In her keynote address for the 2014 Creating Change conference in Houston, transgender activist and Orange Is the New Black star Laverne Cox famously said, “Loving trans people is a revolutionary act.”
Nowhere is this revolution more visible than in film and television where intimacy involving trans people is at once a rarity and a welcome treasure. That intimacy could be just a kiss; it could be love in full bloom, or unrequited. It could be tragic or comic. It could involve people struggling to accept their authentic selves, or people already at one with who they are.
However the love unfolds, the precious few representations of trans folk on screen as fully embodied, sensitive, thoughtful, amorous people are electric. So as the country prepares to pay homage to St. Valentine, we thought we'd take a look back on the last 25 years of revolutionary trans love on screen.
Warning: possible spoilers ahead.
Soldier's Girl (2003)
Based on the real-life love affair between U.S. Army Pvt. Barry Winchell and trans performer Calpernia Addams, Soldier's Girl ends tragically with the murder of Winchell for his association with Addams. But along the way, the film’s depiction of a young soldier and a lovely entertainer’s budding rapport is plaintively beautiful.
The Crying Game (1992)
Yes, it builds up to a “big reveal” of the lead character being trans that commentators have called “transphobic.” But this Irish thriller remains one of the first international hit films to feature a sympathetic trans woman, named Dil (played powerfully by Jaye Davidson), who is navigating the hurts and wonders of love. Even more miraculously, the film features Dil’s lover, Fergus (played by a brooding Stephen Rea), taking the fall for Dil in a true sign of outsize affection. After finding out that Dil is trans, Fergus still loves her and stays with her.
The forward-thinking depictions of trans love within this recent science fiction television series may arise from the fact that one of the series creators, Lana Wachowski is a trans woman. She and her brother, Andy, created the Matrix trilogy and have been delighting sci-fi fans with intricately innovative stories ever since. In season 1 of this Netflix thriller, Nomi (played by trans actress Jamie Clayton) and Amanita (played by Freema Agyeman) are undeniably in love — and lust, as the pair's numerous steamy sex scenes demonstrate. After a scene where Amanita shuts down a friend's transphobic criticism of her girlfriend, the couple celebrates Pride in the most intimate way, complete with a rainbow dildo.
Wild Side (2004)
This film, directed by Sébastien Lifshitz, is notable not only for its lush, frank depiction of trans love, but also for the fact that the central character, a trans woman named Stéphanie (played rapturously by Stéphanie Michelini), is also involved in a polyamorous three-way with her two male flatmates. This groundbreaking film won the the Grand Jury Award at L.A.'s Outfest, the New Director's Showcase Award at the Seattle International Film Festival, a Teddy Award in Berlin, and the Special Jury Award at the Gijón International Film Festival.
The Golden Globe- and Emmy-winning TV series from Amazon Studios, starring Jeffrey Tambor as a newly transitioning, retired Jewish political science professor and trans parent Maura, has often placed trans love at the center of its two seasons. In episode 7 of the show's first season, Ali (played by Gaby Hoffman) entertains a kinky fantasy about her college teaching assistant, a trans man played by trans comedian Ian Harvie. In season 2's episode fittingly titled "Flicky Flcky Thump Thump," Maura pleasures her ex-wife, Shelly (played by Judith Light), in the bathtub. By the end of season 2, we finally see Maura exploring her own desires, in a tender, affirming scene with Vicki (pictured above and played by Anjelica Houston), a cisgender attendee of a "womyn-born-womyn" music festival where transphobic women banish Maura, declaring her a "man on the land."
Boy Meets Girl (2014)
In this light-hearted romantic comedy directed by Eric Schaeffer, Ricky (played by trans actress Michelle Hendley) finds affection from both a woman named Francesca (played by Alexandra Turshen) and a man named Robby (Michael Welch). The result is a groundbreaking depiction of trans love that centers a trans actress on the rise as the object of multiple people's affections.
The Danish Girl (2015)
Much has been written about this film starring Eddie Redmayne as Danish painter Lili Elbe, based on the true-life tale of one of the first individuals to receive gender-confirming surgery. The entire film can be seen as a delicately told love story between two people who refuse to leave each other's sides when faced with increasing social isolation and ostracization, and has been painted as such by Alicia Vikander, who landed an Oscar nomination for her role as Lili's wife. But the most fascinating among the film’s many pioneering depictions is a true-to-life scene where Lili and Gerda make love for the first time after Gerda discovers Lili’s transgender identity.
Obviously the title (referring to you-know-what) of this Spanish comedy film directed by Raheem Edwards is tongue-in-cheek. But its depiction of a trans woman named Marieta (played by Mónica Cervera) and her quest for gender-confirming surgery is dead-on serious. Part of that seriousness comes in the film’s depiction of Raúl (played by Pablo Puyol), a man who loves Marieta deeply. He loves all of her (including what is referred to in the film’s title), regardless of whether she has any gender-confirming surgery or not.
This film makes it clear that trans identity is, fundamentally, about not being the gender that one was assigned at birth. It seems to say that whether one has surgery or not does not change one’s fundamental transness. It's a powerful message for those living in today's society, where economic inequality and lack of access to health care make any kind of gender-affirming surgery out of the question for many trans people, let alone the scores of trans and gender-nonconforming folks not interested in any kind of surgical treatment.
