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Trans actors face casting challenges despite milestones

Directors ‘did not know what to do with me’

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trans actors, gay news, Washington Blade
Baltimore-area actor Alicia Horton found herself stuck hiding her developing breasts early in her transition in order to find work auditioning for cis-male roles. (Photo courtesy Horton)

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.

Despite progress, ‘There’s still a cis-het person sitting behind the [casting] table,’ says Samy Nour Younes Figaredo. (Photo courtesy Figaredo)
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Rodriquez scores historic win at otherwise irrelevant Golden Globes

Award represents a major milestone for trans visibility

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Michaela Jaé Rodriguez, on right, and Billy Porter in 'Pose.' (Photo courtesy of FX)

HOLLYWOOD – Despite its continuing status as something of a pariah organization in Hollywood, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has managed to cling to relevance in the wake of last night’s behind-closed-doors presentation of its 79th Annual Golden Globe Awards by sole virtue of having bestowed the prize for “Best Leading Actress in a Television Series – Drama” on Michaela Jaé Rodriguez for her work in the final season of “Pose” – making her the first transgender performer to win a Golden Globe.

The ceremony took place as a private, no-press-or-audience event in which winners were revealed via a series of tweets from the Golden Globes Twitter account. No celebrities were present (not even the nominees or winners), although actress Jamie Lee Curtis participated by appearing in a video in which she pronounced her continuing loyalty to the HFPA – without mention of the  longstanding issues around diversity and ethical practices, revealed early in 2021 by a bombshell Los Angeles Times report, that have led to an nearly industry-wide boycott of the organization and its awards as well as the cancellation of the annual Golden Globes broadcast by NBC for the foreseeable future.

While the Golden Globes may have lost their luster for the time being, the award for Rodriquez represents a major milestone for trans visibility and inclusion in the traditionally transphobic entertainment industry, and for her part, the actress responded to news of her win with characteristic grace and good will.

Posting on her Instagram account, the 31-year old actress said: 

“OMG OMGGG!!!! @goldenglobes Wow! You talking about sickening birthday present! Thank you!

“This is the door that is going to Open the door for many more young talented individuals. They will see that it is more than possible. They will see that a young Black Latina girl from Newark New Jersey who had a dream, to change the minds others would WITH LOVE. LOVE WINS.

“To my young LGBTQAI babies WE ARE HERE the door is now open now reach the stars!!!!!”

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As You Are Bar and the importance of queer gathering spaces

New bar/restaurant poised to open in 2022

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As You Are Bar had a pop-up venue at Capital Pride's "Colorful Fest" block party in October. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

More than just a watering hole: As You Are Bar is set to be the city’s newest queer gathering place where patrons can spill tea over late-morning cappuccinos as easily as they can over late-night vodka-sodas.

Co-owners and founders Jo McDaniel and Rachel Pike built on their extensive experience in the hospitality industry – including stints at several gay bars – to sign a lease for their new concept in Barracks Row, replacing what was previously District Soul Food and Banana Café. In a prime corner spot, they are seeking to bring together the disparate colors of the LGBTQ rainbow – but first must navigate the approval process (more on that later).

The duo decided on this Southeast neighborhood locale to increase accessibility for “the marginalized parts of our community,” they say, “bringing out the intersectionality inherent in the queer space.”

Northwest D.C., they explain, not only already has many gay bar options, but is also more difficult to get to for those who don’t live within walking distance. The Barracks Row location is right by a Metro stop, “reducing pay walls.” Plus, there, “we are able to find a neighborhood to bring in a queer presence that doesn’t exist today.”

McDaniel points out that the area has a deep queer bar history. Western bar Remington’s was once located in the area, and it’s a mere block from the former Phase 1, the longest-running lesbian bar, which was open from 1971-2015.

McDaniel and Pike hope that As You Are Bar will be an inclusive space that “welcomes anyone of any walk of life that will support, love, and celebrate the mission of queer culture. We want people of all ages, gender, sexual identity, as well as drinkers and non-drinkers, to have space.”

