“Disclosure has been a project I’ve been thinking about for probably 20 years,” filmmaker Sam Feder tells PinkNews.
It was the summer of 2015 when he finally committed to the project, a painstakingly-researched history of Hollywood’s depiction of trans people.
“It looked like Trump was going to happen,” he recalls. “Caitlyn Jenner was a big deal at the time. Laverne Cox had been on the cover of Time. But the whole ‘trans tipping point’ situation did not reflect the trans people I knew. And so that was when I committed.”
Soon after, Sam had lunch with the editor and writer Amy Scholder. “I had seen Sam’s previous film about Kate Bornstein, Kate Bornstein is a Queer & Pleasant Danger, and loved it,” Amy says. “I knew from my own work and my own experiences in amplifying the voices of LGBTQ+ people, whether it was in publishing or in public programming, that here was an opportunity to be part of a project that was really going to change the way that people could see and understand trans lives, and what we understand about trans storytelling, and therefore what we understand about stereotypes and stigma in our culture.”
Amy says she wanted to be on board because of the way Sam was working: “Sam was out here, doing interviews, collecting data, and relying really on the experiences of trans people. And making trans experiences the experts of this history.”
Five years later, the film that Amy produced and Sam directed, Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen, is a Netflix original, widely critically acclaimed and currently campaigning to be shortlisted for the Oscars (Feder would be the first openly trans filmmaker to win an Oscar).
Yet speaking to the pair, it’s clear that Disclosure has made an impact more effective, and more significant, than recognition from the establishment.
Disclosure, Black trans lives and Halle Berry.
Disclosure was released in June 2020, weeks after the Supreme Court ruled that it’s illegal to fire workers for being gay or trans and as Black Lives Matter protests spread across the US in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.
“At the time of the release, the most pressing feeling was that we didn’t want to distract from the movement that was happening in America,” Sam says. “Amy and I wanted to be out on the streets with people, protesting, being in the uprising and supporting in as many ways as possible.
“But then we quickly realised that the film was part of this conversation, right? That trans people, specifically Black trans people, understand what it’s like to be continually alienated by a white supremacist culture. And to be dehumanised and have their necks stepped on. This is the history of our culture, especially in America.”
Early in Disclosure, images from old films show what Sam calls “the deep connections that are inherent between racism and anything that’s transgressing gender expectations”. While their project was always about centring trans voices, events over the summer helped crystallise that “our goal was to amplify Black trans voices every step of the way, which is something we’re continuing to do”.
Going back over 100 years of movies, Disclosure shows how badly trans people have been represented: as grotesque, freakish, frightening. The stories told about trans people – exclusively by cis directors – have generated mistrust and misunderstanding about what it means to be trans.
One way in which Hollywood has perpetuated dangerous myths about trans people is the tendency to cast actors of the wrong gender into trans roles – cis men playing trans women, mostly, though we also see this with Hilary Swank playing a trans man in Boys Don’t Cry.
This year, right after Disclosure came out, Halle Berry was the latest cis actor to take on a trans role – to swift, fierce backlash.
“Our team got in touch with hers and encouraged her to look at Disclosure and understand the ramifications of casting,” Amy says. “And within 48 hours she backed out of that role, and appreciated the opportunity to think about it differently.”
She continues: “We loved that, not only because it changed her mind and gave, hopefully, that acting opportunity to a trans actor, but also that it really showed that cancel culture is not the answer, or the only means of effecting change. You can have dialogue. We love Halle Berry and what she’s done in the industry, and she didn’t know and she was curious and interested, and that experience was really meaningful to us.”
A group of judges used clips of the film to train each other.
Disclosure not only put trans people in front of the cameras, but behind them, too. On-set, they had a pledge that cis crew would share skills with trans filmmakers.
And since the film was released, a ripple of impacts – both inside and outside the film industry – can be observed
“Ryan Reynolds posted that he learned so much from this film, and that it was going to change the way he wanted to make movies in the future,” Amy says. Reynolds realised “that who he hired made a difference and he hadn’t really thought or understood that before”.
Sam adds: “We’ve also had some direct impacts outside the industry, which is super exciting to our activist hearts.
“A group of California judges used clips of the film to train each other about the bias they might have about trans people in their courtroom. A lawyer at the ACLU watched Disclosure to prepare for argument in defending a trans client.
“And in the industry right now, Crip Camp is a film that’s getting a lot of attention. Jim, the director, slipped in to my Instagram DMs the other day, and he was just like, you know, I talk about Disclosure all the time, when I’m talking about having to hire and train disabled filmmakers.
“And he’s trying to incorporate [the model] in all the talks that he’s doing around Crip Camp. Hearing that from another filmmaker is incredible.”
Non-binary representation in Hollywood.
At the start of the documentary, clips of non-binary actors – including Chella Man and Theo Germaine – raised hopes that Disclosure would also look at Hollywood’s representation of non-binary trans people.
But this doesn’t materialise in the film. Asked why not, Sam points out that “there wasn’t much history to reflect on”.
“Hollywood is just starting to incorporate non-binary representation, but it is so few,” he continues. “The crossdressing tomboy, the sissy girl, whatever these things are, it’s there, it’s just the language is constantly changing. And people [that we interviewed] didn’t have that much to say about it.”
One notable exception to Disclosure’s impressive roster of trans voices – which saw Laverne Cox helm an assembly of trans talking heads that included Jen Richards, Susan Stryker, Tiq Milan, Leo Sheng, and Mj Rodriguez – was Asia Kate Dillon. They were the first non-binary actor to play a non-binary character on TV, in Showtime’s Billions, and also played a non-binary character in action movie John Wick 3.
“We really wanted Asia Kate Dillon and had reached out to them,” Amy admits. “They were really the biggest breakthrough for non-binary representation. And it was very much on our radar, and they were just not available.”
Sam added that Dillon is “so brilliant”.
“They would have been able to hold the complexities of those issues better than anyone else. Asia Kate was the perfect person, and they’re friends with Laverne, they were texting about being involved, but then they were just always on set,” he says.
Elliot Page coming out as trans was ‘bittersweet’.
On 1 December, Oscar-nominated Juno star Elliot Page came out as trans. Very quickly, Netflix changed the credits on all their work to reflect their new name. Tech giant Sony corrected a fan who misgendered Elliot. And trans people everywhere joked that we need to start coming up with new names.
While Elliot coming out hopefully means “there’s potential to [have] more conversations around trans masculinity”, Sam says, he adds that it’s hard not to see the moment as bittersweet for trans communities.
“There is something bittersweet about seeing the industry, for the most part, doing a great job,” they say. “But there’s something about how all the credits are being changed – which is awesome! – but again, it’s like: what about for the community living in the world on the streets, and fighting to get their documentations changed? To get the right name on their ID card? Because these things put them at real risk every day.
“So, I’m glad a high-profile celebrity is able to get their IMDb credits changed. That’s awesome. That’s respectful. It’s a great model. It’s a great gesture. It’s a great signal. But let’s not pat ourselves on the back so quickly, right, let’s put that energy towards people who are just trying to have access to safe housing and affordable health care.”
Amy agrees, adding that “it’s incredibly gratifying to feel like we, with making this film, might have helped to carve out more space for someone who is able then to make the transition and be public”.
What Amy hopes – and trans audiences everywhere will know – is that Disclosure has helped trans people “to feel like there’s room in the world for them”.