Trans Day of Remembrance 2017

 

So, it’s TDoR, and there’s really nothing for me to add to the conversation. TDoR is not about me. It’s about trans women of color, it’s about poor trans people, it’s about the trans people that are visible in their daily lives. It’s about the most vulnerable among us , and those that suffer because of their vulnerability.

 

I have no words, just sorrow and hope and commitment to do what I can to support my trans siblings.

 

I’d like to share these obituaries with you. Remember them. Say their names. Honor them as best we can. And may next year be less deadly.

 

http://www.thefader.com/2017/10/15/trans-memorial-obituaries

 

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Some October Readings

And here it is! As we head to the end of October (Happy Halloween!), I’d like to share with you some of the things I’ve read over the month – questions of self-care, creativity, and writing. All good reads. I promise.

 

7 self-care strategies for dismantling the patriarchy

http://www.bombilore.com/la-loba/2017/3/23/7-self-care-strategies-for-dismantling-the-patriarchy

 

“We must refuse to let our worth be defined by what we do, even as there is so much that needs to be done.  When approached from this perspective, we can recognize that the very fact of caring for ourselves is in itself a revolutionary act.”

 

Creativity under Trump

 

2017, Word Counts and Writing Process

https://whatever.scalzi.com/2017/10/02/2017-word-counts-and-writing-process/

 

“Why am I talking about this right now? Basically, because I know it’s not just me. I know a lot of writers have seen their process take a hit here in 2017. It’s hard to focus when the world is on fire, and with novelists in particular, I suspect that sometimes it’s hard to focus when you’ve got the suspicion that your fiction is almost frivolous in the context of what’s going on right now.”

 

Writer John Scalzi nails why it’s so hard to be creative under Trump

https://www.themarysue.com/john-scalzi-writing/

 

“While I’m sure we’ll see—are already seeing—art in reaction and refutation of Trump, I know that I’m currently not in the mood to give him any more of my reduced energies. If I’m able to write creatively at all now, I want to write about people with magical powers, or people traveling through time, to a world that’s not our own.”

 

LGBTQ History can be found in everyone’s past

https://www.lgbtqnation.com/2017/10/lgbtq-history-can-found-everyones-past/

 

“The lives, stories, and histories of LGBATIQ people have been intentionally hidden by socially dominant individuals and groups through neglect, deletions, erasures, omissions, bans, censorship, distortions, alterations, trivialization, change of pronouns signifying gender, and by other unauthorized means.”

 

Ace tropes: Cis-ace & Trans-allo duo

https://asexualagenda.wordpress.com/2017/10/16/ace-tropes-cis-ace-trans-allo-duo/

 

“Many (though not all) of the stories which use the cis-ace/trans-allo trope contain problematic ace representation and/or problematic trans representation. For example. For example, most of the cis-aces are presented as being completely flawless in how they handle trans issues, and the trans allos are usually presented as being just as flawless in handling asexuality.”

Theory: Passive Performance

tl;dr Passive performance is a theory of performance which accepts that gender in Western society is interpreted through a binary lens and so refuses to engage with the practice of manipulation that would reinforce the gender binary.

 

Untitled
Photographs by audience members, you can see them all here

 

If you can’t tell, the past few months have been a transition for this blog. As I have been moving out of an educational setting into an attempted professional one, I have been finishing up my reflections on my course, tying up some loose ends I’ve wanted to discuss for a while, and am now repositioning myself as someone outside of an institution. Ouf.

As part of that, I am adding a more theoretical component to this blog. My art is deeply linked with an artistic and academic theory-building. It is an important part of who I am and how I make. So, I intend to start monthly discussions of theory I am developing and try to demonstrate how it informs my work. These may be a little bit longer and more academically inclined than my more personal writing, but I hope I can still make it accessible to anyone who is interested.

I’m going to start with the theories I developed for my independent project, “Construction Zone”, and  we’re going to start with passive performance because it’s a great way to just nip the inevitable Judith Butler tangent in the bud before it happens.

Performativity

“Performativity” was developed by Judith Butler, very well-known in gender theory (and quite often strongly hated by trans people, I can’t say I love her at all). She uses the term of “self-stylization” to describe how individuals build their gender, as opposed to having gender as an innate, essential trait (1990/2004, p. 94). More interestingly, she discusses how interpretation is part of this construction. Someone’s gender is as much about how it is perceived and interpreted through social constraints as how it is presented. From there, it is possible for someone to manipulate another’s perception of their gender. We can make choices to navigate and control the limitations of gender interpretation.

