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Gender Euphoria, Episode 1 Part 1: Transgender Legibility beyond the Tropes

With Joshua Bastian Cole

Rebecca Kling: Gender euphoria is ...

Dillon Yruegas: Bliss.

Siri Gurudev: Freedom to experience—

Dillon: Yeah, bliss.

Siri: masculinity, femininity, and everything in between—

Azure Osborne-Lee: Getting to show up—

Siri: without any other thought that my own pleasure.

Azure: as my full self.

Rebecca: Gender euphoria is opening the door to your body and being home.

Dillon: Mmm. Unabashed bliss.

Joshua Bastian Cole: You can feel it. You can feel the relief.

Azure: Feel safe.

Cole: And the sense of validation—

Azure: Celebrated

Cole: —or actualization.

Azure: Or sometimes it means

Rebecca: Being confident in who you are.

Azure: But also, to see yourself reflected back.

Rebecca: Or maybe not but being excited to find out.

Nicolas Shannon Savard: Hello and welcome to Gender Euphoria, the podcast. I am your host, Nicholas Shannon Savard. My pronouns are they/them and theirs. For the first full-length episode of this series, I wanted to give a broad overview of the state of transgender representation both in the theatre and in pop culture more broadly. So I sat down with trans performance scholar, playwright and actor, Joshua Bastin Cole. Joshua Bastian Cole’s pronouns are he/him and his, is a PhD candidate in the department of performing and media arts at Cornell University. Cole’s most recent multidisciplinary academic work, which spans transgender studies, disability and Deaf studies, theatre, dance, puppetry, film, television, and media can be found in these cinematic bodies issue of Soma Technics from Edinburg University Press.

Cole’s dissertation in progress has the working title, A Plastic Medium: Transhuman Visual Speculative Fiction and Trans Men’s Prosthetic Gaze and explore specifically packers as media objects. And just last month, Cole was awarded the 2021 Chris Homeland Graduate Student Writing Prize for his essay, “The Prosthetic Gaze: Revisions on the Trans Mirror Scene,” which is a topic we’ll be diving into quite a bit in our conversation today. And you’ll be able to read the essay in full when it is published in the summer 2022 issue of New Review of Film and Television Studies. You can read more about Cole’s recent work and publications in the episode notes. This episode is the answer to what happens when you put two trans theatre academics in a Zoom room together.

They nerd out for two and a half hours only stopping because my parking meter ran out. So this is going to be a two part episode, a collage, if you will, of the most relevant parts of that conversation that we had. In this episode, we talk about trans legibility in pop culture and at the stage, taking back and manipulating tropes about trans people. The way that Cole’s play specifically resists the idea of the singular trans character in favor of stories and casts that reflect trans community. We talk about casting. We talk about trans embodiment on stage. We ask, “What are the implications and challenges of writing beyond the limits of trans legibility?” As I said before, this conversation was cut down and reorganized. So, I’m going to drop you in about midway through. Here’s Joshua Bastin Cole on what it means to approach trans art from a perspective of gender euphoria.

Joshua Bastian Cole: As you know, I mean, I’m very much focused on thinking about dysphoria as phenomenon and an aesthetic in itself, right? And I think it’s really important. I’m actually really excited that this whole project is about gender euphoria and flipping it and its importance and its value.

Nicolas: I think a lot of the euphoria gets erased—

Cole: Absolutely.

Nicolas: —because dysphoria is the only way that trans people are culturally legible.

Cole: Exactly.

Nicolas: And part of that is just because of the medical system. In order to get care, you have to essentially perform and approve the extent of your gender dysphoria.

Cole: Right.

Nicolas: Quick note on the process of accessing transition related care for trans folks: Most surgical procedures and hormone replacement therapies for trans folks specifically in the United States require us essentially to prove to, often a cisgender medical provider, often multiple psychologists, therapists, physicians, endocrinologists, surgeons the extent to which we suffer from gender dysphoria. The American Psychiatric Association defines gender dysphoria as clinically significant psychological distress caused by an incongruence between one’s expressed or experienced gender and their sex as assigned at birth. I’ll put some links in the show notes to some further reading on this topic.

