Hierarchies of Power: Cisgender Playwrights and Trans Characters

When I begin writing a play, I’m usually writing about something I feel complicated about. There’s a heart in the center of the new play that’s torn. I don’t have the desire to write a play about something I know the answer to. So it makes perfect sense that my inclination for an article would also fall to a topic for which I don’t have a definitive answer. When I was asked to write for this series there were several topics that occurred to me, all them engaging and interesting—but the question of cisgendered playwrights writing trans characters kept calling to me. It’s a complicated topic that produces more questions for me than certainties.

When I think about writers creating characters outside their race, gender, sexuality, and class, the first thing that comes to my mind is that, as a playwright, I would also like the freedom to write characters who are not like me. If we took writing characters like ourselves to an extreme, I would only write plays full of working-class, transmale characters, who are very quiet. It would be a silent play. But the question isn’t really about an exaggeration so extreme. The question is really about power.

I believe we can all agree that there’s a hierarchy of power in regard to race, gender, sexuality, and class within American society. It’s not news to say that wealthy, straight, white, cismen are at the top of the order. The stories about the people at the top of the hierarchy are the stories we’re all most familiar with. No matter your identity, you’re probably very familiar with the culture of white, straight America. You’ve seen numerous white, straight rom-coms, the television in your living room flickers with multiple images and stories from a straight, white perspective. In fact, if you’re lower on the hierarchy, you’re probably also very educated on the straight, white perspective of you—so much so that maybe you even believe their story of you is your story of you. And if you are a writer, perhaps you even write your story so that straight, white America will understand, will have an easier time relating, or will just leave the theatre feeling very knowledgeable about you.

I was on a panel last year about theatre about trans characters. On the panel was an artistic leader of an LGBTQ theatre. The conversation went to programming trans plays. The artistic leader began to paint a picture of where he thought we are, as a theatre-going society. He explained that the general audience is “afraid” of trans characters and stories, because they feel like they don’t understand. Therefore, he said, his programming needs to be geared more toward educating the general public about trans people. In other words, helping straight, white audiences feel knowledgeable and therefore safe.

Honestly, I find pretty much everything about this reasoning detestable. I encourage fellow queer writers to write plays with a queer audience in mind, and let the other people in the audience find their own way in, which I believe they are more than capable of. Those of us not at the top of the American hierarchy have proven that, by our ability to watch programing from a straight, white perspective and still manage to see glimmers of ourselves.

Let’s also assume that my fellow panelist is not the only curator who thinks along these lines. It would then make perfect sense that a cisgendered perspective on trans identity would be more palatable and care-taking of a cisgendered audience, and that the straight, cisgendered characters in the play might be positioned to the trans characters in a way that’s less threatening.

This leads right to what feels problematic to me, as a trans audience member, when I watch programing about trans identity created and curated by cisgendered artists. I can’t talk about this without talking about entitlement, homophobia, and transphobia. Like racism, sexism, and classism, homophobia and transphobia are so engrained in our society that we might not even be aware of them until they’re pointed out by someone outside of ourselves. We’re so far from really exposing them socially that we don’t even have an “ism” yet. I would be willing to bet that when people who are aligned with a less powerful social group write characters who are different from themselves, they write from a place of some personal understanding of what it means to move through this world as an other. Therefore, they might be more willing to take care in the way they represent characters outside their realm of experience. They might, for example, be more willing to inspect their own racism, classism, sexism, etc., and be wary of and fight against stereotype. Conversely, what I often find troubling about portrayals of trans identity by cisgendered writers is a facile and uninspected representation, a naiveté about the political implications of these characters. The more we point these out and ask tough questions of ourselves as writers and as curators, we will hopefully find less problematic work on our stages.

For me, it’s a little too much to demand that cis writers never write trans characters. That’s as extreme as if I wrote my solely working-class, all transmale silent play. It takes courage to risk writing outside of ourselves, but it can be a worthy endeavor. At its best it forces a writer to push against ingrained ism’s, to consider more deeply the politics of our bodies, to connect to the simple truths of being a human, to recognize that the distance between you and I is not as far apart as we might be lead to believe. That’s what makes someone a better citizen of the world. However, at its worse it’s violent and harmful on multiple levels. Therefore, I don’t think it’s too much to ask that curators and creators of trans content have more accountability. At least surround the production with trans people, in the rehearsal room, on the crew, and in the cast—and stay receptive to having your transism checked.

On the other side, I have a deep hope that trans writers will allow themselves to explore the darker sides of who we are, exploring these facets of ourselves and our community without having to be concerned that we will appear unpalatable or frightening for straight, cisgendered America. Because ultimately, art born of fear is stale. It illuminates nothing, and we live in a world that needs and deserves to be challenged by dangerous art.

(Originally published by HowlRound.)

Samuel French, Playbill and HowlRound are partnering to present #IdentityWeek, a four-day panel event, September 27 – 30, exploring racial, cultural, sexual, and gender identity in the theatre. This year’s event was created in response to the issues of identity, inclusion, and representation onstage being at the forefront of our industry’s collective conversation. Through these panels, Samuel French, Playbill and HowlRound hope to provide a safe, respectful space where artists, activists, and members of the industry can come together for discussion, debate and more. This marks Samuel French’s third year of partnering with HowlRound for panel events, and the first collaboration with Playbill. All panels will be held at the Vineyard Theatre in Union Square, NYC. They are open to the general public and will be live-tweeted by Samuel French (@MrSamuelFrench), as well as live-streamed by HowlRound. Follow Playbill for additional media leading up to the event. A companion series of essays can be found on HowlRound throughout the week as well. Reservations are encouraged, but not required. All panels have accessible seating and will be signed by ASL interpreters. To RSVP, click here. To view live-streaming of #IdentityWeek events, visit www.Playbill.com/identityweek.

Part of the goal of #IdentityWeek is to sharpen the focus on particular voices of our industry, and provide a platform for discussion. To that end, tonight’s (9/28/16) panel narrows in on the experience of transgender artists, discussing their opportunities and challenges within the theatre industry as well as how our community can better include and support their work. Take a read over Basil’s article below, which opens up a conversation about just what topics certain playwrights should be covering. Should cisgendered artists write about the transgender experience? Does that affect the representation of trans characters, or give an inroad for a cisgendered audience? Learn more above.

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