Hiring Cis Actors for Trans Roles Isn’t Progressive

The representation of transgender people is slowly growing in the pop culture landscape, with various attempts at depicting trans lives in a variety of settings. It’s leading to the rise of actresses like Laverne Cox and Carmen Carrera, a much more high-profile discussion about transphobia, discrimination, and what it means to be transgender. While pop culture depictions of the trans experience are often extremely limited, and still more often filled with stereotypes, there’s a cultural shift happening, and there’s room (in the minds of optimists, at least) for a future of quality representations of the trans community, and for a broadening of those reputations.

However, there’s a glaring problem with most trans reputations in pop culture right now: The majority of trans roles are played by cis people. Disgustingly, many producers and creators claim that their productions are progressive and transgressive because they include transgender people; effectively, trans characters are being added to increase the diversity quotients and the progressive bona fides. However, creators don’t want to go so far as to actually give these roles to transgender people, which just goes to show how superficial their commitment to progressive media and transgressive depictions really is.

There are numerous arguments in defense of cis people in trans roles, and I am, quite frankly, over them. I was over them when they were used back in the day and I’m even more over them now, because rebuttals to these arguments are public and readily available. Producers and creative teams really cannot claim ignorance at this point, not when people are discussing the issue everywhere and not when trans people are actively campaigning against the repeated casting of cis people in trans roles.

But we need to depict the character pre-transition! Okay, well, trans actors are actually actors, and they are capable of depicting people pre-transition. If you think cis people can act in a trans role, it makes no sense that you think trans people can’t act in a pre-transition role, given your limited understanding of how gender and identity works (hint: trans people don’t miraculously flip genders). There’s a naked hypocrisy here, where the justification conflicts directly with the casting decision. A trans woman can use her acting skills, makeup, and other talents to depict the more masculine traits that might be present in a trans character pre-transition — and, for that matters, the focus on transition brings up a whole new can of worms.

Why are you so obsessed with transition? The vast majority of trans people are out living their lives. Yet, media and pop culture tend to focus specifically on transition; both a single, specific definition of transition and transition stories. They don’t want to know about the lives of trans people in general, they want to know about ‘what it’s like’ to make a public transition. This is a story filled with bathos in pop culture. Notably, most stories focus on trans women, and they come with a reek of transmisogyny. There’s the ‘men in dresses’ stereotyped paired with an unhealthy interest in whether trans women opt for gender confirmation surgery and other treatments. For the media, there’s only one form of transition, and any trans people who haven’t adhered to that narrative aren’t ‘really’ trans. The deliberate and repeated focus on transition narratives leaves out a huge swath of the trans experience.

But no trans actors auditioned! I find this highly improbable. There’s lots of great trans acting talent, including people who are specifically out as trans in addition to people who have chosen not to disclose this aspect of their identity for a variety of reasons. What seems more likely is that casting calls and promotionals failed to disclose the fact that a role was trans, or didn’t specifically identify an interest in trans actors for trans roles. What’s even more likely is that trans actors were discriminated against at casting for not having the right ‘look,’ because producers and casting directors have a very specific notion of what transgender people look like.

If you want to claim that no trans actors auditioned, support trans people in Hollywood. Trans actors and other creative talent continually get short shrift despite trying to wedge the door of Hollywood open. Those with power should be promoting trans talent, mentoring trans actors, and providing an environment where trans actors feel welcomed, safe, and equal to their cis counterparts. If trans actors don’t show up to a casting call, have another casting call. If you want trans actors in trans roles, make sure that’s explicit in casting information and reach out to agents who represent trans talent.

But we needed a big name to anchor the production! No. Just no. It’s great that you want to have productions starring transgender people instead of using them as supporting characters — though when you’re clearly just doing it for attention and progressive street cred, it’s nauseating. But you don’t need big names in anchor and major roles. Plenty of productions do just fine without Hollywood big names, and in fact lesser-known actors can help a production get a bit of cult status, in addition to building those actors up. You have an opportunity to hire an actor who’s not as big and get in on the ground level of a great career. Hire big name actors in supporting roles. Take a risk.

If you’re afraid audiences won’t show up for a production with a trans main character, why did you make the main character trans? You’re effectively admitting that you only included a trans role for the attention, not because you genuinely wanted to tell a trans story — and again, it’s usually a story of transition. If you want big talent in a main role, don’t write the role as trans unless you plan on reaching out to a well-known trans actor. Or consider the fact that costars are a thing and plenty of big name cis actors would be perfectly comfortable acting opposite a trans costar (after all, acting with a trans person increases a cis actor’s own progressive bona fides. Sigh.).

It’s time to start labeling the casting of cis actors in trans roles as what it is: Transphobia, and usually transmisogyny. It’s also time to start refusing to support media with cis actors in trans roles, and to stop calling it progressive. That’s the only way to get producers to learn that we’re not interested in what they’re trying to sell.

Image: Russian Super-8 Camera, Kraetzsche, Flickr