I'm writing this as a cisgender straight woman, so I recognize my limitations in writing something about the trans community. However, I attended a panel at Salt Lake Comic Con called Feminism, Queer Counter Culture, and Non-Compliance and what transpired during that conversation was important to relate. One of the panelists was Lucas Fowler, a trans man living in Salt Lake City. While I try to stay informed and open-minded about various communities, I still have blind spots, and that is the very definition of privilege.
With the recent news about Matt Bomer being cast as a trans woman in the film Anything, the panel was especially enlightening and relevant to what occurs now, and what has been occurring for years. While cisgender straight people are in recent years becoming more aware of issues surrounding representation in the media and pop culture, the LGBT community has been working for it for years and years.
A common argument used for casting cisgender actors for transgender roles is that they aren't experienced enough to do a good job. But, as Fowler points out, when transgender actors aren't cast as cisgender characters, or even transgender roles, how can they improve? And besides that, how often does the film industry give untested actors a big break? Fairly regularly. Daisy Ridley has now become almost a household name thanks to The Force Awakens, but before that? She was largely an unknown. The same opportunities must be given to trans actors.
One of the most striking things Fowler said was, "[Casting cisgender actors as trans characters] is so akin to blackface... erasing the culture and experience of that culture." He added that there are so many experiences and perspectives trans actors can add to a role that a cisgender actor just can't fathom. To cast a trans actor in a trans role will only make the performance better because a trans actor can draw on their own lived hardships, joys, triumphs, and sorrows. And when asked if casting cisgender women is better than casting cisgender men Fowler responded, "In terms of levels, it's an improvement. But it's still not OK."
Another component of casting cisgender men to play transgender women is the violence it perpetuates. When a cisgender man is cast as a transgender woman, it essentially says that trans women are merely men in drag. But that is an absolute lie. Trans women are women, plain and simple. As Fowler put it, "A trans women is never a man in drag."
The idea that trans women are men in drag is such a dangerous and violent one because of the intersection of homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny. Fowler highlighted the Trans Panic Defense as something people use to justify murder and violence against trans people. An example of this is, a cisgender man discovers his date is a trans woman and in anger murders her. He cites temporary insanity at discovering his date is "actually a man" and justifies the murder. Trans and gay panic have been banned as defenses in California, but are still technically legal in all other states.
And it is this violence, this trans panic, that Jen Richards heart wrenchingly described on her Twitter feed. Many straight, cisgendered men often feel emasculated when they discover they are attracted to, and have even had sex with, trans women. They view trans women as men in drag. They feel justified in their violence and perpetuate that violence against an already vulnerable community. Thus homophobia, transphobia, misogyny.
After the backlash against casting Matt Bomer as a trans woman, Mark Ruffalo responded with compassion, which is a step but it's not enough. We need a cultural shift that stops viewing trans women as men. We need to give the trans community the same rights, opportunities, and safety granted to the cis community. It won't be enough until the only actors considered for trans roles are trans actors.