The journey of becoming a transgender or gender non-conforming individual is difficult, especially for Black individuals.
For many that have transitioned, what they knew about transgender or gender non-conforming people along with how they were viewed by society came from depictions of them in the media. The caricature of these groups of people combined with the demonizing of them in media affected the ability for transgender people to accurately tell their stories.
In the Netflix original documentary, Disclosure, the long history of transgender misrepresentation and the fight for change is addressed.
On Oct. 27, 2021, the University of Alabama’s Women and Gender Resource Center (WGRC) held a screening of Disclosure, followed by a Q&A session with guests from the Birmingham AIDS Outreach organization. Program coordinator Elizabeth Lester talked to attendees over zoom about the importance of having this event.
Lester wanted to bring in people from these respective communities to share their stories. The guests from the Birmingham AIDS outreach organization were Sinseriti Banks and Lauren Jacobs of the Magic City Acceptance Center.
“October is LGBTQ History Month, and I knew that I wanted to do a program that raised awareness around trans and non-binary representation,” Lester said.
The documentary delves into the long history of misrepresentation of transgender and gender non-conforming people in media. A central theme discussed in the documentary was the mystifying of transgender people.
“I think, for a very long time the ways in which trans people have been represented on-screen have suggested that we’re not real, have suggested that we’re mentally ill, that we don’t exist,” actress Laverne Cox said.
Creating mystery around who transgender people really are allows the media to play on the fear this mystery can bring. Within this fear, inaccurate characterizations of transgender people begin to exist.
The silent film, A Florida Enchantment is one of the most prominent examples. In this film, the female character takes a pill that turns her into a man. Her housemaid takes that same pill. What is different is how each character is depicted after transitioning to a man. The housemaid, a white male wearing blackface, is an angry, monstrous and vengeful Black person. The white female becomes the image of what a man should become in society. The roots of misrepresentation of Black transgender people lie in racism.
Films like A Florida Enchantment depicts transgender people — especially ones of color — as violent people incapable of emotion, effectively dehumanizing them. The dehumanization of people in this community has allowed the media to create feelings of fear towards trans people, especially trans people of color.
When transgender people aren’t the villain, they are often depicted as outcasts or odditities that don’t belong in society. Because of this, transgender people become the butt of several jokes. Guest speaker Sinseriti Banks discussed the pain this can bring during the Q&A section of the event.
“It hurts,” Banks said. “You always stick out like a sore thumb, you’re the topic of the conversation, sometimes the butt of the joke.”
The act of mischaracterization doesn’t start and end with transgender people. As the documentary points out, the film industry has a history of dehumanizing Black men. These jokes often depict Black men as either hypermasculine or overly feminine. No nuance or depth are given to these characters and the majority white audiences enjoying these shows or movies no longer have fear of Black men.
In the 1989 film Glory, a Black soldier raises his hand at a white woman with no regard to her life while storming the town of Darien, Georgia. In the scene, Colonel James Montgomery refers to his unit as “little monkey children” that need to be controlled.
“Stop treating us like we’re animals at a zoo or we’re dogs at the Humane Society that you have never seen before,” Sinseriti Banks challenges. “We’re human.”
While this is a historical nonfiction movie, the idea of hypermasculine Black men is still prevalent. The colonel — a white male — sees himself as the owner of the men in his regiment. Throughout the long history of the media, white people are controlling their Black counterparts. Black and transgender people can only be what their white counterparts view them as. In the media, minority groups often have no control over their identity.
It doesn’t stop at the hypermasculinity of Black men, either.
In comedy, it’s common for men and women to dress up as outlandish characters for sketches. The problem with this is that most of these characters are Black women depicted by Black men.
In the hit comedy sketch show In Living Color, actor Jamie Foxx often played Wanda Wayne in sketches. Wayne — a loud, brash and often aggressive Black woman — was a crowd favorite. Foxx wore bright colored dresses, blonde and curly wigs and bold makeup often.
To most of the audiences viewing the show, Foxx was just playing a goofy character. But to others, Wanda Wayne was a dark reminder of how society viewed Black women.
“If I’m not laughing, is it a joke, you know,” Writer Tiq Milan said in the film. “It [transgender jokes] lends itself to this idea that we’re just comedy, that we’re just some kind of freaks, that we just playin’ dress up in order to make other people laugh.”
Comedians dressing up as women and making lighthearted jokes about real issues the transgender community faces further distorts the stories of transgender people. These jokes makes transgender people feel seen but misunderstood.
Disclosure provided attendees with a deeper understanding of the history of transgender people in media. After the film, both Lauren Jacobs and Sinseriti Banks had thoughts they wanted to leave the attendees with. Jacobs talks about the influence Alabama has in this movement.
“I love any moment that proves to people that, as Alabama, we are part of this conversation, we have always been a part of this conversation, we have always had our own queer and trans history, it’s just that people don’t often pay attention,” Jacobs said.
The job for cisgendered people now is to start paying more attention to how they view and depict transgender people, especially those of color. Understanding the impact the media has is a step in the right direction. It must be followed by a change of heart.