Cole: Yeah. It’s a performance of its own. But it’s also a real experience for me.

Nicolas: It is a very real experience.

Cole: Yeah. Including myself and I don’t want to dismiss it as a incredibly informative part of trans life in terms of character background, or just even daily existence. It’s part of just daily life for many people; it’s more severe than others. But it is the only recognizable legible way to translate to cis people, okay, this body is different because they’re so unhappy with it, right? Or whatever.

Nicolas: And then [there’s] the trope of, “Oh, they were born in the wrong body.”

Cole: And that whole thing, I mean, that’s just ...

Nicolas: It’s like, eh, more complicated than that.

Cole: It is so much more complicated than that. And I think largely on a cultural scale that has been recognized in the mainstream, I think in a big way that that is antiquated. Even though for some people that’s a very close way of describing it. For many, it doesn’t really get to the reality and the complexity of what the story really is, because it is much more than that. It’s like translating something not translatable. It’s absolutely an inexplicable phenomenon, and you try to bastardize it and it turns into that.

Nicolas: Yeah.

Cole: And that’s all you get and that’s what it was. And we do get that. We get that throughout the ‘90s. Certainly we get it in Boys Don’t Cry. And we get Brandon Teena as a character trying to understand and trying to explain something that actually he has no grip on in terms of articulation. And it comes out in a different way and it’s not quite accurate. And then, that confuses people.

Nicolas: Quick note here: Cole is referring to the 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry, directed by Kimberly Pierce and starring Hillary Swank in the role of Brandon Teena. This was really the first major mainstream filmic representation of trans men in the United States. Back to Cole.

Cole: It’s like, “Okay, well then how do you explain this? How do you show it? How do you make it legible without these indicators?” And this also goes back to the ‘90s as well. I mean, I keep thinking about as someone who comes to this work primarily through academia, I think about the scholarship that has been intervening in these questions. And Jay Prosser is a foundational person to think about narrative and storytelling and the limitations about the trans narrative. And even though that work was in the ‘90s just as this cultural awareness was starting to emerge both within the community and in Hollywood. They were happening.

There’s this recognition of storylines that were allowed, and the recognition of the identity as intrinsically tied to the experience of dysphoria. The only way to visually depict that then becomes the trope of the mirror. Jay Prosser writes about the mirror scene, which becomes the story that gets repeated in diagnostic circumstances, and the way that you prove your dysphoric is “I don’t like my mirror image.” We get the mirror image in every trans movie. And it’s either somebody who’s just looking and really uncomfortable or you get something about the mis-attunement and the misalignment of the way the body is, the way they desire to appear and that they don’t match, right?

This idea of not matching wrong body thing is only depicted through that reflective aesthetic imagery. And it’s still the case, I think. And the only way to think about how you can tell that story visually. And it’s just so overdone, and it’s so boring and dry. I’ve seen it 8,000 times and it’s obviously for cis people. Imagining that just trans people all they do is stare in the mirror and be sad all the time. But I mean, also that’s real.

Nicolas: I mean, that’s how I spend several hours of my day when I'm not working.

Cole: I mean, I also don’t want to dismiss it. I’ve certainly had that experience and the euphoric experience of when it starts to match, right? The shift when you start to see the hair and things like that. There is a shift and a more close match between the body that you expect to see and the one that you do see, and that through a medical transition, that’s real. I don’t know if I’ve really seen that so much depicted. I’ve only ever seen the sad parts, but I mean, maybe there’s a handful. I mean, the thing is the mirror. That’s what I’m working on, even as we speak.

