Jared Leto. Felicity Huffman.
What do they have in common? Both were nominated for Academy Awards for their portrayal of trans women, Ms. Huffman in 2006 for Transamerica and Mr. Leto this year. Mr. Leto won the award this past Sunday for Dallas Buyer’s Club.
The LGBT community is abuzz about the award and the portrayal that led to it. A number of people have taken issue with the fact that the role of Rayon was not played by a trans woman. Since Laverne Cox has made the big time, in Orange is the New Black, why not choose her or one of the seventy-odd trans actors who are members of the Screen Actors Guild?
Others have complained that the role was played by a man, and played as a gay man. However awkward Ms. Huffman was starring in Transamerica, at least she was a woman, and brought a woman’s sensibility to the role. Jared Leto played Rayon like a man, further confusing the public who both conflate gay with trans in general, and drag performance with the lived reality of the typical trans life, and then, not surprisingly, believe that trans women are, or were, at some point in our lives, men. Nothing could be further from the truth, nor more damaging to the campaign for trans acceptance.
Another specific criticism was Leto’s failure to thank the trans community in his acceptance speech, both generally but also failing to acknowledge those from the community who assisted him, such as Calpernia Addams. He didn’t even say the word, “transgender,” even though he portrayed a trans woman. It’s one thing when the President limits his use of the word “transgender” and replaces it with the euphemism “who you are,” but the guy who just played a trans woman somehow can’t or won’t use the word in Hollywood? Would a billion televisions and laptops have exploded had he done so? That neglect really needs to stop, and is reminiscent of “the love that dares not speak its name.”
Rayon is a fictional character, a composite of a particular type of trans woman from the 80s. She was a pathetic “creature,” in Leto’s words, and played the comic sidekick in this film about the tragedy of the AIDS crisis. She was portrayed as clothes-obsessed, drug addicted and surviving as a sex worker. There were, and still are, trans women who have been reduced to that level by abuse, discrimination and neglect. They deserve our attention and compassion. I know such women; many of us do. But they are not representative of the community, and having that specific portrayal garnering an Oscar can be very damaging.
I will say that this portrayal of Rayon is not on Mr. Leto. He was an actor playing a role. The issue is more with the screenwriter, the director and producer, those who created the part of Rayon and are ultimately responsible for it. The director, Jean-Marc Vallée, made this comment when interviewed by the CBC’s Jian Ghomeshi, who asked whether he ever considered casting a transgender actor. “Never. [Are] there any transgender actors?” he said. “I’m not aiming for the real thing. I’m aiming for an experienced actor who wants to portray the thing.” You can’t get more insulting than that.