Jared Leto. Felicity Huffman.
What do they have in common? Both were nominated for Academy Awards for their portrayal of trans women, Ms. Huffman in 2006 for Transamerica and Mr. Leto this year. Mr. Leto won the award this past Sunday for Dallas Buyer's Club.
The LGBT community is abuzz about the award and the portrayal that led to it. A number of people have taken issue with the fact that the role of Rayon was not played by a trans woman. Since Laverne Cox has made the big time, in Orange is the New Black, why not choose her or one of the seventy-odd trans actors who are members of the Screen Actors Guild?
Others have complained that the role was played by a man, and played as a gay man. However awkward Ms. Huffman was starring in Transamerica, at least she was a woman, and brought a woman's sensibility to the role. Jared Leto played Rayon like a man, further confusing the public who both conflate gay with trans in general, and drag performance with the lived reality of the typical trans life, and then, not surprisingly, believe that trans women are, or were, at some point in our lives, men. Nothing could be further from the truth, nor more damaging to the campaign for trans acceptance.
Another specific criticism was Leto's failure to thank the trans community in his acceptance speech, both generally but also failing to acknowledge those from the community who assisted him, such as Calpernia Addams. He didn't even say the word, "transgender," even though he portrayed a trans woman. It's one thing when the President limits his use of the word "transgender" and replaces it with the euphemism "who you are," but the guy who just played a trans woman somehow can't or won't use the word in Hollywood? Would a billion televisions and laptops have exploded had he done so? That neglect really needs to stop, and is reminiscent of "the love that dares not speak its name."
Rayon is a fictional character, a composite of a particular type of trans woman from the 80s. She was a pathetic "creature," in Leto's words, and played the comic sidekick in this film about the tragedy of the AIDS crisis. She was portrayed as clothes-obsessed, drug addicted and surviving as a sex worker. There were, and still are, trans women who have been reduced to that level by abuse, discrimination and neglect. They deserve our attention and compassion. I know such women; many of us do. But they are not representative of the community, and having that specific portrayal garnering an Oscar can be very damaging.
I will say that this portrayal of Rayon is not on Mr. Leto. He was an actor playing a role. The issue is more with the screenwriter, the director and producer, those who created the part of Rayon and are ultimately responsible for it. The director, Jean-Marc Vallée, made this comment when interviewed by the CBC's Jian Ghomeshi, who asked whether he ever considered casting a transgender actor. "Never. [Are] there any transgender actors?" he said. "I'm not aiming for the real thing. I'm aiming for an experienced actor who wants to portray the thing." You can't get more insulting than that.
This brings me to my main concern. It's not that Mr. Leto did not act well; he did. It's not that he didn't thank the trans community for their efforts to educate him, as I mentioned above. It's not that there haven't been many trans women who've performed drag over the decades, most in the "old days" because there was little alternative, though some today still perform as artists because they choose to do so.
It's that, once again, the trans community is reduced to its least attractive, least common denominator. Granted, we are no longer universally portrayed as sadistic, psychopathic killers (Psycho, Silence of the Lambs). We are no longer presented as bearers of surprise to our male partners and friends (from The Crying Game to Gun Hill Road). But we are still portrayed as some reactionary academics choose to view us -- as sad, deluded men living on the margins of society with severe mental illness and no hope for a decent life. As A.O. Scott wrote in the New York Times, "Mr. Leto is always a subtle and intriguing actor, but Rayon essentially revives the ancient stereotype of the tragic, self-destructive queen, suffering operatically and depending, at last, on the kindness of strangers." And we aren't even "queens" -- effeminate gay men.
Most trans women, like most trans men, live quietly like their cisgender neighbors. This has been going on for half a century. We are not living the stereotypical lives presented by the mainstream media. We are not cliches, and not predominantly sex workers or drag performers. We are productive members of society, from small business owners to corporate managers, doctors and lawyers, teachers and engineers, artists and activists. We live with dignity and expect nothing more from society than civil reciprocity. This past Wednesday, for what I hope was the last time, such members of the trans community testified about their ordinary lives to the members of the Maryland House committee on Health and Government Operations, the next step on the way to passage of the statewide gender identity anti-discrimination bill. The final vote should occur within two weeks.
It's no wonder the Janet Mock CNN interview degenerated into farce. Until we create films that feature the likes of Lynn Conway and Martine Rothblatt, we will remain marginalized, spoken for and about by those who barely know us, and limited in our contributions to the society we continue to love.
As a colleague recently wrote, "We are definitely in a "trans moment" in terms of awareness, but the education is still varied and people are coming from very different places of knowledge, concern and compassion." The actual process, as Janet Mock knows as well, and as I have learned the past month since declaring my candidacy for the Maryland state Senate, is difficult, but I will continue to believe these are growing pains and a necessary process along the road to full acceptance.