Why Transgender Actors Should ALWAYS Play Transgender Roles

by Amber Leventry
Originally Published: 
Taylor Hill / Getty

You may have seen that Scarlett Johansson has removed herself from the role of trans-masculine person Dante “Tex” Gill in the upcoming movie Rub & Tug, which is based on Gill’s life. This was after much backlash for her unapologetic acceptance of a role she has no business playing. She is no longer going to be playing Gill, a popular Pittsburgh women’s massage parlor owner who lived as a man. Their obituary in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette indicated Gill was “the woman who prefers to be known as a man.” While I appreciate Johansson’s decision to walk away from playing the role of a transgender person, she should not have taken it in the first place.

If Hollywood really wants to tell important and beautiful stories of transgender people, it should hire transgender actors. I get that all actors are playing roles; they are playing dress up and make believe. They are pretending to be someone else. But when it comes to portraying people, their stories, and their identities, an actor should represent the role in an authentic way. When it comes to transgender characters, a cisgender actor pretending to be transgender strips away the validity of a transgender person’s identity and who they are as humans.

To have a woman play a transgender man is a slap in the face. Transgender men are not playing a part in life. They are not playing dress up; they are not acting like men. Transgender men are men. The same goes for transgender women. A cisgender woman playing a trans woman cannot bring the same tension or truth to the role as a transgender woman.

Not that transgender people are deviants or pornographic—far from it—but packaging transgender characters in cisgender actors is kind of like lesbian porn. Those aren’t real lesbians, the sex isn’t real sex, and oh, by the way, it’s made for straight men. Cisgender folks playing transgender roles are for the mainstream; they are meant to make something (which is already amazing, fuck you very much) seem palatable to the masses.

Oh and as a reminder you shouldn’t need, transgender actors are actors. They should not be forced to always play the role of being trans. They are men, women, and fluid folks who can take on roles that reach far beyond this one label and this one piece of themselves.

When initially forced to respond to the negative feedback about her acceptance of the role of Tex, Johansson said this through her representative: “Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment.”

Thanks for taking the money but not the time to respond in a thoughtful and respectful way, Scarlett. This is just another glaring example of Johansson’s inability to do her homework on subjects she knows nothing about.

Both Tambor and Huffman have said they think trans roles should be played by trans actors. Huffman played transgender woman Bree Osbourne in Transamerica and Tambor played transgender woman Maura Pfefferman in Transparent. Huffman was nominated for an Oscar for her role in Transamerica. In a 2014 interview, Huffman said, “I certainly understand the sentiment that a trans actor should play a trans role. And I support it.”

Tambor won an Emmy for his portrayal of Osbourne. He said this in his acceptance speech: “To you people out there, you producers and network owners, and agents, and you creative sparks, please give transgender talent a chance. Give them auditions. Give them their story. Do that. And also, one more thing: I would not be unhappy were I the last cisgender male to play a female transgender on television.”

He also went on to say how his role as a trans woman changed his life. That’s all well and good, but what about the lives of transgender people? Yes, transgender people need to be represented. Their stories need to be heard. But it’s bullshit that a cisgender person’s career was improved because they got to hide behind the safety of playing a role they can never fully understand.

Cisgender actors are winning awards, being praised, and told how brave they are when they take on such “important roles” of transgender characters on television shows and box office movies. These actors feel a sense of responsibility and pride to tell stories that don’t belong to them.

Yet there are transgender actors who could and should play these roles. And there are real life transgender people who are harassed, rejected, hurt, and killed for being themselves. Being transgender is not an act. To call a cisgender person brave because they act transgender is ridiculous when there are actual transgender people who can’t come in and out of a role as their confidence and safety dictate. Those are the brave ones in this story.

Being who you really are in the face of discrimination and constant onslaught of being told you are not “normal” or “right” takes courage. There is no ability to take off a disguise at the end of each day, to go let go of the act and be “normal” again. Transgender people are born the way they are; they deserve to represent themselves and tell their stories in trans acting roles.

No one can speak to the experiences of everyone, but a transgender actor has a much better chance of making change in this world on the topic of gender and identity than a cisgender actor. If he or she is able to make the masses fall in love with an actual transgender person, or at least become relatable, then more of society can flex their muscles of love and acceptance.

After enough pressure, Johansson took a step back and said this: “While I would have loved the opportunity to bring Dante’s story and transition to life, I understand why many feel he should be portrayed by a transgender person, and I am thankful that this casting debate, albeit controversial, has sparked a larger conversation about diversity and representation in film.”

I honestly have a hard time believing she really feels this way, because if it wasn’t for the negativity she never would have turned down the role. My hope is that this will be a lesson to other cisgender actors in the future. Instead of taking roles you shouldn’t play, take a step back and be better allies and advocates for transgender people and the LGBTQ community.

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