Erasure is Not an Option: Intimacy Advocacy Through a Transgender Lens
A Conversation with Raja Benz
Ann James: Hello! It's been a minute since we've been in front of each other, and you know I'm going to bring to the forefront the fact that I am currently in the third year of my Loyola Marymount University MFA in performance pedagogy. And you remember, the weekend that we met, we had such a spiritual connection. We planted selenite together on that campus, feeling that in some way, shape, or form we would be drawn together and to each other, and that I would be drawn to that campus. I have to say that those things and those wishes and intentions have definitely come true.
Raja Benz: Oh my heart! It was that understanding of what it meant to be in the room with somebody who I didn’t have to explain myself to. What was that, less than thirty days before the world went on lockdown? I was navigating learning and becoming an intimacy professional in this very new world, and still there was this sort of heartstring…this pull… knowing that there was a community outside of the physical limitations of my little bedroom I’d been stuck in. Our connection has always meant so much to me.
Ann: Yeah, I built this whole business, Intimacy Coordinators of Color, online during the pandemic shutdown. It's remarkable what we as human beings are able to do to adapt to situations. I'm so fortunate to have met you and been in your presence at the very, very beginning of that.
Raja: I’m so humbled.
Ann: Let's get into it. Tell us a little bit about how you learned your intimacy practice.
Raja: I became aware of the intimacy field in about 2017 while I was living in Chicago and working in the DIY, devised storefront theatre scene. I recall hearing little rumbles about the idea of something called an “intimacy director,” and I got really curious. At the time, I was writing for this DIY arts magazine, and I had approached my editor and I got approved to write an article on this new role and how it might find its way into the DIY arts community. And of course, I look back now and I think, “okay… so I didn't really understand what was happening at the time.” I didn't quite have the nuances yet, but did any of us?
So it’s 2017, and we’re coming out of a really divisive electoral season. It’s around this time that I also started questioning my relationship to gender for the first time. My relationship to the intimacy field is deeply tied into this critical time in my life as an artist and human. I was seeing my body in these new, expansive ways and seeing how it related to performance and vulnerability.
As a trans woman of color, I had carried this sense I was being asked to succeed in an artistic discipline that was unable to provide me the tools to actually explore expansively what that meant for me.
Ann: Brilliant. Through the discovery of yourself and the discovery of your truth, you were able to home in on something that is so universal to the acting world.
Raja: As a younger actor, I didn’t understand how my gender was being brought into the room daily and how binary-centered teaching systems couldn’t really account for someone like me. In many ways, the rigid binary system—and how pervasive it is in theatre training institutions—contributed to why it took me so long to come out. I spent so much time feeling like I was failing, like I was always performing something that felt impossible to reach. At the time, I thought it was just how acting school worked. Even when I found “sincerity” as it was defined by these white, Eurocentric teaching models. I felt so disingenuous because my gender was not free to express in that space. As a trans woman of color, I had carried this sense I was being asked to succeed in an artistic discipline that was unable to provide me the tools to actually explore expansively what that meant for me. It’s a practice that asks you to know yourself, but only to explore that if you meet the rules of the system and the room. Or you’re not gonna be on stage at all.
Ann: You just dropped a gem. What I think you said is that if we don't fit into the subscribed idea of what it means to take on character based on a white supremacist, patriarchal society, then we are somehow less than as an actor. That pervades the profession. When we're in these audition rooms and callback rooms, if we don't have a certain amount of performative layering on top of who we really are and what we can really deliver, then we probably will not get cast. Because we're not conforming, but instead being our authentic selves unencumbered by societal boundaries, there will be something not quite "right" about us.
Raja: It's that we're too challenging for people who have never been charged to consciously imagine what liberated theatre practices look like. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve shown up to an audition and the director fully did not expect a trans woman to show up to audition. It’s like…. Have you ever considered that this character could live outside the rigid binary system you’ve taken for granted?
