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Halifax transgender actress happy to be in a film about transitioning

Female transgender actress Michelle Raine can relate to her character Don in Shelley Thompson's new short film Pearls, about a teen transitioning in a rural community.
Michelle Jennie Pearls
Halifax transgender actress Michelle Raine plays a transitioning teen in Shelley Thompson's short film Pearls. Jennie Raymond plays the mother.

Female transgender actress Michelle Raine doesn't see herself as a role model.

“Then I'd need to be perfect and I'm not!” she says.

Yet the Halifax actress wants to inspire others. “I hope just being me and living my life would inspire someone to live as authentically as they can, whether they are trans or not.”

She was encouraged by a trans woman to “come out” two years ago when she was 26 and an acting student at Dalhousie University. “I met her and I realized she's a normal person, I'm a normal person, I need to do this,” says Raine, sitting outdoors on her Halifax upper deck.

Two years later, she's just finished starring as Don in Shelley Thompson's short film Pearls, about a family dealing with a 17-year-old's decision to become the woman she is.

Raine's family was incredibly excited because she was performing with Robb Wells, a.k.a. Ricky on Trailer Park Boys. “A lot of my family watch Trailer Park Boys.”

Raine herself has had a lot of family support in the tumultuous, physically challenging and often psychologically painful journey of transition, but in Pearls, her character Don fights with her father while her mother helps Don escape her small town.

Pearls is a predecessor to a feature film by filmmaker Shelley Thompson, who plays Barb Lahey on Trailer Park Boys.

“The feature is a very gentle film, a very rural film,” Thompson says in a phone interview. “It hasn't got an edgy sensibility at all.”

It's based on her own experience as the mother of a transgender male. “It's about a family learning to know each other all over again,” says Thompson.

“It's not autobiographical because my son and I were never estranged and he was only ever supported by his family, but when you have a child who was assigned one gender at birth and you named that child and you live in a society and your expectations and your socialization is to recognize your child within the gender framing . . . and then you lose the child.

“The child says, 'I don't fit in this frame or name.' You as a parent have to let go of that. You have to let go of the name. You suffer a bereavement and I've talked to a lot of parents of young trans people who have felt the same. The film came out of feeling, this sense of bereavement and of desperately wanting to make sure my child knew he was loved.

“I have to present this with an open heart,” adds Thompson, who consulted with her son's trans friends while writing the script. “This was born of my and my family's experience. It won't be the experience of every trans person in the world."

Thompson, who is casting Wells in her Telefilm micro-budget first feature, wrote the film with him in mind. “I've worked with him since 2002 and I think he is a splendid actor who has been undervalued in our community. He has emotional access which is stunning.”

When it came to casting Don, she has looked for trans women actresses for the short film and will for the feature.

”I would never cast a male. I really want to support the trans community by making sure the role is played by a trans community actor.”

That pleases Raine because traditionally Hollywood casts men as trans women, she says. For example, Jared Leto played a trans woman in Dallas Buyers Club.

Raine remembers feeling female as young as the age of four. “I can remember situations where I didn't feel comfortable and correcting adults because I thought they were not getting my gender right.

“It was weird; I'd correct my grandmother or parents if they said I was handsome and I'd say, 'No, I'm pretty.'

“I played with Barbies and dress-up and I was allowed to for a certain amount of time. Then at a certain age it was, 'Oh, you're in hockey now and don't play with Barbies anymore.' I was mad at the world for that!"

She was bullied in junior high school. “At the end of Grade 8, I told my mother I was gay and she was really supportive and we had a good conversation. It always felt right to talk to her about these things.”

Raine, now 28, went into high school telling people she was gay and showing confidence in a situation “I was not confident in," she says.

“I found a lot of niches where I felt comfortable and I forced myself into other people's lives. I got a lot of friends and I didn't get bullied except for two people on the football team.”

She left Moncton for Halifax “on a whim,” she says, and adds with a self-deprecating smile: “I was having a mid-life crisis at, like, 23.”

Having enjoyed acting in high school, she applied to the Dalhousie theatre school. “At the end of second year, I went to a therapist. I was playing a male character and I didn't feel authentic. In foundation year, you learn a lot about the need to be authentic, to sound authentic.

She decided to transition and started taking hormones, which threw her into a second puberty and set her on a journey that is ongoing.

“The third year of the acting program is called the transition year. Once I told everyone in the class, they were terrific. I told my professors and I showed up the first day and everybody called me Michelle.”

Acting as Athena in a Greek play early on in transition, “I was very self-conscious.”

She worried about “neither passing fully as a woman, but clearly not just male — so what is that person? That was my inner mind.

“In the last six months, there's been a lot more times when I feel more comfortable with myself. There are a lot of times when I feel not 100 per cent me yet.

“Sometimes I think I look good; sometimes I don't want to leave the house.”

She worries about sitting next to someone on the bus. “It's awkward to make conversation with people. Lately, I've just smiled at people.

“Sometimes you feel like giving up on your day, like not going out to rehearse or getting on the bus or being in public in general, and you have to push yourself to do it every day because it's not your problem, it's everybody else's problem.”

Raine has remained psychologically strong, she says, because of the support of her friends and her family.

She can feel lonely “because a lot of my friends are not in the same shoes I am, not going through any of the same process as I am.”

“It's hard to explain the experience I have on a psychological level when there is no real language for it.”

Now “I'm meeting people who want to back me up in my career partly because I'm transgender,” she says.

In August, she tours to Toronto with The PEACE Project (Palliative Education through Art Communication and Engagement), then goes into rehearsal to play a variety of characters in SLUT: The Play, LunaSea Theatre's production of Katie Cappiello's play for an all-female cast of 11 characters that "captures the real lives of teens and young adults as they negotiate sex and the cruel scapegoating that hobbles female sexuality," according to the new campaign.

LunaSea hopes to raise $25,000 to take SLUT on a Nova Scotia tour after its Halifax run at the end of August.

“It's important to have people know I'm transgender because I need to get work. It's not important to label someone as transgender. I'd rather be labelled as just an actress, just a woman.”


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