Who Plays the Transgender Role?

When musing over what could happen next for Tea and Transition, one of the questions that friends ask is: “who would you like to play you in the movie?” It’s with a little surprise from me when asked, and incredulity from them when I reply: “well, me, of course!” I’m not offended that they are not aware of my thespian tendencies, as it has been several decades since I trod the boards last, and they probably didn’t know of that event anyway. I certainly thought my playing of attendant #1 in a school play production of The Merchant Of Venice was Oscar-worthy. Or it might have been tree #2 in a background scene, after all the better roles had been taken. Yet the question that those friends ask is a valid one as it does raise one of the other trans topics du jour: should transgender roles only be played by transgender actors?

There was news from British media this week that the long-running soap-series EastEnders would have a transgender character in it (the first in its 30 year run) and that the role would be played by a transgender actor. Firstly, congrats to Riley Carter Millington for landing the job — and to the writers and producers for including such a part. It is always welcome that trans stories are included within mainstream media, if only to broaden the cultural conversation. I’m sure that Riley will do a terrific job, but would it have been appropriate to have a non-transgender actor playing this role? This is a subject that can get the panties of many trans-activists in a wad (knickers in a twist if I am resorting to British colloquialism) as it is often felt that the best way to support the trans community is to give trans jobs to trans characters. I disagree.

I remember watching Felicity Huffman give an excellent performance in the 2005 movie Transamerica and I didn’t consider the part less authentic just because the actor wasn’t transgender herself. Though, relevant or not, that was also the time when I had yet to identify that I myself was trans. The performance that Jeffrey Tambor gave in Transparent was first rate even though I still think that series was marred by a gamut of other gender and sexuality issues that detracted from the transgender issue itself. There were other ‘real life’ transgender characters in that series, and I believe Jill Solloway actively encourages and promotes transgender talent within the production process. Great, that’s definitely to be valued, though it doesn’t mean that all trans characters have to be played by trans actors.

The point is, that to get the message across about being transgender and for the audience to empathize with that character is more important than filling the role with that gender-specific person. Sure, the part should be considered for a trans actor first, but let’s not get bogged down in political correctness if there might be an actor who could portray the role better and get that message across to a wider audience. I hope a subsequent step will be to create a trans role that the viewing public will actually NOT like. Huh?

It took Hollywood a while to create black villains, and I can’t think of many gay baddies within the industry either (time for the next Bond megalomaniac baddy to be gay?), so I trust there will be a time when we can have a transgender character in a key role that will meet a gloriously untimely end — not because they are trans but because their character was the villain. This is a long way off, and society needs to get to the point of comfort where we don’t actually think of transgender people as transgender people anymore, just as people people. One day, one day…

So yes, if I can, and if my skills are up to scratch, I’d still like to play myself if and when Tea and Transition makes it to the big screen. Oh, and for the role of my mum? Dame Judi Dench. Call me, that part is yours.