In Defense of Trans Actors
One way we can all suck a little less at being trans allies: if a trans voice is speaking, listen to them. Just listen. Without arguing.
Today on Facebook, a female friend (who’s trans) shared an article from Them titled Why Scarlett Johansson — Or Any Cis Actor — Should Never Play Trans Roles. This is the debate du jour. Hollywood golden girl Scarlett Johansson has been cast to play a transgender man, Dante “Tex” Gill, in a new biopic film, Rub and Tug. Of course, it’s worth mentioning up front that the film’s PR team is justifying casting Johansson in this role by claiming that Tex Gill was “a lesbian that preferred to wear men’s clothing.”
However, a closer look at Gill’s obituary from 2003 reveals something else: that he was plagued by the same microaggressions, the same transphobic behaviors that trans people today are facing. It was even harsher during Gill’s lifetime though, because there was no mainstream vocabulary for, or even understanding of, this community. Even in his obituary, which was written by those who loved him, we see the all-too-common disrespect of pronouns and rejection of identity, which mirrors today’s definition of transphobia is. An excerpt from his obituary reads:
In all the old newspaper stories about Dante “Tex” Gill, she was always “the woman who prefers to be known as a man,” or some variation of that description, and she sure looked and acted the part.
Short and dumpy, she wore men’s suits and short hair, she talked tough and she may even have undergone the initial stages of a sex change that made her appear masculine.
For years, according to police, Ms. Gill ran a string of parlors as fronts for prostitution, all the while insisting that she was a man and telling everyone she wanted to be known as “Mr. Gill.”
Granted, during Gill’s lifetime there wasn’t a more vast understanding of trans and gender nonconforming people, but it wouldn’t have been terribly hard to honor his explicit desire to use male pronouns and refer to him as “Mr. Gill,” just as he’d asked. Yet even in death, those who knew him best continued misgendering him.
Telling others to always use male pronouns with you, when you were assigned female at birth, is not the language of butch lesbians, or of some imaginary attention-seeking cis woman who gets aroused playing pretend. In 2018, the phrase “the woman who prefers to be known as a man,” is pretty clear. That Gill “wore men’s suits and short hair,” and that he even “may have undergone the initial stages of a sex change… all the while insisting that she was a man and telling everyone she wanted to be known as ‘Mr. Gill’” is, perhaps in hindsight only, overtly obvious.
It’s worth a reminder that gender identity and sexual orientation are not even remotely related, although all variations are valid. One can be a gay trans man, a straight trans man, a bi trans man, a pan trans man, or an asexual trans man, for example. The same is true for trans women, and trans non-binary people. Though Gill identified as a “lesbian,” with everything we’ve now learned about trans people, via their own stories, it’s not a stretch to suspect Gill was a straight, transgender man, or possibly even trans-masculine, nonbinary, living in society at a time when we just didn’t have the language or resources to describe gender identity even in layman’s terms.
But more telling is one single word in Gill’s obituary:
That one word is a tell-tale sign that anyone in the trans community is famliar with. It’s part of the trifecta of words that often determine trans status, versus a passing, experimental phase, or the fluidity of gender in general. That trifecta of words is: insistent, persistent, and consistent.
This means that trans people (versus someone enduring a passing phase) are insistent (unwavering), persistent (continuing firmly, in spite of difficulty or opposition), and consistent (unchanging in nature over a period of time) in their gender assertions. Of course, not all trans people are insistent, persistent, and consistent. Indeed, many times friends claim, “I never saw this coming,” but that’s usually because the trans person was masking (overcompensating, out of fear) in their perceived notion of what it took to perform the role of their sex assigned at birth. Often when it’s a surprise to family, they are usually able to see the big picture in hindsight, at least.
But then, there’s also this part of Gill’s obituary, which kind of removes any remaining doubt that he was a trans man:
Barry Paris, a Post-Gazette film critic and Ms. Gill’s cousin, said she was an anomaly for her day, someone who had to hide her sexuality as a single woman in the transgender community, which at the time was so underground it had yet to acquire that label.
So, yes. We have come a long way. But we have not fully made it yet.
