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Queer-Trans Intimacy: One Foot in the Academy and the Other in the Nightclub

With Guests Raja Benz and Joy Brooke Fairfield

A bibliography for this episode is available at the end of this transcript.

Nicolas Shannon Savard: Hello and welcome to Gender Euphoria: The Podcast, a series produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. I'm your host, Nicolas Shannon Savard. My pronouns are they, them, and theirs. Today I am joined again by Raja Benz and Joy Brooke Fairfield for part two of our conversation on queer trans intimacy work. The first episode focused specifically on the workshops they've designed, Working with Trans and Nonbinary Artists and Staging Intimacy Beyond the Binary with Theatrical Intimacy Education.

In this second episode, we've taken a broader overview of Joy and Raja's work. I asked how their art and their intimacy work is informed by and in conversation with queer theory and critical theory. And dear listeners, strap in. It is a journey. We are going to be bouncing between queer of color and decolonial and disability theory and the dim glow of the nightclub; between past, present, and future; between the ideas we are sure of and the ones we are working out in real time.

Typically on this show, I add in some additional context or explanation when the interview dives into the theoretical or historically or politically specific. There is a bit too much to cover here without turning this into a full-length audiobook. So instead I've decided this episode will just come with a bibliography. I'll include a link in the transcript on howlround.com for that, and auditory footnote markers. That is a practice I am borrowing from Dr. Anna Williams' scholarly podcast series, My Gothic Dissertation, which by the way, is fabulous. Lit nerds, anyone who's been to grad school, check that out on Spotify later. When you hear the page turn, you'll know there's an article, an essay, a book on the topic, on the reading list.

So without any further ado, here is part two of Queer-Trans Intimacies with Joy Brooke Fairfield and Raja Benz.

Rebecca Kling: Gender euphoria is...

Dillon Yruegas: Bliss.

Siri Gurudev: Freedom to experience masculinity, femininity and everything in between—

Azure D. Osborne-Lee: Getting to show up as your own self.

Siri: Without any other thought but my own pleasure.

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

Dillon: Unabashed bliss.

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

Azure: Feel safe—

Joshua: And the sense of validation—

Azure: Celebrated.

Joshua: And 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.

Nicholas: Hello and welcome back to Gender Euphoria: The Podcast. I'm your host, Nicholas Shannon Savard. My pronouns are they, them, and theirs. I am here today with Joy Brooke Fairfield and Raja Benz to talk about intimacy direction and their practice-as-research in and around that. So, for both of you, I just wanted to start off with the question of how did you make your way into intimacy direction?

Raja Benz: Well, I don't mind starting because this is going to be a great little HowlRound plug, and they're going to be very happy about this. I was so lucky to talk a little bit about this recently with Ann James in an article. I actually was working as a DIY sort of artist in Chicago at the time, making storefront theatre in about the 2016-2017 era, notably around the time that the #MeToo movement gained a new resurgence. It was not started and formed in that moment, this we know.

But there was sort of this cultural moment in which #MeToo gained quite a bit of attention, and this is often cited as the beginning of intimacy work, and I know we'll talk about that when we get into it and that sort of false narrative. But at the same time, the #MeToo movement was happening and I was making my own art, I also came out as a trans woman at that time and there was just this sort of soupy conversation going around about “what is my body? How does it want to show up to work? What does it mean to clock in?” I found myself—at the time, I referred to myself as a “man”—when I was the only man working on the show.

Nicholas: Air quotes.

Raja: Big air quotes, because truly, I mean the signs were there. And coming into a dressing room—we were small little DIY theatre, there wasn't a lot of dressing room space—so we were all in the same space and I was sitting next to these people, these women that I just loved and appreciated. And I was thinking to myself, I was like, “I clock in and I feel like maybe I'm having a different experience,” which of course now in retrospect, I don't know what their experience was. I've been lucky to keep up with a number of them, and they're good friends, but I didn't know. But what I did recognize that in the conversation around intimacy and gender and all these things, I said, what is my gender? How do boundaries apply to me? How do I want to show up to work?

All of a sudden, boom. I'm hearing about this new field called “intimacy direction.” I ultimately then met Rachel Flesher, who's a very well-known intimacy coordinator/choreographer/director—interchanging terms—and they were working on a show called 50 Shades of Shakespeare at the time. Ultimately, I got to meet them while I was working on this sort of DIY arts magazine piece, and they were very, very generous with their time and taught me a little bit about this field that's coming up. And from there I just kind of researched it and decided this is what I really want: to start looking into this. So, that's kind of my origin story, if you will.

