"You mean like Buffalo Bill?"
My gut sank. I had just told my colleague I would be transitioning and her only point of reference was the serial killer from The Silence of the Lambs, who skins women and dances in front of a mirror muttering "I'd fuck me."
Not exactly the image I wanted her to have in her head the first time we ran into each other in the women's room.
Years later she'd say she forget there was ever time when I wasn't a woman. It was a typical swing—the first time my Southern family saw me as a woman was my grandmother's funeral. They were anxiously expecting RuPaul to loudly sashay in. Instead they met, well, me.
Once the dramatic or horrific associations are severed, it's easy to see a real person.
I reminded my colleague how she had responded when I first came out to her and she was mortified. "I guess that's all I knew at the time. I had never met a trans person before."
As recently as 2015, only 16% of Americans say they knew a trans person. The rest, like my friend, only knew what they saw in film and television: Buffalo Bill was just one example of a common trope—the trans women as serial killer. It's a stereotype that stretches back to Anthony Perkins in Psycho, through Dressed to Kill and Sleepaway Camp, and continues right up to the present day with Pretty Little Liars.
The message is unambiguous: A guy thinking he's a woman is seriously scary.
Far more prevalent these days is the sympathetic portrayal of a trans woman by a high-profile actor—Tom Wilkinson in Normal, Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club, Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl, Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent. And now Matt Bomer in Anything, which premieres Saturday at the L.A. Film Festival.
The appeal is in seeing the remarkable transformation of actors we know and respect as they disappear into these feminine roles. I enjoy it, too, for the same reasons I love watching Daniel Day-Lewis become Daniel Plainview or Abraham Lincoln. It's a remarkable example of craft.
I loved Jared Leto's performance in Dallas Buyers Club, and I was livid that it happened. I came to adore Eddie Redmayne while working with him on The Danish Girl, and I don't think the movie should have been made. I know Matt Bomer as a really sweet guy and talented actor who is breaking barriers, and I wanted to see Anything disappear without a trace. I'm fully capable of holding all these seemingly incompatible thoughts because I know that there are two distinct issues at play here. They may seem to have little to do with each other, but the stakes are life and death.
I had been hooking up with Joe for a few weeks. I rarely allowed myself to hope for anything more than the time we had in my bedroom, but one day I dared to ask if we could go grab a drink. He got a little weird, but thought it through and agreed. With a caveat. "I just don't want any of my friends to know you're trans."
It wasn't the first time I'd heard that, nor would it be the last. My roommate got it far more often than I did. Most of my trans girlfriends did, at least the ones who are assumed cis by the world and who date men.
"It's just that if they hear 'trans' they think 'dude in a wig,' " Joe explained, "like Jared Leto." I shrugged it off and quietly decided I would no longer be hooking up with Joe. And anytime I saw a picture of Jared Leto clutching an Oscar with a full beard, a bit of rage welled up inside me.
I was trapped in the same cycle many of my friends were: We dated straight men who were afraid other people would think they were gay because the public thinks transgender women are just men with good hair and makeup. And the public thinks that because the only trans people they know of are men with good hair and makeup in movies.
Despite hundreds of thousands of straight men all around the world consuming trans pornography in massive quantities, driving a high demand for trans sex workers, and crowding Craigslist with non-stop pleas for discreet hookups, every guy acts as if the trans women they're seeing is somehow the rare exception. "You just feel like a woman," I've heard a million times, "but you know, most trannies look like men."
What they really mean is, "All my friends know is what they've seen in movies."
It's more than frustrating—it's dangerous. Straight men's fear that other straight men will think they're gay because they're with a trans women leads to violence against trans women. This image of male celebrities in drag is what leads to laws like HB2, which made it a crime for me to use a women's room when I went home to see my family in North Carolina. Every time a cis man gets applauded for bravely portraying a transgender woman on screen, every time he picks up an award for it while sporting a tuxedo, we're reinforcing the belief that at the end of the day, a trans woman is still really a man.
