Like a lot of kids from L.A., Elliot Fletcher is the son of actors (most recently, his mom and dad have done voice over work for video games like Final Fantasy and Resident Evil). But unlike a lot of kids from L.A., Fletcher had the unique experience of coming out as transgender while attending an “all-girls” high school and had to battle for his own rights until proudly becoming the school’s first openly transgender graduate.
Since starting his own acting career two and a half years ago, Fletcher has made a name for himself playing trans guys on TV, particularly on MTV’s Faking It, Freeform’s The Fosters and Showtime’s Shameless. On the latter, Fletcher just finished his second season playing Trevor, a community organizer who gives Ian Gallagher his first shot at a healthy relationship and fights everything from misgendering to homelessness among LGBTQ teens.
Meanwhile, as Aaron on The Fosters, which is wrapping this spring after a five-season run, Fletcher explored top surgery and the risky experience of being trans in jail (his character was arrested for obstructing justice while trying to warn people about a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid). He also partook in the first sex scene between a cisgender and transgender teen on American television.
I recently spoke to Fletcher about the burden of tokenism; why he dreams of playing a Hollywood superhero (whether that superhero is trans or not); and portraying masculinity in a post-Weinstein world.
Growing up, were there any trans men in pop culture who you looked up to in the same way young trans boys undoubtedly feel “seen” in your characters today?
Well, growing up, there really weren’t any transmasculine people in anything. I didn’t have anything to look to in that department, at least not specifically. But when I was eight or nine, I watched the movie Rent for the first time and immediately identified Angel as my favorite character. I didn’t know why at the time, but of course, now I see that she was probably the first trans or gender non-conforming character I ever saw. Angel made me feel like, “Okay, I can be whoever I want to be and be happy in the same way that she is.” She was very influential.
As a trans man in Hollywood, do you feel pressure to be just as good at educating and organizing others around issues of transgender rights as you do to be good at acting?
Being an actor and an activist as a trans person can be tricky. Whether it’s my decision or not, the people I want to work with — or the people I end up working with — typically want to combine my activism and my acting. A lot of the time, my character’s storylines will revolve around gender identity, and it can get a little after-school special-y when we’re trying to educate.
I’m not opposed to that, but as an actor, I’d love to have more chances to separate my performances from issues of gender and politics. Especially because I’m usually the only trans person on set and my purpose is to be, like, a trans storyline — or like I said, the lesson. I’d love a role that’s not even related to my trans identity, to play cis guys, too. But in my personal life, I’m an activist, so it all works together somehow.
Still, do you feel like you’re put in a position where you have to educate the people who are hiring you about your experiences as a trans person?
It’s interesting. On most projects I hop on, everybody is very welcoming. They almost always start off the conversation with, “Hey, if there’s anything in the script that’s offensive or you don’t think a trans person would say, tell us and we’ll change it.”
But there’s also been situations where I’ve had to be the educator — or even the storyteller — for the writers. Sometimes, writers will say something like, “We’re coming up with a backstory for your character, would you mind sharing a little bit of your own?” I immediately say, “No.” I’m there to be an actor, not a writer, you know? The couple times that’s happened I’m like, “Why is this becoming an autobiography?”
I know most of it comes from a place where people are trying to learn, but that’s not my job. And it’s not like people are trying to dig into my personal life maliciously, it’s just a matter of them not knowing how to write trans characters.
What do you like about the characters you’re most known for playing — Aaron on The Fosters and Trevor on Shameless?
I’m sad The Fosters has just ended. I have this deep connection to Aaron especially. It was interesting to play him as a trans guy who, until recently, wasn’t outspoken about being trans. He only told people he felt close enough to — and when he really wanted to — which is a totally legitimate way of living as a transgender person.
Shameless is a fun show to work on. We’re given so much freedom in terms of how we perform and where we want to take our scenes. I feel a little ameteur on there.
Your sex scenes on The Fosters are considered groundbreaking for representing a hetero teen couple where the man is trans and the woman is cis. How do you feel about that?
I personally don’t consider the sex scene groundbreaking, but that’s because I live in my own queer and trans bubble. I know it was groundbreaking for a majority of the viewers who have had no exposure to trans people and their relationships. I’m glad I got to portray a character who was in a healthy, loving relationship and trans at the same time. I’m hoping trans people, especially young trans people, see that you can be in great relationships with people who love and respect you for who you are.
What kinds of characters are you hoping to play next?
A superhero. I always say that. I don’t think it’ll happen anytime soon, but I’d love to be the first trans guy cast as a superhero. I’d love to be able to show audiences that it isn’t such a crazy thing. The superhero could be trans — that would be cool — or not. Either way, it would be empowering and awesome.
As the entertainment industry is experiencing a reckoning when it comes to masculinity and abuse of power, do you feel like you’d like to see anything change about the way masculinity is represented in pop culture?
For the majority of my life, masculinity has sort of scared me, because stereotypical masculinity is so aggressive and violent. But it’s also confused me, because I identify as a masculine person and had to both assert that and navigate what it meant for me.
In terms of media, the more gender nonconforming and transgender experiences we represent, the more people are able to rethink their own adherence to certain binaries. But there’s a lot of variety among transgender people, too, and that needs to get explored. For example, two of the characters I’ve played on TV are gay, which is important in terms of representing transmasculine gay men, but I want to see even more experiences portrayed, be them sexual or whatever. I also want to see characters than inhabit the gender spectrum in ways that aren’t so binary, more genderqueer and androgynous characters.