Sundancing 2020

‘Disclosure’ director Sam Feder on the complicated history of trans representation

Director Sam Feder

In 2014, Time magazine broke new ground by featuring Laverne Cox on its cover–the first for any transgender person. The magazine heralded the moment as “The Transgender Tipping Point.”

Six years on, director Sam Feder aims to fulfill that declaration, and uncover the veiled history behind it. Feder’s newest film, Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen follows in the tradition of movies like The Celluloid Closet, tracing the evolution of transgender images in film and television from the dawn of the mediums to the present. Featuring interviews with transgender stars like Cox, Brian Michael Smith, MJ Rodriguez, Jen Richards, Candis Cayne, Trace Lysette and more, Feder exposes how some of the most triumphant moments for transgender people on camera are also some of the most problematic.

It’s a complex conversation, to say the least. We met up with Sam Feder next to a roaring fire inside a cozy ski cabin in Park City, Utah. Square jawed, bespectacled and excited, Feder smiles as the two of us discuss our favorite films at the Sundance Film Festival, where Disclosure will premiere. The film is currently seeking distribution.

I have to say, I really looked forward to this film. I found it fascinating. What inspired you to create this cinematic tome?

So I’ve been making films about the trans community since 2003 when I started [as a director]. I’m very invested in visibility as a justice tool and identify of an introverted activist.

Ok.

I believe in visibility, and I thought it was really important to document trans lives. So as things started to heat up and the mainstream started to claim this celebratory moment, I was struggling with that. On one hand, this is what I’ve dedicated my career to but something felt amiss. Something didn’t feel right. And what didn’t feel right was something ahistorical—people acting like nothing had ever come before. And the buzz was also claiming success as a community that was not benefitting it.

Sure.

At the time, there was really only one person who was the face of it, and that was Laverne Cox, who I adore. I knew her from the New York activist scene. She’s moderated panels. She wrote for Huffington Post. So all this was very complicated. I was having all these feelings. There’s no better person who could be the first trans person on the cover of Time. I knew she’d use her podium to continue her activism. So there was all that, but then people were saying there’s success in the community, but most of the community that I am in relation with is still struggling.

Laverne Cox in ‘Orange is the New Black’

Yes.

People lose their jobs. They can’t find housing. They lack access to life-saving resources. I think it’s three times more than the national average that trans people are unemployed, and four times more for trans people of color. Trans people are 40 more likely to attempt suicide. It’s still rough.

It is.

So I was really having a conflict about this. I wanted to understand how we got to that point, and I also felt like knowing from history that as soon as a marginalized community is thrown into the spotlight, backlash ensues. And this was in 2014, so before Trump. But I had that anxiety in my gut. And that backlash happened, but it’s not visibility equals backlash. It’s hundreds of years of visibility that have been horrible have intensified the backlash now that we’re in the public spotlight. So I wanted to show a hundred years of images that have informed people’s lives and reality. I wanted to show that not only have we been here before, not only have we always been part of storytelling, but those images have been horribly distorted. There are many issues as to why trans people face violence, and this is one of them. So that’s where it started.

That’s great. I was quite interested to see that you integrated both television and film elements: shows like Bosom Buddies for example. But you all show all those 90s talk shows that featured queer people–especially transgender folk–as salacious and scandalous freaks. And I had forgotten just how grotesque they were, though you make the point that they’re not entirely bad. It’s still visibility at a time when there wasn’t any elsewhere.

Yeah.

Bosom Buddies

You’re also careful in the film to not pass judgment on the trans people who participated in those shows. You make it clear they did what they felt they needed to do.

Definitely.

Was there any hesitation with using those images, even in an academic context?

Why would there be hesitation?

Well, because it is a circus, and it is exploitation, even when you have brilliant people like Kate Bornstein, who are very articulate in laying out what it means to be trans, how gender is different from sexuality.

You mean to have to watch it again?

Yes, to put it out into the universe again.

I mean, I felt that way about everything. All the material. There’s stuff where I had to look away, that I couldn’t watch again in a screening. Jen Richards, she had to look away and not watch. So I think trans people will all have different experiences watching it and feeling the pain again. I’m hoping that the context of having other trans people identify and share that experience will be cathartic. I do think there’s something to be said for seeing all this in one place outside of you, to be able to work through all that internalized hate and violence that was taken in over time.

How so?

Seeing it outside of you, you kind of pass it in a way you haven’t before. In particular, the talk shows, Kate Bornstein, I think in her first book, talks about why she went on talk shows so much. She saw it as a modern-day freak show, but in the best possible way. She identifies as a freak. And she said that was the only way to reach the public.