The project I’m working on right now is considering the mirror as a trans media object beyond the sense of the limited prison-like framework within you are bound, but that it can be something that can be manipulated and controlled aesthetically or dramaturgically or diegetically. We can think about it as a device, quite literally, that works in different ways that are not limited, that are actually quite expansive. And that there’s something very important about mirrors and reflections that are within our control and that we can take that away from those cis producers or whoever has made it; who had to write that scene in. We can still have a mirror scene, but it’s not going to be the one you’ve seen in every other trans movie before.

And I think as you know, one of my plays involves a mirror really centrally. It’s a key piece; the whole plot works around it. So that was me attempting to take control of a mirror. And I still think about how important it actually is. So when I see mirrors in trans narratives, I really look quite closely at what are they doing with this? Are they repeating that same trope or are they subverting it in some really important and interesting way? I think it’s not something to dismiss. I don’t think we should just throw it out. In fact, all of the tropes, I don’t think we should just not do them. I think it’s about doing them within our own hands, within our own perspectives.

Nicolas: There is truth to the experience communicated in a lot of the tropes.

Cole: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. Yeah. They are real, but, again, I feel like it’s a mistranslation or a bastardization. It’s reductive, right? It’s simplified to just—

Nicolas: Other than the one that we’re deceiving people, that one can go.

Cole: Yeah, that one could go.

Nicolas: Quick note: For more information on the longstanding media trope of trans people as deceiving, you can check out Sam Fader’s documentary called Disclosure; it’s available on Netflix. I will link to it in the show notes.

Cole: Although, there’s something interesting even in that, because that was the controversy over Rhys Ernst’s film Adam, which I actually still haven’t seen, but I did see the reactions to it. And wow, was it a controversy because it includes that trope. That is the point of the story where you have the idea of trans deception. But it’s reversed and you have a cis person pretending to be trans, rather than a trans person as essentially passing as cis and not revealing that. And that becomes deception and fabrication, which then results in the reveal and the violence. That’s what happens to everyone in all of those stories.

That story reverses it. It’s based on a novel, which I also know received a lot of negative criticism from trans community and then, you get a trans filmmaker turn it into a film and it receives more. It’s like, “Why would you reinforce that?” And also, “How dare you?” And also, “Power doesn’t work that way.” But it’s something that’s quite fascinating, right? To attempt to take something and flip it around and see what happens. And maybe it doesn’t work. Maybe that power dynamic can’t be reversed. Maybe it fails, but at least he tried to do something and take control over it. In that instance, it was to flip it. Sometimes a flip works, sometimes it doesn’t because there are the complex pieces.

But, yeah, a deception thing is absolutely intrinsic in everything, and it’s still everywhere. This level of surveillance. And I mean, it bleeds into our social realities too, which is why we get bathroom bills and it’s why we get the sports bills and stuff. All of this, we’re really speculated upon quite heavily in trying to make sense of us by staring quite closely, a little too closely, and it’s real. But how much of the reality has to be in the fiction? I mean, we can probably move away and not focus so intently on those things. And maybe the stories will change if we think maybe more euphorically or romantically. What are the possibilities? What do the tropes provide? What do they actually reveal for us? Maybe there’s something to recuperate out of them sometimes.

Nicolas: I think now might be a good time to talk about how you are working through and challenging some of these tropes in your old work as a playwright because I know in our conversation that we had almost a year and a half ago now for my dissertation. It’s been a long pandemic.

Cole: A while ago.

Nicolas: You talked about how you’re resisting that cis audience demand that you explain things to them, make all of the things legible.

Cole: Yeah. Given the space, look back at them and I’m like, “Actually, there’s something really cool here.” It was hard. There was a moment where I felt like I was writing these things and they were not, I don't know. They weren’t working. They worked for trans, really specifically for trans men, a really super specific group of people absolutely identified and recognized what I was doing, why I was doing it, but it didn’t work beyond that. And it was resisted. People couldn’t make sense of it and only saw the weaknesses within, and maybe the specificity is a weakness, maybe not. I was doing that intentionally. But when it’s totally illegible to most of your audience, what is its purpose?

