Gender Euphoria, Episode 6: Putting on the Trans Educator Top Hat
With Rebecca Kling
Nicolas Shannon Savard: Hello and welcome back to Gender Euphoria, the podcast. I’m your host Nicolas Shannon Savard. My pronouns are they, them, theirs. Today, I’m talking with solo performer and trans educator advocate, Rebecca Kling.
I first came across Rebecca’s work when I was touring my solo show, Five and a Half Feet of Fearsome, on the Fringe Festival circuit in 2019. On, at least, five separate occasions, fellow touring artists and festival staff in Kansas City and a handful more in Indianapolis asked me if I had met Rebecca Kling. I had not, but clearly, I needed to. She agreed to sit down and chat with me for my dissertation research and then came back again for the podcast. In this episode’s conversation, we address Rebecca’s work as a solo performer-turned-activist, the importance of consent in deciding to take on the trans educator role, and her radical and hilarious approach to the post-show talk back, the Strip Q&A.
To give a brief introduction, Rebecca Kling is an educator, community organizer, storyteller, and advocate for transgender rights. Rebecca began her career as a touring educator and performance artist exploring gender and identity through solo stage pieces and interactive workshops. Her genre-bending productions, which incorporated conversational storytelling, personal narrative, and comedic vignettes, took her all across the United States to interact with a wide variety of audiences. Rebecca pursues a multi-disciplinary approach to advocacy. She works with community organizations, civil rights groups, and elected representatives to elevate the experiences of trans people and to bring transgender issues into discussions of public education and policy. You can read her full bio in the show notes.
Rebecca Kling: Gender euphoria is…
Dillon Yruegas: bliss.
Siri Gurudev: Freedom to experience—
Dillon: Yeah, bliss.
Siri: masculinity, femininity, and everything in between—
Azure D. Osborne-Lee: Getting to show up—
Siri: without any other thought than 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 and a sense of validation and actualization.
Azure: Feel safe.
Cole: And the sense of validation—
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: All right. Welcome back to Gender Euphoria, the podcast. I am here with Rebecca Kling, a solo performer, activist, teaching artist. Rebecca, to give a little bit of an introduction to your work, how did you get into solo performance in the first place? A follow-up question after that: how has that journey intersected with activism?
Rebecca Kling: Absolutely. Well, thanks for having me. I’m glad to be here and lovely to see your face, even if virtually and from afar. I first got into performance work from ensemble-based theatre actually. One of the things that I’ve always really deeply loved about theatre in general is that it is a collaboration. That even if I’m doing a solo performance, there may be lighting designers and sound designers and directors and collaborators and other performers, and then the audience.
I enjoy very direct conversational style of theatre, so I’m collaborating with the audience and breaking down that fourth wall. I grew up just outside of Chicago and took classes from a pretty young age, about eight, at the Piven Theatre Workshop, which is up in Evanston. I still have a deep, deep love for it. I was at Piven for all of my childhood, adolescence, into high school. I continued to stick around during college as an assistant teacher and then was a teacher there for a number of years.
Very deep in that type of theatre is called story theatre, is conversational, is direct address to the audience, is narration of action to make it not necessarily necessary to have extensive props or costumes or lighting or sound design. You know? A lot of the time, we were in a black box theatre with theatre cubes and maybe some simple lighting design and maybe some very simple costuming.
So how you transport people in some of our younger performances to the beanstalk that Jack is climbing? Or in some of the older performances, how do you transport people to Scheherazade and the Arabian Nights and the palace of the king? How do you transport people to improvised stories that we might not even know what we’re going to create until we’re on stage and get suggestions from an audience or suggestions from each other?
I didn’t know this at the time but all of that was a phenomenal preparation for solo performance and for the type of solo performance I got into, which was really as I was in the process of transitioning, so as I was literally going down to workshops on the train and then changing from boy mode at the organization I was working at to Rebecca in the bathroom before I went into the workshops. I was fortunate enough to take some performance workshops with Tim Miller, who is an amazing solo performance artist out of LA, and that was the first opportunity I had in my early twenties when I was in the process of transitioning to use all of these tools of narration, of direct address to the audience, of movement and physicality, of pantomime, and creating objects out of just the shape of my body.
