Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner may be among the world’s most high-profile transgender celebrities, yet there is a significant difference between the two. Cox had already transitioned to female when she catapulted to stardom thanks to her stunning performance as trans inmate Sophia Burset on Orange Is the New Black. Jenner, however, had a far different story, given that her transition came after decades in the public eye as a celebrated athlete who appeared frequently on film, television, and even on Wheaties boxes.
While there has never been a time in modern history that there have been so many openly transgender celebrities, coming out as transgender under the harsh glare of the spotlight takes a special kind of courage and belief in oneself that deserves respect and celebration. Jenner, in fact, may be the most famous transgender celebrity to have transitioned right in front of our eyes, but she’s far from the only one.
From an acclaimed rocker to an A-list actor to sibling directors of bona fide Hollywood blockbusters, keep on reading to meet a variety of transgender stars who transitioned after they were famous.
Juno star Elliot Page unveiled his new gender identity
On Dec. 1, 2020, the actor known for such hit movies as Juno and Inception took to Instagram to share a message. "I am trans, my pronouns are he/they," wrote Elliot Page, adding that he identified as non-binary, which the Human Rights Campaign defines as someone "who does not identify exclusively as a man or a woman."
"I feel lucky to be writing this. To be here. To have arrived at this place in my life," Page continued. "I can’t begin to express how remarkable it feels to finally love who I am enough to pursue my authentic self." Page concluded by addressing "all trans people who deal with harassment, self-loathing, abuse and the thread of violence every day: I see you, I love you and I will do everything I can to change this world for the better."
Prior to announcing his transition, Page had been starring in Netflix superhero series The Umbrella Academy. In response to Page’s coming out, Netflix responded via Twitter. "So proud of our superhero," read the message, while ET confirmed Page would continue to portray Vanya Hargreeves when the show returned with its third season.
Laura Jane Grace was already an acclaimed rock musician when she transitioned
Laura Jane Grace is known as the singer, guitarist, and songwriter for punk band Against Me!, which she founded in the late 1990s. In 2012, she came out as transgender, becoming a rock-music trailblazer in the process. In a 2012 Rolling Stone profile that served as her public coming out, she admitted she was nervous. "Even now, there’s a part of me that’s not convinced I know what the f**k I’m doing," she said, adding, "But there’s another part of me that’s completely, 100 percent sure."
Since then, Grace has experienced an artistic renaissance, including the critically acclaimed Against Me! album Transgender Dysphoria Blues, side project Laura Jane Grace and the Devouring Mothers, Emmy-nominated docuseries True Trans with Laura Jane Grace and her 2016 memoir Tranny. She’s also been basking in praise for her 2020 solo album Stay Alive, recorded during quarantine and described by Rolling Stone as "a raw, unedited missive from lockdown."
One downside of her journey, she told Entertainment Weekly, has been endlessly repeating her transition story. "I’ll do interviews, and it’s like time-traveling seven years; I have to approach every interview like nobody knows what I’m talking about," she explained.
Chaz Bono was a transgender trailblazer
Chaz Bono‘s TV debut came when he was just a kid, making adorable appearances on the 1970s variety show hosted by parents Cher and Sonny Bono. He was 40 when, in 2009, he underwent gender reassignment surgery to become a transgender man, a process he candidly discussed with ABC News. "This is how I was born. I mean, there’s no doubt in my mind," Bono said of his gender identity.
"It’s actually pretty simple if you look at it. We all in the womb start out as female and then hormones come and we either stay female or we become male. I think of it as hormones that, you know, went in the brain but not in the body, and that’s all being transgender is. It’s just that the sex of your body and the gender of the brain don’t match up," added Bono, who went on to become an influential transgender activist and even competed on Dancing With the Stars.
Cher has been supportive, but in a 2013 interview with The Sunday Times admitted she had "a hard time" adapting to Chaz’s new identity. As she confessed, "it’s a strange change for a mother to go through."
