“Frankly, I kind of hate the idea of disclosure, in the sense that it presupposes that there is something to disclose. It reinforces their assumption that there is a secret that is hidden and that I have a responsibility to tell others. And that presupposes that the other person might have some kind of issue or a problem with what’s to be disclosed, and that their feelings matter more than mine,” sums up Jen Richards in Disclosure, Sam Feder and Laverne’s Cox’s brilliant documentary on the history of the depiction of transgender people in film and media.
From the earliest depiction of a gender-ambiguous eunuch in DW Griffith’s film, Judith of Bethulia, transness has been presented as something emasculated, to ridicule, something damaged, something subservient, conniving, and not worthy of love.
That earliest media portrayal has followed trans people throughout the 20th and into the 21st century. As Laverne Cox says in the film, even though we have always shown up in film as long as film has existed, trans people in media have always been presented in ways that suggest we are not real, that we are mentally ill, that we are men in costume and that we don’t really exist.
Disclosure is now streaming pic.twitter.com/fFktgGp04E
— Netflix (@netflix) June 19, 2020
The film documents the way in which cisgender people—overwhelmingly white, male heterosexual cisgender people—have defined gender through film and media, and how this has further invalidated our experiences and realities. Further, Blackness, queerness, and authenticity are erased in favor of white, misogynistic views of what it means to be a person who is transgender.
Critical, too, is exposing the deadly effect of having trans women played by cis male actors. “Having cis men play trans women, in my mind, is a direct link to the violence against trans women,” points out Jen Richards in the film. Eddie Redmayne and Jared Leto, for example, may sympathetically play trans women, but audiences see them off-screen as the cisgender men they are. This reinforces the harmful narrative that trans women are simply men in makeup and wigs. As such, we are pretending, we aren’t real, we are a problem that can be erased or even killed without consequence.
Disclosure allows trans people to contextualize our existence within the history of media, but It also importantly allows the trans people interviewed for the film to discuss their first interaction with transness through television and film—the way many of us, cis and trans, first interact with trans folk, since only 16% of folks in 2015 reported knowing a trans person.
My own first memory of interacting with transness came after knowing I was a girl, but at preschool being told that was wrong. And then, when I was about 4 years old, while watching Peter Pan on stage I asked my mother why the neighborhood girls could play pirates and Lost Boys but I couldn’t play Tinkerbell or Wendy. When I was 12, I learned the term transgender for the first time while watching a special on Jazz Jennings. Finally, I had the language to express my gender identity but in the same breath, I was only given a limited vision, a blueprint, a matrix, I felt, to being trans and happy.
After watching the Jennings’ special I became increasingly insecure about my body, my hair, my voice. I became obsessed with being “passable” and being “stealth.” I felt it was the only way I could survive and be happy. I began watching those same trans pageants featured in Disclosure, from old shows like Geraldo and Maury, further ingraining the thought that the only way I could exist was to assimilate to a hyperfeminine ideal.
This became dangerous and harmful as I found myself suppressing and policing parts of my identity and body. I wasn’t yet aware of the possibility of being openly trans—with bullying at school and in my neighborhood, my only wish was that no one would know I was trans—this way I wouldn’t be jumped in school, chased and teased. That all began to change once I saw Janet Mock on Piers Morgan in 2014. I saw a grown woman who looked like me standing in her truth, publishing a book, and living happily in the public eye after coming out. I finally felt like I could exist as myself, that someone could love me, that I could be someone.
The role trans representation has played in my own understanding of my gender identity has directly led to pursue my goals of becoming a filmmaker, director, photographer, and content creator. Too often are Black and Latinx trans women left out of the telling of our own stories. Too often are we coded as disposable and used as mere vessels for entertainment or to assit in the moral development of cis characters. We do not exist in story worlds outside the context of our gender, and that is partially what I hope to change. I am a girl who happens to be trans. This ‘happening’ influences every part of my life but I am made up of much more than just my transness. I am fighting for the day I am allowed to exist in my entirety.
One criticism I have with the film is that there wasn’t enough acknowledgment of the new generation of trans youth coming up. There was a passing reference to a few white trans youth, but an apparent ignorance of the way that Black and Latinx youth are creating our own narratives, forcing our own stories into the public eye, shifting intransigent cultural spaces into trans-positive, Black- and queer-affirming spaces. We are living authentically, out loud and so grateful to those who came before. We stand with gratitude on your shoulders and we leap ahead, empowered by so many featured in the film.
What really excites me about Disclosure is that this film will serve as the first time the new generation of trans youth, and especially Black and brown trans youth, see themselves represented on screen, and it will be a far more affirming experience for them. It goes far beyond the first interactions the cast members had with trans media depictions, and even beyond what I had just a few years ago.
Nearly every day, we can see the real life consequences of flawed representation through the violence enacted on trans people, especially trans women. Just last week in Hollywood, three transgender women were physically and verbally harassed by a group of cisgender men. A bystander—who was a part of a group of people openly taunting the women—caught the incident on camera. As the bystander recorded, he hurled hateful, transphobic comments, one of which was a reference to the film White Chicks, which features cisgender men dressed up as women as a comedic device. It should not been seen as a coincidence that he used, and ultimately weaponized, this film and its representation. His words were intentionally meant to mock, discredit, and devalue the identities and lives of the women being attacked.
These women, fortunately, survived and, with the support of their large social media followings, were able to aid in identifying potential suspects to the police. This possible sense of ‘justice’ or consequences for the perpetrators is not always afforded to transwomen who are attacked, as not all violence is caught on camera, or inflicted upon people with powerful support networks.
— Netflix (@netflix) June 25, 2020
For too long, these instances of violence have become common or expected for trans people. This is in no small part because of the media telling problematic trans stories and, subsequently, ignoring the role they play in creating real harm in our lives.
We are still being murdered, targeted and criminalized, but we are making that bigotry and racism unacceptable. We are fighting for a future where disclosure will be a thing of the past. We will just be who we are—all of who we are. We will force our radical inclusion. As deserving as anyone else of being in front of the camera, behind the camera, and creating our own images and narratives.
Note: There is an update in the case of the attack on the three transgender women in Hollywood, CA. Two men have been arrested and charged in connection with the attack. They will face charges including robbery and assault. More updates to come here as this story develops.
Sage Dolan-Sandrino is a GLAAD Campus Ambassador and rising sophomore at Bard College studying film. She serves as the founder and creative director for TEAM Creative Studio and a board member for GUCCI’s Chime for Change initative. Sage was also named to GLAAD’s inaugural 20 Under 20 List, presented by Teen Vogue.