This feature discusses transphobia and transphobic hate crime.
Do you know that feeling when you’re sitting in a movie theatre and everyone’s laughing at something, and you just don’t get it? Nomi Marks – a trans character played by a trans actress – asks her girlfriend this question in the groundbreaking sci-fi series Sense8. The sentiment captures the experiences many viewers in the LGBTQ+ community feel when watching adverts, television and movies. But despite the strides that have been made in portraying LGB stories onscreen, the transgender community disproportionately faces a portrayal of their lives that feels inauthentic, is offensive or undermines the fight for trans rights.
Disclosure, directed by Sam Feder and available on Netflix, is an extensive exploration of Hollywood’s depiction of transgender people and the impact of those stories on transgender lives. As a white cisgender ally, watching Disclosure provides frank, essential insight into the significance of trans representation in the media and its power in promoting and preserving the trans community.
There have been a handful of excellent documentaries celebrating similarly important milestones – The Out List, The Celluloid Closet – but none take such an extensive look at trans representation across the media, and these films often minimise the journey trans performers have made. And, promisingly, so much progress has been made since The Out List was released in 2013 that audiences need a refresher on what has been achieved and how things need to change.
After watching Disclosure, you’ll see that this is a long to-do list.
Most notable in Disclosure is the exclusive contribution of trans actors and activists to telling their own stories. There is major star power in Disclosure: important figures such as Candis Cayne, Trace Lycette, Alexandra Billings, Brian Michael Smith, Chaz Bono articulate their stories with such power. Bianca Leigh discusses the radar trans people possess to identify when they are part of the joke or are the joke, while Laverne Cox regales us with personal anecdotes of facing laughter for her very existence on the New York subway, to highlight how Black trans femininity is often considered.
The list of diverse trans talent is staggering, and the fact that these performers have become such recognisable (and bankable) stars is a promising indication of how the glass ceiling is starting to chip away. However, we become privy to the century-long discrimination these performers have endured and continue to face. The film answers a pertinent question: why is media exposure so important?
Disclosure informs us that 80% of Americans don’t personally know a trans person, meaning the only exposure they receive is from the TV and films they watch, the music they listen to, and the adverts they see on billboards. When so few people have access to a diverse range of trans stories, authentic depictions are essential. And superficial inclusion won’t suffice: stories produced, written and performed by cisgender artists inauthentically convey the issues trans people face, as well as depriving trans artists of work.
Dallas Buyers Club saw Jared Leto play a trans woman whose role’s sole function is to facilitate the growth of a straight white man, before herself dying of AIDS. Leto happily accepted an Academy Award for this portrayal, and in his acceptance speech made no sufficient acknowledgement of the struggle real trans women face. That passivity is unacceptable. And transphobia continues to be an insidious presence in society despite the strides the community has made.
One need only glance under Munroe Bergdorf’s Twitter account to witness the vitriol, ridicule and physical threats she receives for living authentically as a Black trans woman. Trans people continue to be attacked – and murdered – disproportionately. Stonewall reported in 2018 that two in five trans people (41%) and three in ten non-binary people (31%) throughout the UK have experienced a hate crime or incident because of their gender identity in the previous 12 months; and as always, we should remember that victims often don’t come forward to disclose their attacks.
It feels like political powers and media outlets are capitalising on and sensationalising transphobia to push their agenda or deter people from addressing the issues that currently affect marginalised groups. And herein lies the power of authentic representation.
Writer, actor and activist Jen Richards contends that trans characters still incite anger among ignorant viewers, but they can’t take out this vitriol on the characters themselves: they attack real trans people on the streets. They vote against trans-inclusive laws and for candidates who endorse conversion therapy and oppose supporting trans children. They take to social media to support notable public figures who capitalise on anti-trans rhetoric, while basking in their (typically white) cisgender privilege. And the dangerous cycle continues.
The film powerfully examines the idea of ‘passing’ and the pressure trans actors have faced to adhere to gender roles and codes. It sheds light on the experience of Sandra Caldwell, a veteran actress with over 51 credits to her name. She reveals that she only came out as trans when auditioning for the role of Mama Darleena Andrews in the 2017 Broadway play Charm.
It was her first time auditioning as an openly transgender woman, having connected so deeply with the character she was destined to play. And there are moments in Disclosure that leave the audience shocked by how insensitive and offensive filmmakers and producers have been to trans performers. Take Silence of the Lambs and the gross ignorance on display in the character of Buffalo Bill.
I remember watching Dirty Sexy Money when it first came out in 2007, and Candis Cayne became the first trans actor to play a recurring trans character in a primetime TV show. This is a major milestone in trans representation on television, but there was a detail I was not aware of at the time that Disclosure brings to light: when Cayne’s character Carmelita first speaks, the producers lowered her voice two octaves in post-production to signify to the audience immediately that she is a trans woman.
The moment that hit me the hardest, however, came when Jen Richards was discussing Call Me Cait, Caitlyn Jenner’s controversial docuseries on her transition journey. The show received criticism given Jenner’s Republican politics and her white, privileged experience, but Richards contends that good ultimately came from it. She mentions a scene featuring an inspiring dad who appreciates his trans child ‘being so lose to themselves’ and contending how special and unique trans kids are. Richards had a moment of realisation:
‘It hurt because I had to be okay with my mom saying “I will never call you Jen because Jen murdered my son. I had to be okay with that in order to survive myself… And when I saw that father go so much further than I even thought was possible, it hurt…why couldn’t my mom be like him? And see the value in my experience? But the person who’s most responsible for failing to have that kind of vision is me. I’ve never seen myself the way that father saw his own child…I had to see it. And now that I’ve seen it, I want that.’
Cisgender queer people may identify with this sentiment on some level, but Richards articulates an emotion I feel is unique to the trans experience and creates perhaps the most emotionally resonant moment of the film.
Disclosure is a sublime study in trans representation over the last century, sharing stories told by those this experience affects directly. But the film is most effective in exposing the uncomfortable moments cisgender audiences have been complicit in and the work we need to do to promote trans representation.
Lesbians, gays and bisexuals must show unfaltering support to the trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming communities in whatever way we can: read trans authors, follow trans artists on social media, and watch TV and movies with trans actors, made by trans filmmakers. It shouldn’t take a blistering documentary to remind us of what needs to change to bolster a marginalised community, but hearing this diverse range of voices will hopefully lead to positive change.