Nicholas: Joy, how'd you make your way into intimacy direction?

Joy Brooke Fairfield: I love this—our villain origin stories.

Raja: I was going to say villain, but...

Joy: Yeah.

Nicholas: How I'm going to ask people to introduce themselves now. What is your villain origin story?

Joy: Just to quote what Raja just said, there were signs early. I was a consent and sex education educator with Planned Parenthood in high school, and as I returned to this kind of work more recently in my life, about five years ago at this point, I was like, “Oh yeah, I have been doing this. I have done some of this in different ways.” Also, within the sort of sex positive, sex radical culture that I move within as a queer person, I have been doing some of this. And so it felt like a really exciting way to apply some of these things that have been important to me from my whole life to some of my work professionally as a theatre and media maker and scholar.

So, the who, what, where, when of my origin story is about in 2018, I went to an American Theatre in Higher Ed conference [edit: this is the American Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) conference] in Boston, took a workshop with Chelsea Pace, immediately connected with her afterwards and was like, “Yes, this is stuff that I also do and care about,” and sort of came then into the TIE [Theatrical Intimacy Education] circuit of people and conversations.

I also got invited to a conference that was called the “Illiberal Art of Performance” that was up at Amherst, sponsored by Christopher Grobe. And it was about Performance Studies’ approach to what do we do about performance in the age of Trump, and in the age where we insult things by calling them a performance? We insult the Congress by calling them a “circus.” So I wrote this paper. We insult Trump by calling him a clown. So, I wrote this paper that was sort of “in defense of clowns” and also a sort of attack of the problem of violent sexual patriarchy. And I introduced to this academic space some of the ideas that I had been learning about with intimacy choreography and staging and direction through Theatrical Intimacy Education. And there was a lot of uptake and interest in this room of mostly Performance Studies scholars about this new, specialized practice.

And then, from that conference, I got invited to do that editorship at JDTC for the special section on intimacy choreography, which was a really wonderful transition into thinking about this work in a scholarly way. And then after doing that I was like, “I want to do this as a practice as well.” So I got connected with TIE and started in as an assistant faculty member with them in 2019. And now it's now! And then the pandemic happened. We all went online, and then it was suddenly… we'd had all of this, the #MeToo movement, which Raja mentioned. The way that I was stepping into this was also understanding the urgency of the moment in that. So it was very interesting to go from this heightened question of touch and embodiment to no touch and everything online and everything on Zoom. And then, how do we use this downtime to spread the word? How do we use this downtime to get it out there more? And yeah, it's been a journey.

Raja: Mm-hmm.

Nicholas: Very cool. I just realized that I had not shared my own villain origin story around this work.

Raja: I would love to hear this.

Nicholas: So, I come from an applied theatre background, mostly with youth. So that was kind of the lens that I was bringing to a lot of these discussions that intimacy direction is having about power and consent and just taking care, in the room, of other people and thinking through vulnerability. I think I was also at ATHEin Las Vegas about to direct a production of Hot 'N Throbbing by Paula Vogel and was like, “I need some skills to approach this with actors.” Because I'd assumed that I'd be working with other graduate students who were either my age or older, and then realized as they were getting more and more busy, I was like, I'm not going to be able to fill the cast with all people who are not significantly younger than me and potentially my own students. How do I make this really sexual show literally safe for them? I think I went to both one of Chelsea Pace's presentations and Kate Busselle's that year at ATHE. I was just taking notes furiously.

So I think it makes sense to approach the conversation from both directions, of both the theory and the practice. And I want to start with some of the broader concepts that you're building from in your work. You've both written about and talked about power critical pedagogy and the relationships between queer intimacy practices and these much larger sociopolitical structures of racial capitalism, settler colonialism. And somehow that factors into staging a kiss—very large to very, very intimate, very individual. So, I want to talk a little bit about: in your own work, how are you thinking about those power structures in conversation with queer-trans intimacy practice? What sorts of questions does theory, other critical theories, bring to your work as an intimacy director? That's a very long-winded question.

Raja: That's okay. That's so good. I'm so grateful. This is the stuff I love talking about, truly. It's really touching on something that I'm having a hard time with as somebody who keeps one foot in academia and always one foot out of it, because I'm very critical of the system. As soon as I came into understanding myself as an academic participant, if you will, I always kept a foot out because I was really aware of needing this work to live in both places. But more importantly, lately, the question for me has been: what am I doing as a queer person when academia sort of necessitates that I pin my queerness in time and space and research, if you will? At times it can be sort of antithetical to queer ways that we think because if queerness is becoming, if queerness is about the potential, José Muñoz talks about queerness is not here yet.