I love being in the room in my transness. I think that sometimes I remind people that even though the theatre has historically been written in binary ways, our art doesn’t have to subscribe to those same historical models. Yet there are so many directors who really hadn’t even considered that binary-coded characters could ever be anything except. I’ve gotten pretty decent at sussing those people out luckily. I’ve had to. It’s the, pardon my language, bullshit meter that so many people of color and queer folks have. We recognize the bullshit quickly because these rooms haven’t historically been the most friendly towards us.
Ann: Black and Brown people, we communicate non-verbally because we have had to do that to survive. And when I'm picking up something that's a little funky, a little supremacist in nature, I am feeling that at a soul level. I choose whether to bring that recognition of the fuckery into the space based on my ability to survive the space. But that doesn't mean that I don't clock it. Through all the microaggressions and adversity, you have become an expert in the field.
We need to start imagining what more localized and community-centered approaches to intimacy work could look like.
Raja: Unfortunately, the reality is that experts still struggle to find jobs. I struggle to find work at times because I do not currently live in a large city. I live in Richmond, Virginia, so I don't work in a particularly large artistic community. And while I am very proud of that, I’m also struggling with this false idea that the “good work” happens in major cultural hubs like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Expanding the field outside of these major city centers is a major part of my alignments as an artist and intimacy professional. We’ve overinvested in these major markets because this is where the money is usually, but it’s this overinvestment that is hurting organizers, activists, and artists trying to effect changes in smaller communities like mine.
We need to start imagining what more localized and community-centered approaches to intimacy work could look like. How do we start implementing better processes that don’t just get handed down to us from Broadway? In some ways, what happens on Broadway is important because it can set trends that eventually find their ways to smaller companies and organizations, but I have certainly found myself less and less interested in justifying and legitimizing my work in this field by comparing it to this person or having this certification. I’m more interested in affecting my community at the grassroots level.
Ann: That's where we come from. You know, artists start in small community theatres. Yay, Broadway haintimacy choreographers. That's wonderful, but it's a very limited group right now. What about these smaller organizations? We have to change the organization of theatre instead of copy and pasting what's trendy because intimacy direction is going to move past being trendy. Something else will come up through because intimacy direction will mature and evolve—hopefully with people like you in the field. What do we do to make sure that it's not a passing phase and that we're actually shifting the energy at its base level?
Raja: I want to believe this is where the profession is going, and yet… I certainly have my concerns. I think we need to get better at building our abilities to critically analyze this emerging field without defaulting to these clearly white supremacist, patriarchal, exclusionary constructs.
Ann: Black organizers that I work with are feeling this exact same way about the faux “Awakening of 2020.” We got this huge social unrest in the country, and then we layered on top of it an actual shutdown of the artistic fabric of the country, and that is a blessing and a curse at the same time. We gave these big entertainment engines that have a slow turnaround a two-and-a-half-year opportunity to change. Yet here we are. The opportunity to do huge harm is still here, and it is taxing and fatiguing. There was so much hope put forth. I mean, I didn't really believe in We See You White American Theatre because I knew immediately that all the people that had signed on to that were professionals that were making tons of money already in the industry. So my question was what are we doing about these smaller organizations? What are we doing about the people who are not going to be working for the next two years? What is the system that is going to hold them up and support them so that when things do get started again, they'll be in braver, embodied environments?
Raja: We had so much time to rebuild this. Then we came back, and we did the same bullshit. Again. It’s so frustrating because so frequently we know that it’s the historically excluded who get blamed for the failures of these kinds of projects, when in fact we were never given the tools to succeed. The blame always falls on us when we can’t work miracles.
Yet so much of the conversation around intimacy seems to be about how the intimacy professional can protect and deliver “accountability,” while not enough conversation is happening about what an abolitionist framework for this could be.
Ann: How many people actually hired people of the global majority for their equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI)? You put a Black person in an EDI position, this is the place in an organization where they go to die. All the blame gets put on them.
