Transgender Lives Onscreen: Seen, but Not Always Believable


“How do we love something critically?”

That was one of the questions facing Sam Feder, director of the new Netflix documentary “Disclosure,” a sweeping examination of how transgender people have been depicted in film and TV, from the silent era to “The Arsenio Hall Show” to “Pose.” It’s a complicated history that’s dominated by inauthentic and sordid characterizations, with transgender lives as the objects of ridicule, disgust and violence.

The actress Laverne Cox, an executive producer of the documentary, said she felt compelled to examine this bitter past not to shame, but to educate and empower.

“We’re not calling anybody out,” she said. “What we’re saying is: This is the way it was, and we can do better.”

For many transgender people who came of age before the internet, inauthentic characters were often all they saw onscreen. Yet, as several transgender voices in “Disclosure” explain, even problematic representations offered a lifeline in the form of a thrilling revelation: People like me exist. Yet the question remains: Can you admire and resent something at the same time?

I spoke to transgender artists who were interviewed in “Disclosure” about their own complicated relationships with a movie or TV show. Here are edited excerpts from the conversations.

The 1991 documentary by Jennie Livingston chronicled the ballroom culture among New York’s L.G.B.T.Q. black and Latino communities.

“Paris Is Burning” was positive in certain ways. But in others, it showed the gauntlet that trans people had to face back then. In the ’80s and ’90s, you trusted that trans elders would put you on a path that would be relatively safe. That showed in “Paris Is Burning.” But when you stepped outside of that ballroom, you ran the risk of abuse. Add on top of that being a person of color when the world is already out to get you, and being trans seemed like an almost impossible situation.

But I still love the language and the stories and the happiness in the film, despite the tragedies of the girls we lost, because they had no choice but to be in dangerous situations [posed by sex work]. It’s as much a sad snapshot as it is a snapshot of people living their lives undeniably as themselves.

This 1999 drama was based on the story of Brandon Teena, a 21-year-old transgender man in Nebraska who was raped and murdered.

“Boys Don’t Cry” was the first time a trans male story line was in a major motion picture, and it helped me. Within about a year of seeing that was when I started to figure out what was going on with me. It’s a hard and painful film to watch, but there are still phenomenal things about it. The film brought enough of a spotlight on trans males and people transitioning female to male that it allowed me to be able to see that as an actual possibility in this world. Up until that point, I guess I knew it existed, but it didn’t seem like something people did.

But if you’re a trans person trying to figure yourself out, I wouldn’t send you to “Boys Don’t Cry.” TV has started to do a lot better with trans themes and characters. “Pose” has been great.

This 2001 drama stars Ingrid de Souza, a transgender woman, as a sex worker who travels from Brazil to Milan, where she’s trying to save enough money for gender-affirming surgery while sending money home.

The film I love — and that doesn’t get enough love — is an obscure Italian film called “Princesa.” There is some genital talk that some people might find problematic, but art will always be provocative. Given my own past in New York, when I was trying to make ends meet and doing various forms of work that were based in survival, it resonated with me in a way that no other film has. My life has been a lot of struggle, and to have it shown back to me made me feel less crazy. Maybe it wasn’t the most hopeful movie, but at least it allowed me to see myself. Also, it’s a trans-led cast, back when they were not letting us play ourselves. That was mind-blowing for me.

In this 1985 comedy, Joyce Hyser plays a teenager who dresses as a boy to get teachers to take her seriously.

One of the first times I saw transmasculine representation was in “Just One of the Guys.” It’s about this person who gets to live as a guy. But then she falls in love with a guy and has to reveal herself to him, and does so by showing her chest instead of just having a conversation about it. At the end of the day, she was a girl who was pretending to be a boy, and she was doing it in jest, with the possibility of discovery and humiliation and rejection and possibly violence. I had to block that out.

I remember feeling excited about seeing something remotely close to what I wanted for myself. Now we have stories that are true, not remotely close.

The actress and model Caroline Cossey, who went by Tula, appeared in the James Bond movie “For Your Eyes Only” and posed in Playboy before and after being outed as transgender.

Tula was on an episode of “The Phil Donahue Show” back in the ’80s. She talked about her life, and that episode changed the trajectory of my life. She was funny and intelligent, and she understood the trans experience back at a time when people thought it was all about being a pre- or post-op transsexual. She fought to be recognized as a female, to change laws. That episode gave me hope because I realized I wasn’t crazy, and I understood there were people like me who had an important voice that mattered and could and should be heard.

Ironically, the ridiculous questions that were asked by audiences on talk shows then are being asked now. [In a whiny voice] “What bathroom do you use? When did you have your surgery?” If you don’t understand why I don’t want to talk about my penis, you’re an idiot.


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