or so many of us, the media has such a powerful influence in deciding who we love and who we desire but then also who we fear and who we hate. That translates to our judgments around who deserves to be treated like a human being and, in turn, who deserves human rights. This not only affects our prejudice at an individual level but it tracks directly to government policy as we have seen in recent weeks. Which is why it is so important to push for content that shows the humanity of people who have been marginalised historically because that shift is what can save lives. With its Netflix release on June 19th (Juneteenth), Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen serves as an educational tool that can help millions of people around the world better understand the challenges faced by our trans siblings.
The world has not been kind to the trans community, particularly the Black trans community, who are subjected to some of the highest levels of discrimination and violence in the US. Disclosure does a meticulous task of holding a magnifying glass over the many ways Hollywood has contributed to this crisis with its disrespectful and dehumanising depictions of trans people throughout the history of television and film.
Arriving in Park City for Sundance, Disclosure was my very first screening. I was pretty excited at the prospect of interviewing the cast – Laverne Cox, MJ Rodriguez and Yance Ford to name a few of the trans people of colour featured. I’ve loved seeing them come up on screen, especially with “Pose” being such a breakthrough show in 2018. Cox, who served as an Executive Producer, clearly played an important role in this production and in uplifting Black trans perspectives and experiences. She features most prominently out of the trans people of colour and speaks to issues she faced being both Black and trans. This focus is, and remains, one of the documentary’s strengths. It’s a powerful instrument for teaching and learning, doing a thorough job revealing just how insensitive and transphobic television and film has been since the beginning of motion pictures as a medium. The impact is made clear when we are shown footage from over 200 different scenes we’ve all seen before; yet within this framing, we are asked to see them in a new light that exposes their harm. In witnessing these film moments, we can feel the hurt of the community as trans artists open up about how they’ve been affected. But there was one particular segment that, surprisingly, missed the mark.
During one of the interview segments, Jen Richards, a white trans woman, stated that celebrities like Kim Kardashian who rock “full lips and curvy figures” are being influenced by their gay stylists who are ultimately influenced by their trans friends working the streets. It is well known that the Kardashians are infamous for appropriating Black culture, especially from Black cis women. They are constantly under fire for it. For Richards to make mention of full lips and curvy figures, specifically within this context of the Kardashians’ adaptation of physical characteristics and style, and make no mention of Black cis women’s influence is disrespectful and irresponsible. These are the very features that Black cis women have been historically under attack for while white women and non-Black women of color have been celebrated.
When I brought this issue up with Richards during the screening’s Q&A, she responded: “I think that was just an editing choice because that was a truncated version of a much larger conversation...the vast majority of trans sex workers are women of colour and a lot of those aesthetics are actually born out of…Brazilian sex workers and also like the major cities of America, those are predominantly Black and Latinx, so that was absolutely part of that narrative, I think just a little bit of it got cut out.” As the Q&A ended, I witnessed a number of white women gather around Jen to coddle her in support as if she had just been attacked by me. It was off-putting to say the least. But this oversight in the documentary stayed with me.
Editing choice or not, Richard’s comments were still a harmful form of erasure, and that is one of the very issues this documentary sought to tackle. As Ericka Hart says, “Your queerness will not absolve you of your racism.” And being a part of queer and trans communities doesn’t automatically provide a pass for being complicit in pushing narratives that support anti-Black misogyny. Despite Disclosure’s ability to unpack issues around trans visibility and representation, some of these finer details remained unaddressed.
After leaving the Q&A, I made my way to the “Black, Queer, and Unapologetic in Hollywood” panel where Richards also happened to be. As I was walking out, she approached me and apologized for being defensive and admitted it was wrong of her not to mention Black cis women. She said she was talking to the director (who was also present at the Q&A and heard everything) and that they were looking at taking it out of the documentary. They needed to. But they didn’t.
Instead, they reshot Jen Richards’s commentary. In her attempt to clean up the original statement, she points to Kim Kardashian’s plump lips again, but now her notes have been switched up to include her hair extensions and “silicone injected curves.” She also specifies that these are ultimately influenced by the sex workers who had to exaggerate their femininity to compete on the streets in order to survive. So after being called out on their misogynoir, rather than scrap the offensive scene altogether, they doubled down and repackaged it. How did this happen? Both Jen Richards and director Sam Feder were present during the Q&A when I spoke along with several talent who feature in the documentary and then I noticed Laverne Cox had viewed my Instagram story where I had posted a recording of the whole interaction. How do you go through the trouble of a reshoot and come up with this? They still failed to address their erasure.
Leading up to the premiere, I had contacted the film’s publicist to try to connect with the QTPOC talent for an interview while I was on location for the screening. Unfortunately, due to filming schedules, Cox and Rodriguez were unavailable. I was hopeful that Yance Ford might be available, but the publicist was pushing the director, Sam Feder, who is white and trans. While it wasn’t ideal, I still wanted to make the most of my time and use the opportunity to dig deeper into the crafting of the narratives that ended up in the documentary. And I still had questions about addressing those more problematic pieces. Shortly after my personal encounter with Jen Richards back in Utah, the publicist reached out to say that she felt that in the interests of me getting a proper interview, it would be better for me to wait until one of the POC cast members were available rather than connect with Sam Feder. I have still not had an opportunity to interview anyone from the documentary. Despite this missed opportunity to deepen what is a relevant and timely in-community conversation, I remain hopeful that Disclosure will continue to shine a light on the complexity of trans representation while pushing us all to interrogate how we show up with and for one another in QTPOC spaces.
What we cannot forget is that racism exists within the queer and trans community. Transphobia exists within queer communities and communities of color. Misogynoir exists across the board. I would love to see more content that truly captures the essence of what it means to approach QTPOC representation with an understanding of intersectionality and how it affects our most vulnerable. Disclosure doesn’t quite get us there, but it is a worthwhile start. Watch it on Netflix and let’s keep this conversation going.