More transgender characters have appeared in mainstream film and TV in the past two years than Hollywood has seen in decades. Yet at the same time as trans women like Laverne Cox, star of Orange is the New Black, and Caitlyn Jenner, part of the Kardashian empire and star of her short-lived reality show I am Cait, have become household names, Hollywood continues to cast transgender roles, particularly trans women, with cisgender male actors —people whose gender matches the biological sex they were assigned at birth. Movies like Dallas Buyers Club, The Danish Girl, and the forthcoming Anything all feature cisgender male actors playing trans women, as does the show Transparent, though the latter takes place at the beginning of its lead character’s coming out. While many within Hollywood argue that “acting is acting,” transgender actors and activists strongly disagree.
Jen Richards, an Emmy-award nominated actor, writer and activist, with roles in the forthcoming new legal show Doubt on CBS, alongside Laverne Cox, and ABC’s Nashville, among many others, tells Second Nexus that she feels “exasperated and disappointed” every time another cisgender actor gets the part for a trans woman. “Trans women see themselves as a type of woman. I am a trans woman, not the same as every other woman, but I am a type of woman. When you cast Matt Bomer, Eddie Redmayne or Jared Leto [as trans women] you are saying that a trans woman is a type of man,” she says. For that same reason, she takes far less issue with women actors playing trans women, despite issues of authenticity, because, “If women were playing trans women, it would reinforce the notion that trans women are women.”
She does not see these casting decisions as harmless. When people see trans women as a “type of man,” because male actors play them, Richards points out it leads to real-world violence against trans women. Richards sees this issue as “part of our intensely homophobic culture and this air of toxic masculinity that seems to permeate every aspect of our society right now.” She feels that “for a certain subset of heterosexual men” who are attracted to trans women, “they reflect the guilt or shame that is the result of society’s influence. In order to reassert their masculinity, they do it through destroying the object of what caused that crisis, which is the trans women themselves.”
The statistics are sobering. According to a report by the Human Rights Campaign report, 21 transgender people were murdered in the United States in 2015. In 2016, there have already been at least 19 murders. Most of these are women of color, often sex workers, often young and vulnerable. “Trans women, and especially trans women of color, are vastly, disproportionately the victims of violence, sexual abuse, and hate crimes. We face inordinate rates of poverty, homelessness and discrimination,” says Hailey Jane Bobella, a trans woman living in Austin, Texas.
This year alone there have been several pieces of discriminatory legislation proposed, and even passed, to force transgender people to use bathrooms that correlate with their sex assigned at birth, but do not take into account how they identify or appear. Richards is from North Carolina, which passed HB-2, a law that enforced “single sex, multiple-occupancy of bathroom and changing facilities in schools and public agencies.”
“As of right now, when I step outside the airplane in Raleigh, I’m supposed to use the men’s room,” she says with obvious frustration in her voice. “The reason that law was passed was
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