Sydney Festival’s ‘Hedwig’ Musical Controversy: Trans Is Not A Costume

A production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch at this year’s Sydney Festival has been postponed after a cisgendered white male actor was cast as the musical’s titular transgender role, right bang in the middle of National Trans Awareness Week.

Australian actor Hugh Sheridan (Packed to the Rafters) was said to lead the off-Broadway stage show as Hedwig, an Eastern German imigrant who undergoes botched sex change surgery in an attempt to flee to the United States. Sheridan, who recently revealed in an essay for Stellar Magazine, per Out, he has slept with both men and women but doesn’t want to label himself or his sexuality, may be in some sense queer, but that doesn’t mean he should play a role about a transgender character—as the local queer community righteously protested. 

Yesterday, in an open letter to the Sydney Festival, Hedwig production and Hugh Sheridan, trans masc actor Zoe Terakes explained that giving a transgender character to a cisgender actor erases trans identities, silences trans voices and continues to perpetuate the mainstream film and TV’s issue with not just letting a trans character be played by a trans actor. 

“The choice to cast a cisgender male as a transgender character is offensive and damaging to the trans community, and continues to cause genuine stress and frustration amongst trans and gender non conforming performers all across Australia,” they wrote. “Trans performers have been told for decades by agents, casting directors and media, that the world will not accept our bodies on screen or stage; that the roles just aren’t there; or that the timing is not right for us.”

The letter continues, noting that “while we understand the box office appeal in having a famous and commercially successful actor such as Hugh Sheridan headlining this show, our problem is that marginalised groups have been excluded from participating in a significant opportunity to tell our story because we are not as ‘well-known’ or may not ‘sell enough tickets’ compared to our cisgender counterparts. It is unquestionable that Hugh is a talented and deserving actor, but he is a cisgender male and this role should go to a transgender actor.”

And here’s the thing, even if you weren’t *in* the LGBTQIA+ community, there are already a few prolific trans performers who could easily have been casted. Comedian, Twitch streamer and former member of the Axis of Awesome, Jordan Raskopolous, recently threw their hat into the ring: “Let me just state, for the record, I would adore the opportunity to audition for Hedwig,” they tweeted. “I am a seasoned performer and singer who has toured globally, I am actually gay, I am actually trans, I live in Sydney and I am very available.” Hire this queen. Periodt. From there, Sydney drag performer Etcetera Etcetera has compiled a list of local trans and non-binary talent, from performers, actors, musicians and photographers and crew, too.

In a letter shared on socials, and “in light of recent community conversations and concerns,” the Sydney Festival decided to postpone the production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, it might be a good idea for the Hedwig production team and Sydney Festival creatives and staff to take a page out of Terakes’s letter and “undergo trans awareness training and spend some time pursuing TransHub for educational resources to gain a greater understanding on how to be a more inclusive space for gender diverse folks.” And again, be reminded that being trans is not a costume. 

Julian Rizzo-Smith is a writer and producer. He also claims to be a vine historian, avid connoisseur of low-fi beats, indie hip hop and Kermit memes. In a perfect world, he’d be married to Tyler the Creator, own an Arcanine and a Lapras, and don his own Sailor Scouts uniform. He tweets @GayWeebDisaster, which is also, coincidentally, how one might describe him.