Review: ‘Disclosure,’ starring Laverne Cox, Chaz Bono, Lilly Wachowski, Jen Richards, Yance Ford, Candis Cayne and Mj Rodriguez

June 19, 2020

by Carla Hay

Laverne Cox in “Disclosure” (Photo by Ava Benjamin Shorr/Netflix)

“Disclosure” (2020) 

Directed by Sam Feder

Culture Representation: The documentary “Disclosure” has a racially diverse group of entertainers and activists (white, black, Asian and Latino) discussing how transgender people are depicted in movies and television.

Culture Clash: The documentary examines damaging bigotry that leads to confusion, hatred and untrue or misleading stereotyping of transgender people.

Culture Audience: “Disclosure” will appeal mainly to people who care about the rights of transgender people, but the documentary is also worth viewing for people who need to be more educated on why movies and television have a major impact in how transgender people are treated by society.

Chaz Bono in “Disclosure” (Photo by Ava Benjamin Shorr/Netflix)

When the documentary “Disclosure” (directed by Sam Feder) premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, it was subtitled “Trans Lives on Screen.” That subtitle was removed when the film made its way to Netflix. And it’s too bad the movie no longer has this subtitle, since this description needed to be displayed loud and proud to announce the documentary’s subject matter. By stripping the documentary of its original subtitle, “Disclosure” just sounds like a generically vague movie, based on the title.

Title changes are usually made by the movie’s distributor for marketing reasons, in order to appeal to as wide of an audience as possible. Perhaps whoever decided on this title change thought that having the word “trans” in any part of the documentary’s title would scare off potential viewers. If that was the main reason for dropping the subtitle “Trans Lives on Screen,” then it’s an ironic choice, since the entire movie is about de-stigmatizing and de-mystifying what it means to be a transgender person, as it relates to how trans people are portrayed in movies and on television.

“Disclosure” does a very good job overall of covering these issues by giving the entire narrative to trans people. Everyone interviewed in the documentary is a transgender entertainer and/or trans activist. (“Disclosure” director Feder is also transgender.) People interviewed in the movie include Laverne Cox, Angelica Ross, Brian Michael Smith, Yance Ford, Zeke Smith, Lilly Wachowski, Mj Rodriguez, Michael D. Cohen, Chaz Bono, Jamie Clayton, Alexandra Billings, Jen Richards, Tiq Milan, Nick Adams, Tre’Vell Anderson, Trace Lysette, Rain Valdez, Zackary Drucker, Marquis Vilson, Chase Strangio, Sandra Caldwell, Candis Cayne, Susan Stryker, Alexandra Grey, Jazzmun, Ser Anzoategui, Elliot Fletcher, Bianca Leigh, Leo Sheng, Mickey R. Mahoney and Hailie Sahar.

However, the documentary (which has a traditional format that blends interviews with archival footage) doesn’t do an adequate job of explaining variances along the gender spectrum. There are many people in society who get confused between being transgender and doing drag. It’s a confusion that the documentary further muddles by bringing up examples of drag impersonations in movies and television and putting them in the same category as transgender representation. Some of the documentary’s examples include Dustin Hoffman in 1982’s “Tootsie” and Robin Williams in 1993’s “Mrs. Doubtfire,” as well as female personas created by male comedians Milton Berle, Flip Wilson and Jamie Foxx on comedy TV series.

Here is what “Disclosure” should have done from the beginning before going into the flashy montages of film and TV clips: Educate people on the different identities in the gender spectrum.

The documentary assumes that people watching the film already know what “cisgender” means. The definition of “cisgender” is when someone identifies as the biological gender assigned at birth. The majority of people in the world are cisgender and use the pronouns “he/him” if they identify as male and “she/her” if they identify as female. Most cisgender people are heterosexual (attracted to the opposite sex), while other cisgender people identify as “queer” (attracted to the same sex, both sexes or any gender) or “asexual” (not interested in any sex at all). It depends on the individual.

Transgender people are people who identify as the opposite of their biological gender they were assigned at birth. Transgender people have their own unique journeys on how and when they decide to present themselves as the gender they are. Many transgender people, for various reasons (usually pressures from society or family members), are forced to present themselves as the gender that is opposite of who they are.

