It’s Not Too Late for Hollywood to Change Its Legacy on Trans Stories (Guest Column)

Rain Valdez
Courtesy of Dome Nammali

Watching “Soapdish” as a child in the 90s was the first time I saw what life could be like for a transgender actress. Montana Moorehood, an actress on a soap opera played beautifully by Cathy Moriarty, is forcibly outed as a transgender woman to her co-stars. They react with shock and disgust, with her producer saying “She’s a boy” and the man who’s been intimate with her nearly pukes in his hand. Seeing that was not a positive experience for me.

I fell in love hard with Hollywood at a very young age. Watching TV and film was how I learned to speak English and discovered that I wanted to act, but life changed shortly after “Soapdish.” I was no longer allowed to be as feminine in my presentation. I was forced to cut my hair short and my parents bought boy-presenting clothes to protect me because they feared for my life.

As a child and teen, I identified with the women who I saw on TV and in film. I took pride when people would laugh after I told them that I was a cross between Whoopi Goldberg and Michelle Pfeiffer. As I got older, I said I was more like Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock. None of these women are Asian or transgender, but if you asked who I was really ‘like’ back then, I didn’t know. I didn’t even know the word transgender. I turned to TV and film to find anyone like me so I could explain who I was, but there were no Asian American transgender women. “M. Butterfly” certainly wasn’t it.

After watching “The Crying Game” and “Ace Ventura,” I started to realize that film and TV did not love me back. Both depicted trans women who were mocked and attacked. As it is evident in the new Netflix documentary “Disclosure,” which chronicles the history of trans images in Hollywood, film and TV saw trans people as jokes or victims or villains – not as human beings.

What people see on TV and in film has a huge impact on how they treat each other and see the world. Rom-coms are propaganda for who gets to be loved. Action movies are propaganda for who gets to win. For decades, we’ve been telling the world that those who get to be loved are white, cisgender, heterosexual and monied. Everyone who isn’t within these identities, transgender people particularly, have longed to be afforded a loving and aspirational narrative.

In “Disclosure,” actress Jen Richards explains how the depiction of trans women in Hollywood has a direct link to the ongoing violence against trans women, especially trans women of color. Recent news headlines about anti-transgender policies and violence are evidence that the world is treating trans people exactly the way Hollywood has conditioned society to: with fear, shame, ridicule, and hate. An industry person once told me that the negative depiction of trans people in Hollywood “wasn’t malicious.” While there are times when the intent is not malicious, the consequences are the same. Transphobia can and does exist in the unconscious, which Hollywood helps inform. This unconsciousness is what’s killing transgender people at an alarming rate.

“Disclosure” is a truth-telling mirror that Hollywood must now face. The film exposes the lies about trans people that Hollywood has perpetuated for decades and documents the role that Hollywood played in creating a world where trans people too often don’t get to be loved or be ourselves.

I was pleasantly shocked to learn that my family in the Philippines and in Guam had watched “Disclosure” and cried at the very thought that a simple movie like “Soapdish” had changed the course of my life and made things even more difficult for me. But because film and TV are so influential, they didn’t know what to do back then, except to believe what they saw. Much to the sadness of my entire family, that resulted in depriving me of the kind love and understanding that’s crucial for a transgender child’s growth.

It is not too late for Hollywood to change its legacy on trans stories and I know it wants to. My first big acting role was as a transgender actress on TV Land’s “Lopez.” But unlike Montana Moorehead, the writers created a character who demanded gender and pay equity. I got to say the line, “I’m not here to be your token!” and at the end of the series, she got her own show. After “Soapdish,” “Lopez” was a full circle moment for me.

Today in Hollywood trans people are given a slice of the pie, and in rare cases, the whole pie. But we know this is not enough. We need to be in the kitchen making the pies.

Shows like Amazon’s “Transparent,” FX’s “Pose” and Netflix’s “Sense8” would have meant the world to me growing up, but these trailblazing shows are not enough to combat the last 100 years of negative depictions.

I have had the good fortune to have been surrounded by my “Disclosure” cast members and friends from the beginning of my career in Hollywood. There’s one thing we’ve all agreed to do: to end the imbalance of trans representation by creating our own content. So I made “Ryans,” a rom-com short film that stars me, where I get to be the transgender Sandra Bullock. I made a comedy webseries called “Razor Tongue” where I get to be messy, have sex, and fall in love. Over 80% of the talent in front and behind the camera were queer, trans or people of color. My small contributions as a creator began to fulfill a need for spaces for the arts in my community and I started wanting more. So I created ActNOW, the first and only LGBTQ acting class in Los Angeles. However, because I’m a trans woman of color, opportunities are still limited and there are roadblocks.

Today we learned in GLAAD’s annual film report that there were zero transgender characters in films from the top eight studios for the third consecutive year, proving that we must prioritize trans visibility. To really make change, we need Hollywood to join forces with LGBTQ artists as soon as possible. Hollywood’s champions and risk-takers must be willing to hand over decision-making power to us. Most of us have been through all the mentorships, labs and fellowships. The art, the stories and the competency are there. Access and power are what’s missing. We’re ready to make a big budget rom-com that stars a trans actress. We’re ready for the sitcom with a queer led cast. Give us the opportunity and we can take care of the rest.

“Disclosure” is opening people’s eyes to the truth about trans representation and the trans people in Hollywood who are changing the paradigm, and complacency must now become a thing of the past. I believe in a new Hollywood that can create a new foundational narrative that will make all the difference in the world, for policymakers searching for the right thing to do and for our trans youth watching at home, searching for stories to relate to, that show us that we too, get to be loved and get to win.

Rain Valdez is an actress (“Razor Tongue,” “Transparent”), an award-winning filmmaker and an out and proud transgender woman. Rain is also the founder of ActNOW, the first and only acting class in Los Angeles prioritizing a safe space for LGBTQIA actors and teaches beyond the binary.