Nicholas: In his introduction to Cruising Utopia, José Esteban Muñoz wrote, “Queerness is not yet here. Queerness is an ideality. Put another way, we are not yet queer. We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality. We have never been queer, yet queerness exists for us as an ideality that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future. The future is queerness's domain.”

It's like building queer performance from queer theory that was built on queer performance. It's this kind of cycle. I'm happy to be in the flow of it.

Raja: And I remember the first time I came across that in a graduate studies course, I was like, "What do you mean? I'm right here. I'm in the flesh. I'm in this queer body." And as I sat with it longer, it made sense. And so now I sit here, and the fence I find myself jumping so frequently is, why is academia fundamentally so different than my practice in the field? And is part of that because when I am truly a queer body, especially when I get to navigate spaces, when I get to work with people like Joy, we are talking about our experiences, we're having these conversations, but it's not a means to documenting in time and exactness?

By creating this researcher-researched model, it's really just reenacting a lot of the violence that is so antithetical to how we think, and so I'm always negotiating how do I put what I feel into words knowing that these are temporary, knowing that this is but a moment? And that's been something that just influences… I have to be still in queer community and queer culture. I learn as much as I do in academic spaces as I do in the nightclub, and that's been really big for me.

Nicholas: Just want to note both Joy and I had physical reactions of glee to that.

Joy: It was so hard to not be like, "Yes. Yes."

Raja: No, Joy, I want that. I know. Joy, I just want everyone and you to hear, you never interrupt me. I love hearing you talk. Jump in, please. I will not feel stepped on, I promise.

Joy: That's how we are in our class. I have some things to say, but I just really love that you brought in Muñoz, and I think Muñoz is someone that you and I bonded over very early, and I just think that quote, this idea about queerness as a “horizon of possibility” is just so powerful and something that we have to keep coming back to, this idea that we do not yet know what queer means. And now I feel like I should pull up the quote so that I'm saying it right, but...

Nicholas: Okay, there's a few different ideas we're working with here from Muñoz, so I'm going to give you a couple different quotes.

“Both the ornamental and the quotidian can contain a map of the utopia that is queerness.”

“Queerness is a performative because it is not simply a being but a doing for and toward the future. Queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world.”

The crux of the book itself is a response to Lee Edelman's work, No Future. Muñoz writes,

To some extent Cruising Utopia is a polemic that argues against anti-relationality by insisting on the essential need for an understanding of queerness as collectivity. I respond to Edelman's assertion that the future is the province of the child and therefore not for the queers, by arguing that queerness is primarily about futurity and hope. That is to say that queerness is always in the horizon. I contend that if queerness is to have any value whatsoever, it must be viewed as being visible only in the horizon.

Joy: Part of queer theory is that we are not pinning down queer theory as being a thing. I'm trying to live in the flow of becoming to understand what queer theory might feel like someday, right? To my queer trans-cestors down the road or, what do we call them, generations to come. But thank you for bringing in Muñoz.

And I think that one thing that's so magical about his work, of course, is that he was theorizing to some degree from queer performance. So his queer theory arises from his deep appreciation and analysis of queer performance and queer performance spaces and nightlife performance, queer performance culture and queer relations, the relations that we are able to build between us. So it's like building queer performance from queer theory that was built on queer performance. It's this kind of cycle. I'm happy to be in the flow of it.

I think the most useful thing about my scholarly background in gender and sexuality studies and theory and history is that it enables me to better challenge norms and stereotypes, partially just because I am very familiar with them. I'm familiar with them in some cases through the lived experience of them and in other cases through the reading and study of other people's writing and art around their own lived experiences. So, I think that familiarity that I can bring to something is very much reliant on that. And I've been in IC for about five years now, sort of give or take. But I've been a director for twenty years at this point.

And some of my very first shows… I hope my friends from undergrad are listening to this because they're like, "No, Joy was making plays about queer theory in like 2002." It was just because of what I was excited about. I got to college, and I was reading about queer and radical history and theory and culture because it had been kept from me as a child in a lot of ways, even in a relatively progressive state and a relatively progressive city and county area. I grew up on Wiyot territory in Northern California in the Redwoods, and there was a lot of progressive educational factors at play. I was working with Planned Parenthood. Still, I didn't get queer history. I didn't get trans history. I didn't get a lot of radical political cultural understandings. So, when I got to college and they were there, it was all that I wanted to make art about.

