Every day, I scour my usual casting services for new roles to submit to. Today, in my first 10 minutes, I found 18 professional film/TV roles open to Arab/Latinx men. They include a hacker, a “drug delivery guy and hit man,” a bank robber, a gardener, and a kidnapper. There are also plenty of opportunities to submit myself as a background gang member or “violent protester.” Pressing on, I opened my search to student films and paid nonunion gigs. I found roles for “all ethnicities” playing fiery heartthrobs or the hot guy in the apartment next door. All of these roles were open to Arab/Latinx men, but they have something else in common: They’re expecting said men to be rugged and hypermasculine.
Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of transgender men who’d fit the bill. For better or for worse, I’m decidedly not one of them.
With the exception of Ian Alexander in The OA, most transmasculine characters in the media today are white. Speaking from experience here, I once submitted myself for a production with a transmasculine character. The response I got, verbatim, was this: “Wow, thanks for submitting your headshot and résumé. We'd love to bring you in, but unfortunately, we were hoping for a Caucasian trans actor.” Seeing only white models of transmasculine identity sends a subtle message that the only kind of man you can strive to be is a white one.
Why is it that gender fluidity is granted to white actors and characters, but not to people of color? Why do we get the firm boundaries?
Most of the roles looking for people of my ethnic background are looking for a gender role I don’t perform (or care to perform), and most of the roles looking for trans men are clueless, all over the map, and/or often not looking for olive-skinned me. I’ve been fortunate enough to play roles not written exclusively for trans people, but I long to tell trans narratives to the public, and most of the stories being told now do my community a huge disservice. There’s a lack of understanding all around about what it means to be trans, and when I do disclose my trans identity, I’m often pigeonholed or written off by casting execs.
Crafting an artistic career that can pay your bills is constant hustle, and in order to do it, you have to be a solid one-person business. Some of us have to do all of this while facing systemic discrimination, as casting directors hold fast to their biases.
As an actor, when I tell other people I’m a trans man, I’m often asked, “Why are there fewer roles for trans men than there are for trans women?”
I can only speak from my own perspective. So what’s my response? “You’re asking the wrong question.”
There are more roles for trans women than there are for trans men. But let’s look at the quality of those roles: Trans women on television — with few exceptions — get depicted as duplicitous predators, criminals, villains, and victims. They are often shown as targets of discrimination and violence, and sex work is overwhelmingly their most commonly depicted profession. Meanwhile, nontrans characters frequently react to them with hesitancy, hostility, and disgust.
While less prevalent, trans men in the media have also been portrayed as hiding something, or as being inept or second-best when compared to cisgender men. They are also often targets of violence. Even media that is deemed “diverse” or “LGBT-friendly” is guilty of this. Adam Torres on Degrassi gets written out of the show by dying in a car crash. How do I even begin to unpack that one?
These portrayals have real-world ramifications: Despite the so-called “heightened visibility” of trans women, they are still more vulnerable to hate-based violence than any other group in the LGBT community. This is especially true of trans women of color; we are three months into 2017, and there have already been seven confirmed murders, all trans women of color. At this rate, 2017 will surpass 2016 as the deadliest year on record for trans people, just as 2016 surpassed 2015, and 2015 surpassed 2014, and so on.
Media portrayals of trans people are harmful and reductive for everyone, regardless of who gets more airtime. I’d love to see more roles for trans men, but that doesn’t have to mean fewer roles for trans women. I want us to have more and better stories.
Take me, for example: I’m short and I look younger than I am. Hypothetically, I could play Latinx or Middle Eastern characters, but I have an ambiguous appearance. Ultimately, I’m marketed as a young ingenue type. I often play the unassuming friend, the lovestruck teenager, the geeky college kid, or sometimes the overworked/underpaid administrative assistant. This has served me well for the past five years: Theater (especially musical theater) has a surplus of these male ingenues, and that’s where I’ve made my niche.
But, in film and television (which, let’s be real, is where that bill-paying money lives), how many of those young, innocent male roles are played by Arab/Latinx actors? The aggressive gendering of people of color in the media is not exclusive to us, but in general, characters from either of these racial backgrounds perpetuate rigid masculinity. Arab men in the media are stoic and brutish, while Latin men are fiery, passionate, and sexual. I’d love to see more fluid representation of men of color in film and TV, whether the characters are trans or not.
Obviously, we’re still facing the issue of trans roles being played by nontrans actors. That’s not what this piece is about, but: Hire trans talent. It is a matter of justice. Trans people already face higher rates of employment-based discrimination than the general population. If you’re producing a show that has a trans character in it and you deliberately choose not to hire a trans actor, you are contributing to the oppression of the trans community.
In my experience, the past few years have seen an increase in roles for trans men, but media creators don’t seem to know what they want that to mean. Just last week, I auditioned for a trans role that specifically called for a young, pre-transition man. I began my medical transition over five years ago, so I was surprised to get called back at all. Through the audition process, I learned that they were not only looking for a pre-transition man, but that his coming out and transition were going to form his entire story arc — and they wanted an actor who was comfortable actually transitioning live, on-screen. I was shocked. I told them, “Sure, it’s not impossible, but do you even know what a medical transition for a man might involve? And if what you want is to have your actor injecting testosterone, you do know that his voice will have plummeted before you’re done filming the first season? That most of the changes you want to base his entire storyline on will occur in a matter of months, in real time?” By their own admission, they didn’t know any of that.
As a trans actor, I’m lucky to make a living doing what I love. It’s only because I care so much about the potential the media has to affect public perception of trans people that I’m challenging my industry to do better.
Characters of color ought to be allowed the same gender and sexual freedom that white characters have been afforded for years, and trans characters across the board deserve better, more compelling portrayals. This is an issue that goes beyond casting. There needs to be greater diversity in casting, directing, and writing. You could apply that logic to any other group that’s currently under- or poorly represented in the media: Hire diverse, cast diverse, and tell diverse stories.
Media matters, and it has the power to humanize marginalized groups through honest and touching portrayals of their lives. What we watch and read directly contributes to our understanding of the world, and the trans community is still grossly misunderstood. We’re as varied in our appearances, ideas, emotions, ambitions, and lifestyles as any other population in existence; yet all too often, the media has portrayed us as lying and scheming to hide our deep-seated self-hatred.
When you reach out to the communities whose stories you want to tell, it’s actually not that hard to do. Trevor in Shameless was a refreshingly real take on how some trans men live, tackling the harsh truths of being trans and homeless, as well as being trans and gay; and I was thoroughly charmed by Aaron on The Fosters and Buck in The OA. It’s great to have trans characters who, while having their trans identity acknowledged in the narrative, receive fully fleshed-out lives, personalities, and interests. The night before I sat down to write this, I learned that Laverne Cox had accepted a role on prime-time television that was not originally written for a trans character. This is monumental: if nontrans actors have been allowed to play any role, so too can we.
SAMY EL-NOURY is an actor, aerialist, pianist, puppeteer, and vocalist from Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter @nourypublic.