Beyond the Bathrooms
Cultivating Meaningful Trans Inclusion in Theatrical Spaces
Many arts organizations across the United States have started to vocally back the fight for transgender and non-binary equality. In a lot of cases, gender inclusion—at least for the New England theatre organizations where we work—has taken shape in the form of gender-neutral restrooms.
The swift creation of gender-inclusive facilities is a task on the advocacy checklist that theatres have clung to with surprising fixation. While this is a significant symbol of solidarity with the trans community, it is indicative of the New England theatre scene’s dynamic with trans inclusion as a whole. There have been quick and outwardly-positive changes that highlight inclusivity, but broad and meaningful change requires long-term work and systemic shifts in how theatres operate.
To see why deeper change is critical, just look at New England audiences. It’s true theatres have been putting out more stories featuring trans characters. However, the majority of productions still have entirely cisgender casts, include far too many femme-acting men in dresses as a punchline, and present other harmful jokes at the expense of the trans community.
If inclusion efforts aren’t reflected onstage, theatre patrons who aren’t as attuned to LGBTQ+ issues may not understand why a company wants to put “men in dresses” in their restrooms during intermission. Case in point: at spaces where gender-neutral restrooms have replaced binary-designated ones, it’s not uncommon to witness people turn with a suspicious glance to a friend and whisper something along the lines of, “I know which one used to be the women’s room… follow me.”
With violence against the LGBTQ population at an all-time high, it’s vital that the theatre community dismantles stigma against trans people on all fronts. So, what can you do to continue growing an inclusive theatre scene?
Talk the Talk: Language Matters
When it comes to language usage, some common complaints trans people hear are: I’m trying! But it feels impossible to keep up. Or, We used to be able to say this, why can’t I anymore? When we correct you, it’s not because we don’t understand these realities—we do. But the world is constantly changing, and language will never stop changing with it as people’s needs shift. It’s tough, but it is up to each of us to make a conscious effort to ensure the words we put into the world reflect our beliefs.
To start, make sure you use people’s correct pronouns. It’s a simple but meaningful first step—like the bathrooms. Bring the phrase “what pronouns do you want to use in this space?” into your introduction circles and contact forms. This phrase not only ensures you’re using everyone’s correct pronouns, it also reinforces the notion that not everyone’s pronouns are constant. Someone may be in the process of figuring out their relationship with their gender, while others may not be in the same state of coming out in every space.
The thought to share pronouns commonly only happens if someone knows there’s a trans person in the room, but it should be routine regardless because everyone uses pronouns—even cis people. Just like asking for someone’s name, it’s not an offensive question, it’s a way to respect and communicate with someone in the way they desire. Normalization moves this process from an awkward ordeal directed only at out trans people to an everyday thing. Adding pronouns to business cards, email signatures, name tags, and contact sheets can also help normalize this process.
Correct language usage is more than just memorization, it is about respect and empathy.
While we’re on the subject, cut the phrase “preferred pronoun.” Just like a name, pronouns aren’t “preferred,” they just are. Moreover, avoid saying “she series” or “he series.” It may seem like a quick and useful phrase, but it has an academic air that makes pronouns feel even more alienating. “She/her/hers” is generally more accessible. It explains what each of the main pronouns are and removes the allusion that “she” is normal because everyone can fill in the “her/hers” part, unlike “they” or “xe.”
While the phrase “_______ identified” (e.g. in “seeking female-identified playwrights”) is commonly used to attract gender diverse people, it’s vital to recognize that “female” means both cis and trans and “identified” is redundant and creates an unnecessary delineation between cis and trans women. When used for the goal of gender parity, it lumps trans men into a place of privilege equal to cis men and leaves non-binary people uncertain of where they stand.
Clarify what you actually mean. Do you only want women to apply? Anyone who identifies with femininity? Or anyone who’s been marginalized due to their gender? Try “seeking play submissions from women,” or “seeking playwrights who have been marginalized due to their gender identity, including artists who are women, trans, non-binary, agender, and genderqueer.” Show trans people that you have done critical thinking about how your mission and programming interacts with gender expectations and the queer community. Correct language usage is more than just memorization, it is about respect and empathy.
Walk the Walk: Hire Us
Trans people are administrators and actors, designers and directors, playwrights and puppeteers, carpenters and costumers. Companies need to hire trans workers in all roles—not just front-facing positions that may bump diversity optics.
Start by including diversity statements in all casting calls and job descriptions. But please, stop asking for “diverse applicants.” A single person cannot be diverse. Be specific in how your company is trying to be inclusive regarding gender, race, ethnicity, disability, etc. Regarding gender, try something along the lines of “we encourage actors of all gender identities to apply.”
This is a helpful first step, but the process must go beyond diversity statements. Trans people will be hesitant to apply or go to auditions if they can’t find any inclusivity in your season, staff, or past casting choices. You need to do active outreach to queer spaces. Support their work and listen to what those communities have to say. And this needs to happen year-round, not just during the token Gay Play.
Remember that experience doesn’t equate to ability, especially when it comes to marginalized communities, because most training and hiring opportunities have been—and most continue to be—exclusive of trans people. It is your duty to break down cultural and financial barriers to opportunities within your company. If you haven’t done this crucial outreach to make people aware and trusting of the opportunities available, you cannot use trans people not showing up to your auditions or applying to your jobs as an excuse for lack of representation.
Train Everyone. All Aboard!
When a trans person is hired, they suddenly become the unpaid cultural consultant for the production. But “educate the production team on the Trans Experience and how to interact with trans people” likely isn’t part of their job description. If you’re missing some information in order to produce a particular play, you’ve skipped something crucial during the planning process, and it’s not on the token trans person to do that work for you.