Transgender people all over the world are fighting for the rights to be gendered correctly and to openly live their lives as the gender with which they identify, without being discriminated against for it. A transgender woman should have the pronouns “she/her” and a transgender man should have the pronouns “he/him.” Just like with cisgender people, sexuality for transgender people depends on an individual: Transgender people can be sexually attracted to any, all or no people on the gender spectrum.

Transgender people are often misidentified as doing drag. And that is a common misconception that the documentary really should have pointed out better. Drag is dressing up as the opposite sex. For transgender people, their gender identity isn’t “doing drag,” like a costume someone can put on and take off when they choose. The documentary really missed an opportunity to clarify between “doing drag” and “being transgender.”

Likewise, people can get confused over what “trans” means when there are transsexuals and transvestites. Transsexuals are transgender people who undergo gender confirmation surgery. Transvestites are cisgender people who dress up as the opposite sex. Transvestites are a subculture of drag culture, because transvestites are usually people who identify as straight or bisexual. None of that is explained in the documentary.

Also not mentioned in the documentary: There are some people who identify as “gender-fluid” and present themselves as male and female, depending on the situation. When gender-fluid people present as male, they want their pronouns to be “he/him,” and when they present as female, they want their pronouns to be “she/her.” Gender-fluid people are not to be confused with nonbinary people, who don’t identify as any gender and use the pronouns “they” and “them.”

Maybe the “Disclosure” filmmakers thought all of this information would be confusing to viewers. But a lot of people in the world don’t know that there is a gender difference between RuPaul (a cisgender gay man who does drag as a woman) and Laverne Cox (a transgender woman). A movie like “Disclosure” could have done a better job of educating people who are ignorant of these differences, instead of assuming that everyone who watches the film already knows what the differences are.

That being said, “Disclosure” has an impressive compilation of film/TV clips and personal stories from transgender entertainers who talk about how images on screen influenced (for better or worse) how they felt about themselves as transgender people. “Disclosure” also responsibly acknowledges the additional prejudice that transgender people can face from other members of the LGBTQ community.

There are also disproportionate levels of racism and sexism that transgender women of color experience, compared to cisgender queer white people. (Most hate crimes against transgender people are crimes against transgender women of color.) And because white transgender people get more representation on screen than transgender people of color, it causes limited stereotyping that can stifle the careers of transgender people of color. Actress/producer Valdez (who is of Filipino heritage and was raised in Guam) says in the documentary she’s spent her entire career trying to convince people that she can do roles other than the Asian “M. Butterfly” stereotype.

“Disclosure” offers a fairly comprehensive historical account of how transgender lives have been depicted in movies and television. The documentary includes examples of movies all the way back to the silent-film era. Two silent films released in 1914 are singled out in particular: director D.W. Griffith’s “Judith of Bethulia” and director Sidney Drew’s “A Florida Enchantment.”

But this is where “doing drag” and “being transgender” can get confused, since both films don’t really specify if the characters are really transgender or if the characters are cisgender people doing drag. For the first half of 20th century, the terminology just didn’t exist to make the distinction between the two types of identities.

Adding to the confusion is that many films from the silent-film era had shameful and degrading portrayals of women and people of color, with white men acting in those roles because white men were the ones usually allowed to get those roles in the first place. The practice of male actors dressing up as women goes back centuries before film was even invented, when women were not allowed to be actors.

Movies allowed roles for women, but early silent films still had a lot of men portraying women, simply because there weren’t enough women who were allowed to be actors. That doesn’t necessarily mean those characters were written as transgender or queer. It’s something that “Disclosure” should have put into better historical context.

However, actress/activist Cox (who is one of the executive producers of “Disclosure”) makes this noteworthy comment: “I think it’s fascinating that some of the earliest moving images were cross-dressed images. When you watch, it feels very much like womanhood is silly and is to be mocked.”

Oscar-nominated “Strong Island” director Ford says that he’s not surprised that movies from early filmmakers such as Griffith presented anyone who wasn’t a straight white male in a demeaning manner. Ford comments that he’s glad he didn’t go to film school because he would have walked out if they showed him Griffith’s pro-Ku Klux Klan film “Birth of a Nation,” which is often taught in films schools as one of the most influential movies of the silent-film era. “The Matrix” filmmaker Lilly Wachowski puts it bluntly when she says of Griffith: “You racist piece of shit.”

