Because, apparently, I am.
At the beginning of my writing career, when I was just 17 years old, I found representation through a little boutique agency. Having an agent at 17 years old may sound surprising, but I had been home schooled, and thus the opportunity to focus on writing was afforded to me until I could adequately refine my craft. By that time, I had 2 feature plays produced, written 6 feature film screenplays and was a finalist in the Outfest International Screenplay Awards- they sent me their thick program from the festival and I beamed with pride at the site of my name.
Landing that agent wasn’t easy, and not for the reason you might think. Linda, the owner of the agency, would talk to me on the phone and berate me about the sound of my voice. I was a young budding trans woman and naturally effeminate with a high pitched voice. This troubled her, presuming it made me sound weak. “Talk in a boy’s voice for me” she said once during a meeting. “I need you to sound like a young man. You’re a genius young man, I want people to take you seriously, not walk away laughing.” She said. I practiced lowering my tone for weeks before giving up.
The first screenplay that ever generated interest was a extremely long saga that examined sexuality, taboo relationships and the consequences of obsession. It was a dark thriller where my protagonists were straight couple comprised of a trans woman and cis man, and another couple both cis, who occupied the apartment across the hall from them in a new luxury highrise. It was very edgy for its time, and soon John Ferraro of Paramount was on the phone with me for over 45 minutes discussing the merits of the screenplay which he lauded with praise. His only concern was the transgender woman, and suggested that the story would be served if I’d change the character to a traditional woman. He was exceedingly kind and very supportive, and I told him I’d think about it. I had difficulty making such a profound change that would have completely altered the nucleus of a pivotal character.
I never called back… much to the outrage of my agent at the time.
Later that year, Linda decided the agency was transitioning into a firm that primarily managed actors and models. I was fortunate enough to be “Grandfathered” in, assured that they were still keeping writers on their roster but not accepting any new clients. I’d seen this coming for some time… months of radio silence before I’d finally reach out to see if there’d been any interest in my manuscripts… “I’ve not heard anything,” was typically the response. Eventually, another year passed since I head from her, and in that time I’d sent her three new screenplays I’d finished. I finally called her only to discover that they’d never been unpacked and she hadn’t read them. I recognized that their shift in direction had consequentially left me behind, regardless of me still being on the roster. I politely suggested we part ways so we could focus on our respective interests.
I wasn’t looking forward to starting from scratch. The task of landing an agent, for any writer, is both arduous and emotionally taxing. At square one, you’re back in the seat of a novice. It’ a vicious cycle of new agents who won’t read the work of new writers without a referral and hundreds of query letters returned, simply stating “No thanks.” That’s if they bother responding at all. I gave managers a shot and entertainment lawyers, certain I had a better chance as I had grown my resume, but the responses were all very similar. “This one is too gay” “Can you turn this transgender person into a real girl?” “I can’t market this to people in Topeka.” “Try producing this yourself, you’d win an Oscar but no one in Hollywood will make this.” It wasn’t that my writing was bad- but my very person and my vision of a world that included people in my community was simply not acceptable.
I’ve been without an agent ever since. Sure, I’ve won more awards, placed high in competitions and have built an impressive body of work in my field, but almost 20 years later, agents don’t run at the mere utterance of the words gay or transgender anymore- they shut me down because they think I’m too old now.
Here’s an example:
Recently, I met an agent who I knew represented my genre of material and had recently signed a 22 year old girl with one script. I figured I had a great shot given they had just broken away from a much larger agency and were building their client list. We spoke on the phone after I submitted my manuscript.
“I loved the script; I enjoy high concept material, this is right up my alley.” He said. I was elated to hear that, feeling like it was the beginning of a new era of my career. Through some idle chatter, he asked about my history as a writer, and I began rattling off my accolades, going all the way to my finalist award in the 2000 Outfest Screenwriting Competition to my more recent placements in the WeScreenplay Diverse Voices competition and Screencraft’s Drama competition- every competition I’d ever entered I had placed high in. I went on to explain how I had graduated from NYU having studied screenwriting and film direction. But it wasn’t my resume that caught him off guard.
“Wow, in 2000?” He laughed gently to himself. “I was 10. How old are you?”
So, I broke my own rule, which I have for this very reason, and told him my age. The phone went quiet for a moment. I felt a distinctive swell of anxiety, like I was suddenly at the free clinic and about to be read my test results.
“You know…” he began, “This industry is really about fresh faces. It’s shallow, I know, but the younger you are, the better the chances of success.”
“Well,” I said, scrambling for words that I couldn’t find readily, “Thankfully, I’m not trying to embark on an acting or modeling career.” I laughed awkwardly, unsure if my reaction even made sense. “So…” My thoughts trailed off.
He sounded more anxious now, “You walk into any writers room in LA, any show,” He began excitedly, passionate about the point he wanted to make, “The median age there is roughly 25. It’s easier to sell a writer, or rather, work from a writer who is younger. I just sold a comedy spec by a 20 year old writer before he even finished college. Buyers are really into stories driven by young voices. They’ve got their finger on the pulse of what’s hot and trendy and they’re writing for their own demographic. They’re an easy sell… It’s a lot more exciting to say ‘Hey, I have this script by this 24 year old,’ than it is to say, ‘Hey, I’ve got this awesome script by this 54 year old.”
