Transforming Television: 12 Trans Performers We Love!

View as:|
1 of 13

Hidden No More

Here's one fact that cannot be denied: There has recently been a serious influx of transgender performers on the small screen. Yes, Hollywood has much more work to do, but never have we seen this many trans characters on network, cable and streaming TV. And never have we seen such a range of multilayered trans people and storylines -- including several that highlight HIV issues -- as we did during the 2016-2017 season.

So, let's celebrate the actors who brought these stories to life!

Laverne Cox: OITNB; Doubt; The Rocky Horror Picture Show

Laverne Cox has always been a tenacious HIV and LGBTQ advocate, but it wasn't until she was tapped to be trans inmate Sophia Burset on the award-winning Netflix dramedy, Orange Is the New Black, that she became a household name. And it was well deserved: Cox's Sofia is a much-needed breath of fresh air.

So, it's no surprise that in 2013 she became the first out trans actor to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy. And, while in early 2017 CBS sadly cancelled Doubt -- on which Cox was the first trans lead actor on a TV show -- we're confident that Cox's career will continue to skyrocket.

Photo credit: Jojo Whilden/Netflix.

Ivory Aquino: When We Rise

For most her acting career, Ivory Aquino has played cis female characters. But that changed when she was cast in ABC's LGBTQ miniseries When We Rise, playing real-life HIV-positive transgender activist Cecilia Chung. (Today, Chung is an advocate for HIV/AIDS awareness and at the Transgender Law Center.)

Aquino has said that playing Chung also helped her come out as trans to the public. Aquino shared that this project was just "too important" for her "to not share" herself with others.

Photo credit: ABC/Image Group LA. © 2017 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.

Alexandra Billings: Transparent; How to Get Away With Murder

Alexandra Billings is the definition of "trailblazer."

Not only was she the first openly transgender performer to play a trans character on television (the made-for-TV movie, Romy and Michele: In the Beginning), but her career has already spanned three decades, including frequent guest roles on numerous shows, such as Karen Sisco, ER, How to Get Away With Murder and Grey's Anatomy.

But it's her role as Davina, an HIV-positive trans woman, on Amazon's Emmy-winning Transparent that has gotten the most mainstream attention thus far. And, like her character Davina, Billings has been living with HIV -- since 1994 -- and this long-term survivor has been a force in raising awareness around the disease and the stigma that positive trans women face.

Photo credit: Amazon Prime Video.

Angelica Ross: Claws; Doubt; Her Story

Rising star Angelica Ross hasn't always been an actor. The founder and CEO of TransTech Social Enterprises, a firm started in 2014 to help employ transgender people, decided to get her feet wet with the 2016 web series Her Story. She channeled her inner Olivia Pope to play Paige, a trans lawyer for Lambda Legal who teeters back and forth from strength to vulnerability as she tries to find real love in Los Angeles.

And, given the show's Emmy nomination for Outstanding Short Form Comedy or Drama, this leap of faith definitely paid off for Ross. Next up? TNT's new nail salon comedy Claws, on which she plays a trans woman named Relevance.

Photo courtesy of Her Story.

Elliot Fletcher: Shameless; The Fosters

One of the best things about the seventh season of Showtime's Shameless was Elliot Fletcher's unflinching performance as Trevor, a young trans mans who falls for Ian Gallager. The California native was flawlessly unapologetic in a storyline arc that touched on transphobia in the LGB and cis straight communities, the homeless epidemic among LGBTQ youth, navigating safer sex and body positivity.

Fletcher also played MTV's first transgender character on Faking It and broke ground on Freeform's The Fosters as Aaron (seen on the right in the photo on this page).

Photo credit: Freeform/Eric McCandless. © 2016 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

Trace Lysette: Transparent; Blunt Talk

We always knew that Transparent's Trace Lysette was a force to be reckoned with, but not until the third season of the award-winning show was she given the material to prove us right. Playing HIV-positive yoga instructor Shea, Lysette dazzled as her character grappled with a range of issues of including sex work, disclosing her HIV-status, being fetishized by cisgender men and depression. Hopefully season four continues to let Lysette shine.

