Think of any transgender character on television or in film over the last century.
In all likelihood, it's someone who's been objectified, sensationalized or has experienced violence onscreen. Take the traumatic deaths of Hilary Swank's character Brandon Teena in the 1999 film "Boys Don't Cry" and Jared Leto's Rayon in 2013's "Dallas Buyers Club."
But the tide is shifting – albeit slowly – toward more thoughtful representation in the media, as discussed in Netflix's new transgender history documentary "Disclosure" (streaming Friday).
The documentary covers the transgender experience in Hollywood, from Edie Stokes on "The Jeffersons" through the groundbreaking current FX ballroom drama "Pose," which boasts many Black transgender series regulars.
"When we know better, we do better," actress Laverne Cox, an executive producer of the documentary, says in an interview that also ranges from Pride Month to this week's landmark Supreme Court decision in favor of gay and transgender rights in the workplace.
'I don't believe in cancel culture'
Cox, perhaps best known for her role as prisoner Sophia Burset in Netflix's "Orange Is the New Black," is one of many transgender women and men (including MJ Rodriguez, Candis Cayne and Chaz Bono) interviewed in the documentary, directed by Sam Feder ("Kate Bornstein is a Queer & Pleasant Danger").
Cox always wanted to collaborate on a transgender history project and connected with Feder three years ago, when Feder was already two years into researching it. Cox reflects on loving films like "Yentl" and "Victor/Victoria," having seen the latter hundreds of times. (And USA TODAY confirms she can sing "The Shady Dame from Seville" on cue).
Despite strides in representation, Cox says there is still too much violence against transgender women on television – partly because it reflects reality. At least 15 transgender or gender non-conforming people have been killed this year, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
"Showing reality is important, but I don't know if we need to see that right now. It's just triggering and traumatizing," Cox says. What's more, 80% of Americans say they don't personally know someone who is transgender, according to GLAAD. That means most of what audiences learn about transgender people comes from the media.
But Cox doesn't want to "cancel" anyone for not understanding how to write or talk about transgender people. Transgender stories were sensationalized on shows like Ryan Murphy's "Nip/Tuck" because that's just the way it was done, she says.
Murphy's "Pose" goes beyond featuring transgender people onscreen: They're involved at all levels of production, as writers, directors and producers.
"This is why I don't believe in cancel culture," Cox says. "From 'Nip/Tuck' to 'Pose'? People can transform, people can come to new spaces of critical consciousness and produce something that is so groundbreaking, so beautiful, so just everything."
What Pride Month means right now
The documentary couldn't come at a more critical time, amid the coronavirus pandemic and protests against racism. People around the country are protesting following the death of George Floyd after a white police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes.
"I'm disturbed by what's going on in the world, but I'm moved that people are protesting and lifting their voices and saying that this is not acceptable," Cox says. "Right now, more than ever, is an opportunity for everybody – whether you're LGBTQI+ or not – to really interrogate the ways in which we've internalized the values of white supremacy, the values of a racist culture."
Within the LGBTQ community, racism lingers, too, she says: "There's a reckoning we still need to have with race that we haven't fully had as a community." Cox referenced those who turned out for Black Trans Lives Matter rallies across several cities on Sunday, sticking up for black transgender women who are at the intersection of the most oppressed groups.
She recommended several organizations, including the Trans Justice Funding Project, Trasngender Law Center and TransTech Social Enterprises. "Pose" star Angelica Ross, also featured in "Disclosure," is the CEO and founder of TransTech, which provides job training and job opportunities in technology for transgender people.
Cox 'still shocked' at Supreme Court victory for LGBTQ employment rights
Cox is proud of the major Supreme Court decision announced Monday. The court decided, 6-3, that gay and transgender workers can't be fired on the basis of the sexual orientation or gender identity.
The decision gave Cox tremendous hope.
"I get goosebumps every time I think about it," she says. Cox attended the oral arguments at the court last October.
She remembers having a conversation with her friend and ACLU lawyer Chase Strangio about the case.
"We both think it's probably even more important than the marriage decision, because not everyone wants to get married, myself included," Cox says. But everyone for the most part needs to work.
"I'm still shocked," she says. But she says she's overjoyed.
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'Nothing more beautiful':'Walking Dead' star Khary Payton introduces his transgender son for the first time: