In 1981, Vito Russo, one of GLAAD’s founders, published “The Celluloid Closet,” the essential reference guide to the history of gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters in film. In the 1995 Emmy-winning documentary based on his work, narrator Lily Tomlin said: “Hollywood, the great maker of myths, taught straight people what to think about gays and gay people what to think about themselves.”
That same observation is certainly true for transgender people, their friends and family members. Twenty-five years after “The Celluloid Closet” documentary, “Disclosure” director Sam Feder and executive producer Laverne Cox deconstruct 100 years of transgender stereotypes in film and TV. “Disclosure” takes a critical look at media portrayals of trans people from the silent film era to now, and puts 30 transgender people on screen to share how those portrayals impacted them and those who love them.
My mother-in-law called me a few weeks ago and was thrilled to report that her book club had watched Netflix’s “Disclosure.” For her and the women in her group, “Disclosure” was the lightbulb moment about who transgender people are. “It’s not fair how many people don’t understand what being transgender is about,” she said.
Since the documentary’s release in June, I have had similar conversations with network and studio executives. They said that “Disclosure” opened their eyes to the opportunities around telling the stories of transgender people, and the real responsibility to do so in fair and accurate ways — with trans people having a seat at the table throughout production. Industry executives that we work with at GLAAD reported that they asked their entire company to watch it, they’ve changed their priorities around what to greenlight, and they understand the need to hire trans people behind the scenes to help them get the story right.
Transgender people have appeared in film and TV from the very beginning of the industry, as “Disclosure’s” hundreds of archival clips reveal. However, in those portrayals, trans people were misrepresented and mischaracterized as sociopaths, serial killers, villains, victims and the butt of the joke — and public perception is still largely shaped by those stories today. Approximately 80% of Americans say they’ve never met a transgender person in real life. That means Americans have learned everything they know about trans people from media stories largely created by people who also never met a trans person. My mother-in-law’s book club provides the best-case study for what can happen when audiences experience media projects from talented trans creators. “Disclosure” might be the only film to move both her book club and Ryan Reynolds, who said, “This film changes the way I see film and changes the way I’ll make films going forward.”
Interest in telling transgender stories has skyrocketed since Laverne Cox appeared on “Orange Is the New Black,” and it isn’t slowing down. Each year, GLAAD receives hundreds of requests from Hollywood industry leaders, network executives, showrunners, writers and casting directors who want to tell these stories. However, until “Disclosure,” there wasn’t an easy way to point to the tropes, cliches and stereotypes they learned from watching film and television — and often unconsciously brought into their own storytelling.
“Disclosure” provides a nuanced, intersectional analysis of those tropes and cliches from trans people who work in the industry, and the impact on viewers is clear: once you see all the stereotypes together in one place, you can’t unsee them. Some of those projects went on to be nominated for, and even win, Oscars, Emmys, and other accolades. Now, “Disclosure” is the first documentary created by trans people, focused on trans issues, to be considered a top contender in awards season.
Director Sam Feder also showed the way to create equity behind the scenes. He prioritized having trans people behind the camera in every position from set photographer, to camera operator, to Director of Photography. When a trans person couldn’t be found with a certain skill, a cisgender person mentored a trans person in that role, providing valuable on-the-job training. As Hollywood seeks to bring equity to all aspects of production, it can look to “Disclosure” as both a model and a Rolodex of talented trans crew and creatives.
We just announced that “Disclosure” is nominated for Outstanding Documentary for this year’s GLAAD Media Awards, and we have made the film a core part of our work at GLAAD — a centerpiece in our educational curriculum — because it is thought-provoking, funny and a powerful tool for storytellers looking to tell authentic stories. We think Vito Russo would be proud of everyone involved in creating this film.
A good documentary enlightens and informs. The best documentaries do that and create tangible cultural impact. Public high schools and universities are using “Disclosure” to teach media literacy; corporations like Spotify, Fidelity Investments, and Netflix are using “Disclosure” for diversity, equity and inclusion training; ACLU attorneys and a group of California judges have used the film to help them understand bias against trans people in the courtroom. TheWrap named “Disclosure” as one of the best documentaries of 2020 and it was also listed as a top documentary of the year in Newsweek, USA Today, The Guardian, Glamour Magazine and Esquire. Now, Academy voters should consider “Disclosure” for Best Documentary this year, not merely for being a film enjoyed by audiences and critics, but as a film that is creating undeniable and real change.
The impact of this film has already been extraordinary and is, without overstatement, life-saving and culture changing. As Hollywood reckons with its history of telling stories about marginalized people, often with little-to-no involvement by those people, “Disclosure” provides a nuanced look at that history and lovingly calls Hollywood to do better. It is time to not only meet this call but to recognize the leaders in trans Hollywood who are behind it.