And using those tools to look inward rather than adapting a story from a book or taking a script or working with collaborators or an ensemble to really say, “Well, what is my story and how do I want to tell that?”
Nicolas: Okay. Possible tangent, a research question, because I found in the 18 folks that I talked to for my dissertation, all of us could be traced back to 3 people within 2 degrees. Those people were Tim Miller... I guess the other is a space, the WOW Café, or Ntozake Shange.
Rebecca: That’s funny. I think it’s probably not that surprising that there’s commonalities of where we’re coming from and of the spaces and individuals who were empowering us to explore these things.
Nicolas: Yeah. It’s literally like who made space because Tim Miller is also a connection that I have... I did a week-long workshop with him in undergrad. He came and worked with the social justice theatre company that I was working for and…
Shout out to Dr. Heather May and Mosaic New York. They have been a major part of my gender nonconforming artistic family tree, and they coordinated that workshop with Tim Miller in 2015.
He came and I was just floored by his storytelling and...it was the first introduction that I’d had to queer theatre as I’ve come—
Nicolas: —into my own identity. I was like, “Wait, I could make a place for me here.” Could you tell me a little bit about your experience working with him? ‘Cause I know...
Rebecca: Working with Tim was an incredible experience because it was similarly the first time that I had seen this sort of personal storytelling done onstage and had seen, again, a lot of things that felt familiar in terms of the tools that he was using, the performance tools that he was using, but about a topic and an identity, his experiences as a gay man, that I had not seen and was eye-opening of, “Oh, this is where there’s this sort of connection between the theatre tools that I had been learning, both in undergrad and before that,” as well as the identity that I had been thinking about, certainly, for most of my life and actively figuring out through therapy and figuring out what transitioning meant for me, at that point, for a couple of years. It was also really scary because it was the first time that I was saying a lot of these things out loud, like “Being trans is hard and scary,” and saying that onstage and admitting that onstage or, at least, being trans was hard and scary for me at that time.
It was challenging. I remember we were figuring out how we were going to handle the talkback because there was a performance that was going to be an hour-long, consisting of work by myself, work by two other collaborators we were working with, who were also exploring their identities and queer experiences through performance, and [a] brief performance by Tim. We were talking about what type of questions we might get and how we want to handle the talkback and that sort of thing and I remember on one night there was a question about costume and Tim, doing what I feel like is the right thing but also the very challenging thing, said, “Rebecca, you’ve talked in our rehearsals about this being a real struggle point for you, so you should answer this for the audience.” I was like, “Oh, shit. Well, now I have to think about it.”
That was because of a time in my life when I was still in the process of transitioning, and I was figuring out how I wanted to present to the world in general, and then also thinking about how did I want to present to the world onstage and how I wanted to... What clothing felt comfortable. How I wanted to represent different ages while I was onstage. And how I wanted to use my hair to do that and pigtails or wearing it down or wearing it back and the type of clothing I was wearing, whether it was something that was age-appropriate or something that felt older and more mature. Something that felt younger and less mature to represent different stages of my life.
All of that, again, coming from a place of real artistic rigor from Tim, of the performance aspect and the sort of development aspect being incredibly cathartic and also just incredibly fun and rewarding and empowering, but also really challenging in the way that I think creating good art often is, of digging through the feelings that I was having about identity and digging through the feelings I was having about processing and acknowledging the duality of coming from this job where I was still being called by a male name and taking the train down to Link’s Hall on the north side of Chicago. And Link’s Hall is no longer in this location but was at this sort of weird spot right between Wrigleyville, which is where Wrigley Field is and is very much a “bro-y” bar area of Chicago, and Boy’s Town, the gay neighborhood and Link’s Hall was just about halfway between the Belmont red line stop in the heart of Boy’s Town and the Addison red light stop in the heart of Wrigleyville, and thinking about that in terms of... It was also a very funny location because every 15 or 20 minutes you would have the train go by, so it was one of those performance venues that you just had to learn to, “All right. Every so often, you’re going to need to stop speaking so that the train can go by and then you’ll continue.”
