“Disclosure: Trans Lives On Screen” Is a Vital Document of Trans Cinema

Towards the beginning of Sam Feder’s new documentary Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen Susan Stryker is talking about early filmmaking pioneer D.W. Griffith. Stryker explains that Griffith’s 1914 film Judith of Bethulia, known for inventing the dynamic montage, prominently features a gender nonconforming person. We see this person — flamboyant, androgynous — navigating a silent film aesthetic we associate with more normative images. Stryker’s eyes gleam with the confirmation that trans people have always existed and have always existed on screen. Our lives are intrinsic to the art form of cinema.

Cut to Yance Ford none too impressed. “As the Missy Elliot song would say, we just need to back it up for a minute,” he interjects. Ford brings up Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation a film that inspired the resurgence of the KKK — before returning to the earlier work. “Not only is Griffith incredibly racist, but he understands that you can turn gender nonconforming people into the joke of your story.”

This piece of history — this gender nonconforming person captured on celluloid over a hundred years ago — is suddenly reframed. Twice. Griffith cannot be praised without context. And is the inclusion of this stereotypical character even worthy of praise?

Trans film history — like all film histories — is one filled with contradictions, and Disclosure succeeds by making these contradictions its subject. The movie doesn’t split representation into simple categories of good and bad, nor does it discuss intersections of race, gender, and class as mere asterisks. They are the entire point.

The film remains committed to the discomfort, pain, and disagreements that accompany an accurate look at our cinema. There is no attempt to sanitize or create a simplistic narrative of progress. “There are lots of ugly things about our history that feel like an assault,” Ford says. “But I think we have to know them. I think we have to learn them.”

Disclosure features a remarkable list of interview subjects that includes executive producer Laverne Cox, as well as Brian Michael Smith, Jen Richards, Lilly Wachowski, Tiq Milan, Rain Valdez, Ser Anzoategui, Candis Cayne, Angelica Ross, and many more. And almost every movie and TV show discussed for its negative and stereotypical portrayal of trans people is met with one of the people speaking its praises.

Marquise Vilsón found Jerry Springer empowering, because it showed that there were people like him. Zackary Drucker didn’t take issue with The Crying Game until years later, because simply seeing a woman with a penis changed her life. There are so many stories like this. One person’s traumatic memory is another’s powerful revelation. The documentary leaves room for all of this. It goes beyond the intellectual and emphasizes the emotional experience of representation.

One of the film’s most powerful moments finds Laverne Cox discussing Ava on Nip/Tuck. She breaks down the scene of Ava’s disclosure beat by beat. Then she takes a deep breath. “So okay, so I need to—” she begins before exhaling again. “Just even talking about this as a trans person, even like— it’s so violent. It feels so— it’s so hard to talk about. I’m like cringing and I want to cry talking about it. I want to cry talking about this narrative, because it’s just horrible.”

There’s a lot of tangible knowledge to glean from this film, but it’s moments like this that emphasize why that knowledge matters. Whether discussing the ways we’re portrayed on screen or any other facet of our lives, trans people are often expected to educate. And that’s what Laverne Cox was doing — breaking down a transphobic moment, a disclosure, objectively and in detail. But this isn’t an objective experience. Watching portrayals like the ones on Nip/Tuck hurt. They’re personal. Revisiting them hurts. Talking about them hurts. I appreciate the opportunity to witness that hurt in other trans people. We’re so often forced to perform strength and understanding.

There is a bitter comfort in moments like this and there is a euphoric comfort in their foil. We may witness the pain of describing the Nip/Tuck moment, but we also see the joy Laverne Cox experiences describing her unexpected connection to Yentl or the inspiration she found in Candis Cayne’s role on Dirty Sex Money. We have a remarkable ability to be seen, to find one another, to find ourselves, even within work intended to mock, exploit, or ignore. It’s a beautiful thing to witness.

And yet, despite all its achievements, the documentary isn’t perfect. The film does not address the lack of representation for disabled trans people. Little of the progress we’ve seen in trans representation has included disabled people — cis queer media is also severely lacking — and it would’ve been meaningful to have disabled trans interview subjects as part of this discussion. The minimal amount of footage to cut to doesn’t excuse this lack of inclusion — it highlights its importance.

The film also doesn’t cover how sexual orientation factors into trans representation. Cis men are still centered in the majority of our love stories — trans lesbians are especially rare — and it would have been nice to see that discussed with the same nuance the film embraced for other topics.

