Trans representation on the small screen has changed for the better. According to a recent study from GLAAD, the 2021 to 2022 period saw a record high for LGBTQ+ representation on broadcast television in America, as well as racial diversity, with a total of 42 regular and recurring trans characters across all platforms – up 20 from the previous year. And thankfully, with television disposing of tired trans trends – such as using trans characters to comedic effect at their expense (Friends) or being portrayed by cis-het actors (Transparent) – representation has never been more authentic. Following GLAAD’s findings, and to mark Trans Day of Visibility, we’re celebrating some of TV’s most trailblazing trans characters, from the cast of Pose to Euphoria’s Jules Vaughan and, of course, Laverne Cox’s breakthrough role as Sophia Burset on Orange is the New Black.
Angel (Indya Moore), Blanca (Mj Rodriguez), Candy (Angelica Ross), Elektra (Dominique Jackson) and Lulu (Hailee Sahar) – Pose
For featuring the largest amount of trans actors in regular roles of any scripted television series in history, Pose changed the course of television. Premiering in 2018, the drama depicts the lives of queer African-American and Latino communities in 80s New York City, who compete for accolades in the drag ball culture scene with their chosen families, known as Houses. Upon release, Pose received universal critical acclaim for the cast’s performances, particularly for the aforementioned stars, with Rodriguez breaking new ground as the first trans actress to win an Emmy Award in an acting category.
Cole (Tom Phelan) – The Fosters
The Fosters continued to cement its status as one of the most inclusive dramas on air with the introduction of Cole, the only transgender member of Girls United, a group home for girls in the foster care system. Throughout the course of the series, Cole often struggles with his gender identity as a trans man and others’ perceptions of him as a male. With trans male representation still scarce on television, Cole’s inclusion in the series has been hailed as groundbreaking, with many of his storylines touching upon sensitive issues that aren’t often depicted in the mainstream. These include being attacked while using a men’s restroom, binding his chest after a shower, securing hormones for his transition, and ultimately, getting top surgery.
Jules Vaughan (Hunter Schafer) – Euphoria
Euphoria, which recently wrapped its second season, follows Zendaya’s Emmy Award-winning character Rue Bennett, a recovering teenage drug addict who falls in love with Schafer’s character, Jules Vaughan, the new girl in town. While Jules’ status as a trans woman isn’t ignored, it’s not the defining aspect of her character. Like many other recent series, such as Schitt’s Creek and The Haunting of Bly Manor, there aren’t any elements of homophobia in the storyline and, in this case, transphobia; presenting a progressive world (in which we’d all like to reside) where trans people are simply accepted and their identity isn’t called into question or framed as a ‘trans debate’.
Luna La (Zion Moreno) – Gossip Girl
Unlike its predecessor, the 2021 revival of Gossip Girl more accurately reflects modern day New York with prominent queer characters such as bad boy Max Wolfe (Thomas Doherty), innocent bisexual Aki Menzies (Evan Mock) and the ruthless Monet de Haan (Savannah Lee Smith). There’s also Luna La (Zion Moreno), equally as ruthless as the latter, who is a trans women. Similarly to Jules, Luna’s transness isn’t her defining trait. In fact, creator Joshua Safran even had to clarify the character’s gender identity because it isn’t a focal aspect of the show and it is never presented as an issue, as it should be. He told Variety: “We decided as writers that this isn’t a show that’s about how she became her authentic self. That’s just not our story. Luna is Luna to these people, and that’s that.”
Mae (Mae Martin) – Feel Good
Mae Martin earned universal acclaim for the second and final season of Feel Good, a semi-autobiographical dramedy based on their life experiences in contemporary Manchester. Following on from the events of season one, the second and final season sees Mae intimately share their gender identity journey with the world as they come out as non-binary; delivering a now-iconic line that has resonated with queer youth around the world: “I’m not a boy. I’m not even a girl. I’m like a failed version of both.” In a piece for GAY TIMES, Just Like Us ambassador Mara Harris said the scene “symbolises a turning point in my journey” and “set off a little lightbulb in my head that would go to light up many more.”
Nia Nal (Nicole Maines) – Supergirl
Representation within the superhero genre has always been scarce on the big screen, but in recent years, television has been proudly flying the LGBTQ+ flag with various queer heroes such as Anissa Pierce (Nafessa Williams), John Constantine (Matt Ryan) and both iterations of Batwoman (Ruby Rose, Javicia Leslie), all from DC’s Arrowverse. Nicole Maines joined the universe in 2018 as Nia Nal on Supergirl from 2018-2021, making history in the process as the first trans superhero on TV. In a conversation with GAY TIMES, Maines said it was a “major” moment for trans representation to see a trans person “standing in line” with heroes such as Supergirl, Batwoman and The Flash. Here’s hoping it paves the way for more trans visibility on the small and big screen.
Nomi Marks (Jamie Clayton) – Sense8
Portrayed by Jamie Clayton, Sense8’s Nomi Marks is revolutionary for various reasons. First of all, the character was played by a woman of the trans experience and was also written by a trans woman, Lana Wachowski, while the director and her sister Lilly Wachowski, later came out as a trans woman. And like other characters on this list, Nomi’s transness is never at the centre of any “trauma” storylines, with the series opting to focus on her skills as a hacker and relationship with Amanita (Freema Agyeman). With the series premiering in 2015, it was undoubtedly ahead of its time with authentic casting – in front and behind the camera – and set the stage for future trans representation on the small screen.
Paul Strickland (Brian Michael Smith) – 9-1-1: Lone Star
Hailing from queer mastermind Ryan Murphy and his frequent collaborators Brad Falchuk and Tim Minnear, Lone Star focuses on the fire, police and ambulance departments of the fictional Station 126, located in Austin, Texas. One of the most inclusive shows on air, 9-1-1: Lone Star notably made history with Brian Michael Smith, who became the first out Black trans man in a series regular role on network television. Smith continued to provide visibility for the trans male community when he was included in People’s annual 25 “sexiest men you can watch on TV now”; making him the first trans man to do so.
Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox) – Orange is the New Black
Based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, Orange is the New Black follows the author’s confinement in a women’s prison, with Taylor Schilling leading the series as Piper Chapman. Featuring a plethora of LGBTQ+ characters, the series received particular praise for Laverne Cox’s portrayal of trans inmate Sophia Burset. Cox’s performance resulted in the actress being nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award, making her the first trans person to be nominated for an Emmy in an acting category. Since the drama reached its conclusion, Sophia has continuously been hailed as one of the most iconic LGBTQ+ characters of all time.
Theo Putnam (Lachlan Watson) – Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
Originally identifying as non-binary, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina character Theo Putnam later comes out as a trans man to his friends, including the title character (Kiernan Shipka). The beauty of this scene is how Theo’s friends accept him wholeheartedly and have no difficulties in accepting his pronouns. One scene also shows Theo’s joy when Nana Ruth (L. Scott Caldwell) and Dorethea (Anastasia Bandey) also use masculine pronouns, highlighting the power of using a person’s chosen process in the process. The writers and Watson, who became one of the youngest non-binary actors in Hollywood when they were cast, received unanimous praise for the storyline, as well as for Theo’s romance with Robin Goodfellow (Jonathan Whitesell), which was presented without any tired transphobic narratives.