But thinking about the literal duality of that space and the personal duality of coming from this work, this job, this full-time job that I had where I was still presenting as male and then coming down and changing in the bathroom and going on the stage and there’s an aspect of... I think confidence is something that “Fake it until you make it,” is great advice. I don’t know that I’d want a heart surgeon to fake it until you make it, but I think for performance, I don’t know that—
Nicolas: For performance it’s great.
Rebecca: Yeah. For performance, “fake it until you make it” is great and that was very much a moment of... I remember being on the phone to a friend before a performance there, around that time, and crying and saying it was too hard, it was too scary and her saying, “When you were 16, you needed to see this show and you couldn’t and you didn’t because it didn’t exist yet, so you need to do it for yourself at that age,” and that being a moment of, “Okay, I can pretend to be confident in a way that I don’t feel to live up to or to honor this idea that ...” I had people in the audience who would come up afterwards and say, “I’ve never seen a trans person onstage before. You are the first trans person I’ve ever seen onstage before.” That speaks to the lack and under-representation, which still exists today but existed much more 15, 20 years ago.
But to have that privilege of being many people’s first encounter with a trans performer and that being incredibly rewarding and empowering and powerful. I’ve lost track entirely of what the original question was.
Nicolas: That’s okay. I diverted us anyway. I think that ties really nicely into another one of the questions that I had. There is a very common expectation in the theatre industry for trans folks often being the first trans person that someone has seen onstage to educate our collaborators, our audiences.
Every single person that I interviewed for my dissertation said, “Yes, I have felt this pressure.” Either explicitly been told, “This is a thing you need to do,” or this was kind of implied. There were a variety of reactions to that expectation.
You have kind of in and around your work, really taken on the trans educator role and stepped into that. Can you talk a little bit about the process of that decision?
Rebecca: Absolutely. That ties back to what I’m now remembering was an earlier question that I totally ignored about getting into advocacy.
Rebecca: I enjoy teaching. Even before I started doing trans performance work, even before I started doing trans education work, was working with that theatre company, with Piven. First, as an assistant teacher and then as a teacher of middle and high school theatre, after-school theatre programs.
From that first workshop with Tim, I realized I enjoyed the talkback part, and it didn’t feel like an imposition for me to be asked those questions about what it means to be trans. That is something that I try to explicitly note in workshops or in talkbacks where I’ll often joke, “I am wearing my educator hat,” and usually I’ll pantomime and I’ll say, “Oh, today it’s a top hat!” And I’ll adjust my pantomime top hat, or I’ll say, “Today it's a big sombrero!” and I’ll adjust my pantomime sombrero. Or “Today, it’s a baseball cap,” and I’ll adjust that.
I’ll say, “I am choosing to be here as an educator, and I am giving you permission to ask me questions.” I think almost all of the questions that trans people get asked that feel—not that feel that are—rude or invasive or inappropriate, it’s not that the desire for knowledge is rude or invasive or inappropriate. It’s that the context is totally rude or invasive or inappropriate.
It is not bad that someone who knows nothing about trans people might want to know how surgery works and how trans people have sex. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that type of curiosity. There’s a huge difference between bumping into a trans colleague at a coffee shop and saying, “How do you have sex?” or having a trans friend come out to you and immediately asking, “Well, what’s your sex life like?” versus being in an educational situation where someone is explicitly saying, “Hey, I’m giving you permission to ask questions.”
Nicolas: Consent piece there is often what gets missed, is that not only is the situation often inappropriate, contextually. It’s also like not often a situation where the trans person has consented to take on that educational role, and they’ve just been shoved into it all of a sudden.
Rebecca: One of the things that I’ll talk about is flipping that situation around, so in the same way that it would be inappropriate for me to ask a random coworker in an office, “Hey, how big is your penis?” or “Hey, what are your periods like? How heavy is your flow?” I think most people—I hope—most people can sort of intuitively understand that those are probably inappropriate questions for just about every workplace and turning that around and saying, “Well, the same thing is true for trans folks.” That asking us about our bodies or our sex lives or our deep emotional intimacy or our childhoods.
