Author: brin solomon

Towards a Framework for Responsible Trans Casting Part 3: The Writers

A woman in a black shirt posing in front of a purple background

This is Part 3 of a four-part series. Part 1 introduces many of the terms and concepts used in this piece, and Part 2 offers the perspectives of performers. This article will make more sense if you read those first.

Introduction

Before an actor can bring a character to life, someone has to write that character into existence.

Before an actor can bring a character to life, someone has to write that character into existence. Who are the trans writers bringing trans stories into the world, and how do they handle trans issues in their work? This article starts to provide an answer.

Barriers to Entry

Let’s start with the undeniable: the interviewees for this article are, as a group, much whiter and more NYC-centric than those in the previous installment.[1] I have no doubt that there are many brilliant, diverse trans writers that I simply have not been able to find in my research, but I also believe that these skewed demographics reflect deeper systemic issues.

I suspect these disparities are especially marked on the composition side because vastly fewer people are taught to write music than are taught to write words. The classical composition world is well known for being hostile to those facing some form of marginalization, and similar dynamics play out in other musical genres as well. So it’s hardly a coincidence that the trans people most likely to have compositional training are those, like me, who have the protective insulation of whiteness working in our favor.

But of course, just as most people who write words never write for the theater, most composers never write for the stage. There are quite a few trans composers out there, but very few of them have written singing theater pieces, just as, statistically speaking, very few cis composers have. All of which makes the pool to draw from on the compositional side much shallower and more homogenous than I would like. Accordingly, this article is much less balanced than last week’s; it disproportionately reflects the experiences of white trans people in New York City.[2]

Just as most people who write words never write for the theater, most composers never write for the stage.

Those working in this field have no illusions about these obstacles. “What are the barriers to being a trans music theater writer?” said Sandy Gooen, a transmasculine composer, lyricist, and playwright, “Stigma, time, money, race, education . . . should I keep going? It’s a lot of things, there’s a lot working against you.” AriDy Nox, a femme lyricist and playwright, highlighted the barriers trans people face before even getting to the starting line: “A lot of the barriers are the barriers of being able to live, with your stomach full, with water, with housing — you can’t even get to the art-funding barriers because you have to meet the basic-survival barriers.”

Sandy Gooen (Michael Kushner Photography)

Sandy Gooen (Michael Kushner Photography)

Aspiring trans artists often must navigate this landscape on their own. “[Early on,] I didn’t have access to any kind of trans community, or any sort of apprenticeship with trans artists,” says Éamon Boylan, a transfeminine composer, playwright, and director.

Lacking specifically trans mentors, many turn to academic training programs. These can be a mixed bag. Even when the teachers at such programs are generous and well meaning, their curricula are often not trans-inclusive—class materials will call all baritones and tenors men, and will presume that all characters will be either male or female, for example—and they may stumble repeatedly over pronouns. Individually, these are small things, but cumulatively, they add up. “It gets tedious when you have to explain [these things] for the 100th time,” says Grey Grant, a nonbinary transfeminine composer currently based in Michigan.

Of course, sometimes the pushback is more explicit. Gooen told a story of one professor who insisted he remove a trans character from one of his shows. “I tried to push back, but when it’s about the grade, sometimes you have to be like ‘OK.’” Sarah Schlesinger, the chair of New York University’s Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program, was one of my thesis advisors there. Throughout the thesis process, she deliberately misgendered me and all three nonbinary characters in my thesis project, at one point telling me she was doing so because she thought our pronouns “just don’t make sense.” With training grounds such as these, it’s a wonder there are as many trans writers out there as there are.

The world outside of school is rough enough for writers to begin with. “It’s hard to make a musical already,” says black nonbinary queer trans woman Ianne Fields Stewart. Mika Kauffman, a nonbinary, transmasculine composer, lyricist, director, and producer, agrees: “Being a writer, across the board, is hard. You do a lot of self-producing.” “We’re really into purposeful DIY aesthetics,” Grant says, of their own self-producing work, “But it still costs a lot of money.” And that’s where structural oppression makes things more difficult.

“I know so many trans people who are living in poverty,” Kauffman says. The statistics bear them out. According to the 2015 US Transgender Survey from the National Center for Transgender Equality, 38% of trans people live in households making less than $25,000 a year, compared to 17% in the US population as a whole.[3] That’s not a lot in a city like New York, where the median income ranged from $44,850 to $70,295 (depending on the borough) at that time, and it becomes even less when you factor in the costs of being trans. Simply changing your legal name can cost upwards of $650, and building a new wardrobe from the ground up as your gender presentation (and, potentially, body shape) changes isn’t cheap either.

