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The trans actor brought authenticity and some serious eyebrow game to MTV’s 'Faking It'
By Drew Mackie
May 13, 2016 :: 9:00 AM
Elliot Fletcher has boy-next-door looks and these bold, bushy eyebrows that would win teenaged hearts and set him apart from all the other guys at school. All this no doubt helped him get cast on Faking It, an MTV series that has had no shortage of fresh-faced actors but which is more famous for taking place in a quasi-alternate reality where progressive social values are the norm. For three seasons, the show introduced groundbreaking storylines about sexuality, though today it’s making headlines for joining My So-Called Life and Freaks and Geeks by being canceled too soon.
On the current (and now final) season of the show, Fletcher plays Noah, a recurring trans character who is a love interest for the show’s most popular kid in school, the out and proud Shane (played by G.B.F. star Michael Willett). When Noah arrives at Hester High, he’s already himself, and if that narrative runs contrary to the kind of trans arc you’re accustomed to seeing on-screen—a superhero-style origin story that begins with coming to terms and struggling for acceptance—you’re right. It’s all the more notable that Fletcher himself is trans, and similarly all origin story-ed out at the young age of 19. A Los Angeles native, he came out as trans at age 17. The news was received well by his stage actor parents, though the all-girls high school he attended took more time to adjust.
“I want people to know that there is more, that there is something after that,” says Fletcher of moving beyond the trans origin story trope. He notes that there’s been a boom in trans roles as of late, but this Faking It role stands apart from the rest because it tells a different narrative. It’s not only offering audiences a secure, confident trans man but also a trans man who happens to be gay. That may be a heady concept for some gay viewers to wrap their heads around, to say nothing of the cisgender, hetero teens viewers who might otherwise not have considered the notion of same sex-oriented trans people.
“Now and then I think ‘Oh, shit—this could actually have a tremendous effect on people,’” says Fletcher. “This storyline will be very eye-opening as to what it’s like to be trans as a 17-year-old and what it’s like to be trans and gay. Unfortunately, a lot of cisgender gay men can feel uncomfortable about potentially dating a trans man—like, ‘Oh, am I going to lose my gay card for sleeping with him?’ As Noah says on the show, you don’t; a trans man is just a man. It’s so simple.”
Faking It caused some grumbles among LGBT viewers when it premiered in 2014 because it revolved around two besties (Rita Volk and Katie Stevens) feigning a lesbian romance to become popular. As time went on, Faking It proved that its premise was no gimmick, and its characters portrayed a nuanced diversity of sexualities and identities—perhaps most notably resident mean girl Lauren (Bailey De Young), who in the second season was revealed to be intersex.
The show never feels like an afterschool special, however, and it’s been twice nominated for a GLAAD Media Award for its deft handling of subjects other series won’t touch. “Noah helps put into context how sexuality and gender identity are two different things,” explains executive producer Carter Covington. “I believe our show models conversations that people have had in real life yet.”
In fact, GLAAD itself helped Covington pick the words in this conversation about Fletcher’s character; the actor’s first interaction with the show was as one of three young trans men brought in to speak with the writers in an effort to make the character seem authentic in his actions and feelings. Only subsequently did Fletcher return to audition for the role.
That initial interaction happened thanks in part to Nick Adams, GLAAD’s director of transgender media. Outside of GLAAD, Adams works with Transforming Family, a support group for trans adolescents, and Fletcher has attended the group. So when Covington asked Adams if he could refer teens who might want to share their personal experiences, Fletcher was at the top of the list.
“Historically, trans people who are living as the gender they know themselves to be are often depicted in TV and movies as being deceptive. They’re tricking or fooling people,” says Adams of the kind of hackneyed, inaccurate plotlines GLAAD tries to steer TV shows away from. “Since Faking It wanted to tell a story about the Shane character dating Noah, we wanted to make sure it didn’t fall into the traps of Noah ‘fooling’ Shane, because that’s just not the case. It’s a private fact. It’s their medical history, and it’s up to the character to decide whether to disclose it to somebody.”
And when Noah confided in Shane that he is transgender in the May 3 episode of the show, it was a remarkable moment for Shane, who throughout the series is often the worldly one who teaches his peers about the intricacies of sex and sexuality. With this news, Shane has to confront some prejudices and misconceptions he has about trans men. “There were moments when I was like, ‘Ugh, Shane, you’re such an idiot for thinking these things,’ but you can’t always play a character who does the right thing,” says Willett of his character. “Shane is usually so confident and all-knowing, but he actually doesn’t have all the answers.”
Willett notes there was a conscious effort to underscore the differences between coming out as gay and going public as trans. “When working with Elliot, I didn’t want to assume that our lives were the same and I knew everything about him. Because he’s trans, he has a different trajectory,” he says. “I like to remind myself that I’m only one person, and no single person can tell every aspect of what it’s like to be trans. We can only tell the one story presented in front of us, and then leave room for further stories for other people to tell in the future.”
George Northy, the show’s story editor and the writer Covington credits with coming up with the idea to introduce a trans love interest for Shane, says the concept originated in part to develop Shane’s character. “I’d pitched that maybe this new trans character is gay, because that’s something that hasn’t already been done, but it’s also interesting because Shane is so set in his identity,” he says. “But it ended up working out so great because we managed to find someone perfect for the role.”
Covington pledges that one of his goals in developing Faking It was to speak to an audience that had never previously seen itself realized on-screen. And as he sees it, GLAAD’s input proved indispensable in creating Noah, much as similar resources were key in creating the previous season’s intersex reveal. “I strongly believe that when you’re telling stories about something that’s not close to you, you need to talk to people who have actually had that experience,” he says, “just to get it right and to make sure that the emotions you’re portraying are the ones the characters would actually feel.”
Covington’s stewardship of the progressive, sexually adventurous and just generally horny characters on Faking It meant that he has to find a balance between provocation, education and entertainment. He strikes that balance more often than one might imagine possible. “We have an agenda of promoting tolerance, but we never let that outweigh the fun and funny,” he says.
Fletcher said that lighter approach happens to be a good fit for him personally. “I think it’s cool how we bring stuff in so casually, because that’s how I handle stuff,” he says. “I’ve never sat someone down and said, ‘Listen, I’m transgender,’ because it’s just another thing about me and I don’t view it as a monumental one.”
Something that did, however, turn out to be monumental for Fletcher was walking into the audition for the role of Noah—and not only because it meant landing his first-ever major role. “I was there with five other trans male actors, which was new for me,” he recalls. “There is so little trans male representation, so it was cool to see all these guys together, getting ready for the part. I don’t know how many of us there are. I hope there are a lot of us.”
He’s next appearing in a recurring role on The Fosters, and he admits the transformation from ‘trans teen’ to ‘trans teen on-screen’ happened quickly. But he’s running with it.
“I’m one to think that there’s so much out there waiting for a hypothetical 15-year-old trans kid, who’s maybe feeling ‘I’m not going anywhere, I’m never going to be where I want to be.’ But I want that 15-year-old to know that there is something out there, and there are people who they haven’t even met yet that already love them so much,” Fletcher says. “That’s what I want to tell them.”