During a recent episode of the Scriptnotes podcast, screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin weighed in on the controversy surrounding Kimberly Peirce, director of the groundbreaking film Boys Don’t Cry, whose lecture at Reed College last month was disrupted by a small group of LGBTQ-allied, student protesters spewing vitriolic hate. When John and Craig rightfully came to Peirce’s defense—who herself identifies as both queer and lesbian—they did so with their patented brand of “double-fisted umbrage.” I took no issue with that.
What I took issue with was their response to the specific concerns those students had been trying to bring to light—not just as booming voices within the Hollywood screenwriting community, but as self-professed LGBTQ allies, themselves.
Please understand that this letter is not in support of the protesters. Their actions were reprehensible. Rather, it is in an argument in support of the fundamental core of their criticisms.
This letter was originally emailed to John and Craig on December 21, 2016—the day after the episode’s release. At John's urging, in the interest of reaching a wider audience, I am publishing it here in its entirety, backdated to that send date.
Consider it a rare excerpt of self-sabotage with a constructive outcome.
A RATHER LONG, OPEN LETTER TO HOLLYWOOD
USING JOHN AUGUST AND CRAIG MAZIN AS PROXIES
Dear John and Craig... and also Hollywood at large,
I am transgender, and at the moment hilariously androgynous. Like, pair of TSA agents playing Rock, Paper, Scissors to decide who should pat you down, androgynous. I am also an aspiring screenwriter. So, uh, suffice it to say, listening to episode 280 of Scriptnotes was a very personal and at times deeply uncomfortable experience.
I see both sides.
As Craig can attest, I was once featured in a three-page challenge, albeit under a different name. As mutual friends, or friends of friends can attest (we run in overlapping circles), I have been listening to your podcast since Day 1.
But this episode made me sick to my stomach. I’ll dive right in.
What Kimberly Pierce did in 1999 with Boys Don't Cry was revolutionary. That is not up for debate. I will forever be thankful to her for that, and see no constructive use for any transgender person to be living that far in the past, especially with the challenges we will face in the next four years. Instead, it is imperative that we, as a community, stand strong and forward-focused—arms firmly interlinked with those of our allies’.
But if that is to happen, we must have allies who wholly understand our plight, and who take full stock of the promise they make when self-professing themselves as such.
I understand the umbrage that you, John and Craig, share as filmmakers—umbrage at the notion that certain actors shouldn’t play certain roles. To a degree, I share that umbrage—it is problematic, black and white thinking that leaves little room for nuance, or the realities of the film industry. But by dismissing such notions out of hand as setting a sweeping, slippery slope precedent—reductio ad absurdum—you both missed an important point those Reed College students were trying to make. I do not blame you for that; the means those students chose to communicate their message was, if true, inexcusable and deconstructive. Few people would be able to hear it over the din of their shouting, unless they knew it intimately already.
Luckily, I am one of those people.
As such, I hope I can convince you that, at its core, the criticism those students were trying to impart is not just a valid one, but one vital to be heard: Hollywood needs to cast more transgender actors and actresses in transgender roles.
In listening to you both unload your double-fisted umbrage on those students, I began to sense a disconnect—as much as you identify as allies, I came to realize that you neither of you are fully aware of the umbrage the transgender community has itself long felt towards the film industry, where, without much of voice to fight back with, and for the better part of the past century, it has watched its stories be co-opted in an almost blackface, minstrel show portrayal of their identities—be it as the butt of a joke, or as some sort of deviant monster, or as the tranny/sex worker/ladyboy trap.
(Yeah, Craig, I’ve seen Hangover II. I’ll hang a lantern on the elephant in the room. I’m not happy about it, but I can actually see the humor in it. I digress.)
Those portrayals have become so common, they are considered the norm—so much so in fact that only now, in 2016, are our cisgender allies starting to realize the damage they cause.
Boys Don’t Cry is not one of those portrayals. It was the first exception to the rule.
Since its release, there have been a handful of other sympathetic, true-to-life transgender characters depicted both in film and television, but this has been more of a drunkenly-placed misstep towards visibility than anything concrete and purposeful, really—and those roles, despite slowly increasing in number, have been both few and far between, and interspersed among an overwhelmingly problematic majority.
Most, in keeping with the minstrel norm, have leant towards "man in a dress syndrome.”
