Six works that capture the complexity of being trans today

A photo illustration of Daniela Santiago in Veneno.
Daniela Santiago in Veneno. (Illustration by Natalie Vineberg/The Washington Post; Atresmedia/HBO Max; iStock)
10 min

In 2015, transgender actress and filmmaker Jen Richards told the Los Angeles Times that America was in “the Sidney Poitier phase of trans representation.”

By this, she meant that the few trans public figures at the time had to be “unassailable so that we can open doors.” She hungered for a more complex array of stories and personas — “our hot messes, our rebels, our sexpots and drama queens.”

There have been great improvements in trans representation since then, but the most visible trans stories still tend to focus on transition, depicting lonely, isolated characters trying to navigate the feelings and actions of the cisgender people around them.

Meanwhile, as reported in a recent Washington Post-KFF survey, trans people hold widely different ideas about what it means to transition. The poll also reported a broad range of life experiences: from having to teach their own doctors how to care for them to finding acceptance in unlikely places.

So where is the art that captures the complexity of being trans in America? Trans people are making it — in the form of stand-up, podcasts, films, games and books. And though some of these works may not be mainstream, they are easier to find than ever.

We asked Richards, as well as journalist Tre’vell Anderson and children’s book author Kyle Lukoff, to share the works by trans creators that have challenged, thrilled and inspired them.


‘Both Sides Now’ by Peyton Thomas

What Lukoff loves about this young adult novel is the dilemma that drives it: How do you engage fully with the things you enjoy if it means having to disavow parts of yourself?

‘‘Both Sides Now’’ follows a trans high school senior, Finch Kelly, as he tries to win a national debate tournament. He hasn’t yet been accepted to college, and Finch sees the gold medal as a launchpad to a full-ride scholarship. But here’s the thing: This year’s debate topic is trans rights, which means Finch may have to argue against his own freedoms.

The book came out in 2019, but Lukoff read it a few months ago — when what was once a hypothetical scenario (in Finch’s case, opposing trans students’ rights at school) is now a major legislative movement. But he believes it would still have resonated with him if he had read it when it was first published.

“I think the thing I like about it — what makes it feel like a true novel and not just written for the sake of representation — it feels like someone who wrote a novel trying to answer a question they found interesting. Not someone trying to just give you a character to relate to.”


‘One From the Vaults’

When Lukoff is washing dishes or putting away laundry, there’s a good chance that the voice purring in his headphones is that of Morgan M Page, host of the podcast “One From the Vaults.”

On the show, Page dishes “all the dirt, gossip and glamour of trans history,” from the Victorian era to the present day. The series kicked off in December 2015, with an episode about Rachel Humphreys, a girlfriend and muse of legendary rock singer and guitarist Lou Reed. (Page describes her as a “tall, long-haired, Mexican American transsexual.”) Subsequent episodes cover activist Sylvia Rivera, artist Greer Lankton and bootlegger cowboy Harry Allen.

The history Page covers is wide-ranging, stretching far back enough that it predates our modern definitions of “transgender.” But Page treats these figures with care, Lukoff said, without “shoehorning them” into our contemporary understanding. One such episode covers Stormé DeLarverie, a community activist and drag king who appointed herself “guardian of the lesbians” in New York’s Greenwich Village. DeLarverie did not identify as trans, but didn’t adhere to the gender expectations of her time, either. Her scuffle with police outside the Stonewall Inn in 1969 — allegedly for wearing clothing inappropriate for her gender — is believed by some to be the “spark” that ignited the Stonewall Uprising, a seminal moment in the fight for LGBTQ rights.

Page “makes all these people feel real, and like if they were alive today, you could have a conversation with them,” Lukoff said. “She gives me new ways to think about history and new ways to talk about people in the past.” (Available on Apple podcasts and SoundCloud)



When Anderson first saw “Veneno,” they were stunned: “I watched much of it with my mouth wide open, just in awe at what was unfolding.”

The Spanish series is based on the life of Cristina Ortiz Rodríguez, better known as La Veneno (“the Poison”). She was a sex worker turned singer and television personality who became a trans icon in the ’90s. The show, based on a biography of La Veneno by journalist Valeria Vegas, jumps mainly between three distinct periods in La Veneno’s life: from her early transition, to her ascent to stardom in the ’90s, to her first meeting with Vegas in 2006.