Transgender representation in films obviously became more pronounced in the latter half of the 20th century, when transgender identities and gender confirmation surgeries became more openly discussed in society. Some of the films mentioned as being influential for transgender representation include 1992’s “The Crying Game,” 1999’s “Boys Don’t Cry,” 2013’s “Dallas Buyers Club” and 2015’s “The Danish Girl,” which were all nominees or winners of Academy Awards. For documentary films, 1990’s “Paris Is Burning” is praised as one of the most influential of all time for transgender representation.

However, even some of those films had problematic issues, according to some of the “Disclosure” interviewees. “Boys Don’t Cry,” “Dallas Buyers Club” and “The Danish Girl” all had cisgender actors portraying transgender people. Transgender activists have been advocating for filmmakers and TV showrunners to hire transgender people for transgender roles. “Dallas Buyers Club” (which was based on a true story) also got some criticism in “Disclosure” because some people think that Jared Leto’s fictional Rayon character (a transgender female) was written for the movie to make the straight male protagonist of the story, Ron Woodroof (played by Matthew McConaughey), look like the “heterosexual savior.”

In the “The Crying Game,” when transgender female character Dil (played by Jaye Davidson, who is transgender in real life) revealed that she has a penis, it caused her straight male love interest Fergus (played by Stephen Rea) to vomit. “Disclosure” criticizes films that resort to this negative and often unrealistic vomiting reaction whenever a cisgender person finds out that someone is transgender. The 1994 comedy “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” starring Jim Carrey, is cited as an example of this derogatory stereotyping.

The 1975 bank robbery film “Dog Day Afternoon,” starring Al Pacino, is mentioned as a mixed bag for transgender representation. This dramatic movie is based on a true story of a man who held a bank hostage in New York City so that he could get the money to pay for gender confirmation surgery for his transgender female lover. The documentary points out that in real life, the transgender lover definitely presented herself as a woman in the way she looked, acted and dressed. But in the movie, the transgender lover was played by a very cisgender male-looking Chris Sarandon, who wasn’t even dressed as a woman in the movie.

Many people in “Disclosure” point to the Buffalo Bill character from the 1991 Oscar-winning film “The Silence of the Lambs” as an even more distasteful and offensive representation of a transgender person. The Buffalo Bill character is named as the embodiment of the worst negative stereotypes that movies have in portraying transgender women as homicidal people who act as vultures to femininity and hate cisgender women. It’s part of a shameful legacy of many transgender people being written in movies and TV shows as either criminals or tragic figures with medical problems. It’s also why so many transgender characters end up dying in these movies and TV shows.

But once again, “Disclosure” confuses “transgender” with “drag” when it goes off on a tangent to have people discuss movies like 1982’s “Victoria/Victoria,” 1983’s “Yentl” and  1985’s “Just One of the Guys”— each film had the main character doing drag, not being transgender. Although it’s interesting that some of the interviewees in this documentary were influenced by these films, the cross-dressing characters in those movies were cisgender, not transgender. As the saying goes about not causing confusion: “Don’t get it twisted.”

Many of the interviewees say that the TV industry has been more progressive than the movie industry, when it comes to representing transgender people, but there is still room for improvement. Christine Jorgensen (the first widely known transgender American woman to have a gender confirmation operation) is considered a pioneer for transgender representation in the U.S. media, since her transgender journey was a big story in TV news in the 1950s, and she was a frequent guest on TV talk shows and news programs for years afterward.

And the LGBTQ activism of transgender women Silvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson that began in the 1960s—although not as frequently covered on TV as the activism of their white cisgender male counterparts—is mentioned as highly important and underrated. Some of the interviewees in “Disclosure” say that bigotry within the LGBTQ community has a lot to do with why transgender activists are often held back and overlooked in their own community.

The Emmy-winning FX drama series “Pose” (about New York City’s drag/trans ballroom culture in the late ’80s/early ’90s) is cited by many people as the gold standard of all transgender TV shows, in terms of accurate representation. But “Pose” (which debuted in 2018) is an anomaly, since it’s the first and so far only scripted TV series to have a transgender-majority cast. “Pose” co-star Rodriguez says that the show has had a tremendous positive impact in how people view the transgender community.