"They said you don't look trans enough," my agent told me over the phone, "What the hell does that mean?"
I laughed. I was finally joining the club that included my friends Angelica Ross, Trace Lysette, Rain Valdez, Jamie Clayton, and Alexandra Grey.
"It means that they want the audience to know the character is trans just by looking at her," I explained, “And in their mind that means a guy in a wig.” In a weird way I felt honored because I had so deeply internalized my culture’s shaming of women who are visibly trans. In my mind “visibly trans” and “attractive woman” were two circles with no overlap—an attitude I’m still working to undo.
But I was now among the many transgender women who don’t look trans "enough" to play trans women. Our little crowd had quite a lineage, though: I was shocked to learn that 40 years earlier, Elizabeth Coffey Williams, a trans actress who had come out of the Warhol factory, was too told she looked “too female” to play real life trans women Elizabeth Eden in the film adaption of Dog Day Afternoon, the story of a man who robs a bank in order to pay for his girlfriend’s gender-confirmation surgery.
Instead the part went to Chris Sarandon. It was his first movie role and it earned him an Oscar nomination.
For trans actors like my friends and I, it's incredibly frustrating. On the one hand, we can’t play entry-level parts that aren’t written as trans, because it never occurs to casting directors that the gender identity of “Unnamed Barista” really isn’t relevant. And then we lose trans parts to men, because we don't read as trans. There's no place for us.
When it was announced a year ago that Matt Bomer would be playing a transgender sex worker in Anything, I was shocked. I had sincerely believed that The Danish Girl was going to be the last instance of a cis man playing trans. I took to Twitter and YouTube to vent my frustration and explain the harm this practice caused. It was an argument that I and others had been making for years, but for whatever reason, it was heard this time. My tweets and video were shared thousands of times and embedded into countless news articles.
It escalated to the point that Mark Ruffalo, Anything's executive producer, felt compelled to comment. The progressive side of social media was largely unified in their condemnation of Bomer’s casting, no matter how beloved he and Mark Ruffalo were.
Of course the film had its defenders. One common counterargument is “well trans women are men.” I had a lot of people spend a lot of time explaining to me how I was just a perverted, mentally ill—and incredibly ugly—man, so why should it should matter if a man play a trans women? But I don’t think anyone associated with the film was eager to endorse that position.
Another was countless variations of “it’s called acting.” This argument was consistently used to defend the right of white men to play absolutely any role imaginable, but never to advocate for anyone else to.
I believe that trans people are better able to perform trans characters than cis actors. That doesn’t mean any trans woman off the street could portray Lili Elbe more convincingly that Eddie Redmayne did, but a trained and experienced trans actress doesn’t have to play trans—she can just focus on playing the character.
Other insist that you can’t cast trans women in films that include pre-transition scenes—as if hair, makeup, wardrobe, special effects, and craft were capable of turning a cis man into a trans woman, but not the reverse. Some go so far as to say it'd be unfair to ask a trans woman to play a pre-transition part, as if actors were assigned parts without consent rather than fighting for the opportunity to dive into multi-faceted roles.
Some, like Jean-Marc Vallée, the director of Dallas Buyers Club, just seem to think there aren’t any trans actors—which was quite laughable to the dozens I know personally. Or that none of us are any good. Again, laughably absurd to those of us with long resumes.
No, the only argument that held water is that there wasn’t a trans actor with enough star power to get a film funded.
That was, and remains, sadly true. But it only really applies to lead roles in films like Anything, which Matt Bomer was precast in. Not to the countless smaller roles the rest of us were vying for. More importantly, for an industry that applauds its social progressivism, it’s a cowardly argument that reflects a preference for profit over principle, even at the expense of the marginalized.
