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Trans Visibility in Media & the Importance of Authentic Storytelling

Jared Leto in 'Dallas Buyers Club'

For the past 2 years, the trans community has been experiencing high levels of visibility from the surge of celebrities, politicians, musicians and model appearances on mainstream platform. 

Asia Kate Dillon is the first non-binary gender actor to be casted in a major television series. Laverne Cox broke barriers by being the first trans actress to be casted in a role that is not written for a trans character. Trans actors are appearing across all major television networks. 

Related | CBS Drama Doubt Puts Laverne Cox in Stylish Position of Power

The trans movement is, what many have labeled, "having a moment." However, visibility does not always equate to progress. 

Every year in the community, we set aside a day, Transgender Day of Remembrance, to memorialize those who have been murdered, and lost to suicide. Since its inception in 1999, there have been an average of 12 deaths annually, yet in the past two years, this number have doubled. 

In 2016, we have had a record high of losing 25 members of the trans community and as of March this year, there are already eight murders, most of which were trans women of color. And with incredible amounts of violence in the wake of incredible amounts of success, many of us are left wondering why a high level of visibility in the media doesn’t equate to wider acceptance and safety for the community?

Related | 8 Trans Women of Color Have Been Murdered in 2017

As we see culture only showing folks like us more and more, it seems the answer lies in the type of visibility we are given. More plainly spoken, how trans folks are represented is a matter of life and death for us. 

In 2016, two Hollywood productions got underway featuring the stories of transgender women: Anything and The AssignmentAnything follows the well-worn Hollywood tradition of casting a cisgender man, Matt Bomer, in the overplayed trope of a trans sex worker. The Assignment casted a cisgender woman, Michelle Rodriguez, as the lead with a problematic premise of a being hit man who undergoes a forced sexual reassignment surgery and is out for revenge, depicting a false view to what many consider is a life-saving procedure. 

Related | Michelle Rodriguez & Sigourney Weaver Star in Controversial Trailer for The Assignment

Each film sets off alarm bells for trans folks and since then, there is yet to be another Hollywood film that will feature a trans story or a trans character. This fact was part of what led trans actress Jen Richards to put the lack of on-screen representation of trans stories in very simple terms: "Cis men playing trans women leads to death," Richards said on Twitter.  Straight men are attracted to trans women. But they are afraid that being with trans women makes them gay, less masculine. They seek us out, enjoy us, then punish us for the anxiety. Let’s be more direct: They have sex with us, worry that makes them gay, then reassert their masculinity through violence aimed at us."

According to a GLAAD study conducted in 2015, only 16% of Americans claim to personally know a trans-person. The majority of the public still receives information about trans people based primarily on what is portrayed in the media. 

When audiences sees cis men cast in overplayed tropes of trans roles, such as Jared Leto as a sex worker in Dallas Buyer’s Club or Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl, whose story line revolves around sexual reassignment surgery, three beliefs will be formed. 

One is that being transgender is simply a performance. Second is that underneath it all, trans people are lying about who they are and that trans women are really men and vice versa. Third is that potential stories to be told about a trans person are limited to overplayed tropes. As a result of these beliefs, there are very real consequences, and the casting of cis actors in trans roles leads to the further erasure of trans people and their deaths. 

Related | Ellen Page & Janet Mock on Visibility & Their Mission to Change Our World

A famous case involved Joseph Scott Pemberton, a U.S. Marine, who used the trans panic defense. This defense rationalizes that the perpetrator was so panicked when they learned someone they found attractive was trans, that they killed them out of surprise. Pemberton claimed in 2014 that he killed transgender Filipina Jennifer Laude out of repulsion and should therefore be innocent of his crime. Although he was eventually sentenced to serving time, the use of trans panic defense is only banned in California and is still widely used in many states. 

Another case in September 2016 detailed the murder of trans woman Dee Whigham. The autopsy report showed she was stabbed more than 119 times all over her body—100 times in her face. The suspect is a military reserve officer who visited her hotel room.

Under this new administration, it is an understatement to say the trans community has been experiencing substantial setbacks with the transphobic rhetoric used in favor of anti-trans bills and the supreme court’s decision to send Gavin Grimm’s case back to appeals court. When lawmakers and voters see cis actors playing trans roles, it justifies their decision to further ostracize trans rights as it leads them to make the wrong conclusion that trans people are just lying about who they are. 

Related | SCOTUS Sends Gavin Grimm’s Case Back to Lower Court

The only way to overcome the notion of the “us versus them” and the fear-based mentality towards the trans community is to tell humanizing stories that reflect our lived reality. 

Trans representations on-screen deserve to be complex, nuanced and most importantly explored. Accurate representation matters because not only are people from the community looking towards the media for evidence that we exist and matter, but so are those from outside the community.

To echo what Jeffrey Tambor said in his Emmy acceptance speech: "I would not be unhappy if I were the last cisgender male to play a female transgender on television, we have work to do."

Yes we do.

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