Editor’s Note: Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer in Chicago. The views expressed here are solely the author’s. View more opinion articles on CNN.
It’s difficult to make a career of acting, but earlier this year my daughter looked as well positioned as anyone to do it. At 16, she had done a brilliant turn as Malvolio in a youth Shakespeare company, won a prestigious acting summer fellowship to a program in France and was set to appear in her first professional role as Eugene in “Brighton Beach Memoirs.”
She was looking forward to more opportunities and better roles. A life in theater looked like a real possibility to her for the first time.
Then this summer happened. The program in France was shut down. “Brighton Beach Memoirs” was indefinitely postponed. But those are just temporary setbacks. The thing that really made her wonder if acting was for her is that she realized that she is trans.
We’d always told her that we’d accept her, including if she was trans, so she wasn’t really worried about coming out to us. (Parents! Tell your kids it’s okay if they’re trans!) But what it meant for theater work was another story.
“Coming out was definitely made a lot more difficult because of concerns about my career,” my daughter told me when I asked her about whether she’d been worried about how being trans would affect her acting. “The idea that suddenly casting me in all my dream roles would be considered an ‘out of left field’ or ‘revolutionary, progressive’ decision added a lot to the internalized transphobia I was struggling with.”
Of course, as a parent, you try to tell your child they can do anything, and we’ve certainly pointed out that things are changing for trans actors. Elliot Page, the star of “Juno” and “The Umbrella Academy,” just came out as trans this week, and the reaction has been mostly positive.
Most venues have been careful to use his pronouns correctly, and to avoid deadnaming him, or using his previous name to identify him. And he’s spoken eloquently in a statement posted to Instagram and Twitter about how coming out as trans can be empowering and liberating. “I love that I am trans. I love that I am queer. And the more I hold myself close and fully embrace who I am, the more my heart grows and the more I thrive,” he said.
Unfortunately, the somewhat greater support for trans people in the public sphere in recent years has also led to an inevitable backlash, Anti-trans writers and outlets often portray being trans as a kind of hip way for young people to gain status and power.
“Gender expert says teens are trying to be transgender because it’s cool,” according to a headline in the conservative Daily Wire. Conservatives and some anti-trans feminists have pushed the idea of “social contagion,” arguing that kids become trans because of peer pressure, or because they get the idea from trans friends – much as people used to argue that contact with gays or lesbians could alter young people’s sexual identities.
But the truth remains that in our society, being trans is the opposite of a surefire way to obtain peer acceptance and hipness. On the contrary, trans people in the country as a whole are a small, often despised or ostracized minority, many of whom face explicit and implicit discrimination in most areas of society.
For my daughter, in particular, and despite role models like Page and others, her future in acting went from extremely promising to extremely precarious as soon as she realized she was not cisgender. Before she came out as a trans woman, she had hoped she’d be in a position to do all the major Shakespeare leads in major venues – Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo, Jacques, Richard III.
Now, suddenly, her choice of roles in mainstream, non-gender-blind casting were much more limited – Shakespeare has a lot of great roles for women, but the guys generally get the leads, as they still do in Hollywood and television. When you realize you’re a woman rather than a man, your position in patriarchy drops, and you are suddenly subject to a lot of the limits that all women face.
All women need better roles in media, but as a trans woman, my daughter’s options are even more restricted. Even in the relatively queer-friendly world of Shakespearian theater, with all its cross-dressing parts, it’s still a huge advantage to be a cis man rather than a trans woman. And in mainstream television and movies, while trans actors have seen a lot of progress on screen, even the most successful performers like Laverne Cox say that acceptance remains a work in progress.”
The truth is that, as blessed as some of us are and have been, a lot of us are still struggling,” Cox, probably the most successful trans performer, said in an interview in 2019.
As a trans actor, my daughter has also been very aware of the way that trans people are represented in media. On even supposedly progressive, queer-friendly shows like “Lovecraft Country” or “Penny Dreadful,” trans characters are sexualized with full-frontal nudity. Often, like Candy on the FX show “Pose,” they’re eventually killed.
“There are no good trans characters in mainstream media right now,” my daughter told me flatly. “They all serve as a parable on the tragedy of being trans, a sex object, or a laughingstock. I am tired of having a trans woman introduced to a show and wondering when they’re going to get her naked and/or kill her. I am tired of trans characters being seemingly just as obsessed with their genitals and medical procedures as cis people always are. These are not trans representation, they are reinforcements of stereotypes.”
With so few trans actors getting major roles, my daughter was in fact excited that Elliot Page came out. But her enthusiasm was tempered. “It’s exciting to see a trans actor in a prominent position in the industry. There is, however, the unfortunate truth that it’s unlikely he would’ve reached this prominence had he not identified as cis before his rise to fame. And it’s worrying what sort of backlash he will inevitably face.”
And sure enough, Page’s mentions on Twitter filled up with anti-trans sentiment from random trolls, and from leading anti-trans pundits like high profile blogger Andrew Sullivan, who mocked Page’s nonbinary identity and suggested he didn’t understand masculinity.
Bigots and provocateurs on every part of the political spectrum like to claim that trans people are oppressing them by asking them to use the right pronouns or demanding from them equal employment, equal ability to tell their stories, equal access to health care and, yes, equal access to restrooms. But it’s not the bigots who are oppressed.
Page’s story shows that things are changing, and that there’s more space now for trans actors than there was 20 years ago, or even 10. But people who come out as trans still face a lot of discrimination in a lot of fields, including acting.
My daughter could have been a wonderful Hamlet, or Malvolio, or Puck, when she thought she was cis. She could still be a wonderful Lady Macbeth, or Juliet, or Hamlet, or Malvolio, or Puck. The question is whether the world will let her.