In June 2014, Time magazine featured Laverne Cox, star of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, on a cover proclaiming America’s “Transgender Tipping Point”. Cox, a black transgender actress, was at the forefront of a wave of popular media images of transgender people, including the critically acclaimed Amazon series Transparent, Janet Mock’s bestseller biography, and fashion advertisements like Barneys featuring transgender models. In the six years since Cox’s Time cover, mainstream depictions of trans or non-conforming gender have proliferated, including Hunter Schafer in the HBO coming-of-age drama Euphoria, the non-binary character Taylor Mason on Showtime’s Billions, and the Netflix show Pose, set in 1980s New York’s ballroom scene.
While mainstream visibility is welcome and influential, especially for a historically marginalised community like transgender people, Cox warns against celebrating representation in which “a few people are elevated and the majority of people are still struggling,” according to Disclosure, a Netflix documentary she executive produced about the history of transgender representation in American media.
“My own life is such a profound example of what representation can do,” Cox told the Guardian, citing numerous tales of trans women she’s met who transitioned, came out to friends and family, or decided to stop living in secret after seeing her character on Orange is the New Black. On the other hand, “trans people have experienced unprecedented levels of violence, and this legislative assault in state legislatures and on a federal level that is unprecedented” .
Disclosure examines the sometimes ghastly, skewed mirror of transgender depiction in American film and television, a past fraught with harmful prejudices and double-edged swords. With a scarcity of portrayals, representation, which is often sneaky or played for laughs, takes on disproportionate importance. According to a Glaad survey, 84% of Americans do not know anyone who is transgender; hence, the majority of knowledge and impressions about transgender individuals come from the media, including transgender people who are navigating their own self-perception. More positions, higher visibility, means more and potentially better information; nevertheless, it may also result in a faster backlash for the approximately 1.5 million Americans who identify as transgender.
This visibility paradox was on full display during the week of Disclosure’s release, which began with a Black Trans Lives Matter rally in New York attended by tens of thousands of people and 25,000 people in a Los Angeles march – an unprecedented public display of solidarity in the face of systemic violence against transgender people of colour. Two black transgender women were killed in the previous week: Dominique “Rem’Mie” Fells in Philadelphia and Riah Milton in Liberty Township, Ohio.
The Supreme Court affirmed federal civil rights protections for LGBTQ+ residents this week, prohibiting 26 states from continuing to enable employers to terminate transgender employees based on their gender, just days after the Trump administration announced plans to scale down transgender healthcare protections.
The seesaw of news puts the efficacy of visibility to the test, as “we see time and time again that as marginalised communities get mainstream attention, backlash ensues,” Disclosure’s director, Sam Feder, told the Guardian. While re-examining decades of trans representation in media for Disclosure was “really cathartic,” particularly “seeing it in context that’s held and driven by trans people,” Feder said he “didn’t want to lose sight of the fact that visibility is not the goal, it’s just a means to an end.”
Nonetheless, by unravelling over a century of depiction, Disclosure demonstrates how tropes, preconceptions, and recognition weave and bake into the present, for better or worse. Disclosure, with comments from a bevy of transgender entertainment figures like Trace Lysette, Jazzmun, MJ Richardson, Candis Cayne, and Tiq Milan, revisits early Hollywood, when cross-dressing was prohibited but men dressed as women in countless silent films.
Misleading, dangerous, or problematic depictions and stereotypes have existed for the same amount of time, such as the terrible trope of trans characters as psychopathic killers – from Murder! in 1930, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls in 1970, and Psycho in 1960 to the serial killer Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs in 1991 – which primed audiences to fear transgender people.
That historical link plainly connects to another recent headline: Harry Potter author JK Rowling’s essay on transphobic misconceptions. After addressing Rowling’s comments as “deeply problematic” and the burden of representing a marginalised community in public – “The ‘divide and conquer’ method of pitting women’s rights against the rights of trans people has been a very effective tool for dividing marginalised people,” she told the Daily Beast – Cox declined to add more on the Rowling essay, other than to support actors from the Harry Potter franchise, including Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Eddie Redmayne.
Disclosure, a film about the history of anti-trans or false depictions in popular culture, has the potential to “enlighten JK and others to the roots of their patriarchal fantasies,” according to Feder.