For at least two days, online media outlets have been saturated with arguments over Scarlett Johannson playing this role of a trans man. I’ve seen trans people explaining why they wholeheartedly agree with Them’s statement (that cis actors should never play trans people), and cis people explaining why they don’t agree at all with that statement. Further, a common theme running among several cis folks is that Scarlett Johannson playing a trans person in a big film is indeed a “win” and “progress” for the trans community as a whole.
While I can understand where the cis people are coming from (because I’m also cis) I do not agree with their position in this argument. In addition to being cis, I also have a long history of acting, mostly on stage. So I’m weighing in on this debate as a liberal-minded human, just trying to listen to the marginalized voices, who’s also using the perspective of an actor. Oh, and I also happen to be the mom of an almost teenage trans kid.
When my friend posted this article, there was a turbulent thread of comments, echoing the exact same debate across other social media forums and comments sections. Among the first to chime in was a self-described cis person who responded:
“Scarlett Johansson is playing Female-to-Male, right? I can’t think of any female-to-male trans people who are out.”
Some people rattled off lists of FtM trans actors, to show the cis person that just because she doesn’t know of any “out” FtM actors doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Chaz Bono was given as one example. Another person responded:
“I can only think of 3 trans actors, Laverne Cox, Elliot Fletcher, Chaz Bono, and a handful of others I don’t know well or by name. They are few and far between.”
This part — they are few and far between — got my hackles up a bit. Others named lists of FtM actors & spokespeople, including Silas Howard, Tom Phelan, Ryan Cassata, Tiq Milan, Buck Angel, Aydian Dowling, Thomas Beatie, Donnie Cianciotto, Ian Harvie, Laith Ashley, Harry Dodge, Will Krisanda, Brian Michael Smith, Jake Graf, Riley Carter Millington, Emmett Jack Lundberg… to name just a few. But saying they are few and far between? This is just not true. I think I get why there’s the perception, though. It could be that:
A.) some trans actors may not be “out” yet, and they happen to “pass” well;
B.) some trans actors may not have transitioned or transitioned publicly for a variety of reasons;
C.) perhaps some trans actors know they’re trans but are afraid and are therefore living in the closet right now;
D.) maybe some trans actors don’t know they’re trans; maybe they’ve always felt different or uncomfortable in their gender role (as assigned at birth), but maybe they lacked the vocabulary or ability to name what it was that was making them feel misaligned.
Regardless, the whole reason why cis people think that trans people are “few and far between” is a direct result of this whole debate in the first place. If Hollywood would start actively seeking out and casting trans actors, I guarantee society would move a teensy bit further ahead. Look at the extreme success of Orange is the New Black. They cast Laverne Cox, a black trans woman from Mobile, Alabama in the role of… a BLACK TRANS WOMAN. And she brought an air of authenticity to that role that I’m certain no cis actor could’ve pulled off without looking trans femme caricature.
I was hoping this debate had quieted online, but nope. Comments were amping up, as is often the case with literally every issue right now. One commentor explained, very politely, that there are many ‘out’ trans guys and trans masculine individuals in show business, or in the public eye, who are all ready and willing to take on these movie roles, and that casting cis actors in trans roles is absolutely not necessary.
The cis person in this conversation disagreed. They were of the midset (again, seen echoed across social media and all over comment sections, typically by cis people) that actors, regardless of gender, should be able to inhabit any role, because that’s their job.
I just have to say here, that one way we can all suck a little less at being trans allies, is this: if a trans voice is speaking, listen to that voice. Just listen. Without arguing. You can apply this to any marginalized voice, whether based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or any other protected class. It’s always applicable for being a good ally.
But, as an actor myself, I have to refute this argument that it’s an actor’s job to inhabit a completely different identity. Not a personality, but an identity, much like race. I would certainly hope that no casting director would ever offer me the opportunity to play the role of Lena Younger in A Raisin in the Sun, or Dorothy in The Wiz, for example. I’m not black, and I can’t pretend to know what it feels like to experience systemic racism firsthand. And as much as I revere Lin Manuel Miranda’s work, I wouldn’t dream of having the chutzpah to show up at auditions for intentionally authentic and/or diverse works like In the Heights, or Hamilton.
