatre, TV, and film are seen as equally valid and given the platform to tell their story. We shouldn’t have to fight to prove that we’re human just like everybody else.
Sydney Violot-Bristow is currently appearing in Theatre Inamorata’s Gray, on at The Commons, closing October 1.
For tickets or more information, click here