Tommy Dorfman on the Beauty of Becoming Herself
In 2016, Tommy Dorfman, a young actor from Atlanta who had graduated from Fordham University's drama program, was cast in 13 Reasons Why, a Netflix teen drama produced by Selena Gomez. Dorfman, who was working in a bagel shop at the time, became very famous, very quickly. While the success was welcome, the subsequent exposure was more challenging. That's because Dorfman was living in the wrong body.
In late July, Dorfman, 29, "clarified" in Time magazine that she was a trans woman. This was not a grand raise of a curtain, however, as Dorfman's physical changes had been presented straightforwardly on Instagram for close to a year. It's this frankness, even more than gender, that has defined Dorfman's moment — and will redefine her career.
Laura Brown: It's been a week since you came out as trans in Time, and we've just finished shooting your Beauty Issue cover. Why did you decide now was the right moment?
Tommy Dorfman: I had to be in a more secure place in my life — in my career, financially, whatever — because I needed to take time off to do it. Someone just said to me that I had told them I was definitely going to transition, but I didn't know when and maybe it was going to be a 40s journey.
LB: Why in your 40s?
TD: Whenever I close my eyes or dream, I see myself as a woman. That was always the case. A trans elder asked me what I see myself as when I'm older, when I'm 60, 70, 90. It was so clear, I just saw Cate Blanchett. [laughs] But I really couldn't imagine not being a mother or a grandmother. My spirit was so attuned to whatever it means to be a woman. I've walked in the privilege of a male body, but [being a woman] is all I've known on the inside. Trans women would clock me all the time and be like, "Hey, girl, what's up?" because it's sort of a thing you recognize.
LB: Huh. Like a pheromone?
TD: Maybe. It's a thing you recognize in other women in a weird way, and I've done it to other people, as well. It's kind of unexplainable — trans people are magic at the end of the day. Talking to those women gave me the confidence and the education to take the steps that are necessary for me to step into womanhood — which are not necessary for everybody. Everybody is different. But it was clear to me when COVID started that the rest of the year was canceled, so those were my thoughts around timing.
LB: You decided that you were going to do this medically. How did that feel?
TD: There are so many ways you can do it. I only take hormones. I just switched my hormones, and I've never felt better in my life. I spent 28 years of my life suicidal and depressed and recovering from alcoholism and drug addiction. I don't think I've ever been genuinely happy until this past year. I look at the Internet chronicle of photos of me since I started working, and I can see how fucking unhappy I was in every photo. It's wild.
On my birthday, I ran into a friend who I've known for many years but hadn't seen since the pandemic. I was living as a woman and gave him a big hug, and he was like, "Um, you used to be so mean. You used to be such a bitch. You're so nice now." And I was like, "That's really funny. I don't think I was a bitch; I was just really uncomfortable." He said, "No, you had the bitchiest face. I was always scared to talk to you at a party because you looked so cold." Two weeks into having estrogen in my body, I was like, "Oh." It felt like I sank into the earth and was grounded. I can sleep now. I wake up moderately happy. I felt it hit, and I was like, "Let's ride." And as the testosterone leaves my body, I feel so much better. I'm more energized. I feel how I think I was always supposed to feel.
LB: You righted the ship. What was it like, being unhappy in your male body but becoming a celebrity at the same time?
TD: I went to college and worked hard to get my first job, so when I started in this industry, I thought I was just supposed to be grateful no matter what. I felt that speaking out or changing anything would just fuck something up, and then I wouldn't be able to work anymore. But during the pandemic I did a Calvin Klein campaign in New York, and they put me on the big Lafayette Street billboard. It was just, like, boy face, boy body, shot by Ryan McGinley. It was supposed to be something I was so proud of, this "iconic thing." And it was such an honor because it was Pride. But I was just so unhappy. I was looking at it, and it was the most dysphoric I've ever felt. Which I think ultimately helped push me along. I didn't have a choice. I was like, "Oh, I have to."
LB: Tell me more about trans elders — that phraseology is beautiful. I think there is greater mentorship in the trans community than any other.
TD: Because you're fighting for survival. I think trans generations are a little different because it's about when you start transitioning. Whoever your contemporaries are — whether it's someone in their 50s, someone in their 20s, someone in their teens — those are the people born in your year, in a way. Some trans elders are younger than me because they've been living in a trans body for 10 to 15 years. It's sort of like how someone had to teach you the ropes of working in fashion, or how in most traditional family structures, cis mothers teach cis daughters how to be women in this world. It's very much a mother-daughter type of relationship.