Janet Mock, who is a “Pose” writer/director, is not interviewed in “Disclosure,” but she’s mentioned as an important trailblazer for transgender people who work behind the scenes in television. In 2019, Mock signed an exclusive first-look deal with Netflix to be the showrunner of TV programs, becoming the first transgender person to get this type of TV deal. “Disclosure” includes some archival clips of TV interviews that Mock has done.

Other TV shows that are mentioned as having positive representations of transgender people are Netflix’s 2013-2019 dramedy series “Orange Is the New Black” (which had Cox as one of its cast members); Amazon Prime Video’s 2014-2019 comedy series “Transparent”;  and the TLC reality show “I Am Jazz,” starring transgender female Jazz Jennings, who was 14 when the show premiered in 2015.

ABC’s 2007-2009 primetime TV soap opera “Dirty Sexy Money” had Cayne as the first openly transgender character in a U.S. primetime TV series, but she says that this milestone was marred when the decision was made to lower her voice octave in the show’s audio, to make her sound more “masculine.” Cayne says she was horrified when she saw the show’s premiere and found out that her voice was changed without her permission.

The documentary also points out that writers and producers are capable of evolving and improving representation of transgender people. “Pose” co-creator Ryan Murphy (an openly gay man) was also a showrunner of FX’s 2003-2009 drama series “Nip/Tuck,” which had a disturbing episode in 2004 that featured lead character Christian Troy (played by Julian McMahon) raping a transgender woman named Ava Moore (played by cisgender actress Famke Janssen) and finding out during the sexual assault that Ava is a post-operational transgender woman. In “Disclosure,” Cox gets emotional and teary-eyed when she remembers what it felt like to watch that “Nip/Tuck” rape episode.

The reason why Ava got the operation is also problematic: She previously lived life as a gay man, but got the operation to become a woman so that she could to try to get the love of a heterosexual man who wasn’t in love with her. It’s unlikely that Murphy would put that type of transgender storyline in any of his shows today.

“Disclosure” briefly mentions Caitlyn Jenner’s reality show “I Am Cait” and her coming-out journey on the reality show “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” But the documentary also mentions that within the transgender community, Jenner is a controversial figure because she is an outspoken conservative Republican who supports political candidates who are against civil rights for the LGBTQ community.

TV talk shows are mentioned as being very important in showing transgender people on television. A transgender man named Reno, who was a guest on “The Jerry Springer Show” in 1998, is named as someone who was influential in particular to black transgender men, according to actor Vilson. “To see this image [of a black transgender man] on TV was really empowering,” Vilson says. “The Jerry Springer Show” was notorious for people revealing controversial “secrets” to their lovers, in the hopes of causing a fight on TV. On the show, Reno revealed to his girlfriend at the time that his true identity is being a transgender man.

Speaking of controversy, “Disclosure” seems to want distance itself from scandal-ridden actors who portrayed transgender people on screen. “Disclosure” doesn’t mention any of the sexual harassment allegations against award-winning “Transparent” star Jeffrey Tambor (a cisgender man who played a transgender woman on the show), who was accused of sexually harassing women who worked on the show. Tambor denied the allegations but left the show in 2017.

Transgender actress Lysette (one of Tambor’s accusers, who guest-starred on the show) and “Transparent” co-star Billings (who is also transgender) are interviewed in the documentary but don’t mention the allegations. Either they talked about the scandal and it was cut out from the film or they didn’t talk about it all all. We might never know.

Also not mentioned at all in the documentary: the 2005 dramatic feature film “Transamerica,” starring Felicity Huffman as a transgender woman. Huffman (a cisgender actress) got an Oscar nomination for her role in “Transamerica,” but the “Disclosure” filmmakers probably don’t want people to be reminded that Huffman is part of transgender film history, because Huffman became a convicted felon in 2019, after she pleaded guilty in the college admissions scandal.

And speaking of transgender women on screen, “Disclosure” also mentions that there is disproportionately more representation of transgender women in American movies and TV than there are of transgender men, even though the number of transgender women and transgender men in the United States are about the same. Unfortunately, most of these transgender female roles in movies and TV are portraying sex workers, murder victims, sexual-assault victims or people going through some kind of medical drama. Transgender actor Smith has this theory: “I think we don’t see as much representation of trans men as trans women because people don’t think of trans men as sensational.”

