Hierarchies of Power

Cisgender Playwrights and Trans Characters

Part of the goal of #IdentityWeek is to sharpen the focus on particular voices of our industry, and provide a platform for discussion. To that end, tonight’s (9/28/16) panel narrows in on the experience of transgender artists, discussing their opportunities and challenges within the theatre industry as well as how our community can better include and support their work. Take a read over Basil’s article below, which opens up a conversation about just what topics certain playwrights should be covering. Should cisgendered artists write about the transgender experience? Does that affect the representation of trans characters, or give an inroad for a cisgendered audience? Learn more below. —Courtney Kochuba, #IdentityWeek curator, Samuel French

When I begin writing a play, I’m usually writing about something I feel complicated about. There’s a heart in the center of the new play that’s torn. I don’t have the desire to write a play about something I know the answer to. So it makes perfect sense that my inclination for an article would also fall to a topic for which I don’t have a definitive answer. When I was asked to write for this series there were several topics that occurred to me, all them engaging and interesting—but the question of cisgendered playwrights writing trans characters kept calling to me. It’s a complicated topic that produces more questions for me than certainties.

When I think about writers creating characters outside their race, gender, sexuality, and class, the first thing that comes to my mind is that, as a playwright, I would also like the freedom to write characters who are not like me. If we took writing characters like ourselves to an extreme, I would only write plays full of working-class, transmale characters, who are very quiet. It would be a silent play. But the question isn’t really about an exaggeration so extreme. The question is really about power.

So why can’t you just throw your creative work to the winds and let anybody use it any way they choose? The simple answer is you can…but then you have no control over how other people use it, and whether they credit you.

I believe we can all agree that there’s a hierarchy of power in regard to race, gender, sexuality, and class within American society. It’s not news to say that wealthy, straight, white, cismen are at the top of the order. The stories about the people at the top of the hierarchy are the stories we’re all most familiar with. No matter your identity, you’re probably very familiar with the culture of white, straight America. You’ve seen numerous white, straight rom-coms, the television in your living room flickers with multiple images and stories from a straight, white perspective. In fact, if you’re lower on the hierarchy, you’re probably also very educated on the straight, white perspective of you—so much so that maybe you even believe their story of you is your story of you. And if you are a writer, perhaps you even write your story so that straight, white America will understand, will have an easier time relating, or will just leave the theatre feeling very knowledgeable about you.

I was on a panel last year about theatre about trans characters. On the panel was an artistic leader of an LGBTQ theatre. The conversation went to programming trans plays. The artistic leader began to paint a picture of where he thought we are, as a theatre-going society. He explained that the general audience is “afraid” of trans characters and stories, because they feel like they don’t understand. Therefore, he said, his programming needs to be geared more toward educating the general public about trans people. In other words, helping straight, white audiences feel knowledgeable and therefore safe.

Honestly, I find pretty much everything about this reasoning detestable. I encourage fellow queer writers to write plays with a queer audience in mind, and let the other people in the audience find their own way in, which I believe they are more than capable of. Those of us not at the top of the American hierarchy have proven that, by our ability to watch programming from a straight, white perspective and still manage to see glimmers of ourselves.

Let’s also assume that my fellow panelist is not the only curator who thinks along these lines. It would then make perfect sense that a cisgendered perspective on trans identity would be more palatable and care-taking of a cisgendered audience, and that the straight, cisgendered characters in the play might be positioned to the trans characters in a way that’s less threatening.

This leads right to what feels problematic to me, as a trans audience member, when I watch programming about trans identity created and curated by cisgendered artists. I can’t talk about this without talking about entitlement, homophobia, and transphobia. Like racism, sexism, and classism, homophobia and transphobia are so engrained in our society that we might not even be aware of them until they’re pointed out by someone outside of ourselves. We’re so far from really exposing them socially that we don’t even have an “ism” yet. I would be willing to bet that when people who are aligned with a less powerful social group write characters who are different from themselves, they write from a place of some personal understanding of what it means to move through this world as an other. Therefore, they might be more willing to take care in the way they represent characters outside their realm of experience. They might, for example, be more willing to inspect their own racism, classism, sexism, etc., and be wary of and fight against stereotype. Conversely, what I often find troubling about portrayals of trans identity by cisgendered writers is a facile and uninspected representation, a naiveté about the political implications of these characters. The more we point these out and ask tough questions of ourselves as writers and as curators, we will hopefully find less problematic work on our stages.

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Thoughts from the curator

Exploring the role of different gender, racial, sexual, and ethnic identities in theatre.

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I am white, queer, cis, culturally Jewish male. My first play Rice Kugel has a transman character. Like everyone else in the play besides the main character, his identity reflected on the main character's identity. I believe I made him as three-dimensional as all the other characters; actually, the Jewish mother is the one I got called out on for writing too unidimensional. That said, I made a major error on his monologue as to why he wasn't getting a penis. Several years later, I discovered via Google that someone I had known for many year is a transman and does have a penis. From that knowledge I went back and completely rewrote the monologue.

I don't know whether the actor who played my trans character in the staged reading 11 years ago was trans or cis. Nowadays, I would want a theatre doing my play, I should ever be so lucky, to find a transmale actor for the role.

But my failure to consult is more about my introversion than my privilege.

I am a transgender actress and director, based in Chicago. Myself and fellow transgender theatre artists have begun a conversation within our own theatre community on the very issues Basil addresses in this fine article.

For us in Chicago, this is not a theoretical topic. Already this season, two important productions with transgender roles have been produced, ones not written by trans playwrights nor cast with transgender actors. In each case no other trans artists in a significant creative capacity (director, dramaturg, etc.) were in the rehearsal room either. And more such shows lie ahead in 2016-17.