Yes.

So as horrific and violent as those shows could be, she was really committed to that access to the public. So the clips of her empower me so much. And then pulling out the clip of Reno [a trans man who participated in the Jerry Springer episode “My Boyfriend is a Girl”] and Marquis [Vilson, an actor] talking about how that was the first transmasculine person he ever saw shows how everything is so complicated.

Absolutely.

The framing of Reno on Jerry Springer is atrocious. But for Marquis to see that image and have that moment of recognition is priceless. It’s all so complicated. We try so hard not to demonize anyone or any show or any movie and have everything with careful nuance. We really show the circus of it, which was important because that’s how it feels to watch. And I think all of us have laughed at it at some point.

The Jerry Springer Show

Sure.

So to see it in that context of we can’t laugh anymore is really powerful. And then there’s the moment where Jen Richards even says “Horrible as it is, would I have known I was trans if I hadn’t seen those shows? Seeing actual trans people?”

That’s great. One thing I admire about the film is how much you lean into that complexity. This is not a cut and dry issue, particularly when you look at films in a historical context. Movies like Psycho and Silence of the Lambs—both make it clear that their villains are not trans. When I interviewed Jen Richards, she told me the story about coming out to a friend and the friend saying “You mean you’re like Buffalo Bill?” Which is mortifying and frustrating because it’s contrary to what the film actually states.

Yeah.

But with that in mind, that kind of audience perception, I understand how the image becomes problematic. So for you as the director of Disclosure, do you hold someone like Alfred Hitchcock or Johnathan Demme culpable for something they may not have even been aware of? I don’t think either of them, at the time, would have realized they were putting out an anti-trans image.

We had a lot of conversations about that. First off, all these images inform how we feel about trans people. That’s why something is in there whether it is overtly trans or not. They all inform how the majority of the audience watching these films and shows think, as you point out. I haven’t done enough research into Psycho to be confident, but my understanding is that the story is based on Ed Gein [a serial killer of women who wore their body parts as clothing].

It is, at least in part. That is confirmed.

When Ed Gein was arrested, they found Christine Jorgensen’s book.

I never heard that.

That’s the part that I found in my research, but then I got distracted, so that’s not in the movie. So with that in mind, I do hold him responsible. I do think there’s an understanding for Hitchock around criminality and traversing gender. The film Murder, the criminal of that film is a transvestite trapeze artist based on a real trapeze artist named Babette, who is also mixed race. So the criminality is about race and gender in 1930. I mean, clearly, I don’t imagine Alfred Hitchcock was sitting around talking about trans people. But there was a connection in his mind between criminality and traversing gender. And that was a shortcut for an audience to demonize people. So there is a complexity, which Laverne calls out when she says “What’s up Alfred?”

The Silence of the Lambs

Yeah.

That’s an issue we talked a lot about. There’s something there when storytellers latch on to these shortcuts. I want to encourage them to ask themselves “why.” Is there another way to do this without demonizing an entire population? Are you thinking about that person watching? Do you care? That’s part of what I hoped the movie could do.

Sure.

In terms of Silence of the Lambs, Jonathan Demme has a trans son.

I didn’t know that.

I felt really tender about him seeing the scene, because he adores his father. I would imagine before Jonathan died, he understood it’s problematic for the trans community.

Another character based on Ed Gein, by the way.

More overtly. So I feel more complicated about that. I wish he could have a second chance to talk about it. I wonder what he would say now. And Alfred Hitchock: I wonder what he would say now. I hope he’d feel culpable.

What was your first image of seeing a trans person on screen?

The Crying Game. I think I was 15 when it came out. I really remember that whole time. Whenever I have a romantic interest, I always think they’re going to vomit when they see my body. That has absolutely stayed with me.

I’m so sorry.

Yeah, thanks Neil.

[Laughter]

I want to believe he would feel terrible about that. On that subject, did you reach out to any of the filmmakers to talk? For example, Neil Jordan, who wrote and directed The Crying Game?

You know, I saw Neil Jordan on a panel. Jaye Davidson was on the panel. Stephen Rea was on the panel. I feel like everyone referred to Dil [the cross-dressing character in the film] as “she” except Neil.

The Crying Game

That’s interesting.

And at some point, someone asked Stephen Rea if he fell in love with Dil in the movie. And he said “I think I’m still in love with her.” That was such a beautiful response.

For what it’s worth, I interviewed Neil last year, and he always referred to Dil as “she.”

So maybe he’s switching gears?

Maybe. One thing he did say was that they really didn’t have the language to discuss transgender people at the time. There are a number of transgender people in the movie as well. His vision of Dil was that she’s an angel, the moral center of the film. Then again, the movie has the notorious vomiting scene. So that underlines your thesis: this is a very complicated issue.

