Last weekend, November the 20th, was Transgender Day of Remembrance. This is one of the more widely observed holidays, some earlier examples being International Trans Day of Visibility on March 31st as well as Trans Awareness Week, Nov. 13-19th. Trans Day of Remembrance (TDoR) is meant to memorialize those lost to us at the violent hands of transphobia. I find that after a week of engaging with our shared history that a day meant for reflection is entirely necessary. We light our candles and remember those who were taken from us before their time and those who are no longer here, their stories seemingly lost to time.
This year, however, I celebrated this usually harrowing holiday with a table-read at an up-and-coming LGBTQ/BIPOC focused theatre company by the name of Pride Owl Productions. I know one of the heads of the company, Kya James, personally. I was beyond thrilled when I saw what show we would be going over - Cercle Hermaphroditos by Shualee Cook, a trans playwright. The story itself follows a few trans women or ‘fairies’/’androgynes’ of the time as well as a trans man or ‘gynander’ on the hunt to beat the system around them and find a wife among them to live as their true selves together.
The play is inspired by true events and true lives which makes it all the more enticing. Jennie June, for example, did in fact write a book on her life ‘among the fairies’ in 1918 under the title The Autobiography of an Androgyne. It was one of the first-ever autobiographies published by a transgender or gender nonconforming individual in America. It is amazing to think about the stories of all of our trans ancestors carried before we ever even referred to ourselves as such. These stories are also unfortunately seemingly rare to come by. This is not for lack of material but rather lack of space, perhaps even a lack of consideration.
Every reader in the room on the 20th wanted to either be in this show or see it as an enthusiastic audience member. There aren't enough stories out there by us, for us. We’ve all seen attempts at something like this in attempts to be inclusive but we have rarely seen it presented so smoothly. The difference between an attempt and a success when it comes to this matter is listening and encouraging trans people’s creative voices. We are the experts when it comes to our own stories. We must sit down and discuss the nuances and pitfalls in our own work. It is only after that base work is finished - and done in complete collaboration with the communities one wishes to showcase in their work - that a company can hope to move forward with a successful and truly inclusive vision. The conversation between allies and those within the community must flow freely.
The trap that most well-meaning creators fall into when dealing with the unfamiliar territory of an authentic trans experience is focusing almost entirely on tragedy. Not every story has to be about trauma or sex or tokenism. Some stories can and should just be. I recall one of the other readers exclaiming in a sort of laughing shock, “We laugh too! We love too! I promise!”
Cercle itself has these almost sort of explanatory scenes for the audience regarding this world that these men and women live in at this time in American history while also having very intimate scenes for trans people to see themselves in. The characters of Jennie June and Plum Gardner both offer such gorgeous think pieces in the latter half of the show, delving into the ideas of imposed gender roles and platonic-vs-romantic love within a queer lens. There is also great humor within these lines! At several different points during the reading, we had to pause and get a round of laughter out before the next could say their line. The circumstances presented as comedic have a timeless sense about them that well compliments the more intense conversations taking place.
That said, one of the more poignant examples of a scene meant to connect to a questioning audience features Ambrose - the trans potential groom-to-be - and his cisgender brother named Bertram who cannot understand why his ‘sister’ would fall into such a ‘bad crowd’ Bertram confronts Ambrose quite a few times before they have the chance to discuss how Ambrose feels about the track of his own life. Ambrose has an incredible moment where he plainly states the stakes; “You don’t understand because the worst prison you can think of is a building with bars on the windows. At least everyone in there agrees that you’re miserable! But this horrid invisible trap where the key to my entire life is about to be handed to a man who I didn’t choose and do not trust and I’m supposed to be happy about it? Let him lock up my true self forever and never speak of it again? You will absolutely lose me that way, Bertram.” These brothers have such a gripping relationship that I found myself choked up reading through.
Bertram also makes the lovely acquaintance of Laureline Reeves; a maternal and compassionate trans woman, who shows him the expansive truth of their existence. Laureline has faced violence for daring to be herself, even if it’s only behind closed doors. Upon revealing this to Bertram who apologizes promptly, Laureline tells him, “You don’t have to be sorry. You just have to be the exception.” He tells her about growing up in a society that tells men to close up their emotions, his heart “feels like a weakness”. This conditioning has even damaged his relationship with his sibling, but not permanently. Not if he chooses to listen, as he so desperately wants to do by the end of the first act. The scenes with Bertram serve well as both a general explanation of a trans experience and the reflection of the society that tells us what we should be every waking second. It is not just the past; it is now. These scenes and characters are relevant now but they’ve always been relevant; think of your elders, yourself, your students, your future. One would be able to identify them within our stories such as these.
One such example discussed at the table was the idea of taking & getting creative with old school or classic American plays. This could be a great introduction for people who are both new to the idea of queerness & questioning the queer identity and those who fall under that umbrella themselves. Think of the possibilities! Cast blindly and with reckless abandon. Let the actors you work with paint new pictures of what this classic work could be - cast a rowdy nonbinary Mercutio, a Titania built like a starter, let Nick Calloway be trans, make your Creon one hell of a queen. Where there was once complacency, replace it all with uncontainable fun. This variety, this diversity, could very well be a key part of the puzzle of making our work all the more real and impactful. Not only will your company members prosper with the freedom to be as they are, but your audiences will also be able to feel that joy for themselves and better understand this grand, mystical thing we call the theatre.
The celebration of trans joy in the media will never match the trans joy I feel when I am surrounded by my brothers and sisters; siblings from other equally strange and beautiful galaxies I have not yet discovered. But I believe we can get quite close. And oh, I cannot wait to see it all! Every outing, meetup, and session brings me closer to this ever-extending family and for that, I am eternally grateful. I aim to be as well versed as possible in such celebrations, onstage and off, for the rest of my days. There is always more work to be done and together, in true collaboration, we can make it joyful and fulfilling work.
I wanted to thank Pride Owl Productions as well as the Belmont Collective in Dallas for providing such a lovely environment for art and discussion to flourish. I eagerly look forward to hearing more from both parties and you should too.
You can also join me this week in listening to these various trans activists discuss the various avenues of trans-justice on Spotify! There is no better time than the present to work on our literacy in this matter. We will be in excellent company - Laverne Cox, Alok, Jameela Jamil, Shon Faye, Jeffery Masters and Jonathan Van Ness & more. The only way theatre will be able to continue to thrive is if we make it accessible to all. That includes learning all we can about our trans, nonbinary, two spirit, and queer siblings in the efforts to make our spaces safe for them to creatively shine.