What makes the show stand out is its authenticity and complexity, Anderson said. Several people who knew La Veneno, including Vegas, consulted on or appear in the show. The three main stages of her life are played by three different trans women (in fact, each trans character in the show is played by a trans actor). And unlike other shows, where a trans character is defined by how cis people respond to them, “Veneno” shows these trans women in community: guiding, gossiping, consoling and cooking big pans of paella for each other.

La Veneno is far from a “perfect trans woman,” Anderson said. She is raunchy, messy and unapologetic. And rather than focusing on the characters’ traumas, the show highlights the multiplicity of their experiences: “It was playful and it was endearing … but it was also deeply funny,” Anderson said. “It is the type of storytelling that I think many of us have been looking for.” (Streams on HBO Max)


‘Femme Queen Chronicles’

Anderson first came across the pilot of “Femme Queen Chronicles” in 2019, when filmmaker Ahya Simone was showing it at film festivals around the country. It has not developed into a full series yet, but Anderson’s encounter with the 11-minute episode still burns bright in their mind.

“I can tell that Black trans people, Black trans women wrote this,” Anderson said. “It’s palpable. You feel it in the dialogue. You feel it even in the people who are in the background.”

“It felt propulsive.”

The show is centered on the lives of four Black trans women in Detroit. Written, directed and starring Black trans women, the first episode, “The Clock,” starts with a specific kind of conflict: being misgendered by a person from the past.

There is a “particularity” to that situation, said Anderson, and the character Chanel’s responses reflect its many layers. Interrupted as she’s shopping at a convenience store, Chanel tries to ignore the person who recognizes her, then feigns not knowing who he’s talking to, then counters with some pointed jabs of her own. As she checks him and struts to the cashier with a bottle of wine and a box of tampons, Chanel leaves no doubt as to who got the best of whom. (Streams on Vimeo)


‘Big Dad Energy: A Trans-Masculine Comedy Showcase’

Just about every time Richards watches a sitcom and goes to a comedy show, she braces herself for it — the inevitable joke or set making fun of trans people.

“It’s been standard practice for so long, it almost feels inevitable,” Richards said. “You carry this little tension in you the whole time. … You’re just waiting to get punched, basically.”

But a January night at the Zephyr Theater in Los Angeles was different. The show, “Big Dad Energy,” featured a lineup comprised exclusively of trans masculine comics, including D’lo, Marval Rex and Kai. Sitting beside her wife and friends in the packed auditorium, Richards threw her head back and laughed at jokes rooted in trans experiences: the physical transformations that happen during transition, what it’s like to have sex and fall in love, navigating relationships with parents and the rest of the world.

“It’s so cathartic to be in on the joke rather than being the butt of the joke,” Richards said. In a world where comedic heavyweights such as Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock still work trans jokes into their sets, the showcase proved to Richards that “no one is better at finding the real comedy in trans experiences than trans people are.”

As audience members left the theater that night, they passed a vendor selling trans-affirming merch — T-shirts, hats, pens and the like. One of the more popular slogans was “Trans joy is resistance.”

“It was a perfect summary of the whole night,” Richards said.


‘Framing Agnes’

For many in the United States who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, talk shows were their lurid introduction to the idea of trans people. “Framing Agnes,” a 2022 documentary, takes that format and upends it to explore — and complicate — the legacy of Agnes, a young trans woman in the 1950s who lied about being intersex so she could access gender-affirming surgery.

The film challenges many current assumptions about trans people, said Richards, who appears in the movie along with “Pose” star Angelica Ross, Zackary Drucker from “Transparent” and others.

The documentary is based on a set of case files recently discovered by director Chase Joynt and sociologist Kristen Schilt in the UCLA archives. While Agnes’s case has been shared in medical and research circles as well as trans communities, Joynt and Schilt found documents from additional trans patients seeking care at the university’s gender clinic more than 60 years ago. The files included transcripts of interviews between patients and medical providers, which are reenacted in the documentary — but using the talk show format.

Spliced through the film are behind-the-scenes interviews with the actors themselves, all of whom are trans, as well as appearances by historian Jules Gill-Peterson, who provides additional context and narration throughout. This hybrid quality — blending fact and fiction, subverting and transgressing formats — makes it “a very trans movie,” Richards said.

She noted that the patients at the time were diverse: representing a range of ages, races and social classes. Richards’s character, a trans woman named Barbara, even talks about the large community of trans people she knows in Los Angeles, including a movie star whom she doesn’t name.

“In this moment right now when there’s this sense that trans people are a new phenomenon or a fad, ‘Framing Agnes’ is an important corrective and helps fill in that history.” (Available to rent on streaming services)