Former "American Idol" contestant Ryan Cassata, who has been a transgender activist since he was 13, accused the show in an open letter posted on Facebook last week of courting him because he's trans. Although he was invited to audition last year, he was cut, and Cassata told Billboard that around the time Vanity Fair featured Caitlyn Jenner on the cover, "American Idol" producers began aggressively pursuing him again.
"I have received many phone calls and emails begging me to try out in front of the executive producers of the show in the past couple months," the 21-year-old Cassata wrote on Facebook. "I’m not interested."
"LAST YEAR I was interested, and I tried out but you DIDN’T WANT ME, I wasn’t 'contemporary enough' and being transgender wasn’t such a hot issue in the media like it is now. This year, I see what American Idol is all about, another pre-casted show, that’s looking for 'singers' to boost their ratings, and now they just need that TOKEN TRANS person for America to gossip about, to hype up the show."
Cassata told Billboard he thinks producers initially approached him last year after finding his YouTube channel, under the handle xQUEERKIDx, which has almost 24,000 subscribers. Although he has recorded nine albums and has been showcased in music festivals including the 2013 "Van's Warped Tour," he accepted that first offer to audition. But he made it clear he was initially approached.
"Never in my life would I have been like, 'I'm going to try out for American Idol,'" Cassata told Billboard.
In addition to accusing "American Idol" of attempting to "exploit" him and the transgender community, Cassata wrote on Facebook that the way producers talked to him betrayed a less-than-enlightened attitude not only toward transgender people, but also toward women and people of color.
"You said you don't want a transgender person 'WHO STICKS OUT LIKE A SORE THUMB,'" Cassata wrote. "You also referred to trans people as 'MEN IN DRESSES' and 'TRANSGENDERS.' That is very ignorant, and transphobic."
He also wrote that "Idol" producers told him they were looking for "sexual blonde girls who are dumb" and "black girls who are dramatic," which Cassata called "sexist and racist." In addition to accusing the show of looking for a "token trans" to exploit for ratings and profits, Cassata told Billboard that there's too much media emphasis in general on the binary nature of gender, when there are a lot of people "in between." He is also wary of the media treatment of transgender people as a trend.
“I think every television show is trying to get a trans person on their show [now]; it’s trendy."
An "American Idol" spokesperson issued a statement to Billboard about Cassata's claims:
"American Idol is about finding great talent and the show welcomes diversity in its participants. Our audition team has often reached out to former participants to audition again. Many find that their voice improves over a year and they have greater success in their second or third attempt. American Idol is about finding great talent and the show welcomes diversity in its participants. We will look into the veracity of the statements in Ryan Cassata’s open letter."