Lessons We Can All Learn From Transgender Actors

Let’s face it, it’s a traumatic time to be alive. With threats of the Cold War with Russia starting up again, a sagging economy, and a lack of good-paying jobs even as rents continue to increase, it’s tough out there right now.

And if you’re an actor, all that stuff can be doubly intense, given our famous sensitivity and the often-precarious work life we lead. 

But having started on a downer, let’s talk about how it’s also one of the greatest moments to be working as an actor in the U.S. First of all, there’s more television, film, and commercial work available than there has literally ever been before, due to the proliferation of media outlets and products. And more media outlets means more viewers’ eyeballs, and more eyeballs means marketers and the companies they contract with get big cartoon dollar signs in their eyes imagining how they’re going to advertise their products. 

The way the media world is opening up is great news for actors. And the world of acting is opening up in another way too: it’s never been more accepting and embracing of LGBTQ people.

Now, there are still and probably always will be people for whom no amount of exposure to those who experience gender and sexuality differently from themselves will ever be enough to open their minds. But having said that, the sheer list of out and open gay, lesbian and transgender people who have made it in show business is a testament to human potential for growth and acceptance of others. This is especially true when you remember that as recently as a few years ago, an LGBTQ actor was likely to feel compelled to closely guard their true self as a secret, or at least feel concerned with what kind of impact being out might have on their career.

These days however, the list of successful, out and proud LGBTQ actors is something for all of us to celebrate. It can also serve as a potentially profound “teachable moment” for actors who aren’t necessarily LGBTQ. Here’s why. 

1. The Importance Of A Support Group

For actors working to take their career to the next level, have a solid support group is vital. While our job is full of joy and we get to be creative and fulfilled in ways that many people can’t even imagine, it’s also true that this acting thing can be a tough row to hoe. You need to have your peeps around whom you can rely on when the going gets tough – and with whom you can celebrate your victories. For Jamie Clayton, the transgender star of the gorgeous and sadly canceled Sense8 in the role of Nomi, it wasn’t until she met some other transgender women that she truly felt at home in her own skin. “I finally was able to identify what I was going through for so long and not knowing who I was and how I fit in the world and society at large. Finally I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s what it is,’” she said in an interview with GLAAD. 

2. Be Who You Are, And Be Proud

For many actors just starting out, the hardest lesson to learn is that casting directors, directors and producers aren’t looking for perfection. They just aren’t. One CD I spoke with recently told me that one of the most excruciating aspects of watching young actors just out of school in auditions is how they try to “shove every single class they ever took” into every scene and every line. The desire for perfection and approval is of course a common factor among actors. But the trick that the veterans know is that who you are – who you ACTUALLY are – is what’s important, not technical perfection or incorporating every obscure theoretical acting note you’ve ever gotten into every moment. That is to say, what you bring to the table, your unique spin on the character, the scene and the lines presented unselfconsciously and openly in a relaxed manner is what’s going to sell them on you. For inspiration we can look to Lana and Lilly Wachowski, the brilliant minds behind The Matrix and the aforementioned Sense8. Born Larry and Andrew Paul respectively, the siblings each struggled for years with their gender identities before coming out as transgender women. And far from just begging the industry and the world for acceptance, the duo strike a courageous and forward-looking tone. “We’re going to get in there and take what’s ours in terms of basic human dignity,” Lilly said at her first public appearance as a transgender woman, speaking of so-called “bathroom bills” across the U.S. that seek to define who may use what public restroom. It’s on another level of course, but we actors could take a page from their book and remind ourselves that no one else gets to define us except for us. And that we don’t need to shove ourselves into boxes designed by someone else in order to be successful.

3. Be Good To Yourself

One of the misconceptions the non-acting world has about actors that is really overdue to be squashed is that what we do is easy. In any way. Actors are some of the most dedicated, hard-working people I’ve ever known in my life. Not only do we spend endless hours off the clock memorizing lines and taking classes, we are also expected to be on set for 12-hour days or longer, ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice with the same energy and verve at 10pm that we showed at 7am. So since we’re required to push ourselves to the limit in this manner, we must be conscious of taking care of ourselves in other ways. One of these ways is remembering to run your own race. You are who you are with your unique experiences and outlook, and it’s the sum of all that that makes you valuable. Make sure you nurture who you are rather than fighting against it. Take for example Jake Zyrus. Zyrus first made a splash as a YouTube singer and then broke out on Glee back in the late 2000s and early 2010s. Back then he was Charice Pempengco. But the singer then-known as Charice found that, no matter the potential cost to her budding career, life as a woman just wasn’t right. Zyrus changed his name and announced his transition in June 2017 and continues to record, saying he’s happier than he’s ever been. After all, if you’re not being yourself, then who in the world are you?  

4. Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously

It’s very easy to feel crushed when you make a mistake at a reading or when you find out you won’t be getting cast in a coveted role. But the truth is, this is a long-haul trip, baby. Every “no” gets you one step closer to a “yes,” as they say. And every mistake carries within it a lesson for next time, a way to improve. As focused as we are and must be about the craft of acting as well as the business, it’s vital not to take all this too seriously. A great example of this is RuPaul. As the beloved star of Drag Race and idol of millions of LGBTQ and cis fans alike, RuPaul nonetheless managed to create a stir within the community a while back speaking about the differences between drag and transgender. Some people in the LGBTQ community took issue with the drag star seeming to make fun of trans people, including the show’s one-time sign off of “You’ve Got She-Mail” which some found offensive. For RuPaul, it was just as important to be honest and brave as it is for the LGBTQ critics – and to take it all a bit less seriously. “Drag is really making fun of identity. We are shapeshifters. We’re like ‘okay, today I’m this, now I’m a cowboy, now I’m this. I come from the school of I will do whatever I want to do, at any time, and change – whatever!” RuPaul said in an interview with The Real. However, RuPaul learned from the experience. The show canned the “She-Mail” references, and has gone on to be more sensitive to the transgender experience.  

So don’t be afraid to be you, baby! And do take care of yourselves, and have a laugh every now and then too, at this ridiculous, lovely, insane world we’ve created for ourselves as actors. What more could you ask for? 

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