This weekend, it was revealed that Matt Bomer, a cisgender actor best known for roles in Magic Mike and American Horror Story, will be playing a transgender sex worker in the upcoming film Anything, based on a play by Timothy McNeil.
Bomer's casting follows other recent high-profile trans roles performed by cis performers, including Jared Leto in 2013's Dallas Buyers Club and Eddie Redmayne in last year's The Danish Girl. And as with those roles, backlash against the casting decision arrived soon after the news emerged.
Trans activists and performers, like Sense8's Jamie Clayton and Jen Richards, creator and star of the Emmy-nominated web series "Her Story", took to Twitter and YouTube to share criticism of the decision. Bomer initially blocked Clayton on Twitter after the actress tweeted that she hoped the actor would "do some actual good for the trans community" with the role, then later unblocked her. Richards, who auditioned but was not cast in a small part in the film, explained in a YouTube video posted last night that she feels when cis performers play trans roles, they deprive the already marginalized trans community of economic and political opportunities, dispossess those roles from performers who have lived the experience of the characters they portray, and perpetuate violence against trans women.
With notable exceptions in recent series like Sense8, Transparent, and Orange Is the New Black, trans characters in TV and film are rarely cast with trans performers. This April, an analysis of 105 trans characters on American television by Autostraddle found that "by and large, trans women are rarely seen on television, and when they are, the context is either tragic or farcical. Trans women on TV do these things: they die or are dying, they kill other people or are killed, they are your old pal from college who presents as female now, they are in the hospital, they've come down to the station for questioning. They always wear dresses and lots of makeup, they usually date men, they're usually white, and they're rarely portrayed by actual trans women."
"I had a conversation with the casting director [about the problematic nature of the script] during my audition," Richards told VICE. "They never considered hiring a trans woman for the lead. According to them, the movie got made [because of] Matt Bomer's association with the film," which, as Richards explained in her YouTube video, is common practice in Hollywood. "I think the producers were at least slightly aware of an issue and thought they could offset Bomer's casting by having trans women in some of the smaller roles."
"When we think of trans people, besides Laverne [Cox] and Caitlyn [Jenner], we think of Jared Leto, Jeffrey Tambor, Eddie Redmayne, and now Matt Bomer. We're basically telling the world trans women are just men performing gender. I can't stand that or let that go unchecked." —Jen Richards
A representative for Anything's producers did not return a request for comment by the time this article went to press, nor did a publicist for Mark Ruffalo. Ruffalo, an executive producer for the film, amicably responded to concerns from the trans community on Twitter.
"To the Trans community. I hear you. It's wrenching to you see you in this pain. I am glad we are having this conversation. It's time," he wrote.
In her YouTube video, Richards also expressed concern over the content of the script she read at the time she auditioned for the role. Anything is based on a Timothy McNeil play about a Southern widower named Early Landry, whose sister relocates him to Los Angeles after several suicide attempts. The play revolves around his budding relationship with a "drug-addicted transvestite prostitute" named Freda Von Rhenberg. (While a press release reported that the character Bomer plays in Anything is transgender, the character in McNeil's original play is reportedly a "transvestite." "Transvestite" is an outdated and problematic term for cross dresser, which is distinct from transgender.)
Writer and trans activist Julia Serano is disappointed but not surprised at the recycling of such a stereotypical narrative.
"There is a tendency in society for people to presume that trans people must have horrible, tragic lives," she told VICE. "In my book Whipping Girl, I talk about the pervasive assumption that people who transition to female do so for sexual reasons (which is rooted in the assumption that women are sexual objects). This explains why movie producers churn out 'drug-addicted transvestite prostitute'-type roles.
"Given the high-profile backlash to casting decisions made in Dallas Buyers Club, Transparent, The Danish Girl, and other productions, it's almost impossible to imagine that Bomer has never heard of trans people's perspectives on this matter," Serano said. "He surely knows that, by accepting this role, he is ensuring that there is one fewer job out there for transgender actors. And the dynamics of this issue will not change so long as Hollywood refuses to cast transgender actors as cisgender characters."
This week's backlash closely mirrors backlash last year against Stonewall, a fictional retelling of the Stonewall Riots, which cast a white, cisgender gay man as the protagonist, despite the fact that queer and trans people of color initiated the riot. And despite years of such uproar over cis casting decisions for trans roles, directors, producers, and actors continue to lack foresight on ways in which they contribute to discrimination against transgender people in their productions.
Bomer's casting in this role deprives a trans woman the opportunity to play it. Though critics argue his notoriety was what drove the decision, with well-known actresses like Clayton, Richards, the Spirit Award–winning Mya Taylor and Emmy Award–winning Laverne Cox to choose from, finding a notable trans performer in Hollywood is easier than ever.
"The kind of media that has the largest reach are film and TV," said Richards. "When we think of trans people, besides Laverne [Cox] and Caitlyn [Jenner], we think of Jared Leto, Jeffrey Tambor, Eddie Redmayne, and now Matt Bomer. We're basically telling the world trans women are just men performing gender. I can't stand that or let that go unchecked. I think cis people who take these roles, do these movies, and greenlight these shows have to be confronted with that reality that they are morally complicit in the discrimination and violence trans people face and need to do better."
Follow Raquel Willis on Twitter.