When filmmaker Lilly Wachowski decided to come out as transgender, she did it in a particular way. The co-director of “The Matrix,” known for much of her career as Andy Wachowski, knew she would draw particular curiosity — in large part because her older sister and movie-making partner, Lana, made the same transition years ago.
“SEX CHANGE SHOCKER — WACHOWSKI BROTHERS NOW SISTERS!!!” Lilly Wachowski wrote in a wry statement released to Chicago’s Windy City Times last week. She included a casual selfie taken with her morning coffee, her clean-scrubbed grin framed by chin-length waves and “Revenge of the Nerds”-style glasses.
Her announcement appeared to be made on the fly, in contrast to the stylish, sleekly orchestrated debut of Caitlyn Jenner on the July cover of Vanity Fair. Wachowski explained that she’d penned her statement after a London tabloid threatened to expose her.
It was a momentous unveiling for the transgender cause. Although many advocates were outraged that Wachowski, 48, felt forced to go public, they were grateful to have another high-profile face to represent their community — one who arguably resembles the trans woman next door.
“Americans are learning through the media, so our goal is to get as many transgender voices contributing to those media stories as possible,” said Nick Adams, director of programs for transgender media for GLAAD. Most Americans don’t think they know anyone who is transgender, he said, so awareness of these celebrities can make the culture more tolerant of everyday people who are transitioning.
And Wachowski — who in that snapshot presented a down-to-earth image a world away from Jenner’s groomed Hollywood glamour — adds a different presence and perspective to the mix.
After all, not every trans woman is going to wake up in her new life looking like Angelina Jolie. In an essay last year, Laverne Cox, the statuesque transgender actress from “Orange Is the New Black,” praised Jenner’s coming out (“beautiful and amazing”) but fretted that such media coverage promotes lofty beauty expectations for transgender people.
“There are many trans folks because of genetics and/or lack of material access who will never be able to embody these standards. More importantly many trans folks don’t want to embody them,” Cox said. “I have always been aware that I can never represent all trans people. No one or two or three trans people can.”
“There should be many, many spokespersons — people of color, transgender men, gender-nonconforming people” who can “really raise up the day-to-day realities for the majority of the transgender community,” said Kris Hayashi, executive director of the Transgender Law Center. “The larger the picture of our community, the stronger it is.”
Transgender Americans have never been more visible. Trailblazing activists such as Cox — who made the cover of Time magazine in 2014 — and MSNBC host Janet Mock have used their star status to focus public attention on trans issues. Jenner has done the same with her reality show “I Am Cait.” And transgender models like Hari Nef and Geena Rocero have also broken barriers.
An Olympic gold medalist and veteran showbiz personality, Jenner has stirred debate about the responsibilities of transgender celebrities. Her Republican politics have drawn sharp criticism from many advocates — particularly when she voiced support for conservative presidential candidate Ted Cruz, who has said he favors restricting transgender students’ access to bathrooms and locker rooms. Jenner’s declaration that she could be his “trans ambassador” made many in the LGBTQ community wince.
But some activists believe the level of criticism focused on Jenner isn’t exactly fair — and that her politics just prove that there’s no one way to be transgender.
“It’s one thing to disagree publicly with her, but it’s another thing to, as I say, ‘eat our own,’ ” said Victoria Rodríguez-Roldán, director of the National LGBTQ Task Force’s Trans and Gender Non-Nonforming Justice Project. “A lot of what she has said is, in many ways, wrong, but she is still also a trans person, and no one is reflective of the community entirely — we are all individual people.”
With “I Am Cait,” Jenner is reliably providing a “place on television where you can tune in and watch six or seven transgender women having conversations with each other,” Adams said. “Caitlyn Jenner didn’t have to choose to make a reality show that included all of these different people who have different experiences and different stories and different voices.”
Wachowski’s announcement, meanwhile, brought forward yet another facet of the transgender experience. She wasn’t ready to publicly share her transition, noted Rodríguez-Roldán, “but she was forced to. So that is a sign that even the well-known and well-regarded celebrity isn’t immune to that kind of prejudice and transphobia and lack of respect of her life.”