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Visibility and violence: “Disclosure” screening, conversation, and zoombombing

On Sept. 9, 2020, Mills hosted its first event of the year in the Mills Trans Speaker Series: a screening over Zoom of the award-winning Netflix documentary “Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen,” in conjunction with a conversation between the film’s director Sam Feder (they/he) and its co-producer, and visiting professor, Susan Stryker (she/her). 

Sam Feder’s filmography also includes “Boy Am I” and “Kate Bornstein is a Queer & Pleasant Danger,” both award-winning films. They have received grants from organizations and artistic collectives including The MacDowell Colony, Yaddo and the Astraea Foundation for Social Justice, and volunteer with a number of organizations including the California Coalition of Women Prisoners and the San Francisco Transgender Film Festival.

Stryker, who currently holds the Barbara Lee Distinguished Chair in Women’s Leadership at Mills, has been a visiting faculty member at universities including Harvard, Yale, Northwestern and UC Santa Cruz. She is the author of works including “Transgender History” and “Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area” and was one of the producers on the Emmy-Award winning film “Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria.”

The film screening opened with a brief address from Stryker, thanking the various persons and organizations who made the event possible, explaining the modification of Mills Trans Speakers Series events in the wake of COVID-19 to allow for virtual attendance and announcing a selection of future events at Mills, such as a 7 P.M. membership meeting of Mills’ Black Student Collective on Sept. 22. Shortly after the film began playing, dozens of transphobic, homophobic and racist slurs began flooding the Zoom chat and even playing over members’ audio, alerting attendees to the fact that the event had been infiltrated by several Zoombombers associating themselves with the hate movement “Pridefall 2020.” This plan reportedly originated on the imageboard website 4Chan in May as a way to disrupt online celebrations of Pride Month, with organizers instructing participants to find LGBT-positive accounts, brands and virtual events and leave a “shitton [sic] of disturbing redpills on homosexuality on the comments.” 4Chan has been also known to serve as a breeding ground for trolling operations targeting other marginalized demographics, such as Black and Jewish people, with harassment and hate speech. While this disruption was undeniably irritating and distressing, the cyberattackers were successfully removed from the Zoom by the hosts within a short while, leaving the slightly shaken but resolute viewers to enjoy the remainder of the hour- and forty-seven minute film. 

After Stryker expressed her regret at the brief hijacking of the event and encouraged anyone negatively affected to reach out to her if they wished to talk, she and Feder began their conversation, both responding to questions from audience members and swapping personal anecdotes about their experiences with “Disclosure” from development to release, including a “weird Caribbean […] gay cruise” the pair took together before filming began.

Feder said that one of the things they “really wanted [the film] to do is create a history that trans people could see and feel empowered by” in order to help counteract the common transgender experience of isolation from the community in some way. They also talked about the positive experience of having large numbers of trans people both behind and in front of the camera during the film’s creation, and their hope that trans people watching the film could feel “that shared experience of knowing.” Stryker called Feder’s making of this film “a mitzvah,” praising the ways in which they have used their platform to educate others about transmedia.

The pair also discussed one significant question raised in “Disclosure” — that of the complex relationship between visibility and violence experienced by transgender people. Feder said that the concept of media visibility “just goes to the root, to the core of human existence, we all need to be seen,” but acknowledged that their whiteness helps protect them from many of the potential negative consequences of such visibility. Stryker provided the example that someone seeing transgender actress Laverne Cox on a magazine cover likely cannot enact violence against Laverne, but can act violently against “the most vulnerable person in their immediate surroundings.” She took a positive note in connecting this concept to the earlier Zoombombing, suggesting that “maybe it’s even a tribute to the power of the film that […] the 4chan right-wing transphobic assholes decide that they need to slap us down, because they see the power that’s here.”

Other events in Mills’ Trans Speakers Series include “The Pink Line: Journeys Across the World’s Queer Frontiers”, a conversation between Stryker and South African journalist Mark Gevisser about the weaponization of trans issues; “Stalled! Project”, a conversation between Stryker and Joel Sanders and Seb Chloe of the MixDesign think tank about gender-inclusive and equitable public toilet designs; and in conjunction with the We Are the Voices project, a conversation between Stryker and Professor Jordy Rosenberg, author of the historical transmasculine faux-memoir “Confessions of the Fox,” the book about which Stryker is currently teaching her seminar “Trans-Historical Metafictional Narrative in Confessions of the Fox.” All events should be digitally accessible to the Mills community and to the world at large. Everyone, excepting transphobes, will be welcome.