When it comes to transgender representation on scripted TV, Candis Cayne is often credited with cracking the glass ceiling. In 2007, she became the first transgender actor cast in a recurring role on a primetime series, helping to move portrayals of transgender people from victims or villains to more layered and complicated characters.
On ABC’s Dirty Sexy Money, co-executive produced by Greg Berlanti, Candis played Carmelita, a transgender woman having a romantic affair with Patrick Darling (William Baldwin), a married politician and member of the esteemed Darling family, which was at the center of the primetime soap. While on set, Cayne told ET it was not only a brave decision by the network, but “the right decision” to cast her in the role. “I think they’re trying to tell an accurate story here, so they need an accurate person.” She went on to appear on 11 episodes over the show’s two seasons.
Years later, Cayne said of the role: “I realized that had never been portrayed, but I had no idea how big the impact would be socially until I was three to four episodes in and people started to realize that this was making the world aware of the fact that there are normal feeling trans women out there.”
It would be four years after the series was canceled, however, before a primetime TV series would feature a significant role played by a transgender actor. In 2013, Orange Is the New Black, starring Laverne Cox as a transgender inmate, debuted on Netflix to critical acclaim. The role of Sofia Burset earned her an Emmy nomination — the first-ever for an out transgender performer — further breaking down barriers.
“I hope that it inspires a lot of other trans actors to pursue their dreams and know that their dreams are possible,” Cox said of the nomination. “And also inspire people in the industry to think that you can actually cast trans actors to play trans roles, and we might do a pretty good job.”
Soon Blunt Talk, Sense8 and Transparent — all of which featured recurring transgender characters portrayed by transgender actors — followed, marking historic moments in casting and representation. Most notably, Alexandra Billings, who is among the first openly transgender actors to appear on TV in the 2005 ABC Family film Romy and Michele: In the Beginning, appeared nude on Transparent. “Television has never seen a trans person, certainly with the age I am and with the body that I have, naked on television,” Billings said, revealing that she encouraged creator Jill Soloway to do it. “[I] said, ‘I think it’s time.’” Meanwhile, shows like The Magicians, Nashville and Hulu’s Difficult People added recurring transgender cast members during later seasons.
When the legal drama Doubt starring Cox as a civil rights attorney was picked up by CBS in May 2016, it became the first network show to feature a transgender series regular played by a transgender actor, with the actress seemingly shattering the transgender glass ceiling once and for all. “It’s been such a long journey,” Cox said, referring to the extensive path the show took to go from a pilot order in 2015 to premiering in 2017. But the show only lasted two episodes before it was canceled. (The remaining 11 episodes were later aired in July.) And in the years since, Transparent, which was often criticized for casting a cisgender actor as the lead transgender character, Blunt Talk, Difficult People and Sense8 have all been canceled, while The Magicians, featuring Cayne, was renewed for a fourth season on Syfy.
But 10 years after Cayne first appeared on Dirty Sexy Money, Ryan Murphy’s Pose announced it would feature the largest cast of transgender actors in TV history, with five performers in series regular roles. Whatever glass ceiling remained was officially shattered by Angelica Ross, Dominique Jackson, Hailie Sahar, Indya Moore and Mj Rodriguez when they made their debut in the June 2018 premiere.
On the show, co-produced by Janet Mock and Our Lady J, the women play members of the 1980s New York City ballroom scene with Moore as Angel, a prostitute who falls for one of her clients (played by Evan Peters), and Rodriguez as Blanca, who creates her own house and becomes mother to struggling LGBTQ youth. “Blanca is a rambunctious, strong, wonderfully powerful character who is trying to find her way and help others find theirs,” Rodriguez described the character to ET earlier this year. Moore, who previously appeared alongside Rodriguez in the film Saturday Church, added that Angel is “definitely unapologetic. She’s brave, she knows where she’s going, has a strong sense of self and is staying true to the future she sees herself in.”
Pose has since earned critical acclaim for its exploration of an overlooked story and its authentic portrayals of the LGBTQ community, particulary transgender people of color.
“We’re standing on the shoulders of so many people who have already broken down so many barriers,” Moore told ET earlier this year, with Rodriguez adding at the time: “It’s amazing that we have five leading trans women of color to portray these stories that should have been portrayed a long time ago.”