While promoting her film Monica (Andrea Pallaoro, 2022) at the Venice Film Festival, Hollywood actress Trace Lysette spoke about the legacy of transfeminine acting and performance in US and European history. She remarked that “there are so many trans women throughout history who deserve to have their story told”1 and specifically mentioned Coccinelle and April Ashley – two trans women who performed in the so-called female impersonator shows in Paris cabarets in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Appearing in these shows, in trans historian Zagria’s words, was a new way for trans women “to achieve womanhood, a womanhood that was continued offstage.”2 Even more remarkably, the recognition achieved through these shows allowed Coccinelle and other performers to cross over into acting careers in European film, at least a decade before Hollywood would cast trans women for cis or trans roles.3 However, these films have been largely forgotten or cast aside, waiting for a rediscovery from an appreciative audience. Queer film festivals have an opportunity here to showcase an important part of European trans history that is reflected in the production of these movies.

As part of a research residency at the archives of the Cinémathèque Québécoise in 2022, I was looking for records about trans people in the archival holdings of the Cinémathèque. While there are many films that address gender transition, this was not what I was interested in. Instead, I wanted to find trans people working in front of and behind the camera, regardless of the content of the films. In my research, I discovered the surface of what is a rich history of transfeminine acting roles in post-War West European film, a part of film history and trans history that has largely been forgotten. Indeed, the ‘60s to ‘80s were a time that outdoes the current wave of trans actresses appearing in Hollywood productions.4 While this specific research project could not attend to every transfeminine appearance in post-war European cinema due to archival as well as time limitations, it is useful for mapping trends in how trans women were cast and the roles they appeared in. More research is needed to document modern European trans history when it comes to media like film. From the actresses I present here, we can gather a lot about the historical context in which these performers and other trans women were situated. My research at the Cinémathèque archives also revealed the shortcomings of cisnormative archiving and curating practices, as these holdings obscure and omit a much richer trans (media) history than what I found about the three actresses I discuss here. It also opens space for queer and other film festivals to act as a space in re-introducing trans film history to audiences which currently have little opportunity to access these films. While Hollywood trans-themed classics like Glen or Glenda (Ed Wood, 1953) now get regular public screenings from trans film buffs,5 the European films discussed here are still awaiting a rediscovery from queer film festivals and other screening events.

From Cabaret to Screen

Fig 1. Publicity photo for European Nights, centring Coccinelle’s brief appearance in the film. Collection de la Cinémathèque québécoise.

French performer Jacqueline Charlotte Dufresnoy, better known under her stage name Coccinelle, was arguably one of the most famous trans women of her time, if not of all time. Coccinelle was one of the first European trans women to make the crossover from the stages of the Paris nightclubs with female impersonator shows to acting in Italian and French films of the 1960s,6 something that only fellow trans performer Bambi (Marie-Pierre Pruvot) achieved as well.7 Coccinelle’s international success meant she often fulfilled a similar role in her films, essentially playing a version of herself, and her reputation helped to promote the film before its release, as my research in the archive revealed. Publicity photos of the film Europa Di Notte (European Nights, Alessandro Blasetti, 1959) centre Coccinelle despite her very short appearance in the film. European Nights functions as a travelogue documentary, a genre that seems to have existed only during a time when international travel was not yet accessible for the general population, and famous nightclubs like the ones in Paris were something most people would never be able to see for themselves.

Coccinelle’s appearances in film, however, went beyond simply appearing in a documentary about nightlife. One of her bigger roles in I Don Giovanni della Costa Azzurra (Beach Casanova, Vittorio Sala, 1962) both sensationalises her transsexuality as well as acknowledges the wealth and fame she earned as a performer. Coccinelle plays a version of herself as a wealthy nightclub entertainer and is sexually pursued by one of the male leads who is unaware of her being trans. Beach Casanova is one of the first in a long line of films that utilise the “trans reveal”, meaning the film discloses the fact that Coccinelle was assigned male at birth. This happens in a comedic manner and certainly at Coccinelle’s expense, deadnaming her and framing her as deceiving cis people – the film’s promotion materials refer to her as “queer” and a “mystery.” But the film also takes significant time to establish her as a woman of great wealth and fame, including her luxurious mansion, elegant car, clothing, and jewellery, as well as a pair of attractive manservants who refer to her as “the greatest diva in the world”. Even the man who pursues her, while upset when finding out she is trans, mostly comes across as ignorant since everyone else is aware of who she is due to her celebrity status.