But I do think that it’s important to absolutely consider what has been done and what has been left out. Some of the things I was working in were very difficult to stage, and I was also doing that on purpose. In its own trans aesthetic means it was impossible because the trans man and the trans body is itself impossible. It’s illegible; it’s invisible. We can’t be made sense of; you can’t see us. Well then how do you turn that into something of a performance? And I thought about all those ideas; my plays, all of them are huge casts.

I just pack them in because the trope of the singular isolated individual trans person who is absolutely separated from a community. There is no such thing as a trans community in the world of their show or a play that they are the only one, that is a trope. And I don’t believe in it, there just is trans community. You can always find them in any number of ways. Even when I was coming out there weren’t many people locally to me, but I found community virtually and was in a technological era that may not—

Nicolas: Internet has strongly facilitated creating trans community.

Cole: Easily Googleable now. You can find all sorts of avenues for that, but having just the one character is stupid. And it’s tokenizing and it’s harmful. And then you have this idea relating it back to representation, right? That that one character, if we think about what representation even means they’re standing in for an entire group of people, which is in itself an impossible thing to do. And I think any trans person would say so as an actor or anything would be like, “I can’t be everybody. I could be me, and I am a certain kind of identity that falls within.

But if you want me to be the trans character in your play, you’re missing a lot of different ways that can be.” And I didn’t want to think about, okay, well, here’s the trans character. And that could be any trans actor you could plop in. It’s like, well, that doesn’t even work and that’s how casting often works. Outside they’re just like, “Any trans person can play the trans.” It's like, “No, you can’t put a trans woman in the trans guy role” or whatever combination of those things, which certainly happened.

Nicolas: Or when you got called to play Max in Here, and it’s like, “Max is seventeen.”

Cole: Right. There’s the age discrepancy, there’s the transition element. I can’t play a non or pre-transition person, that doesn’t make sense. And then, I’ve also been called to play trans women, which is such an egregious, offensive thing. It’s not all one thing, right? And it was such a mistake. It was such an awful, disastrous mistake. How dare you? Look me up for one second and you would know that’s not the thing to ask me to do. How dare you?

Nicolas: Or Google trans woman and what that means?

Cole: People don’t know what they’re looking for. They think that maybe it’s all just one blob, right? And so, I tried to maximize the capacity for that, but also, it’s thinking about casting. It’s thinking about getting a lot of body there, but it’s also thinking about reflecting, at least in my experience, the way I view the world that, for me, transness is the normal center. I’m the hero of my own story, and I’m surrounded by trans people, and I always have, even though I came out so early comparatively, compared to people who have larger platforms, came out a decade later or a decade and a half later. But I’ve always been able to find other folks, right? So my world is trans.

So, it’s like, “I’m going to make a play world that is a trans world and there’s either no cis people in it, or the cis people are the supporting roles,” because that’s how I experience the world. And men in my world, in reality, and in my storytelling, men are trans. The bodies are trans. There’s going to be scars. There’s going to be certain kinds of genitalia as opposed to others. There’s going to be connections to prosthetics, certain kinds of clothing that are designed for trans people that are just part of the normal circumstances of living. Everything is maneuvered around understanding what generates or could potentially generate dysphoria and how to avoid those circumstances.

We all recognize it as a cohesive group of, okay, if we’re taking a picture, does the person who’s pre-op stand in the back? We don’t have to even ask, right? We just naturally have these shared experiences and it just automatically happens. Whereas when you are only trans person in the room, you have to consistently explain yourself and people forget the things that are so just a part of everyday stuff. Sometimes it’s affirming, actually, that forgetfulness, but also, that could easily be the reciprocal. There’s always this balance of the thing that could either be affirming or devastating. And I think that, actually, as a attention is a fascinating way to approach playwriting or screenwriting is thinking about what a dilemma. That is a really thin line of precarity, and it could go either way.