Raja: This is one of the reasons why I was so scared to start in the field. I come from a world of grassroots organization and harm reduction strategizing, so I guess I’ve grown a little suspicious of these larger organizations and their intentions in the field. Like are y’all really interested in building and developing this thing? Or are you perpetuating a scarcity model for your own financial benefit?
This is the part of the industry that is scaring me lately. I'm really troubled by the idea of people offering and selling safety as a product. In my opinion, there are some intimacy professionals out there who misrepresent what an intimacy professional can actually do. I don’t think they do this intentionally, but I feel it obscures the work we do. Often times, it might sound like “preventing harassment” or “creating safety.” The truth is, no one can assure total safety or prevent harm entirely.
It feels very white savior complex in my opinion. So many of us, particularly those of us who have identities that have been subjugated, have had to develop systems of self-preservation. I don’t feel particularly safe when someone who has a “certification” comes in and assures me they will keep me safe. Safety is subjective. Someone insisting they know how to keep me safe, while knowing virtually nothing about my actual lived experiences, is concerning to me. I understand you may have studied this, but I don’t want to theorize about safety practices–I want to build systems of care around my community. Instances of harm are going to happen whether or not an intimacy coordinator or choreographer is there. In fact, we’ve seen it happen already, with certified people on set. I want to build systems that are prepared to respond to that reality. To be clear, I’m not criticizing any one person or organization. I just think we may have lost our way a bit in terms of the underlying pedagogy of the profession. My pedagogy prioritizes lived experience, harm reduction, and a commitment to being by and for the communities this work lives in.
I've really appreciated the work of those who center and prioritize justice as a critical part of the current conversations in the field. One of the problems I see frequently is that too many intimacy professionals have never imagined a world where accountability doesn’t look like the carceral systems they’ve known their whole lives. In the United States, when someone violates laws (used here broadly), they are subjected to a system where they are removed from their community and expected to “correct” their behavior before they can reintegrate into the community. The truth is, we all hold the potential to do harm. We need each other. Yet so much of the conversation around intimacy seems to be about how the intimacy professional can protect and deliver “accountability,” while not enough conversation is happening about what an abolitionist framework for this could be. We sat there and marched against a police state during the Black Lives Matter protests, and we turned around and made carceral systems of accountability that plague our field. I hate that intimacy could become about protecting the financial institutions of the theatre more than it's about the artists.
Ann: What I'm not doing is standing behind a policy that says, “Okay, everybody's cool now because we have this extra person in the room!” I am not here to be the magical Negro. You might have systemic problems in your organization that I cannot address, because it is not a safe space for me to address those.
Raja: We end up having to navigate so many different spaces and roles because we're being asked to fill in the cracks in a broken foundation. Somehow they want us to play the role of human resources manager, address systemic racism and sexism in these long time collaborators, and write choreography that is compelling and artistically satisfying and that also aligns with both the directorial vision and the actors boundaries. It’s not possible for one person to address the entire system. We're not going to magically walk in and fix it for you. But the (false) promise of being able to do that is what gets so many people work.
Ann: It’s so hard to ask you the last question because we could really go on together forever. Is there anything that we have not discussed that you would like people to know about your practice?
Raja: Y’all please hire more trans and non-binary people on your productions at all levels. Please! I keep reflecting on how special we are for human existence. As we begin crafting these new worlds on stage and off, I think we can learn a lot about what liberation could look like specifically from queer and trans people of color. This is to say, working with us is a blessing and a reminder that so much of what you thought was “set in stone”—like gender binary systems—can be teased out. We build worlds, and my question for artists in the field is whether they can be more intentional about building worlds where liberation exists. So often we recreate our most difficult, rigid systems in the worlds we craft on and off stage because we lack a vision for anything different. Let’s dream bigger. Let’s start rehearsing and setting the stage for liberation at all levels of the profession… that’s just me though.