The documentary points out that people’s attitudes toward trans people have a lot to do with traditional stereotyping of masculinity and femininity. Anything that challenges those stereotypes is often laughed at or despised. In 2011, transgender man Bono (whose famous mother is Cher) was the first transgender contestant on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars.” In “Disclosure,” he talks about how most people were accepting of him on the show, but there was still considerable backlash that he experienced from bigots.

Showtime’s 2004-2009 drama series “The L Word” was the first American primetime TV series to have a transgender male character as part of the show’s cast. The character Max Sweeney (played by nonbinary actor Daniela Sea) started out as a “butch” lesbian but then transitioned to living life as a transgender man. Max’s coming-out journey on the show highlighted the prejudices that cisgender people (straight and queer) can have toward transgender people, as Max found that some of his lesbian friends had a hard time accepting his identity as a transgender man.

Some people in “Disclosure” say that the lesbian team of writers and producers of “The L Word” did a disservice to the transgender community because the Max character was portrayed as confused, and the female characters’ bigotry against Max was acceptable. Transgender people say that if a transgender writer or producer had been part of the show at the time, Max would probably have been written as transgender from the start, since most transgender people are not confused about their identity but are often forced to hide it because of pressures from society.

“Disclosure” also mentions how gender roles and race can intersect when it comes to black men in comedy. Cox points out that many black male comedians dress up as women to emasculate themselves in a society that often demonizes the masculinity of black men. “Putting a black man in a dress, in some people’s minds, takes away the threat,” says Cox.

Although Cox says that the Geraldine character from “The Flip Wilson Show” had a big impact on her, as one of the first cross-dressing characters that she saw on TV, it’s an example of confusing “doing drag” with “being transgender.” A better example of an influential black transgender TV character mentioned by Cox is the Edie Stokes character on CBS’s 1975-1985 comedy series “The Jeffersons,” played by Veronica Redd (a cisgender actress) in a guest-starring role in 1978. Edie was a character who actually lived life as a transgender woman instead of just playing dress-up.

“Disclosure” also points out that transgender people are often at risk of being ridiculed in being represented on screen. Actress/writer Leigh says, “As a trans person, you have the most sensitive radar to tell if you’re laughing with us or laughing at us.” Media maker/writer Milan adds, “If I’m not laughing, is it a joke?”

Actress/writer Richards (who is known for her roles on the TV series “Better Things” and “Mrs. Fletcher”) says: “There is a one-word solution to almost all problems in trans media—’more.’ We just need more [representation].” But as many people point out in “Disclosure,” more representation should also mean better representation. And that should also include educating people better about what it means to be transgender, so that being transgender is not easily confused with people dressing up in drag.

Netflix premiered “Disclosure” on June 19, 2020.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Changing the Game’

May 5, 2019

by Carla Hay

Changing the Game
Mack Beggs in “Changing the Game” (Photo by Turner Jumonville)

“Changing the Game”

Directed by Michael Barnett

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 26, 2019.

There’s an ongoing debate on how transgender people should be treated in situations where people are segregated by gender. Sports will continue to be one of the hot-button areas where transgender people are fighting for their rights. Unlike using a public restroom, categorizing a person’s gender in sports can affect their future, especially when money is involved (and it usually is). “Changing the Game” is a documentary that explores these issues, as the movie follows three American teenage transgender athletes who are navigating their way through a system where they are often mistreated and misunderstood.

At the time this documentary was filmed, all three of the athletes were in high school. Mack Beggs, who gets the most screen time, is a transgender male wrestler in Texas who’s forced to compete against girls. Beggs, who has been a state champion, also stars in the short film “Mack Wrestles,” which is making the rounds at film festivals, including Tribeca. Sarah Huckman is a transgender female Nordic skier in New Hampshire. Sarah (who is Asian) is adopted, and her parents, Jen and Tom Huckman, are completely supportive of her. Andraya Yearwood is an African American transgender female track runner in Connecticut, one of the states that allows public schools to categorize students according to whatever gender the student identifies as. Laws vary from state to state in this issue.

