In 2014, Jared Leto received an Oscar for portraying a transgender woman in Dallas Buyers Club. When the director, Jean-Marc Vallée, was asked whether he ever considered casting a transgender actor to play the role, he promptly responded, "never."
It is exciting to see our stories being told and winning awards, but should we be concerned that transgender people have little involvement in the story telling?
Jeffery Tambor plays a transwoman in the critically acclaimed show Transparent, a series that has brought national attention to transgender issues. This begs the question: is any and all publicity beneficial since it is raising awareness about transgender identities, or are there issues with cisgender people (i.e. people who do not identify as transgender) portraying a transgender narrative?
Whenever this issue of cultural appropriation comes up, a common argument is that writers shouldn't be restricted to writing their own narratives just as actors shouldn't be restricted to only playing roles of characters that resemble themselves. Art is supposed to transcend reality, not be confined by one's social identities. Additionally, most of these stories portray a (more or less) positive picture of transgender people. How could anyone be upset?
To be honest, I don't usually get involved in this debate. As a transgender person and a writer, I can understand both sides of the argument. However, after working on a project about transgender issues created by cisgender people, my opinion has slightly shifted.
A few months ago, I was asked to participate in a photo shoot that would highlight the beauty and vulnerability of transgender identities. Initially, I was hesitant since it was a nude photo shoot, but I wanted to support the mission of the project, so I let them photograph me.
Around the same time, I became a blogger for Huffington Post. Eager for content and article ideas, I asked the PR team producing the project if I could write a post for the photo series. I wrote a narrative piece about my experience with the shoot, and how I was incredibly anxious, but still overcame my apprehension for the good of the project. In the first round of feedback, the PR team said that while they enjoyed the narrative style of the piece, they wanted the article to be more about the project and a little less about me. Of course, this feedback was more than fair. Admittedly, I can be a bit of a narcissist. They also wanted me to mention the PR firm since they were the ones producing the project. Also fair.
In my rewrite, I added a paragraph about how and why the PR firm created the photo series. I also rewrote most of the piece to include the experiences of some of the other transgender participants. After all, I probably would have bailed on the photo shoot had it not been for their incredible support and courage.
I sent in the new draft, excited for their feedback. After a week of little communication, someone from the PR team sent me a version of my article that he had rewritten, claiming that his version was more centered around the project's mission than mine was.
In his version, the article was about how a PR team (with no transgender individuals) came up with a brilliant idea to start a conversation about transgender identities with this photo shoot. He had minimized the paragraphs describing the experiences of the other transgender participants to make room for him to explain his vision for the project. There was a part in the original version where I had talked about how nervous I was posing nude next to a Crossfit trainer who was incredibly fit, but was then comforted when the trainer shared with me his own insecurities about his body and being trans, highlighting why the idea behind this project was so important-to celebrate our bodies in a world that wants us to feel ashamed for our gender. In the PR guy's version, that moment changed to me confiding in him, our self-proclaimed "in-house cheerleader and quarterback" who said exactly what I needed to hear in order to do the shoot. (And I thought I was narcissistic!)
As I was writing my response to the PR guy, explaining why it didn't make sense for an article introducing a project about transgender identities to be focused on the people who aren't transgender (i.e. the PR team), I decided it was better to drop out of the project altogether. While I do believe that part of them sincerely wanted to help the transgender movement, their truer intentions had moved to the forefront. I realized that I couldn't continue to work on this project without feeling like I was, in some way, betraying my community.
The issue with projects like this one and Dallas Buyers Club is that the transgender narrative inherently devolves into a polite caricature. Especially now that transgender stories are becoming profitable, these "artists" are so eager to put their content into the world, and are so caught up by their own egos, that they usually don't bother to consult with an actual trans person.
I later found out that one of the transgender photo shoot participants had suggested to the PR team that it would be more powerful for us to pose clothed in some of the garments we were forced to wear before coming out, demonstrating the juxtaposition between who we are and who society demanded we be. Unfortunately, her suggestion was immediately shot down. They wanted us to be naked to show that underneath our clothes "we were just like everyone else."
The obvious solution would be for these projects to involve transgender people in the telling of our stories. Believe it or not, some of us are artists, writers, photographers and actors. Jill Soloway, creator of the Transparent series, has taken this step by hiring Our Lady J, a transgender woman, to come on as a staff writer for the second season. Perhaps if we continue to push back on cultural appropriation, we will be able to continue such progress.