It is self-explanatory.
It is invalidating.
When it premiered some twenty years ago, Will & Grace was groundbreaking. Since its debut, homosexuality has not just become normalized, but has become understood to comprise a much wider array of presentations and identities than the purse-lipped gay man and the butch, tough-talking lesbian. It is as a direct result of its own revolution that the heightened flamboyance of Jack's character often now plays, when viewed today, as an overblown archetype of the male sissy—so much so that upon rewatch it often risks edging into the realm of self-satirization.
A role of that nature, if written in 2016, would almost certainly be critically and socially panned not as borderline offensive, but as utterly uninteresting and quite frankly cliché. That is a testament to progress, and that is the precipice upon which the transgender community now stands.
2016 is our 1998—our cause tends to lag a bit—and we'd like our stories to fully leave the minstrel end of the archetypal spectrum—the proto-Jackian end of things—and strut courageously towards something more positive, affecting, and real. We are close, very close, but there is one last step. And we need your understanding and empathy as allies for it to happen.
(Arguably, 2016 is more our 1996, what with various states set to implement the bathroom version of DOMA under the coming Trump Administration. But that’s beside the point.)
This is where we find ourselves arriving at the issue of cisgender men playing transwomen (a la Eddie Redmayne or Jared Leto or Matt Bomer), or of cisgender women playing transmen (a la Hilary Swank), or even of cisgender women playing transwomen (a la Chloe Sevigny in the British show Hit & Miss).
This is where our cause diverges from the notion of a straight man playing a gay man, or a black British man playing an American slave, or a bunch of Italian men being played by non-Italian men.
This is where your argument against the aforementioned black and white thinking begins to fall apart.
To quote a recent Slate article:
"For some, [Matt] Bomer’s [casting as a transwoman] is a dispiriting continuation of the trend of cis people benefitting from increased public interest in transgender lives—and of cisgender writers and producers exploiting trans stories for prestige. And as trans actress and filmmaker Jen Richards pointed out in a devastating series of tweets, the problem isn’t just that producers give plum acting jobs (and juicy paychecks) to cis men rather than trans women; it’s that this kind of casting puts trans women in physical danger by perpetuating the myth that trans women are men in disguise—a key cause of “trans panic”–type violence."
Please, if you’ve gotten this far, go read Jen Richards’ series of tweets before you read any further. I'm not asking.
I auditioned for this. I told them they shouldn't have a cis man play a trans woman. They didn't care. https://t.co/T7YFe6OeX9— Jen Richards (@SmartAssJen) August 28, 2016
I've made this point in a few interviews, but never on Twitter, so let me lay it out. Reasons not to have cis men play trans women:— Jen Richards (@SmartAssJen) August 28, 2016
First, there's the practical/economic one. It denies actual trans women opportunities, jobs, resources, which hurts entire community.— Jen Richards (@SmartAssJen) August 28, 2016
Then there's an aesthetic. Now, I agree, in principle, that anyone can play anyone. As an artist, I want that kind of freedom myself, but...— Jen Richards (@SmartAssJen) August 28, 2016
Having trans people play trans people allows for more informed, subtle, authentic performance. It makes for BETTER ART, which is the point.— Jen Richards (@SmartAssJen) August 28, 2016
Eddie Redmayne, Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, etc., are great actors, but we, and those who know us, see the difference between them & us.— Jen Richards (@SmartAssJen) August 28, 2016
Cis audiences reward them because they see being trans itself as a performance. Trans actors rather perform THE STORY, not our gender.— Jen Richards (@SmartAssJen) August 28, 2016
But all of this pales to the main reason not to have cis men play trans women. This is the reason that is making me cry as I type this...— Jen Richards (@SmartAssJen) August 28, 2016
It will result in violence against trans women. And that is not hyperbole, I mean it literally. Cis men playing trans women leads to death.— Jen Richards (@SmartAssJen) August 28, 2016
Here's why. I've spent years looking at violence against trans women, particularly who does it & why. I talk to survivors. There's a pattern— Jen Richards (@SmartAssJen) August 28, 2016
Straight men are attracted to trans women. They always have been, always will be. We are some of the most popular sex workers. It's a fact.— Jen Richards (@SmartAssJen) August 28, 2016
BUT they are afraid that being with trans women makes them gay/less masculine. They seek us out, enjoy us, then punish us for their anxiety.— Jen Richards (@SmartAssJen) August 28, 2016
