Calpernia Addams – the “Callie Adams” Jared Leto thanked from the stage at the Oscars – wrote a piece about trans people, representation, and Hollywood that I think is worth reading.
Jared Leto was kind enough to mention me in his 2014 Independent Spirit Awards acceptance speech (as part of a typically “Jared” list of people involved in the film alongside random notable people) and next he really surprised me by thanking me in his Oscar acceptance speech.
As I’ve said before, my job was to sit down with him and answer lots of questions about what it’s like to be trans, and to make a recording of me reading his lines from the script. From there, Jared did Jared’s thing: a brilliant, eccentric artist created his own performance of a movie character. A movie character who happens to be some form of trans, in this case. Some of his follow up speeches left something to be desired when it came to speaking well on the issues facing his movie character, especially against the backdrops of current politics and social movements. I suppose it’s doubly rare to be a gifted artist AND a great political speaker. But personally, I thought Rayon seemed like a nice person and a real human being. I’ve known people like Rayon.
Anyone who’s followed my 11 years in Hollywood knows that I’ve always advocated for trans people to play trans roles. But I also refuse to shoot down powerful people who take steps to bring human trans portrayals to the screen, even if they are played by a non-trans female (Felicity Huffman in Transamerica, Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry) or a non-trans male (Lee Pace in Soldier’s Girl, Jared in Dallas Buyers Club). To all indications, Georges du Fresne was not a trans child when he played “Ludovic” in Ma Vie En Rose, but that incredible film continues to resonate with trans people and families of trans children. Good and important portrayals can come from non-trans actors. That may be an inconvenient truth, but there you have it.
Sure, I’d love to get these roles as an actress with a history of transition, or see them go to other trans actors. Heck, I’d love to play non-trans roles! But I’m not so short-sighted that I’ll destroy allies and advocates. Even less than perfect allies, if I think the overall contribution is beneficial. This is a view that comes from long actual experience and familiarity with the business. Some small but vocal groups will disagree; that’s just the nature of contentious issues. You can do your thing and I’ll do mine. There are many ways to contribute.
But beware: the same logic that leaves zero room for a non-trans actor to try a trans role will then be used to mandate that trans actors should not be able to play non-trans roles. And that would piss me off.
Leto’s “Rayon” is not the rock upon which I’d make my last stand concerning this issue. His performance is just an inspiration for this discussion. I advocate for positive portrayals and opportunities for trans people in the media. Some people are displeased that this particular portrayal, “Rayon”, is another trans sex worker role. Another trans addict role. Another trans “mystical advisor/comic relief” role. Another “trans person punished in the end” role. Those are indeed over represented portrayals, and I do want more balance… Soon! But I have known people like Rayon. She is not a made-up grab bag of random hateful attributes. She’s a portrayal of an uncomfortable segment of the trans experience that a few TLGB folks would rather be erased and not discussed. I think many of the haters hate Rayon because she isn’t beautiful, she isn’t passable, she isn’t gender binary, she isn’t 2014-political. And when I see that elitist hypocrisy, I’m inclined to push back and write essays like this.
It’s hard being trans, more so in the era and circumstances of Dallas Buyers Club. I’ve known plenty of trans sex workers, self-medicators, wise teachers, hilarious weirdos and people taken before their time due to violence and lack of healthcare. I’ve known trans people very much like Rayon, and maybe if some people got up from their remote-activism-devices (computer screens and smartphones) and left their ivory towers and privilege-bubbles, they’d meet a few people like Rayon face-to-face, too.
Then they could see that a human portrayal of this real segment of the trans community is a good thing. Even if it’s by a non-trans person.
Please do hire trans actors for ANY role, especially trans roles. But please don’t shoot trans people in the foot by attacking allies willing to open the door for us as we approach equality.