Former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner used her powerful platform to call for acceptance
Arguably the most famous transgender celebrity there is, Caitlyn Jenner made headlines around the world when the Olympic gold medallist announced her transition in a calculated media blitz that included a TV interview with Diane Sawyer, a cover story in Vanity Fair and the memoir The Secrets of My Life.
Two years after transitioning, Jenner spoke about the experience in a 2017 interview with The Guardian. Asked if the former Keeping Up the Kardashians star was interested in landing her own reality show, Jenner pooh-poohed the notion. "Oh, I don’t care about that stuff!" she declared.
According to Jenner, reality TV "didn’t even cross [her] mind" when she transitioned. "My intentions were number one, to calm my soul. To deal with this issue and be myself. This woman had lived inside me for 65 years, it’s time for her to live! Let’s give her a shot and see what she could do," she said. Jenner shared that prior to her public coming-out and transition, she experienced the joy of having children and competing in the Olympic and Pan American Games. Now, her life has a new focus. "This woman — it’s her turn! And that platform I have: can I make a difference in the world?"
TV viewers have followed teenager Jazz Jennings on her transgender journey
In 2015, TLC viewers met teenager Jazz Jennings, who opened her life to reality TV cameras to chronicle her journey on the series I Am Jazz. By then, Jennings was no stranger to the spotlight; back in 2007, Jennings was interviewed by Barbara Walters, with her parents revealing that she’d been identifying as female since she was a toddler. The Jennings family also starred in the 2011 OWN network documentary I Am Jazz: A Family in Transition.
At the time of the TLC show’s launch, a then-14 year old Jennings opened up to ABC News about her apprehensions on starting high school, a process that would be filmed for the show. "I’m a little bit worried because I’m not sure if people are going to be fully accepting," she said, adding, "I’ve noticed that boys are less accepting than girls."
Jennings also shared her thoughts about why she wanted to share her life on television. "I just want to be as open as I can," she said. "It will show other people that being transgender… is OK, it’s not something negative at all. It’s something that I embrace, that my family embraces, and we just live our life, we face the challenges, we conquer them and we move on."
Lilly and Lana Wachowski transitioned after directing a little movie you may have heard about
Siblings Lilly and Lana Wachowski burst on the Hollywood scene as co-directors of The Matrix and its sequels. In 2012, Lana came out as transgender, with Lilly making her own announcement in 2016. Interviewed by The New Yorker after coming out, Lana admitted, "My biggest fears were all about losing my family. Once they accepted me, everything else has been a piece of cake.
While the first Matrix movie was produced well over a decade before Lilly came out, in a 2020 interview with Netflix she confirmed fan theories that the storyline of the Keanu Reeves-starring mind-bender and its sequels was actually a "trans allegory." "I love how meaningful those films are to trans people," she said, adding, "I’m glad that it has gotten out that that was the original intention. … The corporate world wasn’t ready for it."
Looking back at the movie, Lilly admitted that in hindsight she could see that The Matrix "was all about the desire for transformation, but it was all coming from a closeted point of view."
Alexis Arquette was one of the first openly transgender stars on reality TV
Alexis Arquette passed away of complications related to HIV in 2016, at age 47. She was known as an actor, activist, and all-around bon vivant, who never achieved the success of her more-famous siblings Rosanna, Patrica and David (her most memorable acting role was a Boy George impersonator in Adam Sandler’s 1998 comedy The Wedding Singer). According to a feature about her in The Hollywood Reporter, it was around 2004 when she first began approaching family and friends to explain she was about to gradually "phase out the boy" side of herself and transition to female.
Her decision to come out as transgender was eyed with skepticism in Hollywood, yet she was able to rise above it. That was apparent in how she came across in the 2007 documentary Alexis Arquette: She’s My Brother, and after joining the cast of the "celebreality" show The Surreal Life in 2006; as THR pointed out, reality television "could have been a potentially disastrous situation for Alexis instead [but] brought her praise, for presenting a strong trans role model at a time when such a thing was virtually nonexistent."
