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?

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Dance is fun

 tl;dr Dance is fun. There’s no point in dancing if it isn’t.

October 2016

I had a conversation with a friend once, which went along the lines of:

Me: Sometimes I need the reminder that the point of dance is that it’s fun

Friend: Really? Isn’t the point of dance hard work?

And, of course, it made me think (like most things do).

First of all – why the hell can’t hard work be fun? Yes. Dance is a lot of hard work. Even going out dancing once a month as a social activity requires a certain amount of commitment and energy that doesn’t come in many other domains. It requires brain work, cooperative work, physical work, time management skills (sometimes I think we overlook this, but, trust me, anyone who has ever danced probably understands exactly how quickly dance can eat into a schedule), and a whole lot of energy. It’s hard.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. Sometimes, doing something hard makes it more fun. It’s like how once I started playing threes!, 2048 was kind of boring and definitely not as stimulating. I mean, I’m terrible at threes!, but that’s the point – I had to work at it while 2048 is just easy coasting.

But I get the sense of an obsession with hard work without the fun from a lot dancers. There’s this idea that dancers must always be working at their maximum and overcoming impossible challenges and never relaxing. And there’s this idea that, if a dancer is having fun, they aren’t working hard enough.

I mean…seriously?

Having fun doesn’t devalue work. On the contrary, it makes the work more valuable because it’s so much easier to do something when you enjoy it.

And I can’t help but question dancers that aren’t enjoying themselves: what’s the point of doing something that’s so much work if you don’t enjoy it?

I mean, we’re talking a career in which most professionals barely get paid and have to have a second job (and third and fourth and fifth job, I’m not kidding). If dancers aren’t getting money for their work, why are we still doing it? Working harder? Hell, if hard work was the only reason I was dancing, I’d quit and try to go into banking or something.

There is no point to dance if it is not fun and enjoyable. And, while there are always times in which a specific class or situation isn’t fun, because that is how life is, I believe that if the HARD WORK starts outweighing the fun, it’s time for a re-evaluation of why I am dancing.

Good thing I’m still having a lot of fun at the moment.

 

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.

I did this

tl;dr despite teachers that insult me in their congratulations or take credit for my hard work, I am celebrating my successes as mine

It’s amazing how often teachers want to take credit for their student’s success.

 

It’s amazing how many of the compliments I’ve received from teachers in the past year have been couched either in insult or a self-congratulatory, “I did this for you”.

 

I’ve actually had teachers say “I was surprised you managed to accomplish anything”, as if their lack of faith in me, after having known me for a month, was to be expected and not a horrifying insult.

 

Here’s the thing I wish I could tell to every single one of my teachers this year: I was amazing before I came to this program. I was a good artist, a thoughtful person, and used to working rigorously. I entered this program believing that you would treat me like I was competent and, instead, you treated me like I was completely clueless. I appeared clueless to you because you weren’t looking for anything else. My success on this program came from the moment I chose to ignore you and to work on my own practice.

 

I did this.

 

In fact, my blind trust in my teachers’ experience and knowledge made me a worse artist for a long period of time. So many of my teachers told me I “found my voice” during their program, as if it was their careful guidance that helped me there.

 

Anyone who’s seen my work from before I entered the program would know that I actually already had a pretty strong artistic voice. I entered the program because I wanted to develop and stregnthen it. Instead, I lost it. In what I thought was an attempt to learn, I took my teachers’ advice too much to heart and I lost my artistic integrity.

 

I did that.

 

I regret it.

 

But what that experience did, beyond all else, was strengthen my conviction in what I do.

 

I know how to work. I know my voice. I know what to say and how to say it. I love the rigorous process of exploration and creation.

 

I had all of that before I started.

 

Now I know I have all of that.

 

Teachers don’t get to insult me for that. And they definitely don’t get to take credit for my hard work.

 

I was the one who succeeded.