Neither are medical procedures. “Most of my trans friends are in some kind of medical debt,” says Natalie Elder, a nonbinary lyricist and songwriter. “These absolutely medically and psychologically necessary treatments are not cheap, and they’re not covered by insurance.”[4] Faced with these costs, many trans people turn to crowdfunding, but success is far from guaranteed. In 2018, Kauffman organized a campaign to benefit the much-beloved Drama Bookshop, raising nearly $10,700 in around two months. The campaign they organized for their own medical expenses went much less smoothly.

Natalie Elder

Natalie Elder (Photo by Luke Anthony)

“My surgery was projected to cost $1 more than the amount I raised for the Drama Bookshop,” Kauffman recalled. “It was so easy to raise money for the Bookshop — people came in droves. And then when I did my own fundraiser . . . crickets.”[5]

Despite the uncertain odds of success, these crowdfunding campaigns are so commonplace they’ve become something of a bitter inside joke in the trans community, new ones frequently launching more with a sense of beleaguered inevitability than excitement. As in so many cases, one of the best ways to ally yourself with marginalized communities is to just give us money with no strings attached.[6]

Trans creators’ lack of funds to self-produce makes them less likely than their cis counterparts to be picked up by commissioning and presenting organizations.

Hearing a performer audition, and even casting them in a limited run, is a relatively small commitment for an arts organization to make. Commissioning a writer to create a new work, or even mounting the world premiere of one that already exists, requires considerably more investment (of both time and money), and organizations are, unsurprisingly, hesitant to risk that investment on people without a proven track record. So trans creators’ lack of funds to self-produce their way into a hefty résumé makes them less likely than their cis counterparts to be picked up by commissioning and presenting organizations, which in turn makes their résumés look even scanter in comparison, in a grinding feedback loop that can gradually force people out of the industry.

Intersections

Unsurprisingly, these barriers compound when other forms of marginalization enter the mix.

“Musical theater in particular is one of the last bastions of white supremacy,” Stewart asserts.[7] Echoing sentiments expressed by performers in last week’s article, Nox said that they’ve held back from applying to trans-specific grant opportunities: “There are not a lot of opportunities in general, and the opportunities that there are demand that you be trans and that’s it. Even when they say they want people of color to apply, they still want you to be mostly trans and not a person of color, which is really limiting.”

AriDy Nox

AriDy Nox (Photo by Kyla Sylvers)

Gooen described a similar dynamic when talking about navigating his gender, sexuality, Judaism, and neurodivergence: “It’s tricky to put all the pieces together, and it’s been hard to find people to mentor me who don’t try to limit the amount of things I am.” Stewart concurred: “There are black people who won’t see me because of my transness, and there are trans people who won’t see me because of my blackness.”

These attempts to limit people to one facet of their personhood fly in the face of the inextricable interconnections that many feel between parts of themselves. “The parts of my identity don’t feel separate,” Nox says. “One of the reasons I identify as a femme is that black womanhood is less binary than white womanhood, especially for black women who are descendants of chattel slaves — this femininity wasn’t meant for us anyway, so why take on the more toxic constraining features of it?”

Accounting for these intersecting identities requires careful, nuanced analysis, and many diversity initiatives miss the mark. Transmasculine people, in particular, are often erased by simplistic gender analyses.

“When I was seen as a woman,” Kauffman says, “I was working more. And then suddenly, when I started going through my transition, I was working less.” They described one show where, once they started transitioning, other members of the creative team began praising their pre-transition self. “They were idealizing this person in a way that I was never actually treated. I wasn’t treated fairly pre-transition, and I’m still not treated fairly now.”

“I do not feel comfortable in [women+] arenas.”

Some gender parity initiatives have started describing themselves as promoting equity for “women+” in an attempt to deepen their analysis, but this is far from sufficient. “I do not feel comfortable in [women+] arenas,” Gooen says. “But I’ve also been in rehearsal spaces where I’m the only person who’s not a cis man, and I’m at a big disadvantage.”

Navigating Whiteness

Given the stark racial disparities between different groups of trans people, how do white creators navigate race in their own artistic practice?

“I have a Stay-In-My-Lane approach,” Grant says. “I mean, I’m not the one getting murdered around here.[8] I’m here to support my non-white trans siblings, friends, and colleagues, but I’m not trying to speak for them.” Elder was similarly circumspect, but raised the issue of financial constraints: “To be perfectly honest, the shows I’ve cast so far would have been way more [racially] diverse if I had more of a budget. The people who can afford to do theater for little to no money are predominantly white.” Elder and Kauffman both said they leave most roles they write racially unspecified, but Kauffman tied their approach to their own experiences of oppression: “I cannot do to another person what cis writers have done to us.”