I had a few people tell me that my point of view would result in trans actors only being able to play trans parts, and gay actors only gay parts, etc. I've never claimed there should some kind of rule. I’m an artist, and like most artists I want freedom. And there have been some great performances of trans characters by men and women, cis and trans. It’s not about rules, but consequences.
My main concern in all of this is the lives of transgender women. I believe, and I think I have more direct evidence to support this claim than those who argue against me, that having cis men play trans women is dangerous. If straight men hurting trans women is in any part due to a cultural belief that trans women are really men, then I have a moral imperative to challenge that. And if the public primarily knows trans women from Dallas Buyers Club, The Danish Girl, and Anything, then the public thinks of trans women as men.
This is why I am not as upset by Kerry Washington (Life is Hot in Cracktown), Famke Janssen (Nip/Tuck), or Chloe Sevigny (Hit & Miss) playing trans women. At least they're women offscreen, as well. This is also why I wasn’t as upset by Elle Fanning playing Ray in Three Generations,—there aren’t dozens of trans men being murdered by partners afraid people will think their boyfriends are “really women.” Yes, I would always prefer to see a trans actor play a trans part: Our community needs the work, such opportunities will change the industry, the performances will be more nuanced, and it will have a positive impact on the incredibly fragile lives of trans and gender-nonconforming people.
But my main concern remains the health and safety of at-risk trans women.
“Why did you want a trans woman in this part?” I asked.
I was meeting with Adam Keleman, the writer-director of the film Easy Living. I was confused because I had read the whole script and there was never mention that my character was trans. I was convinced it was going to come up in one scene when a woman awkwardly approaches me in a bathroom, but she ends up asking me about my dress. Why cast me?
“I just always saw the character as trans,” he said, “I’ve got trans friends and they’re just a part of my world.” He went on to say that since the character lived in the same town and had a steady boyfriend, her being trans just doesn’t come up anymore. Adam had seen me in a video online and thought I had the right vibe for the part. The film went on to premiere at SXSW in Austin this year—to rave reviews, I might add.
Adam’s attitude gives me hope, and it’s not just him. I went on to land parts in several other projects where my gender identity is either never mentioned, or it’s just one small aspect of the character. Angelica Ross has a recurring part on TNT’s Claws, in a role that wasn’t written as trans. (They just—surprise!—really liked her for the part.)
Jamie Clayton, Rain Valdez, Trace Lysette, Alexandra Billings, Isis King, Laverne Cox, Michelle Hendley, Scott Turner-Schofield, Ian Harvie, Elliot Fletcher, and many other trans actors have appeared in a variety of roles across platforms over the last few years. Trans filmmakers like The Wachowskis, Sydney Freeland, Zackary Drucker, Rhys Ernst, and Silas Howard continue to work on major projects and often cast trans people in all kinds of parts.
The industry is learning there's a growing audience hungry for broadly inclusive and authentic representation of traditionally marginalized identities. They’re also learning the hard lesson that when projects don’t include input from the communities they represent, they fail—and fail spectacularly. (See: Stonewall.)
I was recently pulled aside by the programmer at an LGBT film festival who told me that the reason they didn’t have many trans films this year was because of my Twitter thread. They were convinced that it's not appropriate to have cis actors playing trans parts, so they won’t program films that engaged in the practice.
Decisions like that, which have an immediate impact on what films get shown, inform casting decisions. Change is happening.
I confess I feel bad for Matt Bomer. We’ve chatted a bit—he’s an exceedingly sweet and charming man, and I loved his performance in The Normal Heart. While I don’t disagree with those who say he should never have taken the part in Anything, I also believe he would have made a different choice if he knew then what he now knows. I think of myself as a good person, but I know I have harmed others, often unwittingly. I learned from it and grew. I’ve extended to Matt that same latitude.
The two most intensively collaborative art forms I know are filmmaking and social change, so I’m far more interested in starting dialogue than making enemies. I’m speaking on this issue now, and loudly, so that the excuse of ignorance can never be made again. Trans women simply can’t afford it.