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Baptiste star Talisa Garcia: Stop blaming casting directors – we need to train more trans actors

Talisa Garcia Talisa Garcia. Photo: Ori Jones
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There is more trans visibility on stage and screen than ever and this should be celebrated, says Talisa Garcia, star of BBC1’s Baptiste. Trans actors need to ask for learning opportunities, not more politically correct language

Looking at the state of politics at the moment you can’t help but feel depressed, especially as human rights appear to be flying out the window the world over: Trump’s ban on trans people in the military; the Sultan of Brunei bringing in the death penalty for gay love (although later bowing to international pressure and backing down); Alabama’s banning of almost all abortion, the most extreme legislation in the US.

Progressive policies seem to be in reverse, but maybe that has contributed to things looking up culturally. As so often, great art comes out of adversity. For example, my favourite play, Death and the Maiden, was written by Ariel Dorfman after his experiences with the Pinochet dictatorship in 1973 in Chile.

Trans people have always been at the forefront of revolution. We played a major part in the Stonewall riots of 1969 that sparked the gay civil-rights movement. I am a proud transsexual actor and, professionally, things have never looked better for people like us on stage and screen. I was recently in prime-time BBC1 drama Baptiste. Judging by its success, and the successes of hot US import Pose on BBC2 and the exceptional ITV drama Butterfly, trans people have never been more visible in mainstream entertainment or seemingly closer to being accepted.

Blanca Rodriguez in Pose. Photo: BBC/ Pari Dukovic
MJ Rodriguez in Pose. Photo: BBC/ Pari Dukovic

It should be a cause for celebration. Yet, to read some of the comments on social media after Baptiste had aired, you’d be forgiven for thinking we’d taken a step backwards. And no, this negativity wasn’t coming from the Daily Mail crowd as I’d been told to expect – the comments were coming from the transgender community.

I played Kim Vogel in the show. Here was a fully fleshed out, transgender character on Sunday-night television, written by Harry and Jack Williams – two of the most acclaimed writers around – but there was still a (sadly, almost inevitable) backlash. Among the criticisms people posted were: “Why didn’t they cast an actual transsexual?” “Why was her character so mean?” “Why couldn’t she have a (spoiler alert) happy ending?”

Garcia with her Baptiste co-star Tom Hollander
Garcia with her Baptiste co-star Tom Hollander

These were just some of the swipes aimed at the programme. And to answer those: Actually I am a living, breathing transsexual – a quick Google search before tweeting would have revealed this; the character is mean because she’s had to be and, finally, she had it coming. That she was transsexual was incidental.

The last few years have seen greater leaps and bounds in transgender visibility and equality than many could have ever hoped for. All the major soaps have now had a trans character. BBC2 had its own trans-centric sitcom, Boy Meets Girl. Its star – the divine Rebecca Root – has been hailed as an industry trailblazer. Unimaginable to many 20 years ago, she now has a blossoming career and plenty to look forward to.

The BBC has been a staunch supporter of me and LGBT+ rights throughout my career

I first played a trans part on BBC1 prime-time show Silent Witness 15 years ago. The BBC has been a staunch supporter of me and LGBT+ rights throughout my career. Yet everyone wants to give the Corporation flak – from people on social media, to the nature of the questions in most of the interviews I do.

Last month, I was honoured to be invited to an open casting for trans-identifying actors in front of the leading casting directors of Theatreland. What a privilege. Colleagues of mine would kill for that opportunity. But there are those in our community that act as if we are doing those casting directors and the industry a favour. If you’re not right for a role, you’re not right. Be grateful you got in the room.

Our stories are starting to be told. Let’s not set things back by forcing people to walk on eggshells. Let’s encourage writers to listen to us instead, so that progress can continue. Or better yet, create your own work. I have stories to tell and I intend to tell them. Political correctness has its purpose, but, humourless lectures on pronouns don’t serve anyone. If you are a ‘they’ – not a ‘she’ – then educate, don’t scold.

Anna Friel and Callum Booth-Ford in ITV’s Butterfly

I am one of the only trans people to have trained as an actor in my new sex. Drama school is the perfect safe place for people to find themselves and I had some of the happiest days of my life at Arts Educational Schools in London. However, there is a real lack of trans folk who have actually trained to be actors. I am one of the fortunate few and want more to follow.

Producers want to be inclusive, but the pool of talent is currently comparatively limited. We need to stop blaming casting directors, producers, writers and the industry for the lack of trans actors cast in mainstream shows and on stage and instead make sure that trans people have the opportunity to be trained. Scholarships and grants should be made available to those in our community with talent. If drama school isn’t an option, take classes somewhere like the Actors Centre in London.

We want progress to continue in terms of mainstream visibility, so writers like the Williams brothers should be applauded, not criticised, for including trans characters in their work.

Of course, you’re not going to please all of the people all of the time, but we need to make sure we don’t turn people off tackling this subject on the stage and screen. Gender is a big, confusing topic, but most of all, it is personal. Despite my experiences, I don’t feel I fully understand it. Of course mistakes are going to be made when others try to put these issues on screen. In order to learn, we need these mistakes to be made without casting out those who have made them in good faith.

I am proud that trans people aren’t afraid to stand up and fight. I stand with my trans brothers and sisters in demanding respect and acceptance, but that comes with time and familiarity. Think about how long it took for the gay community to move from stereotyping to tolerance and then acceptance. Change is happening. We just need to make sure we don’t confuse the issues.

Talisa Garcia is an actor who has most recently starred in BBC1’s Baptiste

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