It is time for the trans community to have our Moonlight.
Moonlight, directed by Miami native and Florida State University graduate Barry Jenkins, told the story of Chiron, a timid Black boy from Liberty City, Florida who experiences the consequences of his sexuality throughout three stages of his life. The film released in 2016 to universal applause, and inspired a generation of Black queer youth — myself included — in ways that no film before it ever could.
For the first time, people like my younger self saw an image of themselves on the silver screen and on the grand stage of The Oscars, where it won the award for Best Picture in 2017. I still vividly recall how ecstatic I felt while watching the ceremony, knowing that Black queer people were finally being represented in Hollywood.
Over four years have passed since the film’s release, and while none have quite captured the same magic as Moonlight, there has since been a notable increase in films centered around gay characters and their journeys through self-discovery.
However, this rise in representation has yet to be extended to the transgender community, a group which remains vastly misunderstood by people outside the community. Considering how impactful Moonlight was to its viewers, a coming-of-age story highlighting the experiences of a trans person progressing through their transition could bring a much better understanding for viewers of all kinds.
In her article titled “What Moonlight’s Best Picture Win Means To Me as a Transgender Woman,” film critic Danielle Solzman writes that “The win gives me hope that any screenplay I write has a legitimate chance now at winning best picture at the Oscars. A film with transgender themes is not exactly something that one thinks of when it comes to the Oscars.”
There are several popular TV series and films which have trans characters, but many have been held back by not being both inclusive of trans actors and featuring a trans character as the main role. At the moment, the lone exception is the FX series Pose, which highlights the lives of Black trans women in the New York City ball scene in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Pose is likely the most accurate representation of trans issues in a major series and has received plenty of praise, but its lack of immediacy that a film would have softens its wider impact. It is the closest thing to what I feel the community needs, but is just shy of being the monumental force that Moonlight has been.
Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen, a documentary released in 2020, further highlighted the inequities and injustices committed against transgender people throughout the history of American television and cinema, and recognized the importance of works like Pose which mark a step in the right direction for the portrayal of trans people in the media.
In an interview with Henry Giardina of Them, Disclosure director and producer Sam Feder said that in conceiving the documentary, “I wanted to give trans and non-trans people more context to understand these changes in our culture, the history, and how we got to this point of visibility, all while keeping in mind that visibility is not the goal. It’s a means to an end.”
The trans community deserves a film that properly represents the many highs and lows of life as a trans person, and a diverse cast which reflects that. Even Moonlight failed somewhat in this regard; Although the film’s co-writer Terrell Alvin McCraney is openly gay, none of the cast being openly queer at the time of release (Janelle Monáe, who plays Teresa in the film, came out as pansexual in 2018) made the sense of representation and inclusion negatively impacted for some viewers.
Regarding the lack of nominated queer actors at the 2017 Oscars, Daniel Reynolds of The Advocate wrote “So why, during acting’s biggest night, is there not a gay face to be found?”
The lack of visibility of gay and lesbian actors when our stories are being capitalized on is disheartening, and this applies tenfold for trans actors, who are erased by cisgender actors who bastardize our stories and reinforce the false notion that transness is merely a costume.
Creating a narrative focused on following a Black trans youth through their transition bears plenty of possibilities, is a beautiful way to uplift and promote trans actors and would provide an opportunity to connect to viewers unfamiliar with our stories. Trans people cannot afford to be ignored and silenced any longer, and it is through a film like this that we can be inspired to make our voices heard for years to come.