Instead, train everyone from the top down and all around: administrators, executive directors, designers, technicians, front of house staff, and board members. Beyond being an HR concern, this is about growing in the ways you interact and live alongside those around you.
If your front of house staff or welcome speeches greet everyone with “ladies and gentlemen,” you’ve immediately shown trans people weren’t thought of during the process.
If your front of house staff or welcome speeches greet everyone with “ladies and gentlemen,” you’ve immediately shown trans people weren’t thought of during the process. Should non-binary people plug their ears? Listen twice as hard? There are so many other options you can use: “Good evening,” “everybody,” “folks,” “friends.” You’re artists, get creative.
Costuming is another area that needs reevaluation. It often relies on binary thinking of male vs. female bodies. Creating a safe and productive environment between staff and actors starts at the very beginning of the costuming process, even before sketches are made. Ask actors what items they are or aren’t comfortable in beforehand. Don’t wait until the pieces are already bought or built, which might leave an actor in an uncomfortable situation. Instead, initiate the conversation early and often.
Organizations like StageSource are already out there with resources and guides to help with training. And this isn’t to say you can never ask your trans coworker a question ever again. If it’s an informal—and appropriate—discussion between friends during a ten, then go ahead. In formal settings, there are quite a few trans theatremakers out there who are trained and even happy to do this sort of cultural education, but if an institution is going to rely on them to provide professional training, they need to be paid for their expertise and time.
Stand Up for Us
Too often, trans people are the only trans person in the room, sometimes even the first openly trans person a company has hired. This can make them feel like a lab rat being vigilantly watched, like they have to act as the perfect example of the trans community. This can lead to a fear of speaking out. If I keep correcting people am I going to be labeled as the “problem actor”? If they don’t have a good experience with me, maybe they won’t want to hire a trans person again.
Cis theatremakers: speak up during introductions if people aren’t saying pronouns. Correct co-workers when they misgender or deadname someone. Encourage a culture of “calling in” and speak up if your friends, peers, and supervisors make questionable or transphobic statements. And if you make a mistake or someone corrects you, don’t make a big deal about it! Creating a scene calls uncomfortable focus to the trans person and makes the moment about your feelings rather than correcting a mistake. It doesn’t need to derail the conversation. You don’t need to give a lengthy story about how you get it because you worked with a trans person in 2013. Just correct yourself, maybe give a quick “sorry” if the moment calls for it, and move on.
Ensure there are literal physical places in your buildings where trans people feel safe. Before stage managers and wardrobe assume to partition actors into binary dressing rooms (men and women), ask the actors where they would feel comfortable doing costume changes. These conversations should happen well before tech. As a general rule, private options for changing areas should always be available. When in doubt, choose the option that allows actors—trans or otherwise—agency over their bodies. It is important that they feel safe in these spaces in order to produce their best work.
It is up to every single one of us to effect change to make the theatre community more inclusive—and this goes beyond gender-neutral restrooms.
Tell Trans Stories by Trans People
There are plenty of resources for finding scripts to produce. You don’t have to shadow New York and the big Off-Broadway theatre companies to plan seasons—there are trans writers in your local communities creating exciting work. Organizations like the New England New Play Alliance can help connect you. New Play Exchange has a database of over twenty-five thousand scripts that you can filter for LGBTQ themes, characters, or author identities. The Kilroys curates lists of underproduced new works by women, trans, and gender non-conforming playwrights. The Non-Binary Monologues Project showcases work specifically for non-binary actors.
While attending plays or writing script evaluations, it’s important to remember that work by a member of any minority community may differ in form or style than what you are used to producing. Traditional American theatre statistically skews white, cisgender, and technically built on mid-century naturalist drama with a touch of memory play abstraction at the end of act one. Plenty of those plays are great, but inclusion doesn’t mean just putting trans people into them. Queer art is more than just art with queer characters, it pushes boundaries and standard accepted form.
If you’re a director developing your production concept, take some time to consider how you can incorporate diverse genders into your casting for every single production—not just the ones with queer themes or writers. Notice if you always assume characters are cis (white, straight, able-bodied…) unless otherwise specified. It shouldn’t take a trans person arriving in an audition room to think about trans people as a possibility in the world of your play.
And you have to go beyond switching up only smaller ensemble roles or pigeonholing trans and non-binary actors as comic relief stock characters or depressed and doomed for tragedy. “Genderbending” Feste in Twelfth Night has been done and overdone—give us a genderfluid Rosalind in As You Like It instead. Trans actors have the same ability as cis actors to play the roles they are called upon to play, they deserve the chance to take on complex and nuanced roles. Be specific about why and how you cast trans and nonbinary bodies on stage. Think of the greater story you are telling and the stereotypes you are perpetuating or, better yet, countering.
Beyond the Bathroom
Theatre spaces, in general, have become outwardly more welcoming for trans people by leaps and bounds. However, this work needs to be spread throughout the entirety of organizations and theatre processes. It is up to every single one of us to effect change to make the theatre community more inclusive—and this goes beyond gender-neutral restrooms and other surface-level changes.
Directors, managers, and producers: use your power to restructure your hiring and audition processes. Marketing, development, and literary folks: use your expertise to rethink your outreach and season planning. Everyone else: attend productions by and about queer people to show that these works matter and do bring in audiences. Speak up for the trans community and call in others to do the same. This can’t be a one-and-done issue. Include us, listen to us, and pay attention to your actions as you move forward.