Grey Grant

Grey Grant (Photo by Grey Grant)

Boylan takes a more self-critical approach. “You always have to be accountable for what you produce. If I’m in a room, whiteness is present, so I will never work on a project that doesn’t include whiteness in some way. That is simply how whiteness operates — it is an insidious, deadly thing. It doesn’t stop there, but acknowledging that is an important initial step before doing any work.”

Making Trans Theater

“I feel like there’s a lot of anger in what I’ve been talking about,” Kauffman said towards the end of their interview, “I want to talk about how grateful I am to know who I am. It’s a wonderful journey, and the more I discover who I am, the more honest I am in my work. And as a writer, honesty is my best friend.”

That feeling of honesty rooted in a deep sense of self was a recurring theme among these writers. “Transness, to me, is a lens through which I see the world,” says Boylan, explaining how their work as a writer grew out of their work as a director at the same time as they began to grow into their trans identity. “So for me, writing has always been about what a trans voice is, as a young trans person coming into myself.”

Éamon Boylan

Éamon Boylan (BLUE Photography)

These writers are unapologetic in their political vision, visions that challenge basic conventions in the field and broaden beyond the confines of trans stories as they usually exist today. “I am really uninterested in education,” Stewart says. “I’m much more interested in liberation. I think of everything I do as being in service to that.” “I don’t know what it means to say ‘This is a man’ anymore,” Boylan explains. “Weirdly, saying ‘This character uses he/him/his’ is much more specific and grounded, because now I know how people refer to this character.” “I can’t wait to write an opera that’s not about transness,” Grant says, “But that still requires characters to be trans” — in other words, a story about the fullness of our lives beyond the bare facts of our genders.

These lives shape the work that trans artists produce. “[Trans characters in my shows] just happen,” Elder says, “Because [trans people] happen in my life.” “My work is all about celebrating and centering black trans women,” Stewart says, “And, most importantly, making sure they survive and thrive.” Grant, meanwhile, ties their work to their home in the Midwest: “A lot of people think the Midwest is very monochromatic, but it’s really not. My Midwest is queer, and radical, and very trans-centric.[9] And so with [Michigan Trees],[10] I’m trying to codify this world I would like to see.”

Grant drew heavily on mythology to write Michigan Trees, just as other writers have used other genres to explore trans themes. “I know this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea,” Grant said, “But I’m obsessed with supernatural moments of transformation in works like Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and trans people are kind of magical super-beings anyway, so the mythological approach works well here.” Kauffman, conversely, uses genre to process trauma: “It can be horrifying to exist as trans in a world where transness is taboo. As a horror writer, the genre is so much about confronting your trauma and finding catharsis.” Some of my own work treads similar ground: my musical about murdering conversion therapists is built around the idea of thwarting transphobic power structures by embracing the monstrosity that transphobia ascribes to our bodies — if you’re going to say that we’re monsters no matter what, we might as well draw power from that and destroy you.

Working in various singing theater forms, of course, means that vocal quality is a rich avenue for characterization. How do these artists navigate issues of gender and vocal range?

Vocal Range and Characterization

“I react to voices as embodying a certain way of being,” says Nox, “I think that’s a benefit of being a jazz kid, and hearing all these men using really high voices as a show of power. It’s the Prince Effect: look at how I can control my voice! And that ties in with ideas of authority and seduction that feel more masculine. And then conversely, with singers like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, they have these deeper voices, but they’re not devoid of femininity! These associations really depend on cultural context. Ultimately, I think of vocal types as reflecting how characters navigate power: soft vocals feel like negotiated power, whereas belted vocals feel like authoritative power.”

“It’s weird that everything low is considered masculine and everything high is considered feminine.”

Elder used a different example: “It’s weird that everything low is considered masculine and everything high is considered feminine. I mean look at Hadestown! You have a romantic lead who’s practically a countertenor.” They’ve played on these associations in their work for dramatic effect; in one of their shows, Dragarella,[11] a trans character drops to the lowest point in her vocal range as she’s preparing to fully present as herself. “That’s her last moment of doubt, her last remnant of ‘Am I sure I’m not a man?’”