As a white woman, not only do I have no place in theatre that attempts to represent the marginalized, but it would also be selfish of me to even try. My white, cis/het privilege affords me the opportunity, for example, to audition in my local theatres for 9 out of 10 shows per season, and reasonably expect to be cast in at least 1 of them. It would be selfish and illiberal of me to prey on an opportunity that would take away from an already marginalized community — one who only gets to even think about auditioning for (at best) 1 out of 10 shows per season — likely being cast in none.
Living as the majority in a white, cisgender, heteronormative society, I hold the power and the privilege in certain situations, but I will never know — no matter how good I think my acting chops are — what it feels like to live as a trans person in this world, and how to authentically portray what that feels like to an audience who is knowledge-starved on trans issues in their most basic form. Further, I will never know what it feels like living as a trans person who desperately wants to be an actor, and to have what it takes, but to also know I don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell because cisgender people always get the roles.
The arguments on social media continued. Cis people on several threads argued points like: “Nobody knows those trans male actors. The movie would flop at the box office.” and “Maybe the trans community should not push it. They should be happy they’ve come this far” — meaning, that a famous actress is playing one of them, that’s how ‘normalized’ trans people are nowadays — and “ya’ll should just enjoy this for what it is: a win, a positive; a gain. Stop demanding more. It’ll just push cis people further away.”
Several trans voices joined these conversations, speaking their truths and commenting on the matter, very politely explaining why these lines of reasoning are misplaced. The problem lies within the fact that when cis people play trans people, it comes off as (in the words of a very kind badass who was trying to progress this conversation) “a cringe-worthy portrayal of someone ‘in drag’ and it does not EVER feel authentic to those of us who walk that road, no matter the good intentions of the directors and the actors.” This person added:
“It supports and spreads and cements the idea that trans women are men in dresses (because that’s who people ssee on the screen) and it supports the idea that trans men are really just awkwardly butch women (because that’s who people see on the screen).
THOSE messages get us killed.
I am not kidding.
This is not hyperbole.
Cis people will never be targeted because a trans person plays one of them in a film or on TV. But trans people are raped, assaulted, abused, and killed when cisgender people portray us.”
Another person said:
“The message here is that trans people aren’t their gender, that they’re ‘acting,’ and when Scarlett Johansson goes on talk shows in a red gown to promote this movie, it’s only going to cement that point. This is the exact message that gets trans women killed by cis men, and gets trans men beaten and raped by cis men.”
These people are spot-on. We don’t need to perpetuate trans masculine or feminine caricature. Especially in 2018. At a time when our gender language and knowledge of trans issues is so immense because of the brave trans people who risked everything to tell their stories and pave the way, we don’t need to perpetuate the myth that transgender identity is a form of crossdressing impersonation, or some sort of sexual kink or fetish. Or even a “performance,” for that matter. These are the very notions that trans people — especially trans women of color — get killed for.
Casting cis people to play trans people is pretty much akin to doing modern day blackface. Really, it is. And doing so, especially when we know better, just reinforces the perception that individuals who honestly cross the boundaries of what’s considered ‘typical’ gender expression are just engaging in a form of performance, rather than having a natural, honest expression of their deeply held internal sense of being.
We also aren’t at a place yet where transgender representation in the movies is mainstream, so it’s extremely important that when a trans character does come along, we have to — we must — get it right, for the sake of their lives. It’s not excusable anymore that when those rare trans character opportunities in film come along, they are given to cisgender actors almost exclusively.
It’s time for Hollywood to have a purpose that goes beyond profit. Anyone who has as big a platform as the Hollywood elite should be responsible enough to have a cause and to fight for that cause. Giving trans people accurate and responsible representation is a good cause, especially in today’s hyper-partisan, divided, wounded world, with our very democracy at stake.
With cis people continuing to play trans people, we are effectively jerking those opportunities away from the very folks who would bring much more authenticity, credibility, and sensibility to the role. Not to mention, trans folks deserve the opportunity.
It would be so wonderful if this current news story was different. In my mind, the headline would read:
Johansson Turns Down Role of Lifetime; Will Not Portray Trans Man
And the first line would explain:
“Johansson stated that the basis of turning down this role was that she did not want to misrepresent an already marginalized, misunderstood population of people. She asked the casting director to seriously consider only auditioning actors that are trans men for this role, so that the trans community is represented authentically.”