Nicholas: Joy, I recently just read your special issue at the Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism because it was sent my way when I was writing my own article for the Journal of Consent-Based Performance. And one of my reviewers was like, "You should check this out in your revisions." And I was just like, “I know that person! Amazing.”

Joy: Such a good compliment. Thank you to whoever Reviewer Two sent you my way.

Nicholas: They were a very generous Reviewer Two and introduced me to conversations I had not found yet. But in your introduction, you describe intimacy choreography as “a wide variety of creative and pedagogical practices that prioritize consent and body sovereignty of the actor.” And I was wondering, could you tell me a little bit about your word choice there with “body sovereignty?” I've heard it as the actor's “agency,” “autonomy.” “Sovereignty” holds a different weight.

Joy: I really appreciate you giving me an opportunity to talk about this and it really affords me a chance to sort of right a citational wrong that I should have caught earlier. The truth is, when I used that term, I had just been hearing it in casual conversation with other people. So I didn't necessarily think of the two words together as something I needed to dig into an analysis of. But certainly it is, and I'd love to. I think the first thing is that anytime right now in justice-oriented work, when we talk about sovereignty, that discourse and lineage comes from Indigenous North American fights for liberation and autonomy. Since the sort of first time of contact in the beginning of settlement, the demand of Indigenous communities has always been sovereignty, which is the right to make one's own decisions. And that has a cultural element and also an interpersonal and personal element.

So, the sovereignty movement in general, I think, connects to a lot of issues like land back and cultural rejuvenation practices. That's not my area of expertise, so I don't want to speak too far in that direction. But after I wrote this article, I was actually trying to assign some reading for my students, and I dove a little bit deeper into the term. And one of the citations I did find that I wanted to make sure I put out here is a paper called “Our Coming In Stories: Cree Identity, Body Sovereignty and Gender Self-Determination,” by Dr. Alex Wilson of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation, who is a associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan. And that's from 2015. I had not read it when I wrote this in 2019, but I read it later. And it, I think is a really useful and interesting resource to get into.

More recently, if you do just a Google search... That one will come up. If you do like a JSTOR search, an academic research search, If you do a Google search for the term “body sovereignty,” the big usage of it right now has to do with eating disorder culture and trying to think through new models for healing and other kinds of care practices from that situation, and trying to think of body sovereignty as a way—and I think they also pay credit, if not to Alex Wilson specifically, then to Indigenous thinkers in general—for understanding ideas of sovereignty.

So yeah, thanks for asking about that. And I'm still not a 100 percent sure about how to use that word and that concept in a way that isn't appropriative, but I think that there are some resonances in there that are missing with some of the other terminology. And I think it's important for those of us working in consent politics to have a lot of different words and languages and avenues to approach what it means to be a person in a body that is yours and is also always socially constructed within whatever else is not yours around you.

Nicholas: I think what really struck me about it was some of those resonances that you were describing, and also it seems to call a more explicit connection to those bigger power relations and not necessarily just the one-on-one, but considering all the politics around bodies in space. And now I've got an essay that I get to go read.

Joy: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

Raja: Always more. Always finding new ones, right?

Nicholas: Yep.

Raja: On this idea, I'm running with what you're putting down, Joy, here. And I'm thinking through the importance of there being multiple words to describe what it means to have a body and make decisions over it, because I think our default is to always go back to the word “consent.” I think the word “consent” has gotten really, really muddy lately. I already have these ways of thinking through things in an anti-binary way, so I'm not trying to put consent into this yes or no box. But really quickly, people started thinking that consent means “yes, I want to be touched here or no, I don't want to be touched there.”

Queerness is, I think, a form of attentiveness.

And then a lot of great thinkers really expanded on that, and you get these really great models of, okay, so what is consent? Right? And the problem is that most models for consent came out of sexual assault prevention frequently in college campuses. And while some of those terms are really great, they also are relatively specific. The thing I always go back to, and I believe was Planned Parenthood who started with the FRIES metaphor that gets used quite a bit. It's like...

Joy: Freely given, reversible, informed, and enthusiastic, and ...

Raja: I don't know, but I can already tell you that right now, “freely given” is really hard when you live under capitalism. I had a collaborator recently say to me, “Can consent actually exist under capitalism?” Probably not. But what we can do is create systems on which we negotiate this as best we can and we make people aware of the decisions they're making. It feels similar to the change in queer communities around, or I'm sorry, particularly queer kink communities who stepped away from the terms of “safe, sane, and consensual” and towards terms like RACK (risk-aware consensual kink). Because we're problematizing even the idea of consent of being something that you get. You hear that term a lot, right? You need to get consent from somebody—

Joy: Yeah. The objectification of consent, turning consent into an object that you want or desire or don't want. You know?

