Just Say Yes
This week on HowlRound we have several articles from transgender theatre artists that highlight diverse stories of a trans community of practicing artists working to create visibility in the theatre and the world.
My eyes are closed. The music is up. My head is tilted, searching for the next secret. I am in a spotlight on a dark stage, attending a line of people that extends from the house onto the stage. The audience moves and whispers in unison, like water as the tide pulls it in, up. One by one, their waves lap against my ears. The secrets range in subject, but much less so in potency for their tellers.
“I hate my face so much I haven’t looked in a mirror in years.”
“I cry whenever someone touches my chest.”
“I don’t think I’ll ever be in love like you just talked about. Like I hear about. No one can love me like that. No one sees me.”
I take each secret, hold it. I whisper an honest moment of support in each teller’s ear:
“You never have to look in a mirror again if you don’t want to. And I can’t see your face, but I know you’re beautiful because you have the heart and soul to feel sadness and want joy. Because your face is part of you and you are clearly amazing. Wonderful. You’re important.”
“I know so many people who have felt that way. And it’s such a fucking bum thing, right? Like, can’t you just be okay? And your body won’t let you. But you still deserve love that makes you feel whole, and it’s coming to you. If you can, be patient with yourself. You’re perfect.”
“I didn’t think I could either. But just the fact that you’re able to worry about that love and want it means that you have the capacity to have it and to give it. And if you give it, you will someday get it. You are so loveable.”
And then I hand them a small, round mirror—one with no corners on which to cut themselves; a new mirror with which to see.
We’re here to rebraid life into art into activism. We’re here to hybridize and break borders. We’re here to be queer.
It doesn’t work for everybody, but by the time we get there from the start of the show forty-five minutes earlier—through jokes and puns and layers and layers of perv-ified church trope. And through my own nakedness/embarrassments/earnestness and much ritual—most of the audience is honest with me and willing to try to let go of one of these barbs. We all hate ourselves. We all learn to hate ourselves.
That piece is called The Great Church of the Holy Fuck. On the surface, the show is a joke church about sex—the whole thing kicks off with a boner joke—but just inside the gates it becomes clear: the joke is that it’s not a joke. The line between feel-good funtime and Deep Shit has been removed. We’re here to play together and to laugh at our human weirdness. We’re here to crack wise about catholic perversion, but we’re also here to redefine holiness. We’re here to rebraid life into art into activism. We’re here to hybridize and break borders. We’re here to be queer.
The Great Church of the Holy Fuck embodies for me the deep collaboration, generosity, and integration of personal and political, which defines queer art. Queer art is what I do. Queer art knows in its very bones that you can’t stay still on a moving train and it knows precisely where that train is headed.
I came into the word queer as an explicitly politicized identity. In my understanding, a clear difference lies between gayness (a generalist sexual identity) and queer, a politically intentional reclamation of a not-yet-fully-reclaimed slur. Claiming queer, for me, is a way of standing out as a person who understands the political context of queerness in a racist, patriarchal, classist, ableist society. (Not gay as in happy, but queer as in fuck you!) There’s no room in my worldview for political neutrality, because to live a life (especially in the United States) is to be part of a complex and oppressive political system. Food production, water and energy resources, jobs, money, location, family, friends, healthcare…every aspect of a life is positioned within a system with people above and people below.
I know we all know this truth of power, but it must be said. The fact that everybody knows doesn’t end the struggle for a better world, it sparks that struggle. Queer as a politicized term is necessary in a society that by intention and on accident is bent on ignorance, separation, and control. We must name our radical lives to keep radicalism alive; to keep ourselves alive.
And boy how we struggle to keep afloat. What could be more heartbreaking than looking with clear eyes and empathy across a social landscape engineered toward suffering a thousand different ways under the boot of a society that bases its very existence on exploitation. Where do you begin, working in the belly of the beast, when every road leads back to the very structure of the system that makes our lives possible? How do you stop a juggernaut?
My answer is that you begin with hope. Not dependence on false hopes. Not faith in some distant heaven. But real, hard, daily belief that we can make the drastic, bone-deep changes necessary to make our world a better place. Every morning, every evening, rising and resting with hope in our hearts is the only way we can make it through the lifetimes of hard work we have ahead of us as people committed to a better world.
The role of the revolutionary artist is not only to make the revolution seem irresistible, but to make it seem possible. Worthwhile. To remind us what’s on the other side. To reflect back to us our progress and keep us on track.
