The Untold Truth Of Tommy Dorfman

Please note: This article contains references to drug use, sexual assault, homophobia, and suicide.

In terms of LGBTQIA+ representation and advocacy, she's one of the most positive trailblazers of her generation to be seen on screen. And as the untold truth of Tommy Dorfman suggests, her identity and life experiences have helped to shape a forward-thinking career path that is always pivoting for deeper meaning and purpose. The "13 Reasons Why" actor exemplifies a new kind of star, one who doesn't find fulfillment in throwaway work and who pursues projects that allow her to push for change via art.

Though Dorfman is renowned for celebrating her LGBTQIA+ identity with pride and honor — and for helping to advocate for others to feel comfortable and confident to do the same — she continues to press for improved on-screen representation of the LGBTQIA+ community. All too often, she told Paper, LGBTQIA+ actors and characters will be "tokenized" or used as "the selling point of a movie. Which is cool and exciting," she argued, "but ... we just want to work and not have it just be about how we identify on the gender spectrum or who we have sex with or who we're married to."

At every step of Dorfman's journey from childhood to celebrity and from teen idol to activist, the actor has used her great love for "story-telling and performance" to share narratives that often go unheard in the mainstream (via W). These are hers.

How the former ballerina leapt into acting

It's obvious that Tommy Dorfman is one of those rare people with a natural-born star quality. Yet she initially had slightly different ambitions to those that she's come to achieve. The "Jane the Virgin," guest star told W that while growing up as the youngest of five in Atlanta, her obsession "with TLC, Destiny's Child, and 3LW" meant that she originally "wanted to be a music video dancer."

Though she sadly never became a verified fly girl (there's still time, Tommy D!) her juvenile goals led her to study ballet which "transitioned into acting in high school ... [and] college" (via DaMan). As she told DuJour, her trajectory — at least in terms of location — were obvious to her from an early age, even if her career wasn't just yet. "I was itching to get out of Atlanta," she said, "I wanted to be in New York from the time I was twelve." 

Within just a year of graduating college, Dorfman landed the incredible role of gay high school poet Ryan in the controversial Netflix teen show "13 Reasons Why." As she explained to Teen Vogue, she got the job only after reading the pilot because she "had a friend that was auditioning." Naturally, she had to be part of it — though originally, she wanted to be brooding lead, Clay. "They brought me back in for Ryan," she told the magazine, which "made so much sense." 

13 Reasons Why meant a lot to her for queer representation

Enjoying a breakout role in a major Netflix production is obviously a huge debut for any emerging actor, but "13 Reasons Why" meant more to Tommy Dorfman than simply a sweet credit flex. Describing the character of Ryan as being an openly gay and proud teen who is "an advocate in his own way" to Teen Vogue, the role aligned satisfyingly with Dorfman's own values and experiences — it was a chance to help influence change.

As a teenager, Dorfman didn't see herself "represented truthfully in the media." She told Teen Vogue, "there weren't a lot of out gay actors playing gay roles," so she was grateful for the opportunity to be that person for other youths. As she told W, the character was also something of a game-changer — the chance to break LGBTQIA+ TV tropes by playing "a gay kid in high school and not have it be about being gay."

The "coming out" narrative "is an important story to tell," she said, but it's also "been told." "13 Reasons Why" was an opportunity to depict a gay teen who "is just comfortable with himself" and "doesn't have the sort of drama" other gay teen characters often get afflicted with. It tied into Dorfman's own out-and-proud spirit, particularly as an actor, as she told i-D, "I had no interest in being in the closet out of fear of not getting cast as something."

She was sexually assaulted as a teenager

"13 Reasons Why" gave Tommy Dorfman "a way to relive high school from a different perspective" (via W) — and that may have given her a cathartic method with which to reclaim her narrative from a troubled past. Describing her own high school experience as "nutty" to Paper, Dorfman explained that she and her friends were doing "all of those things" spotlighted in "13 Reasons Why," including suicide and "crazy drug use." Sadly, those "things" also constituted sexual abuse against the star. 