Raja: Okay, well I got consent for this, so we're good. I was like, no, consent is something we need to be navigating day-to-day, moment-to-moment here, because it changes and it's infrequent, and the idea of it needing to reach the threshold of enthusiastic is really hard, because I consent to a lot of things in my day-to-day life but I'm not exactly enthusiastic about it. As a trans person, I'm systemically forced to do so. I don't consent to going into places that have gendered bathrooms, and yet, when I go to a gas station, I have to make these decisions. I have to navigate these borders between what bathroom do I use? And it's going to be things like, how many people are in this gas station right now? Where am I? How close am I to somebody who could help me if I was in a situation? What am I wearing today? You know what I mean? So, the idea that I have to be enthusiastic is kind of hard for me.

Joy: And it's certainly impossible for... Not impossible, but it's not a great idea for fictional scenarios on stage and film. I don't actually want my co-star to be too enthusiastic, so I always feel like it's funny to use the FRIES metaphor when we're talking about onstage or simulated intimacy. Anyway, pet peeve.

Nicholas: And a lot of the stories that we're telling, we're not depicting, necessarily, situations that fit in that model.

Joy: Yeah. If someone's playing Isabel in Measure for Measure, they don't want an overly enthusiastic Angelo coming into rehearsal too excited about a sexual assault scene.

Nicholas: And the actor playing Isabel is probably also not very enthusiastic about that scene.

Joy: You can still consent. You can consent unenthusiastically. That's the magic of consent. SA Jones, in the JDTC issue, has an article called “Intimacy Choreography for Sexual Justice: Considering Racism and Ableism as Forms of Sexual Violence.” That essay does a lot of amazing things, but one of the things that Stefanie points out is the concept of access intimacy, which comes from Disability Studies. This idea that people over time can and over intimate exposure can learn and know your body and be able to interface with it in ways that have a particular kind of specialized care.

Nicholas: Quick aside, I'll talk about this concept in depth in the next episode, but I want to highlight this connection here. Writer, educator, transformative justice activist Mia Mingus coined the term “access intimacy” in a post on her blog, Leaving Evidence, in 2011. She does specify that she did not invent it, just put a name to “the elusive experience of another person just getting your access needs” or “holding your hand while you both stare back at an inaccessible world.” It comes out of years of work with other disabled queer women of color activists, organizers, Patty Berne and Stacey Milburne.

Together they crafted the initial framework for disability justice and formed the Disability Justice Collective. This is all to say the language of access intimacy comes from grassroots, explicitly anti-capitalist, feminist, queer of color, disability justice organizing. It seems to have made its way into the academy after Mingus gave a talk at San Francisco State University in 2017. That talk was titled Access Intimacy, Interdependence and Disability Justice. And I hear resonance with some of what we've said about Muñoz's work, theorizing from the margins, from the nightclub and here with friends in a living room, on your personal blog. And also with utopia, queerness, intimacy access as something not yet arrived, always on the horizon. Anyway, back to Joy's point.

Joy: I think one of the other ways that we can think of processes of radical consent coming from queer and trans communities is that we have always had to work towards a kind of intimate access understanding of each other’s bodies in terms of what we like and what we don't like. And then listening both with your ears and with your body to what someone else likes is a kind of technology that obviously cis hetero people should do too. But because of the special uniquenesses of queer sex, we have had even more opportunities to explore what it means to be having sex outside of the way that maybe the Queen of England and the Pope have told us that we're supposed to have it.

Raja: Right. Queerness is, I think, a form of attentiveness. And if we're going to pull it back to this Muñoz, so this idea of the horizon, the horizon is what is just beyond what we can see and what we can interpret. You know what I mean? The horizon is the point in which things become obscure. The horizon is the point in which we stop understanding and start theorizing what's beyond. And I have to live in that sort of queer intentional ambiguity. And I think when people work with consent folks, they get really nervous hearing about ambiguity. And it has always been how we as queer people have organized ourselves and our lives, and that's something that's really hard to sell when consent gets sold as a safety product.

And this is something I'm spending most of my career pushing back on. People in the room that work with me report feeling safe. I have practices in place to reduce the likelihood and severity of harm when it happens. I'm also deeply inspired by the works of mutual aid networks and harm reduction organizing because what they do is they acknowledge the lived and real experiences that are happening and base it off of that and not this theory of this sort of utopian vision of what it could be.

