(This post was first published on the LGBT Perspectives site)
So there was Jeffrey Tambor accepting an Emmy Award on Sunday night for his role as a trans woman in the series Transparent — his second such award for that role. And he was ever so humble about it, indeed almost apologetic, while calling for more transgender actors to represent the trans community.
Said Tambor in his speech to the audience and millions of TV viewers: “Please give transgender talent a chance. Give them auditions. Give them their story. Do that. And also, one more thing, I would not be unhappy were I the last cisgender male playing a female transgender on television. We have work to do.”
Of course, he wasn’t so apologetic that he felt he should decline the award in protest. Nor was Jill Soloway, who won an Emmy for directing the comedy series. After the broadcast, she spoke to the media about the need for more transgender actors to be portraying trans people. Never mind that she is responsible for casting Tambor as a trans woman.
I’m not criticizing either of them, though I do have to wonder about their apparent, and somewhat transparent, double standard. I think they felt the need to placate the trans community, and it worked. The trans community generally applauded them, while overlooking the obvious — including Tambor’s use of the word “transgender” as a noun in his televised speech to the world.
(And, as an aside, I wonder how the trans community would have responded if Caitlyn Jenner had been cast in Transparent instead of Tambor. Caitlyn is a trans woman, but is not all that well liked by the trans community.)
I’m all for seeing more trans people in the acting community, and I have no doubt more will emerge. But let’s be very frank about this: there are millions of aspiring actors and only a very small number of film and television acting roles. Competition for parts is fierce, and producers are looking for accomplished, well-known actors for leading roles, people who can help shows and films score high ratings — and earn big bucks.
Jeffrey Tambor is one such actor. He’s been in the business for a long time, and his star appeal has no doubt brought a lot of viewers to Transparent — and by extension, enlightened them about transgender issues. It is irrelevant whether he is an actual trans person in his off-camera life or not. What matters is the job he does in front of the camera in this fictional comedy series.
I know a lot of trans people won’t agree with me. They feel that only trans people should be cast in the roles of trans people. But I disagree with them. Sure, it would be nice if there were enough accomplished trans actors with star appeal to make a series like Transparent work. But actors — including transgender people — should be able to adapt to any role that comes their way. This is elementary stuff, Acting 101, and it is insulting to actors like Jeffrey Tambor to suggest that they shouldn’t be allowed to portray trans people. I mean, should a trans woman turn down a cisgender role simply because she doesn’t identify in her personal life as a cisgender person?
Yes, we need more transgender people in acting roles. And it will happen. Trans people will be given more opportunities. But there is a lot of competition out there, and they won’t win roles simple because they are trans. They have to be good actors — their sexual orientation and gender identity are irrelevant.