The latest print issue of Variety, one of Hollywood’s main trade papers and websites, is a special report dedicated entirely to the state of transgender representation in the film and television industry. It features an open letter endorsed by 48 signatories, quoting some grim statistics about trans life in America. In the last 18 months, it notes, at least 44 trans women, mostly of color, have been murdered. The unemployment rate for trans people is three times the national average, and 40 percent of trans people attempt suicide, while only 4.6 percent of the general population does. The letter ends with a call for increased diversity in casting and roles. “That’s a lot of negative information, but we hope it helps explain why transgender people are pushing so hard to be heard,” it reads. “It’s because we’re struggling to survive.”
The signatories of the open letter include organizations like Hollywood’s most prominent talent agencies, like CAA, UTA, and WME; powerful production companies, like JJ Abrams’ Bad Robot and Shonda Rhimes’ Shondaland; and a variety of other groups, including film and TV union SAG-AFTRA, script marketplace The Blcklst, GLAAD, and Time’s Up. The letter comes in the wake of Scarlett Johansson’s abrupt decision to pull out of playing a trans man in the upcoming film Rub & Tug after a wave of online backlash. Before that, across films and TV shows, cis actors have historically been cast as trans characters, including Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent, David Duchovny in Twin Peaks: The Return, and Chloë Sevigny in Hit & Miss, among many, many others.
That’s why this letter is a big deal, perhaps a turning point in Hollywood, precisely because it’s signed by some of the most powerful decision-makers in the industry. Hollywood has never been the best at actually doing the work of diversifying its ranks when it comes to accurately depicting the stories and lives of marginalized people, let alone including those marginalized people in telling their own stories. But the letter at least signals a pivot to the right direction. Other stories in the issue include a roundtable with trans actors on discrimination and a feature on Caitlyn Jenner’s efforts to combat Trump on trans rights.
As the letter notes, film and television give audiences a window into the lives of people with different experiences than their own, which can provoke empathy. The hope is that increasing trans representation in Hollywood’s corridors of power and on-screen will have ripple effects in wider American society. “We believe that when trans people are empowered to help culture makers tell our authentic stories, it will improve how we are treated in the real world,” the letter reads. “Those negative statistics above will become part of our history, not our present.”
Disclosure: Vox Media is represented by WME.