Albert Nobbs (2011)
This star turn for Glenn Close as the title character is a historical investigation set in 19th-century Ireland about a trans man who falls in love with a woman named Helen. The film, directed by Rodrigo García, showcases not one but two trans men, Albert (Close) and Hubert (played by Janet McTeer). Both are struggling to find and keep love as transgender people almost two centuries before any semblance of limited trans equality existed in the English-speaking world. While the film ends with a horrific representation of violence against trans people, its depictions of intimacy (requited or unrequited) in the lives of the trans men in the film is bold, powerful, and full of verity.
Ariel (played by Aiden Karamanyan) is a trans woman who is dating a cisgender man named Trevor (played by Rhys Henley) in this poetic, lyrical independent film directed by Tonjia Atomic. Trevor has never dated a trans woman before, and the film chronicles what it means for Ariel and Trevor to find love despite society’s limiting gender parameters.
M. Butterfly (1993)
This now-classic film directed by David Cronenberg is based on a play by David Henry Hwang, which is, in turn, based on the real-life 1960s love affair (and attempted extortion for espionage) between a French diplomat named Bernard Boursicot and Shi Pei Pu, a trans Peking Opera performer. Like The Crying Game, which was released during the same period, this film starring Jeremy Irons as René Gallimard, the French diplomat, and John Lone as Song Liling, the Chinese Opera performer who betrays him, become marred by the “big reveal” of the trans woman’s identity. Some critics have worried about whether Liling is truly a trans character, given the fact that she spies on René. But the passion between the two lead characters cannot be denied.
Films that depict trans women as sex workers constitute a veritable subgenre of movies involving trans characters — and this one directed by Henrique Goldman is a particularly salacious outing in that subgenre. Within that sub-genre exists another sub-genre comprised of films portraying trans women who are doing sex work in order to pay for gender-confirming surgery. This film, starting Ingrid de Souza as Fernanda, covers all the bases and, unsurprisingly given the context, shows Fernanda in passionate scenarios.
Just Like a Woman (1992)
It may be surprising that a film inspired by a 1986 fetish novel by Monica Jay titled Geraldine, For the Love of a Transvestite would find its way onto this list. But Christopher Monger's poignant film includes a positive depiction of intimate friendship between a newly transitioning trans woman investment banker (played by Adrian Pasdar) and a cis woman named Monica (played by Julie Walters). The film is also notable for depicting an experience that many married trans women go through when they accept themselves later in life: being rejected by their wives when they discover their former husband’s authentic identity. In the film, Monica takes Geraldine into her apartment after her wife rejects her.
This film directed by Sabine Bernardi is significant for its representation of a love affair between two men, one trans and one cis, and it may be one of the very few such representations. Lukas (played by Rick Okon) is a gay trans man who loves Fabio. Fabio is a cis bisexual man (played by Maximilian Befort). The film ultimately shows that the men's challenges in negotiating their love are no more or less dramatic than the difficulties of any other couple, and that truth should be understood for all such relationships, regardless of the gender identity of the partners.
Deep Run (2015)
Directed by Hillevi Loven, this nonfiction film chronicles a passionate love affair. Cole Davis has been exiled from his family’s house and he falls in love with a tender, smiling woman named Ashley, who takes him in. It is within Ashley’s church that Davis tries to find acceptance as a trans man. As his masculinity becomes more pronounced, the couple debate whether to disclose his trans experience. The ebb and flow of their romance forms the bedrock of Davis’s struggles in this candid film.
Almost 15 years before Transparent, HBO released this film directed by Jane Anderson about Ruth (played by Tom Wilkinson), a trans woman who has hidden her true self from her wife, Irma (played by Jessica Lange). When Ruth comes out in the film, her daughter, Patty (played Hayden Panettiere) accepts her, but her son, Wayne (played by Joe Sikora) does not. The problems within the family surrounding Ruth’s identity are among the first depictions of such struggles within a family in American television. Ultimately, Irma accepts Ruth for who she is, and the family stays together — a plot point that, on its own, makes this film particularly revolutionary.
Boys Don't Cry (1999)
No list about trans love on screen during the last 25 years can leave off Hilary Swank’s breakout, Oscar-winning performance in this film directed by Kimberly Peirce. Based on the true-life tragedy of Brandon Teena, a 21-year-old trans man who was brutally raped and murdered by two men in December of 1993, the film stars Swank as Brandon, who loves Lana (played by Chloë Sevigny). Over the years, this brooding film's depiction of rural violence has jump-started many rich conversations about violence against trans men and love between trans men and cis women.
A Soap (2006)
This Danish film directed by Pernille Christensen was ahead of its time. It explores a lesbian relationship between a cis straight woman named Charlotte (played by Trine Dyrholm) who owns a beauty salon and her trans woman neighbor, Veronica (played by David Dencik).
In this breakout film directed by Sean S. Baker, trans actress Mya Taylor plays Alexandra, a sex worker, who has a wonderfully intimate rapport with one of her clients, Razmik (played by Karren Karagulian), as portrayed in scenes that include a tender tryst in a car wash. While the film doesn't shy away from the harsh reality of what it's like to sell one's body to pay the rent, it refuses to reduce its stars (Taylor and fellow trans woman Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) into transphobic tropes. In fact, the relationship between Taylor's Alexandra and Rodriguez's Sin-Dee provides the emotional heart of the film, which is set around the women traipsing through Los Angeles looking for Sin-Dee's cheating boyfriend and pimp.