Thursday, June 25, 2020
Sam Feder | Disclosure
finding their way in often hostile worlds
by Douglas Messerli
Sam Feder (director) Disclosure / 2020
Documentary director Sam Feder has done something special with his 2020 film titled Disclosure.
For one of the first times on film, he has brought together a rather large number of trans women and trans men—an opinionated, sometimes angry, but always well-spoken group of actors, directors, historians, and others involved in TV and film, including Laverne Cox, Susan Stryker, Alexandra Billings, Jamie Clayton, Chaz Bono, Alexandra Grey, Yance Ford, Trace Lysette, Jazzmun, Mj Rodriguez, Angelica Ross, Jen Richards, Elliot Fletcher, Brian Michael Smith, Sandra Caldwell, Candis Cayne, Zackary Drucker, Lilly Wachowski, Ser Anzoategui, Zeke Smith, and Leo Sheng—to help explain to the some 80% of US citizens who have never met a transsexual person what their lives were as they were growing up and, later, transitioning, and how they continue their lives today.
There are so many interlinking issues and specific examples here that I would be loath to name all of them without seeing this film at least 10 times. But we can summarize the major of them.
One of the most painful of this groups’ experiences is that, particularly in transitioning, they were greeted on subways, busses, and even in the streets as beings for the general public to laugh at.
Indeed, they argue, being transsexual has always, in the American consciousness. Been seen as cartoonish, ridiculous, and simply funny. After all, those comedians who used transsexual tropes such as Flip Wilson and Milton Berle—while often fascinating to these young and confused sexual beings while growing, with them perhaps even a bit fascinated how and why these men would so readily don dresses and imitate the gestures of the opposite sex—they quickly grew to comprehend that for US citizens the very idea that a man might actually, temporary as it was, become a woman, was laughable, something so ridiculous that the bark of hostile laughter (as Henri Bergson, in his book Laughter, might have put it) was the only way they could imagine to respond.
There was always, in the American heterosexual (cis world, or individuals who were happy with her birth sexuality) an absurdity in the transsexual attempts to transform themselves into beautiful women or handsome young men (both which many of these figures truly are), particularly among feminists who mocked their applications of heavy makeup, lipstick, sometimes extravagant wigs and hair additions, since man feminists were working against, in their minds, these very feminine stereotypes.
When these transsexual figures, moreover, actually had the opportunities to play out their true sexualities on the screen—and despite the fact that major roles, such as in Transparent were still reserved for heterosexual men and women playing as if they were transsexual—the roles centered primarily on murder and/or fatal diseases. One of them recalls how she, quite by accident, performed as a transsexual woman in movies back to back, being done away with similarly in each film. They took the work simply because there was such a dearth of roles in which they were encouraged to audition for.
Many were particularly angry about Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game starring a truly beautiful transsexual woman, Jaye Davidson (who was nominated even for an Academy Award), but who, in the script, after revealing herself to her naïve and somewhat confused heterosexual lover (she had previously given him a most fulfilling blowjob) had to endure his rush to the bathroom and insistent vomiting, as if her very presence was suddenly something that was so unbearable that he could literally not stomach it.
Jordan, at least, somewhat redeems himself by allowing the relationship to continue and, after the male character takes on the guilt of a murder the transsexual lover committed, suggesting that the two may someday, when he is finally released from prison, take up a serious relationship with her.
Some transsexuals, given their inabilities to find substantive roles went into what they describe as “Stealth” mode, portraying heterosexual women so successfully that, although they lived with bated breath, were seldom questioned.
Two years later, however, comic-actor Jim Carey in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective took the trope even further after discovering the woman he loves is transsexual, not only profusely vomiting, but scrubing out his mouth, and brushisg his teeth in absolute disgust. One might argue of course that Carey and his screenwriter were also satirizing the scene in The Crying Game. Yet, nonetheless, it signaled to US males that such behavior was absolutely necessary after having been, in their minds, “tricked.”
Although these actors do not mention it, by 1998, 4 years later, in the highly sensitive film that deals with AIDS and numerous other such issues, after Dennis Quaid seems to take an interest in the transsexual Alec Mapa, she quips, “I may be a fabulous looking broad, but I got a penis. This ain't no disco and I don't want no "Crying Game" drama.” In fact, his encounter with her is simply an assigned acting lesson. But she still gets her wry vengeance:
Lana: That was quite a story. Right enterainin’, but Sugar
I don’t know who you think you’re foolin’
Hugh: What do you mean?
Lana: Lana may be three sheets to the proverbial wind,
But I don’t believe a single word coming out of
your pretty, straight, little mouth.
Indeed, for a group so lied to throughout their youths and young adult lives, illusion is something these women and men—despite the endless accusations of heterosexuals that they are living an illusion—immediately see through, the pretenses of the general society at nearly all moments, and judge the early attempts of Hollywood films and TV to be pitiable failures that functioned against their own attempts to define themselves.
And many of them also equally bemoan the fact that when they were finally invited to speak on TV talk shows such Jerry Springer and even Oprah, the conversation always began with a discussion of “cutting” or even hiding their penises, instead of speaking about their outward appearance or even their daily lives. At least Oprah eventually changed the focus of her concerns.
When it comes to suggesting cinema and TV works that truly meant something to them, they strangely enough seem to agree upon the Bugs Bunny cartoon in which Bugs, performing an opera, suddenly is transformed into a beautiful version of Brúnnhilde in Chuck Jones’ What’s Opera, Doc? with whom even the rabbit hunting Elmer Fudd falls in love.
Other seminal films, such as Paris Is Burning of 1990 and the 1968 film The Queen (both of which I reviewed in My Year 2020 and in my forthcoming collection Queer Cinema).
Several named a more unlikely favorite, Victor/Victoria, in which a supposed male plays a transsexual, who is actually a heterosexual woman. But even here, they point to a moment which seems to have to be repeated in many films in when women, transsexual and heterosexual had to reveal their “true” identities by pulling open their blouses to reveal their breasts.
Those females who have transitioned into males, they argue, are still underrepresented in the media, and few American citizens even realize that they exist. One of the reasons, according to Chaz Bono, that he appeared on Dancing with the Stars, despite his self-perceived inability to dance, in order to represent this aspect of the community.
Perhaps one of the most shocking of some of their observations is that, despite their desire still be accepted and sometimes loved by the straight community, the more transsexuals who rise to success, the more violent are the actions of some people in relationship to everyday transsexuals.
In a sense, the heartfelt revelations and observations of these individuals are a brilliant introduction to the transsexual world, helping, one can only hope, each of us with little previous knowledge of their lives, to come to recognize them not only as gifted participants of our society but as a group that needs—particularly in this time of hostile actions by the government and president (who has just declared that transsexuals will be taken off the medical insurance roles during a time when they may most need it, during the coronavirus pandemic)—our support and friendship. Fortunately, the Supreme Court did just that, recently ruling that they too are protected from discrimination at their working places.
If Feder’s film is but a sampling of transsexual issues, it is at least a fine introduction which will help us to begin seeking fuller understandings of the entire LGBTQ community.
Los Angeles, June 25, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (June 2020).