McDaniel (she/her) began her career at Apex in 2005 and was most recently the opening manager of ALOHO. Pike (she/they) was behind the bar and worked as security at ALOHO, where the two met.

Since leaving ALOHO earlier this year, they have pursued the As You Are Bar project, first by hosting virtual events during the pandemic, and now in this brick-and-mortar space. They expressed concern that receiving the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) liquor license approval and the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, or ANC, approval will be a long and expensive process.

They have already received notice that some neighbors intend to protest As You Are Bar’s application for the “tavern” liquor license that ABRA grants to serve alcohol and allow for live entertainment (e.g. drag shows). They applied for the license on Nov. 12, and have no anticipated opening date, estimating at least six months. If ABRA and the city’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board give final approval, the local ANC 6B and nearby residents can no longer protest the license until the license comes up for renewal.

Until approval is given, they continue physical buildout (including soundproofing) and planning their offerings. If the license is approved, ABRA and the ABC Board can take action against As You Are Bar, like any bar, at any time if they violate the terms of the license or create a neighborhood disturbance that violates city laws such as the local noise ordinance.  In the kitchen, the duo snagged Chef Nina Love to develop the menu. Love will oversee café-style fare; look out for breakfast sandwiches making an appearance all the way until close. They will also have baked goods during the day.

McDaniel and Pike themselves will craft the bar menu. Importantly, they note, the coffee bar will also serve until close. There will be a full bar as well as a list of zero-proof cocktails. As with their sourcing, they hope to work with queer-, minority-, and women-owned businesses for everything not made in-house.

Flexible conceptually, they seek to grow with their customer base, allowing patrons to create the culture that they seek.

Their goal is to move the queer space away from a focus on alcohol consumption. From book clubs, to letter-writing, to shared workspaces, to dance parties, they seek an all-day, morning-to-night rhythm of youth, families, and adults to find a niche. “We want to shift the narrative of a furtive, secretive, dark gay space and hold it up to the light,” they say. “It’s a little like The Planet from the original L Word show,” they joke.

Pike notes that they plan on working closely with SMYAL, for example, to promote programming for youth. Weekend potential activities include lunch-and-learn sessions on Saturdays and festive Sunday brunches.

The café space, to be located on the first floor, will have coffeehouse-style sofas as well as workstations. A slim patio on 8th Street will hold about six tables.

Even as other queer bars have closed, they reinforce that the need is still present. “Yes, we can visit a café or bar, but we always need to have a place where we are 100 percent certain that we are safe, and that our security is paramount. Even as queer acceptance continues to grow, a dedicated queer space will always be necessary,” they say.

To get there, they continue to rally support of friends, neighbors, and leaders in ANC6B district; the ANC6B officials butted heads with District Soul Food, the previous restaurant in the space, over late-night noise and other complaints. McDaniel and Pike hope that once nearby residents and businesses understand the important contribution that As You Are Bar can make to the neighborhood, they will extend their support and allow the bar to open.

AYA, gay news, Washington Blade
Rachel Pike and Jo McDaniel signed a lease for their new concept in Barracks Row. (Photo courtesy Pike and McDaniel)
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Need a list-minute gift idea?

Books, non-profit donations make thoughtful choices

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‘Yes, Daddy’ by Jonathan Parks-Ramage is the story of a young man with dying dreams of fame and fortune, who schemes to meet an older man.

You knew this was coming.

You knew that you were going to have to finish your holiday shopping soon but it snuck up on you, didn’t it? And even if you’re close to being done, there are always those three or five people who are impossible to buy for, right? Remember this, though: books are easy to wrap and easy to give, and they last a while, too. So why not head to the bookstore with your Christmas List and look for these gifts.

And if you still have people to shop for, why not make a donation to a local non-profit in their name? A list of D.C.-area suggestions follows.

BOOKS: NONFICTION

If there’s about to be a new addition to your family, wrapping up “Queer Stepfamilies: The path to Social and Legal Recognition” by Katie L. Acosta would be a good thing. In this book, the author followed forty LGBTQ families to understand the joys, pitfalls, and legalities of forming a new union together. It can’t replace a lawyer, but it’s a good overview.

