“Critical Love”

Chris Holmlund (University of Tenessee)

“How do we love something critically?” is one of the key questions director Sam Feder asks the 30 transgender actors, writers, educators, media makers and watchers interviewed in the Netflix documentary, Disclosure. In answer, Feder and his/their speakers and crew attempt a balancing act. How to keep the trans community in the audience happy re-screening, re-living material they know (all too) well? How to ensure cisgender viewers don’t sign off and move on? How to widen viewing options while speaking to, with, for? How to educate and entertain?

We hear from trans men and trans women in the film. (Attention in the past has mainly focused on trans women). One younger gender-fluid interviewee speaks of being non-binary. Executive producer, actor, spokesmodel Laverne Cox is given most screen time as emcee and commentator. We also hear from Oscar-nominated documentarian Yance Ford, GLAAD’s Nick Adams, actor Candis Cayne, journalist Tre-vell Anderson, activist Chaz Bono, ACLU’s Chase Strangio, and others. Many issues are raised, among them the greater discrimination and exclusion trans individuals of color face, including too often from lesbians and gay men.

Disclosure centers on the complex way media representations shape both cis and trans perspectives. Interviewees speak about the risks and the potentials that attend “visibility” and identity-proclamation. 80% of people living in the US don’t know a trans person, writer-actor Jen Richards says, citing GLAAD. This makes film, TV, and other media representations particularly influential. Richards is one of the most perceptive and articulate of the movie’s speakers. She insists that the answer to any critiques of trans-produced representations, including presumably of Disclosure, is that “more representation” is needed. There is not, cannot be, a single politically correct trans representation, just as there is no singular trans or cis response.

Mid-way through the film, Richards voices concerns with the title. I shared these on my initial viewing. Is trans identity something secret to be “revealed”? The “reveal” is, after all, the dominant trope of transphobic media, maintaining focus on genitalia to the exclusion of all else. I modified my response after a second viewing; I also spoke with cis and trans friends. Just as various interviewees reflect on their initial responses to a given film or TV show, giving time and memory their due, I decided: what if the title, “disclosure,” is alternatively – or better yet, also – a “teaser” designed in part to lure a cisgender viewer in search of titillation? With this film transgender subjects are invited to disclose. What they “reveal” is that some cisgender viewers and producers desire a secret but that, as “out,” proud, and trans, they cannot be reduced to a hegemonic, pejorative trope.

What Disclosure does best is to voice contradictions. It is, after all, an interactive/archival compilation documentary. It aims for a “dialectic,” putting theses and antitheses in place, leaving viewers to figure out the syntheses, plural. Those we “meet” talk about their responses to rapidly-edited clips (largely predictable, often unutterably depressing) culled from mainstream and indie feature films, TV talk shows, and – most heartening – recent TV series like Pose. The take-away: times have changed for the better; dangers still loom; things could worsen again overnight. As many critics have commented, Disclosure is an updated trans version of The Celluloid Closet, if mercifully now without straight cis expert celebrities, and brought to you solely thanks to a trans cast and crew. That the crew, not just the director, are all transgender is important: changing representation behind the camera is as, if not more, important than changing representation in front of it.

Two key trans groups are sadly – to my view – missing from Disclosure: younger trans folk and elder-activists. Instead all the speakers in Disclosure are 30-40 years old. All are currently working actors, critics, or industry players. Self-described transsexual/“tranny” Bornstein, Stonewall veteran and lifelong prison activist Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, John Waters star Elizabeth Coffey-Williams, or others could also have been heard from. Disclosure does include a still from Pink Flamingos (John Waters, 1973) that features Coffey-Williams. She was refused a role in Dog Day Afternoon (Sidney Lumet, 1975) because, Richards says, she “looked too female.” She had been considered for the part, and she looked more like Liz Eden, on whom the part is based, than did the cis male actor, Chris Sarandon, who replaced her. As “Leon,” never Liz, he sported a perpetual 5 o’clock shadow. He received Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for his performance. More might have been learned had Coffey-Williams told her own story. She told me she made herself up to look like Eden because she was an actor. We might additionally or alternatively have heard from non-industry folk, among them more trans scholars. Historian-filmmaker-activist Susan Stryker is present, presumably included for her directing and screenwriting.

Such qualifications serve, however, to make Richards’ point anew: we need more trans voices, visibility, viewpoints, media. Yet quantity alone is not enough. As Kristen Warner says of black representation, dimensionality is also needed. The question goes beyond negative and positive images. A related question: can trans performers subvert stereotypical roles in feature films and/or documentaries, for example, whether these are cis- or trans-crafted?

From my perspective – I’m cisgender and queer; I’ve engaged with trans issues, media, and theory since the mid-1990s – Disclosure constitutes an important teaching tool, one not just for the classroom. It reminds all viewers that there are powers in and limitations to representation; it prompts reflection on the intersections between representation and employment; it fosters recognition that media representations are not, cannot be, end-all solutions to transphobia, discrimination, and violence.

