tl;dr the most important aspect of trans activism in dance is about reframing the idea that trans dancers are an exception
Part of writing this blog is about finding a form of activism that works for me and is effective. There’s a lot of conversations going on about what activism is, how do we go about doing it, how do we raise the voices of the oppressed, how do we create safe spaces. There’s protests and movements and campaigns and all are incredibly valuable.
Not all of them are quite my thing, though.
Art is, of course, activism. To the people that believe that art can be apolitical, I call bullshit. “Apolitical” art is just another form of being political – by refusing to engage, it complicitly supports power structures. That’s very political and dangerously powerful.
As a dancer, as a choreographer, my artistic practice is as much about activism as it is about art, maybe even more so.
But I am working within an art form whose community tends not to recognize my existence. Dance is transphobic. Dance does not see trans people. Dance does not recognize me.
How can I be an activist artist when the first hurdle I face is long before I even get to the creative process? When the audience of my work has to be dancers before it can be greater society? When my constant refrain is simply, “I’m here, I exist”?
What I’m trying to say is that the current main models for activism, even artistic activism, don’t quite work in my situation.
When I describe what goes on in a dance class to a non-dancing trans person, their immediate response is “what the hell? That needs to be challenged!” But how do I challenge a homophobic side statement and still get to do the exercise and get the technical training I need? How can I challenge transphobia in dance and still get the experience I need to be a dancer?
I quite recently had a brief (8 minute) conversation with the American dance festival. I had contacted ADF, saying I’d be interested in attending in future years (couldn’t this year), but was very worried about the current situation in North Carolina (stupid bathroom bills, that’s another rant) and was wondering if they were putting any measures in place to ensure the safety of trans dancers who may attend the festival.
I didn’t learn much in the conversation. Mainly because they refused to look at it as a general situation, instead constantly referring my one situation – what they will do to make me feel safe, not trans people in general. I was an exception. I asked about past trans people attending the festival: “Oh yes, transgenders have attended in the past,” I was told, “we’ve never had any transgender issues. At least we haven’t been told about any. Let me tell you about some of the completely unrelated bullying that happened in our youth program and how we handled that.” Interesting stuff, but not what I needed to know.
When I asked about gender neutral facilities, I was informed that they weren’t sure if there were any, but people were welcome to use whichever bathroom they felt most comfortable with (points to them) and, if I attended the festival, I should get in contact with them, so they can create a system that works for me.
It was the experience I have in most dance spaces – dancers really want to be open and inclusive, but they’re not able to make the link between one single trans dancer and the idea that trans people dance. They’re ready to accommodate trans people on a case by case basis, but trans dancers are still an exception to the general rule. More importantly, they don’t see a trans dancer asking for accommodations as a sign that the dance structures are lacking in trans support, they see their willingness to accommodate a single trans dancer as a sign that their dance community is open and welcoming.
Dance cannot accommodate trans dancers until it stops seeing trans dancers as exceptions. Yes, I have found a way to dance. I have found supportive teachers and mentors. But the refrain in everything I do in discussing trans dancing is “I am not the only one, this is only my experience, there are more, you can’t stop here.”
Trans activists in dance can’t just speak from experience, we can’t just ask for what we need, we need to constantly introduce the fact that we are not exceptions. We need to create spaces where being trans is a norm. We need cis allies to trans people to take this simple idea on as a motto.
Trans activism in dance is quiet. It’s not a question of representation (although trans dancers have very little representation or role models). It’s not a question of activism. It’s not about using our art to change society. It’s just a quiet refrain of “Hi, I’m trans, I dance, I exist, I am not the only one.”
It’s about taking advantage of every opportunity to re-open the discussion. HB2 in the same state as the American Dance Festival? Let’s talk about trans dancers. A show not offering gender neutral changing areas backstage? Let’s talk about trans dancers. Another all-male cast of a piece originally choreographed for women? Let’s talk about trans dancers. Biological essentialist anatomy teacher? Let’s talk about trans dancers. Ballet teacher giving extra jumps combinations to the men in their classes? Let’s talk about trans dancers.
The transphobia in dance works in microaggressions. And yes, these suck. Sometimes to the point that I want to play ostrich and hide my head in a hole forever. But each one is an opportunity. A moment to say “well….actually…” It’s a chance to reframe dance narratives to include trans experiences and identities. A chance to remind cis dancers that trans dancers exist and we are not an exception.
That’s tiring work. And I don’t always get to see the results. But I know it’s making an impact. I can see it in every single person that takes the time to ask a question. In every single moment a cis dancer likes something I wrote about transness on facebook. In the simple fact that I know that, now, the director of ADF has had an eight minute conversation with a trans person to think about and reflect on. I don’t expect to see ADF suddenly supporting trans people. But maybe when I contact them in six months and say I’m interested in attending, they will be able to tell me for sure whether or not there are any gender neutral toilets. It’s tiny. But it’s a step.
My activism isn’t big or flashy. It’s not strong challenges to blatant injustice. It’s the simply act of existing. In a community. It’s about the fact that my survival is inherently linked to the survival of other trans people. It’s about recognizing that my existence is both part of and against the current structures of dance and taking advantage of that.
I’m here. I exist. I’m not the only one.