A new open letter from GLAAD and 5050by2020, an initiative within the Time’s Up organization, calls on the entertainment industry to commit to transgender representation and inclusion in filmmaking. Released on Tuesday, the letter has signatories from over 40 production companies, talent agencies, film studios, and advocacy groups, and was published as part of a collaborative issue of Variety, which features a series of trans-centric editorials and a roundtable of trans actors weighing in on discrimination in Hollywood.
“As a community, trans people are fighting every day to be seen and accepted as human beings,” the open letter states, explaining that a lack of representation—or negative representation—can have harmful consequences. A list of familiar and troubling statistics contextualizes the severity of the social conditions trans people face in the United States: trans people continue to be killed at alarming rates; unemployment disproportionately affects trans people, and poverty and suicide continue to plague this demographic.
Hollywood, the letter explains, plays a crucial role in changing life for transgender people across the country: “In the US, 80 percent of people say they don't know a trans person in their family, workplace, or school. That’s where Hollywood comes in. Hollywood tells the stories that help people understand how to feel about themselves and how to feel about people around them who are different. As Roger Ebert said, film is an empathy machine.”
The letter acknowledges how projects like Ellen, Will & Grace, Brokeback Mountain, and Moonlight worked to introduce humanized portrayals of gay men and women into popular culture. These productions “helped break down stereotypes about gay and lesbian people, and the timeline for marriage equality would have been remarkably different without them,” the letter states. “Women, people of color, people with disabilities, and diverse faith groups have made it clear they want more authentic stories about their lives in films and on TV. Trans people feel the same way.”
At times, the open letter preemptively addresses potential concerns. “It may seem as if some trans people are overly sensitive about how these trans stories are developed and told,” it reads, before going on to list examples of Hollywood’s history of portraying trans people as “tragic victims, psychotic killers, and one-dimensional stereotypes.”
The letter also nods at the cloistered history of Hollywood as an institution with immense, profit-driven power. “We know Hollywood is a business, as well as a creative community,” it reads, reassuring the industry that trans representation and inclusion are not a financial risk. “We are not asking you to stop making money. We are asking to be brought to the table, so that our knowledge, talent, and stories can help improve your work and increase its value.”
This plea is unabashed and coming at “an unprecedented cultural moment.” On the heels of the #MeToo movement and following several years of trans activism within Hollywood, the open letter is pushing a crucial, socially healthy agenda that might otherwise be subsumed by the ever-changing cultural tides without direct demands for inclusion.
Asking Hollywood “to use its power to improve the lives of trans people by changing America’s understanding about who trans people are,” may feel predictable from progressive organizations like GLAAD and 5050by2020, but these advocacy groups are not alone. Signatories include SAG AFTRA, top talent agencies like ICM, UTA, and CAA, and production and management companies like Bad Robot, 3 Arts Entertainment, Apatow Productions, Ryan Murphy Productions, and Shondaland. The ACLU and Time’s Up have also signed the letter in support. These aren’t just any supporters; they’re Hollywood’s most powerful and influential companies.
GLAAD and 5050by2020 have also developed TRANSform Hollywood, a downloadable PDF “guide to creating trans-inclusive culture.” Topics include how to tell the story of a transgender subject, how to properly adapt transgender people’s work, how to make contact with more trans people, and even how to bring trans inclusion into productions that don’t include trans narratives.
"We wrote this letter uncertain about how it would be received," Zackary Drucker, contributor of the open letter and Transparent producer, tells Broadly. "The fact that we obtained endorsements from so many major Hollywood organizations is unprecedented and helps to legitimize this important call to action. As one of the individuals who was reaching out to these companies, asking for their support, I was blown away to see the pillars of this industry respond with enthusiasm."
"We've gained cultural legitimacy in a short period of time and it makes me feel safer in the world knowing that we do have allies in powerful places willing to stand with us," Drucker adds. "I hope that our community absorbs the significance of this. If all of those organizations that signed the letter comply with its guidances, which I think they will, then we will be entering a new era. This letter marks a new era."