Moreover, Disclosure works best when discussed. It’s a question of critical love.

“Toward Communal Trans Spectatorship”

Slava Greenberg (University of Southern California)

The first part of Disclosure is almost unbearable for any trans spectator, bombarding us with triggering archival footage of transphobia and clips cut out of their contexts in films and television series portraying trans and gender variant people in dehumanizing ways. The intensity of the back-to-back screening of these clips felt like a violent attack, almost as if I was viewing Nazi propaganda films. As a self-defense mechanism, I held onto Susan Stryker’s intervention and theorization of the transness of the cut. I initially concluded that Disclosure is not meant for me as a trans spectator but rather as a film scholar, cinephile, film historian, archive buff, and activist. This provided the distance I needed to continue watching and discover the gift that awaited. It took over a third of the film – and the accumulation of testimonies countering, opposing, and objecting to these violent images – for me to feel safe again and let go of my defense shield. This renewed sense of safety is a direct result of the testimonies of somewhat diverse trans “talking heads” not only responding to the clips but also re-contextualizing them, resisting their original use. They manifest a visual and a verbal opposition.

Disclosure offers different pleasures (and pains) to trans and cis spectators. While the archival clips are meant to educate cis spectators, the testimonies address trans viewers first and foremost. My own reading of these testimonies encourages “thinking how narrative can itself transition depending on embodied spectatorship” (Joshua Bastian Cole 108: 80). The film explicitly aims to be about and for oppositional trans looks. Executive producer Laverne Cox asserts that: “The film is about trans spectatorship. It’s about how we look and how we see…It’s bell hooks who came up with the idea of the oppositional gaze, which is so exciting to think about…What does it mean to center trans ways of looking?…Is there a trans gaze?”

Disclosure also gives trans viewers the opportunity to experience the pleasures of being represented, joining in communal spectatorship, even traveling in time. Although each interviewee sits alone in a room they are often edited as if they were a group: several respond to the same scene, film, or series. Disclosure thus offers a sense of collective spectatorship, documenting interviewee responses and including trans viewers, too.

As the film progresses, focus shifts from general commentary about trans representation and onscreen visibility to testimony from those affected by transphobic portrayals, introducing various ways of coping with and resisting such images. Emmy nominee Rain Valdez shares her memory of a family viewing from her childhood: “My family and I would always watch movies together. We were watching Soapdish but once we got to the end my family got really quiet because it gave them a confirmation that if I chose a certain life… I would be the bad guy. Or I wouldn’t be loved. I was seven or eight at the time, and we never talked about it after that, but I remember the next day, my mom would try to get me to wear more masculine clothes.” Valdez’s testimony allows trans viewers to travel back to our own ‘first’ (traumatic) encounters with images of us, not for us, and also, at the same time, makes it possible for us to join contemporary and future trans and nonbinary children in their/our living rooms, in contestation and solidarity.

When several interviewees share different experiences of the same film or television series a communal spectatorship, one most trans viewers never experienced, is gradually crafted. In his theory of “revisitation,” Cáel M Keegan notes how trans spectatorship must involve a “temporal folding-back of the self upon its own record of perception” that invites us to reencounter something we have seen before, but have not quite understood (2016: 30). This experience was offered to me through Disclosure’s sequence of testimonies by men of trans experience for whom, as for me, Max (The L Word) was a first encounter with a toxic trans masculinity (ignorantly and dangerously) attributed to hormone therapy, particularly testosterone.

Six different trans people react to Boys Don’t Cry, a film which was the inspiration for Jack Halberstam’s articulation of the “Transgender Gaze” (2005). Zeke Smith and Michael D. Cohen focus on the first part of the film and speak about how the representation of a (white) trans masculine character resonated with them; Brian Michael Smith and Laverne Cox focus on the violence and killing of Brandon and how terrifying watching it was for them; both Mickey R. Mahoney and Tiq Milan speak about the erasure of Brandon’s Black friend and ally Philip DeVine from the film. While this sequence problematizes the idea of a unified trans gaze by insisting on the intersectionality of race, age, and gender, the exclusion of disability contributes to the erasure of that part of DeVine’s identity. This happens too frequently with representations of people with disability; however, it also brings attention to the absence of disabled trans interviewees in the film.

Disclosure shows us an oppositional gaze at play by presenting an incomplete kaleidoscope of looks and a partial polyphony of voices. We are shown different experiences of the same film. The ‘oppositional’ sequences remind us that there is no one possible ‘trans look.’ While this could be an educational moment for cis viewers, its greater significance lies in its potential to offer trans spectators an experience of communal spectatorship. As the film shows, we have been consuming such images alone. The ‘talking-heads’ transforms into fellow-audience members talking back to the screen with you. We are offered a unique experience of opposing and applauding trans representations together. In this streaming era, intensified during our current quarantine reality of home viewing, this film offers a glimpse into what communal or collective spectatorship may mean for those who have little or no direct access to it.

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