All stressed the need for flexibility. “As someone who has now dealt with two puberties,” Gooen said, “I’ve had to go through a million different keys.” Gooen now regularly creates versions of songs in three different keys, but Boylan will tailor things even further: “Every single case is individual; every performer deserves dignity and respect. I change my music very significantly based on who’s singing it, because they find the story that they need to tell. But just because I changed something for a performer doesn’t mean I change the way I sing it. There are multiple versions of my songs in perpetuity.” They see this practice as normal in the musical theater world, citing the myriad versions of old (and new) standards that all coexist without issue.

Allies Weigh In

Since this series is so tied up with discussions of effective allyship, I wanted to include a few cis writers here as well. In deciding who to interview, I took my cues from trans performers: I heard repeatedly that the teams for Opera Kardashian and Good Country were doing the work of responsible allyship, making their works and rehearsal rooms genuinely welcoming to trans people. I asked one member of each team to share their experiences.

Opera Kardashian composer Dana Kaufman never set out to write a trans opera. Long before Caitlyn Jenner came out, Kaufman saw an episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians on her roommate’s TV, and instantly gleaned its operatic potential. She had already started working with her librettist, Tom Swift, when Jenner came out. She recalls, “Suddenly there was this issue: Is this even a story I should tell?” She spoke with a variety of trans advocates and performers—social media helped make these connections—who urged her not to abandon the project, albeit with the caveat that Kaufman and Swift take pains to note Jenner’s persona non grata status among large swaths of the trans community.

Dana Kaufman

Dana Kaufman (Photo by Ken Ge)

Charley Parkhurst, the historical figure that inspired the chamber opera Good Country, died in 1879, so there was no breaking news to disrupt the writing process, but there were still complexities to address. Librettist Cecelia Raker had been familiar with Parkhurst since childhood, but the stories of his life uniformly described him as a woman who dressed like a man. She decided to reject that framing. “The way we make history is by telling stories, and the loudest, most consistent narrative is what wins. Right now, there’s one very loud and consistent narrative about this person, and I want to trouble that. The trans version of this story should be part of the mix.”

But she also had doubts about whether she and her composer, Keith Allegretti, were the right people to tell this story. Like Kaufman, she reached out on social media to find trans advocates to talk to. She made sure to seek out multiple perspectives: “It’s really important not to tokenize your feedback. You have to be accountable to a community, not just one person.”

Both Kaufman and Raker described steep learning curves in the early stages. “I would like to say I knew about trans issues and identities,” Kaufman says, “But I really didn’t. I still feel like I’m uninformed, but I do feel much more informed thanks to the infinite patience of my interviewees.” “For me,” Raker explained, “The litmus test is: ‘Do I feel a little anxious and outside my comfort zone?’ If at any point I feel like I got this and I don’t need to run it by anybody else, that’s probably a sign I’m about to fuck up.”

That said, being too anxious can be a problem, too. Early in the development process, Raker was worried about a line in the show she felt might imply that Parkhurst was really a woman. She asked Holden Madagame, who had been cast to play Parkhurst, as well as one of the other trans artists on the project, and they reassured her that the line was fine. But it kept nagging at her, and she kept asking them about it until “we hit a point where they were like ‘Stop asking us this question! We told you our answer!’ Which, in hindsight, is really about trust.”

Cecelia Raker

Cecelia Raker (Photo by Cecelia Raker)

Stewart, who has worked extensively as a consultant, underscores this need to actually accept the things trans people tell you. “So many people dismiss what I say with ‘That’s not the way we do things,’” she said. “Of course it isn’t—that’s why I’m here! The way you do things is not good.”

Advice to cis writers thinking of writing trans stories: a willingness to abandon bad ideas.

When asked for advice to cis writers thinking of writing trans stories, Kaufman and Raker stressed the need for legwork and a willingness to abandon bad ideas. “Make sure you do extraordinarily thorough research,” Kaufman said, “And prioritize the act of listening over the act of composing.” “Be ready to hear that your favorite part won’t work,” Raker advised. “Be light on your feet, and trust in yourself as an artist. You will have more than one idea.”

A Familiar Skepticism

As with the performers profiled last week, trans writers are ambivalent about the role of cis allies here.

Some see potential in collaboration. “Both of my current collaborators have been in the musical theater game professionally for much longer than I have,” Stewart said, “So they have more expertise in this industry. But when it comes to telling trans stories, I am the expert, and my collaborators must be dedicated to prioritizing my word when it comes to how we are telling the stories of trans people.” When collaboration works, Nox explained, it can be phenomenal: “All collaboration is tricky, but the beauty of it is you can make something that couldn’t have come from just you.” Listening and collaborating deeply with trans voices is no guarantee of success, Boylan suggested, “But if you fail after listening to and following the voices of trans people in the room, you’ll be failing in solidarity.”

