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?