Mack’s situation is complicated because he is taking male hormones yet competing against girls. The documentary includes commentary from parents who think Mack has an unfair advantage against the girls he competes against. Mack essentially agrees, because he wants to compete against other males. Meanwhile, Mack’s coach doesn’t seem to care about Mack’s gender, as long as he’s winning. The coach says, “I would never turn my back on an athlete,” but all the controversy over Mack makes you wonder if the coach would stand by Mack so strongly if Mack was losing most of his matches.

Mack is living with his grandparents Nancy and Roy, who have adopted him. His grandmother says, “I’m a hardcore Republican, but I don’t have a problem stepping on any toes for transgender kids.” Mack has a girlfriend who’s also very supportive of him, but he admits that he has bouts of depression and a past suicide attempt by taking sleeping pills. The documentary mentions that 40 percent of transgender athletes attempt suicide. Mack is also under a lot of pressure because he needs an athletic scholarship to get into the college of his choice, but he knows that the odds are stacked against him because he’s a transgender athlete.

Meanwhile, the documentary shows how Sarah has become a political activist for transgender athletes. Her advocacy had an effect on the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association’s policies for transgender students, according to Guy Donnelly, principal of Kingswood Regional High School, where Sarah was a student. Advocates for transgender athletes believe that transgender people should be accepted as transgender in all aspects of their lives—in other words, sports should not be an exception.

For track runner Andraya, the biggest supporter in her family is her single mother, Ngozi Nnaji, who says she’s so protective of her daughter that she almost feels like a bodyguard. Of all three trans athletes profiled in the movie, Andraya endures the most heckling from angry parents at the games. The documentary mentions a sobering statistic that African American transgender female students are five times more likely to be murdered than their peers.

Mack gets quite a bit of heckling too. He mentions that most of the verbal abuse and bullying he gets are from adults, not from other kids. It’s taken a toll on his mental health, and his girlfriend says that Mack has had a couple of emotional breakdowns, but he doesn’t like to talk about how much pressure he’s under. Mack says, “My relationship with testosterone is complicated. I wish I didn’t have to inject it.”

The most common argument that people have against trans athletes is that trans athletes have an “unfair advantage.” This argument seems to be used the most when parents think someone with a masculine physique is competing against females. When prize money and scholarships are at stake, it’s no wonder that the conflicts over this issue can get heated. Sarah admits that she often holds herself back in competitions and deliberately does not perform at her best because she doesn’t want to be a target for this type of “unfair advantage” accusation.

Andraya says she wouldn’t be on her track team if she didn’t have the support from the other people on the team. She gets some more encouragement when another African American transgender female named Terry Miller joins the team. In one of the movie’s most touching moments, Terry says that she was inspired to join the team because of Andraya. They naturally become very close friends.

Still, they have to endure angry outbursts from parents who don’t want them on the team, even if Andraya and Terry can help the team win in group competitions. During a track meet, a furious mother tells the camera that athletes like Andraya and Terry don’t have to deal with menstruation, so they have an unfair advantage. The menstruation argument is actually an insult to all females, because it wrongly assumes that females who are menstruating are physically less capable of winning an athletic competition against females who aren’t menstruating.

“Changing the Game” is a straightforward documentary that doesn’t use gimmicks or fancy camera techniques. The film is unapologetically rooting for these transgender athletes, but the filmmakers could have done a little bit more well-rounded reporting by interviewing more people involved in the schools’ athletic systems, such as more coaches, referees, recruiters and leaders of athletic departments.

Another area where the movie definitely need improving was in expanding its reporting on what is being done on both sides to address the legal issues in the key states where transgender laws are the most hotly debated. Showing Sarah Huckman’s activism in New Hampshire (a liberal state) doesn’t seem like enough to cover the lawmaking issues that should be addressed in this documentary. In addition, although high school athletes are the focus of this film, most of these athletes have plans to continue in the sport after high school, and they will probably be facing the same issues in college or wherever they plan to continue participating in the sport. Only Mack’s post-high-school plans were given enough screen time in this film.

Despite some of these flaws in the documentary, “Changing the Game” does a good job of humanizing an issue that many people want to dismiss as not relevant to their lives. The rights that transgender people are fighting for are civil rights that speak to us as human beings and how we treat each other. The rights aren’t asking for special treatment but to be treated with the same respect, dignity and legal access that cisgender people get for gender identity.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Seahorse’

May 4, 2019

by Carla Hay

Alfred "Freddy" McConnell in "Seahorse"
Alfred “Freddy” McConnell in “Seahorse” (Photo by Mark Bushnell)

“Seahorse”

Directed by Jeanie Finlay

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 27, 2019.