Beach Casanova also features a short striptease performance by Capucine, who was another of the entertainers from the Paris scene. Interestingly, Capucine’s trans identity is not revealed in the film, presumably making her one of the first trans women to play a cis role on film. Unfortunately, no details are known about Capucine’s life after her performance career, once again highlighting the shortcomings of conventional archiving. Coccinelle’s singular fame and later activism on behalf of French trans people ensured that her career and life was amply documented, and she was well-known not just to European audiences, but also in Canada and elsewhere.8

Fig. 2. Title page of publicity catalogue for Beach Casanova, listing Coccinelle and Capucine as cast members. Collection de la Cinémathèque québécoise.

Like Coccinelle, Dutch-German performer Romy Haag started her career in the Paris cabarets in the 1960s and became a nightclub owner herself upon moving to West Berlin in the early 1970s. Her venue Chez Romy Haag attracted an international celebrity audience and brought with it opportunities for Haag to work in film. With over 20 parts in TV and feature productions, Haag appeared regularly on screen throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s. An interesting appearance of hers is in Die Hamburger Krankheit (The Hamburg Syndrome, Peter Fleischmann, 1979), a German sci-fi/catastrophe film about a national pandemic which received some renewed attention at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Haag is listed as a guest appearance in the film and on screen for less than 15 minutes, but the way her trans status is revealed is both a precursor as well as a deviation from the notorious genital trans reveal of later films like The Crying Game (Neil Jordan, 1992), where a trans women’s pre-op genitals are used for shock effect. Haag’s character Carola suddenly falls ill with the virus and the other characters disrobe her while she is unconscious, revealing her genitals. While this sensationalised spectacle of showing Haag’s body is problematic, it is the other characters’ reaction to it that stands out. While they react surprised, there is no discernible negative emotion involved. In fact, one of the characters, an older woman, lovingly touches Carola’s genitals and remarks “I’ll be damned.”9 This is far from the disgusted or horrified response that became typical for the trans reveal in Hollywood cinema of the 1990s, as the documentary Disclosure (Sam Feder, 2020) about trans filmic images has demonstrated.

Like Coccinelle, Eva Robin’s (sometimes spelled Robins) was able to pursue an acting career through Italian film, later switching to theatre. Besides small parts in films like Tenebre (Tenebrae, Dario Argento, 1982), Robin’s had a “special appearance” in Mascara (Make-up for Murder, Patrick Conrad, 1987). Make-up for Murder was a Belgian production screened at the Cannes Film Festival that also featured Romy Haag, who additionally performed two songs for the soundtrack. An astonishing film, Make-up for Murder is a strange genre mix of neo-noir crime thriller and character study. The setting is an underground night club where transvestite and transsexual performers appear and sing for the rich and powerful men of the unnamed city. The setting scandalises their existence and visually equates them with BDSM practices and gay sex but shows the humanity of at least two trans women. Robin’s and Haag get to play more fleshed-out parts, even though their non-normative bodies are spectacularised. Especially Robin’s appearance is used for shock effect, since her character once again goes through the genital trans reveal – a scene that was booed by the audience at the film’s Cannes premiere.10 Notably though, her trans identity does not come as a surprise to the cis man with her in the room, since he already knows she is trans – his attraction to trans women becomes one of the focal points of the film. Robin’s and Haag characters, who serve as objects of desire for the police superintendent investigating a string of murders at the club, are presented in a sympathetic way, even though the film constantly tries to violently undermine their attempts to move from hapless victims to exerting agency over their own bodies and lives. The film, whose surface plot arguably makes little sense,11 and which feels like a cis person’s fantasy of what a night club with trans performers looks like, serves as a reminder that for a long time, trans women had no other employment opportunities except sex work and performing in such clubs – which depending on the type of employment could also be considered sex work.

