Beyond Cool

Moving Towards True Transgender Visibility

This week on HowlRound we will have several articles from trans theatre artists that highlight diverse stories of a trans community of practicing artists working to create visibility in the theatre and the world.

“Transpeople are cool right now.” This is a sentence I have heard from producers, agents, friends. Trans stories are hot. Trans characters are in style. What does this mean? In some ways this is great. It means that trans characters are popping up on television and in books and plays and movies. It means these trans characters get slightly more lines than before and maybe a sub-plot that goes a little bit deeper into what it means to be trans. Does this mean that trans characters populate media the same way they populate my world? No. Does it mean that trans characters ever get a plot line that doesn’t have to do with transitioning or being trans? Rarely. Does it mean that offensive stereotypes about trans people such as “the reveal,” go away? Not at all.

It also means that one specific type of trans-ness gets visibility. And that’s the kind of trans-ness that fits most cleanly into our world of fixed binary gender. The visible trans folks are the ones who, “born into the wrong body,” seek to switch that body and then find happiness with the correct gender. This story has been true for some of the transpeople I have met in real life, but not most. Instead what I see around me are humans who struggle to fit into a system of binary gender, humans who feel perpetually stuck between genders and bravely forge new language and self-expression to make this experience legible in the cultural landscape. I see humans who shift genders constantly depending on what is demanded of them socially or what is required to stay safe walking down the street. Suddenly the story that transpeople “have surgery and change genders” is gaining visibility, making one very small pool of transpeople “cool,” while rendering the reality of how many of us navigate the world invisible.

I don’t think this is without precedent. Androgyny has always been sort of fringe-cool in fashion. Gender fluidity as a narrative device has preoccupied writers since the Greeks and Shakespeare. And I don’t think transpeople are unique in gaining limited visibility through becoming “cool.” I think this is part of how change can happen. A marginalized group can achieve limited visibility when a very small fraction of that group that is somehow more palatable to dominant society becomes exotic and interesting to mainstream culture. Now the question is what happens next. And it has everything to do with us culture-makers. Will the group, transpeople or any other, be reduced to their most mainstream members, flattening out our difference and further making our lives invisible? Or, will this opening make space for a wide variety of trans stories that bring intersectional awareness of the many identities and varied and specific lives transpeople live? Doing the latter might demand unraveling the who and how of what makes culture. But I think it’s necessary. We have to make these realities visible so that oppressive systems crumble before our eyes. And I think it’s exactly a job for theatremakers.

Last fall I wrote an article on this site about casting trans actors. Since writing that article I’ve gotten a high volume of emails from people looking for trans actors to cast. Some of the people writing to me seem to already have connections in trans community and some awareness of language around trans issues. Some of the people writing to me reveal a lack of awareness through their email. Some people used offensive language that let me know they had no contact whatsoever with trans community. I tried to respond to every single email (if I missed yours, I apologize, please re-send!). I tried to respond as generously as possible, to read people’s plays, meet with artists, talk on the phone, connect them to not just actors for specific roles but resources and community.

This wasn’t always easy. Sometimes my friends would say, don’t bother with that ignorant person—it’s not your job to educate them. And they are right. It’s not. But I want to see more trans stories and I want to see them told well. I want to spread more awareness so that I don’t always feel nervous when I hear about cisgender people writing about transfolk. In my queer and trans community writing outside of one’s own experience is highly suspect. Writers who do this imperfectly are shunned. My theatre community, however, seems to imbue any writer with the ability, and in some cases entitlement, to write about whatever they like—however far from their own experience. While empowering, I think this enables some sloppy writing. I wonder if there might be another way. I wonder if we might empower writers to write outside their experience through research, relationships, and critical dialogue about power.

How often have I noticed myself and other queer and trans artists simplifying our diverse realities for the sake of fitting them into acceptable narratives and gaining visibility?

I understand it as my opportunity, as a theatremaker, to challenge each of my colleagues to make the best work possible. In this moment I recognize incredible interest in portraying trans lives. I also recognize a lack of education and relationships with trans community. And I want the artists around me to be doing the hard work necessary to be writing trans stories well so that this responsibility does not fall solely on trans artists and so that the worlds we see on stage can reflect my world.