And I think that that is a nuance that people don’t really understand that they just go for the dysphoria element. They don’t recognize that actually, that’s really fluid. And even on a day to day or minute to minute, had it been one minute later, maybe that would’ve been dysphoric. In that moment, it was affirming and how that can change in all kinds of interactions, sexually, of course. In one moment, something is pleasurable and the next second, “I don’t like it anymore.” We got to stop right now and there’s no way to know, right? And that temporality is something that gets lost or erased when it’s a cis storyteller. They think there’s a concreteness. So, a before and an after and then you are just in the spot that you’re at. And you were unhappy before and now you’re happy now.

Nicolas: And it’s a very linear way of storytelling, which is not how trans experience goes. I think the example I like to give from my own life is when my second-year teaching at OSU, I had just started testosterone. So, I was mid-twenties teaching this college class with my voice cracking like a fourteen-year-old boy. And also, I was going through menopause.

Cole: Yeah. The hot flashes.

Nicolas: So, it’s like, great, so I am 14, 27, and 54 at the same time. Just in my body.

Cole: Yeah. So thinking about time, right? Your body has coexisted across time.

Nicolas: So, what got me thinking about this idea in the first place was a videotaped performance of Peggy Shaw’s Menopausal Gentlemen. In their book, Time Slips, Jacquelyn Pryor explores this idea of Peggy Shaw as a butch and a trans-masculine icon, particularly for trans men and trans-masculine people looking for ancestors, for the people who came before us when visibility has been so limited. Although representation has undoubtedly increased over the last few years, has having more trans roles led to higher quality representation? That’s where we’re headed next.

We have more people in the spotlight, but we don’t have a multiplicity of narratives for different kinds of people that we’re seeing.

Cole: We don’t have the narratives. We don’t have the multiplicity in the roles available, and then when they are available, it’s that thing I was identifying earlier that they are the singular, isolated token. Very rarely are there multiple roles that either are related to each other or not. I mean, why is it not possible to have this trans character in the world of this show who has nothing to do with the other person who’s also trans over there?

Nicolas: Turns out, we don’t all know each other.

Cole: Yeah. Right. I mean, there can be just multiple different forms of that in a world because the world does have queerness and transness in it. While that’s happening literally right now as well, it’s there. It’s like, “Okay, yeah, let’s depict it, but what would it be to just not show that stuff?” Because when we see it, we relive it or it just presents the hardships in certain ways. And I think those are tropes that can either resisted or intervened upon more creatively perhaps. And I don’t know if that’s coming from producers. I don’t know where that enforcement’s from. Because I don’t think that that’s building complexity. Right?

There’s this idea of like, “Okay, well they can’t have a perfect life because that’s too easy and it’s not complicated enough to character. Where then is the conflict while their family misgenders and dead names them and they’re excluded from this space?” It’s like, “Yeah, all right. Can’t it be something else that’s not related to transness maybe?” Some other interpersonal conflict that has something to do with personalities. Anything else, anything else or something a little bit more complicated like misogyny or something else that’s even recognized for its transness, even though it is, right? What would it be for the passing trans women to just be at the recipient of harassment without it being recognized as trans misogyny? It could be in there without it erasing it either.

Nicolas: Just everyday sexism.

Cole: Yes. And pointing to that as trans women experience sexism as well, right? But it’s hard. It gets very difficult and it’s difficult to do in a way that is, again, that issue of legibility. How do we recognize it as distinct because that is a very specific experience.

Nicolas: And also, how much can we put on this one character?

Cole: Right. On that one character, that’s why I spread it out, like why don’t we have multiple roles? And why don’t we? Why don’t we have multiple? Where are the multiple characters? That’s still an issue. I mean, I still can’t really think of an example of a show or film that have multiple, they’re in an ensemble maybe, but they’re the only trans one in an ensemble, a diverse ensemble.

Nicolas: In theatre, we’ve had some folks, trans folks have written. Most of the things that are getting produced at the larger theatres are still written by cis people. We’ve got Southern Comfort. The musical has multiple trans characters. I have some feelings about the adaptation from the documentary.