And we’ve got to learn to love the work. I read a Wendell Berry article a few years back in Harper’s that cut deep for me in ways I hadn’t expected. Berry talks of change-making as metaphorically related to farming. You can’t expect an answer or a single victory at the end of the day. It’s not in the nature of the work. To do farming, to get through it well, you have to learn to love the work. You have to enjoy the feeling of shoveling shit, tilling ground, squatting for hours pulling weeds, processing what you’ve grown, and knowing the whole time that a freak storm or a dry year could topple everything. You have to love the work itself. This is true, as well, for the ultimate crop of the human project: justice. We’ve got to love the work itself.
Radical art is a vital tool in learning to love the work; learning to tell the story one sentence at a time. Throughout human history, it has been the necessary role of the storyteller to frame our world in terms that help us get by. The spectacle-makers and the narrators help us feel pride in the unending effort necessary to make a good life. And for those of us who know the difference between making the world better for ourselves and our loved ones (also known as Making a Living), and making the world better for everyone (which is not only an impulse at the heart of activism, but which is an implicit commitment to explore paths to utopia), art is the balm that will keep us going until the new world comes. To fight for a better world for everyone is to commit to a lifetime of frustration. We must reclaim the other half of that story—to fight for a better world must also be to commit to building and feeling hope for something more every step of the way. The role of the revolutionary artist is not only to make the revolution seem irresistible, but to make it seem possible. Worthwhile. To remind us what’s on the other side. To reflect back to us our progress and keep us on track.
This last bit shows how revolutionary art must, by definition, be made by a wide and deep diversity of voices. The quality of our insight as we step toward a better world is predicated upon a multitude of viewpoints (and thus histories and experiences and struggles), collaborating to give a multilayered view of the road behind us and the road ahead.
To be queer is to be tied to revolutionary art making. We queers—the perpetual hybrids, the intersection of so many oppressions—know in our hearts and souls and on our dance floors and songbooks that the hard work of building a better world must be diverse and must be punctuated by pleasure in order to keep us all afloat. All outsiders know this trick of survival. As queers we are fighting for liberation and we are fighting for joy.
As outsiders, and queers in particular, we learn new ways to love. When families of origin (as well as the wider family of society) reject/eject us, we discover through trauma and trial how to love in radical ways. We learn about the necessity of community in sustaining us through struggle. There is no choice, only the need for support that can drive us toward an enactment of an ideal love which I think is well-defined by bell hooks. In All About Love, hooks writes “To truly love we must learn to mix various ingredients—care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust, as well as honest and open communication.” The point is that making a truly loving act takes decades of practice. It asks us to grow. She steps further to proposition: what if we endeavored to treat all of humanity with this tricky combination?
At the heart of the power structure crushing our world today is the notion of “Yes, but.” Power today holds authority to say what is what. To maintain borders. Our civilization is defined by this myth of hard borders. Power today maintains imbalance precisely because it has become expert at separating and containing its subjects. Binarism is about power. Cormac McCarthy wrote in The Crossing about a boy learning to trap a wolf. The wolf expertly dismantles each trap the boy sets and in discussing this with an older trapper, the mentor reminds him that it’s not that the wolf is necessarily smarter. It’s just that the wolf has nothing else to do. It’s got all day to outsmart you.
The way we build a better world is by welcoming in instead of keeping out. Is by breaking borders. It is through queering lines.
And so must we spend our time integrating the work of a better world into our play and play into our work for a better world. Right now, the power structure that defines our civilization has spent a millennia, all day every day, piecing together how to keep its precious, delicate imbalance.
But the way of nature is balance. Osmosis. Without constant effort, power cedes to nature. The only true antidote to our “Yes, but…” society of exclusion is a lifetime of “Yes, and.” The way we build a better world is by welcoming in instead of keeping out. Is by breaking borders. It is through queering lines. We know that the line between making revolution and making love has never existed. We understand that to love well, we must love everyone. And that is no New Age, groovy sort of task. It is long hard work to learn how to collaborate with everyone in your life. It is generations of work to functionally and fully extract ourselves from under the boot of our oppressive society because that boot is not just on some of our necks, it is also in our every interaction. In the face of such work, the hope in queer art is vital to our wellbeing.
As queer artists, we must endeavor to, ahem, fill the gaps. Much activism in the United States has a gaping hole in its strategy because it has set aside pleasure for the sake of righteousness. We queers must fill that gape using our vision and our wit and our understanding of the vitality of pleasure. Our work is our play.