It’s a strange time to be a trans woman. Lately, there seems to be a nationwide obsession with where they choose to use the bathroom. Politicians are putting forth legislation to defund basic healthcare for Trans soldiers. Not to mention, a murder rate that continues to rise in 2017 in spite of hitting record highs in 2016. On the face of it, none of this seems particularly strange, worrisome if anything. But this news stands in stark juxtaposition with a recent wave of positive images of trans womanhood.
Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox and Jamie Clayton are just some of the names and faces contributing to a recent increase in the visibility of trans women across the pop culture landscape. Starring in television series, winning awards, and gracing magazine covers, these women are just a taste of what seems to be an about face for Hollywood after years of marginalizing, mocking, and vilifying trans women in film and television. However, Hollywood’s newfound “wokeness” on the topic of trans visibility has not come without controversy.
While there finally seems to be interest in telling trans women’s stories it seems in many cases Hollywood is hoping to do so without actual trans women. In 2013, cisgendered man, Jared Leto shook a wig out of a bag and smeared on some makeup to play the thinly drawn Rayon in Dallas Buyer’s Club, a trans woman living with HIV. In 2014 he walked away with an Oscar for it. While there was controversy over the producer’s choice to cast Leto it did not seem to throw cold water on this trend. The following year, cisgendered man, Eddie Redmayne walked away with an Oscar for playing real life trans woman and pioneer, Lile Elbe, in The Danish Girl. That same year Amazon premiered its groundbreaking series Transparent starring, (say it with me this time) cisgendered man, Jeffrey Tambor as a trans woman coming out to her family.
While the heat has been turned up in recent years on producers casting cisgendered men in these parts, Hollywood, as is usually the case, seems slow to learn a lesson. See, cisgendered man, Matt Bomer’s next starring role as a trans woman in the forthcoming Anything.
With all (or at least most) of the best roles for trans women going to cis men it can be hard to imagine how a trans actress is supposed to make a name for herself in the industry. To get a better view of the problem, Tagg sat down with Danielle Green. A recent Washington D.C. transplant from Reading, California, federal government employee, trans activist, and actress. We discussed her upcoming film, No Chocolate, No Rice (which centers on the world of gay dating apps and their racially problematic underbelly), her early life and her take on Hollywood’s treatment of trans talent and storylines.
Tagg: So, let’s start at the beginning. When did you realize you were trans?
Danielle: Typically, gender is fairly solidified at age five to six years-old. I definitely knew around that time. Even though I didn’t have the terms, this was the 90’s, at least in my community, the concept of trans identities was completely ignored or denied. I didn’t have any concept or examples of what that was. I remember in kindergarten I told everyone I was half girl. That was the word I invented to capture what I felt.
Tagg: Were there any images of trans women that you were seeing at that age?
Danielle: No. None at all, except the murderer in Psycho. There were examples in pop culture I did consume but none that I was like, “oh that’s me.”
Tagg: So, there were no depictions you related to?
Danielle: Absolutely Not. And that was part of the problem. By completely omitting [depictions of trans women] in pop culture they denied me access to that community in which I would have found refuge.
Tagg: Around the time you came to identify as transgender, what sort of images of trans women were being reflected back to you?
Danielle: So, my first introduction to trans as a concept was in my freshman year. I snuck into the basement of the bookstore, I pulled out the abnormal psychology textbook and I looked myself up. Which is not the place one wants to be looking for one’s self. I wasn’t identifying as trans at that point though. I didn’t feel like I had the right to claim womanhood.
Tagg: Do you feel like the lack of trans images enables people to deny trans women an identity as women?
Danielle: Yes. Absolutely. Lack of representation for other groups in general but for trans women in particular, denies them the right to exist. I’ve had so many friends who come from different backgrounds complain about how gender labels are narrowly constructed but for me the label was freeing. Discovering that there was a label meant discovering that there was a community of people who were like me. And that there were other people out there who’ve experienced life the way that I experienced life. And denying that existence leads to a feeling of vertigo in one’s self. A sense of not knowing what you are because you have no reference point to compare yourself to others.
Tagg: We are in the middle of what’s being called a “trans moment” right now. You have Laverne Cox from OITNB and Jamie Clayton of Sense 8, doing their thing. But you also have Jared Leto winning an Oscar for playing a trans woman and Matt Bomer playing a Trans woman in an upcoming film as well. How would you define the moment we’re in right now for trans representation?
Danielle: We are in the same moment when Vaudeville was realizing that blackface was probably not the best representation of communities of color. When you cast cis actors as trans people of the opposite gender, what you are ultimately saying is that trans people are not their actual gender. You’re casting doubt on our identities and who we are. I think Hollywood is beginning to catch on to the fact that casting cisgendered men as trans women is not a good idea but I don’t think they understand why yet.
Tagg: Let’s talk about your character in No Chocolate, No Rice. Does it feel freeing to be a trans woman playing a trans woman on screen?
Danielle: It’s liberating. I feel there’s a range of expression that I’m capable of as an openly trans person that I never was capable of when I was faking being cis. At times, I tried to walk the line of going back to passing as a cis male when I was travelling overseas to countries that are explicitly hostile to gender nonconforming individuals and it’s funny because nobody bought it. Let’s just say I’m a much better actress than I ever was an actor.
Tagg: Tell us about your character, Monique.
Danielle: Monique is a firebrand. I really like her. She’s been through a lot and she has a complicated history but she’s very powerful and very present. Which I appreciate because so often trans stories are told through the lens of despair and from a place of life just being really horrible. Monique is also largely the only female character in the film which I didn’t notice until after casting.
Tagg: What do you hope a young trans girl watching you as Monique will take from it that you weren’t able to take from trans images when you were a child?
Danielle: Pride. Seeing characters in the stories who look like you and talk like you, that have the same experiences that you have, it changes everything.