Some people don't seem to get why Jared Leto's character is so infuriating to the transgender community. He won an Oscar for portraying a transgender woman in Dallas Buyers Club, and his character, Rayon, was the empathetic comic relief that everyone cried for. That's a win, right?
No. Not in the slightest.
To use an analogy, think of how embarrassing the character of Mammy is in Gone with the Wind is when seen from a modern perspective. Now imagine if Mammy had been played by an actress in black-face. Now imagine that just about every portrayal of a black woman over a 30-year period was a re-hashed cribbing of the character Mammy, and almost all of actresses playing those stereotyped clichés were white.
That's why we're not happy. When nearly every media portrayal of a transgender woman is as someone who is incapable, sad, and/or pathetic, it makes it that much harder for us to be taken seriously and dig ourselves out of the hole we're in.
In many ways, it's not so different from the way film used to treat gay men as pathetic closet cases: tragic, tormented, and miserable. Still, I have been getting a lot of LGB cis-splaining on this issue. "That was the 80's, not today," one person said. "There are Rayons out there," wrote another. "This is a positive portrayal because Rayon ends up being an empathetic character," another claimed.
The blow-back for supporting the transgender community forces our supporters underground. One family member e-mailed me this morning, asked for anonymity, and wrote:
"I did not want to put this on Facebook and open myself up to public mocking and ridicule, but I did want to comment... Historically, anything I have seen coming from the entertainment industry about transsexuals has been mocking, demeaning and cruel."
As for the cis-splaining, this isn't the 80's, but the movie shapes public perceptions of the transgender community today. And in case you hadn't noticed, it sucks out there for transgender people right now, perhaps more so than for any other marginalized community.
There are Rayons out there, but according to the media, we're all Rayons. Virtually every media depiction of a transgender person fits in the category of "pathetic trans" or "trap for heterosexual men." The former means never being taken seriously, the latter means being the target of violence.
Perhaps if there were a diversity of transgender characters in media, this wouldn't be harmful. But this has ensconced the most notable transgender character in movie history as firmly in the territory of negative stereotype.
Just like Mammy.
There are practical consequences to these stereotypes. I cannot tell you the number of times that I have been the first openly transgender person someone has met. In virtually all of these cases, I get the same response: "You aren't at all what I expected."
What they did expect was someone who couldn't hold a job. They expected a flake who didn't know how to dress or present themselves professionally, a caricature of exaggerated femininity with no emotional control. They don't expect someone with a supportive, loving family and a stable life.
In short, they expected a hot mess, and not someone who looks and sounds like a scientist, officer, and lesbian soccer mom. The stereotype puts me at a huge disadvantage even as I advocate for transgender rights.
These stereotypes form the basis for the visceral reaction to the idea of transgender people in the military, my primary area of advocacy. My troops that are being kicked out are being told directly by the military medical community that this has nothing to do with their ability to do their jobs, and everything to do with other people finding us "unacceptable."
Jared Leto is a fine actor. But the stereotypes perpetuated and reinforced by the character of Rayon are a big part of the vicious catch-22: the transgender community is the most disenfranchised, marginalized, and discriminated community in America, but we can do very little to fight back because it's difficult to be taken seriously -- due to the stereotypes that are killing us in the first place.