The documentary “Seahorse,” which is about a pregnant transgender man, gets its name because male (not female) seahorses are the ones who carry and give birth to seahorse babies. The pregnant transgender man in “Seahorse” is Alfred “Freddy” McConnell, a 30-year-old office worker from England, who decides to become a parent and decides that getting pregnant is faster than going through the adoption process. Freddy (who identifies as a gay transgender man) has a live-in transgender boyfriend named CJ Bruce, who plans to help Freddy raise the child. With a ticking biological clock, Freddy goes through the process of medical fertilization, even though he dreads taking the female hormones that will help him get pregnant.

Freddy, who lived between the cities of London and Deal, says that he always wanted to be a parent, and he came out as transgender when he was in college. Raised primarily by a single mother, he describes her as “a massive extrovert with a family of introverts.” Freddy’s mother, Esme Chilton, is supportive of him being transgender. However, Freddy’s estranged father (who split from Freddy’s mother when Freddy was about 8 years old) is having a difficult time accepting that he has a transgender son, and Freddy is afraid to tell his father that he’s pregnant. Childhood photos of Freddy show him to be a tomboyish child. At an early age, Freddy said that he didn’t like to wear dresses and felt that he was trapped in the wrong gender.

Because Freddy is introverted and because his closest family member is supportive of him, “Seahorse” is a quiet movie that doesn’t have a lot of drama and conflict. His fertilization treatments don’t work right away, so he doesn’t get pregnant until halfway through the movie. Waiting this long in the movie to show Freddy finally becoming pregnant is a curious choice that director Jeanie Finlay made—and it has mixed results. On the one hand, it’s a realistic portrayal of how fertilization treatments are rarely effective the first time they are taken. But on the other hand, this is a documentary about a pregnant man, so it drags down the pace of the film to wait until the halfway mark of the movie to show his pregnancy. The process of choosing a sperm donor and the disappointment of failed IVF treatments should have absolutely been included in the film, but better editing would have put all of that in the first third of the movie, not let it go on and on for half of the film.

Freddy goes through a lot of personal angst due to the pregnancy’s effects on his hormones—but, for the most part, he’s not ostracized in his community (because he keeps his pregnancy such a secret) and there are no scenes of him getting strange stares from people. That’s because Freddy goes to great lengths to hide his pregnancy to the outside world. He still dresses as a man, but he wears baggier clothes so that it doesn’t look like he’s pregnant. At one point in the movie, he confesses that he hasn’t told his co-workers and male friends about his pregnancy, and he has taken a leave of absence from his job. In the later stages of the pregnancy, Freddy and his mother relocate to a fairly remote area in Spain, after she spontaneously buys a home there. It’s a convenient move, since Freddy doesn’t have to face any nosy neighbors he might have had in England.

Because Freddy feels like a man, he’s also dealing with the psychological issues of going to back to the feminine physical characteristics that he wanted to get away from as a transgender man. His hips have become rounder, and his breasts are starting to become bigger. As his body goes through these changes, Freddy says, “My appetite has plummeted, my libido has plummeted. I feel softer inside, and I want to talk about my feelings more.”

As Freddy says later in the movie, “If all men got pregnant, pregnancy would be taken more seriously.” Still, because he doesn’t want to have the female biological characteristics that come with pregnancy, he says, “I feel like a fucking alien.” Over a dinner gathering with his mother and some of her friends, the conversation gets a little uncomfortable when one of his mother’s female friends admits that she thinks transgender issues are confusing.

The biggest problem with “Seahorse” is that because the movie takes place in the context of a pregnant man who largely wants to keep his pregnancy a secret, there’s no bigger “real world” insight into what really happens when a transgender man gets pregnant and isn’t afraid to let everyone in his life know about it. Although it’s a much more difficult path to be completely open about this type of pregnancy rather than to keep it a secret, it would also be helpful for people to see a transgender man publicly take those brave steps during the pregnancy in order to lessen the stigma over this type of pregnancy.

