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In Open Letter, Hollywood Companies Pledge to Improve Transgender Representation

Nearly four dozen production companies, talent agencies, film studios, and advocacy groups have announced their support for expanded LGBTQ representation, calling on Hollywood to use its soft power to tell authentic stories.

In an open letter published exclusively in VarietyGLAAD and 5050by2020 — a strategic initiative within the Time’s Up organization — urged networks and studios to prioritize telling stories about and by transgender people. The unprecedented rallying of support comes in the wake of controversy after Scarlett Johansson abruptly exited the film “Rub and Tug,” in which she was set to play a trans man, following social media outcry.

“We believe that we are at an unprecedented cultural moment — a moment when we can ask Hollywood to use its power to improve the lives of trans people by changing America’s understanding about who trans people are,” the letter reads in part. “We want to help you tell our rich and diverse stories, and we need your help to do it.”

Signatories include the major talent agencies, including CAA, ICM Partners, UTA, and WME, and production companies like Ava DuVernay’s Array Alliance, J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot, and Norman Lear’s Act III. Other organizations include the Casting Society of America, Participant Media, and SAG-AFTRA.

“Hollywood tells the stories that help people understand how to feel about themselves and how to feel about people around them who are different,” the letter reads. “As Roger Ebert said, film is an empathy machine. We know projects like ‘Ellen,’ ‘Will & Grace,’ ‘Brokeback Mountain,’ ‘Milk,’ and ‘Moonlight’ helped to break down stereotypes about gay and lesbian people, and the timeline for marriage equality would have been remarkably different without them. Women, people of color, people with disabilities, and diverse faith groups have made it clear they want more authentic stories about their lives in films and on TV. Trans people feel the same way.”

In addition to the letter, GLAAD and 5050by2020 also developed a resource guide for studios and networks to use when they are looking for trans writers and talent. It details how to cast roles authentically and how to make work environments safe and trans-inclusive.

5050by2020 co-founder and “Transparent” creator Jill Soloway led the effort, telling Variety in a recent interview that the campaign will seek a pledge commitment from the major studios and networks next. (Soloway identifies as non-binary and uses the pronouns they/them.)

Soloway said Hollywood has learned that diversity and inclusion matter, particularly in the development of projects featuring women and racial minorities. “Producers understand that you can’t do a project about people of color without bringing people of color on board,” Soloway said. “Trans and non-binary people are the same.”

Soloway said cisgender actors portraying transgender individuals is harmful because of the message it sends to non-trans people who may believe transgender people are merely dressing in costume. “When it comes to culture-making in Hollywood, one of the issues trans people face on a day-to-day basis is this idea that they’re ‘dressing up’ as the opposite gender,” Soloway said.

Soloway addressed the casting of Jeffrey Tambor in the lead role in “Transparent,” saying a choice like that would not be made today. That decision, Soloway said, “was born out of my ignorance. I had to have my education in public.”

The movement sparked in the wake of Hollywood’s reckoning with sexual harassment and gender discrimination, Soloway said, has grown to be inclusive of other causes as well. “This feels like a historic moment for me, in terms of the access to power that trans and non-binary people have,” Soloway said.

Time’s Up, which counts the support and involvement of high-powered figures like Reese Witherspoon, Shonda Rhimes, and Eva Longoria, grew into “an intersectional power movement,” meaning that “white women, cis women, straight women looked around, and said, ‘who else is here in this movement and how do we provide allyship to those people,'” Soloway said.

Soloway said while a trans person might have been a lone voice on the internet before, yelling and not being heard, “we’re creating a moment where a producer or a studio might think to cast a cis person in a role as a trans person and say, ‘I read that letter and it’s actually not okay anymore … the moral code has changed around this.'”

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