Over the last few decades the LGBT community has made major progress in the entertainment industry. It was once thought of as career suicide to be openly gay, much less transgender. But in recent years, openly gay and lesbian actors are routinely nominated for major industry awards, ranging from the Oscars and Emmys to the SAG awards and various other critical acclaims. Sir Ian McKellen and Jaye Davidson have both been nominated for Oscars. Chris Colfer has won a Golden Globe, and his Glee co-star Jane Lynch has won both a Golden Globe and an Emmy. But a major milestone was passed last week when transgender actress Harmony Santana was nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Independent Spirit Awards for her performance in Gun Hill Road. From what I can tell, she seems to be the first trans actress nominated for a major Hollywood award.
Trans communities face an incredible amount of disrespect because of a lack of understanding about pronoun use and various general misconceptions, and because of the confusion this nomination is particularly impressive. Trans people have to endure their identities debated by disconnected politicians who oppose changing names on a birth certificate or gender markers on a driver’s license. And people in casual conversation will offensively ask what a person’s “real” gender is. The answer to the pronoun conundrum is simple: use the gender with which the individual identifies. Santana was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, in her proper category, against other female actors.
Much of the confusion about pronoun usage is exacerbated by regular jokes about “trannies,” “she-males,” and other profoundly offensive phrases. Let’s be clear: these words are never appropriate to use. But media portrayals of the trans community are often relegated to joke status. Comedies especially find ways to poke fun at the community. Perfect examples of transphobic television include the upcoming television series Work It and Neil Patrick Harris’ recent comments on Live with Kelly.
But when the struggles and stories are treated with the weight they deserve, we’ve seen a wonderful response to the material. Tom Wilkinson was nominated for a Golden Globe and an Emmy for his portrayal of a woman deciding to transition in Normal; Felicity Huffman was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, an Oscar, and a SAG Award and won a Golden Globe for her performance as a woman transitioning in TransAmerica; and Hilary Swank actually won the Oscar for her performances as Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry. But while all these performances have been nuanced and important, they have been performed by straight and non-trans allies. Santana represents the first recognition of the abilities and contributions of trans artists by a major industry award.
For the LGBT community this should be a milestone and a moment of celebration. It’s incredibly encouraging to see a trans actress nominated for a prestigious award in the proper category. Santana is new to the industry. Her credits only include three films to date. Beyond Gun Hill Road, she appears in the LGBT camp comedy series Eating Out 4 and the upcoming Eating Out 5. Despite the over-the-top sexual jokes in the series, Santana’s character and struggle as a young trans girl is treated with incredible delicacy.
If Santana stays on this path, she is likely to do a lot of good for the trans community. Media portrayals dispel myths and expose people to ideas that they otherwise would not experience. The LGBT community has pushed for greater acceptance through media portrayals. We’ve made it clear that traditional stereotypes are boring and secondary storylines are unacceptable. But our community often likes to forget one of its own, and Santana is hopefully the turning point. Moving forward, producers and directors should feel empowered and encouraged to cast more trans artists and develop more compelling storylines showing trans people for who they are: normal people who deserve the same respect as everyone else.
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