Men Who Play Transgender Women Send a "Toxic and Dangerous" Message (Guest Column)
GLAAD's Nick Adams argues that Hollywood needs to let go of the idea "that putting a male actor in a dress, wig and makeup is an accurate portrayal of a transgender woman."
It’s been two years since Time magazine proclaimed a new era of inclusion in America with a May 2014 cover featuring actress Laverne Cox and the eye-catching headline: “The Transgender Tipping Point.” The groundbreaking Time cover came 10 months after Cox appeared in her breakout role as Sophia Burset on Netflix's Orange Is the New Black. That's the power of entertainment media — one outstanding performance by a charismatic and talented actress can accelerate change across an entire culture.
Since then, trans people have begun to appear on reality shows like TLC's I Am Jazz, E!'s I Am Cait, and in Strut, Oxygen's upcoming show about trans models. Trans characters played by trans actors are beginning to appear in scripted TV shows like Amazon's Transparent, Netflix's Sense8, Freeform's The Fosters, and CBS' upcoming legal drama Doubt. And Tangerine, starring two trans actresses, was the indie film breakout hit of 2015, earning four Independent Spirit Award nominations and a GLAAD Media Award for outstanding film in limited release.
And yet — in spite of the critical and commercial success of projects that put trans people front and center — Hollywood is having a very difficult time letting go of the idea that putting a male actor in a dress, wig and makeup is an accurate portrayal of a transgender woman.
For more than 40 years, Americans have sat down in front of their TV screens or in movie seats and seen male actors "pretend" to be trans women. By casting Robert Reed, Terence Stamp, John Lithgow, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tom Wilkinson, Lee Pace, Cillian Murphy, Liev Schreiber, Beau Bridges, Jared Leto, Eddie Redmayne, Steven Weber, Denis O'Hare and Walton Goggins as transgender women, viewers receive two strong and wrong messages: 1. that being transgender is an act, a performance, just a matter of playing dress-up; and 2. that underneath all that artifice, a transgender woman really is a man.
Matt Bomer is the latest actor to find himself in the crosshairs of controversy, following news this week that he will be playing a transgender woman in the upcoming indie film Anything, executive produced by Mark Ruffalo. Following the film's announcement, Emmy-nominated trans filmmaker and actress Jen Richards responded with a series of tweets that re-ignited a long-simmering conversation about casting transgender roles.
Without a doubt, Bomer, who is a trailblazer in his own right as one of Hollywood’s most well-known and successful out gay actors, and Ruffalo, who’s been a longtime and outspoken supporter of the LGBT community, took on the project with the best intentions.
The decision to put yet another man in a dress to portray a transgender woman touches a nerve for transgender people, and rightfully so. It's yet another painful reminder that, in the eyes of so many people, transgender women are really just men.
That message is toxic and dangerous. It's what prompts lawmakers in states like North Carolina to legislate that a transgender woman must use the men's restroom, humiliating her and putting her in harm’s way. It's what motivated James Dixon to murder Islan Nettles as she walked down the street, minding her own business. At his trial, Dixon said that he attacked the 21-year-old black trans woman after he flirted with her, then his friends teased him saying, "That's a man." Not wanting to be "fooled" and feeling like his "manhood" was threatened, Dixon killed her.
Since Islan Nettles was murdered in August 2013, the same year Orange Is the New Black premiered, over 50 transgender women have been murdered in the United States. Those are just the murders we know about.
To all those writers, directors, producers and showrunners out there, let me say this: If you don't see the dangerous real-world implications of casting men to play transgender women; if you are more concerned with the bottom line or with star power or with how your product will sell overseas, then don't write transgender characters into your projects. We would rather be left out than be constantly portrayed as something we're not. Portrayed in a way that gets us killed.
But if you are moved — if you see the problem that casting well-known men to play transgender women causes — then here's a solution: Take a look at actresses who are also transgender.
Laverne Cox's talent and her consistently smart and entertaining interviews have made a big splash in Hollywood. Yet she would be the first to say that she stands on the shoulders of trailblazing trans actresses like Alexandra Billings and Candis Cayne. And their hard work and visibility have paved the way for breakout stars like Jamie Clayton, Trace Lysette, Jen Richards, Angelica Ross, Michelle Hendley, Alexandra Grey, Hari Nef and Mya Taylor.
When you hire a trans actor, they don't have to spend weeks or months "preparing and researching" to play a trans person. They can walk in the door on day one, ready to deliver an authentic, nuanced performance. You get the added bonus of having someone on set who can tell you if something about the dialogue or the characterization is falling into tropes and clichés that will ultimately not reflect well on you or the project. (You can also call GLAAD for that feedback. We want to help you get it right from the beginning.)
It should be noted that Jeffrey Tambor's portrayal of Maura on Transparent is the rare exception where the casting fits the story being told — that of an older trans woman who is just beginning her transition. Additionally, Jill Soloway made the deliberate decision to bring in many transgender people behind the camera and in front of it. This conscious collaboration is why the show has been so well received by audiences, critics and transgender people.
And if you really want to be ahead of the curve in Hollywood, start bringing in trans actors to play non-trans roles. Because that's where we're headed, and the first films and TV shows to get there will receive credit for realizing that trans people can play any role.
One final word about transgender characters. It is great that so many roles are being written for transgender women to play. Trans women are most deeply affected by the way these characters have been written and (mis)cast. However, please consider also writing stories about transgender men. While trans men are spared the worst of our culture's transphobia, our invisibility in the media means America doesn't even know that we exist. For the young transgender boys I mentor, they look to the media to see themselves, and when they see nothing, it's hard for them to imagine a future. So check out great trans actors like Elliot Fletcher, Tom Phelan, Ian Harvie, D'Lo, and Scott Turner Schofield.
The actors I've mentioned in this article are trained, professional, and experienced. You can find them on Actors Access and IMDb. If you can't find them, call us and we'll help you find them.
Bring them in to audition. Let them show you their craft. Create a role specifically for them. Listen to their stories and be inspired. The reality of lived trans experience is so much more interesting, so much more powerful, than the simulacrum Hollywood has peddled for decades. Collaborate with us to tell our own stories. You’ll not only make better films and TV shows, you’ll also make a difference.
Nick Adams is the director of GLAAD's Transgender Media Program, and one of GLAAD's transgender staff. GLAAD serves as a resource for journalists and entertainment industry professionals who are creating stories about transgender people.