An Indigenous perspective on “Disclosure: Trans lives on screen”

Adrian Jawort

The media’s influence on trans identity may be stronger than you realize. Trans Awareness Week is November 13-20

 Adrian L. Jawort

Indian Country Today

In the classic 1970 film “Little Big Man” starring Dustin Hoffman, Little Horse, portrayed by Native actor Robert Little Star, is a Two Spirit/trans character whom the Cheyenne in their language call a Hemaneh.

The classic 1970 film “Little Big Man” starring Dustin Hoffman as Little Big Man and Little Horse, portrayed by Native actor Robert Little Star, a Two Spirit/trans character. (Screen capture)
The classic 1970 film “Little Big Man” starring Dustin Hoffman as Little Big Man and Little Horse, portrayed by Native actor Robert Little Star, a Two Spirit/trans character. (Screen capture)

While the film is a brilliant roller coaster of humor and intense drama, Little Horse is oft remembered for nothing more than the former, playing the role of comedic relief. As a Northern Cheyenne myself, I’ve admittedly quoted their line as a jest pickup line to (mostly) other Natives familiar with the film: “You look tired, Little Big Man. Would you like to come in my tipi and rest on soft furs?”

The real story behind Two Spirit people is that they were highly respected amongst most Native tribes until colonial beliefs and the values of so-called western civilization, brought from the other side of the world, made them an abomination. Hemaneh were essential to Cheyenne culture: the go-between persons for courtships, respected physicians and healers, hard workers who led by example, empathetic counselors known for nuanced and complex thinking, and carefully listened to, well-spoken leaders amongst the tribes.

Earlier this year I attended the Sundance film festival in Park City, Utah. One of the festival events that sticks with me was the world premiere of “Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen,” which includes a small clip of a Little Horse scene. While mostly passing entertainment to most people, for me, seeing Little Horse on the big screen again flooded me with mixed emotions.

Earlier this year I attended the Sundance film festival in Park City, Utah. One of the festival events that sticks with me was the world premiere of “Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen.” (Photo: Adrian L. Jawort)
Earlier this year I attended the Sundance film festival in Park City, Utah. One of the festival events that sticks with me was the world premiere of “Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen.” (Photo: Adrian L. Jawort)

If I am honest, this fictional character played a large part in keeping me from embracing a traditional word to describe who I am today as a real-life Cheyenne Hemaneh. Knowing that the only association with the word Hemaneh amongst fellow Natives was likely to be this character people only laughed at, this became a source of shame, deterring me from wanting to embrace an identity once deemed regal.

While I certainly wasn’t as stereotypically flamboyant or loud as Little Horse was, this nonetheless became my introduction to a word I felt in my heart as I quietly repeated it with a sense of fascination. Hemaneh, or, translated, “womanly-hearted man.”

This person born biologically male who was unquestionably considered female in their heart and soul, was intrinsic to my culture. Christian society, however, guilted me away from embracing this transness with promises of a white man’s hell if I ever dared publicly embrace my inherent feminine being.

With trans people in recent years — who have a veritable political and societal target painted on their backs amidst today’s culture wars — “Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen” is particularly timely, as it takes an in-depth look at the history of over 100 years of trans women in film and media.

At Sundance, director Sam Feder said this is the film he’s “always wanted to make,” because it actually comes from “within the trans community.” From a bevy of insider commentaries by Hollywood insiders and writers, including Laverne Cox (“Orange Is the New Black”), Chaz Bono, Lilly Wachowski (“co-director of The Matrix”), Angelica Ross (“Pose”), Yance Ford (director of “Strong Island”), and Tiq Milan (GLAAD spokesman and journalist), we not only get an intricate critique of trans representations in film, but learn how negative stereotypes ingrained themselves into societal perceptions regarding trans lives and how these perceptions have affected the lived experiences of trans people.

Laverne Cox, once featured on the cover of TIME Magazine, recalled how she was amused by the early 1970s character of Geraldine on The Flip Wilson Show. Like most cross-dressed characters in television, Geraldine’s popularity existed in a realm of relatively harmless humor.

But ultimately, for trans people, this trope inadvertently became a pattern for any perceived male in female attire dress to not be taken seriously as a person.

“It very much feels like womanhood is silly, and is to be mocked,” Cox said. She spoke of times early in her transition when everyday instances like walking into a subway car in New York City would lead to people bursting into laughter, “as if my existence on that subway car was just a joke,” she said. “And I think people have been trained to have that reaction.”