Writing transpeople well means being in relationship with transpeople. It means that when someone shows me a trans play they have written, we have enough trust and respect built between us that I can give them honest feedback and they can receive it. These kinds of relationships are necessary for representing any human experience that is not your own. I actually think this kind of research and education is necessary no matter what you’re writing. No choice we make is neutral and all stories we tell have implications. Even when writing our own stories we need to be accountable to community. How often have I noticed myself and other queer and trans artists simplifying our diverse realities for the sake of fitting them into acceptable narratives and gaining visibility?

A panel of speakers on stage
Jenji Kohan, Michael Lannan, and Jill Soloway speak onstage at New Yorker Festival 2014
on October 11, 2014 in New York City. Photo by AW/Getty Images North America.

Last Saturday at a New Yorker Festival panel on LGBTQ TV, Jenji Kohan the producer of Orange is the New Black, took Jill Soloway, the producer of Transparent to task. Soloway had recently announced a process for hiring a transwoman writer on her show. She has had a number of trans consultants, but no trans writers and the lead trans character is played by a cis actor. Soloway had decided that a show about a trans character needed a trans writer in the room. Kohan countered with “I think great writers should write great shows, and I have trouble with, like, what you are in life shouldn’t automatically make you what you do in your art.” Kohan’s perspective echoes one that I hear in theatre constantly: a talented artist can write or act anything. Suggesting that an artist can only express their lived experience is limiting. Cisgender writers have more power than trans ones and their work is heard more. While a cisgender writer certainly could write a nuanced, specific, and well-written trans character, I rarely see it. Instead I see cisgender writers, producers, and actors recycling offensive stereotypes and sensationalizing trans bodies. Mostly the cis artists representing trans experience have very few relationships with trans community and so rely on offensive stereotypes without any awareness that they are doing so. And because cisgender writers have more power, their work goes farther, and audiences eat it up, believing these are acceptable ways to think about transpeople. Even though Soloway has taken the step of hiring a trans writer, this does not compensate for the lack of trans representation so far in the show. One writer cannot represent all the experiences of a group of people. This is called tokenization. Having a trans writer in the room also does not legitimize a cis actor playing the title role. We need to be able to tell our own stories to break the pattern of all trans stories getting sucked into the same flattened and transphobic narratives. As Mike Lew so elegantly articulated on this site a few weeks ago: “How do you distinguish the singularity of your voice when your voice isn’t really being heard to begin with?”

What could the industry give us that we couldn’t give ourselves and moreover, what was our liberation theology?

A few months ago I crowded around a table with a host of other trans and allied theatremakers. We were gathering to plan a showcase of trans actors. Questions swirled around the table: how could we get the industry’s attention? What would we do with the industry’s attention? What could the industry give us that we couldn’t give ourselves and moreover, what was our liberation theology? That last question stopped me in my tracks. This project had seemed simple enough. Get together all the awesome and talented trans actors and performers I knew, set up a showcase, invite the industry, and the problem would be solved. Artistic directors and casting agents would know trans actors, and when it came time to cast plays with trans characters, they would know who to call. No one would ever avoid programming a play again because of a trans character they didn’t know how to cast. Theatres might even start moving towards plays because of their trans characters. In no time our visibility would be tripled and it would happen on our own terms because after we made this showcase, the industry would know to ask us rather than assume what to do.

But of course that wasn’t what happened. Instead these talented and brilliant colleagues exposed the flaws in our system that had led it to be so trans-phobic in the first place. Actors said to me, “I would never subject myself to an audition,” and “I make work on my own terms, work that only I can make.” It struck me that many trans performers had necessarily become authors of their own work because of our casting system—and perhaps that wasn’t a bad thing. Trans artists were necessarily multi-disciplinary and multi-talented. It struck me that as we were making our own work on our own terms, maybe we didn’t need to fit ourselves into the boxes the industry had already created. Maybe instead of trying to adjust the current system to include us, we could reorganize the system altogether.

