Content warning: discussion of trans misogyny
Mark Ruffalo’s casting of Matt Bomer as a trans woman in his soon to be released film Anything has received a lot of negative feedback from the trans community, including such stars as Jamie Clayton and Jen Richards. These criticisms are justified because, as Jen Richards points out, there is a correlation between cis men portraying trans women and spikes in violence against trans women. When we say this, we are not exaggerating. The more Hollywood is willing to foist the idea that a man in a dress is comparable to a trans woman, the greater the violence trans women face because it gives fuel to the lies told about them and creates justification in the minds of bigots and those who act with violence.
In breaking down this connection, we should begin by addressing the dramatic increase in legislation designed to outlaw being transgender and in many cases to systematicly impede or prevent the transitions of trans women. “Bathroom bills” primarily target trans women because most people believe trans women are just perverted men. The rhetoric always revolves around preventing those psychologically ill men from gaining access to to women’s spaces where they will rape and prey on “real” women and girls. North Carolina governor McCrory and Senator Ted Cruz have openly compared transgender women to pedophiles. Liberty Counsel president Anita Staver threatened to carry a gun with her into the women’s room to protect herself from trans women. Representative Richard Floyd has threatened to physically assault trans women and James Dobson, the Christian head of Focus on the Family has encouraged the murder of trans women. Often these people blame Hollywood for propagating the acceptance of “men in dresses” and they point to films’ casting cis men to play predatory and pathetic trans women as proof of the “man in a dress” myth. They use Hollywood’s depictions as part of their justification toward legal and physical violence.
This attitude goes beyond the laws we make and impacts how we enforce existing laws, as well. Specifically how cases in which a trans woman has been assaulted or murdered are handled. In the United States legal system, people (typically straight, cis men) can and often do claim murdering trans women is not their fault because the mere thought of a trans woman existing is so horrifying to them that it produces a temporary insanity that results in a violent, destructive response to this “man in a dress.” It is called Trans Panic Defense and is based on the idea that a trans woman’s existence is such an unnatural perversion that the only psychologically sound response to the revelation is to murder them. Hollywood has often depicted this faux psychological break in its films. Whether it is shown as a serious, relatable response as in the attack on Dil in The Crying Game (1992) or played for a cheap laugh as when Ace Ventura strips Lt. Lois Einhorn in Ace Ventura (1994) and everyone vomits. Ironically, even though Hollywood helped popularise this defense tactic, California is the only state where its use is not permissable in court.
Hollywood’s casting decisions and portrayls even impact the occurance of crimes against trans women. Straight men attack and murder trans women because they cannot reconcile their attraction to a woman of transgender background to the social perception that trans women are men. Straight men are afraid their attraction makes them gay so they respond with violence to prove their straight masculinity to themselves and others. Because of films like Soapdish (1991) where Robert Downy Jr gags after his encounter with a trans woman, Naked Gun 33 1/3: the Final Insult (1994) where Anna Nicole Smith’s striptease reveals a penis and results in a freak out by her suitors, and The Hangover Part II (2011) in which Ed Helms has sex with a transgender prostitute who is depicted as having taken advantage of his drunken state, straight men are taught to fear trans women as deciving gay men tricking straight men into gay sex. The casting of cis men as trans women reinforces this type of thinking. Mark Ruffalo’s casting of Matt Bomer, a gay, cis man, will doubly do so. In Anything the straight main character forms a taboo relationship with a transgender sex worker portrayed by a gay man. How did Ruffalo think this would be read by a primarily straight audience? Did he consider what the result of the this choice would be?
In reality, the violence that results from straight men’s fear of being duped into gay sex is not after an unexpected physical reveal moments before the sex act. In cases of assault and murder a trans woman has not “surprised” him in the bedroom. This reaction plays out in straight men (and sometimes women) who have seen a trans woman on the street and freaked out. It plays out when a straight man is attracted to a woman and their buddy mocks them for “being fooled” by a “man in a dress.” In these situations they are responding with violence against someone they often have not even talked with.
This happened in May of 2014 on an Atlanta train where two trans women were stripped and beaten. They were being harrassed by straight men, men who saw them and could not reconcile their appearance to the ideal of attractive femininity, men who saw them as gay men in dresses. The men began harassing the trans women on the station platform, demanding the women acknowledge them, reveal their “real” gender, and describe their genitals. On board the train, where the women could not get away, the men stripped them naked and beat them. They did this in front of witnesses. The witnesses did nothing to intervene. The witnesses laughed at the stripped and beaten trans women, filmed their assault, and posted it to social media. The response to this was that the trans women deserved to be attacked because they were men tricking people into believing they were a women. When Hollywood casts men to play women (because trans women are women) they support and (intentionally or not) encourage people to view trans women as men. There is a direct correlation between the depiction, the belief, and the action.
When straight, cis actor Jared Leto was seen in Dallas Buyers Club (2013) as a trans woman, there was a spike in violence against trans women like what occurred in Atlanta. When straight, cis actor Eddie Redmayne was seen in The Danish Girl (2015) as a trans woman, there was a spike in violence against trans women; 2015 turned out to be the deadliest year on record for American trans women. Now, when gay, cis actor Matt Bomer is about to be seen as a trans woman in Anything, we steel ourselves for another spike in violence against trans women. Through its casting decisions, Hollywood is complicit in this violence. Through its casting decisions, Hollywood has blood on its hands. But the actors, directors, producers, and casting agents who make these decisions care more about the money to be made than the lives to be lost. It is profitable and brave to cast a man as a woman of transgender background in a way that it is not profitable or brave to cast a man as woman of cis background.
On a personal level, I am afraid of the fallout these decisions have. I am teaching at a school where I am stealth, I have not divulged my transgender status to anyone and the adults and children there read me as a cis woman. What happens to me if someone begins to question that? What happens to me if someone begins to wonder if I am not a cis woman? Based on the lived experiences of others trans women and based on my own experiences, what happens is violence. At the very least it will be verbal violence but at the most the violence is unfathomable. Before I was living authenticly, I was afraid of what would happen to me if others found out who I was. Once I transitioned, I was afraid of what would happen to me (and afraid of those things that did happen to me) because it was obvious who I was. Now that I live quietly stealth, I am afraid of what will happen to me should anyone discover or even suspect my past.
To live as a trans woman in America pre, mid, or post transition is to live in fear. Watching Hollywood reinforce the idea that trans women are disturbed men in dresses heightens that fear. This is why we callout casting decisions that reinforce bigotry and violence. This is why we need our cis friends and allies to take casting decisions seriously and to callout the poor choices being made. It is literally a matter of safety for us.