The Netflix documentary tracks the history of trans representation in media and how that representation influenced the world's perception of trans people.

By Nick Romano
June 16, 2020 at 12:27 PM EDT
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“I died a lot. They kept killing me.”

“I’ve died so many times I can’t even count…”

Trans actresses Alexandra Billings (Transparent) and Candis Cayne (Dirty Sexy Money) are talking about all the ill-fated trans characters they’ve had to play on screen over the years. Some, as they reveal in the Netflix documentary Disclosure, were prostitutes murdered by men in a panic. Others were patients in hospital dramas dying from some complication with their gender reassignment surgeries — story lines that had no basis in reality.

But there's a more alarming parallel between what they are talking about and the plights of trans people in the real world.

A spiritual descendant of films like The Celluloid Closet and Ethnic Notions, Disclosure lays out the history of trans representation in media, from early black-and-white films to the exploitation seen on Jerry Springer talk shows to revolutionary television moments like Pose and Transparent. If less than a quarter of Americans know a close friend or family member who identifies as trans — that's according to GLAAD and the Public Religion Research Institute — then media becomes a resource for how the majority of the nation learns about trans people.

Director Sam Feder, a trans man, hopes Disclosure "can be used as a model, not only for how we learn about trans lives but all marginalized lives, for better or worse." He tells EW over the phone, "If you're not a cis straight white dude, the media's pretty horrible. And then Black trans lives are so intensely vulnerable."

An organization known as Transrespect versus Transphobia Worldwide tracked 331 reported murders of trans and gender-diverse people worldwide in 2019 with 30 reported in the U.S. In 2020, the Human Rights Campaign already logged at least 15 killings of trans or gender non-conforming people by violent means in America.

Amid ongoing Black Lives Matter protests after the death of George Floyd, Iyanna Dior, a Black trans woman from Minnesota, was attacked by a gang of 20-30 men outside a convenience store. Tony McDade, a Black trans man, was fatally shot by police in Tallahassee, Fla. "It was not lost on me that his name has not been picked up," Feder said of the lack of media attention around Tony's death. In close proximity, J.K. Rowling used Twitter to spout transphobic remarks, which she then expounded upon in a written response online. Shortly after, President Donald Trump's administration announced plans to roll back protections that shielded trans people from discrimination in health care, echoing the same rhetoric as Rowling: defining male or female "sex" as the gender determined at birth. A rare reprieve from these constant attacks came Monday when the Supreme Court announced in a landmark 6-3 ruling that LGBTQ people, including trans people, cannot be discriminated against in the workplace. Undoubtedly, there's more work to be done.

For Feder and his executive producer on Disclosure, Orange Is the New Black star Laverne Cox, Rowling is She Who Must Not Be Named. Cox refers to her as "someone recently who made some transphobic comments in the media." "[YouTuber] Kat Blaque was saying 'this person' can have whatever opinion they want to have but then they can't say 'I'm not transphobic' if they have those opinions," the actress and activist says. "You can't say, 'I support trans people but I think you're still a man no matter what you do.' Both these things cannot coexist." Feder acknowledges the dueling feelings on this subject. He doesn't want to give Rowling's comments any more attention than they've already claimed, yet the Harry Potter author has dominated so much of the recent conversation. "I think Disclosure could enlighten J.K. to the roots of her patriarchal fantasies," he says.

Feder has long felt an urgency to get a film like Disclosure in front of the public. He tracks its beginnings back to 2014 when Cox appeared on the cover of Time magazine alongside the headline "The Transgender Tipping Point." "Society is saying we're at 'a tipping point.' We hit a certain level of success because of this visibility," he says of that moment. "It's dangerous when you elevate one person to a point of success and ignore the realities for the majorities of the rest of the community. I wanted to give trans and non-trans people a context to understand the changes in our culture, the history, and how we got to this point of visibility, all while not losing sight of the fact that visibility in itself is not the goal. It's just a means to an end."

Feder's research began the following summer when he set out to interview trans creatives in on-camera and behind-the-camera positions. Eight months of this gave way to "a database of material," including archival footage acquired from the archives at the University of California, University of Victoria, New York Public Library, and more.

