This year I portrayed a character on TV Land's Lopez—a fictionalized show about George Lopez's career as a famous comic. Like me, my character Coco is a trans actress working in Hollywood. She's a bit of a diva, which was perfect for me since I've always found eccentric roles to be a lot of fun. When I booked Coco, it felt like a payoff, like I'd landed the role I had been studying to play throughout my acting career so far.
But it was more than a meaningful personal accomplishment: As I read the scripts, I was struck by one of Coco's lines, sensing it to be an accomplishment for my entire community. In my first scene as Coco, George Lopez and the on-screen network execs attempt to get her onboard for a new series called Valleys, a show where she would be the sidekick to George's lead. But that conversation quickly turns south when Coco points out to everyone in the room that the network had promised her a show of her own. In a moment of honesty and frustration, Coco tells George, "I'm not here to be your token."
It may seem like a small statement to some people, but I never thought I'd be able to say that in the heart of Hollywood, at the height of my career.
George Lopez was kind, supportive, and fun to work with, and the writers and producers were similarly empowering. They allowed me to speak my mind and offer input into my own character—a level of agency that hasn't historically been afforded to transgender men and women in popular culture. On Lopez, I was invited to critique Coco and share the aspects of her character that I felt were unrealistic or stereotypical in some way.
This was a great responsibility; like most film projects, Lopez had no consultants or writers who had any real knowledge of the trans community. Because transgender people are still so misunderstood, I had to play multiple roles. I wasn't just an actress portraying a character—I was also a consultant. It was up to me to make Coco authentic and ensure she wouldn't be just one more caricature of transgender people, and that was a meta experience: My five-episode arc started with Coco and George disagreeing about their new show and ended with them bonding over how the industry continues to marginalize and tokenize both of them (George as a person of color and Coco as a trans woman).
I hear the word "diversity" thrown around like a basketball—but we don't need to score points by crudely adding tokenized representations of marginalized identities into a show's most outward facing roles. What we need is true inclusion of diversity, to the point it is essential for film to succeed. Too often, that ideal is just a fantasy. Many times, when shows do have a diverse cast, those identities become the sole driving force of their characters, which ironically perpetuates the idea that people who are of color—or transgender, or women—are limited to or defined by their identity.
"I'm not here to be your token."
Diverse representation in film is essential, but when diversity becomes the purpose of a production rather than just one part of its foundation, the industry has still fallen short. Part of real diversity on screen involves having real diversity behind the scenes, too.
Before Lopez, I worked on Transparent for three years, first as the director's assistant and then as a coordinating producer. That's where I first saw the power and meaning of true inclusivity. Transparent is so unique. Because the series deals so deeply with transgender issues, Jill Soloway instituted a "transfirmative" hiring practice, which mandated transgender people be represented in every level of the production chain—from acting, to camera operating, to accounting. She took hiring to another level, allowing production to seek trans talent not to fill a quota, but to let the show breathe authenticity.
I believe that Transparent ignited a societal shift that is underway today on sets like Lopez. These shows prove that the industry can make a difference if it really wants to—and that this difference is not only responsible, but creates better quality filmmaking.
Transparent does such an amazing job employing trans and gender nonconforming people in front of the camera and behind the camera, but is the work that we do on this level enough? Transparent received seven Emmy nominations this year, but none of them went to the show's trans talent. And it wasn't for lack of options—there are plenty of notable trans people doing great work on the show: Our Lady J and Ali Liebegott for writing; Silas Howard for directing; Trace Lysette, who publications lauded as the breakout star of the season, for guest acting; and Alexandra Billings and Alexandra Grey for acting.
After three years of working on the show, I thought it was time for our trans talent to get the recognition they deserve—but I recognize that the industry still has a long way to go before transgender people and people of color are no longer tokenized in some way.
For the last 150 years, film and television has largely been crafted through the eyes of white, cisgender men. There are so many tragic examples of how they have mangled representing diverse identities. It isn't a mistake that films like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Soapdish, and The Crying Game feature trans women being shamed or fetishized. Similarly, it isn't surprising that women have so often been portrayed as objects, and not subjects, in film.
The industry is changing today, and I am part of that. But I also recognize that, earlier in my career, I helped this industry to remain under the gaze that has confined us. Though I didn't know it at the time, I diminished myself in various ways. I dressed the way I was supposed to—feminine and sexy—and I spoke the way I was supposed to: reserved, coy, and not very smart. But it's hard to be sorry about that. Back then, that's the way that I knew how to live, how to be seen, and how to survive. Trans women were taught to be that way, onscreen and off.
And the film industry's discrimination problem was never exclusive to transgender people: Throughout my career—and back when I was in the closet and no one knew my gender history—I went for roles that stereotyped Asian women, like a nurse with a heavy accent, a book-smart nerd who wears glasses, and a sexy crimefighter who hardly wears anything. These roles signified how little Hollywood valued me and my community, constantly reducing us to crude caricatures. If I couldn't be the hot or smart Asian character or the one-dimensional trans character, then I wouldn't be working at all. I was literally hired to play a stereotype.
The confounding truth is that, despite trying my hardest, I was never really able to fit into the short-sighted vision of what these stereotypes looked like, and the casting department knew it, too. They'd tell me I wasn't "Asian enough" or "trans enough"—as if they knew what being Asian or transgender means better than I do. As if they knew better how to embody my reality. So when I went out to audition for Coco, it was refreshing to read a character who commands a room, speaks her mind eloquently, and addresses the very issue of tokenism.
Coco and I have a lot in common. Like her, I spoke my mind to George Lopez and the executives producing the show. I criticized a disparaging line and told them I refused to say it, providing a list of explanations.
I didn't know how they would respond to that, but Lopez did what so few productions have done before: They listened to me. With that choice, the producers told me, "You mean more to us than the line itself. You don't have to say it, and we are happy to work with you." And I suddenly found that my humanity was being recognized on screen.
There were other, smaller indications, as well. Once, a line didn't sound authentic—I felt a real trans person would never have said it. During the table read, I independently altered the line and read it the way I would say it. The next day, I received a new script that had been edited to include my revision. I hadn't asked for the change.
"Earlier in my career, I helped this industry to remain under the gaze that has confined us."
When I left Transparent, I didn't know how other productions would deal with diversity and inclusion; I couldn't know that other shows were invested in the change that we'd worked so hard for at Transparent. But now I have witnessed that progress is possible, and we are really making a difference.
Even Lopez—a show with a predominantly a male cast and all male writers—listened. As an actress and filmmaker myself, it makes me very proud of TV Land and the creators of Lopez for including me and capturing the reality, nuance—and sometimes humor—of what a trans actress experiences in Hollywood.
While I am grateful for the changes that we've seen and the way they've changed my life, I believe that there's more work to be done. If we don't continue this movement for change in pop culture, our industry will continue to reduce the lives of transgender people to negative consequences. We have to be conscious of who's in the room and who isn't. Be conscious of which voices you need to include in the creative and decision-making processes. Make hiring practices to help diversify your company at all levels of experience. Don't just fill a quota—help effect real change.