The controversy over Jared Leto’s Oscar win neglects the bigger issue

Not only do trans actors get sidelined for roles, but trans roles tend to be very narrow

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It’s rare for a Best Supporting Actor winner to get more media attention that those winning the ‘big’ awards. Over the past three days, Jared Leto has been the subject of features and opinion pieces in most major newspapers and has found himself at the centre of an internet storm.

This centres on his casting as a trans woman, his performance in the role and his subsequent comments on it. At Trans Media Watch, the charity I chair, we’ve actually seen very mixed reactions, with some trans people furious and some very pleased by what they’ve seen. What has been missing from much of the debate, however, is an awareness that Leto’s work is complicated by context.

Challenged over his casting in Dallas Buyers Club at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Leto responded by saying that if a man like him couldn’t play a trans woman then a gay person couldn’t play a straight part. On the surface of it this is a fair point. Actors, after all, are there to act — I’m pretty sure Henry Cavill can’t really leap tall buildings in a single bound and if Richard E Grant had ever drunk like Withnail he’d be dead by now.

But this is where things get complicated, because the reality is trans people who come out simply don’t get to play non-trans characters. A SAG-AFTRA survey conducted last Autumn found that 16 per cent of openly LGBT actors in Hollywood have experienced discrimination, with trans people getting the worst of it. Over half said they had witnessed homophobic and transphobic behaviour on set. Most of the closeted trans actors we speak to say they intend to stay that way. Often those who live openly say they only get offered trans roles, even when one wouldn’t guess they were trans to look at them.

Where are the trans roles? This is another part of the problem. When they happen, they are usually foregrounded, often swooned over by the Academy due to the assumption that it must be the ultimate test of skill to pretend to be the ‘opposite’ gender (even though trans people still living in their birth roles do it every day). They are always an issue — Hollywood simply doesn’t create space for characters whose gender is a secondary aspect of who they are — at least, not unless they are sex workers (Risky Business, The Hangover: Part II), serial killers (Psycho, Dressed to Kill, The Silence of the Lambs) or tragic victims (Soldier’s Girl and previous Oscar-winner Boys Don’t Cry).

There are certainly real trans women like Leto's colourful Rayon, and by my recollection there were more of them back in the eighties when a shortage of role models meant many people found acceptance by clinging to stereotypes. But when people like her are the only trans women we see in films — and the only trans women most people are aware of at all — the result is profoundly othering. Most trans people are really pretty ordinary, raising families, working as cashiers or police officers or (to the horror of Norman Tebbit) even pilots. Why can’t we see them on the screen? If Hollywood really wants to prove its liberal credentials, make room for trans people within the cinematic landscape.

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