As a result, trans people develop an acute radar that detects whether someone is laughing with you, or at you.

While it will come as no surprise that cross-dressed and non-binary characters have always been a source of amusement in theater, film, and cinema, it is less known that up until the 1960s in the U.S., trans women were harassed and arrested under the umbrella of so-called “masquerade laws.”

When a trans woman dons makeup and female attire, she crosses an ingrained societal line, a taboo. Cox likened it to arming herself with “war paint” to go into a hostile atmosphere. “Going out into the world, I just wanted to feel at my very best because I would be misgendered,” she said. “I knew I’d immediately feel unsafe just walking down the street and that was certainly the case. And I armored myself, and makeup was certainly a way to do that.”

It wasn’t until after the Stonewall Riots in Greenwich Village, led by African American trans women, that police stopped using masquerade laws against them. Yet even that watershed moment has been altered in our memory to fit a narrative that leaves out trans people. A 2015 film depicting the riots, “Stonewall,” was heavily panned by critics as a whitewashing of history, sidelining people of color and downplaying their role in the events by focusing on gay, white men.

“Assimilation is the American narrative, and trans people make it really difficult for some people in the queer community to assimilate,” said Yance Ford, an African American and the first openly trans director nominated for an Academy Award in 2018 for “Strong Island.” So while gay folks now mostly blend into mainstream society and media, trans people are oft viewed as detrimental to LGBTQ widespread acceptance.

When it’s not humor dispersed at their expense, another reaction transferred to trans women is fear, via films like “Psycho,” “Dressed to Kill,” and “Silence of the Lambs.”

The thinking here is “that we’re dangerous, that we’re psychopaths, that we’re serial killers, that we must be deviants or perverse,” said Nick Adams, GLAAD’s director of transgender media and representation. “Why else would you wear a dress if you’re a man?”

The film notes that 80 percent of people in the U.S. do not know a trans person, so the media becomes their only reference to them. A trans actress in the “Disclosure” film related a story about confiding to a friend that she was thinking of coming out as trans. She was asked, “You mean like Buffalo Bill?!” referencing the serial killer in “Silence of the Lambs.” While her friend expressed deep regrets and is now horrified for having asked the question, it is still telling that this awful image was all her mind could conjure as a trans woman example.

As for trans men, stereotypical tropes prevail even in well-meaning shows like the lesbian-focused drama, “The L Word” (2004-2009), which featured a transmasculine character, Max Sweeney. He becomes increasingly violent and hostile, supposedly due to his testosterone treatment, and then is viewed as a traitor to lesbian womanhood.

Occasional clumsy representations wouldn’t be such a problem if there were more nuanced trans characters, but because there’s simply a dearth of them, such stereotypes cement faulty preconceptions.

“For whatever reason, we are creatures who want to see ourselves reflected to us, starting with cave paintings, to 3D IMAX,” Milan said. “Certainly, being invisible is a privilege compared to the type of transphobia that has been written into trans woman characters. But I work with a lot of trans boys, and when they look to the screen to see themselves reflected back, they see almost nothing.”

“Boys Don’t Cry” (1998), starring Hilary Swank, is a film about the real-life Brandon Teena, who was murdered in a brutal hate crime. The film struck a powerful nerve in trans men everywhere. (However, as “Disclosure” notes, Phillip Devine, a black man who was Teena’s real-life good friend and ally, was also whitewashed and erased from the film.)

Other notable moments are found in such productions as the film “Just One of the Guys” (1985), in which a female reporter goes undercover as a high school boy, and in the 1997 episode of The Jerry Springer Show, which featured the first African American trans man to appear on television.

In the 90s, a plethora of trans people was exploited on talk shows, with viewers tuning in out of a mixture of morbid curiosity and a desire to ridicule trans people who “tricked” their unsuspecting partners.

However, as Cox said in the “Disclosure” film, some of those trans women who were brave enough to go on national television and speak out respectfully, became an inspiration to dispersed trans people, who otherwise felt alone in a pre-internet era, where available support communities were virtually nonexistent.

Trans women as an object of disgust have long been a popular narrative. “The Crying Game” (1992) racked up five Oscar nominations and won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, with its big plot twist and revelation that the character Dil is trans, which prompts the main protagonist, Fergus, to start throwing up.

