Home2017-2018Once is not enough: Speaking “trans” in the theatre

Once is not enough: Speaking “trans” in the theatre

By Ilia
Guest Writer

Within a week of being cast as Anna in “Burn This,” I had received three spontaneous invitations to “talk about the show” from Willamette’s communications team. The simple victory of being cast as a cisgender woman in a play became the catalyst for an explosion of unknowns; Who told them? Who told them who I am? Who told them I’m transgender? Who told them I’m playing a woman? Is this public knowledge? I had been rehearsing for maybe a couple of days and suddenly people I’d never heard of before were emailing me to ask me my pronouns and calling me by a name which I had been going by for barely two weeks. More sinister than the question of “who” was the question of “why” which quickly followed — Why did they tell them? Is someone worried about me? Is someone angry with me? Did we do something wrong? My gmail “unread” box was suddenly imbued with the ability to induce an anxiety usually reserved for my most insecure and public moments. The same anxiety that strikes me when someone stutters before they refer to me, or when Ed Whipple glares at me when he sees me in a dress around campus, or when someone who hasn’t spoken to me in a while avoids eye-contact when they catch me walking passed them in heels. The anxiety of not knowing what they’re thinking, and assuming the worst.

In the theater, my transness was passed around in secret as if it were something fragile — as if it, or maybe I, was delicate enough to break if it was ever spoken aloud. Stranger than anything else, it often felt as if this secret was being protected specifically from me. Under the guise of shielding students from a supposedly ignorant and careless public, the people around me were doing everything they could to avoid contextualizing their behavior by explicitly announcing that I’m transgender, ignorant of the fact that I already practically shout it for everyone to hear every time I walk into a room in a skirt. Despite what felt was like a refusal to speak about my transness aloud, it was somehow the only thing I heard when I walked into the theater. In the time that I’ve spent out of the closet, I’ve become at least conversational in the coded language that all cisgender people employ when they talk about me and other transfeminine people.

Here’s a quick crash course of what I’ve picked up so far: when they refer to you exclusively in the third person as a lady or girl (gurl) every other sentence when you’re in the room, it means that they’re terrified that they’re going to forget to not call you a man and they need to remind themselves as often as possible. When they call you “he” to a cashier or waiter, it means that they’re so afraid of the prospect of complicating this scripted interaction that they’d rather just pass the buck to you for now. When they tell you that they call everybody “dude” unprompted — actually, you can probably just figure that one out on your own. When they repeat to you that they feel that “we need to do something to get the audience to lean in,” and “if we don’t say anything about the casting then we’re not starting the conversation,” what they mean is that they’re worried that if we don’t put something in the program for this play to explain why we put a transgender person on stage, somebody might ask them, and then they’ll have to admit that they still don’t really know. Or something like that.

All of this is, of course, is conjecture. But that’s part of the problem. Because every instance a conversation about the impact or lack-thereof of my transness on this production was reserved for the moments where I was absent or buried in subtext, I had to have those same conversations with myself, alone, a dozen times. Every time someone spoke to me about the casting of the play in vague terms that insured they wouldn’t have to say “transgender,” the voice in my own head would yell that same word louder and in a tone that blurred the line between self-declared identity marker and epithet. Queer people, in my experience, can play one hell of a devil’s advocate when it comes to solitary conversations about our self-worth. The most frustrating thing about this kind of treatment is that there’s nothing you can ever say, because there’s nothing that they’ve really done.

As satisfying as my recurring fantasy of shouting “transphobe” at certain members of the Willamette administration when they shoot me a double-take in the UC may be, I could always be wrong. Maybe that’s just the way they look at people, or maybe they’re thinking about something else. I doubt it. Nonetheless they can always make excuses, and my paranoia, though far from being unfounded, is often misplaced. For every meeting I had agreed to participate in, I had psyched myself up for a fight, stomping into the room with my nails freshly done and poised to go to toe-to-toe with these administration suits who thought I was a problem that needed to be dealt with. And each time, my thoroughly prepared plan of attack was thrown on its head when I found myself confronted with kind and genuinely curious people who just wanted to check in, or hear my perspective. As this university has begun to acknowledge my queerness and engage with it, rarely have the people themselves been anything but kind. The stifling silence they always wrap my transness in — as a defense, as an escape — has been far less accommodating.

Appropriately, the sting of silence is felt all throughout “Burn This,” the play itself. Set in 1987 in Manhattan, Lanford Wilson’s heterosexual love triangle narrative is rife with subtext about gay life and suffering in that era. Beginning the play with the death of two young gay men immediately evokes the specter of AIDS, but Wilson, a gay man, chose to make their deaths accidental, and to keep the disease and all its baggage unspoken throughout the story, keeping it apparitional. This curious suspension of reality highlights AIDS’ persistence in the mind of the gay community and the media while simultaneously showing a group of people who found a way to maintain joy and meaning in their lives outside of and despite the epidemic. The dynamics of Larry, the only gay character featured on stage in “Burn This,” create a second kind of absence.

By indulging in a two-dimensional portrayal of gayness — by showing the audience exactly what they expected and hoped to see —Wilson isolates Larry both from the other characters on stage who repeatedly fail to give him space to grieve, and from the straight audience, who are presented with the option to accept and consume him as a comedy prop instead of a person.

I like to think that this portrayal came from an attempt to paint queer isolation in its entirety, rather than from a place of cynicism and mistrust for the audience. From the inside of this play, Larry has felt to me like a way in for queer people to grieve for what we have lost from being tokenized, taken for granted and spoken for instead of to. But there is also an unfettered joy in these silences. There is a heavy respite embroidered into this play about gay men in New York in the 1980s that becomes palpable when its two and a half hours of story are played out without ever mentioning AIDS.

This relief is revived and made anew, for me, in the two and a half hours I get to spend without the possibility that someone might ask me who I am or why I express myself in the way I do. There is no preamble to declare the presence of a transfeminine person, no announcements to warn people not to offend me. There is nothing to insinuate anything about who I am except for my chosen name next to a female character in the program. Nobody asks me about my pronouns because they’re already there, in the script. Temporary and somewhat imperfect as it may be, it is nonetheless unarguably one of those brief moments where I can inhabit and relish my identity without talking about it, without analyzing it, and without being reminded that people sometimes fear it. In turn, the play and its rehearsal have become spaces for that moment to erupt into strings of occasions for laughter, comfort, discovery, sympathy and queerness.   

Despite the frustration, there is a genuine joy in having created some space that wasn’t there before. Casting queer people in a play in the way we wanted to be cast is, without a doubt, a victory of sorts. As we celebrate that, we have to confront everyone who is still waiting in the wings. As voices erupt in Willamette and online, advocating the positive impacts of greater visibility, we have to acknowledge that the space that has been reclaimed sometimes obfuscates those who we’re still leaving behind as much as it centers us. When is the last time a playwright of color was featured in our theatre? How many people have been turned off or turned away from our art spaces because they’re too white, too straight, too expensive or too inaccessible? Let’s not pretend that we can check off “transgender” on a list of identities we need to accommodate. Let’s not pretend that the work has already been done.



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