June 18, 2020 at 8:14 am EDT | by Kaela Roeder
Netflix doc ‘Disclosure’ explores Hollywood’s history of offensive trans depictions
Disclosure documentary, gay news, Washington Blade
Laverne Cox recalls her thorny history with Hollywood in the new documentary ‘Disclosure’ out today on Netflix. (Photo courtesy Netflix)

Dil (Jaye Davidson) disrobes for Fergus (Stephen Rea) in “The Crying Game” and he runs to the bathroom to vomit. The scene is later parodied in “Ace Ventura.”

Candis Cayne makes history as a trans actress in a trans role as Carmelita on ABC’s “Dirty Sexy Money” only to discover watching it they’ve lowered her voice electronically in her first scene. 

Actress Candis Cayne says she’s played every offensive trans stereotype imaginable in her career in the new documentary ‘Disclosure.’ (Photo courtesy Netflix)

Trans is a trope used for cruel comedic effect in dozens of movies and shows from “Soapdish” to “Married … With Children” and used to exploit guests on trashy ‘90s talk shows such as “The Jerry Springer Show.”  

A new eye-opening and mostly comprehensive documentary on Hollywood’s depiction of the transgender experience titled “Disclosure” created by trans filmmaker Sam Feder starts streaming on Netflix on June 19. 

The documentary follows several transgender media industry leaders and their experiences watching transgender representation on screen throughout their lives and later becoming actors and filmmakers themselves. Well-known creatives such as Laverne Cox, Lilly Wachowski and Chaz Bono are featured as well as clips from everything from early silent D.W. Griffith movies to classic Hollywood fare like the Cary Grant vehicle “I Was a Male War Bride” to Flip Wilson and Milton Berle to “The Jeffersons,” “Paris is Burning,” “Boys Don’t Cry,” “The Crying Game,” “Ace Ventura” and dozens more. 

“Disclosure” covers a wide range of topics, from studying the dawn of the film industry in the early 20th century to problematic storylines in the present day. 

Feder, who directed, and Cox, executive producer, spoke by Zoom Monday about the process with the Blade and the Windy City Times, a Chicago LGBT newspaper. 

WASHINGTON BLADE: How did this film get made and what was the impetus for it? 

SAM FEDER: There were two documentaries that really changed my life. One was “The Celluloid Closet,” and that’s about gay and lesbian representation in Hollywood. The other is “Ethnic Notions” by Marlon Riggs, which is about black representation in film in Hollywood. I always wanted to see that history for trans people with that type of critique and analysis and nuance. Then fast forward to 2014 and trans visibility was increasing and mainstream society was talking about us more than ever before, and I wanted to give trans and non-trans people more context to understand these changes in our culture, this history and how we got to this point of visibility. And, it was really important that we not lose sight of the fact that visibility in itself is not a goal. It is the means to an end. So, I felt like there was more to the story than what the public was seeing and talking about and I wanted to tell that story. 

WINDY CITY TIMES: Why do you call it “Disclosure”?

FEDER: I don’t even know where to start with this one. So the idea that the responsibility of the trans person is to disclose their identity is so pervasive and it is such a violent assumption that anyone owes someone else an explanation of their history. It’s framed in this way, that you have done something wrong if you do not disclose.  I think most trans people can relate to that tension and that understanding and I think a lot of us have internalized that as well, that we feel this anxiety around like, “Do we need to tell? Do they know?” But that is always upfront, first and foremost, so it really came from the idea that also all the images we see really also rely on the fact that we’re not real. They just say, over and over again, that we’re not who we say we are. Laverne, do you have anything to add to that because that’s you know, I mean, it’s your thing. You came up with the title and I assume it resonated with you in some way. 

LAVERNE COX: Absolutely. I was on a reality show in 2008 called “I Want to Work for Diddy” and I remember I met a guy at the Duane Reade Pharmacy, I think around 2009 or 2010-ish. I am in the Dwayne Reade Pharmacy, and then he asked for my number, and then we meet like an hour and a half later or something for drinks at a nearby bar. We are sitting at the bar and I was just like, “So yeah, I’m trans” and “I’m transgender, whatever.” This was like 2009. He knew that I was trans but he was just so surprised that I just sat down and just was like, “Yeah, I’m trans, whatever.” He had dated trans women before who were scared to disclose, who were not always comfortable disclosing. It was obviously for safety reasons, too —  to disclose sometimes meant violence. Unfortunately that is their history of what it means to be trans and so I just — it was so empowering for me to just sit there at that bar and just be like, “I’m trans. What’s the problem?” 

And it’s been such a beautifully empowering thing for me to just be able to stand up, or I’m like, “oh Google me” … I love owning my transness. It’s so freeing to be in this space of full ownership of who you are, for me personally. I’m not saying this needs to be, you know, the situation for other trans folks — but my God. How freeing it’s been you just be able to sit at that bar, and I’m like, “You have an issue? OK, let’s go. I have stuff to do, if you have a problem then I can move on.” It is just a beautiful thing. 

BLADE: How did you get permission to use all those movie and TV show clips in the film? 

FEDER: All the clips that we use in the film came from personal stories and personal anecdotes and that was the nexus of telling this history. I did about 80 interviews with trans people who have worked on one side of the camera or the other and wanted to gather their memories of transgender representation, and from there accrue the database from which became the primary document of the film. While we were creating the story, it was crafted in such a way that you create original arguments with the footage. When you can create an original argument among certain context, you have fair use over material. So, we practiced our first amendment right.

TIMES: How do you think things could change where we can have trans people playing non-trans roles?

COX: It takes a casting agent, it takes a showrunner, or a director or a producer. It’s a few different entities. I mean, I’m proud to say that in the Netflix series “Inventing Anna,” that we are on hiatus from shooting because of COVID-19, I play a woman named Kacy Duke who is a naughty trans woman. I was cast because … the team thought I was the best person for the job. I mean, there are other instances too, like Candis Cayne plays a non-trans character. Hari Nef on “You” plays a character that is not trans in the first season. So it’s already happening, which is great. 

FEDER: I want to just add to that though. I think you know, what does it mean to play a trans or a non-trans character, right? Just because there’s … no disclosure we still don’t know what’s happening. I’m always curious to know that emphasis on whether the characters trans or not. 

COX: That’s a brilliant point. I think with Kacy Duke because she is a real walking, talking, human being in real life, we can’t say, “In case he’s not trans.” But with fictional characters, the character could be trans, and does it matter? Should it matter? You know, years ago,I had a joke that was if it doesn’t involve periods or pregnancy I can play it. 

BLADE: Do you think the era of cis actors swooping in and winning Oscars for trans roles is over? 

COX: You know, I don’t know. I mean, I don’t like to predict the future. My therapist told me years ago that making positive or negative predictions of the future is not reality. I think it’ll be really interesting after “Disclosure” and after the consciousness that hopefully we’ll be raised because of this film, if that happens again. I think that’ll be really interesting and curious and we’ll have a much more educated audience and industry winning if that is the case. 

Trans activists Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson have not received the credit they deserved in early gay rights history, filmmakers say in the new documentary ‘Disclosure.’ (Photo courtesy Netflix)

(Editor’s note: The Blade covered many of these topics last fall in a story on the 20th anniversary of “Boys Don’t Cry” called “Boys Don’t Cry” at 20: rethinking trans actors.”) 

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