By this time my lips curled back. “Then don’t put my age on the script… and I’m not even 40 yet.” I said, smiling awkwardly even though he couldn’t see me.
He reassured me it wasn’t that simple. “You see Phaylen,” Now, he talked to me like a loan officer at a bank trying to politely turn me down. “If I send you out for a meeting with a great script, or into a writer’s room for a job and they just saw a 25 year old for the same gig who they connect with and feel would be more malleable and enthusiastically bring new perspectives, they’ll get placed or their work optioned over the work of someone who reminds them of their Aunt or Uncle or-”
“Don’t you dare say it…” I thought to myself, so I interjected before he could finished “Or older, wiser, more experienced sister?” I tried to make a joke. It’s not like I’m 106. I don’t even qualify for AARP. I don’t get a free coffee at Denny’s.
“30 is really the cut-off nowadays in this industry, unless you’re a big name with a hundred credits under your belt, there’s no such thing as a forty, fifty or sixty year old new writer. It’s all about the Greta Gerwigs and Lena Dunhams. It’s as much about marketing the person as it is the work.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “So the window has closed for me regarding a writing career?” I asked. “Is that what you’re telling me?”
He tried to rebound. “No, not at all. No. It’s just going to be an extremely difficult road. I’d try writing a book, getting a literary agent and taking that route. They’re always optioning the film rights to novels that perform well. That’s one avenue you could take… or you could try approaching independent producers willing to produce the work and make it yourself. Then, if it’s a hit, agencies will be begging to sign you afterward because you’re a self-made success and they would want a piece of that.”
I wilted in my chair, deflated like an old, withered balloon. I felt like I should defend myself, and to fill the awkward silence, I did. “I’ve written eight feature screenplays in various genres. I produced and directed three short films. I’ve put 2 full length theatrical plays on stage to huge success. I have a body of work-”
He stopped me.
“I know this isn’t what you want to hear, it’s just the cruel nature of the business. Talent across the board is getting younger, actors, directors, singers, even agents like me. When we take on a writer we have to take stock of their marketability in the industry, in front of or behind the camera. I don’t agree with the trend, honestly, but for me to make money, I have to be able to guarantee that my clients will. You would be more challenging to place than a less qualified writer. It would be a gamble and I’m not sure you’d be happy with the results.
I continued attempting to defend my value, at his point it was pure vanity. I didn’t care whether he wanted to represent me or not, but I wasn’t going to hang up feeling I’d spent my entire life wasting my time. I’d written my first book in longhand at 16. By 17 I had my first agent and was meeting with producers at Paramount who liked my work but back then they were too fresh and new. Now I’m suddenly too old and dated?”
I added “As a trans person who writes character driven films that represent the world as it is, I feel I have a fresh voice in that it is not one not often heard in this industry. I can count on my hand the total number of trans writers.”
I waited for him to answer and began to think he had hung up before I heard a shuffling background noise. “I didn’t realize you were trans.” He said. “You’re right that there isn’t a lot of trans related material in rotation, primarily because there is no market for it. I honestly cant think of one producer I could go to and say ‘I have a script about trans people’ and have them get excited about it. Most wouldn’t even likely read it if its pitched as a trans story. Studios just aren’t looking for it. But we really are focused on diversity and have we’ve brought on a lot of young trans writers with new perspectives. They just don’t really write “Trans-centric’ manuscripts,” those are more art pieces or historical social commentary. Very niche, always planned in-house, never optioned from outsiders.”
He wasn’t lying either, my friend Mya Taylor had starred in a film called Tangerine for Magnolia Pictures. It was independently produced and filmed with less of a script and more of a loose outline, but the director was friends with the Duplass Brothers who gave them a shoestring budget. It went on to score a ton of awards, including making her the first trans actress ever to score a best actress win at the Independent Spirit Awards. After that, her career dried up. She couldn’t unearth a substantial job in film or television that paid enough to stay afloat. Meanwhile, her cis counterparts that took home statuettes that year, including Brie Larson and Idris Elba went on to illustrious careers with abundant opportunities. Mya went back to school, realizing Hollywood wasn’t going to make a place for her- and she is ten years younger than me.
So, we thought we’d work on a project together. She called up her old friends from magnolia to see if she could pitch it. When she mentioned the word “Trans” she was quickly informed “We already have one transgender film, sorry.”
She was so discouraged by the climate toward transgender performers and creative opportunities offered that she felt forced to leave the industry altogether.
I have written exhaustively about the lack of transgender representation in film and television. What little visibility there is typically amounts to recycling the same six trans actors or actresses for every role as if the entire entertainment industry has met its trans quota. Whereas once I was too trans to have the same opportunities as my lesser qualified cis counterparts, now I’m pushed out to pasture, deemed too obsolete to compete with the new generation.
The next time you hear about the entertainment industry pledging to diversify or making grandiose statements in an effort to virtue signal or offer up a performative allegiance with the trans community, remember that, over the span of my entire lifetime, despite my credentials, I was discounted for being young and trans… and then too old and trans. I was not given time or attention because I wrote stories that had the audacity to include trans people and gay people all the while they sing about their diversity efforts and change their social media icons to pride colors every year in June.