27 Transgender Film and TV Portrayals That Helped Turn the Tide

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The Pentagon is poised to lift the ban on transgender Americans serving openly in the military. Transgender actress Laverne Cox has graced the covers of Time and Entertainment Weekly, with headlines proclaiming “The Transgender Tipping Point” and “America’s Transformation.”

One of America’s most beloved Olympic heroes, Caityln Jenner, is an out, proud trans woman. The transgender revolution is upon us. Just as public perceptions of gays, lesbians. and bisexuals have been positively influenced by varied and complex portrayals in mainstream media, the same can be said of portrayals of trans characters.

Over the course of 40 years, public attitudes toward transgender people have slowly evolved from confusion and hostility to increasing understanding, and the portrayals of trans characters in film and on television have evolved as well. The characters have ranged from those who are either preparing to or have transitioned from one gender to another, to those who are living and presenting as the gender that feels right for them.
 
Transgender characters have been traditionally played by bankable cisgender (nontrans) actors, but more and more trans characters are now being played by trans actors. Here’s our look at 40 years of transgender portrayals that have gradually contributed to the general public's increased compassion for and understanding of what it means to be transgender.
 

Chris Sarandon as Leon in Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Sarandon and Al Pacino both earned Oscar nominations in director Sidney Lumet’s gripping film based on the true story of a man (Pacino) whose attempt to rob a bank to pay for his lover’s (Sarandon) gender-reassignment surgery leads to a devastating hostage crisis.

 

John Lithgow as Roberta Muldoon in The World According to Garp (1982)
Lithgow earned an Oscar nomination opposite Robin Williams as a compassionate transgender former football player, who’s the leading voice of reason in this film based on John Irving’s best-selling novel.

 

Karen Black as Joanne in Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982)
The inimitable Karen Black plays a transgender member of the Disciples of James Dean (also including Sandy Dennis and Cher), who meet up on the anniversary of the star’s death in director Robert Altman’s film based on Ed Graczyk’s play.

 

David Duchovny as Agent Denise Bryson on Twin Peaks (1990-1991)
Before he became a household name on The X Files and Californication, Duchovny appeared as a transgender FBI agent during the end of David Lynch’s trippy cult-hit mystery series.

 

Jaye Davidson as Dil in The Crying Game (1992)
As the mysterious trans lover of a murdered soldier, Davidson earned an Oscar nomination in this twisty IRA thriller from director Neil Jordan. Even though the media fixated on Dil's "secret," the character was a multi-faceted portrayal of a young trans woman. The film was also memorable, and laudable, for not hinging its story on Dil's gender identity. 

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Olympia Dukakis as Anna Madrigal in Tales of the City (1993, 1998, 2001)

Oscar-winner Dukakis plays the free-spirited, pot-smoking landlady who’s revealed to be transgender in the TV miniseries based on gay author Armistead Maupin’s beloved novels.

 

Terence Stamp as Bernadette in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)
The esteemed British actor portrays an aging transgender performer on a journey through the Australian Outback as a woman of quiet power and grace who can still throw some serious shade.

 

Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry (1999)
For her transformative role as the real-life transgender youth, Swank earned a Best Actress Oscar, Golden Globe, and every major critics’ award given out that year. The powerful film’s violent climax is not for the faint of heart.

 

John Cameron Mitchell as Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)
Mitchell directs and stars in the film version of his off-Broadway cult hit musical about a transgender German punk rocker on a quest to find the ex-lover who stole her songs.

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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 story of a love affair between a transgender nightclub performer and a young soldier.

 

Tom Wilkinson as Roy “Ruth” Applewood in Normal (2003)
The Oscar-nominated actor earned Emmy and Golden Globe nominations playing opposite Jessica Lange as a Midwestern husband and father who undergoes gender-reassignment surgery in this TV movie written and directed by Jane Anderson.

 

Felicity Huffman as Bree in Transamerica (2005)
Huffman’s delicately comic turn as a transgender woman on a road trip with the son she never knew she had deservedly earned her a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination.

 

Cillian Murphy as Patrick “Kitten” Braden in Breakfast on Pluto (2005)
Murphy plays a transgender woman who leaves her Irish town for London in this serio-comic tale from director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, Interview With the Vampire).

 

Jeffrey Carlson as Zarf/Zoe on All My Children (2006-2007)
Portraying an international rock star, Carlson appeared as the first transgender woman on an American daytime soap opera.

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Candis Cayne as Carmelita on Dirty Sexy Money (2007-2009)
As the bombshell transgender mistress of a political hopeful (played by William Baldwin) on ABC’s dishy drama, Cayne was the first trans actor to play a series regular trans character on prime-time network television.

 

Aidan Mitchell as Sam Malloy on The Riches (2007-2008)
In this quirky series, drag icon Eddie Izzard and British actress Minnie Driver play grifters masquerading as heads of a wealthy family, Mitchell played their youngest, and gender nonconforming, child; Sam's gender identity was a non-issue for his con artist clan.

 

Rebecca Romijn as Alexis Meade on Ugly Betty (2007-2008)
Romijn arrived as the transgender scion of the Meade publishing family in the comedy series’ second season, proving herself to be a smart and tough adversary for many of the show's characters.

 

Glenn Close and Janet McTeer in Albert Nobbs (2011)
Close and McTeer both earned Oscar, Golden Globe, and Screen Actors Guild nominations as transgender men in 19th-century Ireland.

 

Alex Newell as Wade “Unique” Adams on Glee (2012-2015)
Graduating from the reality show talent contest known as The Glee Project, Newell became Glee’s first regular transgender character.

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