However, an unavoidable limitation in Western society to gender interpretation is the Gender Binary (ew). Butler suggests that a nonbinary gender is impossible, because gender is interpreted by society and society only sees two genders (Butler, 1987/2004). I’m, of course, a nonbinary person sitting here and going “how the hell do I exist then?” and that’s kind of where the whole theory falls apart.

Performativity is an extremely flawed concept (I highly recommend reading Julia Serano’s “Performance Piece” and “Julia Serano on Judith Butler”  which both discuss Butler and the ways she’s been misinterpreted in a sympathetically critical light), but it is useful because it recognizes the role of interpretation in gender presentation and allows for us to consider the possibility of manipulation.

Passive performance/non-performance

So, if nonbinary people aren’t recognized in Western society, how can a nonbinary person manipulate others perceptions of them in order to perform a nonbinary gender?

The usual way this happens is by “mixing” gender presentations – drag, not-quite-drag, someone in a suit and high heels, cute boys in dresses, etcetcetc. The person takes bits and pieces from each side of the gender binary until they’re significantly “between” enough to not belong in either category.

While I recognize this does work to an extent, I question its long-term impact. Simply put, this manipulation is completely dependent on the Gender Binary, so it is still, in many ways, a binary expression, just in between the two points on a sliding scale instead of in the polar opposites. It reinforces the Gender Binary just as much as it challenges it.

My first reaction when faced with this dilemma was to say “fine then, I won’t perform anything at all”. But, the bad news is that, no matter how much you try not to perform, people and society will keep interpreting anyways. So, an absolute non-performance is impossible. However we can consider a response in terms of passivity instead of negativity.

Passive performance is refusing to actively manipulate interpretation. We cannot keep people from interpreting, but we can refuse to take part in the process. This is not something I do every day, manipulating people’s perceptions of me is as much about survival as it is about comfort, but it is effective in staged and presented performance. As soon as you make something a “performance”, questions of performativity and performance and interpretation become exaggerated because the manipulation and the interpretation processes become conscious as opposed to learned, subconscious behavior dictated by society. Removing a significant part of it, the manipulation that pressures the audience to interpret in specific ways, opens up possibilities for the audience to interpret, re-interpret, and consider their interpretations in a different way.

In practice

I developed this theory directly for “Construction Zone” which was, because of the passivity, an installation. Since I couldn’t manipulate the audience’s interpretations of me (and, instead, invited the audience to make their interpretation without my input as part of the installation through the use of the odious genderbread person’s scales), I couldn’t “perform” in any way: I couldn’t speak, dance, move, even my “costume” was designed to turn me into the genderbread person instead of an attempt to manipulate people the way I do in my everyday clothing choices. The night before, I had still not decided what to do with my hat, a particular characteristic that most people attribute to me (and I have purposefully encouraged, a form of manipulation). I eventually decided not to wear it, but to use it to hold the clothespins which the audience used to interpret me, presenting it in the space, but leaving it up to the audience’s interpretation, just as I was presenting myself. As for me, I simply sat, passively finger knitting (building the social constructions, that’s another theory topic), not engaging the audience members as they (mis)gendered me.

I also included written texts. These encompassed anything from my frustration at cis people to reflections on my own gender to discussions about the theories driving the work. You could argue that the texts were an attempt at manipulating my audience. However, they were placed passively in the room, similar to the hat. I did not have any power over whether or not the audience chose to read the texts while they had the ultimate decision-making power in terms of what they got out of the installation or what they learned or decided about me. I’m a control freak, so this level of passivity was terrifying and made me realize exactly how active I am in manipulating my audience’s perceptions in most of the work I create.

I’m not sure if this is a particular theory I’m going to return to immediately, as my interests are currently more movement-based, but I do think it flags up a lot of the issues that come with being a nonbinary performer. We cannot avoid binary interpretations of our performances, but we also don’t have to actively engage with the gender binary in order to perform. There is room for challenging the audience without having to reinforce damaging stereotypes of gender. That’s a particularly optimistic thought worth exploring further and could open up so many fascinating inquiries into performance.

Works Cited

Butler, J. (2004). Bodily inscriptions, performative subversions (1990). In Salih, S. (Ed), The Judith Butler reader (pp. 90-118). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Butler, J. (2004). Variations on sex and gender: Beauvoir, Wittig, Foucault (1987). In Salih, S. (Ed), The Judith Butler reader (pp. 21-38). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Some thoughts on Non-Americans commenting on US politics

Tl;dr There’s a strange sense of superiority that comes from Western Europeans when they discuss US politics. It’s frustrating, misleading, and unproductive.

 

Ok, folks. This is a hard one. And it has nothing to do with my usual themes. But it’s something I’ve been struggling with for a while, so, strap in, prepare to be a little uncomfortable, be ready to challenge me, and read on.