So, if you have an identity that's not promised a future, I think you have a very different conception of what that means and how hard you have to fight for that future. If it's a given, if your body is protected by a series of privilege and you know that there is a future for you, it's really easy to be like, "Fuck the future. What's happening right now? Tell me what I need to do now to not offend you. Do I call you “she”? Do I call you “he? Do I call you “they”? What do I do?" You know what I mean? That's a very here-and-now way of thinking about it, because safety... The thing that people think that they're trying to get as safety, really what that means is how close or far am I from the likelihood of harm to happen? And it's going to be different for all of us.

And it's something that Chelsea talked about—Chelsea Pace, who you'll hear us reference quite a bit—talked about in the design of the course, Power Play, that's offered with TIE. I now teach it as well. I keep going back to this idea of power is not inherently bad. Power is always present, and our relationship to it is so frequently how close or far away are we from harm? How insulated from that harm can we be or are we? And as queer folks, as people who have to envision utopia in many ways, it's because it's a guiding light for us of where we're going. And again, that horizon, we don't know what's beyond it. We don't want to control what that is, but we do want to be moving forward towards it, because frankly our lives depend on it.

Joy: Cheers to that. Yes.

Raja: I knew as soon as you started talking it was going to come back, right? I was like, all right.

Joy: Right. Back and forth. Yeah. I feel like what I was going to say, you kind of covered, but I just love how you were veering from a kind of safety as a product vision of absolutist utopia that people want to know what is right to do, to hold onto, so they won't get in trouble, versus a Muñozian utopia, which is foggy at the edge of our consciousness and ability to perceive that you still have to reach for. And again, cruise, his whole metaphor is cruising, which is this queer cultural practice of being often in outdoor spaces, but in anywhere, trying to find each other with the power of our eyes and our gestures and our movements and our withholdings and givings. And so this idea that utopia isn't something that you get to have a Jetsons episode; utopia is something that comes at great potential cost, when we think about police brutality and violence and the way that queer bodies have gotten in a lot of trouble for cruising, and that is just out of reach and still in process.

I invite cis people to also ask these questions: What did it mean to be a man in 1850 in this character I'm playing versus today in 2023 when I'm playing this role?

Raja: God, I love this stuff. If we're going to think about utopianism too, so frequently it looks like a body free, or a world where bodies never experience disease or difference. And that really troubles me because, when I was taking a class and we were discussing the idea of visions of utopia, somebody had mentioned essentially like, "And no one would ever get sick and die." And I'm like, "Okay, so where do we start?" People with all sorts of bodies who interact with this world in all sorts of ways have to be part of this utopia too. I can't create a utopia for able-bodied people only, because that's not utopia. That's a nightmare. That's a nightmare.

And I think tying that into the emergent strategy of it all, the small effects of the whole. And I think we want to get all of us to that place, right? Because while I am out here fighting for queer representation and trans representation in the field, I also recognize that cis people are also suffering under these really rigid, archaic gender roles. I don't know, I mean, I guess maybe some people feel really good and affirmed by it, but I think if they felt what it meant to truly embrace the horizon, they would have a very different experience and a different understanding of that.

Nicholas: I've spoken to Rebecca Kling about this in the last season. I don't think it made it into the episode, but we were wondering if cis people ever experience gender euphoria.

Raja: I think they do all the time. I think they get to experience gender euphoria all the time and never even have to think about it. I mean—

Nicholas: And then I asked my friends who are cis and they were like, "I can't think of a moment." And I was like… that's upsetting.

Joy: It's hard. Cis women are always failing by the standards of the patriarchy no matter what. So, you probably experience a lot of trying to feel euphoric or trying to feel validated and feel euphoria in the validation. But you don't get it a lot. Maybe it's the same for masculinity. It's always partial.

Nicholas: I should specify, my cis women friends. I have yet to poll the cis men in my life. But I am curious. So dudes, do you experience gender euphoria? Let me know.

Raja: Yeah, I'm kind of musing on that too, because it's like what's the difference of feeling euphoria under the confines of cis heteropatriarchy and what is euphoria outside of that model? And would that be fundamentally... I know it would be different for queer folks. I would venture to guess it would be different for cis folks as well. And by which I kind of put forward this example: I teach a period styles class at a university, and I was talking to Joy through all of this and I remember they asked me, they're like, "How do you not just teach a class on race, gender, and sexuality?" And I was like, "That's the trick, I am."