For the parent who wants to ensure that their child grows up with a lack of bias, “Raising LGBTQ Allies” by Chris Tompkins is a great book to give. It’s filled with methods to stop bullying in its tracks, to be proactive in having That Conversation, and how to be sure that the next generation you’re responsible for becomes responsible in turn. Wrap it up with “The Healing Otherness Handbook” by Stacee L. Reicherzer, Ph.D., a book that helps readers to deal with bullying by finding confidence and empowerment.

If there’s someone on your gift list who’s determined to get “fit” in the coming year, then give “The Secret to Superhuman Strength” by Alison Bechdel this holiday. Told in graphic-novel format (comics, basically), it’s the story of searching for self-improvement and finding it in a surprising place.

So why not give a little nostalgia this year by wrapping up “A Night at the Sweet Gum Head” by Martin Padgett? It’s the tale of disco, drag, and drugs in the 1970s (of course!) in Atlanta, with appearances by activists, politics, and people who were there at that fabulous time. Wrap it up with “After Francesco” by Brian Malloy, a novel set a little later – in the mid-1980s in New York City and Minneapolis at the beginning of the AIDS crisis.

The LGBTQ activist on your gift list will want to read “The Case for Gay Reparations” by Omar G. Encarnacion. It’s a book about acknowledgment, obligation on the part of cis citizens, and fixing the pain that homophobia and violence has caused. Wrap it up with “Trans Medicine: The Emergence and Practice of Treating Gender” by Stef M. Shuster, a look at trans history that may also make your giftee growl.

FICTION

Young readers who have recently transitioned will enjoy reading “Both Sides Now” by Peyton Thomas. It’s a novel about a high school boy with gigantic dreams and the means to accomplish them all. Can he overcome the barriers that life gives him? It’s debatable… Pair it with “Can’t Take That Away” by Steven Salvatore, a book about two nonbinary students and the troubles they face as they fall in love.

The thriller fan on your list will be overjoyed to unwrap “Yes, Daddy” by Jonathan Parks-Ramage. It’s the story of a young man with dying dreams of fame and fortune, who schemes to meet an older, more accomplished man with the hopes of sparking his failing career. But the older man isn’t who the younger thinks he is, and that’s not good. Wrap it up with “Lies with Man” by Michael Nava, a book about a lawyer who agrees to be counsel for a group of activists. Good so far, right? Until one of them is accused of being involved in a deadly bombing.

For the fan of Southern fiction, you can’t go wrong when you wrap up “The Tender Grave” by Sheri Reynolds. It’s the tale of two sisters, one homophobic, the other lesbian, and how they learn to forgive and re-connect.

NON-PROFIT GIVING

Like nonprofit organizations throughout the country, D.C.-area LGBTQ supportive nonprofit groups have told the Blade they continue to rebuild amid the coronavirus pandemic, which disrupted their fundraising efforts while increasing expenses, at least in part by prompting more people to come to them for help.

This holiday season, if you’re looking for a thoughtful gift, consider making a donation to one of our local LGBTQ non-profit organizations in someone else’s name. This list is by no means exhaustive, but a good place to start your research.

Contributions to the LGBTQ supportive nonprofit organizations can be made via the websites of these local organizations:

• Blade Foundation, which funds local scholarships and fellowships for queer student journalists, bladefoundation.org

• DC Center, our local community center that operates a wide range of programming,  thedccenter.org/donate

Food & Friends, which delivers meals to homebound patients, foodandfriends.org

HIPS, which advances the health rights and dignity of those impacted by sex work and drugs, hips.org

• SMYAL, which advocates for queer youth, smyal.org

Wanda Alston Foundation, which offers shelter and support for LGBTQ youth, wandaalstonfoundation.org

• Whitman-Walker Health, the city’s longtime LGBTQ-inclusive health care provider, whitmanwalkerimpact.org

Casa Ruby, which provides shelter and services to youth in need, casaruby.org

• Us Helping Us, which helps improve the health of communities of color and works to reduce the impact of HIV/AIDS on the Black community, ushelpingus.org/donate

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