Some February readings

This month, I read about a whole lot of things I want to share with you. Once again, the trans community continues to face loss (and I know I am behind in recording it), so I have decided to also add an action point to these posts. Even as we face loss and frustration, there is always something we can do. Also, lots of good reading from depressed exercise to Star Trek!

 

Lost this year

 

Viccky Gutierrez, Lost Angeles, CA

Originally from Honduras, she is described as the “nicest girl in the world”

Learn more

 

 

Take Action!

by Neta Bomani (2018)                                                          [image is a person behind prison gates with swirly circles in the back. Underneath are the words “NO LADY, Anonymous, B 32018] 
Prison Culture and Neta Bomani have made a zine for folks in women’s prisons.

You can

  • Spread the word
  • Help send it into prisons
  • Donate to help cover printing and mailing costs

 

Reading:

 

Dress to kill, Fight to win

 

“I think sometimes being anti-fashion leads to a false notion that we can be in bodies that aren’t modified, and that any intentional modification or decoration of your body is politically undesirable because it somehow buys into the pitfalls of reliance on appearances.”

 

The Philosophy of Selfishness is Destroying America

 

“The very idea of selfishness is one that by virtue of its existence implies something deeply poisonous and wrong: that in order to get what we want, someone else must pay a cost.  And vice versa: if anyone else gets what they want, it comes at a cost to us.”

 

Why is Fixing Sexism Women’s Work?

 

“Sexism is a male invention. White supremacy is a white invention. Transphobia is a cisgender invention. So far, men have treated #MeToo like a bumbling dad in a detergent commercial: well-intentioned but floundering, as though they are not the experts. They have a chance to do better by Time’s Up.”

 

Star Trek’s Economic Model – Fantasy or Future?

 

“The universe of Star Trek allows us to peer into a possible alternative of our lifestyle. Not just about exploring the universe, but about exploring the human condition that we have all chosen to accept as “normal.” If any of us transported into the world of Star Trek, we would stick out like sore thumbs.”

 

Depressing Busting Exercise Tips For People Too Depressed to Exercise

 

“But where the well-meaning mentally healthy person sees a straightforward progression toward improvement, we see the paradox: yes, if we could do those things, it might help our depression, but not being able to do those things is a major part of being depressed.”

 

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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

Trans visibility in articles: A delicate balance

tl;dr It is frustrating when the “good” articles about trans people still fall into dangerous patterns of objectification. 

 

So I want to talk about this article a bit because it’s a difficult one. It’s the challenge trans people face all the time, and I’ve faced it a lot more personally with articles about asexuality, having been interviewed and photographed for such things, but the concept is vaguely the same. When queer people, especially trans people, appear in the media, in news articles, in documentaries, thinkpieces, you have it, there is always the balance between “getting the word out” and “not being objectified by the person telling your story and, in consequence, the person reading your story”.

 

This is a good article. It is a necessary article. It told me about a trans choreographer I didn’t know about and that’s exciting. And that’s one of the huge necessities of being in the media – our visibility is not always for cis people, sometimes it’s the only way we can tell each other that we exist.

 

At the same time, it falls into two patterns that are really objectifying and kind of sickening.

 

This article is, like almost every article on trans people, obsessed with our bodies, but not on trans terms. The word “dysphoria” is not used a single time, instead the author euphemizes the very real pain and struggle many trans people have with their bodies, as “discomfort”. This isn’t wrong, but it shows a lack of interest of engaging with trans communities – we have a word for this discomfort, one that is widespread, and honestly pretty well-understood by the general population, why not use it? When writers choose to use their language instead of our language, it’s a sign that they want to talk about us without really including us.

 

And this writer really wants to talk about us, or more, our bodies. And the creepiest part about this is the way they keep mentioning “center of gravity” and how medical transition affects a person’s dancing, because this is used as a justification for the continued obsession over trans bodies and medical transition. Except, dance is not an excuse to pick apart someone else’s medical history. Dancers are allowed body autonomy and medical privacy, just like everyone else, even if their job happens to include presenting their body on stage. And it becomes really obvious what’s going on when it’s the trans dancers being presented alongside their medical history.

 

This is where it becomes a tangle. Because I am really not comfortable with trans bodies being such an object of fascination for cis people.

 

At the same time, there are so few trans dancers, that there is no information about what HRT or GRS or any gender-affirming procedure does to a dancer’s body, the way we have well-studied information on the effects of other physical changes on dancing (such as age, pregnancy…). This is the only way I, and other trans dancers, can find this information. It needs to be out there. I am so glad to know so much more about Sean Dorsey’s transition because I remember seeing him live and thinking that he was proof that only “fully transitioned” trans people (whatever that means? I was an insecure teenager at the time) could dance. This was something I needed to read because it isn’t something available to me in any other place.

 

And yet, it still disturbs me that I had to read it like this.

 

The other pattern here is this idea that trans people are the ones that break gender norms.

 

It’s a bit ironic because the article even ends with a warning not to include trans dancers simply for “edgy politics”, which I wholeheartedly support. And yet, the title, “What does it take to challenge dance’s gender norms?” suggests that 1) there are gender norms in dance, 2) we are interested in challenging them, and 3) the subject of the article (trans dancers) will be a way to challenge gender norms.

 

Which is particularly interesting, because the person that first showed me this article is a trans woman. And, her response to reading it was that she felt divided – she wanted to support this breaking of gender norms and gender neutrality and you have it, but she also felt firmly attached to being able to dance a specifically woman’s role, because it was an affirming experience for her.

