Playing Trans

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With everything going ” somewhat pottery class” as Mary Berry would say, it boggles my mind that This Shit is what has me sitting down at the computer to do some ‘splainin’.

In case that link disappears or doesn’t work, here’s what This Shit is all about. Scarlett Johansson is going to be playing a transman in the upcoming movie Rub & Tug. Yup, this is the same SJ who recently got chewed up and spit out by playing Major in Ghost in the Shell when that character should have been played by an Asian actor. Notably, both Rub & Tug and Ghost in the Shell are directed by Rupert Sanders. I don’t care about how good or bad an actor she is or the quality of the films (didn’t see the first and won’t see this one). I’m not a film critic and wiser people than I have had plenty to say about cultural appropriation and whitewashing of stories.

However, as a transman with a history in theatre and connections to stage and film, I’ve had (at last count) five people ask me what I think about casting cis people in trans roles since this news hit.

Let me be clear. In this and any representation of trans, non-binary, and genderqueer folx, casting cis actors is not OK.

SJ is well known for feminine roles and sexy figure. A quick cruise through her IMDB page shows a lot of decolletage, spandex-clad booty, and bee-stung lips.  She’s clearly been typecast and I know that a woman’s career in Hollywood can be roughly delineated by ingenue roles and “are you Judy Dench or Meryl Streep?” so I don’t blame her or her agent for wanting to break out of the femme (fatale) box. That is absolutely as far as I’m willing to go in the “I get it” realm.  There are other ways to break out of the box that aren’t reductive and culturally offensive.

By casting a cisgender woman as a transgender man, you reduce the experience of a trans person to a base comment upon their (assumed) genitals at birth. Because a cis woman (probably) has the same anatomy as a transman does not mean that she has the capacity to inhabit the character of that man. The underlying messages are that we don’t actually care about the lived experiences of trans people or their accurate representation in our media, we just want the (illicit?) thrill of seeing transgression and to think freely about what is under that shirt.

This is not about elevating acting ability to transcend barriers. This is not to disparage anyone’s acting ability. I have no idea if SJ can play the role well. I truly don’t care that Hillary Swank did an ok job in Boys Don’t Cry, and Willaim Hurt was brilliant in Kiss of the Spider Woman. All of that is beside the point.

Look, if there were thousands of trans characters in film and theatre and all the trans actors were finding work regularly, we could be having a different conversation. But that is not the reality. Not only is this casting reductive, a critical question begs to be asked about the messages we are sending out to trans youth by supporting this casting. The fairly obvious message is that we know you’re “just a [insert gender] playing at being [insert opposite binary gender].” When the percentage of completed suicides in the trans and non-binary communities far outstrip our cisgender counterparts, interrogating the harm done and potential for positive role modeling is not simply an academic exercise.

But what about Dr. Frank-n-Furter played by Tim Curry, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, and nearly every stage and film adaptation of a Shakespearean comedy? Drag and being trans are different things, even on stage and in flim.

Some argue that there aren’t trans folx with marquee names to draw the crowds and $ to the theatres and I know that’s true. In fact, I’ve had numerous conversations about this exact topic with my producer, director, and actor friends.

So, dear producer friends, the questions you should be asking are:

  1. Why aren’t there trans actors who I can cast in this role?
  2. Am I looking hard enough?
  3. If this role and narrative is really critical to the driver of this story, should I be telling it without casting appropriately?
  4. What can I be doing from my positions of power to encourage trans and non-binary actors, directors, writers, cinematographers, etc. in my field?
  5. If I was casting a role calling for a Black woman but couldn’t find the right actor, what would I do? Consider similar options in this context.

