June 9, 2014, is a day Sam Feder will never forget. “That will be burned into my brain forever,” the “Disclosure” director tells Gold Derby at our Meet the BTL Experts: Documentary panel (watch above). That was the day “Orange Is the New Black” star Laverne Cox graced the cover of Time magazine with the cover line “The Transgender Tipping Point — America’s Next Civil Rights Frontier.” While Feder was excited about the success of Cox, who was on the verge of a historic Emmy nomination, and the visibility she was bringing, he knew the mainstream narrative being peddled about his community was inaccurate.
“I immediately became concerned because trans people were not at a tipping point,” he recalls. “The trans people I knew continue to be disproportionately unemployed, lacked access to safe housing and health care. The murder of trans women, specifically Black trans women, has become an epidemic. The rate of suicide among trans men has been surging. I was excited about what Laverne would bring to the public conversation, but I was deeply concerned because I know whenever a marginalized community gets mainstream attention, backlash ensues, especially when all the public knows about trans people has been so distorted through the media. So I really wanted to understand why the mainstream media was declaring a change to a community it had so little connection to.”
The led Feder to dive into three years of research for what would become “Disclosure,” an unvarnished deep dive into depictions of trans people in media — dating all the way back to silent films — and how those typically harmful portrayals have shaped the way society has looked at and treated them, and how we see ourselves. Produced by Cox, the Netflix documentary presents a historical record of Hollywood’s missteps, but Feder knew it was vital to include personal anecdotes as well from an array of trans activists and figures. “Rather than a chronological approach, I wanted to show … through these anecdotes that the past and present are constantly folding in on itself,” he explains. “Because there’s no monolithic trans experience … by creating these juxtapositions between our protagonists, divergent views, I feel like that allowed for his deeply human reckoning.”
Some of those divergent views concern films and TV shows that we now understand to be problematic to varying degrees, including “Boys Don’t Cry” (1999) and “Paris Is Burning” (1990), but still meant a lot to some as they were part of their self-discovery. Feder made sure to never “demonize” these projects or shame folks for liking them. “How do we hold people accountable without demonizing them? How do we allow space for people to realize they don’t know what they don’t know and have a second chance to do better? And that was something Laverne was equally committed to,” he says. “So anything we knew we were gonna have a really harsh critique of, it was really important to hold the space for the nuance of that critique and for other people’s feelings and support of it. … There’s such a space for healing when people are given a second chance.”
As for that tipping point that Time so boldly claimed nearly seven years ago, Feder hopes “Disclosure” will be an important step in that long journey. “My plea for this film is if you are excited about our visibility, if you are moved spending an hour and a half with trans people, if you feel like you now know someone who’s trans because you’ve spent this time hearing trans stories, then what is it you can do in your life?” he states. “Do you look around and do you have trans people in your life? Are there trans people in your job, and if not, why? Does HR do outreach to trans people? How does the person you vote for, either locally or nationally, how do they feel about trans people? Is that going to be something that’s important to you? That’s how we’ll start to see a tipping point.”
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