Three Trans Actors Discuss The Double-Edged Sword of Visibility in the Media
"As much as I represent a community, I also carry the burden of my own pain and my own vulnerability."
It's easy to think of visibility as an objectively good thing. After a long history of only seeing white, straight, cisgender people featured in ad campaigns, on TV, and in movies, it still feels monumental to see members of marginalized communities playing major roles on screen. Visibility doesn't always translate to acceptance, however, as transgender people in the media know all too well. On International Transgender Day of Visibility last week, a group of trans actors joined a panel hosted by the Meredith group OUT to discuss the complex nature of visibility in the media and the responsibility they assume as public figures.
The panel included Rain Valdez, who is known for her roles on Razor Tongue and Transparent; Dominique Jackson, who plays Elektra in POSE on FX; and Scott Turner Schofield, seen on CBS's The Bold and the Beautiful. Valdez, the second transgender actress to ever be nominated for a Primetime Emmy in an acting category and the first Filipina American transgender actress to be nominated, revealed on the panel that she didn't have representation to look up to when growing up. So, when she thinks of visibility, she thinks about how far she's come and those who can look up to her now.
"Whenever I do something with my work in entertainment and my work is out there, I always think about the younger version of myself that gets to see that and gets to see a success story and gets to see possibilities of who they can become," the now 39-year-old said.
As a transgender woman who has been acting, writing, and producing in the entertainment industry for around 15 years, however, Valdez knows this success and increased visibility doesn't come without a price.
"I also have to remember that there's a target on my back," she said. "So as much as I represent a community, I also carry the burden of my own pain and my own vulnerability." That target, as Valdez referenced, is the reality of violence and hate against the trans community. Just last year, the Human Rights Campaign tracked 44 fatal incidents against transgender and gender non-conforming people, "marking 2020 as the most violent year on record since HRC began tracking these crimes in 2013." Since the beginning of 2021, the organization has already tracked 12 violent fatalities.
"With that [knowledge], it becomes so much more important to stand very proudly on my platform and kind of speak from a place of love and speak from a place of possibilities," Valdez added. "Because there are people like me who are targets and they don't necessarily have that platform."
Jackson, a model, actress, and author, has gained this platform from her prominent role on POSE, and she's seen how visibility can be a double-edged sword. "With a show like POSE there is visibility, but there's also the backlash that we do receive from that," she explained on the panel. "That is that you're so visible now people are afraid of you and they're afraid of the change that you can bring to the world."
Jackson also acknowledged the positive responses she's received due to her role as Elektra. "I have people coming up to me, at times, going 'You taught me how to be strong,' and I'm like, 'You know what, Elektra taught me how to be even stronger,'" she said. "So there is a great side to [being visible]. It is the knowledge of knowing that you are helping people."
For this reason, Jackson said she feels it's important for her to remain in the public eye.
"I have to let people know that we do exist," she said. "I cannot live [in] stealth, because that would be dangerous not only to myself but to others."
Schofield, meanwhile, addressed this danger of invisibility and the emotional burden it has on trans men. "Invisibility creates this isolation, this feeling that you're the only one," he said. "[It's] this feeling that you must be crazy, or at least something effectively unspeakable, in a culture that will not speak about you or tell your stories."
Schofield then shared the harrowing statistic that more than 50% of young trans men attempt suicide, compared to 29.9% of transgender female teens and 41.8% of non-binary youth.
"Visibility may get trans women killed, but invisibility makes [trans men] kill ourselves," he said.
The actor attributed this invisibility for trans men to a "lack of belief that trans guys are or could possibly be," before noting some of the ways that their identities have historically been invalidated. He pointed to the story of Billy Tipton, a 1950s jazz musician who was discovered to be a trans man upon his death in 1989. "The media outlets at that time really sensationalized his story, calling him a woman pretending to be a man, and that has really set the framework for how people see trans men," said Schofield.
Schofield, whose role on The Bold and The Beautiful made him the first trans actor to star on daytime television, has actively combatted this invisibility and erasure of trans men through his work. In addition to his acting roles and one-man show productions, he also works as a consultant for HBO's Euphoria, helping to create the role of trans teen Jules. Schofield also made history last year as the first trans man nominated for a Daytime Emmy, for his role in Amazon Prime's Studio City.
"I knew as someone who was becoming a professional actor long before [International Transgender Day of Visibility was created] that I was going to have to sort of help change the world just so that I could be an artist," Schofield said on the panel.
While there has been increased visibility of trans people since the international holiday was established in 2009, the visibility that exists is often still limited to harmful tropes and tragic stories. GLAAD's examination of the past 10 years of transgender representation on television found that trans people are most commonly portrayed as either victims or villains. The findings showed that, over the 10-year period, "transgender characters were cast in a 'victim' role at least 40% of the time," and "were cast as killers or villains in at least 21% of the catalogued episodes and storylines."
This is why Valdez asserted the importance of showing more storylines that highlight trans love and joy, specifically in the form of romantic comedies. "Romantic comedies are propaganda for who gets to be loved and when it comes to a trans representation... it's been the opposite of that...," she said. "For decades, we've been told that those who get to be loved have been cisgender, heterosexual, great looking people and mostly white [people]."
Valdez added that it's a dream of hers to see more trans people in these roles and that she's "not going to stop until it happens."
To wrap the conversation, moderator Alex Schmider, the Associate Director of Transgender Representation at GLAAD, asked each of the panelists to share what messages they had for anyone who is trans.
Schofield focused his message on trans youth. "I mean, I just wish that I could go back in time to the little kid that I was and tell him, 'Hey actually, what you know about yourself, right now, you absolutely do know it," he said. "I take every opportunity I can to say that, especially given the assaults against young people, the idea that kids don't know who they are. I mean sure kids can make choices that don't stand the test of time, but not when it comes to your gender. If you're questioning your gender at such a young age, that's a deep internal knowing."
Valdez shared a message about the importance of self-love. "With the hate and the violence and all of these anti-trans bills coming out of the gate, I remember, for me, the thing that kind of kept me going was when I discovered that, regardless of how much love I wasn't getting from the world, or how much I wanted from the world, I realized how much there was in here," she said, pointing to herself. She added a piece of advice for others to "draw from that love."
Finally, Jackson gave a message of validation for every trans person out there. "You are not wrong for who you are," she said. "Your truth is not wrong; believe that. The world may be hard but brace yourself and know that in your truth, you can accomplish and achieve anything that you want to. Lead with kindness and do not ever let hatred consume."