WASHINGTON, February 12, 2014 —Recently there was a huge debate about Jared Leto’s role in Dallas Buyers Club. His speech sparked a dialogue about the state of trans voices in cinema, a dialogue trans actresses in theater have been having for ages. Social Media hotly debated whether the movie could have been made without Leto, whether it would have been successful without him, and if there were any trans actresses who could have done what he did.
One of the most heart breaking comments for transwomen was that they should simply be happy and grateful that their stories are even being told, as if we should be joyous enough to cook the meal and only eat the scraps.
That comment is steeped in the history of the trans and LGBQ voices in Western Education.
Education is not just about what you read in books but about the symbols, modes of communications, and language inherent in every piece of our sensory vernacular. Dolls, unspoken cues, media, and books all play a part in the shaping of a young person’s mind. When I am bombarded with questions of whether or not I find it acceptable that a cisgender (identifies as the sex they were born as) heterosexual man plays a trans woman on screen, I respond with a strong “No.” Part of the reason for my answer is that if we say “yes,” then we as an entertainment and artistic community send the message that it is ok to commodify trans women and yet deny them a say or role in their own representation.
My opinion about this can be traced in my upbringing. My celebration and learning of black historical figures in its full array was juxtaposed with the lack of black and LGBTQ voices in academia. My scholastic life found me burning with a desire for more. And even though my personal studies fed one aspect of my being, there was another part of me that could not readily find representation: my trans identity.
This lack of trans visibility during childhood is due to a number of factors, including the fact that many trans women were taken by the crisis. One day, my uncle’s friends were around and the next day they were not. So, like many American children, I had no trans folk who I could look to as I grew up.
Secondly, it was the 80s/90s and there was not as much understanding about trans identity in western medicine as there is now.
Lastly, society had attempted to silence trans voices within art and culture.
It is no secret but there has been a systemic erasure of the voices throughout history of women, people of color, and LGBTQ people.
In traditional history lessons of greats like of Langhston Hughes, rarely was his sexuality discussed. Even in instances in which sexuality and gender were of utmost importance in shaping what we were studying, a key component of the artist truth was ignored, silenced, and often avoided.
The paradigm that colonist instilled in the unspoken vernacular of image and “right” attempts, time and time again to take the artistry of the person without honoring their truth.
In ancient culture, those who we would now consider trans, gender queer, gay and lesbian were often maligned by those historians who would comment on them at all. And nowhere in the teaching of American History in high school or even in universities do we see their voices acknowledged, let alone mentioned even though, they were essential to their societies.
We live in a world in which suicide rates are high, in a world in which violence against trans women still goes unpunished, in a world in which the erasure of the contributions and truths of many marginalized people still happens in academia, in a world in which skin lightener is a reality and in many world history classes the beauty of African civilizations go unnoticed.
In a country in which we like to feed into our children the motto that “anything is possible” while telling many of our children they are not good enough to play themselves on screen or tell their own stories, it is necessary for us to fight for our own spaces.
It is necessary for some of us to take the risk and use our influence, money, and power to offer possibilities to others.
Laverne Cox, a transgender actress, talked about being a possibility model, not a role model. She talks about opening doors through being in a space.
Jared Leto playing a trans woman does not open doors for trans women. In fact, it instead is reflective of a part of a long line of heterosexual men who are allowed to put on the adornments of a character and then take it off after their performance while gifted transactresses who can bring trans characters to life are denied roles.
We as a community have to love the risk takers, activist like Ruby Corado who saved trans sisters from a lifetime of living on the streets. She opened doors for them in DC for years and now has the amazing Casa Ruby a “division of [email protected] en Accion that is a multicultural center and safe space serving the Latino LGB & Transgender communities of any race, color, or economic background in Washington, DC, MD, VA.”
We have to be risk takers and like Janet Mock, when we can, stand boldly in the face of media and declare who we are.
And as a society, we have to stop trying to pretend that the erasure and silencing of people within fields of artistry, history, and life does not equate to and stem from systems of oppression and false paradigms of what we have been taught is “right.”
Transgender model Carmen Carrerra on the catwalk. Will Carrera be the first transgender model for Victoria’s Secret?