Cole: I think we all have ...

Nicolas: That’s for another bonus episode. You can hear me rant about that. Maybe I’ll write it in an article somewhere. We’ve got that. We’ve got Charm by Philip Dawkins and a bunch of things that trans folks, that you’ll hear from later on in the series that have yet to be published or produced more than once.

Cole: Yeah.

Nicolas: Because there’s also gatekeeping at that level. Do cis producers believe that these stories will be received?

Cole: Right, right. Or understood.

Nicolas: Or understood or will the audience be willing to be like, “I don’t understand everything, but that’s okay. Not every story has to be my story?”

Cole: Or that two different very similar looking trans people identify in widely different ways? That can be very confusing to cis people who they think they have an understanding of what this is and then they’re like, “Wait, that’s different for you, but what? You look the same though. And I thought I knew what this is, right? I thought I knew that dysphoria is a thing.” It’s like, “Well, this person might not have dysphoria” or has a much less severe encounter with it or whatever.

Nicolas: Or only experiences it socially is fine with their body.

Cole: Yeah. There’s all of this variation that’s possible. And that is still, I think, very much under a really firm grip from producers in the large scale. I think there’s a play that I talk about sometimes, Pony by Sylvan Oswald. It’s not new. Gosh, I can’t think of the year now when that was produced, but it’s probably around maybe the late 2000s or maybe 2010 or so. They got a production in Chicago, had cis actors in the roles, but well maybe, actually, I think maybe that’s not even true at this point.

One of the actors might not be cis-identified or a cis person, but at the time, I think they were. But it has multiple trans characters in it and what’s fascinating about at least that Chicago production, part of what I was so fascinated by with it—and I didn’t see it. I only read it and read the reviews. I met Sylvan on a number of occasions, but it has multiple trans-masculine characters, and they are different.

Nicolas: Which we never see.

Cole: Yeah, we never see it. Not only are they differently identified, but they are different ages. One of them is a mentor figure for the other one, different generation experience. But what was great, something I thought was really good was that, because I’m on that other side, I think we’ve talked about, the other side of the casting conversation that we’ve heard is that there’s this really adamant trans roles for trans actors thing, which I absolutely believe in, for sure. But I also believe that—

Nicolas: Yeah, because equity.

Cole: Yeah. Right.

Nicolas: I mean, we’re not there yet.

Cole: And we’re not at the place; certainly, we’re not at the “tipping point,” place where trans actors get any role. Trans actors only get trans roles, and we would be past the “tipping point” when trans actors get to play any role, cis roles included, right? Not just being the trans token. That we haven’t had yet.

Nicolas: Or trans roles and trans people in roles that have nothing to do with their transness.

Cole: Right. Well, I mean, I think there’s a few, and I think some of the people you’ll hear from later. Like Scott will probably say he’s been cast in roles that are not trans specific, but it’s such the rare occasion. Pony had...It was, I think it was a cis man in one of the roles. And then it was at least the other role was an AFAB person. So, you have assigned male and assigned female, both of them in trans-masculine characters and then, you get a really different embodied vocalized movement-oriented sense of being in the world. And both of the characters are trans-masculine, and they are in very different shapes and sounds, right?

And I thought that was excellent. I think that’s an amazing and much closer, much more accurate depiction of the complexity and diversity of what trans masculinity could look like. Even if you don’t have trans people in the roles, you get more of the sense of it because of the difference of what it could be.

Nicolas: But to have that, you need more than one trans character.

Cole: You have to have more than one, and I think there was only two, right? So, you then get a one against the other one, a kind of phenomenon happening, I suppose. But you’ve then doubled the amount of trans characters than we usually see, and it was before, well before what we would call that “tipping point” in Hollywood, at least. And of course, this was a theatrical thing, so much smaller group of people even got to see it. But I did read those reviews and, man, the critics didn’t know what to make of it, right? Because then they started putting the pronouns of the actors on the characters and they didn’t know what they were seeing. They just didn’t get it, and it was so complicated.