 

I’m American. I grew up in the Boston area and then went and spent five years in London, England. As a language student, I’ve also spent a decent amount of time in France and Finland and have a couple of slightly-more-than-acquaintances from that communal experience of spending too much time in a hostel. Basically, what I’m trying to say is that, even though I’m American, my contact with the world has, most recently, been through Western Europe and Western Europeans, including England/the English.

 

I was in London when Obama was re-elected. I made a pie to celebrate, with a happy face, for one of my new London friends. I argued politics with my flatmate, an American exchange student who had cluelessly voted for Romney. And kind of forgave her? I argued politics with basically anyone in my vicinity. I tried to explain the electoral college (I’m not sure if it’s possible to succeed at that). It was a good time to be an American in London.

 

The general sentiment I got from the people around me, my fellow Londoners was, “Your country sucks, but hey, glad to see it’s not a huge disaster and will probably not come eat us up anytime soon” and “Your country is not as good as ours in terms of XYZ issue, but it’s going ok at the moment.”

 

And it was this particular moral superiority that I would get from almost any European when we discussed politics. No matter what, Europe was always slightly better than the US on all issues. I was fine with it, as long as the US was vaguely salvageable, and I was young and overzealous and hated my country, but there were also signs of how this was a problem.

 

The one moment that still sticks in my mind is a planning meeting for a trans discussion. The trans rep at my school proposed a number of issues to be considered. Young, overzealous me, thinking about two trans women’s hunger strikes in prison that I had been reading about right as I left the US, looked at the list and went “well, what about prisons?” I was assured by everyone present that that was a purely American issue, things like that didn’t happen in the UK. And then, a few years later, names like Vikki Thompson  were being uttered around the London trans community, and my heart ached in horror and confusion because I had wanted so much to believe that the UK was better, not just different. I mentioned the original discussion to one of my now trans friends in London recently, and they looked at me in bafflement and more or less said  that those people had no idea what they were talking about.

 

It’s a cover. When someone is too busy going “oh, well, we’re better than over there”, it becomes so much harder to see that the same things are happening around them, just in different ways.

 

Once it became clear that France’s reaction to terrorism was to increase racism, once political figures in Finland were making openly anti-immigrant comments, once Scotland remained stuck to the UK (poor thing) and the UK itself started hurtling down the path to Brexit, I started to notice how much more this superiority was grating on me.

 

See, it’s not just that the US is a mess (it is) and a really scary country to have around when you’re not protected by it (because, well, we’re allowed to have nuclear weapons, it’s everyone else that’s not, *sigh*), it’s this sense of “well, at least we’re not that bad” coupled with, “well, you’re American, so you have to be on and prepared to care about this at all times of the day” while they studiously ignore whatever their own country is up to.

 

The way Europeans talk about the US, it  makes their country sound like a utopia. I had someone explain to me once that there was no racism in their country. At all. I found myself (and still find myself) regretting not saving all the articles I had read over the years that told me the exact opposite. And this person then found it completely acceptable to send me pointed facebook messages about American politics in the middle of the night and then be insulted when I didn’t respond.

 

Some of this, I know, comes from just not understanding the way the US works. States’ rights? The electoral college? The fact that the driving age is different in Every Fucking State? That’s completely baffling for even the best US politics hobbyist. And hell, not even a lot of Americans understand (I wouldn’t claim to understand the whole thing myself).

 

And news of the US is publicized a lot more readily in Europe than European news is publicized in the US. It’s easy to look at the big, dramatic news coming out of the US and go “yup, it’s a bunch of clueless heathens over there.” Everything looks like a giant disaster when you have oceans and time zones and knowledge gaps in the way, even when it’s the same thing happening in different ways right next door.

 

Some of this is the Americans’ fault. In particular, liberal Americans that like Europe have a habit of looking towards Western Europe (especially Norda/Scandinavia) and going “oh! They have everything figured out, it’s so much better over there!” (think of how one of Bernie Sanders’ big selling points was Scandinavian-style socialism, or how obsessed we are with Finnish education, when, in fact, some discussions I’ve had with Finnish parents have shown me it might be a good system, but it’s far from perfect). We look at our medical bills and then look at the UK’s National Health Service and go “oh my! Free healthcare! That’s amazing”,  completely disregarding the way the NHS has been failing due to lack of funding. So, it’s easy for a European to look at whatever particular thing is not quite working out at the moment, take a look at the Americans talking about how great it is, and go, “well, the Americans are still amazed by XYZ thing, so we might not be doing amazing, but at least we’re doing better than them.”

