In honor of Trans Awareness Week (November 14-20), I present to you a handful of my personal favorite up-and-coming transgender actors/models/fitness experts/reality TV stars that you need to know about. Obviously you know about big name transgender stars like Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox (because doesn’t everyone?), but here are twelve lesser-known artists that demand your attention. They’re going to be huge.
Actress and model Hari Nef made history in 2015 when she became the first transgender model signed by a major modeling agency. Nef is repped by IMG Worldwide, the same agency that reps Julianne Moore, the Hadid sisters, Gemma Ward, Gisele Bündchen, and Kate-fucking-Moss. Nef graduated in the spring of 2015 from Columbia’s theatre program and signed with IMG shortly after. Her writing has appeared in Dazed, Vice, BLACKBOOK, and more. She also has a regular sex advice column in Adult Mag. Nef most recently landed a role in season 2 of the Amazon series Transparent (which, if you haven’t watched, I highly recommend. Everyone in it is flawless). Nef is outspoken and hilarious (seriously, follow her Twitter). She’s also smart as hell. Says Nef in Out Magazine’s Out100: “Triumphs for trans women have been directly proportional to an increase in violence against less-privileged trans women, particularly black trans women. It’s not all up to us, though — there needs to be more focus on the cisgender men who are killing us, and their prejudice.”
Trace Lysette is a New York-based actress best known for her role in Transparent. Lysette plays Shea, Maura’s (Tambor) yoga-instructor and friend (she’s amazing in the role). Prior to her role in Transparent, Lysette never disclosed that she was trans. In an interview with Advocate, she says, “I never disclosed I was trans to anyone in the casting process for fear of being discriminated against. I wasn’t living out loud yet,” she reflects. “I hadn’t seen another trans woman in a nontrans role on TV before. … It was uncharted territory for me and I remember being a nervous wreck on-set, hoping that no one would ‘clock’ me [as trans].” In 2013, though, that changed, and Lysette says she became “free” after seeing Laverne Cox’s OITNB character Sophia Burset as well as being friends with the inspiring Cox herself. In an interview with GLAAD, Lysette says that since coming out, she has been able to play roles that “allow me to access parts of myself that I had kept censored for years.” Lysette also has recurring roles in the Starz comedy Blunt Talk and NBC’s The Curse of the Fuentes Women.
Laith Ashley De La Cruz
Laith Ashley De La Cruz is a model and LGBTQ advocate who landed a starring role in Barneys New York’s landmark advertising campaign, Brother, Sisters, Sons & Daughters in the spring 2014. Brothers, Sisters, Sons & Daughters was shot by Bruce Webber and featured the stories of 17 transgender models. Says De La Cruz, “It’s been an eye-opening experience for me to work with Bruce Weber. I’ve met so many wonderful trans people, good people, all of them. I’ve talked to them a lot. They have helped me understand that I am finding my identity.” De La Cruz’s mass following on Instagram led to his casting. He graduated from Fairfield University with a degree in Psychology and currently works with the LGBTQ community at New York’s Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, a health facility for LGBTQ people living with HIV/AIDS.
Mya Taylor is the breakout star of director Sean Baker’s Tangerine (if you haven’t yet, watch it) alongside longtime friend Kiki Rodriguez. In Tangerine, Taylor plays Alexandra, a transgender prostitute in Los Angeles. Tangerine was shot on an iPhone 5S and has received a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes. In an interview with Vogue, Taylor accredits her survival to her sense of humor: “When you’re going through life, and you come out to your family as gay, and they say, “You’re going to hell.” And this and that. They say all this shit behind your back. And then you leave because you know they don’t want you around, and you’re out in the streets and you’re homeless, you don’t have nothing to eat, and you have to go eat at the youth center. You know, all that stuff. Even for the people that do sex work because they can’t get a job, you know, do all this crazy stuff, all you can do is laugh to try to keep yourself floating. Otherwise, you’ll commit suicide.”
Kitana “Kiki” Rodriguez stars alongside Mya Taylor in 2015’s Tangerine. Playing the role of a transgender prostitute in L.A., Rodriguez’s performance in the film landed her on the Out100 list (with co-star Mya Taylor). When asked about the state of the trans community at present, Rodriquez responded, “We have to remember to stay together as one, as supporters, as lovers, as sisterhood and brotherhood. It’s going and nobody can stop reality. This is what is making waves in the industry. For me, it’s tidal waves.” Rodriguez is also a trans advocate and a health educator at an HIV/AIDS research center.
Aydian Dowling is a 28-year-old from Eugene, Oregon who became one of the 10 semifinalists in 2015’s Ultimate Men’s Health Guy Search (he’s currently #1). He won the readers’ voting portion of the contest, and says of the contest, “Having a trans person on the cover would tell people that no matter who you are, you can be the man you want to be. It’s fully possible if you put the time and effort and balance it takes to find the man in you.” Dowling is also the creator of the YouTube Beefheads Fitness channel, telling Men’s Health, “There was no one on YouTube making fitness videos for trans people. Most females train to build a female body, and most men train to get a more masculine body. So when you’re a biological female trying to gain a masculine physique, you’re going to train a little differently. I wanted to provide a space where we can encourage each other at the gym, even if we might not know what we’re doing.
