“Disclosure” in Three Acts
A Personal Journey of Memories, Emotions, and The Road Ahead
Pain, anger, disgust, and hope. I experienced these feelings and many more during the emotional rollercoaster ride I found myself on with Disclosure (2020), the acclaimed documentary that traces the history of transgender representations in film and television. At first, I was full of excitement and anticipation, but as Disclosure started off and got rolling, my mood soon changed and I realised that I’d better brace myself for some unexpected twists and turns.
The first intense feelings I had to deal with arose from several media clips that brought back painful memories from my childhood and teenage years. Then, as Disclosure moved on through the decades, the pain morphed into anger at the general insensitivity toward trans people as seen in movies or TV talk shows. Finally, as the documentary focused on recent progress for trans people in media and elsewhere, a sense of hope and optimism swept over me, though at the end I also felt slightly stunned by all I had been through.
Of course, any good story should take you on a journey that triggers a range of emotions and Disclosure was certainly an excellent, though challenging experience. As I implied above, I saw Disclosure as a play of three acts that were intimately linked to my own life from childhood, through most of my adult years, and to my present life. So, I’d like to share my thoughts and reactions to Disclosure within the framework of my ‘Three Acts’ and the dominant emotions that characterised each act.
Before I go further, I should clarify two important points. First, I will use the terms trans or transgender rather than alternate forms for the sake of consistency. Furthermore, though most discussion here and in Disclosure focuses on transgender women, my thoughts are always with my gender-diverse siblings across the spectrum. We are all in this together.
Disclosure began with a fascinating look at transgender presence in movies as far back as the era of silent film. Though the film clips were full of blatant racial bigotry and the trans characterisations often bordered on the grotesque, the films were just too distant in history to take personally. They were repugnant, but not surprising given the attitudes of the time.
However, Disclosure became personally relevant as it started to focus on material from my childhood years in the 1950s and early 1960s. I could remember some of the footage included in Disclosure and elsewhere — from newsreels of Christine Jorgensen to Some Like It Hot (not in Disclosure) — to Bugs Bunny. Although these works embraced the familiar stereotypes, they actually had some very positive aspects as I was vaguely becoming aware that my gender identity was at odds with the world around me.
Quite naturally, my young mind wasn’t capable of understanding why I felt the way I did, but at least these works suggested to me that I might not be alone after all. I was amazed and excited by seeing a ‘trans’ Bugs Bunny as the beautiful, seductive Valkyrie Brünnhilde in What’s Opera, Doc? (1957). Of course, even that child understood that it was only a cartoon, but things became more ‘real life’ to me soon afterwards when my parents took me to see Some Like It Hot in 1959.
There’s no question that Tony Curtis (Josephine) and Jack Lemmon’s (Daphne) roles were ridiculous portrayals of cross-dressing men; however, they were real Hollywood Stars in a movie where Josephine and Daphne had major parts alongside Marilyn Monroe’s character. I can’t remember if I said anything to my parents during the movie, but afterwards they faced a barrage of uncomfortable questions that undoubtedly made them regret ever taking me to that movie!
Sadly, that was the end of my early innocence phase, and as Disclosure moved on through the 1960s to the early 1990s, I was taken back to my teenage years and the decades that followed, when all had to be hidden and fear of discovery always lurked in the shadows. The pain in Act One began here as many of the movies or television talk shows that Disclosure featured from those decades brought back distressing memories of those secretive, frustrating years of my life.
If you agree with the underlying premises of Tootsie (1982) or Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985) or Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), then trans women are quite naturally fair game for ridicule or pathetic souls to be pitied. But beware! Trans women can also be very cunning and deceitful so trust them at your own peril. Dressed to Kill (1980) went a step further as a closeted trans character becomes a dangerous psychopath who eventually murders the heroine. However, Dressed to Kill was arguably outdone by the depths of depravity attached to trans women in Silence of the Lambs (1991). After this sequence of clips, I had reached the stage where it had all become too much for me and I put Disclosure on pause.
The painful emotions I had struggled with all those years ago rushed back as though I had been transported back in time. I remembered the unsettling, confusing contradiction of being excited to see any representation of trans characters, yet appalled at the portrayals. Then there was the fear of marginalisation and, perhaps worst of all, the distress caused by concealing my true identity from family and friends. I could rationalise the secrecy and fear, but I was disappointed in myself and often felt guilty for not having the courage and integrity to end the charade and live openly and unabashedly as the woman I knew myself to be. Even though that secretive life is well behind me now, I couldn’t help feeling bewildered and upset by having to recall those depressing days in my life.
Eventually, I regained my composure and felt ready to pick up where I had left off. At that point, Laverne Cox was talking about “horrible narratives” that had her “cringing and crying,” and she “wonder(ed) if anyone, when they were constructing these story lines thought about the trans people watching.”
Laverne’s reaction to the narratives was the perfect cue to bring Act One to a close and set the stage for Act Two.
Outrage and Disgust
Susan Stryker, in her influential essay of 1994, “My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamonix”, draws a metaphorical parallel between herself, as a trans woman, and the ‘Monster” in Mary Shelley’s epic tale. Stryker embraces “her monstrosity”and maintains that our rage against transphobic attacks can be harnessed into a powerful tool to “redirect the force of the offense” and send “that energy back out into the world in a different way.”
In retrospect, this transformation described my emotions and reactions in Act Two perfectly — from venting to thoughtful, constructive channeling. However, as the next part of Disclosure unfolded, contemplation had to step aside to let venting, in the form of my viseral outrage at what I was seeing, have its time on stage first.
