Laverne Cox and Angelica Ross on Disclosure and the past, present, and future of trans representation.
Angelica Ross by David Livingston
Laverne Cox by Presley Ann
When Laverne Cox met Angelica Ross in 2013 at The Trans 100 celebration in Chicago, neither of them had yet begun to enjoy the kind of mainstream success that they can claim today. “I remember when I first met Laverne, she had on her flats. Miss had on a little sweater. Very humble pie,” Ross says. “She talked about a new show she was going to be doing on the internet or Netflix or something.” Adds Cox: “I didn’t know what was going to happen.”What happened, of course, was that Orange Is the New Black put Cox on the map, propelling the actress to four Emmy nominations and cementing the trailblazer as an icon. Ross, meanwhile, has since starred in such critically acclaimed series as American Horror Story and Pose, and she’s triumphed as an entrepreneur with her organization TransTech, a talent incubator designed to economically empower transgender people.
Photo courtesy of Netflix
Photo by Paul Schiraldi / Netflix
Both of them lend their voices to director Sam Feder’s documentary Disclosure, which Cox also executive-produces. The film offers a comprehensive look at the ways trans people have been depicted onscreen over the decades, and at the impact of those representations on generations of audiences.“I always wanted to do something that in my mind I called ‘the transgender Celluloid Closet’” Cox says, referring to the groundbreaking 1995 documentary that in some ways foreshadows Disclosure. “That film looked at the history of gay and lesbian representation in Hollywood. For years, I was like, ‘We need something like that for trans people.’ I apparently spoke it into existence. I met Sam, and three years later here we are.”Tre’vell Anderson: Laverne, you have a great, long knowledge of trans history and representation. What moments were important for you to include in the film?
The Jeffersons © CBS 1977
The Flip Wilson Show © NBC 1970
Angelica, you smiled when she mentioned Edie Stokes on The Jeffersons. What’s your connection to trans imagery prior to this particular moment?
Angelica Ross: I really did gravitate toward these same characters, these strong women who weren’t necessarily trans, but they were not the ingénue.
AR: The fact that we were there made a huge difference in a way that I did not expect. What ended up happening was that behind the scenes I had a conversation with the producers. I told them about how problematic this was, the way we were doing the show. All the girls came together and rallied behind me as I spoke. From that point on they started saying, “She was born a boy.” That little change in language happened because we spoke up.I have to say that as negative as that portrayal could be, there was always a silver lining in it. The silver lining from the beginning was that trans people at home were seeing these bitches standing there like, I don’t give a damn. I’m standing up next to these hoes and I’m storming the building! That was one side of it. The other side, for me, was that all of a sudden I was being called a man by an entire audience. My worst fear became true.LC: Was it traumatic?AR: Girl, it freed me. I’m sitting here looking stunning and that’s the best you got? You can call me whatever you want to call me, but you’re going to call me successful.They didn’t know what to do with us back then, so we’re taking the Jerry Springer job, we’re taking the Maury Povich thing. Now we have stories like Pose and other shows that aren’t L.G.B.T.Q.+ centered that are finally including opportunities for us to show what we can do.LC: What is so beautiful about what you just said, Angelica, and about this history, is that we’ve always found a way. Whether there were opportunities or not, we created them, we made them happen, we made them work for us. To actually have that documented is really important so that we understand that we’ve always been here. We’ve always been finding a way out of no way.
Photo courtesy of Netflix
Photo by Alex McBride / Getty Images
One of the things that Disclosure does so beautifully is it takes all these very different images and moments and allows us as a community to grapple with the positives and the negatives. You both are folks who we look up to, folks who have broken through to the mainstream. I wonder what those accolades of being “the first” mean to you.
LC: It’s complicated. I’m proud that I’m still alive, to be honest, and I’m proud that I didn’t give up when I wanted to give up on my dreams of being an actor. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished. But there’s a lot of pressure that has come along with that.
Laverne, could you tell us how you put together the Disclosure team?
LC: We were committed to making sure that everyone who worked behind the scenes was also trans. When we could not find someone trans to fill a role, Sam Feder had the idea of creating a fellowship program where a cisgender person would train a trans person. That created an environment that was so uplifting. Everyone was invested in the material and in the subject matter.
on Netflix Now.