An open letter to a cisgender friend who excitedly informed me of a part she'd gotten playing a trans* woman in an indie film:
Although I'd originally congratulated you, my conscience wouldn't allow me to leave something unsaid; understand that I think highly of you, as both an actor and as a human being, and that I don't fault you in the least for innocently taking on what promises to be both an interesting and challenging role. That said, I have to admit that when I read your excited pronouncement, I found myself shaking, and that soon after, came tears, nausea, and a level of upset that at first I didn't understand.
The fact is, frankly, it's unacceptable that the creators of your film chose you, a cis woman, to play the part of a trans* character.
Maybe I sound harsh, but hear me out: Time and again, trans* lives are used by popular media as little more than awkward plot devices, or worse, (as in recent episodes of both "Mike & Molly" and "Two and a Half Men",) the punchline of harmful and hurtful jokes; more often than not, we're cast as predators, out to trick unwitting straight men into betraying their heterosexuality. The usual joke goes like this:
Joe Stud meets a gorgeous chick at the bar. The two of them are getting hot and heavy, when suddenly, it turns out that the gorgeous chick has (or had,) a penis. Joe Stud is now a laughingstock, because he fell for a dude, and the whole world knows it. That's right, according to the ever repeated joke, the trans* woman isn't a woman at all; she's, or, "he's" a "dude". Do you see what I'm getting at?
Wait though, it actually gets worse, because you see, as the studio audience (or laugh track or whatever) titters nervously, or groans, or laughs at a character revealed to be trans*, (and the emasculated guy who got duped,) another would-be attacker of a trans* person is validated in his feeling that we're dangerous or even just "icky", that our lives are inherently "less than", and that it's therefore okay that scores of trans* women (and although less frequently, not less notable, trans* men) are killed each year, simply because they're trans*.
Look; I know that you're a good and thoughtful person, and that you'll do your best to play this role with as much sensitivity and understanding as possible; I also know, that had you any understanding of how insensitive and hurtful it is when trans* roles are played by cis actors, you would have never accepted it, but how could you have known? Afterall, you only know me through my Facebook posts since we haven't seen one another since 1985; otherwise, it's more likely than not that your main understanding of trans* lives comes from those aforementioned misrepresentations popular culture is so fond of. You're not trans*, and so you enjoy the privilege of moving through your daily life without ever having to worry about passing, or not passing, or being harassed or arrested for using the restroom consummate with your true gender, or how or when or if to safely "come out" to a prospective romantic or sexual partner. None of these things, nor the myriad of others that sometimes render so many of us trans* folk's lives a neurotic nightmare are issues for you; you're both privileged, and lucky.
Unfortunately, it's because of just that, that it's so inappropriate for you to undertake this role, and so, while I wish you joy and success, I simply can't congratulate you or share in your excitement.