 

Who am I to tell her she has to go off and challenge gender norms?

 

Who is some random journalist to suggest that her dancing has to challenge gender norms?

 

What if trans people don’t particularly want to challenge gender norms?

 

And what the hell is so challenging about a trans man dancing a man’s role on stage? It’s almost like cis people think trans people aren’t really our genders…

 

Trans existence is not inherently the antidote to strict, binary gender roles.

 

Cis people need to stop looking at trans people to challenge gender roles and start doing the work themselves.

 

And when I want to read an article about people like me, trans dancers, something so rare that it is easy to get sucked into a hopeless void of believing there is no one else, what I don’t need is a reminder of this expectation that I am the one supposed to challenge gender norms.

 

This is a good article. It is a good article because it doesn’t misgender the trans people interviewed. That’s a huge win that we don’t usually get in articles (yes, the bar really is that low). Except every trans person interviewed is binary and we are told the gender they were assigned at birth and how each one transitions.

 

This is a good article because it quotes trans people respectfully, because it recognizes that transition is a long, complicated, personal process, because it waits until halfway through the article to mention Caitlyn Jenner. And yet it is still clutching to recycled narratives of “born in the wrong body” and “transition is necessary for full transness” and “trans people, even binary ones, are breaking all the gender norms ever! AAAAAH!”

 

This is a good article because it is telling trans dancers like me that we are not alone. Because it gives us multiple role models to look towards. That makes it a necessary article. I am glad this article exists.

 

And yet, I am so sick of reading articles like this. I am sick of needing articles like this.

 

Can’t there be one article that provides the needed trans visibility without objectifying a single trans person?

 

Teaching the genderbread person

Tl;dr I taught the genderbread person in a successful way that recognized what a mess it is, so I’m sharing the lesson plan in case anyone else may want such a thing.

August 2016

So, as I get back into the swing of writing blog posts after being too busy, I want to start by sharing something from my time off.

I recently led half a workshop on gender identity and was given the challenge of using the genderbread person. Instead of rejecting the idea and doing my usual thing, I took on the challenge, and was pretty successful. I want to share my lesson plan of sorts (with side commentary) in case this is of interest to anyone else who is done with staring at the genderbread person in horror.

(As a quick disclaimer: Some of the people in the workshop were trans, some had been living with out trans people for 1-2 weeks by this point, some were just really really smart, all of them were high-school aged or older. I did pretty much this exact same thing two days later in a one-on-one session with someone that was a little less read-up on gender and it worked, but it definitely took some tweaking. What was really good about this plan was that it worked for a “mixed-level” group. I was asking people who were familiar with the genderbread person to analyse it and question it more closely, while I was also guiding people through the basic “gender/trans 101”. That said, I definitely think I was lucky with the group and it would require a lot of thought to take this to other audiences.)

The lesson:

(at the beginning, I avoided the word “biological sex”)

Start with big question: What is gender?

  • emphasise self-identification

What is assigned sex?:

  • sex assigned by a doctor to almost every baby born (ASSIGNED doesn’t say anything about the baby)
  • body configurations can impact an assignment, but the assignment doesn’t necessarily say anything about body

What is presentation?

  • How we present ourselves to other people.
  • (The next time I do this, I would include “perception” here too, as it was brought up later in the workshop.)

What is missing?

Answer: Biological sex

(at this point, no one had brought up biological sex, when I did the one-on-one, it was brought up, so I reworded it to be more along the lines of “what hasn’t been necessary to this discussion so far?”)

Hand out genderbread person (I used the original version from itspronouncedmetrosexual as the later versions are just as frustrating, but take longer to piece apart, for this one, the limits are obvious)

What’s the same here?

  • Idea that gender identity is separate from other categories
  • Expression is basically presentation

What’s different here?

  • Terminology (ie. Presentation v. expression)
  • Biological sex
  • Sexual orientation

What’s missing?

  • Assigned sex – genderbread person replaces what is assigned and constructed by society with biological sex
  • Emphasise: Biological sex is not necessary to discuss, EVER. (why is it on the genderbread man? ick)
  • (could also discuss romantic orientation here, I would do it later)

Using the genderbread person:

  • As “warm-up”, I asked everyone to place themself on the genderbread person scales
  • I then asked them to place me on the genderbread person scales, with the disclaimer that I was well-aware we were breaking the rules we set up in the beginning that no one can define a person’s gender except that person (I might have a thing for making people uncomfortable). (side note: I had been living and working alongside these people for 2-4 weeks by this point, but had not been explicitly out, so they had had time to build up assumptions about my identity)
  • We discussed a few of the ways people tried to place me, how people tried to work with the fact that they were being asked to break the rules, what people were comfortable saying, what they weren’t, what assumptions they realized they had about me
  • I shared my personal genderbread person with lots of parts crossed out, dots off the scales, etc.

I used this model and discussion to ask: “how would you change the genderbread person?”

  • sexual orientation scale is super-weird
  • this is where I would discuss romantic orientation
  • gender a lot more complicated than this – impossible to fit into these boxes
  • general conclusion: it’s confusing, we might not be able to understand it, and that’s ok

Final reflection circle – EVERYONE has to say something, it can be stupid or simple, but it has to be something

  • something you learned
  • pronoun

So, it’s definitely not a perfect lesson, and is clearly bound by the situation I was in, but it made a huge impact on the group I was working with. I’m pretty proud of myself for getting this done and for the impact it clearly made on the participants.

I’m here, I exist, I’m not the only one

May 2016

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.