Nicolas: And it’s largely still where we’re at.

Cole: They don’t know what to make of it.

Nicolas: Theatre criticism of trans characters.

Cole: Getting that right, and it gets messy because of the casting issue. It’s like, which pronouns do you use, especially if you have a cis actor in the trans role, right? Then they don’t know who they’re referring to. And what’s the appropriate way to refer and clarifying that gets really muddy and you have to be really careful about it, which is maybe part of that argument of aligning it more closely. And this idea of understanding the experience that is not only just dialogue; it’s not just words coming out of somebody’s mouth. It has everything to do with the body as acting has to anyway, right? Like I was talking about it beforehand, that you have to use your whole body to figure it out and dysphoria impacts the body.

It’s not just a psychological experience. It’s not just about being depressed or sad or uncomfortable. It impacts your posture, the way you gesture, the space you take up the ability to use the voice, the choices you make about how you vocalize, learning to re-vocalize. All of those things can shift and having control, choosing to learn how to control those things are very specific to trans people and trans actors understand that. And so, I get that. That there’s—

Nicolas: Even things that are, yeah. Because I remember I had an audition monologue that I was using, same one before and after finding my breasts and doing that same monologue while wearing a binder, I was like, “Oh, this completely changes how I move and how I breathe.” And I got to re-rehearse this thing now because it doesn’t feel the same.

Quick vocabulary lesson: A binder is an undergarment that many transgender men, non-binary people, and other gender nonconforming folks wear to flatten their chest. Sometimes this is for comfort reasons. Sometimes this is for aesthetic reasons. Anyway, back to Cole.

Cole: Totally different. And I do think that in the case of Pony, I think there’s other opportunities. I am onboard for casting cis people in trans roles. In my book, it has to align with the gender of the character they have to map. And so, what I would do is cast a man as a man, I would do the trans America thing if I had to with the cis woman in the trans woman role that the gender stays the same even if the body is different. But then, that actor has a responsibility to learn, but the embodiment meant is. And so, I have done that, and I know you know I’ve done that. When I had cast a cis man in a trans man’s role, the rehearsal process and the performance itself, he wore a binder.

And he had to relearn how to stand and how of use his breath and his voice because it was constricted in a way that trans men know but cis men do not, right? And I was like, “You won’t understand. Your voice will change. You’ll be constricted. It’ll feel uncomfortable and that is an experience of transness that you have to participate in this case, in this character,” and he did. And he wore that binder the whole time, and that was my intervention, right? And it was also me also gaining some sort of sense of power of I had to do this, and cis men don’t. Well, in this case, you’re going to have to wear the thing. Deal with it. There is this recuperable, resistant, revolutionary act in that. It’s like, “This is hard.” You need to feel how hard this is, and I think that’s powerful.

Nicolas: You don’t get to just pretend to do it.

Cole: Yeah. And if you’re just pretending by way of costume and dialogue, you’re not getting it. You’re not going to get it. And that’s part of why I did respect Hillary Swank’s performance as well because from my understanding of it, that Hillary Swank really went for it in every aspect that she had available to her. And they did have trans consultants. I think they were mostly trans women, though, on the set. Because I think that actually Kate Bornstein was onboard for that.

Nicolas: Yeah, I think read an interview with her about that.

Cole: Yeah. I think she was involved as a consultant.

Nicolas: I feel like that’s still common is they call upon trans women for all of the trans roles.

Cole: Yes. That’s a new shift too, though, because that’s where research comes in to transparent as well as Scott Scofield, I think works as a consultant now. But this is very, recent history. The last maybe handful of years that we get trans-masculine, trans men coming to consult on scene work. Although I do think, not that I really know. I mean, this may be for the conversation with Scott, but that I think he’s consulted on roles that are trans women, right?

Nicolas: He has, yes. He has.