Whether the source of transphobia came from films or television talk shows, I was disgusted with the insensitivity or outright hostility on display. Perhaps the nadir was reached with “Ace Ventura Pet Detective (1994), where Jim Carey humiliates a trans woman by exposing her genitals and then indulges in a disgusting, bizarre scene where he vomits and, as writer Zeke Smith comments in Disclosure, “tries to cleanse himself of the fact that he has made a romantic contact with a trans person.” The same message that trans bodies are innately revolting can also be seen in The Naked Gun (1994).
Unfortunately, both films were directly influenced by The Crying Game (1992), a film that I otherwise Ioved for the dignity and strength I saw in the trans protagonist, Dill (Jaye Davidson). However, one day after she had become romantically involved with Fergus (Stephen Rae), Dill physically revealed that she was a transgender woman. Fergus’ immediate reaction was to hit her and begin vomiting. So, despite having an admirable transgender character in a key role, The Crying Game left behind a damaging template that promoted abhorrence of transgender bodies and justified violence for perceived deceptions or violations of a heterosexual male’s virtue.
Although I could have slipped back into Act One depression after interpreting The Crying Game in this light, my mood of defiance and sense of self-worth was intact. Rather than feeling overwhelmed or powerless by the malicious transphobia of these films or television interviews, I felt totally capable of standing up to any transphobic rhetoric or behaviour against me or my trans siblings. In short, I had found “my monstrosity.”
The Way Forward
The first two acts of my personal journey with Disclosure were primarily set within the context of my past life and the conflicting emotions that tormented me for so many years. However, the landscape and nature of my reactions shifted significantly when Disclosure brought Sense 8 and Pose into the discussion.
At first, I was surprised at how deeply these stories and characters resonated with me. After all, I didn’t have a lot in common with them in terms of my personal profile and life experiences. However, I soon realised that these factors were relatively unimportant compared with the relevance of both films to my new life after transitioning. In other words, Sense 8 and Pose spoke to my future and provided insights and inspiration for the road ahead.
In Sense 8, for example, creator Lilly Wachowski stated that Jamie Clayton’s character, Nomi Marks,“ was a character I had aspirations of being” and, in Jamie’s words “was not defined by her trans-ness.” Nomi was not only trusted and respected for her intelligence and skills, but also involved in a beautiful relationship with another woman. This positive, multi dimensional depiction of a trans character was particularly encouraging to me because it helped to validate many of my own thoughts about self-image and life goals.
First, Nomi reminded me that as much as being a trans woman is at the heart of my personal identity, it is still only one piece of the mosaic that makes me the person I am. Similarly, although transitioning set me free to live my life as a woman, that in itself was not the absolute pinnacle of all my hopes and dreams. My freedom has opened the door to a world full of fascinating opportunities for personal growth, and I am determined to explore them in pursuit of a well-rounded, meaningful life. That is the kind of woman “I have aspirations of being.”
The leading characters in Pose also had many admirable qualities, but their resilience in the face of adversity stood out above the rest to me. I believe the following perceptive observation of actor Angelica Ross (‘Candy Ferocity’ in the film) aptly captures the spirit and attitude behind their strength. Although Angelica is specifically referring to the barriers that transgender actors of earlier generations had faced in finding decent employment, I believe her message is clearly relevant to all of us across the gender identity spectrum.
“You see a fierceness coming from the girls that are coming up now. That’s because we understand we ain’t got nothing to lose. I already done lost that job. So I’m only gonna gain by being authentic and telling the truth.”
Yes,“always be authentic” and always be “fierce”if that is what it takes to get what you deserve, whether that is something concrete like a job, or the basic right to be treated with respect. The stories and characters and, perhaps most of all, the real lives of Angelica Ross, Indya Moore and other Pose actors, show us that being proud and determined is the only way forward.
As reaffirming as the above clips were, I was becoming fatigued by so much introspection and ready for a change of pace and different perspectives. Fortunately, Disclosure stepped up and presented the perfect tonic for my mood with a wonderful, inspirational piece featuring talk show interviews with parents of trans children.
This segment was full of warm, ‘feel good’ moments, but perhaps the most moving words came from a father who lovingly praised his child and other transgender kids. He marvelled at how “amazing, brave, cool, so close to themselves” his child was and how honoured he felt to be a parent of a transgender kid. Writer/Actor Jen Richards commented that the father had gone “so much further than I thought possible” in terms of “the love, respect and awe” he had for his child, though her admiration was tinged with sadness as she asked why her parents couldn’t have seen her in the same way.
Jen’s disappointment exemplifies the conflicting emotions in many parent-trans children relationships; however, these beautiful, touching interviews, along with the knowledge that increasing numbers of parents are giving their children the love and support they need, makes me feel that the world can be a brighter place for all transgender kids and their families.
And on this note of optimism, I’ll bring the curtain down on my personal journey with Disclosure. In the beginning, it was often upsetting, but those moments were eclipsed by the inspiration that came afterwards. All of which left me with a genuine sense of hope not only for myself, but more importantly for our collective future.
We know there are still many challenges to overcome, but we should be encouraged and motivated to build upon the progress we’ve made toward gaining the rights and opportunities we deserve. I sincerely believe that we will succeed and that if there is a Disclosure, Part Two twenty years from now, it will show that our efforts resulted in meaningful changes in society that improved the lives of gender-diverse people of all ages and backgrounds.
Feder, S. & Schilder,A. (Producers). Feder, S. (Director). 2020. Disclosure [motion picture]. USA. Netflix.
Sanders, W. (2019, November 14). Theorist Susan Stryker on One of Her Most Groundbreaking Essays, 25 years later. ‘them.’ Retrieved from www.them.us
Stryker, S. (1994). My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamonix: Performing Transgender Rage. Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. Retrieved from www. sites.evergreen.edu