The idea of a festival was born. We’re still deep in talks about what this means. Who will participate? How will the festival be structured? How will it interact with theatre systems as they are versus how we want them to be? How will the festival support theatre artists of all disciplines, and how will we avoid just forming another institution and instead keep the power shifting? Also, we’re looking for a producer (anyone?).

Through these talks a lot of conversations started happening. What are the stories trans artists are telling? How are we already creating vibrant worlds on stage even without the mainstream system taking us seriously? What needs could a festival meet and what needs are we already meeting on our own? I sat down to talk with P. Carl about this a few months ago and she asked if I’d be willing to curate a series on HowlRound to talk about the questions raised by our conversations around a trans festival. This week HowlRound will highlight some of the incredibly imaginative, empowering and diverse work by the trans artists I see all around me. The series will reveal some of the trans narratives that aren’t “cool” yet, and will challenge our allied community to make these individual and specific lives visible.

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Thoughts from the curator

A series from trans theatre artists that highlight diverse stories of a trans community of practicing artists working to create visibility in the theatre and the world.

Transgender Series

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I feel like Richard O'Brien deserves some sort of a shout out. Surely, he is the most impactful transgender/gender queer playwright of the 20th century, tackling issues of gender performance and fluidity before there was even an established popular vocabulary to describe such themes. Rocky Horror may not be politically useful to the respectability politics of integrationists but it certainly has provided (and continues to provide) a space where people can gather and question the cis-normative scripts that our society imposes upon us.

I an pro the idea of a database/group that allows all of us making theater to have ways of posting casting notices to trans actors. Slate has a column called Ask a Homo. Perhaps Howlround and other places would do well to have Ask Transpeople. No one person or group of people can speak for all Transpeople but perhaps it is an interim measure as the stories of Transpeople become more widely told. It is a long time since The Crying Game shocked audiences with its reveal; where are we now and where are we going and how can we proceed with curiosity, sensitivity and dialogue towards authentic representations of a group of people that is every bit as singular /individual as any other grouping of people by category? We begin... we continue...

Thanks for this. I think it is crucial as playwrights to write beyond our own tribe. It's also a terrifying thing to do (for me, anyhow), and is hard as hell. If we don't do it, if we don't try, we continue to have a rigidly segregated theater. Theater is hands-down THE most segregated community that I am a part of. My neighborhood, my day job, my social life do not reflect this, but my theater world usually does, and that's a shame. Thank you for offering your support to those who are trying, usually imperfectly if not flat-out badly. It makes a difference.

MJ, this is an eloquent and thought provoking essay, one I hope will begin a frank and much needed conversation in all art disciplines. Interestingly enough, today on the NYTimes there was a piece about NYC trying to UNSEX birth certificates. I believe this would move us away from placing people in a specific box and allow each individual to grown and become the person that they are meant to be. But I digress. I do believe that despite the visibility to a transgender character brought on by shows like Orange is the New Black, and the political leaps forward toward full equality in the LGBT community, ignorance and misinformation continue to rule the day in many places which ultimately trickles down into inaccurate portrayals of people's lives on stage/tv/film. As a Gay/Latino theatre director known as a stylist with a strong queer aesthetic, I have spend my entire adult life watching how non-Latinos portray and write us and how non-LGBT do precisely the same thing about us. If there is one thing the recently formed Latino Theatre Commons has taught me is that we MUST step up to the plate and own our lives, our culture, our stories, our truth. We do it or else others will do it for us. And yes, on the hard road to that "plate", one of the roles we take is de-facto educators. It might not be our responsibility, but both of your essays have pointed a much needed floodlight that clearly illuminates the long road ahead (a road I hope will empower transgendered artists in all disciplines to come forward and be the tellers of the their own truth and not let others co-opt their stories). I won't go into how little Will & Grace has to do with me as a gay man or how inaccurate and false the staging of the sex scenes were on Brokeback Mountain, but as much as I hate to admit it, both of these (which were not created for the GLBT community, but for the masses) began a change in perception. So to Tales of the City (both written work and pbs series), Boys Don't Cry, Transamerica, Orange is the New Black, Brad Fraser's Poor Super Man, Rose Tremain's Sacred Country all the way to John Irving's In One Person (and many many others), I say: Thank you, but from now on we drive.