Jared Leto’s Transgender Advisor Calpernia Addams Defends Him Against Detractors


Jared Leto was kind enough to mention me in his 2014 Independent Spirit Awards acceptance speech (as part of a typically “Jared” list of people involved in the film alongside random notable people) and next he really surprised me by thanking me in his Oscar acceptance speech.

As I’ve said before, my job was to sit down with him and answer lots of questions about what it’s like to be trans, and to make a recording of me reading his lines from the script. From there, Jared did Jared’s thing: a brilliant, eccentric artist created his own performance of a movie character. A movie character who happens to be some form of trans, in this case. Some of his follow up speeches left something to be desired when it came to speaking well on the issues facing his movie character, especially against the backdrops of current politics and social movements. I suppose it’s doubly rare to be a gifted artist AND a great political speaker. But personally, I thought Rayon seemed like a nice person and a real human being. I’ve known people like Rayon.

Anyone who’s followed my 11 years in Hollywood knows that I’ve always advocated for trans people to play trans roles. But I also refuse to shoot down powerful people who take steps to bring human trans portrayals to the screen, even if they are played by a non-trans female (Felicity Huffman in Transamerica, Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry) or a non-trans male (Lee Pace in Soldier’s Girl, Jared in Dallas Buyers Club). To all indications, Georges du Fresne was not a trans child when he played “Ludovic” in Ma Vie En Rose, but that incredible film continues to resonate with trans people and families of trans children. Good and important portrayals can come from non-trans actors. That may be an inconvenient truth, but there you have it.

Sure, I’d love to get these roles as an actress with a history of transition, or see them go to other trans actors. Heck, I’d love to play non-trans roles! But I’m not so short-sighted that I’ll destroy allies and advocates. Even less than perfect allies, if I think the overall contribution is beneficial. This is a view that comes from long actual experience and familiarity with the business. Some small but vocal groups will disagree; that’s just the nature of contentious issues. You can do your thing and I’ll do mine. There are many ways to contribute.

But beware: the same logic that leaves zero room for a non-trans actor to try a trans role will then be used to mandate that trans actors should not be able to play non-trans roles. And that would piss me off.

imgresLeto’s “Rayon” is not the rock upon which I’d make my last stand concerning this issue. His performance is just an inspiration for this discussion. I advocate for positive portrayals and opportunities for trans people in the media. Some people are displeased that this particular portrayal, “Rayon”, is another trans sex worker role. Another trans addict role. Another trans “mystical advisor/comic relief” role. Another “trans person punished in the end” role. Those are indeed over represented portrayals, and I do want more balance… Soon! But I have known people like Rayon. She is not a made-up grab bag of random hateful attributes. She’s a portrayal of an uncomfortable segment of the trans experience that a few TLGB folks would rather be erased and not discussed. I think many of the haters hate Rayon because she isn’t beautiful, she isn’t passable, she isn’t gender binary, she isn’t 2014-political. And when I see that elitist hypocrisy, I’m inclined to push back and write essays like this.

It’s hard being trans, more so in the era and circumstances of Dallas Buyers Club. I’ve known plenty of trans sex workers, self-medicators, wise teachers, hilarious weirdos and people taken before their time due to violence and lack of healthcare. I’ve known trans people very much like Rayon, and maybe if some people got up from their remote-activism-devices (computer screens and smartphones) and left their ivory towers and privilege-bubbles, they’d meet a few people like Rayon face-to-face, too.

Then they could see that a human portrayal of this real segment of the trans community is a good thing. Even if it’s by a non-trans person.

Please do hire trans actors for ANY role, especially trans roles. But please don’t shoot trans people in the foot by attacking allies willing to open the door for us as we approach equality.


This essay was originally published on Addams’ blog.

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  • alterego1980

    Great essay! Thank you. I think that level-headedness and having your eye on the long-term goal is forgotten by many people. It would be nice for all of us under the LGBTQi etc to be under a less mean umbrella

  • Pistolo

    I agree with Calpernia, this is a moment in time wherein people are discussing trans issues much more as a result of Jared Leto’s performance, it’s one of those moments where pop culture starts a discussion. Perhaps we shouldn’t misuse the present dialogue by picking out imperfections and taking advantage of the exposure this movie has granted. Also, while I usually feel similarly to Calpernia in that trans people should be playing trans characters, Hollywood hasn’t exactly been shown to be very accepting or understanding of trans people so there may not be many options when it comes to talent. Maybe trans people seeing more roles like Rayon or Sophia in Orange Is The New Black or what have you then more trans actors will be filing in for roles more complex than background drag queens and one-liner prostitutes.

  • Kelly

    Ms. Addams is certainly correct about Rayon representing one realistic kind of trans experience, and about some members of the trans community wanting to distance themselves from that sort of experience because they feel that it lessens their own image to be associated with it. Even (especially?) within the trans community, there is a lot of prejudice against the Rayons of the world, and that is a problem that needs to be confronted.


    While there is a phase in every social justice movement during which the “any exposure is good exposure” mantra holds true, it is perilously easy for movements to get stuck in that rut rather than moving the ball forward. Our progress during the last decade has been truly dizzying, but we are past the point where we need to be obsequiously grateful for whatever exposure the media deigns to give us. We are also past the point where we should be cutting Hollywood slack for its nearly universal, pathological refusal to cast our own people for trans roles… an indignity that rightfully causes massive outraged when it is thrust upon other groups.

    While Rayon does represent a real segment of our community, and there is real prejudice in our community against such folks, there is nothing ground-breaking, novel, or inspiring about that segment being portrayed yet again. Indeed, Rayon is one of their two favorite (nearly exclusive) trans tropes: the somewhat pathetic, ultimately doomed, pronouncedly masculine-appearing, white trans woman who is struggling to make it. (The other is, of course, the still white femme fatale seductress with a Playboy figure who drives men wild until they find out “the truth.”) Mr. Leto’s performance does very little to move the ball forward, not because it was unrealistic, but because it was the same character the media almost always trots out for the public’s entertainment, inviting the audience to be scandalized (oh goodness, a masculine-appearing person in a dress!) and then letting them feel good about themselves anyway (oh, that poor, tragic soul).

    Where are our trans brothers, and our genderqueer siblings? Where are trans people of color (beyond the sole, stellar representation in “Orange is the New Black”)? Where are the trans people who aren’t straight? Who don’t externally appear like society expects of the gender they were assigned at birth? Who don’t die tragically? Who make it off of the streets, or were never there in the first place? Who are doctors, engineers, teachers, police, and soldiers? In short, where are the trans characters who aren’t pitiable, scandalous, and white?

    As for Mr. Leto himself, I certainly don’t know him personally and can’t comment upon what he actually thinks, feels, or knows. But his comments in public seem to suggest that he hasn’t learned much more than the cliche that was presented to him in the script. Far from advancing trans understanding, he signed on to Hollywood’s “let’s do the same thing over and over again” sequel machine, turned the crank, and became the latest unremarkable link in the chain.

    How terribly unfortunate that Ms. Addams seems to reduce all of the analysis and critique flying around to “ivory towers and privilege-bubbles,” and to imply that none of us with objections are out doing real work in the community. I wonder just how impressed she is with her own role in all of this to be so dismissive of opposing views.

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