If You Want to Understand Trans Identity in Film, Watch “Disclosure”
As part of my goal to watch the entirety of the Black Lives Matter collection on Netflix, I began by watching Disclosure. Disclosure interviews trans people to discuss trans representation in the film industry. This documentary is one of the most important collections of trans stories in media, and trans people in the film industry.
The first thing in this documentary that struck me was how transmasculine people actually have less representation than trans women. For men, generally there is far more representation in film, but for trans men, there is almost none. Part of the reasoning addressed in Disclosure is that women are more of a commodity in film, meaning the film industry has more to gain from telling trans women’s stories than trans men’s.
In my personal experience, I have only seen one piece of media with a transmasculine actor in it, and the story didn’t revolve around his transness, so I still can’t identify with him.
If you’re cisgender, you probably don’t understand what it’s like to never have an example of yourself in media. I am growing up with no frame of reference for what I can be, what I can do, what older me could look like.
Disclosure is excellent in its discussion of trans people onscreen, and our experiences within the film industry, but I want you to understand what our experiences offscreen are, and that the discrimination and hardships faced by the interviewees are ones we all face in our day to day personal lives.
There’s a narrative often reported by conservatives that calls being transgender a “fad” or “trend.” While I know this to be false (as do all trans people), we often are disconnected from older trans people. Nick Adams acknowledges the GLAAD statistic that 80% of Americans don’t know someone who is transgender, saying “We don’t know a trans person when we’re trying to figure out who we are…”
When I went to a meeting at my local transgender resource center, I nearly cried because I had no idea transmasculine people over 20 existed. For the first time in my life, I met transmasculine people who weren’t in high school or college. Think of a core part of your identity, whether it’s your race, your profession, your familial status. Think of something that makes you who you are, that helps define you. Now imagine never meeting older people with that trait. It erodes our sense of selves to not have anyone to look up to.
Externally, this narrative often leads to trans people being forced to provide education to those around us in order to simply exist in that space. I’m sure anyone who’s discriminated based on physical characteristics (like the color of your skin or a visible difference) understands what I’m talking about. It’s exhausting to have to correct people in order to simply feel comfortable. In Disclosure, this is shown through the many televised interviews given by trans people. I can assure you that trans people are asked those kind of questions constantly in normal conversations, and while I’m pretty open to answer questions, and am confident enough to tell someone they’re being invasive, most trans people are deeply hurt when asked about their genitalia.
I put my gender identity on all college applications and still got scholarships for women, still get emails for female entrepreneurs, still wonder if my employers will correctly gender me, because past ones have not. I’ve been misgendered in class by my peers, even when wearing a shirt with my pronouns. I’ve been asked if I have a “female body,” in a class, or whether I’ve had gender-affirming surgeries. My university has trainings on inclusion for queer people, but teachers aren’t required to take them. This mean I have to be the one to bring up using pronouns during introductions, especially early in my transition. Even the teachers I know still misgendered me in front of the entire class.
The worst part is that none of these people are bad people. None of them were actively transphobic, but their lack of education led to the creation of a space which wasn’t safe for trans people who were visibly trans. This passive harm is most of what trans people face daily. Uneducated people probably don’t know that every dollar spent at Chik Fil A, or Hobby Lobby, or the Salvation Army, or other Christian businesses often go towards organizations trying to reverse the few rights that are protected for us.
Even within the LGBTQ community, we are denied seats at the table. For those who think the Queer community is a united force for good, you are wrong. There are racial hierarchies which exclude people of color, and frequent exclusions of trans people. Trans people have been excluded from Gay rights bills because our existence makes it less likely to pass. Trans women of color like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson devoted their lives to the Gay Liberation Front, and were excluded by the gay men they fought for.
In the modern queer community, it isn’t uncommon to encounter gay men who won’t date a trans man, or lesbians who think the existence of trans women somehow invalidates their womanhood which is only tied to their genitalia and sex characteristics. Briana Titone, a transgender representative in Colorado says this about the exclusion of trans people: “I feel that support for the T in LGBTQ is more talk and less action. Everyone that is LGBTQ always says they support the LGBTQ community, but it’s still a struggle to get trans people front and center” (source).
Trans have to hope that a Supreme Court ruling prevents our community from losing access to healthcare, or to jobs, because it will make things fractionally better for some of us. Every protected right we have has been under attack from Trump’s administration and Democrats aren’t as helpful as they should be. When transphobic women like J.K. Rowling open their mouths, they incite violence on my community. They’re quoted within a month by Republican lawmakers looking to revoke what few protected rights we have.
Even in the current conversations about Black Lives Matter, that I rarely see Tony McDade, Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells and Riah Milton appear on lists of Black Americans killed by police. Women like Brayla Stone are being misgendered, and someone who literally admitted to her murder on Instagram hasn’t faced any consequences. Beloved President Ronald Reagan covered up the AIDS crisis because no one cared that Queer Trans People of Color were dying. Trump is doing the same thing by covering up COVID-19, while also removing trans people from the Affordable Care Act.
Disclosure is so incredibly good, and it doesn’t even touch on major trans issues. I’m overjoyed that they discuss Pose, because that show is the best collection of trans filmmakers and actors to ever exist in the mainstream. Watching Pose connects me to my history, and celebrates my identity as a trans person. I don’t know how to explain how moving it is to see trans actors be celebrated, be valued, be seen.
If you consider yourself an ally to trans people, watch Disclosure. Watch Disclosure and pay attention. Listen to all these trans people as they discuss their experiences. Understand that just having an openly trans character isn’t automatically good representation. You need trans actors, and you need stories that don’t fetishize us, or glorify violence against us, or tell our stories without us.
Watch Disclosure and understand that representation is not enough. That we deal with so much more than just a lack of representation. We need you to vote, to support anti-discrimination laws, to support trans lawmakers, to support easy gender marker changes for every state. We need you to correct each other on transphobic statements, to help protect us from harassment and violence. We need you to make healthcare universal, so we don’t have to keep emptying our savings to feel like ourselves when our parents don’t support us, or our insurance doesn’t cover us. We need you to use our correct name and pronouns. We need you to understand that it’s okay to mess them up, just apologize and move on. We need you to contact your senators, your mayors, your city councilors and fight for us. We need you to fight for us onscreen and offscreen.