I watched a dear friend of mine search very hard for a trans actor who was available to play a transman in a TV series. He and the studio went to great lengths to find the right man for the part and for various reasons beyond his control, the timing and casting didn’t work. We talked about it a lot and he had the salacious option of casting a cisgender woman, the uninspired option of rewriting the character to be cisgender, the dubious but marginally better option of casting a cisgender man, and the difficult decision not to tell that story in that season. Rather than reduce the part to anatomy, he shelved that storyline and is taking on a longer search to find the right person to play the part. It was a difficult choice for him and the studio because they had to consider the draw of the salacious or handy.

Consumer friends, I challenge you to resist giving your money to endeavors which cast cis folx in trans roles. It’s 2018, there are trans and non-binary actors out there with more on the way.

There is no more room to cast cis folx in trans roles so just knock it off.

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They Really Don’t Care

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All along I have admitted that I come from a world of money and privilege. I am neither proud nor embarrassed by this fact. If I had the monetary wealth that comes with that position, I would be using it to  promote what I view as the higher good and social justice. The power and privilege that comes from being a white, able-bodied, well-educated, dude in America comes with innumerable advantages. I do my best to recognize the power I have and to redistribute that wealth whenever possible.

Having this power isn’t stopping me from freaking the fuck out about losing my healthcare and the few fragile protections we queers have gained in the past 20 years. It isn’t saving me from cold-sweat nightmares about being dragged into the street and shot or screaming with no sound as I am forced to watch my friends tortured to death for creating subversive words (that was last night’s unconscious gift to myself), nor is it saving me from constant worry about where we as a country are going when we allow the demons of our base nature drive the bus.

Growing up in the world I did, I have a paltry gift to offer my friends and loves about the current state of the state. It is a simple message: the 1%ers really don’t care.

We’ll return to the gift part in a paragraph or two but let me explain what I mean here. The 1%ers really, truly don’t give a shit about who is caught doing what. Trump’s taxes, the DAPL, who is in bed with the Russians, who is buying power, the BLATANT lies, deceits, and total moral decrepitude that defines the modern nationalist movement, none of it matters to the people in power and the people who benefit from it. They will sit on their verandae drinking expensive booze and laugh about refugees being turned back at the borders and being forced to return to certain death. They willfully forget their grandparents and great-grandparents who came to the US as refugees, their parents who fought and dies in world wars to defeat nationalist parties. Why? Because nationalism WORKS for them. They literally CANNOT imagine a world where their wealth and privilege won’t both protect them from the “ugliness” and be increased by allowing the liars and the fear-mongers to drive. They cannot be moved to care about the Other.

These are the same people who go to church and temple and feel righteous when they put a big bill in the donation box. “See,” they think, “I’m doing my part. No one can accuse me of being stingy.” They will argue for a flat-rate tax not understanding that 10% of their annual income represents the choice between renewing the lease on the Lexus this year or next when a 10% tax on the rest of us means deciding daily between eating OR medications, between shoes or gas to go to work. Upon reading that sentence, the first thought a 1%er would have is, “well, if you stopped eating junk food, maybe you wouldn’t need those expensive medicines. My taxes pay for buses, take those,” not thinking about the food deserts that millions live in, the desperation to provide calories to their bodies, or the fact that the bus means being late to work and being fired. The 1% still buy into the concept of the welfare queen, and the myths which have been crafted to appease them.

“I’m not a bad person!” they will claim while denying the abundant science supporting global climate change. The truth is irrelevant. The stock in Exxon will bring in enough to pay for the vacation house, and besides, look at all the money that’s gone into the Gulf Coast since the Deep Water Horizon disaster. They want to believe in the beneficence of big business and they want it to be reflected in their immediate lives. When confronted by facts, they will lean on lies (what our current administration would like us to accept as “alternative- facts,” a term which makes my stomach churn). Scientists and artists alike are vilified unless they produce the results that soothe the tiny voice of disquiet which may surface from time to time. They want big government when it serves them and state power when it doesn’t. They are libertarians and pat themselves on the back for pushing individuals to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. And sometimes they’re just selfish and dumb or they are true sociopaths.

