When children’s book author Kyle Lukoff began writing “Call Me Max,” it was a dare, of sorts.
Trans people have never been so visible — or so vulnerable
The surge of anti-trans attacks has made the stakes higher than ever for trans storytellers and performers
So Lukoff, a trans man, aimed to write a book that was as safe and “basic” as possible — “bulletproof,” as he wrote in a recent Jezebel article.
“I wanted to force people to say the quiet part out loud. To say, ‘We don’t like this book because it’s about a trans person,’ and not give them any other excuses,” Lukoff said.
In the book, a kid named Max asks his teacher to call him by the name he chose, not the name that’s on the attendance sheet. He shares his feelings about his identity with his parents. He makes new friends.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) showed an image from the book before signing a bill last year that banned students from kindergarten to third grade from discussing anything related to sex or gender identity.
Lukoff had succeeded. But “what I had not planned on,” he said, “was how terrible it would feel when my plan worked.”
The stakes have never been higher for trans people in the United States. Trans rights are being rolled back around the country, and some trans creators are facing fervent backlash against their work. At the same time, trans artists, writers and performers have more opportunities, and audiences are connecting with more nuanced portrayals of trans people than ever before. Trans filmmakers are showing their movies at Sundance, trans musicians are winning Grammys, and trans writers are best-selling authors. Popular video games such as “The Sims 4” allow players to create trans characters.
Increasing visibility, while seen as a reflection of increasing acceptance and understanding of trans communities, has come with increased vulnerability. In this landscape, trans storytellers and performers are wrestling with the power — and limitations — of trans representation.
Decades before trans artists hit the mainstream, though, they were making art for themselves. Writers founded their own presses to publish their books. They created their own superheroes. Artists such as Juliana Huxtable, Greer Lankton and Loren Cameron explored layers of their identities and histories in poems, paintings and photographs.
But for most of American history, the trans people seen in popular culture were products of the cisgender imagination: direct reflections of the fears, fascinations, impulses and misunderstandings that cis people had about being trans.
In television and film, trans representation amounted to a mélange of stereotypes, usually falling into one of two categories: the villain (a cross-dressing serial killer) or the victim (murdered sex workers in crime shows; patients hospitalized for transition complications on hospital dramas). On daytime talk shows, audiences howled and jeered at transgender reveals. In popular comedies, such as “Family Guy” and “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” cis male characters would vomit at the thought of hooking up with a trans woman. “Grand Theft Auto” and other popular video games included derogatory depictions of trans people. Major publishers overlooked or ignored trans writers.
Advocates say this has impacted Americans’ views on what it means to be a trans person.
“In 2023, it’s still true that the vast majority of Americans say they’ve never met a transgender person in real life. So all they know about what it means to be a transgender person is what they’ve learned from the media,” said Nick Adams, vice president of the GLAAD Media Institute, which advocates for better representation of LGBTQ people in media.
This makes it easier for media outlets, influencers and politicians to spread misinformation and rouse fear about trans people, he said: “They’re able to get more traction than they should be able to get because the average person hasn’t met us in real life.”
According to a Washington Post-KFF survey, discrimination and harassment remain a fact of most trans adults’ lives. More than 6 in 10 trans adults said they have encountered discrimination and verbal attacks. A quarter reported being physically attacked.
Problematic depictions may also affect how trans people see themselves.
Nonbinary journalist and author Tre’vell Anderson is a “a church queen by heart.” When they were growing up in South Carolina, their family often watched bootleg DVDs of Tyler Perry plays. Anderson was drawn to the religious iconography in Perry’s work — and the singing. But Anderson also noted their family’s reactions to the character Madea, a wisecracking, bespectacled matriarch that Perry performed in a gray wig and prismatic dresses.
Anderson internalized those responses. There was only one “acceptable” way a person like them could wear a dress: for comedic value. It was only when Anderson encountered trans people on reality TV — the famed ballroom dancer Leiomy Maldonado on “America’s Best Dance Crew” or Isis King on “America’s Next Top Model” — that Anderson saw people they could actually relate to. Trans people who couldn’t just “take off the wig.”
“There was something to latch onto in terms of the realness of these people, of these communities, of the possibilities for how I could show up in the world,” Anderson said.
Trans visibility has surged in recent years. Because of the internet and social media, it is easier than ever for trans people, young and old, to find community and get more information. The work of trans artists and stories depicting trans characters have funneled into the mainstream. This is especially true of television. The FX show “Pose,” depicting New York’s underground ballroom scene of the ’80s and ’90s, featured a cast full of trans actors, including Michaela Jaé Rodriguez, who won a Golden Globe for her role. Trans actors play trans characters on popular shows, such as Elliot Page in “The Umbrella Academy” and Hunter Schafer in “Euphoria.”
GLAAD numbers highlight this shift: From 2021 to 2022, there were 42 transgender regular and recurring characters across broadcast, cable and streaming networks. Out of those, 41 were played or voiced by trans actors.
These changes both impact and reflect the number of openly trans and nonbinary people, advocates say. The Post-KFF survey found that young people in particular were much more likely to be out (about 9 in 10 of those ages 18 to 34 were out to their friends and family; for trans people ages 35 and older, that rate was about 4 in 5). For those who have come out to their families, nearly 7 in 10 said their families were at least somewhat supportive.
