Dear Mark Ruffalo: Casting trans actors

Dear Mark Ruffalo,

I’m a big fan of yours. And not just of the movies that you’ve made, but also your willingness to be outspoken about so many important political issues. You’ve supported Black Lives Matter, been outspoken about environmental protection, and LGBTQ rights.

While I have no idea what it must be like to be a famous person who has such a large platform, I know that when I have had popular articles or been in a news piece that’s gotten loads of traffic, there’s been a flurry of activity directed towards my way that’s difficult to manage. Although I can’t say I know what that’s like for you, that must be difficult.

I can also respect the fact that we all have to start somewhere. We’re born in this society learning a lot of things we later understand are wrong. We’re taught bigotries before we understand them as bigotries. And there’s a growing and a learning process that has to happen. And believe me, I have compassion for that. I work with LGBTQ youth and I help them in their growing process.

I’m saying all of this because I read your tweet here where you asked for compassion, and I want you to understand that I do have it for you.

But I also want you to understand me. I also want you to understand that I almost lost a close family member a few years ago.

The short story is this: An immediate family member of mine is stealth — as in no one knows they are transgender. They “pass” well and so they don’t have to worry about harassment on a daily basis, unlike some trans people. But one day they found themselves with severe stomach pains. They went into the hospital and at first the doctor treated them kindly and offered a scan. Then they had to tell the doctor they were trans.

The doctor did not come back into the room. They were dismissed from the ER with Vicodin and the nurses said it was just a bad tummy ache. A few days later they were being prepped for an emergency appendectomy. Luckily, the surgeons got the swollen appendix out before it burst and killed them.

I could have lost that family member because of transphobia, because of hatred, because fundamentally people seem to have a problem reconciling that when they look at a person, they aren’t a person if their gender isn’t easily categorised and put into the right boxes.

I know what you and others reading this might be thinking: What does this have to do with films?

Films and media, as I’m sure you know, hold a very crucial role in reflecting and representing culture. I wouldn’t doubt that someone as informed and understanding as you are understands how important it is to have representation — how it can really make a difference for people. A man so confident and cocky as Iron Man having panic attacks, for example, meant a lot to me as someone with anxiety.

Representation for trans people, specifically trans women, is crucial. That is because media has had a long history of mocking trans women. You’ve probably seen Ace Ventura, for example. There are lots of jokes about men in dresses, lots of ways trans women are hurt by media. And what that tell society is that trans women are a joke — they are to be laughed at and devalued. And when a human being is devalued, it becomes that much easier for them to be a target of violence.

I don’t know if you know this, but every year there is Transgender Day of Remembrance. Every year we mourn at least 200–300 transgender people murdered across the globe. My family member would not have been counted in this number. Their death would have gone down as appendicitis, not as a hate crime — even though that’s what caused it. So even that 200–300 number isn’t a true representation of the destruction of transphobia.

Most of the people killed are transgender women. A lot of trans people, specifically trans women, find it difficult to find steady paying work. Transgender people, specifically trans women and anyone who is gender non-conforming, find it incredibly difficult to be hired and valued by people and gain and secure employment. And that may have something to do with being made into a joke by media and society. It’s why so many transgender people end up homeless or forced into sex work. And trans women in particular, because of the media’s fixation on them, are unsurprisingly the most at risk of those things.

I understand this movie’s intent is not to mock trans women. But you must understand that the problem is that when people look at trans women they see a man. And so long as cisgender male actors play trans women, then people will see that as a legitimate way to look at a trans woman. They will see a trans woman played by a cis male actor and say, “Oh that’s actually a man”. In many ways, to continue to have cis male actors play trans women legitimises this belief.

And, given the lack of employment opportunities for trans women who have no problems playing trans women on screen, I’m sure there are plenty of worthy candidates out there. And they probably know way more about the struggles trans women face and have more insight into this than any cis male actor could.

This is why this is important.

I understand that you are learning. I had to learn too. I wasn’t born with the understanding of myself as a non-binary person. Nor did society give that to me. The first thing I learned about transgender people was a transphobic joke people would laugh about in grade school and I laughed too — not knowing that I was the butt of the joke.

While you are asking for compassion for your learning, I ask you to remember that another Transgender Day of Remembrance is just around the corner. And I ask you to have compassion for the frustration that people feel with this when they witness countless stories of trans women murdered just for existing, countless trans women who can’t get a job because they are considered a joke, countless trans women who are harassed when they leave the house every day.

This is not something you or the actor you suggested for the part have to worry about. In your own words, the film is already shot. This is a project. And while the feelings you have about it and the work you put into it is totally valid, please understand that it’s just a project for you — for someone else it is their everyday life. And they can’t just hang it up and move onto the next one. The social media attention you get now for this will eventually pass, but many trans women do not have the option to wait until their harassment or discrimination goes away, because it won’t.

I don’t know if this letter will reach you. There’s probably a lot of people talking to you right now about this. A lot of people who are angry. A lot of people who may be less than tactful in what they have to say to you. My hope is that by reading this you will understand where that anger can come from. It can be very difficult to show compassion to people when the world is showing zero compassion to you.

My hope is that my letter helps you continue a process of learning. Because sometimes anger is part of that, as much as it can be difficult to hear.

All the best,