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Trans Rights Groups Struggle to Win Hollywood Funding Even After Dave Chappelle Controversy


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Every year, Hollywood gives millions to LGBTQ organizations, partnering with the likes of GLAAD, HRC, The Trevor Project and The Point Foundation for starry galas as A-listers sit on their boards or serve on host committees. But it’s the “T” that seems to have gotten less financial commitment than the rest of the acronym, as transgender organizations report a mixed bag of industry support — even as Dave Chappelle’s transphobic comments in his recent Netflix special brought a renewed spotlight to the issues many trans people still face.

“We’re seeing much more thoughtfulness out of Hollywood about trans characters and casting trans actors. We have not yet seen that filter into donations to trans-specific organizations, that we’re aware of,” says National Center for Transgender Equality executive director Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen.

He says trans-specific groups’ underrepresentation in donations is a trend throughout the country, not just in Hollywood, and is amplified by the industry’s longtime ties with specific LGBTQ umbrella organizations. “There’s understandably, I think, this reaction of, ‘We’re going to give to the ones we already know about,’” says Heng-Lehtinen. “But that does leave the trans-specific ones behind.” He’s referring to grassroots organizations with in-depth knowledge on how to best support the community.

GLAAD, one of the groups beloved by Hollywood, has worked to carve out a trans-focused department in its Transgender Media Program. Led by trans man Nick Adams, the program consults with Disney, WarnerMedia, Amazon, Netflix, ViacomCBS and NBCUniversal on its transgender inclusion and portrayal in TV and film as well as provides media education training — this year consulting on the Apple TV+ interview between Oprah Winfrey and Elliot Page. And even for a group with so much influence, there’s a need for increased support. “We need more staff able to handle the requests for consulting work on transgender representation. It is overwhelming how many requests come in,” says Adams, as portrayals of trans characters increase onscreen.

The Chappelle special came amid a wave of anti-trans legislation in the U.S. that hit a record-breaking high this year. And Transgender Europe’s annual Trans Murder Monitoring report, released Nov. 11, counts 2021 as the deadliest year on record for trans and gender-diverse people, with 375 registered murders globally — a 7 percent increase from 2020.

“There’s a lot of need in the trans community for philanthropic support, and I do hope that media companies are spreading their support across various platforms to make change in a variety of ways,” says Adams.

Hollywood’s approach to supporting the trans community, however, often focuses on onscreen and behind-the-camera representation for writers, directors and producers. But Kris Hayashi, executive director at the Transgender Law Center, says just telling trans stories is not enough.

“In order for us to shift attitudes and policies, it’s imperative that Hollywood offers its resources and influence to trans people on the front lines of social change,” Hayashi says. “So often, the entertainment industry has an extractive relationship with marginalized groups. To rectify that, the industry should regularly commit funding and opportunities to these groups, especially trans-led organizations.”

And there are many of those — [email protected] Coalition, Trans Wellness Center, Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement, The Okra Project and The Frances Thompson Education Foundation are all trans-focused groups, as is TranSanta, Indya Moore’s crowdsourced gift-giving project for trans youth supported by Ariana Grande and Scooter Braun’s SB Projects. Says Shauna Nep, vice president of philanthropy at SB Projects, “Given the legislation that has been introduced — and in some cases, passed — this year, it is more important than ever that we put resources into protecting trans lives. We are lucky to work with organizations and activists who help us make a difference both with respect to policy and legislation but also who help us impact individual trans people’s lives and send a message that you are loved and supported.” (Earlier this year, SB Projects’ client Demi Lovato partnered with Henry Masks to create a custom limited-edition mask collection with a portion of proceeds benefiting The Center for Transyouth Health and Development at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.)

On top of quietly writing a check, Heng-Lehtinen points out the value of celebrities using their platforms to support the community, with “so much more reach than any nonprofit,” noting how cultural conversations about transgender people have a direct impact on donations. “When something anti-trans happens in pop culture, individual donations to trans groups do go really high up,” he says, citing J.K. Rowling’s anti-trans tweets. “It shows that people do care.”

Actor and trans consultant Scott Turner Schofield, who assisted on HBO’s Euphoria, says that cause-and-effect relationship is exactly part of the problem: “While I appreciate that there has been increased support of trans advocacy organizations, it’s also disappointing that Hollywood seems most inclined to donate to trans organizations and invest in the trans community when there’s been harm caused rather than doing consistent and proactive allyship,” he says. While people might rush to support trans groups in the wake of high-profile attacks by public figures, oftentimes donations taper off — at least until the next incident.

“We are becoming more popular in a way; we’re becoming more accepted, but we’re also being more attacked because the spotlight is on us,” explains Heng-Lehtinen. “For Hollywood to shine a spotlight on our issues in an affirming way, and to even go a step further and say, ‘We’re going to invest and we’re going to support trans people and we encourage you to do so as well,’ it sends a really powerful signal. It’s financially important, but it’s also really culturally important.”

This story first appeared in the Nov. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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