Yeah.

And movies like Silence of the Lambs underline the idea that a guy in a dress is always a psychopathic killer?

It’s that to want to be a guy in a dress, you must be a killer. The root of that desire to want to kill and to wear a dress, are the same.

Watching the film, I was reminded of something Quentin Crisp once said. I’ll paraphrase, but the idea is when a man puts on a dress, people laugh. It’s a joke. When a woman puts on pants or a suit, nobody laughs. She just has style and looks great.

Is that in Celluloid Closet?

It is. And this film is quite reminiscent of that. And your film drives that idea home in a new way. Why is it so funny or scary for a guy to put on a dress?

Misogyny. It all comes back to misogyny.

Well, and one question I have about that is this: is the root of transphobia both homophobia and sexism?

Absolutely. I think it’s more sexism, then homophobia.

Why do you say that about sexism?

There’s nothing worse in the world than being a girl.

And that’s a Quentin Crisp line: “There’s no sin like being a woman.”

Yes.

[Laughter]

So yeah. The violence against trans people is deeply rooted in our culture’s marriage to misogyny.

Fascinating. And frightening. One other element Disclosure touches on is the almost complete lack of transmasculine stories. Boys Don’t Cry is the obvious exception. Beyond that, there’s almost nothing. It’s like trans men don’t even exist. Is that also derived from that misogyny?

Yes. I think that’s very complicated, and I have a lot of theories about that. One thing we address in the film is that trans guys blend more readily. Also, the misogyny of storytelling culture where women can be easily objectified.

Boys Don’t Cry

I want to ask about Boys Don’t Cry, because that’s one that I’ve discussed with a lot of trans people at length. I also interviewed Kim Peirce recently, in some depth. What was your impression when you saw it? How did you react?

I didn’t identify with Brandon.

Really?

I had no interest in being stealth [Brandon Teena, the subject of the film, denies his transness]. The violence…I felt the violence didn’t need to go there. To be honest, four years into Disclosure it’s hard to parse out how I felt and how I’ve come to understand things. When I look at that film now, it just reinforces the story that non-trans people want to see about us, that there’s this easy access to pity and victimhood that takes away responsibility to do anything to actually help our lives.

I see.

So it’s one or two things like that. There have been a lot of films about transmasculine people, they just don’t get picked up. People aren’t interested unless they have that “in” where they can feel bad. So there is this nuanced industry complication around that. And this is not about Kim, but I don’t need to see that violence again. So many queer people and women I know have said how deeply affected they were by the violence. The internalization of that is so vast.

Seeing it as a cis man, albeit a queer one, changed my life. I think it’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen, but I’ll probably never watch it again for some of the reasons we’re discussing. The violence is incredibly hard to look at, but that’s also the point. Nobody should want to look at that. And Hillary Swank gives the best performance by a woman in the 1990s.

Hillary does a phenomenal job. But she’s a woman [playing a trans man].

True. And we can discuss why that element doesn’t age well, or is problematic now. But that has nothing to do with Swank’s performance.

No. I would never blame the actor.

Kim Peirce did try to cast a trans man to play the part, but couldn’t find anyone.

And I don’t demonize Kim either. It’s very complicated. I never want to demonize Kim. And the casting issue isn’t what concerns me, and that is what she’s been attacked for the most. I’d rather have a conversation about why films like that get made over and over and over.

Films with violence towards trans people. I understand.

That’s what I’m interested in.

What was the biggest surprise to you in making this film?

Interviewing is so intimate. You stare into each other’s eyes for hours. And I fall in love with everyone I interview. I think what surprised me is how grateful people were to be part of the project, and how it made them feel heard in a way they hadn’t before. They were appreciative of our production model, where if we couldn’t hire a trans person, we hired someone to mentor a trans person. It was a set unlike any other anyone had been on before. And how open and vulnerable everyone was always impressed me.

Kiss of the Spider Woman

One thing that really struck me in the film is that you don’t just go over obvious trans images. You also go back and cover characters and images that were mislabeled. For example: Kiss of the Spider Woman. People of the time of its release labeled William Hurt’s character a gay man. And I even argued this with an editor once: Hurt’s character is actually a trans woman.

I’ve been fighting about that one with people for years too.

Really?

You know, people don’t go back and watch it. It’s just what people remember. I was prepared to watch it and go “Oh no, he’s not trans.” But she says it!

Absolutely. And whether or not William Hurt even thought about that at the time is a question I’d love to ask him.

Yeah.

Maybe in the sequel.