Again, it’s not that the curiosity is dumb. It’s that you’ve got to use context. I like the word that you used then, “consent.” As I was realizing that I enjoy and am comfortable answering those questions and am comfortable doing it so in a way that I’m not trying to speak on behalf of every trans person—because that’s something else I try to be very careful about. That I can answer for myself, and I can give general what I have seen. But I will try and be really explicit in I can’t promise that my answers are going to hold true for every trans person. In fact, I can promise that my answers aren’t going to hold true for every trans person in the same way that if you ask any other broad category of people. If you ask Chicagoans, what does it mean to be a Chicagoan? If you ask Jews, what does it mean to be Jewish? I’m thinking of other categories I fit in.
You’re probably going to get a lot of similar answers but you’re also probably going to get some ones that are real out there. And that if you assume everyone is the same from that, you’re going to run into trouble. I think that was part of what sort of slowly shifted my work from feeling really inward, “How do I process my experiences onstage?” and using performance as a tool for my own emotional development and my own transition. To give a really concrete example, I was fired from an after-school teaching job at one point for being trans and the principal at the school that I was working with said, “It’s your deep voice and big hands.” And when I’m in person—this is when I hold my hands up to say like, “They’re human-sized hands. I do not have comically large hands.” Although, even if I did, that would not have been a good reason to fire me.
That really sucked and hit my confidence and hit my sense of self and hit my faith in my ability as an educator. And, ultimately, I turned that into a show called No Gender Left Behind, which was a play on what was at the time topical, No Child Left Behind, which was a Bush Jr. education program, and explored on stage, “Okay, what does bad gender education look like? What might good gender education look like? How can I have fun with this idea? Where is it scary and where is it easy? And where is it hard? And where does it feel right and where does it feel wrong?”
That turned into a show that explored some of those ideas in a way that also helped me heal and move forward from this horrible act of discrimination. Now I feel like it’s important for me to mention this was a very small part of my income at the time; it was one very part-time job. I, unlike a lot of trans people, had the privileges of being stably housed and having stable income from other sources and having family that I could have relied on, if I did start to have trouble paying rent, and had friends and colleagues who were there and had my back.
I don’t say any of that to undercut. It really sucked and was absolutely illegal in the state of Illinois, but was done over the phone, so the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said they couldn’t investigate really because they asked the principal and the principal, who I heard on the phone say these things, said, “No. It just wasn’t a good fit.”
Don’t mean to downplay how awful it was to be fired for being trans, but I also want to give perspective that many trans people experience horrible discrimination and that my experience was... I don’t know. If you think about a car accident in a car with airbags versus a car without. I had a lot of safety systems in my life and was lucky and fortunate and incredibly privileged to have those, that getting fired for being trans was emotionally very traumatic, but it was not... It did not…
Nicolas: Overturn your life.
Rebecca: It did not overturn my life, and it never put me at physical or housing risk or food security risk or any of the other things that could easily happen from being fired for being trans. Circling back, that’s an example of what I feel like the work was both processing my own experiences through art but also starting to think about How do we talk about teaching this stuff? That started to get into more advocacy and activism.
As I was hearing from people who were trans saying, “Wow. I’ve never seen a trans person on stage before” and who were cisgender, who were not trans, saying, “Wow. I’ve never seen a trans person on stage before,” more explicitly thinking, Okay, then what moments of activism or advocacy do there need to be? What moments do there need to be where I drop in statistics? What moments do there need to be where I have a call to action to encourage the audience to get off their butts?
That isn’t to say that all art has to do that. I certainly don’t think that’s true. The art that I felt called to make and that I got the most enjoyment out of making really started to straddle that line of activism and advocacy and feel like it was important for me to have educational components. Again, not because trans people or any minority have an obligation to be educators but because I enjoyed it and was getting a lot out of it.