Because one of the things that came up for me recently is a lot of actors play characters that are consistent with their gender. And the gender of a character that you're playing, even if they use the same language, is very likely not similar, or could be dissimilar I should say, to your own gender. Because time and space are articulated differently in this role versus your real lived experience. And it is a privilege to assume that those are so close that you don't have to do work. And it's a charge that so many queer artists are asked to jump so frequently. And I invite cis people to also ask these questions: What did it mean to be a man in 1850 in this character I'm playing versus today in 2023 when I'm playing this role in my acting classroom? Because if you're just assuming that those mean the same thing, you're wrong. They don't.

Joy: Something you were saying earlier reminded me, and I want to talk about one of my other important teachers in my life who is Anna Deavere Smith, so I only got to study with her for one semester. It wasn't a long time, but she said something to me which really stuck in my mind that reminded me a bit of what you were saying just now, Raja, which is her style of performance is very finely detailed simulation of the vocal, physical, and sort of energetic affect of real-life people that she's interviewed and talked to. And so that's the pedagogy that she teaches her students with. So we learn that style, including doing it ourselves and trying to embody difference, embody people's life experiences who are different from us. And so a lot of edgy and challenging, meaningful work working across race and ethnicity and gender and sexuality and provocative ways.

And she told the class that there is one specific character that women, I assume she sort of meant cis women, but that women always want to work on playing in her class. And she described it and it is like high, high femme. And every woman who enters into her class to learn this technique of developing personas, they want to learn how to play high femme. And I think that that is some of this fantasy of gender that exists in a kind of cultural construction that as a performer you're like, if only I could do that, perhaps I would get hired. Perhaps I would—

Nicholas: I would get all the roles that these dead white men wrote hundreds of years ago.

Joy: Yeah. Perhaps I could be the ingenue forever. I don't know.

Nicholas: I like to end my episodes with a couple of questions. First, main thesis of this podcast from the beginning of it, one is that trans people are everywhere. Two, we have always been here. In that vein, I would like to invite each of you to give a shout out to a member of your queer, trans artistic family tree.

Joy: I'm happy to start. I love this question. Thank you for asking, and I already got to name some of my teachers who've made such a big impact on me, but I would be remiss if I did not give a shout out to Cherríe Moraga who I was so honored to get to study and learn with and TA for during my time at Stanford. I would say that Cherríe Moraga is one of the most impactful professors I've ever had the experience to work, and part of that is her just wisdom and brains and heart. And also, she has this magic capacity to bring amazing people around her, so I notice that I already know both D’Lo and Leanna Keyes, both of whom who've been on your show, because we sat together in a circle with Cherríe Moraga in class together. Also a dear friend and gender expansive playwright, Will Gutierrez, another of my friends. So there are lots of people for whom Cherríe Moraga was influential for, and I am one of them.

I am also in the Tim Miller archipelago, now that's probably a lot more—

Nicholas: Me too!

Joy: So I listened to a bunch of episodes of this before coming on, and I heard that Tim Miller was sort of a through line on this show, so I felt like I should shout out that he's also in my galaxy and specifically because of the work of two amazing, wonderful queer artists that I'm grateful to have also learned with named Helen Paris and Leslie Hill who were working at Stanford when I was there. They, together, make up a company called Curious that makes performance on both sides of the Atlantic, and they curated a year of the performance artists at Stanford when I was there. So I got to study with Tim Miller, also Split Britches and Guillermo Gomez Peña, La Pocha Nostra, all in one year. And I don't think my life was the same afterwards. So I'm really grateful for that impact.

Nicholas: What a crew.

Raja: Yeah, what a crew. Seriously. For me, I think who I want to shout out is the nameless queer and trans folks. I made my world with so many people whose name I don't know because in the ambiguity of queer space where I found myself, in these places like queer bars and queer kink spaces and trans-inclusive spaces, I made myself along people who maybe I didn't keep on the journey. I think it's really important for me to name that those people were really meaningful and significant because I'm resisting the idea of how much time I'm with somebody as being an indicator of how important or insignificant it is. And I recognize that I, in many ways, get told I'm a queer elder by my students who are a bit younger than me now, which I'm still processing.

And what I have to explain to them so often is, I wish I knew exactly who my queer elders are. There was a prompt recently that was about the Impossible Theatre, the Theatre of the Impossible. And what I kept thinking of is, what was the theatre that died, so many people who we lost, how much theatre was never made at the hands of police brutality and state-sanctioned violence and the resistance to acknowledging the experiences of queer people? And so, it's not to be like Debbie Downer about it, but I wish I knew more names. And I embrace again that my job was not to know them by name but by spirit. And then I truly believe I stand on the shoulders of such important, significant queer and trans people. and I love them even if I can't name them.