"I [experienced] sexual assault as did many of my friends" she confessed to the magazine. In an interview with Gay Times, Dorfman disclosed that the incident happened when she was a young teen and "didn't quite know what" it meant the first time she received penetrative sex. "At 14 I thought I could do anything and was ready for anything," she explained, "and I wasn't, I was not ready."

Dorfman revealed that the assault happened with a man "in his mid-20s." Aside from her being too young to consent to the act, the LGBTQIA+ advocate also described to the Gay Times how her youthful inexperience made the encounter all the more "scary" for her. "I didn't have the language to ask for what I might need," she said, "or [to] even say no in that kind of position."

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

Though she's achieved a lot, she's 'most grateful' for her sobriety

By her late teens and early 20s, Tommy Dorfman was doing "cocaine and party drugs" and finding a destructive release within a nihilistic live-fast-die-young mentality which left the star "fearing for [her] life." Speaking to Attitude, she admitted, "I really thought, 'I'm chic and I do drugs and I probably won't live past 25,'" but that ultimately she knew she couldn't maintain her lifestyle "without dying." 

Luckily, meeting husband Peter Zurkuhlen helped the star to turn her life around. She told the magazine that she met him "six months" prior to getting sober and that his compassion and understanding for her helped her to get clean. "He was the first person who didn't judge me for what I was doing," she said, "but just asked me about it."

Subsequently, Dorfman remains sober today and has expressed it as being one of her proudest achievements, telling InStyle that out of everything, "I think I'm most grateful for my sobriety." In 2021, Dorfman celebrated her sobriety with an Instagram post expressing clemency to her younger self and to all people struggling with addiction. "8 years sober today, dedicating it all to this sweet teenage alcoholic and drug addict just trying to get by," she wrote, "if you're struggling with addiction, when you're ready, ask for help. There's nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed by. I love you."

If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

She came out as non-binary in 2017

In 2017, at the peak of her "13 Reasons Why" breakout star fame, Tommy Dorfman continued to push the envelope for proud LGBTQIA+ self-expression and advocacy by coming out as non-binary. As she expressed to Refinery 29, Dorfman revealed that though she would sometimes dream as a woman, that in her day-to-day life she presented herself "as mostly masculine," at that time. Ultimately, she embraced gender as a changeable identity, "I, as a person, am very fluid," she said. 

Whilst in conversation with V Magazine, Dorfman explained that despite the pressures of being in the public eye, she was comfortable with maintaining boundaries for herself and her identity. "I don't owe anyone my full gender expression, you know? Or explanation for it. And that is okay," she said, and elaborated that there were parts of herself that "are going to be there" which people can "sometimes ... see" and "sometimes ... can't."

Her decision to be true to herself in the public eye helped her to realize the space she wanted to take up in the world. But it also paid off in other ways, too: Helping others to express their identity to others. She told InStyle, "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, 'Okay, I guess this is part of why I'm on this planet.'"

She reintroduced herself as a transgender woman in 2021

By 2021, Tommy Dorfman was ready to share the "full gender expression" that she'd hinted at four years earlier (via V Magazine). During an intimate profile with Time, the star reintroduced herself as transgender — however, she explained that this wasn't a typical "coming out" moment, but rather an opportunity for "clarity" regarding her identity. 

The star had been carefully unveiling her new identity on social media throughout 2020. And as Dorfman explained to Time, she consciously chose to honor the beauty of transitioning in a way that allowed her control over her narrative, stating, "I was never not out." She further described the opportunity as being less of a transition and more of "an idea of going somewhere," Dorfman explained, "Just that I am actually myself ... This is an evolution of Tommy. I'm becoming more Tommy" (via Time).