And finally I wish there was more focus on the trans creators who have made work outside of the mainstream Hollywood system. We’re shown Jen Richards on Netflix and HBO, but nothing from Her Story. There’s no mention of Tourmaline whose short films such as Atlantic is a Sea of Bones and Happy Birthday, Marsha! are incredible works of cinema and documents of history. There’s no time spent on Harry Dodge and Silas Howards’ By Hook or By Crook. So much of our best cinema was made by us in short films, webseries, and microbudget films. Highlighting these works would emphasize that improved representation will not come from assimilation — it will come from trans people enjoying a similar creative freedom on a larger scale. We need to be the ones to tell our stories — as actors and as writers and directors.

But there’s comfort in the film’s inability to be comprehensive. Not only is new work being made every year, but old work is constantly being rediscovered. There is too much out there for any one person, any one film. “Every trans person carries within themself a history of trans representation just in terms of what they’ve seen,” Jen Richards says. “What trans people really need though is a sense of a broader history of that representation, so that they can kind of find themselves in it.”

The need for that broader history isn’t something that can be fully achieved. We are all students — none experts. But Disclosure is vital whether it’s the beginning of your education or a supplement along the way. It’s a reminder of what representation can do and what representation can be. It is itself a work of trans cinema. Find yourself within.


Disclosure: Trans Lives On Screen premieres this Friday, June 19th, on Netflix.

Drew is an LA-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. Her writing can be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Thrillist, I Heart Female Directors, and, of course, Autostraddle. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about trans lesbians. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @draw_gregory.

Drew has written 119 articles for us.

11 Comments

  1. Hey Drew, thanks for covering Disclosure! I did want to let you know that Sam made a conscious, and difficult, choice to focus on mainstream film and television, which is why independent work from folks like Silas, Tourmaline, and myself, wasn’t included. We would love for Disclosure to be just the beginning of an ongoing critical look at trans representation on screen, one that covers the incredibly deep and broad history that we barely skimmed the surface of. Your work here is an important part of that too! I just wanted you to know it wasn’t an accidental oversight. Again, thanks for your part in this work!

    • Ah, that would also explain why _Better Than Chocolate_ wasn’t mentioned–which, to the best of my knowledge, is the earliest of a trans lesbian in a feature length film (and since there’s been, what, _Daughters of Fire_ and Nicole Maines in _Bit_, and…that’s about it?)

    • Wow! Didn’t see a clip of Dark Angel! It’s a major piece of Trans history on TV! It was widely received as a positive representation! Played by Trans actress Jessica Crockett. This was the first time an openly Trans actress was ever cast in a role written specifically as a Transgender character. The character was also a Trans lesbian and potential love interest to a black queer woman character! I really love that in itself! Broke to many barriers to ignore! Well, what I remember most about this documentary is Laverne Cox looking fabulous and having two wardrobe and makeup changes! Thanks, Drew a great read!

  2. This sounds interesting!

    I really love anything that is able to have space for the multiplicity of experience, and most of all for fuller explorations of those experiences. When society deems something to be “bad”, the only way it seems to be able to tip that scale is to counterbalance it with “good”, but that having to be reactive is reductive and exhausting.
    I’m very here for stories that can take shape freely, not as a counterbalance, determined by the weight against them, but able to explore their own mix of gravity and weightlessness.

    Thank you Drew, your writing always gives me pause for thought!

  3. Disclosure is wonderful. Like you said Drew, I loved that the documentary is structured as a conversation between different trans actors and producers. By featuring so many different perspectives, sometimes about the exact same show or film or scene, it creates a nuanced look at a a really disturbing history. I also appreciated that it avoided a simple progress narrative–the ending quotes from Susan Stryker and Chase Strangio about the limits of representation were so powerful.

    I do wish they included other scholars in addition to Susan Stryker. Particularly because her claim that Griffith’s 1914 film is the first to feature a cut that advances a film narrative is wrong. I’m not sure why she says that, but film historians trace editing to the 1890s and film narrative to 1905-ish, if not earlier. On another note, the character she mentions is certainly not the first cross-dressing actor to appear on screen. I recommend Laura Horak’s book Girls Will Be Boys: Cross-Dressed Women, Lesbians, and American Cinema, 1908-1934 (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01ABBSY28/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1) for a broader history of cross dressing in silent film. Anyways, that’s really a minor point, but people who study trans media history, aesthetics, and industry have a lot to add to the conversation.

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