On Sunday night, Jared Leto won his first Oscar at the Academy Awards Ceremony for his role as Rayon in the movie Dallas Buyers Club. He delivered a very moving acceptance speech, speaking out in support for people all over the world who have ever felt discriminated against for who they are or who they love. However, not everybody listening was as moved by his words as others were.
Leto’s character Rayon is a transgender male to female woman living with AIDS. Her ties to the LGBT community in Dallas, TX enable her to generate customers for what comes to be known as the Dallas Buyer’s Club: a resource for people living with HIV and AIDS to purchase medications that were not approved in the United States at that time (between 1985-1992). The club is started by Matthew McConnaughey’s character Ron Woodroof, who learns he has AIDS and is given 30 days to live by his doctors. He goes to Mexico and survives three months in a hospital there from drugs he was given that were not approved by the FDA in America. He then gets the idea to find these and other drugs in different parts of the world, smuggle them into the US, and use them as well as sell them to other victims of HIV and AIDS in his hometown of Dallas. In the end he lives a lot longer than 30 days and he owes it to his efforts of making sure he and others received the best medication possible, no matter what he had to do to get it. Rayon and Ron were partners in this operation.
There are some people who are very bothered by the fact that Jared Leto, a straight and non-trans man, was selected to play the role of a transgender woman, let alone win an Oscar at the Academy Awards for it. The argument is that because he is not actually transgender in real life, he could not know the trials and struggles that transgender people experience and he did not authentically play this role as well as someone who is in fact part of the trans community. There is also argument that it is not fair to cast a straight man in this position because it robs actual trans people of the opportunity. Furthermore, there is concern that because Rayon was a sex worker and drug user, the movie is portraying the false reality that all trans people are either sex workers or drug users, or both. Some feel his role was more precisely a depiction of a straight man in drag rather than an authentic representation of a transgender woman. They feel that this falsely maintains the stereotype that trans women are more precisely just men dressed in drag. In addition to these issues, some people are upset that Jared Leto did not take the time to thank the transgender community in his Academy Awards acceptance speech.
While all of these concerns are valid, there is room for incongruity about these opinions. First of all, the movie is not about transgendered people, it is about AIDS and the struggle to obtain effective medicine in the 1980’s in America. Also, it is a true story: so the character of Rayon is portraying an actual person, who was a sex worker as well as a drug user, let alone transgender. It is not as though Hollywood decided to make a fictional movie about transgender people, picked a random straight actor to do the job, and then falsely exaggerated the character to suggest stereotypical and false truths about her in order to make a statement about what it means to be transgender. One would think that this was the case after reading some of the opinions about this. Moreover, it is unfair to say that this movie makes it seem that every transgendered person is a drug user or sex worker just because the character of Rayon in this particular story was. If she happens to look more like a drag queen to some people, that is a personal opinion. Maybe she actually looked that way in real life; in which case it would be wrong to falsely portray her true character just because of the danger of preserving a stereotype.
The bottom line is that more movies should be made that include the roles of transgender people so it is understood by the public that they exist and they are important, they are human and they deserve the respect of being seen and heard just as loud and clear as anyone else. When trans people are only seen in very few exceptional roles, it can easily skew the perspective the public has about them and this is an immensely valid issue and concern. When they are portrayed in films, it would be ideal if the actors themselves were transgender not only because they deserve the opportunities, but it is more realistic. In addition, they could offer so much more value to the people working behind the scenes because those people would not have to question how genuine the character was being rendered.
On the other hand, having a straight non-transgender person play the role and temporarily attempt to walk in the shoes of a trans person is humbling, and perhaps it can shed more awareness in the heterosexual community in order for them to realize more empathy and compassion for the lives and struggles of these people. Even a straight man acting as a straight woman would most likely feel noticeably more empathy for what it is like for women to live in this world. How can people hope to truly understand the experience of others unless they walk in their shoes?
In Jared Leto’s acceptance speech at the Academy Awards Ceremony, he used his power as a famous person with a microphone to proclaim that the Oscar in his hands was for the 36 million people on this Earth who have lost their fight with AIDS, and for anybody in the world who has ever felt injustice because of who they are or who they love. He did not say “thank you to the transgender community” because he did not have to; his words addressed the broader audience of people who have ever felt this way, which includes the transgender community as well as many others.
Opinion By Stevie Paul