Let's be more direct: They have sex with us, worry that makes them gay, then reassert their masculinity through violence aimed at us.— Jen Richards (@SmartAssJen) August 28, 2016
Back to the point. WHY do men, who aren't attracted to men, who only date women, think being with trans women makes them gay/less masculine?— Jen Richards (@SmartAssJen) August 28, 2016
Because culture as a whole still thinks trans women are "really" men. Decades of showing us that way in shows. It's been internalized.— Jen Richards (@SmartAssJen) August 28, 2016
Again & again cis men play trans women in media with the furthest reach, are rewarded for it, & tell the world trans women are "really" men.— Jen Richards (@SmartAssJen) August 28, 2016
When Jared Leto plays Rayon and accepts his Oscar with a full beard, the world see's that being a trans women is just a man performing.— Jen Richards (@SmartAssJen) August 28, 2016
When @MattBomer plays a trans sex worker, he is telling the world that underneath it all, trans women like me are still really just men.— Jen Richards (@SmartAssJen) August 28, 2016
And that is going to lead to violence. Not to me, likely, but to girls already most at risk. Any cis men who do this have bloody hands.— Jen Richards (@SmartAssJen) August 28, 2016
I'm not some screechy activist. I mean all this literally. It's happening all the time. The stakes are life & death. Our women are dying.— Jen Richards (@SmartAssJen) August 28, 2016
I'm a filmmaker. I hold the freedom of art sacred, but I also recognize its power as a responsibility. We shape perception, we are culpable.— Jen Richards (@SmartAssJen) August 28, 2016
Interestingly, few Conservatives highlight transmen as a category to be feared—invariably peddling instead the hidden dangers of the mythical, violent, pedophilic, transwoman sex-predator who only has eyes for their wives and daughters—but that's a whole other digression into the surprising (and often head-scratching) effects of our society's almost ouroborosian predisposition towards misogyny.
But… this right here is why our situation is different. This is what we need you to internalize.
For far too long, Hollywood has been sending a subconscious message that transgender people are actors, or perverts, and the subconscious message has been heard loud and clear.
Because it is, specifically, this hysterical "trans panic" or "man in a dress syndrome” that is so often cited by Conservatives as the reasoning behind their transphobic bathroom bills.
And it is, specifically, this very type of fear-mongering that Donald Trump in the past year has bent down on all fours, popped a bit in the mouth of, and rode like a horse straight up Pennsylvania Avenue and onto the White House lawn, where, to the surprise of no one, said horse now stands to take a massive, steaming shit on my rights as a transperson—rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of something other than a scummy, unisex bathroom. Also happiness.
On Monday night I spent two hours on the phone with my mother, panicking about whether I should legally change my name now, or later. I, to my benefit, have the luxury of having been born in one of the most liberal and tolerant states in our glorious union: Tennessee. Where a total inability to change my birth marker from Male to Female is quite literally codified into law.
For those not in the know, a U.S. birth certificate, as a means of identification, is one the most powerful documents you can possess.
In our country only one document trumps it: a United States passport.
Historically, the State Department has placed an undue burden on transpeople wanting to change their gender marker, requiring them to have gender confirmation surgery first. Given that surgery is both expensive and risky, and that most transpeople are underemployed due to exclusionary workplace law (hence a higher incidence of sex work as a means of survival), only a fraction of transgender Americans ever qualified to make the simple, single-lettered change. This left many in the dangerous position of being outed as transgender, were they to ever travel overseas, while simultaneously being unable to update the rest of their ID’s at home.
But, during Hillary Clinton's tenure as Secretary of State, a new policy was adopted allowing a transperson to change the gender on his or her passport with little more than letter from a physician stating that "appropriate clinical treatment for gender transition" has been taken. Nothing else.
With your updated passport came your social security card, came your license, came your credit cards, came your financial accounts, came Experian.
With your passport, came your birth certificate’s irrelevance.
So with the Trump administration death marching into the State Department, allow me to admit: I am very fucking afraid.
That is the context of where this letter is coming from. That is where a lot of the fear from a lot of transgender people is coming from right now. It is probably a contributing factor to why those student activists were lashing out, albeit towards a woefully a misplaced target.
Because that policy I just mentioned?
