Let’s Get This Straight



Puns aside, LGBTQ portrayal in the media is really, really important.

When Laverne Cox, known for her role in the television series Orange is the New Black,
came to Harvard to discuss her identity as a transgender black woman, and the intersectionality
of these components of her identity, I went to the event a little bit because she’s famous, and a
little bit because I couldn’t think of any other queer actors off the top if my head. The fact that
she is transgender and a woman and black (and it’s unfortunate that any of these things should be
considered unfortunate) and that that I know who she is even though I have not watched the
show, is (also unfortunately) impressive. However, it is a testament to just how hard she has
worked to gain visibility in the media form that is known for promulgating fantasy, for telling us
what we should want, and who we should be.

What struck me the most in her talk, was when she mentioned something incredibly
obvious that had not occurred to me. Orange is the New Black, a television show that is in fact
about being a black woman in prison (and for Cox’s character, add transgender to the mix), has a
cisgender white woman, Piper, as the main character. Cox explained that a show that is blatantly
about black women in prison would never have been successfully pitched, but that Piper is a
gateway through which conversations can be started.

Modern Family, a show about a large and unconventional family, also provides a
gateway through which the story of a gay couple can be told, without explicitly being the focus
of the plot. Modern Family has the opportunity to take “unconventional” families of all sorts and
put them into conventional situations — kids’ baseball games, wedding planning, job-changes…
Modern Family does an incredible job at making Mitchell and Cam’s story about family drama,
and not about being gay. However, the show is very much on the fence. While Mitchell and Cam
are portrayed wonderfully as just a normal family, Modern Family is not modern in its fear of
alienating its viewers by showing the most normal of family interactions: intimacy. Mitchell and
Cam are essentially asexual in their relationship, and while they evidently sleep in the same bed,
not only is sex never even alluded to (unlike in the other families who have multiple episodes in
which jokes about kids walking in on their parents are made), but the two of them also barely
touch, and don’t even really seem to be attracted to one another. Modern Family is in its fifth
season, but it was only a couple months ago that I first saw any mention of this fact in reviews of
the show.

What has been getting a lot of attention as of just a few days ago is Jared Leto’s
performance in The Dallas Buyers Club, as Rayon, a male-to-female transsexual woman. The
discussion seems to center around four things. First, while the movie is based on a true story,
Leto’s character is fictional, and was seen by critics as the amalgamation of tropes about trans
people. Second, Leto, a man, played a character, who, while once a man, is now a woman,
perpetuating the myth that trans women are just men in drag. Third, given that there are so few
LGBTQ actors landing roles, particularly trans* actors, why wasn’t one chosen for the role
instead of Leto? And fourth, Leto received a great deal of criticism for not thanking the trans*
community in his Oscar acceptance speech, and for not mentioning the adversity that trans*
people face.

HBO recently began running a new show, Looking, which has been described as “Girls
for gays” (it’s about a group of gay friends in California looking for love), has been slammed for
being “boring” and for not tackling any of the complex issues in the gay community. But perhaps, hat is the most important thing about Looking. Perhaps it is important to portray queer people as
just people, like Modern Family, but with a less prudish approach to gay sexual attraction.
Perhaps both cisgender and trans* actors should play whatever character they want, provided that
they do it from, as Laverne Cox called it, a “place of understanding.” Indeed, many authors have
taken this approach by including gay characters in stories that are not about being gay. Lynn
Flewelling’s high-fantasy series Nightrunner, for example, or Cassandra Clare’s widely known
young adult series (now a movie), The Mortal Instruments, both have gay and genderqueer main
characters whose purposes are simply to be people, rather than plot devices.

I am fortunate that at least while, as a cisgender female, I am often portrayed as an object
or a victim by the mainstream media, there is awareness of this, as well as a backlash against it.
But in a world where, as Cox put it, the mere act of walking down the street is often downright
confrontational for people who are not straight, white, male, or any combination of these three;
in a world where male-to-female transgender women are placed in male prisons out of a lack of
understanding or sympathy; in a world where violent crimes are disproportionately prevalent in
the LGBTQ community, but also disproportionately uninvestigated, chances for positive
portrayal in the media are particularly important.

It is simply sad that we often spend more time learning about life from time spent in front
of a screen, rather than from time spent out in the world. I realized, when I met Ms. Cox after the
event, that I had never knowingly even been in the same room as a transgender person. I was
extremely surprised by that, and I was honestly a bit ashamed, but I also knew that regardless of
my lack of real-world experience, the fact that I have positive perceptions is a result of what I
have watched and read. I remember that in the sixth-grade, intrigued by the incredibly vague
synopsis on the back cover, I purchased a book entitled Luna, by Julie Anne Peters. I know now
that the widely acclaimed Luna, published in 2004, was the first novel with a trans character. But
back then, perplexed by the logistics of the matter as twelve-year old me was, I read it as a story,
shrugged, and unknowingly internalized acceptance.

Joanna R. Schacter ’15 (jschacter@college.harvard.edu) should probably stop napping in places
where her friends can take funny pictures of her while she’s asleep.