Others were more skeptical. “Cis writers could, theoretically, someday—with help, obviously!—write trans characters,” Gooen said, “I just think they need to be in time out for a bit based on the recent things they’ve done.” “My immediate reaction,” said Kauffman, “Is, ‘So you, a cis person, want to write a trans character. Why?’”

Mika Kauffman

Mika Kauffman (Photo by Mika Kauffman)

As Gooen indicated, these reactions stem from the stories cis people tell about us. “We’re dying,” Stewart says, talking specifically about black trans women, “And that’s all people want to talk about. People want to see the trauma, but they don’t want to see us as full human beings.” Nox was particularly critical here: “It feels like gatekeepers are saying ‘Please show off your trauma so we can decide if you’re human or not.’ And trauma stories can be useful! But no one’s life is pure trauma—even at my most suicidal, I still had moments of joy. Even at the worst moments, there is some light. When you’re looking at people surviving things you’ve never had to survive, from a privileged perspective, it can be hard to imagine they’re finding joy. And I think that imagining a group of people as incapable of joy is one of the most deeply dehumanizing things you can do.”

The real revolution in trans storytelling will come from trans creators.

The overall consensus was that, while cis writers may have a role to play, the real revolution in trans storytelling will come from trans creators. Or, as Boylan joked: “Trans people will destroy you. Everything you’ve heard is true. We’re tearing down the moral fabric of society, and it feels so good.”

Onwards

This article has been heavy on trauma. I’m deeply ambivalent about this, because it does feel, in some ways, like trotting out suffering to prove our humanity—no one should ever have to do that. But at the same time, it feels dishonest to skirt this pain, to pretend it isn’t there. These are the stakes you carry if you write about us.

Given the premise of this entire series, it’s probably not surprising that I come down, albeit somewhat tentatively, on the side of encouraging cis people to write trans characters. I still believe, ultimately, that saying cis writers are inherently incapable of writing trans characters implies trans people are insurmountably alien, an Other that exists across an unbridgeable gulf. I happen to think it’s phenomenally difficult to bridge the gulf between any two people, but insofar as such a gulf can be bridged at all, it can be bridged between cis and trans people. My cis friends know who I am. They know my voice, my goals, my reactions to various situations. And those are the things you need to know to make a character real on stage.

Just because it’s possible to bridge a gulf doesn’t mean the gulf isn’t there to begin with.

I also believe that, in the spirit of generosity, it behooves me to offer concrete advice to allies of good will, so that y’all can stop failing so spectacularly at the most basic things. Just because it’s possible to bridge a gulf doesn’t mean the gulf isn’t there to begin with. Next week’s article will take up this task.[12]

Further Reading

This article opens up many avenues for further exploration. Here are some potential next steps down a few of them:

Notes


1. Full disclaimer: As with last week’s article, many of those featured here are my friends and collaborators.


2. That said, I of course accept the final responsibility for my decision to write this piece with this specific set of interviewees.


3.  The full survey report includes specific breakdowns for various racial demographics, as well as a wealth of other statistical information. The other statistics related to trans existence quoted in this section come from this survey as well.


4. As always with US health insurance, whether or not gender-affirming medical care is covered varies wildly by health insurance plan and local anti-discrimination regulations.


5. In times of financial hardship, cis writers from well-off families may be able to turn to their parents for support, this isn’t always an option for trans people — 26% of trans people lose some or all of their immediate family ties on coming out, though mercifully that number seems to be shrinking over time.


6. Certainly, hearts starve as well as bodies, and L-rd knows I believe in the importance of live theater, but it is galling, to say the least, to be part of a community roiled by such desperation and then to receive an invitation in the mail to a fundraising gala where individual tickets cost more than my monthly rent. Personally, I have no doubt that if the rich divested themselves of their repugnant wealth—which it is patently morally disgusting for them to keep—we could secure both the basic material needs of all and a vibrant ecosystem of flourishing artistic institutions, but if I am mistaken there, I know where my priorities lie: let the Metropolitan Opera cease performances tomorrow and Broadway go dark forevermore if it means people shall not starve or perish in the streets. Lives matter more than art.


7. Needless to say, opera is hardly any better on this front.


8. There have been 19 reported murders of trans people so far in the US in 2019. The only one who was not a trans woman of color was killed in a mass shooting by his own brother.


