The history of trans representation in Hollywood is bumpy, to say the least. While we can now celebrate shows like Pose on FX and the recent hit series Veneno on HBO Max — an entire series based on the life of the Spanish trans icon Cristina “La Veneno” Ortiz Rodríguez — there are just as many examples that feature inauthentic, even dangerous depictions of trans people (see the recent documentary Disclosure for more examples).
Still, with this new blossoming of trans lives on-screen, the vast majority of those depictions are of trans women. In 1999, Brandon Teena, a real-life trans man who became the victim of a brutal murder, was portrayed in Boys Don’t Cry by Hilary Swank, who won the Academy Award for Best Actress. Television has featured some trans male supporting characters since then, but nothing that's reached mainstream audiences to the degree that Boys Don’t Cry did.
“Most of the representation that I had seen were women who decided to cross-dress as a male for some sort of game. So it was this woman’s empowerment story in trans male packaging,” says Brian Michael Smith, one of the stars of the TV series 9-1-1: Lone Star, now in its second season on Fox. Movies like She’s the Man, the 2006 romantic comedy that starred Amanda Bynes pretending to be a boy to join the soccer team at school, became the closest thing that trans men had to point to that represented their experience in the smallest way. On the LGBTQ&A podcast, Smith says, “At the end of the day, once her love life was on the line, or once she got what she needed, or she proved that she can do anything, she takes all the male stuff off and becomes a woman again. So there was this whole belief almost that trans men don’t exist and it was always a woman in disguise.”
For all the misses and mistakes Hollywood’s made over the years, relying on clichés and transition-focused storylines, they now seem to be listening. In 9-1-1: Lone Star, audiences can see Smith play a fireman who is also trans. Not only is Smith, who appeared on the first season of The L Word: Generation Q, the first out Black trans man in a series regular role on television, but that role is a hero, a character that defies easy stereotypes. The character’s gender is acknowledged and is a part of the story without it being made to be his only interesting or defining aspect.
“That’s something I really like about Lone Star, is that they allow my character to just be who he is, while also at other times exploring his trans experience and giving room for that as well,” Smith says. The storylines and dialogue that involve his character’s trans identity should be held up as the gold standard on television, and it’s something that Smith’s had a hand in.
In the first episode, during a locker room scene with Smith and Rob Lowe, it’s revealed how seriously Lowe’s cisgender, heterosexual character takes his skin care, while Smith’s character is clueless. The way it was originally written, Smith was supposed to explain that his acne was the result of medication and hormones. But he pushed back on that.
“I’m like, in no world would a trans man in a new environment, who is coming from an environment where he was experiencing discrimination and animosity for being different, would he be that open and forthcoming with someone that he does not really know. And it’s an open locker room. There’s other people walking around,” he says. “We are introducing this character and his experiences to Middle America to understand. There’s ways to do it that make more sense for the character and for the experience, and it’s just more authentic.”
The writers listened and the dialogue was changed.
“It’s just been a beautiful, beautiful year in terms of transmasculine representation, and I see where that trajectory is going,” Smith says. “I think it’s going to continue to move in this direction.”
9-1-1: Lone Star airs Fridays on FOX.
LGBTQ&A is The Advocate's weekly interview podcast hosted by Jeffrey Masters. Past guests include Alok Vaid-Menon, Pete Buttigieg, Laverne Cox, Cleve Jones, and Roxane Gay. Episodes come out every Tuesday.