On Instagram, the actor and activist further expressed her gratitude to "every single trans person who walked this path, broke down barriers, and risked their lives to live authentically ... as themselves," and told InStyle that other trans women helped her to "take the steps ... necessary" for her to "step into womanhood." It helped that she found herself comfortably grounded within an environment that supported her growth. "I had to be in a more secure place in my life," she told the magazine, "in my career, financially, whatever — because I needed to take time off to do it."

She separated from her husband during the transition

Though being her fully authentic self provided Tommy Dorfman the peace of "aligning my body with my soul," it also came with a certain amount of loss, too. In her Time profile, the star acknowledged the unfortunate grief of "losing some things" in order to transition, and sadly one of those was her marriage.

She confided to the magazine that her "nine-year relationship" with Peter Zurkuhlen had come to an end due to the shift of her identity inducing a sudden incompatibility between the two. "I love him so much," she said, "but we've been learning that as a trans woman, what I'm interested in is not necessarily reflected in a gay man." She added, however, that the two had "had incredible conversations to redefine our relationship as friends" and by all accounts, it seems like they meant it. 

When Dorfman publicly reintroduced herself as transgender, Zurkuhlen was cheering her on from the sidelines via Instagram Stories. The actor's former husband showed love and support for the actor in a tribute sharing Dorfman's Instagram announcement along with the caption, "So much love. You are gorgeous and you are fully you. Proud of you" (via Just Jared).

She's consistently celebrated as an influential LGBTQIA+ advocate

Given how proud and outspoken Tommy Dorfman has been about her LGBTQIA+ identity, it's perhaps unsurprising that she's been consistently celebrated as an influential advocate for her community. In 2017, at the peak of her "13 Reasons Why" breakout success, the actorvist was honored with the first-ever Rising Star Award by GLAAD for "using [her] platform to accelerate LGBTQ acceptance" (via Just Jared).  

It was likewise unsurprising that Dorfman then used her acceptance speech to discuss the very same things that helped her to earn that award. The star opened up about seeing the impact of good LGBTQIA+ representation first-hand, telling the GLAAD crowd that she "consistently" receives messages "from people around the world" who tell Dorfman that her character helped them to come out and "has made people feel less homophobic." "Imagine if every show had the inclusion of ['13 Reasons Why']," she mused.

"13 Reasons Why" features the ultimate reference point for showcasing how Dorfman uses her performances as platforms which to provide positive LGBTQIA+ representation. Dorfman explained to i-D that whilst filming, she had an idea for a moment where her character "proudly calls himself 'a skinny f***ot who writes poems." It was a radical choice and one that allowed the actor to show ways to take "ownership [of] that word" to deflect harm. "Like, taking on that word so other people can't use it to harm me — not that it's not painful sometimes," she said. 

If you or a loved one has experienced a hate crime, contact the VictimConnect Hotline by phone at 1-855-4-VICTIM or by chat for more information or assistance in locating services to help. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

She's lent her voice and celebrity to various commercial works of activism

At this point, it's obvious that Tommy Dorfman sees her career as being more than just a name in lights. As she explained to J-14, she's only ever been interested in pieces of work "that actually have a purpose," and that simply, "I want to do meaningful work that I'm proud of." That likely explains why alongside her acting credits, Dorfman is also renowned for lending her voice and celebrity to various commercial projects of activism. 

In 2017, that meant "supporting LGBTQ youth" by fronting a gender-neutral ASOS x GLAAD clothing line collaboration (via Dazed). The collection was emblazoned with the ampersand character — "the symbol of unity and acceptance" according to Dazed — with a portion of the profits going to Voices 4 Chechnya, an LGBTQIA+ organization supporting people fleeing extreme homophonic violence in Chechnya (via Refinery 29). 