LB: Who are the elders that you look to? Laverne [Cox]?
TD: Laverne, of course. There are a lot of incredible trans people on the Internet, and it's even powerful to see them without being in the same space. Whether that's Mj Rodriguez or Charlene Incarnate or someone I can actually call, like Jamie Clayton or Our Lady J or Hari Nef.
LB: What is it like to help show someone the way? I've already introduced you to a friend of mine who has a young [trans] daughter.
TD: I mean, what a gift. Ultimately, I think this isn't just a trans responsibility but a human responsibility to be of service to the next generation. Now I have trans and nonbinary cousins who are younger than me, but growing up, I only had one queer cousin who was older than me.
LB: What are you learning more about beauty?
TD: Makeup is a powerful way to transform everything from your bone structure to how you're viewed in the world to your own aesthetic. It can be an amazing tool for affirmation, and I think a lot of the makeup techniques that trans women developed to hyperfeminize their faces have been appropriated by certain cis influencers, celebrities, and makeup artists. The carved-out big face, that comes from the queer community — drag queens and trans people. It's funny to see cis women beat their faces and not know the process behind it. But none of those women are standing up for trans women.
LB: How do you deal with older generations or people who are trying to embrace big gender cultural changes but still sometimes get the pronouns wrong?
TD: I think everyone has different tools for correcting people on pronouns. It's part of why I decided to come out in a public way, to help clarify that, so that some of the responsibility for reminding people was taken off my chest. Because it's exhausting, obviously. I try to come from a place of compassion and understanding — especially for people who have known me for years and have used certain pronouns for me. It's baked into their brains. But it's the best when people self-correct — that's always so meaningful. Sometimes people get embarrassed and then angry at you for correcting them. They get defensive like, "I'm trying!" That's fine; I'm not trying to attack you. But if you could correct yourself in the moment, that would be helpful. Maybe it's a matter of slowing down in general.
LB: You just want your baseline to change.
TD: Which is why, at the end of the day, there's validity in coming out. I don't think queer people should have to do it; it's a burden. I learned quickly that I don't owe everybody all of me, but when I make a choice to talk like this, it's intentional. It's out of a place of growth that will benefit me in the long run and make it easier for me to exist in our industry, in my personal life, and just as a member of society. This is who I am, and now it's up to you to respect me. Before it was, "Oh, I didn't know!" And I was like, "Oh, fuck, you didn't know, so I can't be frustrated."
LB: On your Instagram for the past year, though, it was clear what was up.
TD: For some people! [laughs]
LB: How were you feeling the night before the Time story broke?
TD: I didn't sleep. I thought maybe I'd bitten off more than I could chew. I had waited so long because I wasn't emotionally stable enough. After cocooning for nine months, I felt secure and grounded enough to do it, but I was still freaking out. It had nothing to do with people's reactions, because that's out of my control, but with the attention and conversations that come up around this topic.
LB: And for you, it is a huge amount of attention.
TD: Ultimately, this is my choice. It's a lot, but it was also exciting and gratifying and powerful. I had an opportunity to lie in bed and scroll through DMs from people telling me they came out after reading this — hundreds of messages of not just support, but literally saying that reading [my story] inspired them to start using the name they always wanted to use, and things like that. I was taking screenshots and thought, "These are the things I'll look back on when I feel shame about doing this in what can be viewed as a gratuitous way." That's my self-critic talking. But I know that I actually helped a lot of people feel safer and more comfortable in their bodies. I've had people send me PDFs that they put me in to talk about being nonbinary; they created presentations for their families. And I'm like, "OK, I guess this is part of why I'm on this planet."
LB: You are someone they've seen on TV.
TD: I had a weird amount of shame and internalized transphobia that was keeping me from coming out — not looking perfect enough and not having all my ducks in a row. I wanted to align my body with my spirit, but I didn't want to disappear for years to do that.
LB: To come out like a butterfly.
TD: Yeah. I also had never seen a body in transition before, and I think that's a scary thing as a trans person. It's kind of alien, and it's incredibly autonomous. It's puberty as an adult if you do it at my age — it's a second puberty, and I think you're supposed to go through puberty at an age when you don't remember it because it hurts. It's body-aching and emotionally wonky. But I had an opportunity to be of service. And for the most part, putting it into my work.
LB: I loved the things you reposted. It was like, "Tommy Dorfman: Film Actress."
TD: Ha, Wikipedia moved fast. I'm excited to literally feel like I'm starting my life again.
LB: And in terms of your career, in Lena Dunham's film Sharp Stick, you play a woman, correct?