To be clear, the theo-political right has embraced one element of science to their great advantage- the biology of fear.  When we are afraid, our amygdala hijacks the rest our brain and creates a flight/fight/freeze response; we have drunk the koolaid of fear. It’s not a direct causal response, but rather a corollary reaction. However, there is a growing body of scientific evidence supporting the social science observation that when humans are afraid, we are comforted by strong demonstrations of aggressive strength. It is hard to think rationally when we are in a constant state of fear and the more frequently we are exposed to fear inducing stimuli, the more hyper-reactive our brains become. In short, when our brains are constantly prodded into fear, we don’t think clearly, we want something strong to take charge, and we become more susceptible to the prodding in the first place. Congratulations evolving brainmeats, you helped us elect nationalist fear-mongers.

Back to my point, since the 1%ers really don’t give a rat’s ass about us, what we have to say, or, ya know, reality, there is a level of freedom we can achieve. Please don’t take what I am about to say as an endorsement of political apathy! If they don’t give a shit about truth, lies, or getting caught doing illegal or immoral things (and really, they don’t), we can stop giving a shit about what they think of us.We can stop trying to show them evidence of lies and deceptions. They know and they DON’T CARE.

Maybe this is just me– I haven’t tested this theory with others– but I have spent so much of my physical, mental, and emotional capital on convincing rich people in power to change their minds, to see issues from my perspective, to listen to science or even tiny bits of reason. For me, all this has done is wear me down to a little nub of despondency and frustration. Although I have often compared this action to rearranging deck-chairs on the Titanic, I wasn’t listening to my own inner guidance. STOP moving the damn deck-chairs.

“But, Whit,” you might say, “they run everything. We can’t just stop,” and I agree, we can’t stop fighting and advocating for our rights, the rights of others, and the right of our planet to be healthy. Continue to be politically vocal and active. But stop spending your energy trying to get them to change their minds or to see the “right” in your beliefs and the “wrong” in theirs. At this point, they either will or they won’t. I’m not arguing that the people who hold power should be allowed to act with impunity. Far from it. There are many humans in the world who derive energy and power from fighting “the good fight” and speaking truth to power. I think of them as political and social justice extroverts. The extroverts will continue to push for impeachment and for equitable redistribution of voting rights. They deserve every once of my support and they have it.

I am a social justice and political action introvert. I don’t use this term as an excuse for apathy and inaction, far from it. I think of this as a way of best harnessing my potential for the most effective good and positive-feedback loop. After many years of operating in push back mode, I have come to the conclusion that fighting the old way is bad for me. What this conclusion has meant for me is to stop trying to share fact-based data with people who are firmly entrenched in the philosophies of fear and hate.

Where I put my energy these days is supporting my QTPOC family, my black and brown, Muslim, queer, poor, or ill friends. I put energy into my immediate community and I reserve my voice for times when it will be best used and for the moments when silence=violence.

I take the time to speak to those who truly are invested in the moral and ethical values our country espouses and claims to represent. This is the hard part of the work- sifting through what feels like so much crazy to identify where my voice will do good. Finding the people with whom a rational conversation is still possible is my goal because once you’ve drunk the koolaid of fear, it’s hard to come back from that place. It has meant walking away from some long-term friendships and family members for my personal self-care and has created some deep grief.

This doesn’t mean that you won’t find me on the front lines of social justice action because you will. If the Trumpban goes into effect again (thank you Hawaii!), I will be at DIA; if a black man is shot by the police, you’ll see me standing with BLM. What you won’t see is me burning my candle at both ends trying to convince the damned that they’re going to hell. I’m not in the business of saving people who are sailing their own wood-paneled yachts across the River Styx.

 

 

Queering the Holidays Part 2

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I’ll Be Homo for the Holidays

In Part 1, I wrote about the challenges facing queers this time of year. Part 2 brings us to options regardless of our decisions to or not to participate in festivus with families. I’m going to break it down into three parts: self-care, care-of-others, care-for-intimate-relationships. Each, of course, informs the others. Some of this is directed at queer folx and some at our allies.

