15 Transgender Characters Portrayed by Cisgender Actors on TV
August 12, 2018
Hollywood is having a major awakening right now. Film and TV studios have finally started to realize the value of hiring diverse cast and crew members, and minority groups are seeing themselves
represented more and more on-screen. While the increase in diversity is long overdue, it’s only just beginning. We still have a long way to go before everyone feels fairly represented, especially when it comes to transgender characters.
The television industry has a long history of casting cisgender actors for transgender roles. These actors no doubt do a great job (sometimes) but for trans actors, it’s frustrating. After all, they can play these parts better than anyone, but casting directors often choose big names over everything else. Famous actors draw in more viewers and thus more money, and most famous actors happen to be cisgender. It creates a never-ending cycle that stifles opportunities for trans actors. Thanks to social media, this behavior is now being called out, and studios are listening to people’s critiques. But unfortunately, that hasn’t always been the way. Keep scrolling to see 15 transgender TV characters that were played by cisgender actors.
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Jeffrey Tambor as Maura Pfefferman on
Jeffrey Tambor was initially praised by critics for his performance as the transgender character Maura Pfefferman on Transparent, but things turned sour when his female colleagues accused him of sexual harassment. After an internal investigation by Amazon Studios, he was fired from the show and won't be appearing in the upcoming fifth season.
After his disgraceful exit, his transgender co-star,
Alexandra Billings, acknowledged that if the show had been created in 2017, a trans person would have played his role. She told , "There would be a backlash unlike anything. Anytime it happens, those projects go away. There have been two movies that have come out with cis people in the lead playing trans people, and they disappeared. So first of all, that speaks to our power. And second of all, that speaks to the fact that the consciousness in America is changing." The Hollywood Reporter
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Vanessa Ray as Charlotte DiLaurentis on
Pretty Little Liars
In one of the most shocking moments of the
Pretty Little Liars series, it was revealed that CeCe Drake was actually Charlotte DiLaurentis a.k.a. 'A.' Charlotte turned out to be Alison's transgender sibling, who was originally named Charles.
Fans were quick to call out the show's creator, Marlene King, for "jumping on the bandwagon" and adding a transgender character because it was a trend. But Marlene said the storyline was planned years before.
Vanessa Ray, who played Charlotte, stood up for the creator. "This is a relatively new conversation in this country," she told . "We have some amazing people that are standing up for transgender people, and it's very cool to see that. I was bursting with the desire to talk about it and have conversations and see where the country is at. My only concern was that people were going to think it was calculated, but it's not. This was a really bold move on [our creator's] end." The Huffington Post
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Alex Newell as Wade 'Unique' Adams on
Alex Newell first got discovered when he auditioned for The Glee Project in 2011. Even though he came in second place, Glee producers liked him so much that they brought him on as a guest star. He played Wade, a vocal powerhouse with a female alter ego named Unique. His guest appearance turned into a recurring role and viewers got to see him lean more into his feminine side and eventually start presenting as a woman.
Although Alex doesn't identify as transgender, he does embrace his femininity through clothing and makeup and told
that he is "heavy on the gender non-conforming." Stylecaster
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Dot-Marie Jones as Coach Beiste on
Unique wasn't the only trans character on
Glee. On the final season of the show, Coach Beiste transitioned from a woman to a man. Dot-Marie Jones, who played Beiste, said she was nervous at first for the big reveal. She told , "I just didn’t want to let down the girls who are straight and tomboys that my character represented the last four seasons." People
But once the episode aired, she said the response was overwhelmingly positive. "I had thousands of tweets from people," she said. "I was crying. Members of the transgender community were saying, 'I never thought I'd see myself on TV. You have no idea what this means to me. Now, maybe people will get it.'"
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Denis O'Hare as Liz Taylor on
American Horror Story: Hotel
Denis O'Hare channeled his inner Liz Taylor for his character of the same name on American Horror Story: Hotel. The actor told that initially he was nervous to play the part, but as the show went on he developed a deep connection to his character. Yahoo
"Liz Taylor ended up being a very special character for me," he said. "I didn't really necessarily think she was going to be when we started the season. When [Ryan Murphy] first described the character, I got nervous and a little bit scared, even though I trust Ryan and I love all of my
Horror Story characters. I never thought of playing a transgender part. I’ve never explored that side of myself. I’ve never worn high heels or put on a dress. So those weren’t things I was comfortable doing."
But Denis said he then remembered the creator's advice: "If something scares you, you have to do it."
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Jordan Todosey as Adam Torres on
Degrassi: The Next Generation
Degrassi: The Next Generation introduced its first transgender character, Adam, in 2010. Director Stefan Brogren said although it was the show's first time tackling the subject, it were careful to do things right.
"The writers did some amazing research; both networks have been in touch with gay, lesbian, transgender organizations to make sure they like the script," he told
CTV News. "We want to make sure that we're not hurting the subject matter. This will be an ongoing character; this will be someone who'll be around his whole high school experience, so we want to make sure that this character is loved (and) develops a fanbase."
Jordan Todosey, who played Adam on the show, said the experience gave her a deeper insight into how transgender people feel on a daily basis. She told , "It has given me a huge deal of respect for people who have had to pretend to enjoy the body and clothes that they are in — while they desperately want to be in something else. I can't even imagine their struggle and I wish them success in finding peace and happiness." After Ellen
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Rebecca Romijn as Alexis Meade on
One of the biggest plot twists on
Ugly Betty came when the identity of Alexis Meade was revealed. Formerly known as Alexander, she was thought to be dead — but it turned out that she spent two years in hiding after undergoing gender-confirmation surgery.