In addition, Lysette guest starred on the Starz' Blunt Talk, holding her own with the likes of iconic actor Patrick Stewart.

Photo credit: Amazon Prime Video.

Jamie Clayton: Sense8

It's not very often that trans characters exist in the realm of science fiction, but thanks to Sense8 creators Lana and Lily Wachowski -- who are both trans -- actor Jamie Clayton gets be her authentic self in this new futuristic world. In the Netflix drama, she plays Nomi, a transgender "hacktivist" who is also a Sensate: a telepathic person who is connected to a number of others like her around the world.

Clayton has stressed that the reason she "wanted this project" was because Nomi's gender identity isn't at the center of her storyline. Next up for Clayton? She's starring alongside Michael Fassbender and Rebecca Ferguson in the upcoming crime thriller The Snowman.

Photo credit: Netflix.

Jen Richards: Nashville; Her Story; Doubt

When Jen Richards isn't writing articles for a range of publications, penning TV and feature scripts or producing hard-hitting documentaries, the Mississippi-native is flexing her chops in front of the camera. She melted our hearts as the conflicted and naive Violet in the Emmy-nominated and Peabody-winning web series Her Story (which Richards also co-wrote).

In addition, she broke down some serious barriers in the country music soap opera Nashville: She was CMTs' first transgender character and the network's first out transgender actor. Richards played Allyson Del Lago, a physical therapist who helps Juliette (Hayden Panettiere) recover from a plane crash.

Photo courtesy of Her Story.

Rain Valdez: Lopez

Despite working behind the scenes in Hollywood for nearly 15 years, Rain Valdez's industry colleagues had no idea that she was a trans woman. But, after being inspired by Transparent, the Filipino beauty decided to come out not just in life but also in front of the camera. After starring in the 2016 short film Ryans, which she also wrote, Valdez quickly found herself on George Lopez's TV Land show Lopez.

Playing trans actor Coco, Valdez gives a realistic and touching portrayal of a woman who is fighting against trans tokenism, dealing with transphobia in the workplace and feeling the pressure of being one of few trans women on TV.

Photo courtesy of TV Land.

Ian Harvie: Mistresses; Young & Hungry; Transparent

Comedian and actor Ian Harvie is one of our few trans men in the industry -- and we're grateful for him. Since wowing us as Dale on Transparent, he has been seen on ABC's Mistresses playing Michael Hester, a potential love interested for boutique owner April (Rochelle Aytes), who gives her a much-needed cultural competency lesson on what being trans is.

Harvie was also seen on Freeform's Young & Hungry. In the episode, food blogger Gabi (Emily Osment, who's on the left sitting next to Harvie in the photo on this page) wins a cooking contest using her Aunt Chris' classic recipe. But when organizers want to take a picture of Gabi and her aunt, whom she hasn't seen in years, she realizes that he's now Uncle Chris.

Photo credit: Freeform/Ron Tom. © 2016 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

Alexandra Grey: Chicago Med; Transparent; Code Black; When We Rise

Up-and-coming actor Alexandra Grey was a serious staple of the 2016-2017 television season. The Chicago native first caused a splash in season 3 of Transparent, playing Elizah, a suicidal trans teen who waited five hours at a clinic only to be denied care. While Grey was only on screen for a mere 5-6 minutes, her brutal performance was one of the season's most memorable moments. Grey was also riveting as Seville on When We Rise next to Michael K. Williams and Phylicia Rashad and as Denise on Chicago Med.

We definitely need to see more of her down the road!

Photo credit: Amazon Prime Video.

Amiyah Scott: Star

In 2016, Amiyah Scott traded in the unnecessary drama of The Real Housewives of Atlanta and upgraded to the scripted drama of Empire's spinoff Star. The internet sensation brilliantly plays Cotton, a transgender hustler and dancer. Throughout the first season, Scott's character struggled with real-life issues often faced by trans women of color: familial transphobia (especially with her mother, played by Queen Latifah), oppressive religious beliefs, mental health issues and hate crime victimization.

We hope the show continues to nurture this important character in season 2.

Photo credit: FOX.