(I’m reposting this from elsewhere, where I was speaking to mostly cis people I know pretty well. Originally written on 3/5/14)
I know I’m a few days late to the party so to speak, but I was still working through my thoughts and trying to find the words.
I’m not going to talk about the movie itself. I haven’t seen it and don’t plan to. I’ve read several reviews and it sounds like the kind of movie I would hate.
I also don’t want to focus on Jared Leto specifically. Though I would like to say, for the record, that his complete lack of acknowledgement of the trans community and of the issues trans people often face is beyond contempt. It’s a fucking slap to the face. It is exploitation and it does real, lasting harm to us.
What I want to talk about is trans visibility. I’ve seen a lot of cis people disagree with the idea that cis actors should not play trans people. I wasn’t so sure about it at first, myself. I’ve read some essays by different trans people on the topic and they each had their reasons.
Some feel that actors need to have some way to get into the frame of reference of the characters they play and that cis actors simply have no way of relating to the experience of being trans to get them into that frame of reference. I’m not sure whether I agree with that, but I think it’s not pertinent to the matter at hand.
The issue here is not “Can cis actors play trans people?” but “Should cis actors play trans people?” I’ve seen a lot of cis people treat that question as some kind of a theoretical exercise where all things are equal and we’re looking for some kind of universal truth. You know what that is? That’s a derailment tactic. It’s a way for cis people to obfuscate and ignore anything that doesn’t reinforce their position. We’re not talking about “ever” or “in a perfect world;” we’re talking about right here, right now.
Right now the power balance in our society is so skewed toward cis people that we are nearly invisible. Unseen. And those who are unseen almost always go unheard as well. Social media has made it possible for trans people to gather, be seen, and speak out, to push back in some way against an overwhelming power imbalance. In some small way, all things considered. Those of you reading this know more about trans people and issues than probably 95% of the country. And most of those in that 95% who are actually aware we exist know only stereotypes and outright lies that play into their prejudices and fears.
How many trans people do you actually know? How many trans people have you actually seen? I haven’t talked to another trans guy in years now* and I’ve never talked to someone who was DFAB, on testosterone, and very fluid in their gender presentation. Even among those of us who interact with each other online, it’s somewhere between uncommon and rare to have met another trans person in real life. It’s even more rare for a trans person to regularly interact with other trans people off the internet. Older trans people are usually stealth, because that’s what they were told they had to do. That prevents inter-generational community from forming. No histories are passed down. We are led to believe we’re a new aberration, born of “corrupted” American culture and not part of something that can be found in many centuries and cultures.
We are told, implicitly and explicitly, our bodies are unacceptable and disgusting. No one will love us or desire us physically. And anyone who does has something wrong with them, is perverted, or only wants to use us to fulfill a fetish. The pressure to pass, to hide what cis people find unacceptable about our bodies, is monumental and the punishments doled out on those who don’t or won’t are swift, embarrassing, shaming, devastating, or fatal. It’s no wonder I’ve only seen a body like mine less than a handful of times and never in person. I do not have the words to express everything I feel when I have. It’s overwhelming. It etches “Your body is good and you are not alone” into my mind a little deeper every time.
We need each other. It’s not enough to know, abstractly, somewhere out there is someone who’s like us. We need to see each other. We need to see we come in all colors and shapes and sizes. We need to see each other so we can know, down to the cores of our being, that we are not alone, that our bodies should be respected, that we are good.
Every time a cis actor plays a trans woman, it reinforces the messages that we are not legitimate and that we are rare aberrations. Even a well-meaning cis actor who would give a thoughtful, nuanced performance will contribute to the harm done to trans people on a cultural level. The claim that there aren’t working actors who are trans is utter bullshit.
So Jared Leto winning a god damn Oscar for playing a trans woman is important. It’s the dominant culture reasserting the subtle narratives that ensure that they will continue to have power over the lives of trans people. I hope this helps you understand why so many trans people are very, very angry about it and why it matters.
*Correction: I talked to another trans guy in person a few months ago for a couple of hours. My memory is shit. Still, this was once in the last four years.