Freddy is very isolated from people during his pregnancy; except for CJ, he’s rarely seen with people his own age in this documentary. Even though it’s great that Freddy’s mother thinks he’s “brave,” and she is “in awe of him” for being in this unusual situation, it would have been better to see the reactions of people in Freddy’s world outside his very small inner circle. It’s understandable that Freddy would be afraid to tell people about his pregnancy—and he certainly would have gotten some backlash and criticism from bigots—but his fear could have robbed him of finding out who are the truly compassionate people in his life. The people who accept him as a transgender man are also likely to accept him as a parent. Freddy gives birth at the end of the movie, but “Seahorse” feels almost like a “to be continued” film, because it remains to be seen how Freddy handles the challenges of raising his child, knowing that his unusual pregnancy has been documented for the world to see.

UPDATE: 1091 Media will release “Seahorse: The Dad Who Gave Birth” (formerly titled “Seahorse”) in the U.S. on digital and VOD on June 16, 2020. The film was already released in the U.K. in 2019.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘For They Know Not What They Do’

April 25, 2019

by Carla Hay

For They Know Not What They Do
Ryan and Rob Robertson in “For They Know Not What They Do” (Photo courtesy of the Robertson Family)

“For They Know Not What They Do”

Directed by Daniel Karslake

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 25, 2019.

In his 2007 documentary “For the Bible Tells Me So,” director Daniel Karslake examined how right-wing conservatives use the Bible to discriminate against the LGBTQ community. Karslake’s documentary “For They Know Now What They Do” takes a more personal approach by spotlighting conservative Christian parents and how they handled finding out that one of their children is LGBTQ. It’s an emotionally charged film that will bring tears to most viewers’ eyes, no matter what you think about LGBTQ issues.

The four sets of parents are Linda and Rob Robertson from suburban Seattle; Dave and Sally McBride from Wilmington, Delaware; Victor Baez Sr. and Annette Febo from Orlando, Florida; and Coleen and Harold Porcher from Montclair, New Jersey.

The Robertsons have the most heartbreaking story to tell about their son Ryan, who came out as gay when he was a teenager. The revelation caused the parents to send Ryan to a “gay conversion” center, and they cut off contact with one of Ryan’s beloved uncles just because the uncle is gay. These actions had long-lasting negative effects on the family, and how the Robertsons are coping with it is sobering and unforgettable.

The McBrides, who have three children, also had to come to grips with finding out that not all of their children are heterosexual. Their eldest son is gay, and their youngest child came out as a transgender woman while she was a senior at American University, where she was president of a fraternity. That youngest child is Sarah McBride, who has since become a political activist, and she experienced a major tragedy not long after she started her new life as a trans woman.

Coleen and Harold Porcher thought that the biggest obstacle their only child had to face was being biracial. (Coleen is black, and Harold is white.) But as the Porcher parents discovered when the child reached puberty, the girl they thought they were raising came out to them as a boy, and told them that he wanted to live his life as a male.

Baez and Febo, who are from Puerto Rico, found out that their son Victor Jr. is gay after he had been kicked out of his grandmother’s home, where he had been living at the time. Up until Victor Jr.’s grandmother had discovered his secret, he had been living a closeted life and was afraid of being disowned by his family if he came out as gay. Not long after coming out of the closet, Victor Jr.’s life took a tragic turn in 2016, when he became a survivor of the Pulse nightclub massacre that killed some people who were close to him.

Through interviews with the straight and LGBTQ members of all of these families, “For They Know Not What They Do” has emotionally powerful and sometimes shocking testimonials from those who know firsthand how coming out can be painful for many families but doesn’t have to be destructive. Clergy people such as Reverend Dr. Jacqui Lewis, an ally of the LGBTQ community, are also interviewed for the movie, which gives an optimistic view of how homophobic family members can best learn to accept a family member who is LGBTQ.

Although the movie does an excellent job of weaving these families’ stories together in a cohesive manner, the documentary might get criticism for leaving out stories of other people in LGBTQ community, such as people whose parents never accepted their sexual identity. Cisgender females who are lesbian or bisexual are also not included in the movie’s stories told from the children’s perspectives. Those omissions don’t take away from the movie’s intended message that even the most hardcore bigots can change when love triumphs over fear and hate.

UPDATE: First Run Features will release “For They Know Not What They Do” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on June 12, 2020.