9. It’s probably worth noting here that more trans people live in the Midwest than live in the Northeast, and more trans people live in the South than in both regions combined.


10. A chamber opera about a trans woman who turns into a tree.


11. Co-written with composer John Brooks.


12. In the spirit of these past two articles, which have brought together various different perspectives, the final article will be a collaborative endeavor: I will be joined by my dear friend and colleague Aiden K Feltkamp. We look forward to sharing our thoughts.

Towards a Framework for Responsible Trans Casting Part 2: The Performers

A person in a blue shirt photographer on a street

Introduction

If you’ve met one trans person, you’ve met one trans person. Which is to say: If you want to glimpse the diversity of trans experience, you need to talk to a lot of different trans people.

So that’s what I did. The artists interviewed for this article[1] have performed everywhere from Germany to San Francisco, in grand opera houses and black box theaters, in revivals of standard repertoire and world premieres; they are different ages, at different points in their careers; they have different genders, and different ethnicities. Their voices capture a broad cross-section of contemporary trans singing theater communities. Where they disagree, they illuminate important tensions. Where they agree, they point to robust patterns that transcend the specifics of any one production and the artistic personalities involved. Let’s hear what they have to say. (I strongly encourage you to read the first part of this series before proceeding, as it defines many of the terms thrown around in the discussion below.)

Varying Experiences: Location, Medium, and Scene

The constant decontextualized churn of social media can obscure the very real differences between different places. In the general wash of Twitter, for example, it’s easy to miss the fact that one of the more virulent strains of pseudo-intellectual trans-antagonism[2] comes primarily from the UK, and is relatively scarce among US intelligentsia.[3] To get a feel for what it’s like in a place, you still do have to go there.

“When I’ve done work in the UK, there have been discussions about my transness that just don’t happen in Germany,” said Holden Madagame, a trans tenor currently living in Germany. “Nobody cares in Germany, for better and for worse.” Lucia Lucas, a transfeminine baritone who has also worked internationally, has found distinctions within countries as well: “As far as audience reaction is concerned, it totally depends on the region. Even in Germany, if I do something in Karlsruhe versus Wuppertal, I’m going to have a completely different audience reaction.”

Holden Madagame (Photo by Amar Productions)

Holden Madagame (Photo by Amar Productions)

Unsurprisingly, given its size, the United States has similar regional differences. Aneesh Sheth, a transfeminine performer who has worked both on stage and on screen, noted differences between NYC and LA: “LA is very focused on gender equality, so it’s very much about the gender binary, closing the wage gap, and uplifting women in the wake of the #MeToo movement,[4] and that’s all incredibly important, of course, but transness isn’t a thing there in the way that it is in New York.”

Actors may feel drawn to one medium over another based on how trans-friendly the workplaces are.

Even within one city, actors may feel drawn to one medium over another based on how trans-friendly the workplaces are. Samy Nour Younes is a transmasculine actor who has worked in both musical theater and television, and he says that “film and TV are making room for me faster than theater is, but I want to be in theater.” This has been a fairly recent development. Two years ago, he wrote an op-ed about the lack of room for diverse trans representation in theater and film; now, he says, “Film and TV have quickly proven me wrong, and theater has not budged. My struggles are still the same as they were two years ago.” CN Lester, a London-based trans performer, composer, and impresario who has been producing a regular showcase of trans talent since 2011, has seen audiences change: “General audiences definitely know more about trans issues than they did then, and (for our particular audience demographic) seem to care more—but [Transpose] also attracts more hostility now that it’s bigger.”

Other artists drew distinctions between different kinds of theatrical spaces. “Every Monday, I’m at Club Cumming [a queer cabaret venue] until 4 a.m. because it’s a space where I don’t have to explain anything that I’m doing. When you’re on that stage, it actually doesn’t matter if what you’re doing is ‘castable’ or has any capitalistic value. Having space to do that is so important for me as a performer,” says Jordan Ho, a genderfluid nonbinary transfeminine artist who has performed everything from opera arias to experimental devised works. Lucas expands on the kind of artistic liberation that can be found in performance spaces outside of the commercial mainstream: “Queer theater is where I get better. When you don’t have an entire opera machine relying on you to be perfect when you walk in the door, there’s more space to play.” Sheth discussed a particularly liberatory experience at an indie theater festival in NYC, then grew rueful: “I don’t know if that would ever translate into a larger commercial space.”

