Thanks to high-profile gender transitions like Caitlyn Jenner’s, the world is gradually becoming more aware of the experiences of transgender people and about transgender issues. But unfortunately there’s still a long way to go; bullying of trans people is still rife and, according to the 2014 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, a staggering 41 percent of self-identified trans individuals in the U.S. will attempt suicide at some point in their lives. These 20 transgender celebrities, though, are all breaking down barriers in their own ways and hopefully easing the paths of those who follow in their footsteps.
20. Candis Cayne
In 2007 Candis Cayne became a pioneer: as Carmelita on the ABC show Dirty Sexy Money, she became the first trans actress to feature in a recurring role as a transgender character on primetime television. Today, though, Cayne’s often to be seen on Caitlyn Jenner’s E! reality show I Am Cait; since 2015 she’s also served as global creative director of LGBT social networking app MOOVZ.
19. Isis King
Model and designer Isis King describes herself as “born in the wrong body” rather than “transgender”; that phrase, interestingly, is also the title of the 2007 MSNBC documentary in which she featured and which helped moved her towards the mainstream. The following year, then, King became the first transgender woman to be a contestant on America’s Next Top Model – a move that both kickstarted her burgeoning career and made trans people all the more visible on national TV in the process.
18. Jazz Jennings
Jazz Jennings was assigned male at birth; from just two years old, though, she was adamant that she was a girl. Jennings has since grown up, admirably, to be one of the youngest transgender activists in the world, and the teenager even clinched her own reality show, called I Am Jazz, on TLC in 2015.
17. Fallon Fox
Fallon Fox is the first transgender MMA fighter in history – an achievement that unfortunately has seen her draw transphobic flack from some quarters. Fellow MMA star Matt Mitrione, for example, called her a “disgusting freak” in 2013; countless other people in and out of the sport have also weighed in on her muscle strength and even her genitalia. Fox, though, has continued to kick ass and take names like a pro, with a near-flawless fight record under her belt and to her credit.
16. Caroline Cossey
Caroline Cossey had a successful modeling career and even appeared in 1981 James Bond flick For Your Eyes Only before being cruelly outed as a trans woman by British tabloid News of the World. However, she’s since had the last laugh: now, she’s considered a pioneer of trans visibility and rights, while the newspaper was shut down in 2011 amid allegations of illegal practices by its staff. Karma in action, perhaps?
15. Lana Wachowski
As one half of the Wachowskis, Lana Wachowski had co-directed blockbusters like the Matrix movies before she came out as transgender in 2012. However, in October of that year she picked up a Human Rights Campaign Visibility Award – and used her acceptance speech to talk about the importance of transgender role models; certainly, she could claim now to be one herself for trans-aspiring filmmakers.
14. Lilly Wachowski
Four years after Lana Wachowski came out as trans, her sibling and fellow movie director Lilly Wachowski did too. Unfortunately, she was more or less forced to do it after the British newspaper the Daily Mail threatened to out her; Lilly, however, to her credit, used her confirmation of her gender transition as a platform to speak out against transphobia to the entire world.
13. Andreja Peji?
At first the impossibly beautiful Andreja Pejic presented herself as an androgynous male model; in 2014, however, she came out as transgender, and the magazine shoots and catwalk jobs have continued to come in their droves. What’s more, she’s been admirably encouraging and supportive of her transgender and non-gender conforming fans, writing to them on Facebook in 2014, “It’s your right to be accepted as what you identify with.”
12. Janet Mock
Journalist Janet Mock came out as transgender in 2011 and soon after became an outspoken advocate for the trans community. And so in the past few years Mock has definitely put in the work to raise awareness of trans issues and provide visibility of, and support to, trans people through her media appearances, trans-positive Twitter campaigns and 2014-published memoir. What’s more, she’s deservedly picked up several prestigious awards in the process.
11. Chaz Bono
Chaz Bono – the only child of Sonny Bono and Cher – announced that he was a transgender man in 1995 and legally changed his gender 15 years later. His famous mother apparently found it hard to accept his transition at first; suffice to say, though, that the pair are now happily close again. And in 2011 Bono certainly made headlines in his own right for his turn on Dancing with the Stars, appearing as he did as the first trans man on a ratings-winning TV show where the focus wasn’t on his gender identity or transition.