The phrase “self-care” has become ubiquitous in modern discourse but what does it really mean? In the context of holiday stress, I think of it as allowing myself to do the things that feel the most safe, healthy, and connected. Each person is going to have their own self-care lists. Here are the things that top my personal list: putting forgiveness first; getting more sleep than usual; eating as well as possible; working out regularly (and maybe a bit more than usual); reading extra brain candy; saying no to things I don’t want to do; reaching out to loved ones whenever I start feeling blue; doing good in my communities; defending others as I would myself; defending myself as I would others; therapy (physical and emotional); playing with my dogs and cat; seeking physical comfort and contact; planning fun events both over the holidays and into the future. The list could go on and changes daily but those are the regular visitors.

The only items on this list that I feel bear expanding upon are defending myself and others and putting forgiveness first. Mostly, the forgiveness is for myself. Most people I know are their own worst critics and I am no exception. I am fortunate that I don’t suffer from much seasonal depression and I love cold weather but I recognize that in the winter months I am prone to more self-critique than usual. Between receiving holiday cards (seriously, who manages to get all their shit together enough to take the pics, get them printed, sign them and mail them out??) of happy families doing happy things, new years resolutions (I don’t do this) and reflections (I do this), ghosts of festivus past, toxic family encounters (and choosing not to participate in them with all the requisite feelings there), and a general introvert’s reluctance to socialize, I can get really down on myself. So I try to spend a bit more time on forgiveness.  It’s OK if I don’t want to go to things and it’s OK when I do. This leads to standing up for myself as I would for others and standing up for others as I would myself. When someone is attacking you (even if it’s you doing the attacking), try this thought experiment: if a friend was telling you about this very experience, what would you tell them? Would you say, “that’s crap! you don’t deserve that!” or would you remain silent. Assuming you are an empathetic human, you’d defend your friend. Then ask yourself why you’re less worthy than your friend. It’s a simple shift but it can create dramatic results. If you suddenly start according yourself the same respect you give to others, the ground you stand on becomes much more solid.

Conversely, it can be very healing and empowering when you stand up to someone attacking a friend or even a stranger.  I’m not advocating you put yourself at risk but I am saying that there can be a great deal of power at extending your comfort zone in advocating for others. I’ve often wondered if there is more to the idea that acts of charity are so common during the time of year when days are so short because it feels good to do good. Maybe we need to extend ourselves in order to lighten our own loads. That, however, is a different rabbit hole.

Back on topic, let’s talk about being good to your intimate relationships- by this I mean lovers, close friends, family, etc.- those people who are core to you. I’m talking to you, queer ally. If you count queer folx in the mix of your intimates, put extra effort into reaching out to them. If you have family members who are queer or questioning, it’s not enough to just love them. Sure, that’s a critical first step but go beyond love. Ask them how they would like to be welcomed into your family. Ask what they need to feel safe. When you’re sitting around the table and the drunkle makes that horrible joke, don’t let him get away with it and don’t make your queer family member do the defending. To paraphrase Vernā Myers, when Grandma makes a racist comment at the table and no one says anything, look around the table. What does the nine year old at the other end of the table learn?

When I was first coming out as trans, some simple things my friends and family did that were really helpful were making sure that I was being identified correctly and when someone did misgender me, I wasn’t always the one to have to correct them. Don’t make assumptions about the gender of their favorite people. You might have to ask but be aware that the dining room table with the extended family might not be the best moment to say, “hey Whit, are you still sleeping with people of all genders?” For me, that would be cool but it might be very exposing and make someone else feel vulnerable regardless of your intention to be the cool elder sibling. Ask, advocate, listen, act, listen some more.