Still, despite rapid growth over the last decade, visibility has “plateaued” a bit in the last couple of years, said Adams from GLAAD. Trans characters remain scant on the big screen. GLAAD’s review of all the films released by Hollywood’s largest studios in the last five years found only one trans character (Anybodys in 2021’s “West Side Story”). The role was minor.
Jen Richards, a trans writer, actress and producer living in Los Angeles, used to joke about what the trans version of “the Bechdel test” would be. (The test evaluates how women characters are portrayed on-screen: To pass, a work must feature at least two women and show these women talking to each other about something other than a man.)
The trans version of the Bechdel test? As recently as 10 years ago, “it was pretty much, like, there is a trans person and they live,” Richards said. “I think now we would say there’s more than one trans person and they talk to each other at all. They’re named.”
Richards is quick to note how much has changed in just the last five years — “the very fact that I have a career at all is beyond what I even hoped for when I started advocating for change in this industry.” She landed an Emmy nomination in 2016 for the web series “Her Story,” which she co-wrote, co-produced and starred in. Back then, cis actors like Jared Leto and Eddie Redmayne were still playing trans roles — and winning awards for those portrayals. It would be “unthinkable” to have that kind of casting now, said Richards, who has a recurring role on the AMC show “Mayfair Witches.” It was recently renewed for a second season.
But she senses a certain “timidity” when it comes to telling trans stories or showing trans characters. Yes, Richards and other trans writers in Hollywood are getting work. She has even sold and developed a couple shows. But none of these shows have made it to air.
“The right has done such a good job of vilifying trans people, of making them scapegoats, that it’s now seen as a loaded issue,” Richards said. And well-meaning people in the industry may fear getting stories about trans people wrong, she added.
Many trans creators — whether they are working in Hollywood, video games, publishing, media and the fine arts — still have to rely on cis people to fund, produce and distribute their work. Because of this, a certain kind of trans story is often repeated: one that fixates on a character’s transition or coming out. As sympathetic and moving as some of these portrayals may be, they’re also stunting, creators say. Because in this kind of story, being trans is a problem that must be resolved. The character is often isolated, concerned with how cis people will respond to their identity. The struggle and suffering of transition — which can be one of the most difficult parts of a trans person’s life — is foregrounded.
Creators have become increasingly frustrated by these tropes, in large part because they suggest that there is nothing more interesting to say about being a trans person. This narrow focus also erases a crucial aspect of their lives: community.
“It is the community, it is the chosen family, that has been our savior, our reprieve, our comfort,” Anderson said.
“So often in narratives that have trans people that aren’t created by trans folks, that’s not taken into account. And so what ends up happening is that the fullness of that trans character’s life on screen is only in relation to the cis folks around them.”
This dynamic impacts the work that’s available to trans creators, Richards said.
“I’m so much more than my transness,” she said. She has studied mythology and folk tales. She is a Shakespeare scholar. “But people only reach out to me if there’s a trans storyline.”
“Where the needle is really going to move forward is when we are empowered to tell our own stories,” said Adams of GLAAD. He sees this as a way of combating the growing animus against trans people in communities and state legislatures across the country.
“There has to be a multipronged approach to create a world that is safe for transgender and nonbinary people to exist in, and representation is part of that fight,” Adams said.
That starts with telling a more diverse array of stories. GLAAD has advocated for more trans representation in comedies, where audiences can laugh with trans characters instead of at them. “We think humor and laughing is a way to connect people in general,” Adams said. He pointed to the late ’90s comedy “Will & Grace,” which has been credited with helping to boost acceptance of gay people beyond its prime-time broadcast slot.
It’s also just good business, Adams argues: LGBTQ people, generally, are a growing audience. According to a 2022 Gallup poll, the percentage of Americans who identify as LGBTQ has doubled in the last 10 years, with the highest rates among Gen Z (19.7 percent) and millennials (11.2 percent). The same poll found that nearly 2 percent of Gen Z identify as trans.
These stories aren’t just valuable for audiences, cis or trans. The process of making them is also affirming for trans creators themselves, especially at a time when lawmakers are trying to limit the ways trans people live their lives.
Anderson has a forthcoming book about the power of trans representation: “We See Each Other: A Black, Trans Journey Through TV and Film.” It was important for them to trace the history, sometimes hidden, sometimes overlooked, of Black trans artists who have “made ways out of no way, time and time again.”
“It is both a joy and wonder to be witnessed,” they said. “Visibility allows us as trans people to see each other, to be seen, to find each other, to be in community, to know that we are not alone, because our mere existence unsettles so much about how our world is set up.”
Lukoff, the children’s book author, makes it clear that he doesn’t write to increase visibility or representation. He writes because he is a writer, he said, not because he has some end goal in mind. Sure, his books could help someone be more empathetic to trans people or inspire young trans kids. Maybe his audience could even lobby for legislation to protect trans people. But, he added, his books are “impotent” without the right people in power.
As much he abhors the current climate, he’s still able to keep it at bay when he sits down to write. Since the bans, Lukoff has actually become less cautious, he said: “I know that no matter what I do, they’re going to come for me. So why would I hold my tongue?”