'The Fosters' Star on the Rise of Transgender Television: "It's Not Going to Do a Lot"

Out actor Tom Phelan talks with THR about how Cole helps viewers find themselves on TV but stresses it will take longer to translate to real change.
Eric McCandless/ABC Family

Since its start, ABC Family's The Fosters hasn't been shy about exploring taboo issues. The Peter Paige drama in season one introduced Cole — a transitioning, transgender young man played by transgender actor Tom Phelan.

The character was first introduced when Callie (Maia Mitchell) was placed in a group home and befriended the teen. More recently, Cole returned at the show's LGBT prom as a love interest for Callie.

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Phelan to discuss his coming-out story, what kind of feedback he’s gotten about the show and whether the heavy presence of transgender characters in the media helps transgender youth.  

How did The Fosters find you for the role of Cole?

My mom got a call and they asked if I wanted to come and audition. I was away on a school rafting trip. When I got back I was the most sunburned I’ve ever been and I was like, "Why not? It’ll never happen but it’ll be cool to audition." They called me a few days later and told me I got it. My parents are in the business and we know Peter Paige through friends. When I came out, my parents sent out an email letting everyone know my new name and my new pronouns and what was happening with me, so I think through that Peter knew I was both an actor and a trans person.

Had you already told everyone you knew about your own impending transition before you appeared on the series?

I came out my sophomore year of high school — first to my parents, then to all my friends. The email my parents sent was to all of their friends and distant relatives so that everyone knew. It was really great of them because coming out a million times can be really emotionally exhausting, so the fact that they took on some of that burden themselves was really great.

What kind of feedback did you get from past appearances on the show and what kind of feedback did you get on your most recent appearance?

It’s been overwhelmingly positive. A lot of kids who are 14 or 15 have been telling me their stories and telling me that it’s been great to see someone like them on television. I feel really lucky to be that and share that with them. When I was 14 or 15 I didn’t know this thing existed. Characters like Cole and characters like [Laverne Cox's] Sophia on Orange Is the New Black are really important, especially for trans kids who are coming into their own and just realizing that this is something that they might be.

Do you feel Cole was an accurate portrayal of a transgender young person?

I do. I think that there are so many different people and every trans person’s experience is going to be different. There’s really no way of knowing if this depiction is accurate because everyone is going to have a different experience. And I think that Cole is one of thousands and thousands of ways to depict a transgender person.

What about Cole connected to your own personal experience?

A lot of things. I still deal with misgendering and violent language and people being jerks in general. But I’ve been much more lucky than Cole in that I have a very supportive family and most of the people I’ve come out to have generally been very accepting and kind. I definitely still deal with struggling with access to medical transition and self-image issues. It’s been much easier than the way Cole has had it just because my family has been so amazing.

Has seeing portrayals in media made your everyday life any easier given that the subject is less taboo than it used to be?

Yes and no. I think it’s very important for people looking for depictions of themselves in media, but I think as far as real, concrete change, it’s not going to do a lot. To be perfectly honest, I don’t think the most violent trans misogynists are going to be watching The Fosters. We’ve come a long way with being in the public eye, but in terms of lessening violence, there hasn’t been a lot of change. Media representation is great, but it’s not going to promote visible, genuine change. Media representation is for the community and for young trans kids and it’s for people looking to see themselves. I don’t think it’s for the rest of the world. Its primary function is to serve as a looking glass so that people who feel lost and confused can look and see themselves.

There has been a lot of media attention on being transgender as of late, especially with Cox’s portrayal of Sophia on Orange Is the New Black, Amazon's Transparent, and Caitlyn Jenner’s upcoming docuseries, I Am Cait. What do you think of the other various portrayals of being transgender?

It’s great to have so much much diversity of experience portrayed in television and movies. There’s a great movie called Tangerine coming out soon that I am so excited to see. Seeing actors like Laverne Cox give amazing performances would be wonderful no matter what role they’re playing, but even for me it’s great to see people like me on television. It gives me hope.

The Fosters airs Mondays on ABC Family.