Nicolas: I think that’s something that when I’m talking about the idea of the trans people being expected to be educators, there are folks that do actively step into that role and also are doing it very skillfully. This is often like what they are trained to do.
The framework that I used to think through that is called queer literacy, which was introduced by SJ Miller, who is an educational scholar. Basically, the idea is kind of teaching a way of looking at sex and gender and sexuality beyond our very strict heteronormative, cis normative models and queer being kind of a verb here. Like destabilizing these categories, and rethinking, Okay, what can womanhood look like? What can manhood look like? Is there an in-between? What does that look like? Beyond just educating “What is trans?” What do we even think about when we think about gender?
Can you talk a little bit about... It sounds like you were doing quite a bit of that in No Gender Left Behind. Can you talk a little bit about how your work might be using a queer literacy framework to do that kind of work for our audiences?
Rebecca: Yeah. I love that framing. Part of what it makes me think of is I was... One of the things that I do a lot more of these days is more traditional educational workshops. Trans 101: here’s some language; here’s some history. And I try to focus as much on concrete steps for allyship. I would much, much rather someone come away with a sense of what questions are and aren’t appropriate and how to be a better ally and still have to Google the difference between transgender and transsexual than the reverse. I’m less concerned with people memorizing a list of definitions.
I was talking about this with a potential client, and they said, “I love this and I’ve been thinking about it a lot and how can I bring it into future work?” They said, “We would also really appreciate if you can talk about how learning this stuff is good for people to be able to reflect more on who they are, whether or not they’re trans.” I love that way of thinking—
Nicolas: I really do love that. Yeah.
Rebecca: —of saying that learning more about the history of the gender binary and the problems of the gender binary, hopefully, allow people to be better allies to trans folk, but also allows people who are cis to think, “Well, wait, am I wearing makeup in this way because I want to or because I am told to? Am I wearing this clothing in this way because I want to or because I feel like I have to?”
One of the things that I think can be a real glass half-full, beautiful thing about being queer in general is it, for many people, demands more active choices. You know, because I was transitioning in my late teens and early twenties, I have had to make more specific and conscious choices as an adult about jewelry, let’s say, because I wasn’t when I was 5 or 6 or 7. Just being given jewelry as a kid and being told, “This is what you do, and this is how you dress. And this is how you present.”
I think hopefully really good queer and queer-ed education about trans identity is going to be able to leave an audience of trans people feeling more seen and more validated and everyone, trans and cis, with an opportunity to reflect and say, “What choices am I making in how I do my gender and how my gender works?” Zooming out a little bit, systems of oppression or systems of not even oppression but of defaults, don’t necessarily work for anyone. And so having that opportunity—
Nicolas: At least, not the vast majority of people.
Rebecca: Right. And that the people they do work for, we want it to be an active choice, not because they felt like they had to, and that hopefully good queer performance can do that too. Can connect with audiences in ways that leave people feeling seen and validated and like they’re more familiar with who they are by seeing it depicted onstage, but also people who might not be that, whatever that identity is or that experience is, coming away with questions for themselves and with reflections that hopefully help them grow and learn more about themselves as people. Hopefully, that’s what great art does in general.
Nicolas: Yeah. I’ve heard a lot of the trans-masculine folks that I’ve talked to, especially, will have cisgender, straight women be like, “I felt so seen in your work. I have also felt some of those struggles that you describe. Even though, I am confident in my identity as a cishet woman, I still saw myself in your story” or, “It’s made me reflect on the ways that I’ve been treated in the world and made that really visible.”
Rebecca: Absolutely. I think that speaks to how much in common we have with each other as humans, that the historical not great way that trans folks are depicted, whether it’s Christine Jorgensen or sex workers on Jerry Springer or the Crying Game, the vast majority of these are trans women or even something like Boys Don’t Cry and Brandon Teena’s story. There is this assumption of otherness that like, “Look at this ...” If it’s a positive story or, at least, not a positive story necessarily but a positive... If it is a respectful depiction, it might be, “Look at this person. We can empathize with how different they are.”
