By Parker Marie Molloy
Originally published on Advocate.com February 06 2014 2:21 PM ET
During the Santa Barbara International Film Festival's Virtuosos Award presentation Tuesday, actor Jared Leto found himself the target of a heckler. Leto, star of the Oscar-nominated film Dallas Buyers Club, has received wide praise — and criticism — for his role as a transgender woman named Rayon.
"Transmisogyny does not deserve an award," an unidentified woman shouted from the audience. Leto, who was apparently unfamiliar with the term, coined in Julia Serano's 2007 book, Whipping Girl, which essentially refers to misogyny-fueled transphobia against transgender women, engaged the audience member.
"What do you mean by that?" Leto asked from the stage.
The woman in the audience responded: "You don't deserve an award for portraying a trans woman, because you're a man."
"Because I'm a man, I don't deserve to play that part?" Leto asked in response. "So you would hold a role against someone who happened to be gay or lesbian — they can't play a straight part? Then you've made sure people that are gay, people that aren't straight, people like the Rayons of the world, would never have the opportunity to turn the tables and explore parts of that art."
The crowd reportedly burst into applause at Leto's response, though the heckler did raise an interesting question: why didn't the role go to a transgender actress? In Dallas Buyers Club, the audience is led to believe that Rayon, a transgender woman, is sexually attracted to men. This would mean that Rayon is straight, contrary to what Leto said in his off-the-cuff response.
That point aside, some contend that attempting to draw a comparison between the lack of roles awarded to transgender actors and asking whether cisgender (nontrans) straight actors should be allowed to play gay characters isn't necessarily an accurate comparison. As noted by LGBT activist Juliet Jacques at The Guardian, "I cannot recall one out trans person playing a mainstream cisgender role, so their only entry may be in playing trans roles."
It's become commonplace to see gay actors playing straight roles, and for straight actors to play gay roles. Even so, trans actors are often limited to transgender roles, and more often than not, the roles they're able to find paint them as dead bodies, villains, or sex workers.
Laverne Cox, arguably the world's most well-known transgender actress, has repeatedly found herself fulfilling those types of small-scale appearances. Her first roles on scripted television included a 2008 appearance on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and a 2009 appearance on the HBO series Bored to Death, in which her character is billed simply as "Transsexual Prostitute." Had she not made a name for herself on reality TV shows like I Want to Work for Diddy and Transform Me, there's no telling whether or not she would have risen to be the household name she is today.
In the rare instances where large-scale transgender characters are written into a script, the roles often go to cisgender actors like Leto, Hillary Swank, or Felicity Huffman. As those roles are typically seen as possible stepping-stones to larger roles, many believe it's unfortunate that trans actors are often excluded from the casting process.
Leto met with the unnamed heckler after the event, and continued their discussion in private. He has been nominated for an Oscar as Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Dallas Buyers Club; the Academy Awards take place March 2.