2015 Is The Year Trans Culture Went Mainstream. Here’s How It Happened

From Caitlyn Jenner to Boy Meets Girl to Miley Cyrus’ InstaPride campaign, 2015 is turning into a watershed year for transgender visibility in mainstream culture. Stuart Huggett leads a discussion about the changing times for trans actors, artists and musicians with our panel:

Nye Todd
Singer and guitarist of Edinburgh band The Spook School, whose new album ‘Try To Be Hopeful’ explores issues around gender and identity

Fox Fisher
Filmmaker and activist who appeared in Channel 4’s groundbreaking 2011 documentary series My Transsexual Summer


Michelle Steele
Drummer and occasional singer of Brighton group Slum Of Legs. Wrote their 2015 single ‘Doll Like’ while she was first transitioning

and Rebecca Root
Actor, currently starring as Judy in BBC2 sitcom Boy Meets Girl


Former Olympic Athlete and Keeping Up With The Kardashians star Caitlyn Jenner became America’s most famous trans woman in April when she came out in an interview on ABC news show 20/20. Photographed by Annie Leibovitz, her Vanity Fair ‘Call me Caitlyn’ cover served to cement her iconic status.

NMEPress/Vanity Fair


Todd: “I was in the US around the time she came out and it certainly made a massive cultural impact in a mainstream way there.”
Fisher: “It’s definitely started conversations in the mainstream, businesses and schools and such. I do think the trope of the older trans woman, those clichés of being awkward and sticking out, is going to fade away a little bit as there’s a new idea of trans people who know who they are as kids. They have the internet and they can reach out to other people, they can actually get hormone blockers at an earlier age and not have to go through the trauma that some people experience with the wrong puberty.”


Miley Cyrus has been criticised for cultural appropriation (see her recent cornrow hairstyle) but her support for LGBT issues comes from the heart. In June, while promoting her Instagram ‘InstaPride’ campaign celebrating transgender people, Cyrus identified herself in Time magazine as “gender fluid”. Rapper Angel Haze, who came out as “agender” in February, and actor Jaden Smith (son of Will) with his casual fondness for dresses (“Went to Topshop to buy some girl clothes, I mean ‘clothes’” he wrote on Instagram) are among Cyrus’ fellow celebrity trailblazers.


Steele: “The next important realisation for the public to grasp is that trans is a spectrum as diverse as sexuality. More musicians and artists coming out as gender fluid and agender can only help.”
Todd: “Previously when there was talk about gender queer identities or non-binary identities people were like, ‘What on earth?’ Now people are going to be more informed or will make more of an effort if they feel a connection with somebody.”
Fisher: “So much has happened in the past few years. It felt like we didn’t even have a trans community back then and the mainstream press was really negative. I think people are starting to get a better grip on what it means to be trans now.”


Thanks to her portrayal of trans character Sophia Burset in Netflix’s lauded prison drama Orange Is The New Black, actor Laverne Cox was the first openly transgender woman to appear on the cover of Time magazine. In June, she also became the first trans woman to be immortalised as a waxwork by Madame Tussauds’ San Francisco museum.


Fisher: “Laverne Cox is such a real figure and being on the cover of Time was a real pivotal point last year. I believe we now have the momentum for change after that tipping point.”
Steele: “People like Caitlyn Jenner and [boxing promoter and one-time manager of Heavyweight Champion Lennox Lewis] Kellie Maloney have brought trans people to the forefront of the media, but at a cost. While they pursue media coverage on transitioning with beauty and femininity emphasised, they have some dubious views on issues like same sex marriage. Laverne, on the other hand, talks about trans people of colour and the horrific prejudice they encounter. Stars claiming to represent us should realise they are in a position where they can change the lives of minorities – black, disabled, poor – not just their fellow celebrities.”


Beginning last month, BBC2’s Boy Meets Girl is the first mainstream comedy programme to feature a transgender actor in a lead transgender role. Rebecca Root stars as Judy, a trans woman engaged in a romantic relationship with a younger man (played by Harry Hepple).

Root: “I had some small input in the script and the language/terminology but not much in the way of character development, although writer Elliott Kerrigan claims he can hear my voice in his head as he writes Judy’s lines. Many younger trans actors and writers have told me they are inspired by the show and my performance in it and have been encouraged to come out to their family, friends or colleagues, which is heartwarming indeed.”
Steele: “Lots of trans-themed drama has been quite dated and miserable until fairly recently. Now we’re seeing more shows casting trans actors. Comedies such as Boy Meets Girl show multifaceted, interesting characters.”


Tom Hooper’s forthcoming film The Danish Girl tells the true story of Lili Elbe, one of the earliest recipients of sex reassignment surgery in the 1930s. As with Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club, Eddie Redmayne’s casting as Elbe was criticised by some activists who argue that a trans actor should have landed the starring role, although others such as transgender film director Lana Wachowski lent Redmayne and Hooper their advice and support.

Fisher: “We’ve set up a trans acting course with the Royal Central School Of Speech And Drama in London and Eddie Redmayne came to our first session to talk to us about acting, how the trans actors in The Danish Girl didn’t have a traditional background and what it was like for them being
part of the film.”
Root: “I play a very small but emotionally significant part, the role of the nurse who looks after Lili before and after her surgery. There are more parts coming through for trans people but the real breakthrough will be when a trans person simply plays a character with no reference to their gender presentation. They are just people.”


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