Nicolas: Or “Look how different they are; look how hard their life is.”
Rebecca: Right. If it’s a talk show, it was often, “Look at this freak. Look at this person who isn’t like us.” But everyone wants to feel at home in their body. Everyone wants to feel seen for who they are. Everyone has struggled with what society tells them their body means and their gender means. Certainly, for a trans person, those experiences may be cranked way up when compared to a cis person but I don’t think they’re fundamentally unique and that, hopefully, good art by and about and with trans people can not necessarily explicitly—you don’t need to hang a hat on it or lampshade it—but can honor that we don’t need to hold people’s hands to help them understand what it means to be trans.
We can have complicated, nuanced, mature conversations about identity and about bodies and about sex and about transitioning and about medical treatments and about surgeries and about all of these things while not necessarily saying we’re all exactly the same, “Kumbaya.” But certainly, saying we all have commonalities of wanting to feel at home in our bodies, and we don’t need to label or assume that because we are different, we couldn’t possibly understand each other. It’s too hard; it’s too complicated. No. Screw that.
Nicolas: I don’t know. Many of us have been forced to try and relate to cis, straight, rich, white men’s stories, which are framed as universal, for years. I think it can go either way around. It just takes some practice.
Rebecca: And having those straight, cis, white men do not need my giving them credit; they don’t need me to honor them. To give cis, straight, white men credit, they can fucking empathize with people who aren’t them. You’ll hear about “We can’t do that; we can’t produce that because there isn’t going to be an audience for it.” It’s like let’s give these people a little bit of credit and that straight, white men can appreciate Black Panther and can see themselves in that character, even if, heaven forbid, that character isn’t white.
Nicholas: There is a particular talk back technique that you have come up with that I love and adore so much. Can we talk a little bit about your strip Q&A?
Nicolas: How did you come to develop that particular technique?
Rebecca: I tried to challenge myself relatively early in my adult performance career to... If something was scary, but I thought was artistically interesting, to challenge myself to do it anyway. If there were other reasons not to do it—if I felt like it didn’t fit the show or if I felt like it wasn’t artistically interesting or if I had collaborators who were giving me feedback that said it didn’t quite work—those are all really good reasons not to do something. If the only reason I was hesitant about something was fear, I challenged myself to push through that. One of the first things that I came up with was being topless on stage. I had a whole piece about how before I had transitioned and before I had epic amounts of laser hair removal and went on estrogen and grew breasts, that I could be topless at the beach. Or I remember being topless in a sauna with friends or could change in ways...like change clothing, change shirts in front of other people in a way that once the unappreciated amount of body hair was mostly gone and once I started growing breasts, that wasn’t okay anymore.
In both Illinois and in Chicago, at the time, there was language on the books saying that male nipples could be exposed, and female nipples couldn’t. I thought that was a really funny artistic question to ask of, “When did my nipples become female?” At what point in my transition? Was it a certain amount of hair? Was it a certain cup size? Was it when I got the gender marker changed on my driver’s license? If I hadn’t ever gotten the gender marker changed in my driver’s license, would that mean I could be topless at the beach, even though, I was presenting as female and almost always perceived as female?
I think those are really interesting political questions, but they were also really interesting artistic questions to me. And so I had a piece where I would talk about being in the hospital, and I would take my shirt off and wearing a bra. And I would show some scars on my stomach from when I had my gallbladder out and that was sort of a natural conversational way to have my shirt off is now I’m showing my gallbladder removal scars.
Then I would start talking about this language and how it talked about how much of the nipple could be shown, and that no one’s anus or genitalia could be shown but only female nipples had to be hidden. I would take off my bra during that and I would ask these questions—again, direct address of the audience—“When did my breasts transition from masculine to feminine? When did in Illinois they become against the law to show in public?” In some parts of the country, there are laws about topless performances at bars and I might be doing a performance at a bar in Kansas City and so I would say, “By being topless here, arguably, I am violating this anti-stripper law,” but, again, who is that serving and why? When did my boobs transition?