The creator of the show, Silvio Horta, told
that some transgender actors auditioned for the part, but they "just didn't have the chops," so it went to cisgender actress The Hollywood Reporter Rebecca Romijn instead. Rebecca said that even though the part felt perfect for her, she was still nervous.
"I have a couple friends who are transgender, and it's a really sensitive subject for them, obviously, so every choice that I make, I think about them," she told
. "I would never, ever, ever want to insult or offend. The role is going to open itself up to people's jokes — I mean, that's just the way it is. But I want to make everybody aware that I am not the unofficial spokesperson for the transgender community." Marie Claire
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Tatiana Maslany as Tony Sawicki on
Orphan Black introduced the transgender character Tony Sawicki on season two, fans were super excited. The show already had two queer characters, but the addition of Tony allowed the show writers to shine a light on a different part of the LGBTQ+ community.
Tatiana Maslany took on the role of Tony, as she has done with all of the clone characters. She told that featuring a transgender person just made sense given the show's subject matter. "Because our show is about identity and your gender identity is so intricate to who you are as a person and how you express yourself, it felt like a natural way to explore identity," she said. "We were very interested in exploring him in an unconventional way. His own expression is very unique and nonconforming, and that is something we were excited to explore." NBC News
But not everyone was happy with how Tony was represented. The show was criticized for its unconvincing hair and makeup job, and some thought Tony fed into the stereotype that LGBT people are inherently more sexual. He only appeared in one episode, so it's unclear whether he will ever return.
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Walton Goggins as Venus Van Dam on
Sons of Anarchy
Walter Goggins made a surprising appearance in season five of Sons of Anarchy. He played Venus Van Dam, a transgender prostitute with a sassy spirit. Despite being a cisgender male, Walter said his intention was to create a trans character that was independent and well-rounded. "I wanted to be very respectful about the transgender culture in our society," he told . "This is a woman who, like a lot of people who have made this choice, doesn't have a choice. That is who they are and that is how they need to express themselves. We tried to make it as three-dimensional and grounded in reality as we could." TV Guide
He added that he hoped his character would help viewers gain an understanding of the transgender community and become more accepting.
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Daniela Sea as Max Sweeney on
The L Word
The L Word was groundbreaking in so many ways. It was really the first show to feature mostly lesbian and bisexual characters, it gave insight to the lesbian community and it portrayed its main characters as complex people who were more than just their sexuality.
When the show added transgender character Max Sweeney to the cast, it was a pretty big deal. But the representation wasn't perfect. He and the characters around him often played into stereotypes, and he was portrayed by a cisgender actor,
Daniela Sea. The show is reportedly coming back for a new season, but it will certainly look a lot different in 2018 than it did in 2004.
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BD Wong as Whiterose on
BD Wong fully embraced his role as the transgender hacker Whiterose on Mr. Robot, he said he was hesitant at first. "I was really nervous about it," he told . "It was right in the middle of this wonderful discussion about trans people. I thought, 'I don't want to be that flashy actor doing this evil trans part. I don't want to be the evil trans person.' I also didn't want to take a job away from a trans actor. And I said, 'I want there to be an opportunity for a trans actor to play this part.' I was then told Sam did meet some trans actors but didn't pick them, and then he asked me to do it." Vulture
BD said he accepted the part despite his reservations because the character was powerful and complex. He went on to earn an Emmy nomination for the role.
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Famke Janssen as Ava Moore on
Famke Janssen's character on Nip/Tuck was, uh, a little problematic to say the least. Her character, Ava Moore, started out as a gay man. He fell in love with Dr. Barrett Moore, but he refused any romantic relationship because he was heterosexual. Ava then asked Barrett to transform him into a woman so that they could fall in love. He did, and they later married, but after a bunch of drama, she left him.
It was certainly an interesting plot line back in 2004, but it would never pass by today's standards.
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David Duchovny as Denise Bryson on
Twin Peaks was ahead of its time in its portrayal of transgender character Denise Bryson. When she made her debut as a woman and asked to be called Denise, the main character, Agent Cooper, was immediately accepting and never asked any inappropriate questions. Because he set an example, the other characters followed and accepted Denise, as well. During a time when trans representation on TV was rare and often stereotypical, she showed audiences that trans people were just as funny, confident and complex as everyone else.
David Duchovny, who played Denise, reprised his role for the 2017 revival of the show, but audiences weren't as happy with the portrayal this time around. Because the conversation about trans representation has evolved so much since '90s, it didn't sit right with some that he, a cisgender man, was playing a transgender woman on the small screen.
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Jeffrey Carlson as Zoe Luper on
All My Children
All My Children introduced its first transgender character in 2006. Jeffrey Carlson played Zoe Luper, a biologically male rockstar who decided to transition to a woman. Head writer Megan McTavish said she was inspired to create the character after watching the reality TV series TransGeneration, which documented the lives of transgender college students.
"As a writer, you're always looking for a specific human experience," she told
. "And I found these experiences so moving that I started thinking along those lines." Time Out
The show writers then consulted the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) in order to make sure that they represented Zoe fairly and accurately. After the episodes aired, Jeffrey said the response was nothing but positive. "It's been extraordinary. I haven't received one piece of negative mail or e-mail, and the character was very popular," he told
. The Washington Post
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Chloë Sevigny on
Hit & Miss
Paul Abbott, the creator of
Shameless, had two show concepts on his mind: one about a transgender parent and one about an assassin. So, he decided to combine them and create Hit & Miss. On the show, Chloë Sevigny plays a transgender assassin who finds out she has a son. She then becomes responsible for him and his siblings when his mother dies.
The creator told
that the producers interviewed transgender people during their research for the show, but he thought that Chloë, a cisgender actor, was the best fit for the role. The New York Times