Fig. 3. Eva Robin’s featured on publicity photo for Make-up for Murder. Collection de la Cinémathèque québécoise.

A Legacy Waiting to Be Rediscovered

There are clearly some identifiable trends in these European mainstream movie productions from the archival holdings I analysed.12 It seems that to cross over into acting, European trans women had to have established a career, either in nightclub performance or elsewhere.13 These women also had to be considered conventionally attractive (aka cis passing according to European beauty standards) and white. Even then, the roles they got to play were often minor, or hinged upon the reveal of their being trans to the audience. The filmmakers, who were usually white straight cis men, clearly looked to cast trans women for films that featured content considered to be scandalous or bizarre. They attempted this not just by casting famous trans women, but often also by setting their films in the nightlife entertainment environment, itself considered to be of questionable reputation.

While these are trends showcased by the archival holdings available, they do of course only tell a very limited story about trans actresses and the worlds they moved in. Solely based on representational value, the films certainly can be considered “bad trans objects”,14 meaning they are cultural products that overall present trans people in negative and/or stereotypic ways. But they also give us a glimpse into the rich history of European trans history and can be a way to uncover more of the almost forgotten legacy of transfeminine performers and the international support networks they built.15 The history of this subculture has yet to be written in a comprehensive way: many trans women besides the ones mentioned here worked in the cabarets of Paris and other European cities and occasionally appeared in film and media.16 In a time when medical transition was only achievable through black-market hormones and surgeries performed outside of Western countries,17 these women supported each other and built a culture of solidarity and decades-long friendship.

With very few exceptions, the films I mentioned are not available to stream online, and even purchasing a copy on DVD or Blu-ray is often difficult and costly. In the absence of legal access to the filmic trans archive, a sort of online public counter-archive has formed in that these films are often uploaded to platforms like YouTube or shared as pirated copies among an interested audience. While I am not endorsing this practice, there is obviously a gap in access for the trans filmic archive that archival holders have been unable to address so far. This is an opportunity for queer film festivals and other curated screening events to make these productions accessible again since there is clearly a demand for them, as e.g. reviews on film databases like Letterboxd indicate.18 Queer and trans film festivals could be a space where these films are able to circulate again, with both curators and audience possessing the understanding that there is possible nuance beyond a “good” or “bad” trans imagery. Screening series like “Trans Girls on Film” in the UK have already demonstrated that it’s possible to renegotiate the view on Hollywood classics like Glen or Glenda. It should be the same case for these European films, which contain more than just an outdated look into how trans people were once perceived by cis filmmakers. Instead of consigning these films to the archival dustbin and dismissing them as solely exhibiting past prejudice against trans people, film festivals and screening series can show audiences of today how trans people managed to achieve successful careers and fought for agency in front of and behind the camera in a time where their existence was barely acknowledged, ridiculed and pathologised.


I would like to thank the staff of the Cinémathèque québécoise and its initiative Savoirs commun du cinéma for the opportunity to conduct research in their archives, and for the permission to include archival photos in this article.