That was really scary at first, to be topless on stage and to be revealing a part of myself that, certainly, larger society, but also explicitly these laws, said I wasn’t supposed to be revealing. That sort of naturally got me thinking about the rest of my body. I realized I had never seen a naked trans person outside of porn or having sex with another trans person. As I was transitioning—and I have since had surgery but for a long time I was a woman with a penis—and the way I would talk about it is that sex and being naked certainly has a big overlap. But it is possible to be naked without it being sexual, whether it’s showering or whether it’s streaking or whether it’s changing clothing, and it’s certainly possible to be sexual without being naked. The joke I would make is most of my experiences in high school. And that most people, whether it’s pop culture or through porn or through family members changing around children, whatever it is, you see naked bodies that are like yours and that ... Certainly, not everyone has that experience. I don’t want to make that broad brush because, again, this goes back to the experiences I’m talking about are not uniquely trans. They are human experiences.
But for myself, realizing outside of porn and outside of having sex with a trans partner, I had never seen other bodies like mine naked and that I wanted to challenge myself to find an artistically interesting reason to be naked on stage. In the same way that I wanted to challenge myself earlier to be topless on stage, I wanted to find a way that felt like it was fitting the type of performances I was enjoying doing, was not gratuitous or sexual, but also ended with me being fully nude.
What I started to do is what I believe was the world’s first and possibly the world’s only Strip Q&A where for every question an audience member asked, I would take off an article of clothing. I joked that we would continue until we either ran out of questions or ran out of clothing. That did a couple of things, some intentional and some unintentional. One of the intentional things it did is it kind of made the audience complicit, because almost all of the audiences I talked to with the exception of occasionally when audiences were rather small or when there was just, by luck of the draw, audiences that were a little shy or a little nervous, almost all of the audiences I performed to had a bunch of questions. About my experiences, about my art, about performance work, about being trans, about gender and sexuality, about all the stuff we’ve been talking about, and if they wanted to get those questions answered, every one of those questions turned into me taking off a piece of clothing.
What I didn’t consciously intend, but I got feedback that I really appreciated and leaned into, is that I also didn’t change at all my tone or body language while I was getting naked. I had feedback that was exactly the intent behind the piece ,but was not something I was consciously doing, is that if you compared my body language of doing a talkback fully clothed and doing a strip Q&A talk back, my body language is almost identical. It’s not sexual. I’m very conversational. I talk with my hands a lot. I pace a little bit. I stop every so often to get a drink of water from the water bottle that was always on stage.
The feedback that I got was that it very much came across as desexualized, not because my body was attractive or unattractive but because the way I was communicating and the way I was holding myself communicated really clearly to the audience that this was not a moment of me being sexual and really spoke to what I said earlier, the idea that being naked and being sexual have a big overlap but they’re not actually the same thing. And that particularly before I had surgery, doing that strip Q&A really felt like some of the most intentionally political without ever saying anything political art, because it was doing that role of allowing people and, to some extent I guess, not forcing because my shows had notices that there would be nudity in it.
Nicolas: And it’s a talk back. They can leave.
Rebecca: Yes. But maybe gently pushing people to see a naked trans body in a way that I can pretty much guarantee most of my audiences had never seen. I will admit I also just thought the idea was really funny. I think a strip Q&A—
Nicholas: I also find that hilarious.
Rebecca: It makes me laugh. It makes me think of strip poker and that being really awkward and ridiculous.
Nicholas: The first time you told me about it I think it was like what is the least sexy thing I can pair with this? Stripping in the least sexy format. What kinds of questions did folks ask?
Rebecca: It was a range. Some of them were just like classic trans 101, “What does this word mean? My friend is transitioning and is going on hormones, what does that mean? My friend is transitioning and says they’re not going on hormones, what does that mean?” Questions about, “What does nonbinary mean? Are intersex people part of the trans community?” All of those, putting my educator hat on and trying to do the best that I could. Some of them were really specific about my own experiences of, “Who do I sleep with or what sort of sexual partners do I like?” Or “How has my sex and sexuality changed over the course of my transition?”