 

 

 

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

Trump, military service, trans people…why this matters

tl;dr Due to the way military is linked to American society, a certain idiot’s twitter attempt to ban trans people from the military could have some pretty terrible effects, so we really need to think about how we support trans people.

[cw: Trump, transphobia, mentions of trans violence]

I’m opposed to trans people serving in the military.

 

I’m opposed to anyone serving in the military.

 

I am completely and utterly opposed to the military-industrial complex and the way military has embedded itself in our culture. Military service comes as much from coercion and oppression as it does from choice. Probably more so. Military service promotes US imperialism through violent tactics.

 

There was a lot of talk about this with DADT. Some queer people opposed anything that opened doors for more people to serve in the military because of this.

 

But we have to realize that, no matter our feelings on the military, it is deeply, deeply rooted in our society and any move to explicitly keep a group of people from serving both reflects current society and will be reflected back in society.

 

I mean, there’s a reason DADT was repealed first, before DOMA.

 

Trump and his republicans have done so many unspeakable things. The possibility of an Obamacare repeal is very real and will cost so many lives (though hurrah for our current healthcare victory, let’s hope it lasts). The travel ban has denied entry to people from muslim predominant countries and, as it continues to have life and presence in our media, it propagates racist, islamophobic nonsense that is being used to justify terrible discrimination well inside our borders. This is overwhelmingly terrifying, and it’s only two of the many things happening…

 

And yet, there’s still something particularly chilling about banning military service. People have already commented to point out the huge number of trans people that serve in the military who have effectively now lost their job. That alone should be a huge warning sign.

 

But why trans people? These assholes hate everyone. Why did a certain idiot target trans people this time?

 

Because we’re the weakest, the most vulnerable, and easiest to destroy in society. The choice reflects us, our society that we have made. If someone was on a mission to remove all marginalized groups from society (not naming any names here, but…), they’d start with the weakest, get an easy win, and then move on.

 

The position of trans people in the military is already pretty fraught. It really was only just a year ago that it became explicitly clear that trans folks could serve. And before then, there were trans versions of don’t ask, don’t tell, requirements of passing (which is so gross, I can’t even comment), trans people being barred from service because gender identity disorder was in the DSM-IV as a mental illness (and gender dysphoria still is in the DSM-V). And there’s still this underlying believe that most cis people hold that trans-related health care “frivolous” and a “commodity” as opposed to an absolute necessity, so it’s easy to go “meh, don’t really want to pay for this if I don’t have to”, which is really not a way any employer should consider their potential employees, let alone the fucking military.

 

Add that to the high rates of violence against trans people. Employment discrimination. Housing discrimination. Stupid, gross bathroom bills designed to keep us out of public spaces. Inaccessible medical costs. Sexual violence. Even the fact that many shelters turn away trans women.

 

We’re talking a highly, highly vulnerable population that is already easy to “pick off”, for lack of a more polite word for what’s happening here.

 

And this new thing – banning trans people from the military is the highest form of legitimization these assholes can give to the people killing and harming my trans siblings. Whether we like it or not, it’s the highest authority and model of behavior we have in the United States. Society will follow. The idiot tweets that medical costs for trans people are a burden. That’s the beginning of a trend of all medical insurance companies to drop their funding for trans-related medical costs. That’s the beginning of employers getting away with refusing to take on trans employees because of the burdens. That’s the beginning of more murderers being able to make use of the fucking trans “panic” defense to get off after murdering another trans person.

 

It’s already happening, and now it’s going to get worse, because the military is being told to point its finger and we are Americans.

 

This should be a wake-up call for everyone. Not like we shouldn’t already be wide awake considering the context this is happening in. We need each other and we need our allies more than ever. We need to fight this. We need to put more money into protecting trans people, on both local and national levels. We need to fund the services that provide all trans-related healthcare and ensure that health insurance will cover it. We need to create job opportunities for trans people and support trans creators. We need to establish safe and affordable housing for trans people. And we need to make sure every trans person knows they aren’t alone.