And then of course, when I look at people I literally can name, I really do want to shout out Chelsea Pace, who has been incredibly critical for me as intentionally in so many ways, made sure that the barriers I faced into this industry were something that she could leverage her privilege in getting me across. And then we've mentioned Leo, but I really want to acknowledge them. They are very much the third part of this sort of Joy, Raja, Leo trio.

Joy: Yeah, Leo Mock. Yeah. Leo Mock, find them.

Raja: Leo Mock. They are the glue that holds so much of what the three of us are doing together, and I really want to name them as so critical in most of what we've discussed.

Nicholas: And to close us out, a moment of gender euphoria, courtesy of Raja Benz.

Raja: I think gender euphoria for me has felt like not needing to know the answers. I grew up in predominantly white communities where knowing the answer to something was the greatest thing one could do through my education system. And as of recent, I'm moving through a lot of really big things in my world; my life is changing quite drastically right now in terms of professional and personal matters. And what I've found recently is that this body will become. This body will change. This body is always in flux and needing less to pin it down, to give it language and to make it digestible has given me such a euphoria that I can now say, “I don't know.” And for once, euphoria looks like “I don't know” as being a positive answer and not a negative one.

Nicholas: Love that. Thank you so much for coming on and chatting with me in this big, sprawling, winding conversation.

Raja: It's so typical of how we do it. Seriously.

Nicholas: This has been Gender Euphoria: The Podcast, hosted and edited by me, Nicholas Shannon Savard. The voices you heard in the intro poem were Rebecca Kling, Dillon Yruegas, Siri Gurudev, Azure D. Osborne-Lee, and Joshua Bastian Cole. The show art was designed by Yaşam Gülseven. This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of this series and other HowlRound podcasts in our feed on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you find your podcasts. Be sure to search “HowlRound Theatre Commons podcasts” and subscribe to receive new episodes.

If you loved this podcast, post a rating and write a review on those platforms. This helps other people find us. You can also find a transcript for this episode along with a lot of other progressive and disruptive content on howlround.com. Have an idea for an exciting podcast, essay, or TV event that the theatre community needs to hear? Visit howlround.com and submit your ideas to the Commons.

Bibliography Bibliography

Time stamps indicate the moment when the auditory footnote maker occurs in the episode. All sources are listed in chronological order. For more, check out the full Zotero library for Gender Euphoria: The Podcast.

01:40 Scholarly podcast practice: auditory footnote markers, My Gothic Dissertation

03:20 HowlRound interview between Raja Benz and Ann James

12:30 José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia

15:50 Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive

19:00 Joy’s special issue of Journal of Dramatic Criticism and Theory

19:00 Nicholas’ article in the Journal of Consent-Based Performance, which responds to the articles in Joy’s special issue

21:30 Alex Wilson on body sovereignty in “Our Coming In Stories: Cree Identity, Body Sovreignty and Gender Self-Determination”

24:20 Critiques of Consent Discourse from Education, Gender Studies, and Theatrical Intimacy in Melanie A. Beres’ “Spontaneous Sexual Consent: An Analysis of Sexual Consent in Literature”; Stacey Novak’s “Sex Ed in Higher Ed: Should We Say Yes to ‘Affirmative Consent?’”; Elsie Whittington’s “Rethinking Consent with Continuums: Sex, Ethics and Young People”; Chelsey Morgan’s “Visions for Justice and Critiquing Consent: On Taking Performativity out of Performance”; and Laura Rikard and Amanda Rose Villareal’s “Focus on Impact, Not Intention: Moving from ‘Safe’ Spaces to Spaces of Acceptable Risk”

24:40 Planned Parenthood’s FRIES consent model

25:20 Risk-Aware Consensual Kink (RACK)

27:30 Stefanie A. Jones, “An Intimacy Choreography for Sexual Justice: Considering Racism and Ableism as Forms of Sexual Violence”

28:00 Readings on access intimacy and disability justice, including Mia Mingus’ blog posts “Access Intimacy, Interdependence and Disability Justice” and “Access Intimacy: The Missing Link” Sins Invalid’s curriculum for political development on the topic of disability justice; and Leah Lakshmi Pipenza-Samarasinha’s Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice

31:30 Queer bodies, no guarantee of a future via Jack Halberstam’s In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives

35:10 Adrienne Marie Brown, Emergent Strategy

38:30 Videos of Anna Deveare Smith’s performance style, “Four American Characters” and Let Me Down Easy.

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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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