Actor Elliot Page came out as transgender in December and Netflix admirably affirmed his name and pronouns on past and current work, but local gender-diverse performers still struggle against cisgender and heteronormative casting expectations.
“There’s still a cis-het person sitting behind the [casting] table,” Samy Nour Younes Figaredo told the Washington Blade during a discussion about his experiences as a gay trans male actor who identifies as nonbinary. “Even in 2018, I had been on an audition, and I had that I was trans on my resume, and I could hear people behind the table whispering, ‘What am I supposed to do with that?’ even as I am walking in.”
Baltimore-area actor and firefighter Alicia Horton, also found herself stuck hiding her developing breasts and wearing “a really funky wig” early in her transition in order to find work auditioning for cis-male roles.
“I had to audition for ‘Dream Girls’ my junior year of college in 2011,” Horton said while soothing her dog Zuko, a pit bull mix she rescued from a shelter in August. “I was on hormones and my hair was super long and they put it in a really funky wig to try to make me look more masculine. The girls showed me how to pin-curl my hair so it would fit under the wig. I wish I had a picture of it — it just looked so bad.”
Despite the visibility and growing support for award-winning nonbinary and transgender performers, including Sam Smith and Eddie Izzard to name two, Figaredo and Horton are not alone in their challenges finding affirming work and building careers since coming out.
A landmark 2013 survey of more than 5,000 Screen Actors Guild members found that while 80 percent of respondents agreed transgender actors should be considered for cisgender roles, the industry’s “economic imperative” to reach a “broad market” could “create potential risks for casting LGBT actors in roles that the viewing public may not accept.”
However, SAG-AFTRA also notes public and industry support for gender diverse actors has been steadily increasing in the past eight years.
“The last few years have seen a growing acceptance of trans and non-binary actors accompanied by open discussions of the challenges they may still face,” a representative told the Blade in an email. “The encouraging response to ‘The Umbrella Academy’s’ transgender star, Elliot Page, including a supportive statement from Netflix, is a sign of the industry moving in the right direction.”
Still, Figaredo says he’s had little success with television casting auditions since transitioning in 2010.
Figaredo is a Lebanese-Puerto Rican actor and a queer person of color activist who now lives and works in New York City, though he got his start in the D.C. area. He is an experienced stage performer who had a brief role on Amazon’s “Transparent” and appeared with his partner in Citibank’s trans-inclusive ad campaign.
He said a major problem for him, as an out transgender actor who includes his gender identity and his proper pronouns on his resume, is not only does he have to convince casting personnel that he is an experienced professional, but “that I am a person” as well.
“People did not know what to do with me or how to cast me,” Figaredo said. “Casting directors adhere to types, based on a preconceived conception of the role when the gender doesn’t necessarily have to do with the story.”
Figaredo, who did community theater work early on, found himself cast in a lot of female roles “when people didn’t know how to address me or assumed I was a boyish woman,” including the role of “Juliet” in a University of Maryland production of Shakespeare’s play.
Though that director who cross-gender cast him later became his friend, he said the experience was less than affirming, unlike his experience on the set of “Transparent,” which he said had many transgender people on and off-camera.
Figaredo was cast as an Arab-American activist during an episode set in Israel. While the role was male, whether it was cis or trans didn’t matter to the storyline, so Figaredo played it as trans. He said the racial, cultural, sexual and gender diversity of those working both on and off-camera encouraged an open and authentic environment that elicited better on-screen performances.
“A major plot point changed because a member of the crew had an experience with being queer in Palestine and related to the cast,” Figaredo said. “Someone rewrote a character to be in that situation.”
Figaredo emphasized the importance of normalizing people’s differences and fostering an open culture in the entertainment industry “where people feel empowered and accept the diversity around them.”
He said he said he has experienced “major strides” in trans casting in the past two years particularly, and noted the Citibank ad campaign he was a part of.
“Citibank unrolled an ad campaign of trans people and couples due to their preferred name campaign,” he said. “I was cast with my partner who identifies as cis-male and uses he/him pronouns.”
Figaredo and Horton said it is important to have more transgender people working both on stage and behind the scenes and to have more trans stories told. This is so more trans actors can find authentic and affirming work.
Horton, who holds a bachelor’s of fine arts degree in dance from Towson University, said she auditioned as a “male” early in her career, despite experiencing physical changes that had to be awkwardly concealed for performances, because that was the only way she could find work.
But last year she was hand-picked for a role in a production about Andy Warhol because she identified as a trans woman. She said this should happen more often.
“I think we need to have more trans stories,” she said. “More diverse trans stories. We see the sex workers and how he or she feels so terrible and about being born in the wrong body, but what else is there? Can we get a love story or something where being trans is the least important part of the story?”
Horton said she and her friends who are trans women often laugh and joke with each other that they could make a good ensemble TV show cast with their diversity of experiences and backgrounds. She is hopeful to see such stories in the future.
“As we have more trans visibility, we’ll have more trans storytellers,” she said.
Figaredo also said that things change fast and “that bodes well for the future of trans people in Hollywood.”
In December, Gottmik, a high-femme drag artist, was announced as the first transmasculine contestant on season 13 of RuPaul’s ‘Drag Race,’ and follows season 9’s Peppermint, a trans woman and the first transgender performer cast.
Figaredo said he looks forward to more diversity in trans representation as the industry grows and becomes more inclusive.
Still, the SAG-AFTRA study concluded despite ongoing positive change, which includes a growing acceptance for LGBTQ performers, the survey results suggest “additional work needs to be done to address discrimination and harrassment,” which keeps many from using their talents to enrich the industry and the culture as a whole.