Andreja Pejic found success as an androgynous model before transitioning
Andreja Pejic is a Serbian model who has walked the runway for the likes of Marc Jacobs and Jean-Paul Gaultier. What makes Pejic truly unique, however, is that she’s modeled both men’s and women’s collections, and has been described as one of the few true androgynous models in the world.
While Pejic attracted headlines (and controversy) by modeling women’s wear while identifying as male, that hasn’t been an issue since she underwent gender reassignment surgery in early 2014. "I figured out who I was very early on — actually, at the age of 13, with the help of the internet — so I knew that a transition, becoming a woman, was always something I needed to do," she told Vogue. "But it wasn’t possible at the time, and I put it off, and androgyny became a way of expressing my femininity without having to explain myself to people too much." This, she explained, led her to become successful as "this androgynous male model," even though her "biggest dream was to be a girl."
Ultimately, she explained, "I think my story can help people. My goal is to give a human face to this struggle, and I feel like I have a responsibility."
German pole vaulter Balian Buschbaum set himself free
Prior to his transition, German athlete Balian Buschbaum competed in the 2000 Olympic Games as a champion pole vaulter, winning numerous titles in his native Germany. In 2007, he announced he would be retiring from professional sports and would be transitioning to male. "There were difficulties when I hit puberty" he told German broadcast RTL, via t-online. "My body did not adapt to my soul." Ultimately, he decided, "I want to be the man I have always been inside."
As German media outlet Deutsche Welle reported in 2008, Buschbaum underwent "extensive" gender reassignment surgery. "Courage is the road to freedom. I woke up in complete freedom today. The sky is wide open," he wrote in a diary entry for his website, the site reported.
While Buschbaum may have stepped away from the sport that made him famous, his fame only grew when he subsequently competed on Let’s Dance, Germany’s version of Dancing With the Stars.
Chelsea Manning’s transition was far from the most controversial thing about her
Demonized by her own government, but hailed as a hero by others, Chelsea Manning made headlines when, as a U.S. Army intelligence analyst posted in Iraq, she sent classified military documents to WikiLeaks. She told ABC News that she leaked what the outlet described as "the largest trove of government secrets in U.S. history," because she felt she had "a responsibility to the public," particularly when it came to counterinsurgency military operations that resulted in the deaths of civilians. According to The New York Times, Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison.
She began transitioning to female while housed in a male military prison. In January 2017, Manning’s sentence was commuted by President Barack Obama shortly before he left office. However, Manning’s refusal to cooperate with the ongoing investigation into WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange led her to be found in contempt and thrown back behind bars. Manning was ultimately released in March 2020 when a judge determined there was no longer a need for her grand jury testimony, and thus "her detention no longer serves any coercive purpose."
Manning’s story — both her whistleblowing and the gender dysphoria that led to her transition — were chronicled in the 2019 documentary XY Chelsea. As the film’s director, Tim Travers Hawkins, explained in an interview with The Guardian, he specifically avoided a "before" and "after" in the film’s narrative in order to quash the notion "that she wasn’t a woman before."
Jake Zyrus was already a singing sensation before transitioning
Singer Jake Zyrus was something of a child prodigy in his native Philippines, which ultimately led to exposure on U.S. television. His soaring, powerful voice attracted the attention of uber-producer David Foster, who’d crafted hits for the likes of Céline Dion and Whitney Houston, and produced Zyrus’ first U.S. album, Charice, in 2010. That same year, Zyrus joined the cast of Fox hit Glee for its second season, portraying foreign exchange student Sunshine Corazon.
In 2013, Zyrus came out as a lesbian on a Filipino TV talk show. "I don’t know what the problem with that is because for me, that isn’t a problem," he said, reported Associated Press. "To all those who will accept me, thank you very, very much."
More headlines came in 2017 when the singer announced he’d changed his name to Jake Zyrus, signaling a change to his gender identity. "When I thought about finally coming out as a transgender man, I didn’t think a lot of people would actually agree to it and accept me, but I was surprised with the love and support," he told USA Today. "So I’ve been doing great, I’ve been feeling good about everything. I’ve been happy."