Pose star Mj Rodriguez, one of the talking heads in Disclosure (2020)

Disclosure is available to stream on Netflix.

Disclosure is a documentary about storytelling: who gets to tell stories about trans people, who gets to write and play the characters in those stories, how these decisions affect those stories, and how those stories affect trans people. It’s a history of trans representation in film and TV, and the social uses and political limits of visibility.

Above all, despite its director Sam Feder having structured it as a straightforward combination of talking heads and archive footage, it’s about complexity, calling for nuanced understandings of problematic aspects of pioneering works, the positive effects of negative portrayals, and the relationship between transphobia and racism.

Nobody is better placed to explore all this than Laverne Cox, who shot to fame for her role in the women’s prison drama Orange Is the New Black (2013-19) and appeared on the cover of Time in 2014 when they declared the ‘Transgender Tipping Point’, the moment at which the trans rights movement had apparently become unstoppable.

Drawing links between screen portrayals (seldom written with trans viewers in mind), school bullying, street harassment and hate crime, Cox presents a comprehensive history of Hollywood tropes, from the trans woman as serial killer in films such as Psycho (1960), Dressed to Kill (1980) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991) to television programmes that repeatedly cast trans women as sex workers – without any explanation of the socio-economic reasons behind their doing sex work.

Cox and her many trans guests, including historian and filmmaker Susan Stryker, directors Yance Ford and Lilly Wachowski, artist/TV producer Zackary Drucker and actors Candis Cayne and Elliot Fletcher, talk persuasively about how important this representation is for trans people, who grow up, like most other Americans, not knowing any trans people, and so have their sense of self profoundly shaped by such material.

Yance Ford, the first transmasculine director to be nominated for an Oscar, interviewed in Disclosure

Disclosure goes as far back as D.W. Griffith’s Judith of Bethulia (1914), in which the ‘chief eunuch’ leads Judith to behead Holofernes, thus connecting her act to castration and male femininity – a demonstration of how transphobic narratives were embedded in mainstream US film from its inception.

Transphobic representations, and their underlying assumptions, are not a thing of the distant past: many of the film’s examples date from the last two decades, with TV hospital dramas still obsessing over the lurid details of ‘sex change’ surgery, or having trans characters get gendered cancers that don’t match their identities or are caused by their hormone treatments.

The Stonewall riots of 1969, revisited in Disclosure

The treatment in The L Word (2004-09) of Max, who transitions from female to male and becomes a “raging ape”, comes in for heavy scrutiny, given the historic lack of representations of trans men – the show gave priority to the emotions of the women who felt betrayed by Max’s transition. Similarly, the ‘disclosure’ trope, which casts trans people as shifty and secretive, rarely takes account of the consequences of being completely open about their identities in a transphobic society.

The exploration of the ‘vomiting’ trope – men’s revulsion on learning they’ve kissed a trans woman, which moved from The Crying Game (1992) into ‘gross-out’ comedies from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994) to The Hangover Part II (2011) – is especially powerful: outsiders, unaware how strongly such scenes affect trans people, making them feel unattractive or unworthy of love, may have their perceptions completely changed by the testimony offered here.

Questions about visibility underpin all these concerns, as well as the detailed conversation about who plays trans characters in films. From Chris Sarandon’s Oscar for playing Leon Shermer in Dog Day Afternoon (1975), after trans actress Elizabeth Coffey Williams was turned down for looking too much like a woman, to the plaudits for Jared Leto and Eddie Redmayne for their performances of femininity in Dallas Buyers’ Club (2013) and The Danish Girl (2015), the casting of cisgender men heightens preconceptions about the inauthenticity of trans women – a problem only now being circumvented by having trans actors, as well as writers and directors, for series such as Netflix’s Pose (2018-).

Partly a response to Black trans people’s complicated feelings about Jennie Livingston’s documentary Paris Is Burning (1990), which provided access to drag ball culture even as it appropriated that culture, Pose is a welcome step beyond the chatshows that once offered the only chance to see trans people – even legends such as actor/model Caroline Cossey or writer/activist Leslie Feinberg – on screen.

As several interviewees note, increased visibility can mean increased danger: as transphobes learn more about our communities, they also learn more about how to oppress us. Cox is self-aware enough to ask what it means “when a few people are elevated while the majority are still struggling”, while Stryker concludes visibility serves best in building support for policies that will improve material conditions for trans people.

The most fascinating question asked here, though, is: what if we never saw ourselves on screen at all? Disclosure suggests that, for all its pitfalls, trans representation does more good than bad, and the struggle to improve it has been, and will continue to be, worthwhile.