with 'about ray,' elle fanning joins the ranks of lgbtqi allies in hollywood

A crop of new films put LGBTQI stories on the big screen in an unprecedented fashion. Hollywood’s next step should be to give LGBTQI people access to their telling.

by Colin Crummy
24 September 2015, 2:33pm

I'd hesitate to call 17-year-old Elle Fanning's decision to play a trans teen in her new film About Ray a brave one. But I'd definitely call it a cool decision, especially since she says in heri-D cover interview in our Fall Issue that she wanted to do it for her transgender friends and 'to educate people'.

Taking on a LGBTQI role used to be one that would garner praise for being 'brave' or 'daring' as if the actor were in danger of being tarred with the same brush as the gay or trans character they were portraying. Still, a number did take up the 'challenge', another way of suggesting you might have to work especially hard to pretend to be a lesbian as if it were akin to inhabiting the role of another species.

When it wasn't particularly cool or considered professionally smart, actors like Hilary Swank and Heath Ledger took on trans or gay roles and won. Hilary Swank deserved the Oscar for her performance as trans man Brandon Teena in Boys Don't Cry. After Brokeback Mountain, most of us could understand exactly why Jake Twist, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, couldn't quit Heath Ledger's Ennis Del Mar.

Moreover, all these performances have helped shift the cultural agenda when it comes to LGBTQI rights that bit closer to being well, cool with it. Which brings us to 2015 and someone like Elle Fanning, who evidently only cares that she does the role justice for her trans friends and the many trans teens she worked with in researching the part of Ramona/Ray.

In 2015, Fanning is in great company. In Todd Haynes' Carol, Cate Blanchett and her co-star Rooney Mara are utterly convincing as star crossed lovers in 50s America. Already Eddie Redmayne looks Oscar bound again for his role as one of the first recipients of gender realignment surgery, Lili Elbe, in The Danish Girl.

These are big award season, headline grabbing, bums-on-seats kind of films. The actors in them are major draws. The themes explored will - because of the biggest names in major films - reach the widest audience possible. These talents mean films get made. As a result, LGBTQI issues are being aired on an unprecedented scale.

But while LGBTQI people's stories are being told, they are often themselves shut out of the telling. This is most pressing with the transgender community, the most nascent of civil rights movements in 2015. It is a problem with is summed up by trans activist and journalist Paris Lees, who Redmayne reached out to when he learned he'd won the role in The Danish Girl. As Lees told Out magazine earlier this year: "As a trans woman, I don't think that if and when they make a biopic of my life I would want a cisgender man playing me. Politically, it makes me groan. But if anybody's going to do this justice, then I'm happy it's Eddie."

Lees' point is that it's not simply about the stories being told but who gets to tell them. In this regard, television is a step ahead of cinema. Last year Laverne Cox became the first trans woman to be nominated for an Emmy for her role in Orange is the New Black. The BBC broke new ground this year by casting a trans woman Rebecca Root in the lead for its trans themed sitcom Boy Meets Girl. The show was also the first to feature romance between a trans actress in a trans role and a cisgender man. A cisgender actress could have as adequately played the part, of course. It is, after all, called acting. But this ignores the fact that trans actors have historically been as sidelined in the culture industry as they have in society in general. To put a trans actress at the heart of its trans story, the BBC has gone the extra mile.

I don't think any of this takes away from the great work done by cisgender actors in trans roles, or any straight actor who goes gay and plays a blinder whether on big or small screen. After falling head over heels for Maura in Transparent, Amazon's award winning trans comedy, it seems impossible to think of anyone else who could embody her liberation as the (cisgender) man who plays her, Jeffrey Tambor.

The reality is there isn't a trans actor or actress with the reach to get a film funded right now, never mind be a big box office draw. There probably isn't a gay actor either, though that feels closer on the horizon than ever. This is to do with access, historically. It is time for LGBTQI actors to get the same opportunities as anyone else. Quotas won't cut it either because delineating who can play what only restricts everyone. Perhaps that is the point: that in the audition room, there should be as little restrictions on the people you see as to the stories you wish to tell. After that, talent will out. 

Elle Fanning
Colin Crummy
the danish girl
about ray
the fall issue