10. Carmen Carrera
Though Carmen Carrera presented as male when she appeared on RuPaul’s Drag Race in 2011, it wasn’t long after the season finished airing that she revealed that she was in fact a transgender woman. She’s now one of the best-known trans models in America; in 2013 fans even started a campaign to make her the first transgender Victoria’s Secret Angel.
9. Jenna Talackova
In 2012 Canadian model Jenna Talackova was disqualified from the Miss Universe pageant on the grounds of her being transgender. She fought against that decision, won and became an instant international role model for transgender women as a result. After her legal victory, then, Talackova told the Toronto Star, “[N]ow I think people are seeing, through media and other transgender women in media, that we are normal girls and we live normal lives.” She’s since gone on to film her own reality show, Brave New Girls, which was aired in Canada in 2014.
8. Thomas Beatie
In 2007 Thomas Beatie became quite the media cause célèbre – dubbed by some as “The Pregnant Man” since, although he is a trans man, he was still carrying a child. Although his first pregnancy sadly didn’t work out, he eventually gave birth to three children; now, he speaks out on LBGT and trans fertility issues all over the world as a public lecturer.
7. Hari Nef
“I want to be the first trans woman to win an Academy Award,” actress and model Hari Nef told i-D magazine in 2014. And while she hasn’t achieved that goal quite yet, she’s still done a heck of a lot while only in her early twenties, having walked runways, written a sex advice column, appeared in a music video for Brooklyn indie band The Drums and, in 2015, landed her most high-profile screen role to date in Amazon Studios series Transparent. Phew…
6. Kye Allums
Kye Allums made history in 2010 as the first out trans athlete in NCAA Division I sports, playing guard for George Washington University’s women’s basketball team. After Allums’ graduation a year later, then, he became an advocate for trans people and LGBT youth in general. And he certainly may know some of the problems with which they struggle: in 2014 he courageously admitted to The Huffington Post that he had attempted suicide when younger, partly because of an unnamed individual “who didn’t value [him] as a person.”
5. Jamie Clayton
In recent years, Jamie Clayton has acted as a co-host for VH1 show TRANSform Me, played Michelle Darnell in acclaimed web show Dirty Work and now stars as Nomi in the Netflix show Sense8 – all of which have seen her star rise and, by consequence, have helped trans women find ever more of a foothold in the media. One of her former partners, moreover, told the New York Observer in 2010 that Clayton had “definitely made the world safer for transgender women.” Now that’s an accolade.
4. Tracey “Africa” Norman
Tracey “Africa” Norman’s modeling career went from strength to strength in the 1970s: at one point, she even landed a gig appearing on the boxes of Clairol home dyes. Sadly, once her trans identity was revealed in 1980, that glittering time in the spotlight swiftly ended. Now, however, she is thought of as a trailblazer, with both Janet Mock and Laverne Cox among her avid fans. “I made history,” Norman shrewdly told New York magazine in 2015.
3. Ian Harvie
Ian Harvie is one of the most visible transgender men in America, cracking audiences up across the country with his stand-up sets and making even more of a name for his role as Dale in Transparent. But, in contrast to Harvie’s comedy roots, he’s very serious about trans rights. “I believe with increased visibility and deeply good representation, people will see other people who are gender nonconforming… and have more understanding,” he explained to AfterEllen in 2014.
2. Laverne Cox
Laverne Cox is one of the most famous trans people in the world thanks, in part, to her expert turn as Sophia Burset in hit Netflix series Orange is the New Black. It’s a role for which she earned a Primetime Emmy Awards nomination in 2014, making her the first ever trans person to receive that honor in an acting category. Not only that, but later that year she became a pioneer yet again by being the first out trans cover star of Time. Next stop: world domination? We wouldn’t put it past her…
1. Caitlyn Jenner
Whatever your take on Caitlyn Jenner, there’s no denying that she’s done a tremendous amount for trans visibility. After publicly coming out in 2015, she instantly began speaking about transgender issues and caused something of a shift in the way transitioning was perceived in the media and in the wider world. And, admirably, she continues to use her considerable fame to advance trans issues to this day, most notably through her E! series I Am Cait.