 

Because we aren’t.

 

So let’s stand together and show Trump and every other fucking asshole that wants us gone that we aren’t as vulnerable as they thought. We’re not their easy win.

 

This just in: Transphobia is a conspiracy!

tl;dr a single trans person’s single success is not proof that transphobia doesn’t exist

Someone said something to me a little while ago that still has me seething. There really wasn’t anything productive I could say in the moment, other than “nope, not talking about that”, but I’m still angry, so I’m going to write about it here.

 

To set the scene: I submitted a formal complaint that vaguely implicated my choreography teacher for incompetency related to transphobia. So, when it came to my assessment, I requested that there be a second marker present for my piece simply to ensure there was fair marking.  It was thanks to an amazing friend that my request was even granted. This was already seen by some people as “special treatment”.

 

Then, my choreography was one of a small number selected to be staged, which is a Really Big Deal.

 

One of the people that was suggesting I was getting “special treatment” then said to me, “so this proves that the conspiracy you were so worried about isn’t true.”

 

What she meant: the transphobia I argued against in my complaint and my distrust of the institution as a whole and certain teachers specifically is misplaced. This place isn’t transphobic because I now had one single success.

 

Fun fact: I’m a token! I am my school’s friendly token trans person. My presence allows my school to claim greater diversity than they actually have. It does not mean that my school isn’t transphobic.

 

Another fun fact: A single success of a single trans person does not mean transphobia is over! I mean, if that was the case, transphobia in dance would have already been conquered by Sean Dorsey, the first trans choreographer to be invited to the American Dance Festival, and Sophie Rebecca, the first known trans person to take an RAD exam. Little unimportant me and my puny, single success would be insignificant. Hell, I wouldn’t have had to submit a complaint in the first place because transphobia would be over. Except, we all know that’s not true.

 

Another fun fact: One single success does not negate everything that came before it. I was lied to and silenced and manipulated consistently for almost the entire academic year. Even if there had been a proper apology (though I’ve only gotten a couple throwaway ones…kind of…and a lot of implications that I’m overreacting) those are things that don’t go away overnight and speak to deeper structures of transphobia within the institution that will take a lot of time to dig through. Putting my choreography on a stage is a surface level, showy solution that doesn’t actually fix anything besides appearance. Plus, since we didn’t get choreographer bios in the program, any audience member that didn’t know me would have no clue that the piece was created by a trans person, so it really wasn’t a success for trans people at the institution, it was my personal success.

 

Final fun fact: Tranphobia is, in fact, a fucking conspiracy. Of course it is! Suggesting that I’m a conspiracy theorist for pointing out transphobia in an attempt to invalidate my feelings is just saying the truth – this is how oppressive systems work. This is what hegemony is.

 

When we have a system in which one group of people has power over another, in this case, my cis teachers having power over trans students, people in power want to keep their power and the privilege it accords them. It’s not always conscious, but the people in power construct a system that makes it very difficult for anyone without power to be heard or challenge the system. This is a conspiracy to maintain power.

 

When someone from an oppressed group challenges this conspiracy, it’s easy to invalidate our words as saying “oh, you’re just a conspiracy theorist, you’re paranoid, that’s not really going on”. That’s because the entire system has been built in favor of those in power, not because that person is wrong.

 

Yes. I’m paranoid. I have every right to be after an extreme lack of transparency and too much misinformation. Yes. This is a conspiracy. Because if the people in power had to listen to me, they would lose some of their power, and no one wants to lose their power (I get that, I really do. But it’s going to have to happen).

 

And no. Tokenizing me is not proof that the conspiracy doesn’t exist. In fact, it’s still part of a system that wants to keep me as quiet and docile as possible – give me just enough so that I don’t raise up a fuss and take away anyone’s power.

 

Thankfully, I had already raised up a pretty huge fuss by the time this happened.