Living life her way – out and proud
It takes a lot of soul searching to live your truth.
That’s a process that isn’t lost on Cassandra James, a graduate of Ryerson’s School of Performance, who is now playing the first transgender character on a soap opera to be portrayed by an actual transgender actress. Since July 2018, James has been playing Dr. Terry Randolph on General Hospital, an oncologist who has been lifelong friends with one of the show’s longest-running characters, Elizabeth Webber (played by Rebecca Herbst).
“I always wanted to do film and TV and there are lots of boundaries for transwomen, even more so for trans women of colour, so to join such a legacy has been an honour,” said James, who is Asian-American-Canadian.
Born in California and raised in Vancouver, James moved to Toronto to pursue post-secondary studies. She chose Ryerson for its theatre program and location in a busy city with opportunities, graduating in 2009. After doing the local theatre rounds, namely at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, James moved to Los Angeles in 2017.
“I felt I had strong training at the theatre school,” she said. “There was lots for me to access there and so many ways to be a performer. Ryerson really laid such a strong foundation for me.”
A brand new me
James’ discovery of her true self happened after graduation. For years she identified as a gay man and going through the acting program allowed her to “climb into so many different skins” that it wasn’t until the end of a romantic relationship that James questioned her identity.
“I had a relationship with someone who identified as straight and after theatre school, I was living androgynously and when the relationship ended, I felt more like I was his girlfriend, not his boyfriend,” James said. “I realized [then] he saw her before I did. That started a period of painful but profound explorative searching….two years of asking really hard questions of myself.”
James shared she wanted to be really thoughtful about her transition and arrive at a place with it where she was comfortable and confident. In November 2015 she came out as trans to her family.
“Being trans is revolutionary, divine. I think throughout history we’ve always existed….in different cultures,” James said. “Trans people have access to the world that most people don’t. We exist across planes and have a lot to teach people. People who hate us have a deep fear of our gifts and our way to authentically be who we are. I wish that the world would come back to us and create more space for us.”
The reality for many
Trans women of colour are at risk the most, external link when it comes to anti-transgender violence, PDF filecomprising approximately four in five of all anti-transgender homicides, external link. James admits there are days her depression gets the best of her and she does not feel like getting out of bed.
“Trans misogyny is so debilitating at times, so sometimes I have to take a step back and preserve my energy,” she said. “Self-care to me looks like leaning on my support system, which takes a great deal of vulnerability and being clear about what I need from family and friends. I want us to thrive and I want to be a part of that. But there are times I need to take a step back because if I’m not taking care of myself, I’m not good for the cause.”
Rays of sunshine
While some days are more difficult than others, the glimmers of hope and sparkles of joy that reach James are from viewers and fans. Fellow trans people who message her and tell her what it feels like to see someone who looks like them on television and can see themselves reflected back to them.
“Representation matters. It’s very critical that trans actors tell our stories,” James said. “We need to commit to accurately casting and cultivating transgender narratives. We need more people in power like Ryan Murphy [creator of Glee, American Horror Story and Pose] who are opening up the acting opportunities for more trans actors. We exist, we’re out here and we have a lot to offer.”
Look out for James on season two of Diggstown, starring fellow Canadian actress Vinessa Antoine, in spring 2020.
Ryerson Positive Space planned a series of events this month in support of Trans Awareness Month. Please visit the Office of the Vice President, Equity and Community Inclusion website for more information.