Actors have the ability to move us in more than one way: With their performances and by using their platforms for the good. In a time of police murders of African-Americans, pandemic, and prejudice, we are particularly grateful to them for showing the other side of humanity.
Each of the honorees in Queerty’s Pride50 category “performers” has scored career milestones in the past year in representing the diversity of our community while at the same time advocating for equality offstage, helping elevate the social justice cause while doing so.
They make us happy, make us weep, and, of course, they make us proud.
1. Brian Michael Smith
In 2020, Brian Michael Smith landed a series regular role on 9-1-1: Lone Star opposite Rob Lowe and Liv Tyler. The role made history—Smith became the first out-transgender man to have a role as a series regular on network television.
But it didn’t come easily. After studying acting at Kent State he moved to New York, where he landed commercials and off-Broadway work. His break came in 2015 in the sitcom Girls. Roles on Law & Order: SVU and Homeland followed before he won the role as a trans man in the TV series Queen Sugar. Smith used the moment to come out as transgender. He’s continued to land a series of trans and cisgender roles, including The L Word: Generation Q.
Smith devotes his free time to mentoring programs for LGBTQ youth as well as to promoting Black Lives Matter. In June 2020, New York Pride announced that Smith would lead a rally against police brutality as part of the city’s pride month.
In addition, he’s also used his visibility to raise awareness of trans-masculine issues, taking part in The Hollywood Reporter’s first transgender roundtable discussion along with Jen Richards, Laverne Cox, and Trace Lysette.
As Smith told Pop-Culturalist:
“GLAAD has a statistic that says 84% of people learn about the trans community through the media. Many don’t know that they know trans people, so all the information they’re getting is coming through TV and film. That’s a huge responsibility. This may be the only trans person that many people in this country get to know…It means a lot to me. It’s incredibly significant. I feel like it’s part of my life mission as an artist and someone who is a trans to be taking on this role. I can already feel the impact of it. Again, people Tweet at me things about what it means for them to see a black trans man in this role. For them individually, for them as parents, or as significant others, or siblings who have trans relatives who are full of fear.”
2. Trace Lysette
Trace Lysette rode into 2020 on a career-high, starring in her recurring role on Pose, reprising her role as Shea in the finale of Transparent, and scoring the featured role of Tracey in Hustlers opposite Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu. Lysette won glowing reviews, making her one of the most high-profile transgender actresses.
Lysette began her career in New York as a dancer, performing in Manhattan nightclubs. She had a goal: earn enough to pay for her medical treatment to complete her gender confirmation.
Following her transition, she landing her big first role as a cisgender woman, on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Further roles in films and TV followed.
But it’s her off-screen courage that makes us the proudest. Over the advice of her management, Lysette came out as trans after landing her role on Transparent. Instead of inhibiting her career, it gave her a boost. Appearances in music videos such as Maroon 5’s “Girl Like You” followed as did roles on Pose, Drunk History, and an appearance on the reality series I Am Cait.
In 2017, Lysette became one of the first LGBTQ people to join the #MeToo movement when she went public with allegations of sexual harassment by her Transparent co-star Jeffrey Tambor.
Coming out in any form takes courage. As Lysette told Queerty:
It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done, and that I’ve ever had happen to me. I think that I was just so used to being sexualized and brushing that stuff off that I developed a callous to it. Thankfully, we’re living in a day and age where we don’t have to take that sh*t anymore.
3. Indya Moore
Indya Moore appeared in the second season of Pose, as well as in the hit film Queen & Slim. Off-screen, Moore, who identifies as trans-non-binary, helped raise thousands of dollars to help trans people, communities of color, and other underprivileged groups during the COVID-19 crisis.
Moore grew up in New York City, where they suffered schoolyard bullying. They left home at 14, moving into foster care, and began modeling for brands like Gucci and Dior.
Frustrated with the body image obsession in fashion, Moore decided to try their hand at acting, landing a part in the wonderful indie musical Saturday Church in 2017 (the film saw wide release the following year). That, in turn, earned a role Pose.