Andreja Pejić is the first transgender model to appear in Vogue. Pejić is 24-years-old and a Bosnian refugee who grew up in Australia. She made her first appearance in the modeling world in the early 2000s as an androgynous model, capturing the attention of Jean Paul Gaultier. She went public with her transition in 2014. In the Out100 list, Pejić says, “As a woman who was born trans, I know what it’s like to be different, to be an outcast and to be defined only by ‘that thing’ which makes you a little different. However, I care more about inclusion and equality than feeling special. The future is fluid, and nothing adds more to progress than humanity united.” You can also find her in a major beauty campaign, Make Up Forever’s “Be You,” as well as Kenneth Cole campaigns.
Michelle Hendley is the star of the critically-acclaimed film, Boy Meets Girl (if you haven’t seen it, PLEASE do so ASAP. It’s available on Netflix). In the film, Hendley plays a transgender girl named Ricky, who lives in a rural, southern town. The movie, which explores the nuances of gender and sexuality, is adorable, insightful, and impactful. It features an especially poignant full-frontal nude scene that Hendley describes as, “me showing the world what a trans body is.” The role feels familiar for her, as she grew up in a small town in Missouri. Thankfully she had the full support of her family. Hendley says when she came out to her family as gay, her mother asked, “Are you sure you’re not just a girl?” Besides Boy Meets Girl, Hendley also has a vlog, which landed her the role in Boy Meets Girl. You can view it here.
Dezjorn Gauthier is a model for Trans Models New York, as well as the CEO and founder of I am here, I am he LLC (forthcoming). Says Gauthier in an article in the opinions pages of the New York Times, “Since elementary I knew, but I did not have the correct term. In the early 2000’s things became more clear as I matured. In 2009, I confirmed the term ‘transgender’ described me the best. As college approached fear gathered around me, but I did not let that stop me and I started to physically transition.” Transition has not been easy for Gauthier, but it has been worth it: “I have lost family and friends, struggled with health insurance, jobs and societal norms. I continue to try to strive as a transman of color. Not just in modeling but in giving back to the community, advocating, and in education.” Gauthier was founded on Instagram in 2013 by JV8 Inc. and was subsequently cast in the Brothers, Sisters, Sons & Daughters campaign alongside Laith Ashley De La Cruz.
Jazz Jennings is a 15-year-old superstar. She is a YouTube personality, a spokesperson, and an LGBTQ activist. Jennings first began making TV appearances at age six. She received national attention at the age of 7 when she appeared in an interview with Barbara Walters in 2007. Jennings is a co-founder of TransKids Purple Rainbow Foundation, along with her parents. They founded the foundation, which aims to assist transgender youth in all facets of life, in 2007. Jennings is also the star of the 2011 documentary I Am Jazz: A Family in Transition. She also fought a two-and-a-half year battle with the United States Soccer Federation to allow her to play on a girls’ team (she won). She has co-written a book, appeared on Time’s “The 25 Most Influential Teens of 2014,” been a Clean & Clear spokesmodel, and starred in her own TLC docu-series, I am Jazz. Says Jennings in an interview with Metro Weekly, “I don’t know if I would consider myself a role model. But really, in sharing my story for many years, I’ve seen a lot of positive feedback and people who I’ve impacted, it’s just so encouraging. And it really motivates me to continue sharing my story. I’m proud to be a representation of transgender kids for people to see, but I feel that I’m just doing my part in trying to achieve equality for all.”
If you’re a serial Netflix binger and you haven’t seen Sense8 yet, what are you even doing? Jamie Clayton plays Nomi Marks, a transgender, San Francisco-based blogger and hacker, in the Netflix original series. The show does an amazing job at depicting eight different and intricate characters, and Nomi is one of the most complex. Says Clayton in an interview with The Wrap, “I love Nomi, I love the character. She really represents something we’ve never seen before. It’s empathy. People come together to help each other. It doesn’t matter that they don’t speak the same language, it doesn’t matter their genders, their sexuality.” Just like Phelan, Clayton is able to create such an honest depiction of a transgender woman became she herself is transgender. “There has never been a trans character in a movie or on a show before whose story didn’t revolve around the transition,” says Clayton. “Nomi is the first. She’s living her life, she has a job, she’s in love. No one cares, because at the end of the day, we shouldn’t care that she’s trans. She’s a human being.”
Tom Phelan stars in ABC Family’s (soon to be Freeform) The Fosters as Cole, a teenage, transitioning young man. This is a huge accomplishment in itself, as The Fosters actually casted a trans actor to play the part. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Phelan says of the role, “A lot of kids who are 14 or 15 have been telling me their stories and telling me that it’s been great to see someone like them on television. I feel really lucky to be that and share that with them. When I was 14 or 15 I didn’t know this thing existed. Characters like Cole and characters like [Laverne Cox’s] Sophia on Orange Is the New Black are really important, especially for trans kids who are coming into their own and just realizing that this is something that they might be.” He also feels that the role is authentic and individual. Says Phelan, “There’s really no way of knowing if this depiction is accurate because everyone is going to have a different experience. And I think that Cole is one of thousands and thousands of ways to depict a transgender person.”
Blog Editor, What the F Magazine