Two weeks ago the Transform panel at BFI’s Flare brought together film maker Campbell X and author and journalist Juliet Jacques, chaired by Gendered Intelligence’s director Jay Stewart. They were set the task of discussing how far trans representation has come in film and TV.
Before the discussion began, Campbell offered a libation to the space, to honour our predecessors and those trans people who are no longer with us. This ritual set the tone for what was a powerful discussion about power, community and visibility.
Over the past couple of years, trans actors and story lines have finally gained prominence – Rebecca Root starred in a BBC sitcom, Orange is the New Black is a phenomenon, and Transparent was Amazon’s flagship show. We can celebrate this success, but it is representative of gains being made across the industry, behind the scenes? Are we now in the position to tell our own stories?
Here are some of the powerful points that we learnt (or were reminded of) during the panel:
- Visibility can be hollow
The presence of trans people on television – in fiction or documentaries – can give the impression that mainstream media is really invested in our communities.
We should ask how many trans people work behind the scenes – who is being paid to write, produce and commission our stories? It was argued that the media is structured to preserve white, cis male and upper class dominance. Trans visibility will be tokenistic until that changes. Trans people on-screen have to be matched by trans people at executive level.
- There are real barriers to trans people making media
Getting on in the industry as an actor, producer or writer means you have to network. Networking relies on self-confidence and making use of contacts who help you out – basically exploiting your social capital. Existing inequality means that trans people, especially trans people of colour, aren’t present in the media in sufficient numbers to help out other trans people.
Gendered Intelligence’s TransActing project aims to create a network for trans and non-binary actors that connects them to industry professionals.
- Money talk$
Making web series and film is expensive. Many marginalised film makers are not in the position to self-fund their work. We have to work towards more resources and funding for aspiring film makers.
- Finding a diverse cast/crew is not that hard
Campbell X’s feature film Stud Life had trans people working both in front of and behind the camera. Upcoming LGBTQ web series Spectrum East includes actors with a broad range of backgrounds and identities. If small-budget productions can achieve this, can’t we expect more from big production houses and studios? Jill Solloway’s Amazon series Transparent has led the way by hiring trans director Silas Howard, as well as trans producers and writers.
- Trans actors can play any role
It would be fabulous to see more trans actors in non-trans roles in the future. Trans actors are brilliant and can bring something special to any role.
- Look backwards as well as forwards
Trans people are not a 21st century invention. The mainstream interest in the “first trans person to x” erases our past and the people who made modern trans life possible. The panel said we should celebrate our cultural legacy – film makers like Kristine Clark who was making ground-breaking trans documentaries in the 80s.
- Progress is not a given
Juliet Jacques commented that we expect progress to be followed by more progress, but it is not linear. It isn’t the case that things will continue to improve just because we have already made some gains – we can go backwards.
Indeed, going backwards is a real risk when people outside our communities continue to dictate how much, and what sort, of mainstream trans visibility is desirable.
- Don’t wait for mainstream media to represent you
Campbell X told the audience that we have to stop waiting for recognition from mainstream media – fundamentally we have to recognise ourselves and appreciate that our stories are real without that external validation.
- Lean on your community
We heard from one 26 year-old trans audience member and aspiring film maker who felt despondent because he isn’t getting on in the industry. He finds networking difficult and feels he is not being taken seriously. The panel advised him to keep going with the work he loves and reach out to other trans film makers for more advice and support.
Juliet Jacques shared advice that a friend gave her when she contemplated abandoning her dream of becoming a writer – “You’re only a loser when you give up!”.
- Let’s support trans creators
If you want to see more work from trans film makers, actors and writers, especially those who are the most marginalised, we have to put in the effort to support their work, go to their shows/screenings and encourage our friends to do the same.
As independent film makers and producers, trans people are in position to tell new, nuanced and experimental stories about our lives that will never make the mainstream cut. Trans people of colour and non-binary (trans) people are especially erased from dominant narratives. By supporting work within our own communities, we can amplify more voices.