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Trans Femininity in New Work Spaces

Equity in the Arts
Someone's shoulder obscures the right side of the photo. To the left, their hand is visible holding a pen and resting on an open script.

I want to talk about the way we talk about and treat trans characters, and particularly trans femme characters, in new work development. Content warning for the below: includes descriptions of sexual violence.

The last few years have seen an explosion in the cultural awareness of the trans body. As a result, more and more trans and genderqueer characters are being written by cisgender screenwriters and playwrights than ever. It’s an exciting time, without a doubt! That said: the way a playwright writes a trans character reveals a lot more than they may realize about their implicit biases and the ways they succeed or fail to recognize our humanity.

A few months back, I had the privilege of sitting in the room on a workshop for a play in development. I was asked to read for a few minor male characters. I don’t always immediately clock as trans to collaborators. There’s often “the moment” of whether or not I’m going to be asked to out myself that can be, frankly, exhausting. That’s a rant for another time. On this occasion, I did tell them.

The show in question was about a group of women on the run who come across a trans sex worker. She explains to them that she is, in fact, a woman despite her “missing assets” (the script pauses for laughs). After an initially icy reception, she slowly falls in with the community, even learning how to do her makeup “more naturally” from them. In a particularly graphic moment, she dies saving the group from a rapist cop. They all shed a tear and move on.

A couple things.

First off, the notion that an experienced sex worker doesn’t know how to do her makeup is rather insulting. Especially when her career requires her to pass for cisgender under the threat of her life. Every freaking day.

More to the point, she plays into every nasty stereotype of trans women — hypersexualized, flippant, “bitchy”, a vapid obsession with drag culture, compulsive liar, and so on. The character functions only to advance the plot and emotional life of the people around her. And then she dies. The end.

Too often I see trans femme folks made out to be like aliens from another planet. Even plays with the best of intentions can pigeonhole us into being shallow, derivative caricatures of womanhood that can do real lasting damage to our community. We aren’t trendy, and we aren’t inhuman. Most importantly, our sense of self is not dependent on anyone’s femininity but our own. When I go out with my full beat face, it’s not because I am trying to look like a woman — I am succeeding in looking like me. Some of us are women, some are non-binary or genderqueer, but we are all engaging in a femininity housed specifically within ourselves.

The best advice I can give for someone looking to write a play beyond their gendered experience: invest in your collaborators, and in their community. Come see our work and the plays and songs and other art we are already making about ourselves. If you want to write our story, you have to know what it is. And if you don’t know any trans people, odds are you don’t have any business writing a trans character.

I realize in retrospect why I was invited to that workshop. I was there to be a stamp of approval as the sole trans artist involved in the process. I see it time and again, and it makes me hesitant to work on new plays with artists I don’t know. All my concerns are quickly rebuffed and I am told to stop “mansplaining.”

Each person, cis or trans, is a confluence of their axes of identity and personal experience. We are all navigating the trauma of being raised in this world. But let me say this once and for all: trans femmes and especially trans women do not experience male privilege the way it is often assumed we do. When someone says we were “raised with male privilege,” they’re invalidating the constant dysphoria we have experienced of knowing that to be a woman or to be feminine is to be targeted. Rather than jump further down this rabbit hole myself, I will direct you to the words of Kai Cheng Thom, who fantastically breaks this down in her article for Everyday Feminism.

The larger point that I hope to make here is that when cisgender theater artists invite trans folks into the room, be ready to love and accept the full scope of our identity, because we have always been this way. (And for god’s sake, pay us!) As with any collaborator, walk soft with love. When I give criticism, it’s because I genuinely want your work to be the best it can be. And if I’m in the room, it’s because I want to be there.

I hear the phrase reclaiming narratives a lot when developing plays. In particular, I hear it every time a trans femme character dies. She was “reclaiming her narrative.” “Dying to save those other women from law enforcement, that’s her taking ownership over her womanhood on her terms.” Being trans is about living. Hundreds of thousands of trans folks are reclaiming their narratives every day without dying. I’m sick of watching trans people die. I don’t want to see it anymore.

It is a sad and horrifying fact that trans femmes — particularly trans femmes of color — are targeted, imprisoned, and murdered at a categorically alarming rate. But here’s the thing: we don’t need to see that onstage. We live it every day. Theater is a staging ground for imagining multiplicities of worlds, so why do cisgender writers keep repeating this same violence porn? If someone wants to call out the fact that the lived experience of trans femmes is one of constant perceived surveillance and threat of violence, okay. But what are they saying about it? Things that happen onstage and in real life have context. They have consequences.

What does it mean that this woman sacrificed her life to save these people she is just getting to know from the threat of sexual violence? If the answer is that a couple of women learned a valuable lesson that trans ladies are people too, then guess what? I don’t fucking care. I don’t care about them or their tears. I care about the dead body on the floor.

I wish I could say this all was an isolated incident. In another new work process, I played a trans femme sex worker. That show was, bar none, the worst experience of my professional life. I took the role because I like to eat more than once or twice a week, and because I saw the nuances layered into the character. In navigating the men constantly eager to pin her down, I saw a woman deftly maneuvering to retain ownership over her body while staying ahead of an authoritarian-like regime. At least, that’s who she was to me. To the artistic leadership of the project, she was a vain, flighty, manipulative temptress. I quickly became a conduit for the Pussyhat-wearing director and a host of fellow performers to channel their transmisogyny and contempt for queer women onto. In rehearsal I was made to be a subject of ridicule and shame, and my privacy, personal history, and identity were constantly plundered and undermined. It culminated when I was groped by the director to show an actor “how to treat her.”

I wish I could say even this was a first for me as an actor. It doesn’t get easier to deal with.

These were so-called “leftist” people. Many of them are themselves gay or queer. I was asked to give my pronouns on the first day and was promised they’d be respected. Respect isn’t just how one addresses me, it’s how they see me and how they listen to me. All of my ideas were invariably shot down. Offers that I made to the writer, the other actors? Dismissed. The character, and thus I, was initially cut from the curtain call. We weren’t even human to them.

We live in a world that hates trans women and other trans femme folks. We just do. And it is always those that call themselves woke and aware that have done me the greatest violence. And when our allies fail, the burden becomes ours to pick up the pieces. Both on the page and in the room, we are made to be a part of the process of undoing ourselves.

So where does the conversation go from here? While there has certainly been progress to address transphobia and sexual violence in theater, it’s telling to me how few institutions have programming oriented toward trans artists. Even fewer have dedicated fellowships — proper recognition of the hard work of trans playwrights as being worthy of funding. I don’t want to hear “it’s too niche.” There are thousands of us in this country alone. And if your organization has put out casting or submission calls for trans artists and received few replies, it’s because you’re expecting us to come to you. Chances are, we don’t know you or we don’t trust you yet. We’re a little busy doing the work of surviving and making art ourselves, as we have been for centuries. Look at your networks. If we’re not there, we won’t suddenly be just because you decided to notice us.

So yes. We need more institutionally supported trans playwrights, and particularly trans femme playwrights. We get doubly screwed over by hatred of women and hatred of trans folks.

And to our beautiful, wonderful allies: I am begging you not to stop writing. I love reading and seeing your work, and it thrills me that trans characters are exploding into the canon of 21st century theater. All I ask is that you think long and hard about why you are writing a trans character, what it does to have that body onstage, and make listening to us a part of your process. We want to see you succeed and for the worlds you create to be rich and filled with nuance and grace.

Thank you to those that have started opening doors, and to the incredible trans voices who have been fearlessly tearing them down. We are here thanks to you, and are eager to go so much further.

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