If you know that you have a loved one who has chosen to go into a toxic environment, step back from the self-righteous position of criticizing the decision. You don’t know what factors play into that decision and heaping critique upon them can do nothing but hurt. When I know I have people who are heading that way, I just tell them I am available to them if they need to talk or vent, I try to find out what local resources might be available to them while they’re at risk, and I try to make plans either for a catch-up or a fun event when they come back.

If your queer folx opt to stay out of family events, know that this is an equally difficult decision. When we choose not to participate, we may be doing what is safe and kind but it also hurts. Again, reach out. Extend invitations, be graceful if they are declined, try to make plans for the future.

Last but certainly not least, if the season has you, a friend, family member or loved one at their wit’s end, reach out to crisis centers, suicide hotlines, networks and other resources.  Here are a few:

The Trevor Project offers online, phone and text support for LGBTQ youth in crisis. However, if you’re not a “youth” don’t hesitate to reach out to them: http://www.thetrevorproject.org/

The TransLifeline: https://www.translifeline.org/

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline: http://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

The American Foundation for Suicide Preventsion: https://afsp.org/

For family guidance, PFLAG has resources all over the country: https://www.pflag.org/

And because I love the TED Talk I referenced: https://www.ted.com/talks/verna_myers_how_to_overcome_our_biases_walk_boldly_toward_them

Queering the Holidays Part 1

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It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

There are a lot of people for whom it’s true but for many of us, the holiday season brings unusual pressures and can be the most difficult time of the year. Not all challenges of the season are exclusive to queer folx but there are some that have a unique flavor.

For queers who have left the fold, being away from the limitations and pressures of family (and sometimes hometowns or communities) have allowed us to discover, embrace, and love ourselves in ways we couldn’t before. While this is true of many cisgender, heteronormative people, it can be a particularly key piece of development in the queer human. Without the scrutiny from our families we can date who we like, kiss our loves, dress, speak and BE our true selves. Away from religious or social community, we have the space to examine the standards we’ve been handed. Moving away often allows us to meet people who feel like us, look like us, and love like us.

The expectation that we go home for the holidays may represent a critical set of choices: Do I go home? Can I bring my favorite person? Will they be welcomed in the same ways as my heteronormative relatives’ favorite people? Can I dress in accordance with my gender identity without risk? Will I be safe physically, mentally, or emotionally? I love my core family but my drunkle makes everything miserable. Is this the year he actually hits one of us in a rage about his fag nephew? What, really, is the cost?

It’s important to note that these questions aren’t just asked by college-age kids. Sure, there has been a shift in some places which has allowed many queer kids to be embraced as who they are from the outset but one quick glance at the news and in particular, the comments on the news* shows the hatred and vitriol we face is real and is ugly. Queers from nine to ninety-nine face this dilemma annually.

Then there is the secondary question we ask if we’ve decided the juice of family and familiarity is worth the squeeze of risk and vulnerability. Can I be myself? Think about that for a moment. I am going to visit the people who are supposed to love me unconditionally and I have to ask Can I Be Myself? What are the conditions of my return? How much do I have to pretend to be straight, cisgender, non-transgressive in order to receive this love? Then we circle back to the initial question… is it worth it?

And what are the risks involved in not participating in family festivus? The risk of rejection is equally real no matter which we choose. Does not going home mean missing the things we do love about the season? Do I choose to avoid my drunkle and risk missing my grandmother for her last year? Will I lose what financial, material, or emotional support I do get? And what will I do with myself? For many of us, the weight of being alone for the holidays seems heavier than the weight of family pressure right up until the moment we remember why we left in the first place.

And that is the crux right there. The Catch-22 of going home to risk being miserable or staying away to risk being miserable.

I’m a solution-focused kinda guy and this is one of the most frustrating places to be. When there isn’t an obvious solution to the problem. Move on to Queering the Holidays Part 2 for thoughts on how to move through the season with grace while minimizing risk and opening up to joy.

*All comments sections should come with content warnings. DO NOT read them if you’re feeling the least bit fragile!