Jordan Ho (Photo by Daniel Potes)

Jordan Ho (Photo by Daniel Potes)

These kinds of out-of-the-mainstream shows tend to go up on shoestring budgets with little rehearsal, which means performers can’t sustain careers doing only this kind of work. Venturing into more mainstream spaces, however, often means taking on work that handles trans issues badly. “[Trans actors] need money,” Younes said. “I’ve taken plenty of jobs that were objectionable because I needed to pay my rent.” Breanna Sinclairé, an operatic soprano who made headlines singing “The Star Spangled Banner” at a Major League Baseball game in 2015, echoed the sentiment: “I’ve done gigs where I’ve been respected, and I’ve done gigs where I have not been respected. But at the end of the day, we’re professional singers; we just have to keep going.” Most of the performers I spoke to expressed similar sentiments of resigned fatalism, sentiments aptly summarized by soprano Alex Bork: “I’d rather take [a gig I don’t like] than not be working at all.”

Playing “Cis”

While most characters aren’t explicitly cis, most casting directors, audiences, and so on assume these characters are.

Because roles explicitly for trans performers are still rare, stepping into these mainstream spaces often means playing roles that weren’t written with trans people in mind. While most of these characters aren’t explicitly cis, the historical (and ongoing) erasure of trans people means that most directors, casting directors, audiences, and so on assume these characters are cis. This will be discussed at greater length in the final installment of this series, but is worth flagging here.

Unsurprisingly, many of the people I spoke with don’t fully trust cis directors to make such roles trans. “I plead with directors all the time, ‘Please don’t make this a trans story,’” Lucas says, of playing roles like Don Giovanni that are usually cast as cis men. “I don’t say this, but I just don’t think they’re going to be able to handle it well.” Sinclairé also suggested taking a circumspect approach: “I just want to be hired as a female singer. I’m a musician first, trans second. It doesn’t always have to be ‘trans opera singer’ all the time.”

Breanna Sinclairé (Photo by JP Lor)

Breanna Sinclairé (Photo by JP Lor)

That said, sometimes actors take their own initiative. “I always secretly put myself into [whatever role I’m playing],” confides Esco Jouléy, a nonbinary actor working in New York. Marques Hollie, a nonbinary opera singer and writer, talked about finding resonances between their own experiences and the Baker in Into the Woods. “The Baker really wrestles with a lot of his patrilineal trauma; he has this really complex, rich inner life.” Coincidentally, Younes recently played Jack in Into the Woods, and while neither they nor the production team explicitly discussed playing Jack as a young trans boy, “there were people who came to the show and read it that way. And if they want to, I think that’s a valid interpretation.”

Indeed, several performers described this as an opportunity, not a challenge. “I honestly can’t think of any specific problems navigating the differences between me and the characters I play,” Lester said. “That’s the challenge and joy of performance.” Madagame sounded almost playful: “I usually don’t discuss it explicitly with the director, I just make certain choices and see how they react. Sometimes they ask me to do something else, but usually there’s a little bit of compromise.”[5]

These roles raise one of the biggest issues of trans representation in singing theater, the issue that poses a unique challenge for these works compared to works without music: gender and vocal range.

Gender and Vocal Range

Kristofer Eckelhoff is a trans voice teacher in NYC, and he is constantly grappling with the inadequacy of standard vocal terminology when it comes to trans singers. “I’m still trying to develop a terminology that works.” Standard labels like soprano or baritone have strongly gendered connotations that may alienate or affirm. “For trans men who are early on in their transition, they may not like the term head voice, but they might like the word falsetto because it’s a more gendered term.” Meanwhile, nonbinary students may have even fewer options. “It’s tricky. I don’t have a blanket way to talk about it. My nonbinary students don’t really like any of the terms; it’s easier to use numerical note names like C4 to D5. But it’s still messy. It’s really important to address the individual singer.”

Kristofer Eckelhoff (Photo by Taylor Eirá Lear)

Kristofer Eckelhoff (Photo by Taylor Eirá Lear)

That’s harder to do when you’re writing an open casting call. As a workaround for this, Aiden Feltkamp proposed a new vocal categorization system in this very publication. Their whole series is a worthwhile read, but I confess that I find their proposal rather fiddly—the more boundaries you have, the more boundary squabbles—and my default, as a composer, is increasingly to use note names to delineate the ranges of parts that I write.

“The piano doesn’t have a gender.”