Revulsion and throwing up would also be the go-to reaction in the 1994 comedy “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” not only for Jim Carrey’s title character but for an entire police squad and NFL star Dan Marino.

Society follows suit on the “joke” of trans women

Alongside disgust is the all-too-familiar concept of fetishization. While Jeannie Livingston’s 1990 popular documentary “Paris Is Burning” highlighted Harlem’s 1980s drag and “Golden Age” ballroom scene, which was dominated by African Americans and Latinos, the subjects of the film felt exploited.

A 1993 New York Times piece read, “There is a lot of anger in the ball world about ‘Paris Is Burning.’ Some of it concerns what a few critics have called exploitation: making the lives of poor black and Latino people into a commodity for white consumption.”

Regardless, “Paris Is Burning” has become regarded as a “Holy Grail” of queer representation in cinema and remains highly influential in pop culture today.

The hit FX television series “Pose,” nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series in 2019, and with Billy Porter winning Outstanding Lead Actor in 2019 and 2020, the series also explored the ballroom culture of the late 1980s and early 1990s, but it included aftermath narratives like the AIDS epidemic that ravaged the real-world community of people involved.

“Disclosure” notes that GLAAD looked at 134 TV episodes that included trans characters, and the most common profession among them was a sex worker.

Because of heavy discrimination, trans people have unemployment rates three times the national average, and even higher for trans people of color. Without any context or humanization, people presume that sex work is “just what most trans women do.”

Fellow trans women, however, are able to empathize and are well aware of potential reasons for this, be it by choice or being forced into it to make ends meet — when they’re kicked out of their homes and communities after coming out — coupled with aforementioned employer discrimination.

Included amongst the 80 percent of people who’ve never met a trans person are trans people themselves, so they too look to the media, in an attempt to find other people like themselves in real life — for better or worse.

When taking that step forward to embrace their trans identity — especially in more conservative areas — many are more than aware they’re inheriting all the weight of those negative stigmas that lead to isolation.

And while trans people are becoming more highlighted in the media, this paradoxically feeds a deeper backlash against them exemplified by the bigotry-driven legislation we’ve seen in the past few years.

As a result, “You see a fierceness coming up from the (trans) girls coming up now. That’s ‘cause we understand we ain’t got nothing to lose,” Angelica Ross says. “‘I already done lost that job — I lost that job.’ So I’m only going to gain by being authentic and telling the truth.”

Not included in “Disclosure,” the recent HBO TV series drama “Euphoria” deserves mention as a hopeful sign.

The show features a prominent trans feminine character named Jules, played by trans actress Hunter Schafer. Jules’s transgender identity often seems beside the point. As a result, she doesn’t feel so alien and “othered” to an audience. Director Sam Levinson allowed Shafer to add nuance to further develop her character, and audiences ultimately empathize with her humane desires of wanting acceptance, love, and companionship. These relatable characteristics are something we all aspire to have in life—trans or not.

Going back to Little Horse in “Little Big Man”

Now that I’ve embraced Hemaneh as an appellation of power and dignity — And now that I look at this as an ultimate middle finger of decolonizing illumination thrust toward the dark shadow of Judeo-Christian values — And all of this while conservative vé’ho’e (white people) still call me “mentally ill” and other petty insults — I’ve learned to find the positives of the Little Horse character in Little Big Man.

She was not pressured by the Cheyenne other than to be anyone other than her true self, and Little Big Man noted the tribe “thought a lot of” her in a positive way. At one point Little Horse said she needed to fix her hair because she was to sing that night, which would likely have meant she was leading a ritual—such was a Hemaneh’s central role in our traditional culture.

As I slog away late nights creating my own modern trans/Hemaneh fictional character and bleed out my own insecurities and complexities on the page via fiction, I hope an audience may discover in my writing a character whose life may seem a world away — but whose existence they can feel nonetheless.

Humanizing the struggles and strides of trans people via art, better dispels myths that keep people leery of us.

As Cox notes, “Seeing trans people loved, uplifted and well-regarded in film and television can endear you to step in when you see a trans person being harassed on the street and to make sure the trans people in your life are supported.”

“Trans Lives on Screen" is currently available on Netflix.

Adrian L. Jawort is a proud Northern Cheyenne journalist and writer who lives in Billings, Montana. She is co-founder of IndigiPress.com which aims to promote Indigenous literature, arts, and culture.

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