Our over-arching concern is this: who gets to tell our stories? As any artist of a marginalized group -- by race, physical ability, gender, etc -- understands, mainstream writers almost universally tend to reinforce existing societal stereotypes and perceptions and the same happens with transgender stories by cisgender writers. So when the playwright is not transgender, you absolutely need trans actors, directors, anyone in a truly creative capacity to check that the same old tropes and limited perspectives are not being trotted out in the story being staged.

Also, we have the serious matter of professional representation. There ARE transgender actors. And directors. And writers. But you'd hardly know it to hear casting artistic directors, directors, and casting directors. The practical fact of the matter is this: when real theatre opportunities arise for trans people -- not necessarily pertaining to trans characters alone, but certainly beginning with them -- the talent does appear. But keep limiting most (or all) the actual jobs to your usual rolodex of cisgender actors, directors, writers -- then we shall continue to be a rare, elusive resource.

As just one example: I took a 10 year sabbatical from theatre to gender transition, later in life. For much of that period I felt ready to resume my career but felt excluded, finding no real opportunities to act again. When roles finally began to appear in the form of small readings, understudy work, and eventually lead roles then I started getting more auditions and work offers. This same scenario has happened for other trans actors. Visibility begins with opportunities ... not the other way around.

I applaud Basil for laying out most of the issues surrounding this topic in a sensitive, straightforward manner. Nobody wants censorship, certainly. And we want our stories out there -- as long as they're truly serving the trans community, not just repeating the society's well intentioned but narrow views. With the vast majority of theatre artists being cisgender, a partnership of some sort needs to be in place, we understand this. But for trans artists be consistently locked out, to be as marginalized in art as we are life, is unacceptable and real change is needed. To proceed as things are now, especially when transgender characters are everywhere on film, on television and on our stages -- and much ado is made by cisgender artists about "representing" our truth -- rings of nothing less than exploitation.

So I hope all theatres begin to sit down with us in local, regional and national discussions to ensure that our voices are heard, on all trans artist matters, including but not limited to the casting of transgender characters.

Or as one might say -- its time to suit the action to the word.

I enjoyed the article and find the topic important. I'm sorry to say I don't know what is meant by 'cis' writer. Would someone be kind enough to explain.

The end of the article is the most striking to me because the way non-white America is portrayed by white America can be quite offensive or even mislead. Although I am not a member of the LGBT community, I am a black woman which is just as low on the totem pole. I love your way in thinking when it comes to the idea of writing for your own audience and allowing those who do not connect with or understand figure it out on their own, as all of us have for years. Due to lack of representation from the black community, LGBT community, women, etc. we have allowed this view of who we are through media and theatre to be accepted without actually telling our own stories. We need not to be afraid of taking it to the extreme when we tell stories, to dig deep within ourselves and portray what it is like to be "me". Who cares if it offends anyone? It's not about how the audience perceives your work of art because you have no control on how they are going to feel. The important part is about getting your work out there being heard and in a sense being seen.

I’ve always had a problem with the word “homophobia,” but Iuse it because it’s what everyone else uses and understand. “Phobia” comes fromthe Greek term “phobos,” meaning “fear” and not “hate.” I don’t believe thathomophobes, and by extensions transphobes, fear homosexuals or transgenderedpeople, they just plainly don’t like those that differ from themselves, whetherit be on a personal level or a religious one, or what have you. So it doesn’treally sit right by me that this artistic leader of the LGBTQ theatre tried toexplain away transphobia as a result of them, the cisgendered, not understandingtransgender people; that it is the job of playwrights to educate them and helpthem understand transgender people. As if we were some mystifying entity notfrom this world. As if we were made of an entirely different and complex organicsystem from “them.” As if we didn’t just simply understand the differencebetween sex and gender and the flexibility between them two. I personally don’tsee anything to be taught here; it’s just a state of being, if maybe adifferent one from the majority. But I agree with Basil; I wouldn’t want ciswriters to stop writing trans characters because, after all, trans writerswould be hypocrites if they wrote about cis characters. However, as a ciswriter, you just cannot write about trans characters without gaining insightto, at least, their social difficulties, and so having transgender people inthe production is crucial in this case. It would be the same case if a cismalewriter wanted to write about the intimate emotions a pregnant woman goesthrough; generally, as a male, he wouldn’t know, now would he? Insight isrequired, and he won’t get that through an all-male cast and crew or, hell,from a woman who’s never been pregnant. It’s important to be informed whentalking or writing about any subject you’re unfamiliar with; so no, I wouldn’twant cis writers to stop writing about trans characters. Just make suretransgendered people, in any capacity, are involved in it.

I’ll start of by saying that I am not a member of the LGBT community, but I am in a less common group of people. From that perspective I agree with most of what you are saying. I believe free expression is one of the most important rights that we have. So any person should be able to wright about any other type of person. This doesn’t mean that people should be rude to others in their writings though. To stop this I think people should write about their own personal experiences to share the stories with the world. I have a personal issue with people condescending to me. Because of this I think people shouldn’t tailor what they’re saying to me. If they do I find it rude. I would not like a play that is trying to teach me how to accept a group of people purely on principle. But a play by that same group just written as a normal story I would be totally okay with. Personally I think you should write stories that you want to tell, Because you’ll be more invested in it making it a better story overall.

Very interesting article. I myself am not transgender but I am a member of the LGBT community and from my perspective this is always been difficult topic. On one hand we want to be able to bring a more educated perspective to as wide of an audience as possible, but on the other hand creating content by and for LGBT people is important.

I have to agree though I feel the best solution is to create content from our perspectives and allow those who are from a different paradigm to see parts of themselves in our lives and our truths just as we do with theirs.