‘Still a lot to be done’: Advocates speak on transgender stories hitting the spotlight in 2015

Laura Chan looks through the article that pushed transgender issues in the spotlight. (Photo: Payge Woodard)

By Payge Woodard

When Laura Chan turns on the television or goes to the movies this year, they hope to see change.

Chan is coordinator of DalOUT, an LGBTQ social, educational, support and action group at Dalhousie University — and  prefers to be referred to by the pronoun “they.”

Chen says while 2015 was a significant year for transgender representation, there is still a long way to go.

“What I (want) and what I’ve heard from my friends, a lot of trans people want to see a movie with a trans [narrative] that has trans actors in it, that has a trans director, so that we can tell our own story.”

Last year, Chan says, actors who aren’t transgender continued to portray transgender characters.  Actor Jeffrey Tambor won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Television Series – Musical or Comedy and the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series for his portrayal of a transgender woman on the show Transparent.

“I have yet to see a mainstream story where a trans actor is actually telling their own story,” says Chan.

For Rebecca Rose, board chair at the Nova Scotia Rainbow Action Project, a group that seeks equality for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, the time for transgender stories to enter the spotlight has been a long time coming.

“Trans people have always been here and society has just taken a really long time to catch up,” says Rose.

Trending topic

“Call me Caitlyn”

The headline read alongside a photo of Caitlyn Jenner when the former Olympic athlete and reality television star appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine in June 2015.

Earlier that year, Jenner sat down with interviewer Diane Sawyer on ABC’s 20/20 to announce she is transgender after months of tabloid speculation. Her new reality show, I Am Cait, beamed into living rooms, and transgender actress Laverne Cox appeared on the cover of TIME.

While Chan welcomes these transgender celebrity role models,  life for transgender people in Hollywood is different than in other parts of the world.

“Things are very different for people like Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox, who lack the celebrity and who lack the financial resources,” Chan says. “There’s still all of these real life everyday issues… that trans people are still facing that is pretty under.”

Rose agrees that while people are excited to see more transgender representation in pop culture it doesn’t translate to what is happening outside of Hollywood.

“There is still a lot to be done on the ground,” says Rose.

According to Trans Student Educational Resources, 30 percent of transgender women havebeen incarcerated, 41 per cent of transgender people have attempted suicide and 80 per cent of transgender students reported feeling unsafe at school because of their gender expression.

Exploring other stories

Anguish, suicide, brutality, HIV/aids, sex work — Chan says these are the tropes that they often see when transgender stories are being told.

Chan wants to see more than that shown on screen.

“We see so many negative stories  . . . that, yes, need to be told, but we also want to see the good stuff and we want to see it made by the right people.”

Chan says there are otherparts of being transgender that need to be explored.

“There could be a focus on the good things about being a trans person. The community we create, the families that we chose. The incredibly validating experience of finally being who you want to be in a world that’s told you that you can’t,” they say.

What’s ahead

Transgender stories will continue to be shown on the small screen this year with shows like Transparent slated to release its third season and I Am Cait entering its second year.

But as the stories keep coming, there is one thing Chan is holding out for.

“I want trans movies about trans people, for trans people, with trans people acting. That’s what I want to see.”