2020 saw Moore taking part in the huge protests against police brutality sweeping the nation. Also this year, with the COVID-19 crisis mounting—especially in their native New York—Moore raised funds for relief from the virus.
As Moore said at the launch of the campaign:
In times of crises.. well really… in times.. all the time… Black trans women are the last of us all to receive help and resources if any at all. Its really important to me to prioritize those who will always be thought of last if thought of at all. I am looking at all requests and I am looking at all trans folks in need however I am prioritizing the needs of black trans women first, the ones who are least likely to have friends, boyfriends and families checking in or present at all. I hope you are too!
A few weeks later, Moore announced that their fundraising had exceeded expectations:
This fund started with an intention to give 50 dollars to the first 50 black trans folk who commented under my first post about Covid relief, from my own funds. However, I was inspired by how many of us are in need of assistance and knew i needed to give more, so i continued until I realized that I had to also allocate funds to take care of my family during this emergency as well. I decided that the best way to continue the fund would be to initiate a wealth redistribution system where I invite my IG community & Fan base to participate. I was completely touched by the interest of our allies (AND other fellow trans folk!) to support black trans folk to navigate the impact of the pandemic. Because of YOU We got to take care of about 400 people with 20 thousand dollars. The majority of recipients are black trans folk, particularly women. However many Covid relief recipients are Latinx, asian, indigenous, Queer, trans, disabled and differently abled folk as well. I am so incredibly touched by the outpouring response to organize relief funds for black trans lives.
HBO scored a hit this season with Euphoria, a drama about a teenage addict coming of age in high school, making trans actress Hunter Schafer, 21, a sudden big deal in Hollywood as well as a leading figure in a new generation of LGBTQ activists.
From an early age, Schafer combined activism and acting. The North Carolina native recognized her identity in high school, and, with the support of her parents, protested North Carolina’s so-called “bathroom bill,” part of vicious Republican anti-trans campaigns in conservative state legislatures. (The law was repealed in 2017.)
Meanwhile, Schafer’s modeling career took off, earning gigs with Dior, Versace, Calvin Klein, and Coach. Her charisma and striking looks then caught the eye of casting directors and landed her the Euphoria role.
During the development of the show, Schafer worked with series creator Sam Levinson to fine-tune the character Jules, a transgender high schooler and best friend of Zendaya’s character, Rue.
Of her newfound visibility, and the impact of her character, Schafer told Them:
While I don’t think we have a singular mission or a revolution that we’re pursuing, I think we just want people to feel less alone in their experiences or simply be able to identify with what they’re seeing on screen. That feeling of looking at a piece of media or a work of art and feeling seen by it is incomparable. I hope that’s what the show is accomplishing more than anything — just creating a sense of empathy and acting as a mirror in some ways.
5. Jeremy Pope
Jeremy Pope is perhaps best known for playing the gay African-American writer Archie in the hit Netflix series Hollywood. As an openly gay African-American himself, he knew first hand a bit about his character’s struggles.
In 2018 the Orlando-born actor landed juicy roles in two hit shows, Choir Boy (as Pharus) and the musical Ain’t Too Proud (as Temptations singer Eddie Kendricks). He won Tony Award nominations for both shows in the same year, a feat achieved by only five other performers in history. Pope is now participating in some of the protests against police brutality.
Jeremy Pope has yet another thing going from him: He’s never hidden his sexuality. In fact, he’s made a point of saying how easily he related to his characters in Choir Boy and Hollywood as a queer person of color.
As Pope told Variety:
But what I found very interesting, especially with Archie, was how confident he was and how fearless he was. It almost felt like a person in 2020 — this younger generation that is speaking out and protesting and really fighting for their voices to be heard. I don’t know that you saw many people in that vein in the ’40s, but here we have this person who is very confident and who believes in what he does and what he wants to be and, given the opportunity, he can be a trailblazer. I know the struggles of what people before me had to go through, being black and being queer and trying to occupy a space in the industry that wasn’t built for them or for us. That’s a struggle within itself. But the overall message of fighting to be heard whether you’re one or two or three is something. And there are some who are in positions of power…[who] can make a difference by just granting an opportunity to one person. That expands and gives a voice to so many people.