It’s just that: a policy. It’s not a law. It can be undone overnight. And that would be just the beginning. That’s the easy one.
Transgender people are on the cusp of having every right given to them in the past 8 years systematically wiped away, and I promise you, the L, and the G, and the B, are not very far behind. Trump’s cabinet is set to be the most openly anti-LGBTQ in the history of this great nation.
I swear it’s like he’s going for the high score.
I know the causal road between what has happened this year, and what is shown in our cinemas, is a long and circuitous one, and that a litany of other factors are in play, but there is no denying the persuasive power of our industry. There is a reason countries ban American mass media: the concern that the depiction of liberal ideals and concepts of change will imbue its citizens with ideals of their own.
The status quo will forever fear upset.
So what I hope is that Hollywood will realize the power it holds over the minds here at home, too. Just as Hollywood helped normalize the lives of gay and lesbian people by depicting them in authentic, humanizing ways, so too can it normalize the lives of transgender people… not all of whom look like a recent nominee for sexiest man alive. (I’m looking at you, Matt Bomer.)
Throw a rock, John and Craig, and you will hit a transperson (don’t actually do this please). I bet there are more of us than you would think, especially in Los Angeles. Not only do transpeople frequently migrate to cities, which tend to be more tolerant, but many find comfort in the arts from a young age, where they can pursue a side themselves that would be otherwise unsafe to display as “real.”
Of course, when you are forced for most of your formative life to play a character by society, you tend to get pretty good at roles. Trust me on this—we are all unpaid pros.
Some of the transpeople you’ll find might be pre-transition, burgeoning, new… some might be mid-transition, and may not now or ever “pass,” perennially stuck in that stigmatized in-between… and some might pass so well, in either direction, that it confuses the motherfuck out of a pair of TSA agents in the middle of Bradley International Airport.
And some transpeople? Some hit the genetic lottery—and those are the ones you will never, ever know, because they are finally free.
When you cast transgender characters, more must be taken into account than the expedience of time, or who might be talented enough to win best actor. Whether we like it or not, the subtle messages sent by our artistic choices have an insidious, real-world effect on people actively living transgender narratives day in and day out.
If all Hollywood shows is a man in a dress, an actor on stage to collect his Oscar—what bravery he must have had, to willingly take on that role for a day—then all the world will see is a man in a dress, too.
So now the question is: what, if anything, will be done moving forward to mitigate the damage already caused? As we head into the next four years and beyond, I hope Hollywood will come to understand its obligation to do right by the transgender community—that its role as a booming mouthpiece cannot just be about telling our stories. That it must be about normalizing the actual, breathing bodies and presentations of the people who actively live them.
And, John and Craig, as storytellers and self-professed allies, it is incumbent upon on you to understand that sometimes a story is not all that is being told—that our needs as transgender people will often differ from the other minority groups Hollywood chooses to depict.
We are a vast tapestry of varying visibilities and intersectional experiences—there is no one-size fits all. And that? That deserves some visibility of its own. Our very lives depend on it.
Anything less is an empty promise.
I hold no animosity whatsoever towards either John or Craig. They're still my favorites. They know that. This was just the first time in listening to this podcast (after five years!) that I've had the authority to offer up a rebuttal to their arguments. You wouldn't be reading this letter if they hadn't reacted so positively. Speaking of positivity...
Scriptnotes is a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. It is fantastic. It gets upwards of 100,000 listeners per week. If you aren't already, you should make yourself one of them.
If you'd like to check out the episode this open letter served as a response to, that would be #280: Black List Boys Don't Cry. The exact segment can be found from 13:41-33:52. I'd recommend listening in full.
The tweets I embedded in this post were from Jen Richards, who you should probably follow on Twitter if you dug what she had to say.
The Slate article I pulled that quote from was "Is It Ever OK to Cast a Cisgender Actor in a Transgender Role?" It is absolutely worth reading in full.
Finally, if you've even made it this far, I would be absolutely chuffed if you checked out the rest of my blog. It is nothing like this letter. (Bask in my shame.)
If you'd like to follow me on Twitter, or have something pithy you want to scream in all caps, I am @Solheimasandur.
For longer messages, you can email me from my contact page. If you're a Trump supporter currently seething with rage, I look forward to your forthcoming test of my Gmail filters. But hopefully you're just someone with something nice to say.