Some of those answers made it into later shows. Eventually I had a whole piece about doing a sex graph, which was the graph of being sexual while naturally producing testosterone versus the graph of being sexual while on estrogen. Some of the questions were more clearly about that person. You know, well, “Isn’t it just too hard to deal with people’s pronouns?” No, actually, it’s not. We got to do it. It may be difficult, it may take some practice. But, no, actually, it’s not too hard. Or questions about, “How young is too young for kids to transition” and having to push back against the framing of the question and try to educate a little bit that no one is giving a six-year-old surgery. That trans youth are transitioning alongside their parents and the adults in their life and that these are not decisions that are being taken lightly.
Nicolas: Everything you do as a little kid, that’s reversible. It’s a haircut.
Rebecca: Right. Right.
Nicolas: It’s having people call you by a different name. It’s getting some new clothes.
Nicolas: I have a couple of wrap up questions before I let you go. The overall thesis of this series is trans people are everywhere and we have always been here so would you like to shout out someone who has been part of your queer, trans, artistic family tree? Someone who has supported your work or inspired you, helped you become the artist that you are today.
Rebecca: Yeah. I want to think about that for a moment. We certainly talked about Tim Miller, and Tim does not identify as trans but was a huge part of my artistic growth and my artistic journey. Similarly, the work I did at and with the Piven Theatre workshop was not at all about being trans but was hugely influential on the type of performance work that I do.
In terms of more trans legacy, for whatever reason, the answer that’s coming to mind is I remember participating as a late teen or in my early twenties in a youth program for the Broadway Youth Center in Chicago, which is an LGBTQ youth services and youth programming. The two facilitators of that group, both of who are trans women, we had all gone as a group to some event outside of the space we usually were at, and we were taking the L, the Chicago elevator train, back north. For whatever reason, most of the other people had either gotten off the train, or it was quiet on the train or whatever, and I remember watching these two facilitators who were younger than I am now but at the time seemed so old and wise, these two trans women, and watching them talk on the train and just living their lives... That night was almost over. There was maybe one or two young people left. The train was quiet. We were all very tired. They were just talking with each other as friends at that point. I remember it maybe being one of the first times feeling like that gave me any idea of what a future could look like for me as a trans person…and that feeling like a real mundane moment but also like this moment of hope and possibility and future and that... This felt like a moment where I could see these two women who I looked up to and who I respected as trans people, but who also were having a moment of not having to be trans all the time.
It was not anything that was a direct influence on my artistic work or performance work, but the idea of seeing trans people out in the world and trans people are everywhere, that’s sort of a moment that comes to mind of something I remember really tenderly. It was sort of an unexpectedly large moment of—I don’t even remember where we went as a group but—that moment coming back and just riding the train with them.
Nicholas: That’s really lovely. Before we go, could you leave us with an image of one way that you experience gender euphoria in performance or in everyday life?
Rebecca: Ooh. A way that I experience gender euphoria? I will say that one of the unexpected and rare pleasures of COVID has been realizing that I don’t like wearing bras. I have a small enough chest that I couldn’t go running without a sports bra, but I can go biking without a sports bra if I’m going on a path and not somewhere super bumpy. Some of those moments of feeling like I’m in a very gendered space—gendered space is maybe not the right word but—where I think about myself in a very gendered way. Like wearing shorts and a crop top and biking along the lakefront in Chicago and feeling very much in my womanhood and wearing clothing that I wouldn’t have worn pre-transition, feeling really good in my body, that that has felt like moments of gender euphoria.
Nicolas: Great. Fantastic. Thank you so much for coming on and talking with us.
Rebecca: Absolutely. Thank you so much for the opportunity. It has been really fun and lovely to reflect on some things that I haven’t thought about in a while and to talk shop.
Nicolas: Gender Euphoria, the podcast, is hosted and edited by me, Nicolas Shannon Savard. The voices you heard in the opening poem were Rebecca Kling, Dillon Yruegas, Siri Gurudev, Azure D. Osborn Lee, and Joshua Bastian Cole.
Gender Euphoria, the podcast is sponsored by HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide.