Welcome to the first installment of The Trans* Series, we’re always looking for more! This particular one was brought to you by a reader who specifically wanted to sponsor a piece on trans* issues. Thanks, reader!
I’d like to take a moment to talk about Jared Leto.
No, I haven’t seen Dallas Buyers Club. This isn’t about that.
This is about Hollywood’s uncomfortable relationship with transgender people.
Every so often, an opportunity presents itself to advance the rights of various sects of LGBT individuals. Whether or not these opportunities are realized usually has to do with the willingness of the individuals who unwittingly end up in the spotlight to seize that moment, using it as a platform for advocacy. For example, Gavin Newsom’s 2004 decision to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in San Francisco and Edie Windsor’s 2010 legal battle both paved the way for the advances the country has seen on that issue. Those were both situations neither Newsom nor Windsor could have anticipated, but they were there, ready to become heroes.
When it comes to transgender issues, it’s hard to identify a moment where anyone has been able to truly capitalize on the public’s momentary interest in the topic. Sure, Laverne Cox was there last week to push back against invasive questions from Katie Couric, but if Couric’s audience was at all significant, I somewhat doubt her show would have been cancelled in the first place. Well, if an audience is what’s needed, look to when and why the public has shown the most interest in trans issues.
According to Google, April 2012 was a high point for trans interest in the United States. The interest was fueled by controversy surrounding transgender beauty queen Jenna Talackova’s quest to compete in the Miss Universe pageant. Rather than address the broader scope of trans issues, Talackova instead opted to hire Gloria Allred, lawyer to the tabloid stars. Talackova was eventually allowed to compete in the pageant, but opted to pursue reality-TV fame instead of taking up the mantle of advocate.
And that’s all well and good. No one should feel obligated to take on the role of activist. If starring in Brave New Girl (seriously, that’s the name of Talackova’s show…) is what works for her at the moment, good for her.
Trans people have found themselves front and center for another one of these once-in-a-blue-moon opportunities. Unfortunately, the person with the opportunity to capitalize on it is far from any trans advocate’s first choice. Jared Leto, of Requiem and 30 Seconds to Mars fame (Ed. note — that’s right, none of us have watched My So-Called Life), has found himself in a position to move public discourse on trans topics. As an analogy, this is like finding yourself in the bottom of the 9th inning with two outs, the bases loaded, and…your pitcher up to bat (Ed. note — I do not understand this analogy).
While I don’t think any trans person should feel obligated to take on the role of activist, I don’t believe that applies to individuals who find themselves profiting off the existence of trans people while not being a part of the community.
In what has almost seemed to be a concerted effort to distance himself from his Dallas Buyers Club character, Leto has been making the media rounds with a full beard, often turning his interviews into jokey explanations of how unlike his character he is. Consider this to be the cisgender man’s version of “no homo.”
Now, I know, he’s an actor. Of course he’s not the same person as his character. That’s his job. But that’s a given. Did Jennifer Lawrence need to reassure audiences that she had never killed a man after The Hunger Games? Did Sandra Bullock have to tell people that she wasn’t really an astronaut? Of course not. So why does Leto have to make such a show out of reminding us that he’s not actually trans?
Jos Truitt wrote an excellent piece about Leto, Hollywood, and trans issues over at Feministing. In it, she criticizes the fact that a cisgender man was cast in the role of a trans woman in the first place. “No matter what Dallas Buyers Club does as a film, the narrative around this movie, the fact that a man in drag is playing a trans woman, perpetuates the stereotype that we are men in drag,” she writes. I couldn’t agree more.
Leto’s Golden Globes acceptance speech wasn’t particularly well received by trans individuals. As Shadi Petosky tweeted, Leto is “‘man in a dress’-ing us all the way to the bank,” going on to create a sarcastic translation of his speech, boiling the points down to, “body joke, grooming joke, thanks for letting me exploit you.” Again, I’m inclined to agree.
It would have been nice to see Leto focus less on how hilarious it was that he had to wax his eyebrows, and more on issues facing trans individuals. At the very least, he could have made mention of some issues that impact trans people, like employment discrimination, denial of medical care, or widespread homelessness. Instead, he made it through his whole speech without even mentioning the word “transgender.”
Many have condemned Leto on the basis that the role would have been better in the hands of a trans actress. I don’t believe that kind of criticism is fair. Rather, blame the casting director or the writer. After all, Leto’s character wasn’t based on an actual human being, but rather, was simply used as a convenient plot device. It’s not Leto’s fault that the film never intended to cast a trans woman to play the role of, well, a trans woman.
Whenever the suggestion that trans people should be given trans roles comes up, Internet commenters everywhere jump in to remind us that acting is about being someone you’re not, and therefore, it’s fine that the role would go to a cisgender individual. After all, straight actors like Modern Family’s Eric Stonestreet play gay characters without (much) blowback; why should this be any different? Well, for one, I could rattle off plenty of gay actors who play straight roles, like Neil Patrick Harris on How I Met Your Mother. Can you tell me the last time a trans actor was given the role of a cisgender character?
Also, given that trans individuals are so few in number, many people don’t know of any trans individuals in person, leaving their exposure to trans topics up to the media. So, when a trans woman is portrayed as a “man in a dress,” that’s what the public will see us as: men in dresses.
Disappointingly, trans concerns are often ignored by the LGBT media, or, at very best, given only momentary consideration. I watched as journalists from several LGBT media outlets celebrated Leto, rejoicing in his Golden Globes victory despite the very real concerns held by many trans people. These outlets have written glowing reviews of his performance, though some have incorrectly labeled Leto’s character as a “transgender man.” Interviews with him are everywhere, always consisting of the same softball questions.
Even in their criticism, LGB journalists have a tendency to shift the focus on themselves. “Was Jared Leto’s acceptance speech homophobic?” I saw more than one journalist run this line. No, his speech wasn’t “homophobic,” it was transphobic (and more specifically, transmisogynistic). While I understand there is overlap between the two terms, it’s important not to conflate homophobia with transphobia as that does little more than reinforce the idea held by so many that being trans is just basically being “gay to the max.”
Dare to comment on one of these articles and trans people can expect to receive a litany of replies from LGB individuals telling us to “stop whining” and to “stop being so nitpicky,” or maybe, “just be glad you’re getting some recognition!” But that’s the thing: this is not recognition. When you have an actor who was supposedly so into his role that he stayed in character throughout filming, it’s disappointing to see him say “transgendered” (this is not a word, much like a gay man is not a “gayed man”) and in one early interview, use an explicitly transphobic slur.
In the end, regardless of whatever else comes out of this movie from a social impact point of view, it’s safe to say that the opportunity to shift public discourse on trans topics came and went with little change. Maybe we’ll have better luck next time.
Parker Marie Molloy is the founder of parkthatcar.net. She currently serves as the trans issues correspondent for Advocate.com, and her writing has appeared at Rolling Stone, Salon, Talking Points Memo, and Huffington Post.