Since then, Dorfman's remained busy with similarly beneficial projects for the LGBTQIA+ community. Amongst them, this has included fronting a BOSS campaign for Pride with former husband Peter Zurkuhlen, which provided support to ILGA — a worldwide federation of organizations campaigning for LGBTQIA+ rights (via Gay Times). A Poptivist collaboration with Popsockets saw the star designing two items to benefit The Ali Forney Center, a non-profit supporting homeless LGBTQIA+ youth (via V Magazine). If that's not all, there was also a super cute Pride collaboration with COS in support of The Trevor Project (via Instagram).

She's proud to be an 'actorvist'

In the past decade, the debate surrounding the benefits of celebrity advocacy has been divisive. Publications such as The New Yorker and The Guardian have ruminated on the idea that some acts of celebrity activism have been misguided, and that others have caused "damage by oversimplifying the politics of power," as the latter considered. Tommy Dorfman, however, has maintained that actors are perfectly positioned to use their platform for positive change. 

The actor spoke to Paper about being proud to be an "actorvist" amidst increased criticism surrounding celebrity advocacy. Describing actors as being "huge collaborators in [the] process" of reflecting the conflicts and concerns of a time via art, Dorfman suggested that actors are part of a crucial and necessary process that can be vital for change. "We create the characters that we play, which then influences the writers who write," she said. "What scares people the most is that we have large platforms and we can sway votes and create policy changes."

Whether her work will help to influence such large levels of change remains to be seen. But on a lower level — and one that is perhaps just as important — there's no denying that Dorfman has also been influencing change for increased LGBTQIA+ education and acceptance in society, too. 

Tommy Dorfman is a legit fashion icon

If you've even so much as dipped yourself briefly onto Tommy Dorfman's exquisite Instagram feed then you'll know that she's a legit fashionista — one who flexes powerful, bold looks and is beloved by designers for it. But Dorfman isn't just a couture crony — like the rest of her work, the way she uses beauty and style can often have a deeper purpose and meaning. 

For Dorfman, her sense of style can be a dynamic act of self-avowal — something that hits all of her sartorial notes strongest when "an outfit embodies the fluidity of [her] gender", as she told Vogue, "It makes me feel the most confident and grounded, especially when attending fashion shows, which can be extremely overwhelming." The fashion icon told the magazine that she also finds empowerment in make-up, having worn it since she was a child "playing with my mom's lipsticks" and applying looks for ballet performances. 

Crucially, she told InStyle, makeup has the unique power to "transform everything" in your face, "from your bone structure to how you're viewed in the world to your own aesthetic," and called makeup "an amazing tool for affirmation." Throughout her career, Dorfman's playful sense of style has proven this to be the case time and time again: She tells stories with her looks — ones in which she's centered as a glamorous, shielded hero: A trailblazer and a liberator whose stylistic dialogue is centered always around love. 

How much is Tommy Dorfman worth?

No shade on Hollywood, but it's rare to find stars like Tommy Dorfman who haven't had their careers handed to them on the silver plate of a famous family member. The actor may have struck it lucky with a major role in "13 Reasons Why" in her mid-twenties, but by all accounts, she didn't appear to share the privileged upbringing of some other young stars. Having hit the big time in 2017, how much is Dorfman worth now?

The answer isn't straightforward. The actor maintains an understandable level of privacy surrounding her wealth and doesn't discuss the matter publicly. However, websites like Idol Net Worth speculate that the star is valued at a whopping $19 million while Biography Daily suggests her net worth is estimated "between $1 Million to $2 Million" — still, these aren't exactly top tier sources we're quoting here, and that speculative range is wide as hell. 

Judging from the decadent luxury threads she flaunts on Instagram — Fendi, Moschino, Jean Paul Gaultier, oh my! — Dorfman is likely sitting pretty wealth-wise, whatever the true figure of her net worth. It's worth noting that she's also often seen in more affordable luxury designer garb by names like Reformation or Calvin Klein and even everyday fashion items, which suggests she may not be hitting that higher millions mark just yet. Given her history, it may also be possible that Dorfman donates a chunk of her net to charity — and possibly, without fanfare.