six trailblazing trans actors to watch

Despite the rise in transgender stories in film and television, trans actors are still rare. We spotlight the exceptions.

by Jane Helpern
20 April 2015, 8:35pm

Michelle Hendley in 'Boy Meets Girl'

"There are 7 billion people on the planet and 7 billion unique ways to express gender." Meditate on these words from visionary "transhumanist" Martine Rothblatt's 2015 TED talk, and be fast-forwarded to a society that is unconstricted by a rigid and limiting gender binary. It's worth a note that the United Therapeutics CEO and SiriusXM founder is not only the highest paid transgender person; she is the highest paid female executive in America, having transitioned from Martin to Martine in 1994. Despite pioneers like Martine, along with an overall increase in transgender visibility in film, television, and fashion, roles for trans actors are still few and far between. Most transgender roles in groundbreaking movies and series are played by cisgender actors (think Chloë Sevigny in Hit and Miss, Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent). Enter Laverne Cox, whose complex and triumphant role on Orange Is The New Black has paved the way for a new crop of transgender actors. Meet the performers following in Laverne Cox's brave path (and yes, it's clearly time for an FTM actor to make it big).

Jamie Clayton

Photo by Barry King/FilmMagic

Actress and model Jamie Clayton got her big break in the entertainment industry as co-host for Vh1's makeover show TRANSform Me, produced (and co-hosted) by Laverne Cox before she was the Laverne Cox. Clayton really stole headlines with her debut on HBO's hit show Hung as Kyla, the client of all-American male gigolo Ray Drecker. It marked one of the first times a transgender woman was cast to play the role of a transgender woman on film or television. These days, Clayton is starring in the original Netflix series Sense8 (out June 5), a sci-fi drama created by the Andy and Lana Wachowski, the power-siblings behind The Matrix. Clayton is also becoming a fashion darling, acting as a muse for Jeremy Scott and appearing in Luis Venegas's Candy magazine.

Michelle Hendley 

Michelle Hendley didn't plan on becoming an actress. Unlike most Hollywood starlets clamoring for celebrity status, her career just sort of fell into place. The 23-year-old from Missouri bravely began documenting her physical transition from male to female on YouTube; revealing her obstacles, triumphs, and vulnerabilities, and becoming a modern voice and activist for the transgender community. It's through these earnest videos that she was discovered by indie director Eric Schaeffer and cast to star in Boy Meets Girl, a coming-of-age tale out this month about a transgender southern belle looking for love in small-town Kentucky. Michael Musto compared Hendley to Jennifer Lawrence on

Zackary Drucker

With her ocean blue eyes, tousled blonde bob, and unabashedly intimate approach to art making, performance artist/filmmaker/occasional actress Zackary Drucker has evolved from a superstar of the Los Angeles queer scene to a prominent figure in the American art world. Onscreen, the CalArts graduate is best known for her performance as "Darling" in the short experimental film She Gone Rogue, a dream-like exploration of gender and identity with cameos from Holly Woodlawn, Flawless Sabrina, and Vaginal Davis. Offscreen, she shares a life and bungalow in Silverlake with her longtime boyfriend and frequent creative collaborator Rhys Ernst. In 2014, the two exhibited a moving body of work at the Whitney Biennial documenting the intense and beautiful years between 2008-2014 when they both transitioned -- Drucker to female and Ernst to male. The duo also serve as consultants and associate producers on Transparent.

Harmony Santana 

Photo by John Lamparski/WireImage

It's been a minute since we've heard a peep from actress Harmony Santana, but her breakout role in the 2011 film Gun Hill Road earned her a spot on our list. As Vanessa (born Michael), a young Bronx teen fighting to live as her true self, Santana became the first openly transgender actor to be nominated for an Independent Spirit Award. Discovered at the Queens Pride Parade by director Rashaad Ernesto Green, Santana went from living in a group home in Harlem to being lauded for an "astonishing debut" in the New York Times

Trace Lysette 

Photo Courtesy Trace Lysette

With over 25 transgender cast and crew members, Transparent is by far "the most trans-inclusive production in Hollywood history," says producer (and boyfriend of #3 on our list) Rhys Ernst. On the show, Trace Lysette plays Shea, Maura's bombshell yoga teacher who easily "passes" as a woman, as is evidenced when she gets hit on by a cis man in a suit on a lunch date. Lysette was in the closet and auditioning for cisgender roles until she was inspired by Laverne Cox to celebrate her true identity, she tells The Advocate. Since making the decision to live life loudly, the future looks brighter than ever for the fiery actress, who was recently cast in two comedies: Gloria Del Rey on NBC's new drama The Curse of the Fuentes Women and Gisele in the new Starz comedy Blunt Talk.

Alexandra Billings

After making a name for herself in the pageant and theater circuits in Chicago, Billings was one of the first openly transgender actors to play a transgender character on screen in the Romy And Michelle: In The Beginning made-for-TV movie in 2005. From there, she went on to score small parts on ER and Grey's Anatomy. These days, she shines as Davina on Transparent, the kimono-sporting cocktail-imbibing spirit guide and mentor to newly-out-in-the-world gal pal Maura. It's a heartfelt and hilarious role she inhabits elegantly, and we look forward to many more seasons of laughter and wisdom with Lady Billings.


Text Jane Helpern

Orange is the New Black
Laverne Cox
Jamie Clayton
Zackary Drucker
alexandra billings
harmony santana
michelle hendley
trace lysette
transgender actor