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With ‘Disclosure,’ Hollywood Reckons With Its Failed Trans Representation

The new Netflix doc is about how Hollywood’s negative portrayals lead to the suffering and deaths of real-life trans people of color

Sam Feder could not have predicted the documentary he’d spent six years working on would premiere the same week the Supreme Court ruled to protect LGBTQ rights in the workplace. Nor could he have predicted protesters would be marching to demand justice for the deaths of Tony McDade, Riah Milton, Dominique Fells and all Black trans people killed in the U.S.

But his new film, Disclosure, which chronicles the fraught history of trans representation in Hollywood, could not be better suited for a moment when white America is being called upon to learn the stories of Black people in our country — including Black and brown trans people, whose experiences are often excluded from the history we learn in school. 

Disclosure was made with the new world in mind,” Feder, a trans filmmaker, tells me. “At its core, it’s about a community that has been systemically oppressed. Trans people, especially black and brown trans people, known that experience intimately.”

The documentary, out now on Netflix, traces the imagery of trans people and gender subversion on screen over the last century. Feder starts in the 1910s, when silent film director D.W. Griffith (The Birth of a Nation) made a gender-nonconforming body the butt of a joke in Judith of Bethulia. The documentary ends with today’s current depictions of transgender young adults, including actress Hunter Schafer on HBO’s Euphoria and the diverse cast of predominantly trans people of color on FX’s Pose.

At times, the documentary presents as a visual textbook. Trans celebrities like Laverne Cox, Mj Rodriguez, Chaz Bono and Trace Lysette teach us about the fraught implications of classic transgender characters in Boys Don’t Cry and The L Word

As the film progresses, it becomes clear that Feder does not believe representation equals change. The sensational talk shows of the 1990s dehumanized trans folk while Cox’s 2014 Time cover with the headline “The Transgender Tipping Point” presented a sense of change that Feder felt society hadn’t yet achieved. “It was really important to not lose sight that visibility itself is not the goal. It’s a means to an end,” Feder says.

To exemplify a part of the limitations about the current state of onscreen trans representation, Feder turned to Her Story actress Jen Richards and Survivor contestant–turned–writer Zeke Smith to outline why trans women are disproportionately more visible in entertainment than trans men. In addition to the commodification of all female bodies, Feder says, he’s heard many in the queer community believe that trans men have more privilege in passing as cisgender. “It’s a problematic thing to say, and also, people just don’t think trans men exist, so they’re not [an] easy place to go to when you want to add a twist to the plot,” Feder says.

The documentary, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, received immediate praise and holds a 95 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Taylor Swift even tweeted last week her excitement about viewing the documentary. 

Still, Disclosure has its critics, namely those who feel Yance Ford, director of the 2018 documentary Strong Island, was not given enough screen time. Ford is the first openly transgender man to be nominated for an Oscar. He appears as a talking head in Disclosure, but his historic documentary is not discussed.

Ford tells me he’s fine with Disclosure omitting his film. “Strong Island doesn’t deal with the violence against trans people,” he says. “Participating in Disclosure wasn’t about bringing attention to my film but about our collective voice as trans people.”

In Strong Island, Ford investigates the 1992 murder of his brother, William Ford Jr., who died at 24. Netflix recently made the film available for free on YouTube alongside numerous other educational documentaries. Ford believes the documentary’s focus on the killing of a Black man correlates to ongoing protests after the murders of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks. “It’s an honor to my brother’s memory,” Ford says of the renewed interest in his documentary.

Disclosure doesn’t live in a vacuum, nor should it be regulated to a women’s and gender studies syllabus. Ford is adamant that the film is not a theoretical retrospective — it’s a vital understanding of how Hollywood’s negative portrayals of his community lead to the deaths of real-life trans people of color.

“Hopefully one of the things that will be evident when people watch Disclosure is that everyone, including the trans people who lost their lives, must be counted among the dead for whom we are working for justice,” Ford says.