Laverne Cox on Her Netflix Documentary ‘Disclosure,’ Trans Representation, and the Importance of Inclusion

In this decade alone, transgender people have become increasingly visible, and this is in no small part due to actor and advocate Laverne Cox. Cox, who first came to prominence through her Emmy-nominated role on “Orange is the New Black,” has teamed up with director Sam Feder to create “Disclosure,” an illuminating documentary about the history of trans representation in film and television. Cox, who executive produced the doc, is one of over 30 trans creatives, activists and scholars interviewed here, and not only does she offer an eye-opening perspective on iconic films and series, she also opens up about how trans representation has impacted herself personally.

Cox recently spoke to Entertainment Voice about the making of “Disclosure,” a doc that features only trans folx on camera and was made by an almost entirely trans crew. She also speaks in-depth about coming to terms with problematic representations in films like “The Silence of the Lambs,” inclusion, and what the average American can do to help protect trans rights.

What inspired you and Sam Feder to make the film and how did you come together?

I went to Outfest three years ago, heard Sam, and was just so thrilled with the depth of the research already, and I learned so much from the initial presentation, and I said, “How can I be involved?” He wanted me to be involved, so, I was like, “Cool” (laughs). It’s been a journey over the past three years, but we made our movie, and you’ve seen it, and it’s going to be available for the world to see in just a few days.

There are so many interesting people interviewed in “Disclosure,” including Chaz Bono and yourself, trans people who are well-known to the public. But there are also plenty of fascinating people in the doc who are not household names yet. How did you guys go about assembling everybody?

There are so many people we reached out to who just weren’t available. We couldn’t make it work with their schedules. There were people we didn’t get to reach out to. The film could only be so long, and then there were budgetary limitations as well. We paid everyone who was on camera, which is unusual for documentaries. There were limitations that we had, in terms of assembling everyone, but I am so grateful for every single contributor in front of the camera and behind the camera, just brilliant insight and incredible talent. I was just blown away by every single person in our film.

Something important that you discuss is whitewashing in LGBTQ films, even in otherwise outstanding and groundbreaking works like “Boys Don’t Cry.” How can filmmakers go about being more inclusive?

Our production model could maybe be a guide, that you have trans folx, that you have people with disabilities, people of color. That you have visions of power working to make the film behind the scenes, as well as in front of the camera, so you have people whom you’re trying to reflect involved in and engaged in the process of making the work. I think that makes a huge difference as well.

Something that really made me think was when you talked about “Nip/Tuck” and how they mishandled trans representation. In Sam’s director’s statement, he discusses enjoying archival clips with complicated feelings. How can we reconcile ourselves with liking shows and films that we now realize are problematic?

I still love “Nip/Tuck” (laughs). I think we just love it or we don’t. I think it’s about watching critically. I think that we can look at things, particularly from different historical moments when we didn’t know any better, or before there was even a conversation or a framework to have a better conversation. Some people knew better. I think we need to appreciate it on its own terms. I still love “The Silence of the Lambs.” I’m obsessed with Jodie Foster. I’m obsessed with Anthony Hopkins in that film. I am deeply distturbed by the Buffalo Bill character and everything that they suggest about who trans people are, that is so offensive. I don’t even like the term “offensive,” but it’s so unfortunate… But I still love the film and all of those performances. I studied Jodie Foster’s performance in “The Silence of the Lambs” as an actor. I love “Soap Dish.” There are all these things I still love, so I can hold contradicting ideas at the same time, and I think that’s okay. I think we love critically. 

You also examine “Pose” and “Transparent,” both series featuring trans actors. Do you see yourself ever directing or producing a series or narrative film with a predominantly trans cast?

Of course. I’m engaged in developing a number of different projects, scripted projects that do exactly that, that look at and feature trans folx in various capacities. To be continued.

We just saw a major win for LGBTQ rights in the Supreme Court, but we still have a president who wants to implement policies that are harmful to trans people. What advice would you give to those who want to know what they can do to help and make a difference for trans Americans?

The Supreme Court decision, it just brings up so much to me, but I think it reminds me that just because public policies are in place that ban discrimination — we’ve had the Civil Rights Act since 1964, and that doesn’t mean racism went away. It doesn’t mean sexism went away, right? We have to work to change our systems, to change our ideologies. We also have to work to change the hearts and minds of American citizens. If each and everyone one of us takes time to critically interrogate the ways in which we’ve internalized white supremacy, the ways in which we’ve internalized transphobia, misogyny, and unlearn those things, decolonize our minds, then, [we go about] the work of changing the material conditions of people’s lives who are the most marginalized, I believe that really is the work, and that work is intersectional, and that work goes on. 

It can’t be overstated how full-frontal the attack on trans people has been from this administration. One of the very first things that the former attorney general, Jeff Sessions, did was to rescind the Obama-era guidelines for how transgender children should be treated in schools. It’s one of the first things he did in February 2017. So, it has been consistent; it has been brutal; it has been cruel, the attack on trans folx. I think for everyone who wants to get involved, hopefully you’re voting, making sure everyone fills out their census information, because the census will determine how resources are allocated. Trans folx need resources; people of color need resources. We need to be able to pass the Equality Act in the Senate and have a president who will sign it into law, and that means we have to flip the Senate, that means we have to get a new president into office. People must vote; people must make sure that their friends and family are voting, even if they think the system is corrupt, and it is, but, there are real material consequences of this corrupt system when we don’t participate, when we just hang out. It affects real people’s lives. 

Disclosure” begins streaming June 19 on Netflix.