Cole: So, it’s like, “Wait a minute. All right.” Because the thing is the roles aren’t there yet, right? We have tons of trans women being given the opportunity to be represented. So, where the jobs are as the consultant is to consult for the trans women role because there haven’t been enough trans men. And generally speaking, the trans men roles that have been made available in Hollywood at least, luckily, because they are so new, they have accurately cast in that they have had trans men in the roles in TV, at least. Film is a whole other animal, but the TV roles that are more contemporary have been given to trans men and then you don’t necessarily need to consult because they get how to do the role.

But maybe the show was written by a cis person or directed by, I think it’s starting to shift because Transparent was, I think a major disruption to that because of people like Rhys Ernst. They had multiple consultants there, but also Silas Howard directing. You get trans men directing things now. And I will say also on that side, and the production side, not only do we have trans producers, Silas Howard is directing material that’s not trans now, right? Which I think is a huge advancement. That is the move towards the “tipping point.” Getting jobs that are not trans material. That’s what we have to get to, but we can’t get there until we have equity or parity because even the gender parity issue in theatre having to do with, not trans, but cis women. Cis women playwrights and directors. That’s still unbalanced.

Nicolas: Trans playwrights and directors were largely only getting produced by trans producers and festival organizers and things like that, or queer-specific theatres.

Cole: Or queer. Yeah, if it’s not a trans production or festival, then it’s a queer production in our festival. Otherwise, you get what's that one? I Am My Own Wife or something? You get the standards. Here’s the one show that we could do in a more normative mainstream appealed season.

Nicolas: And we’re going to cast a cis actor.

Cole: Right. Or you get the show that has the ensemble with one trans role in it in the background. As good as some of those are, I think of Teddy Ferrara as one of those. Cis playwright, otherwise not particularly radical material, but it is. And you get a trans man in there and ...

Nicolas: It’s like having us represented at all in mainstream spaces is still radical.

Cole: Yeah. It is radical. And there’s something interesting about that particular play and that particular role, because it is very much a stereotype, but I think it works because the whole play, the world of the play is built upon types. Because it’s representing a college campus and you get this kind of student. You get this kind of student, and here’s the trans one. The one that’s super motivated. They’re the president of the queer group. I know exactly who that is.

Nicolas: Yes.

Cole: They’re majoring in feminist studies. Yeah, I totally know who that is and it’s like, “That’s somebody who hasn’t really been given a role in a show before.” You don’t recognize, you haven’t seen the play with that character in it until you do, and it’s a stereotype. But it’s like, “Well, I haven’t seen that one. So maybe it’s okay to still have a—”

Nicolas: But that stereotype’s not made it to the stage yet.

Cole: Right. So, it works, and it doesn’t, right? It doesn’t really disrupt or radicalize something because that’s not what that play necessarily is prioritizing. It's not the focus. That role is a minor one in somebody else’s story. So, okay, what does the “tipping point” really look like? How do we even get there? How do we maintain legibility? Do we even need to? Is going beyond the “tipping point,” going beyond legibility at which point, what is left of its transness, right? How much can you remove and have it still be a trans narrative? That’s a weird dilemma to be in. I don’t know what the perfect answer is for that.

Nicolas: I think I’ll leave us on those big, big questions, wrapping up what we’ve been talking about.

Thank you all for listening to part one. Please tune into part two of this episode where Cole and I chat a bit more in depth about transgender representation and tropes in Hollywood, and how those bleed over into culture, politics, and everyday life for trans people on stage and off. Until then, this has been Gender Euphoria, the podcast, sponsored by HowlRound Theatre Commons.

Thoughts from the curator

Hosted by Nicolas Savard, the Gender Euphoria podcast aims to amplify the voices of trans and gender nonconforming theater artists in the United States and creates an opportunity for trans artists to be in conversation with one another about their experiences working in a field that has a tendency to tokenize them. Each of these conversations will offer a space to share and explore the kinds of cultural work that trans/queer art is doing in the world from an intersectional perspective.

Gender Euphoria


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