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The Chasm of Empathy Between Jeffrey Tambor and Michelle Rodriguez

Jeffrey Tambor and Michelle Rodriguez

While one actor listens to and appreciates the concerns of transgender people, the other dismisses them.

Hollywood is a weird place. You have people who will put on 50 pounds to play a role, then lose a hundred to play the next one. There are actors who will go through basic training so they can make a movie about being a soldier. They'll have astrophysicists critique their sci-fi scripts to make sure all the science is plausible, or they'll join gangs or hang out with prostitutes so they can understand the role they're about to play. Yet some of them just don't get why people get so mad at them when they seem so out of touch. No greater example could be seen than this weekend.

Sunday night, an actor laid out what's wrong with Hollywood. Jeffery Tambor, who plays a late-in-life trans woman on Transparent, took the stage to accept his Emmy for the character he plays and said what all cisgender actors should be saying: "Please give transgender talent a chance." Yes, he is a cisgender male playing a trans character, and a lot of people are mad about that fact, but here's the thing: He gets what the problem is. He knows that he should have been behind a transgender actress; he knows the role should be played by a transgender actress. That's why he said he wishes he could be the last cisgender actor playing trans. I mean, he even knows the difference between cisgender and transgender and uses the language onstage. He knows not to play the character campy or go for tropes or to make the character terrible because he's aware of the image he's able to present. All the times we have complained about it, all the times we have protested about it, someone in a very prominent position is hearing us and making our appeals heard in a forum where it can be heard. In a truly perfect world, either he would be the last cisgender male playing trans or have it not be an issue at all and we wouldn't think twice about it. But as it stands, we have a friend and ally in Jeffrey Tambor.

And then there's Michelle Rodriguez. If you haven't heard, Rodriguez is starring in a pulpy B-film called (Re)Assignment. To sum it up: Male hit man gets a forced sex change and then goes on a rampage for revenge. Yeah. It's bad right off the bat. Now, I can tolerate a bad film. I'll cop to the idea of a psycho killer trans woman for a campy horror film like Sleepaway Camp. Sometimes over-the-top campiness is just that. That's just my view, of course, and I'm not insensitive to the concerns of others. Yet what is turning so many people off is that Rodriguez is trying to defend this film as some sort of artistic choice. That because she's bisexual, she would never do anything to harm the community. She excuses the forced sex change plot as a different type of sex change since we "don't own the patent on sex changes." When a TMZ reporter ambushed her and asked her about the controversy, she said, "What controversy?"

Oh jeez, just the controversy that almost every LGBT blog, website, Twitter account out there has written about. She then doubled down and said, "I don't think it'll offend anybody, so they should just chill out."

And that's where the difference is. While Tambor knows the part he plays upsets and offends some, he at least is listening and advocating for transgender voices. Rodriguez, on the other hand, is blowing off people's concerns and offense, and telling trans people to "just chill out." And that's what matters the most. I don't expect cisgender people to fully get what upsets us or what our concerns are. They'll never fully understand what it's like to be trans. Yet when they decide it's better to listen and understand, to try to help, to join their voices to ours and try to make a difference, it's a lot easier to let them be imperfect, because at least they're trying. It's when they make excuses or do mental gymnastic routines to justify their actions that it's a problem. When they go beyond that to outright saying we should chill out and get over it, it's not just a problem anymore but outright abuse.

I can handle abuse about being trans -- being called a freak, told I look like a man, told to kill myself. Big deal, another day of being trangender. It's when I'm told that my concerns and problems don't matter and that I should just get over them that bothers me. I can forgive ignorance and bigotry -- at least then you think something about me -- but being told that my feelings don't matter is another thing altogether. Not even being considered worthy of having a voice -- man, that'll take the wind out of you. Being exploited, being abused, mocked, all that takes someone at least registering that you're there. Being told to get over it is basically being told, "You don't even deserve to be talked to."

The issue of cisgender people playing transgender is one that not all of the community will agree on. I for one can deal with it as long as the story isn't pure exploitation or full of stereotypes, while many think no cis actor should play trans, ever. The debate has many complex layers that cross lines of art, identity, power, and empowerment, so you're never going to get everyone to agree to everything. Yet perhaps the thing we can agree on when it comes to this multilayered issue is that refusing to even listen to the trans community is an elitist, out-of-touch, and cruel thing to do.

AMANDA KERRI is a comedian and writer living in Oklahoma City. Follow her on Twitter @EternalKerri.

Watch Rodriguez defend her film on the red carpet last week:

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

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