By Joseph Longo
2015 has been a landmark year for the LGBT movement: the nationwide legalization of gay marriage in June, the public’s recognition of Caitlyn Jenner’s transition, and the rise of transgender actress Laverne Cox. Naturally, Hollywood has quickly capitalized on the spotlight these civil rights issues have garnered. While the new presence of LGBT films is not directly tied to the events of this past year, acceptance and recognition of this community has subsequently greatly increased in the past several years. From the HBO series Looking, to the small indie Blue Is The Warmest Color, to the docu-series I am Cait, characters identifying as LGBT are quickly becoming mainstays. Yet has the industry, specifically movie studios, once again acted too soon and not given justice to this community? Possibly.
Two major movies premiere in the second-half of the year that not only tell the stories of gay, lesbian, and transgender people, but also are subject to controversy and criticism. The first, Stonewall, is a fictional telling of the 1969 Stonewall Riots, historically considered the birthplace of the lgbt rights movement, through the eyes of a midwestern, white man. The film is inherently flawed as it is indeed fictitious, however that is unapparent as the trailer opens with a voiceover of President Obama’s inauguration speech citing Stonewall amongst other great events sparking civil rights movements. Though one of two transgender women of color, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Riveria, are often historically credited with igniting the riots, the cisgender, white protagonist throws the first stone in the film. Pat Cordova-Goff, the trans* youth justice organizer for the Gay-Straight Alliance, started an online petition to boycott the film. “ It is time that black and brown transwoman and drag queens are recognized for their efforts in the riots throughout the nation,” Cordova-Goff said. “Do not support a film that erases our history. Do not watch Stonewall.” The online petition is just 1,600 signatures shy of its 25,000 goal. Considered a passion project by openly gay director Roland Emmerich, it is puzzling that such a momentous, important event is subjected to false storytelling and old-school Hollywood perceptions of idyllic character types. The other major film sparking much debate is The Danish Girl which recounts the true story of the first ever recipient of a male to female sex reassignment surgery. Directed by Tom Hopper, notable for The King’s Speech and Les Miserables, on the surface this film highlights the beginnings of a much underappreciated and abused minority. But the details were flubbed. Amid his award season campaign for last year’s The Theory of Everything, Eddie Redmayne was announced as taking on the lead role. This choice was met with concern by the transgender community that a cisgender actor is portraying such an important, influential figure. In an interview with Out Magazine, Redmayne reflected on his responsibility to the transgender community to educate the public on gender and sexulaity. “My greatest ignorance when I started was that gender and sexuality were related,” Redmayne said. “And that’s one of the key things I want to hammer home to the world: You can be gay or straight, trans* man or woman, and those two things are not necessarily aligned.” It is certainly beneficial to discuss important ideas and concepts often misunderstand to mainstream audiences, nonetheless another cisgender white man should not be the messenger. Rather transgender men and women should be the leaders to educate and represent their community and their struggles. Yes, one could argue that Redmayne may just be the best actor for the job, however this speaks to the greater issue of the scarcity of roles available for transgender actors in Hollywood. Similar criticism springs up every few years when high-profile actors and actresses portray transgender men and women: Jared Leto in Dallas Buyer’s Club, Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent, and Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry. Yet it can be reasoned that are not enough job opportunites for transgender actors and actresses that result in them becoming unqualified and ignored for high-profile, leading roles. A double-standard exists in which cisgender actors portray the bulk of transgender characters, yet transgender actors are virtually exempt in vying for cisgender roles. As society continues to embrace and assimilate the LGBT community, hopefully these men and women will be able to portray characters similar to themselves.
After all who better to depict these stories, than those who have experienced similar circumstances first-hand. Hopefully the portrayal of the LGBT civil rights movement can be a fresh take in which the oppressed minority is given their respect not only on screen but off.