  1. Alyssa Simon, “Trace Lysette Digs Deep for Venice Festival Film ‘Monica’,” Variety, 2 September 2022. https://variety.com/2022/film/actors/trace-lysette-venice-1235358314/
  2. Zagria, “Le Carrousel and Madame Arthur: Part II: 1945 – 1961,” A Gender Variance Who’s Who (blog), 12 November 2015. https://zagria.blogspot.com/2015/11/le-carrousel-and-madame-arthur-part-ii.html.
  3. I use “trans women” and “transfeminine people” interchangeably to reflect the fact that there was no common usage of a term to describe medical transitioning to a female gender before the 1960s, and even the emerging term transsexuality would not necessarily have reflected the experience of all these women.
  4. “Some seem to think that now, the 2020s, is the golden age of trans women getting acting gigs in films. However if we count the persons and the films, I think that we will find more of both in the late 1960s and the 1970s.” Zagria, “Trans Italy 1971-85,” A Gender Variance Who’s Who (blog), 20 April 2023. https://zagria.blogspot.com/2023/04/trans-italy-1971-85.html.
  5. See for example the UK screening series “Trans Girls on Film,” @tgirlsonfilm. Instagram. https://www.instagram.com/tgirlsonfilm/. There exist of course several dedicated transgender film festivals, but these usually screen recent productions.
  6. Maxime Foerster states that Coccinelle was not actually interested in a career in acting, but regardless accepted offers to appear in several films. Her motivation was perhaps financial, perhaps to bring attention to the fact that people like her existed to a larger audience. See Maxime Foerster, Histoire Des Transsexuels En France (Béziers, France: H & O, 2006), p.78.
  7. I’m not discussing Bambi’s film career here since it was not part of the archival materials I found at the Cinémathèque, but she had roles in at least three European films from 1959-1964.
  8. See Viviane K. Namaste, C’était Du Spectacle!: L’histoire Des Artistes Transsexuelles À Montréal, 1955-1985 (Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005), p.18f.
  9. “Was es nicht alles gibt auf der Welt,” which literally translates to “All the things existing in the world.”
  10. See N.a, “Naked Transsexual Has Them Booing!” Fanfare, vol. 29 (July 1987): 21-22. My thanks to Caden Mark Gardner for pointing out the film’s festival reception to me.
  11. Haag’s autobiography dishes on the troubles plaguing the production, mainly the other actors’ eccentric behaviour. See Romy Haag and Martin Schacht, Eine Frau Und Mehr (Berlin: Quadriga, 1999), p.267.
  12. Independent queer film may tell a different story. For example, German gay filmmaker Rosa von Praunheim directed several films, among them Stadt der verlorenen Seelen (City of Lost Souls, 1983), involving transfeminine performers which are much more affirming and nuanced, not to mention employing trans people of colour like singer Angie Stardust. See Matthew Robinson, “Reconceiving trans womanhood and sexual pluralism in Rosa von Praunheim’s ‘City of Lost Souls,’” Another Gaze, 9 April 2018. https://www.anothergaze.com/reconceiving-trans-womanhood-sexual-pluralism-rosa-von-praunheims-city-lost-souls/
  13. Eva Robin’s worked as a model and singer before starting her acting career.
  14. Cáel M Keegan, “On the Necessity of Bad Trans Objects,” Film Quarterly 75, no. 3 (2022): 26–37.
  15. For example, US tennis player Renee Richards got her first information about medical transition from Bambi at the Paris clubs. See Maxime Foerster, “On the History of Transsexuals in France,” In Transgender Experience: Place, Ethnicity, and Visibility, ed. Chantal J. Zabus and David Coad (New York; London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2014), p.19-30.
  16. Individual European countries have partially paid scholarly attention (e.g., France and Germany) to these networks, and the website A Gender Variance’s Who’s Who has begun to compile this history in encyclopaedic shorter form. See Foerster, Histoire Des Transsexuels En France, or Niki Trauthwein, Peter Pan in Hamburg: Gert-Christian Südel: Transpionier, Aktivist Und Überlebenskünstler (Berlin: Lit, 2020) as well as A Gender Variance’s Who, https://zagria.blogspot.com/.
  17. Foerster, “On the History of Transsexuals in France,” p. 20-21. See also Haag, Eine Frau Und Mehr, p.56.
  18. See e.g. the reviews for Mascara. Letterboxd, “Mascara,” https://letterboxd.com/film/mascara-1987/

About The Author

Christopher Wolff is a PhD student in the Humanities program at Concordia University in Tiohtià:ke/Montréal. Their doctoral research project investigates trans media activism and international trans community building post World War II.

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