The pantheon of transgender characters in film and on television includes many sensitive, moving portrayals, but they’re not perfect. Media critics will often point out lapses of nuance, transphobic tropes, or other shortcomings even in the most earnest attempts to accurately depict authentic trans characters on the small and silver screens.
For example, most trans roles have been played by cisgender (non-trans) actors, but more recently, some trans roles have been portrayed by trans actors. One could argue that the gender of the actors themselves takes nothing away from the power of their performances, or that these works increase the audience’s understanding of the trans experience regardless of the actor’s gender identity.
However, some critics object to any cisgender actor playing a trans role, arguing that only trans actors should play trans characters for greater authenticity and to combat institutionalized transphobia in media. In fact, trans filmmaker April Anderson echoed these very arguments (and others) in her recent Unicorn Booty interview.
Any list is subjective, but the roles included here are from works of high visibility (many earned Oscar nominations or major awards) that depicted transgender characters with depth and sensitivity.
12. Terence Stamp as Bernadette in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)
The esteemed British actor portrays this aging transgender drag queen as a woman of quiet power and grace – who can still kick ass. She’s the voice of weary reason in the film, and to her own surprise, ends up finding romance by the film’s end.
11. Lee Pace as Calpernia Addams in Soldier’s Girl (2003)
Pace made a stunning TV movie debut, and earned a Golden Globe nomination, in the tragic but true love story of a transgender nightclub performer and her relationship with a young soldier. While trans characters have often been portrayed as victims of violence, in this true story, it’s the soldier who pays the price for their unconventional romance.
10. Jaye Davidson as Dil in The Crying Game (1992)
As the mysterious trans lover of a murdered soldier, Davidson earned an Oscar nomination for this twisty thriller. The repulsed reaction of the main character upon discovering Dil’s transgender identity still causes controversy, but the film suggests that his sexual feelings towards his transgender lover are more complex and nuanced than purely transphobic. The film’s director Neil Jordan would go on to make the trans-focused 2005 film Breakfast on Pluto.
9. John Lithgow as Roberta Muldoon in The World According to Garp (1982)
Lithgow earned an Oscar nomination opposite Robin Williams as a transgender former football player, who’s the most level-headed voice of reason in the film. Based on John Irving’s novel, the film includes a darkly satirical spin on feminist extremists.
8. Tom Phelan as Cole on The Fosters (2014-)
This trans actor plays a trans teen on the ABC Family series about two lesbian moms raising their blended family (that is, a family where some of the kids aren’t genetically related to one or more of their parents). Phelan is the youngest trans performer to portray a trans character on network television and his character struggles against discrimination, misunderstandings, and depression.
7. Dot-Marie Jones as Coach Shannon Beiste on Glee (2010 – 2015)
The show’s high school football coach recently came out as transgender and embarked on a gender reassignment procedure, returning to the school as Sheldon Beiste. Over its six seasons, Glee has featured more LGBT characters and storylines than any television show in history. The series ended earlier this year.
6. Jared Leto as Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
As a trans woman battling AIDS, Leto earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar – and every other Best Supporting Actor award given out that year. Once again, this portrayal generated criticism and controversy, including this Time editorial. which criticized the role as stereotypical, cheapened by transphobic humor, and uninformed by trans consultants.
5. Candis Cayne as Carmelita on Dirty Sexy Money (2007-2009)
As the transgender mistress of a political hopeful, Cayne was the first trans actor to play a series regular trans character on network television. The romantic relationship between Carmelita and William Baldwin’s scion of a wealthy family was portrayed with honest sensitivity. Although initially drawn to her out of a self-destructive lust, he eventually develops genuine feelings for her.
4. Felicity Huffman as Bree in Transamerica (2005)
Huffman’s delicately comic turn as a pre-operative male-to-female transsexual on a road trip with the son she never knew she fathered earned her an Oscar nomination. The performance drew criticism from trans activists including blogger Stephen Ira who hated the the “uglification” process used to make Felicity Huffman appear more “mannish” and is fixation on the character’s bottom surgery.
3. Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry (1999)
For her transformative role as the real-life transgender teen, Swank earned a Best Actress Oscar, Golden Globe, and every major critics award. The powerful film concludes with Teena’s graphically violent murder — an ending that continues the depressing trope of trans-people as victims, but that takes its cue from the unfortunately high rates of violence against transgender people, (not to mention trans people of color).
2. Jeffrey Tambor as Maura Pfefferman on Transparent (2014-)
Amazon’s new show is the first TV series to focus on a transgender leading character who’s contending with transition and a family of dysfunctional grown children. It’s a sensitive and comic trailblazer that earned Golden Globes for Best Comedy Series and Best Actor. Producer Jill Soloway has added a trans writer to add authenticity to the series’ second season, although other trans activists have criticized the writer as being somewhat transphobic herself.
1. Laverne Cox as Sophia Burset on Orange is the New Black (2013-)
The transgender actor shot to fame as the feisty trans hairdresser on the Netflix women-behind-bars series. She earned an Emmy nomination, a Screen Actors Guild Award, she graced the cover of Time magazine, and she’s a vocal activist for the trans community. Her views on gender identity have been featured on every network and cable news outlet, in The Advocate and The Huffington Post, but she’s not immune to criticism, including an analysis from cultural critic bell hooks who sees the actress as embodying Eurocentric beauty standards.
Do you feel that only trans actors should play trans characters? And which transgender characters from film and television would you add to this list? Share your opinion and your favorites in the comments section below.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Unicorn Booty writer Adam Sandel contributed to the research and writing of this piece.