 

And it’s hard to fight that. Even now, the first facebook commentary I usually see on American news is from a European, making a pointed, generalized comment about how all Americans aren’t aware enough of their own current events.

 

Here’s the thing: The US is hard right now. So is Europe. It takes a lot less energy to look at the politics happening an ocean away, process the emotions, make jokes, and have commentary. It was easier for me to process all news when I lived in London because I had physical distance from the US and distance from the UK in terms of not being a citizen. But, especially for any of us that fit one of the groups being targeted by our current “administration”, living this is sometimes enough.

 

No. The US isn’t perfect. It’s currently a shitshow. But so are a lot of other countries, regardless of amount of shitshow. We all have our own shit to live and deal with and it’s hard. We need to learn from each other’s countries and support each other, especially when things are so hairy. We can’t do that if there’s some kind of unspoken competition to not be the worst.

 

(I end this by quietly side-eyeing myself and my fellow Bostonians for turning quite similar attitudes towards other states. We’re really not as great as we like to think…I mean, I still like to think it sometimes…)

Choosing to be That Trans Person

tl;dr I use to worry about making everything about my gender, but I’ve realized that gender theory is something I enjoy and that my choice to be presently and actively trans in a space can have a huge impact for other trans people. 

As I was leaving my dance program, a very well-meaning teacher gave me some convoluted advice.

 

What she was trying to say was completely fair, it boiled down to “be more confident, let people know how great you are when you walk into a room, not after months of knowing you”.

 

This, of course, was completely spot-on advice that I have heard before and need to keep hearing because I’m working on it…slowly.

 

However, what made her advice convoluted instead of straightforward and true was that it was tangled up with the very cis logic of “you don’t have to make everything about your gender”.

 

For the record, this was one of the most supportive (possibly the most) teachers I had all year, definitely the most clued-in and this came after she had already told me some of the changes she was making to her teaching after having had me as a student.

 

And yet, I barely made anything about my gender in her class. I sent the same email to every teacher asking them not to misgender me and walked into class completely prepared to not bring it up because I really didn’t feel safe making a fuss in front of a bunch of classmates I had only just met. She was the one who sought me out to apologise for misgendering me after a few instances and took it on herself to do better. When I realized that she could do better, I did start expecting more from her than my other teachers. I don’t see that as a bad thing and it didn’t take away from my ability to learn something completely (ok, somewhat) unrelated to my gender.

 

This is something I’ve struggled a lot with when it comes to art. No one wants to be That Trans Person. You know, the one that never ever shuts up about their particular brand of transness. The first piece I created was, more or less, a coming out piece. The next piece, was about being trans. And the next. And then I tried to create something else and it didn’t work. This year, I went into choreography class silencing my trans voice because I didn’t want to be That Trans Person. I don’t want to talk about my gender all the time because I worry that it makes me a one-sided caricature.

 

Except, I also really enjoy gender theory. I have good trans friends that I can sit down and hash through ridiculously academic nonsense about gender in ways that apply to our life. It’s not for every trans person, but, for me, it is the best fun ever. I love the challenge of trying to meet abstract, academic concepts with artistic practice with practical, everyday solutions. I love being able to analyse gender on my terms (not Judith Butler’s terms) and to present gender on my terms.

 

And yeah, probably some of this comes because of how gender has a very strong impact on my life. But it’s also just my interest. It’s who I am.

 

And why shouldn’t I be interested in something that affects me personally? It’s not a coincidence when women get involved in feminist studies or when the growing number of queer theory classes are advocated for by queer students. The best scholars in a field are not always the ones that look at it most objectively, they are the ones that understand the real world consequences of their theories.

 

And hell, this is art, there’s absolutely no reason to ever look at art objectively. In my opinion (of course, it’s all subjective here), the best art is personal and honest and it is the rigor behind its creation, not its objectivity that decides whether or not the work is successful.

 

Here’s the other thing (and I’ve talked about this a bit, but still). Yes, I can walk into a classroom, let myself be misgendered, be read as cis and “not make things about my gender”. Sometimes I choose to do that because some battles are best left fought at another time. However, there are two times when I refuse to do this – when I am in a position where I am a role model, and when I am a long-term dance project/training/situation.

 

I worked at a summer camp last summer and I was scared and I didn’t come out immediately. I thought I would just take six weeks of my summer, pretend to be a girl so I could do a job I wanted to do, and I knew it was something I knew I could do. And then, two weeks into camp, I found out that two of the campers were trans and had already been bullied while I was busy hiding and looking in a completely different direction. Could I have stopped the bullying? Probably not on my own. But what if I had been out from the beginning? What if I had asked the director more explicitly why there hadn’t been a single lgbt-related workshop during orientation? What if I made it clear to those two campers that they were not alone?