"I initially wanted this film to be about all trans media, but then I realized the stories that kept overlapping were about Hollywood. That was a big switch for me," Feder explains. "I stopped watching Hollywood film and TV 20 years ago because I found it so disturbing and so insulting and so painful. I felt that life is hard enough, I don't need to be watching stuff on screen that makes me feel worse."

He found it especially difficult to separate the research process from his personal experience watching 1992's The Crying Game, which became a topic in the documentary. "I loved that movie," Feder says. "I saw it in theaters and I remember the build up around it. All the branding, all the promotion was around don't tell the secret. I was completely caught up in that." The secret, as he discovered in an East Village theater in New York City, was that Dil (Jaye Davidson), the girlfriend of Irish Republican Army member Fergus (Stephen Rea), had a penis. Upon seeing it, Fergus vomits profusely — a moment that turned into a trope that still haunts trans characters in films like Ace Ventura and shows like Family Guy. "It was such a bizarre reaction," Feder remembers of that scene. "There was no way to not internalize that. It was burned into my brain. It's still something I think about when I have a romantic interest."

Feder pivoted the direction of Disclosure towards Hollywood because "it was really clear that the collective memory really sits there, and it's such a universal experience for trans and non-trans people alike." Around this time, Cox saw Feder host a presentation on the same topic during an event at Outfest. A week later, they were in their first meeting about Disclosure. "I have a lot to say about our history, about trans representation. There was a sense of trust," Cox says of Feder. "I always felt like he trusted and continues to trust my instincts, my integrity. And I trust him implicitly. It was this give and take."

Ava Benjamin Shorr/Netflix

In January 2019 and then later in August of that same year, Feder and Cox interviewed dozens of subjects, including Chaz Bono, The Matrix co-director Lilly Wachowski, Mrs. Fletcher actress Jen Richards, Pose stars Angelica Ross and Mj Rodriguez, Hustlers actress Trace Lysette, and Shameless actor Elliot Fletcher. Together, they unpack the history of trans representation and unravel the paradox that comes with it.

"The more we are seen, the more we are violated," writer Tiq Milan says in the film, in reference to physical attacks on trans people. "The more positive representation there is, the more confidence the community gains, which then puts us in more danger," adds Sense8 star Jamie Clayton. "I think the paradox of visibility is fed by the history," Feder tells EW. "It's not just that we're more visible so we're more vulnerable. We're more vulnerable because of what people thought we are because of the way history has claimed us to be."

Cox's hopes for Disclosure are three-fold, including how it can become a resource for Hollywood. "I think most of the talent in the film — actors, producers, directors — have found ourselves working with non trans folks with the best of intentions, but then they come in with story lines or scripts or concepts that are deeply problematic for a lot of different reasons. Explaining why those things are problematic becomes a really tricky thing to do."

Disclosure can also provide an understanding of how media has had an impact on the transphobia that's still fought today. "Understanding where these ideas come from and how they're perpetuated through the media is a consciousness-raising 'Aha!' moment, a process of decolonizing our minds," she says. "I feel at this historical moment there's still so much education that needs to happen." If she can internalize negative thoughts about herself as a black trans woman because of media, "isn't it possible for someone who is white to also do the same thing because we live in the same culture?" Cox posits.

In another sense, Cox is joyful to offer trans people the story of their own histories on screen, as complex and painful as that can be at times. "When we know where we have come from, if we have a sense of history, I think it always deeply grounds me when I can begin to imagine trans folks, black folks, women who have come before me, and how they've struggled and persevered. There's such a lack of trans history chronicled in the media. There's a huge lack. There really is."

With "hundreds of hours" of material that didn't make it into Disclosure, with interviews that couldn't be scheduled to meet their deadlines, Feder says he's ready to make a larger docuseries. "I also wanna make a film about [author-activist] Lou Sullivan, who was a pioneer in the trans male community," he adds. "And Laverne and I have been talking about working on some scripted projects together." It's clear that, from all the history told in Disclosure, there's still more to tell.

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