TD: Yeah, and just a woman — not a trans woman specifically. It's not one way or another.
LB: And it's your first role as a woman?
TD: Yeah! So small and so sweet. It was perfect. It was one scene. It was a dream. Honestly, it was a perfect appetizer. It was even a pre-appetizer. What do they call that at a restaurant?
TD: It was an amuse-bouche. It was an amuse-douche. [laughs] So my time on Lena's movie was really an amusing douche. Lena is fab. We're working on a couple of other projects together that are more substantive. I wasn't even auditioning as a woman until recently.
LB: Who would you play if you had your druthers?
TD: Lady Macbeth. Always Lady Macbeth. And Harper in Angels in America.
LB: Whose career do you admire?
TD: Patricia Clarkson has such an impressive career. Judith Light. Julia Roberts. Viola Davis. And Tilda Swinton is always my forever No. 1.
LB: What are you ambitious for?
TD: I can't wait to bring life to women onscreen. I went to theater school and would always wish I could portray one of the sisters instead of the boy love interest. My brother and I played video games like Mortal Kombat, and I would only choose to be the female characters because the idea of playing a male character was impossible to me. I was talking to my other actor friends, and I was like, "I can't believe I had any kind of career as a boy, because I can't imagine doing that now." I would love to play a boy again in some capacity, but as a woman.
LB: It's been done. It can be done again.
TD: One hundred percent. During my transition, I was also able to get grounded and focus on my filmmaking stuff. I am getting prepped for my directorial début. Now I can collaborate with people I've worked with in the past in a new way — and tell better trans and queer stories.
LB: How is your relationship with your parents? Was it always clear to them?
TD: Oh, yeah. I wore girls' clothes my whole childhood and would put on my mom's shoes quite frequently. We were department store freaks and would shop together at the Phipps and Lenox malls in Atlanta — we're the same size, thank God. After I came out, my mom sent me hand-me-downs, which were clothes that I had chosen for her. So now at 29, I have a collection of dresses, skirts, tops, and jackets that I picked out when I was in high school.
LB: What did they say after the story broke?
TD: They were like, "We didn't have time to call you because we were fielding calls." They worked in the car industry, and they were like, "These fucking conservatives are so happy for you." [laughs] I was like, "Really? Well, maybe there's a benefit." There are some people that I grew up with in the South who I thought I was never going to see again. So it was nice to get text messages and calls from people I grew up going to NASCAR with or who you would expect to be incredibly conservative and not accepting. But to see me, someone they knew as a child, stepping into this space in a public way helped them wrap their heads around it.
LB: See, you're pushing it along.
TD: If you have the opportunity to come out in this way, it feels like the pros outweigh the cons. Even if it's just two people or 20 people or 50 people who are more compassionate, empathetic, and understanding to the trans experience, then that's progress. Because then they talk to their neighbor, to their kid, to their spouse. It's little by little, in the same way that generations of trans women have allowed me to step into my own power in a world that is still incredibly unsafe for trans people. The life expectancy for a trans woman is in her 30s. So, we still have an incredible amount of work to do. Which is why it feels important for me to share my story with you because publications like InStyle are widely distributed to a marketplace that isn't just liberal coastal cities.
LB: That's the logic for me in doing this too. What are you proudest of so far?
TD: Well, I have a fun limited series coming out with Balmain at fashion week in September. It's cute!
LB: The series will be limited, your shoulders will not.
TD: Oh, my shoulders are padded, bitch. I'm also working on a book. But I think I'm most grateful for my sobriety. And I'm most proud of maintaining relationships with people in my life. In the last couple of years, I've come around to connecting on a deeper level with some people from my childhood.
LB: Your childhood is not as far away as mine. [laughs]
TD: A lot of people in this industry seem to have lost touch with certain aspects of their life before — of their full life. I feel really grateful that I had the best outreach from people that I went to elementary school with.
LB: That makes you feel — what do the kids say? You feel full?
TD: I feel really full.
LB: What would you tell a young trans kid who is not quite there yet?
TD: You are divinely held. I have that tattooed on me — and for anyone who's struggling, it's a nice reminder.
Lead Image: Chanel dress. Harlem's Heaven Hats hat. NeverNot earrings.
Photography by Anthony Maule. Styling by Christopher Horan for The Wall Group. Hair by Rob Talty for Forward Artists. Makeup by Kali Kennedy for Forward Artists. Manicure by Thuy Nguyen for A-Frame Agency.
For more stories like this, pick up the October 2021 issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Sept. 17th.