 

Those kids’ struggles were on me.

 

It is my responsibility to make my dancing and my art as much about my gender as I can because that’s how I tell younger trans dancers that they aren’t alone. That’s how I make unfriendly spaces slightly more welcoming to the next trans person that enters it. As a teacher, it’s how I show my students that bullying and discrimination are completely unacceptable in my presence and it’s how I tell trans students that I will do my best to keep them safe.

 

So yes, there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to be the one-trick pony. I don’t want to be a single-dimensional artist only ranting and raving about gender until everyone’s ears are sore. And, I’d like to think my art is a little more complex by now.

 

But I will do it if I have to. And I enjoy doing it, so what’s the problem?

Forgetting

By comparison with music, dance performance remains largely unbound by ever-present libraries of the historical canon. It easily forgets its own history and is therefore constantly in the process of reinventing itself, recast each time in a new body for a new decade.

From The Choreographer’s Handbook by Jonathan Burrows, p. 199

 

Since I’ve read this particular quote, way back in December, it has been sitting with me pretty strongly. I find it very hopeful.

 

Even as  feel like I’m bashing my head against institutions and social structures in vain, there is a process of forgetting. There is always a chance to reinvent dance in a more positive, inclusive light. We can always conveniently forget the discriminatory, oppressive bits and rework and rework and reform and recreate until dance is something worth showing to the world.

 

What came before is important. History is necessary. Modern dance in particular is rooted in feminism, something I have trouble remembering when I look at how the patriarchy has co-opted and controlled its development. But we don’t even have to use Martha Graham’s exact form of feminism to stay true to her history. We can change. We can become. We can grow. We can be as revolutionary as she was in our own time.

 

Let’s reinvent what counts as the canon for dance works, because it isn’t even invented yet.

 

Let’s recreate dance in our image.

 

Let’s reinvent the meaning of dance to include all dancers, and to stand against the hegemony and the social structures that pit us against each other.

 

Let’s value the power to forget because it allows us to become so much more.

Small changes

tl;dr Even while art is not always the fastest or most wide-reaching way to change the world, its impact on the individual scale can be powerful. 

 

I’ve been going through a period of disillusionment with art. Not terribly, I’ve just been thinking more about what art can’t do than what it can. No matter how many times we say that art is going to change the world, the fact is that we need a little bit more to create real, permanent change. That’s not a fault of art, it’s just practicality.

 

And sometimes, when I think about that too hard, I start thinking that maybe I should go do something a little more productive than making weird dance.

 

But there’s one thing that reminds me of why I do what I do, why I make the work that I do, and why I’m not going to stop in order to do something that might create change on a bigger, faster scale.

 

I’ve had a number of people approach me after seeing or experiencing some of my work and come out to me. I have even been the first person some people have come out to.

 

That’s a huge honour.

 

Now, coming out is a very complex thing and I don’t say this to mean “I’ve encouraged these people to embrace their true identity and share it with the world”, because I don’t believe that that’s necessarily what coming out is.

 

What it tells me is that I’ve created work that shows me to be a person worth coming out to. It means I created work so meaningful that my audience was moved to share a piece of themselves with me. It means that I fully succeeded in sharing myself with my audience.

 

It means I reached someone.

 

Most of the people that come  out to me are cis gay people, a couple bisexual ones. It’s not  usually trans people (usually the trans people that see my work are ones I already know and we have very different conversations about the work because of that). It’s people that see enough of our shared experience to connect with what I’m saying and have something to say back, but are also able to then reflect on their own actions and their own place in our community.

 

My work is allowing my audience to experience queer solidarity, to see a trans person both echo and challenge their experiences, to be part of our whole. And these people then trust me. And we can have a dialogue, in which I gain as much from them as they do from me.

 

It’s building connections between people and communities, which allow us to grow stronger together.

 

Recently, as part of my course, I created an installation in which, among other things, I asked my audience to write or draw their gender and display their response.* I got to do the exercise twice – once while the project was in development and once in the actual thing. The responses were breathtaking, from both cis and trans people. It was a way for everyone to take a moment and think about how weird and incomprehensible gender really was, and my audience took the opportunity with vigour – I got brilliant abstract images and images of people, I got responses ranging from “of course I’m this gender” to “I have no clue what this is, aaaaah!”

 

All of these responses were so honest and so personal, I was touched that so many people (including at least one of my assessors!) felt safe enough, curious enough, and open enough to share that with me and their fellow audience members.

 

How is that not going to change the world?

*Videos and photos of the project can be found here