It will come as no surprise that trans singers aren’t particularly fond of linking vocal range with gender. “The piano doesn’t have a gender,” Jouléy quipped, noting the breadth of its range. Lucas sees her different vocal registers and colors—she’s working to develop her contralto—as tools to illuminate characters’ emotional states: “If we’re doing The Danish Girl,[6] and it’s the first party where Lili goes out presenting female, maybe we can play with where that sits in the voice.” For her part, Sinclairé sees vocal range as an individual matter. “It’s in your body”, she said. “You work with what you have. I know trans women who sing soprano and develop that, and there are trans women who like to sing in the lower register and develop that. It’s who you are as a person; that’s authentic singing.”

There is an important asymmetry here: testosterone lowers the human voice, but estrogen does not raise it. This means that AMAB trans people can begin taking hormones without having to interrupt their careers to retrain,[7] but AFAB trans people cannot.

“Being a transmasc person, you lose a lot of your voice in your first year on hormones,” Eckelhoff said. Many of his students come to him in this first year, and he reassures them that it will be O.K., their voices will come back. “But this is where people run into problems with cis teachers, because teachers assume they’ve ruined their voice.”

This resistance from cis teachers can reach dangerous extremes. Eckelhoff told of one student whose teacher forced him to delay starting hormones until after graduation because said teacher didn’t want to deal with the changes that hormones would cause. In other words, this was a teacher forcing a student to postpone potentially life-saving medical treatment so the teacher’s job would be easier. This is not an exaggeration. The lifetime suicide attempt rate for trans men in the US is 46%, compared to a baseline rate of 4.6% in the general population. Hormone therapy is strongly and consistently correlated with a marked improvement in mental health for trans people who pursue it. Individual trans people may, of course, decide not to start hormones because of the changes hormones will cause to their voice, but it is completely inappropriate for a voice teacher to force this decision on them.

Testosterone lowers the human voice, but estrogen does not raise it.

At the end of the day, however, a human voice is a human voice. “Trans voices are really not that different than cis voices,” Eckelhoff affirms. This goes for the ranges trans people sing in post-transition, but it also goes for the variety that exists among cis performers. Every singer I talked to for this piece mentioned countertenors, contraltos, or both. “Bea Arthur is my favorite baritone,” Ho joked, discussing the roles xe’s studied during xyr vocal training[8], “I’ve been going through the Sondheim canon and learning all the female roles—it’s really interesting to see how many cis women in the musical theater canon were actually just baritones.”

Harassment, Assimilation, and Other Unpleasantries

When discussing the question of gender and vocal range, Sinclairé told the story about singing for a composer who had assumed that she was a countertenor, not a soprano. “When I opened my mouth and sang, he was speechless.”

That encounter ultimately ended well, but the interactions between cis and trans artists can become extremely fraught. “I was in a master class once where someone leaked information about me beforehand,” Bork recounts, “And [the guest teacher] spent the entire class berating me and telling me no director would ever cast me. Afterwards, I had to take a taxi home—I couldn’t walk.” She also discussed several instances of appalling treatment from fellow cast members, including deliberate misgendering and riffs on stock tropes of trans people as sexual predators. Sinclairé expressed frustration at techies during sound checks: “Some of them don’t think I’m a serious singer, so they like to mess with the electronics. It’s weird subliminal stuff that happens.”

Alex Bork (Photo by Simon Bennett)

Alex Bork (Photo by Simon Bennett)

Sometimes, the overall atmosphere leads to self-censorship. “There’s a rigidity of gender presentation in auditions,” Madagame said. “I have privilege coming out the ass, but I still feel it in small ways: I can’t have certain hairstyles, I can’t dye my hair, I can’t have nearly as many tattoos as I would like. All of these things that queer and trans people gravitate towards, aesthetically. You’re forced into this aesthetic, and it’s really uncomfortable.” These queer and trans aesthetic markers may seem trivial, but in a world where growing up trans is still such an alienating experience, and where trans people still have to fight so relentlessly to present outwardly as we know ourselves to be, being cut off from visual flags of communal belonging and forced into a rigid gender box can be a soul-crushing experience.

“There’s a rigidity of gender presentation in auditions.”

Given all this, it’s no wonder many choose not to stick it out. “It is devastating how much talent there is that no one’s going to see,” Younes said. For all the perspectives I have tried to gather here, there are so many more that we will never have.

Without impugning the abilities, experience, or work ethic of any trans performers, it’s also true that these barriers to trans careers in singing theater—clueless or hostile teachers, antagonistic workplaces, discrimination based on nonadherence to gender stereotypes, the lack of trans roles and the unwillingness of cis casting directors to consider trans performers for roles traditionally assumed to be cis—mean that trans performers will often have less formal training and scanter résumés than cis performers at the equivalent career stage. “I know that not every company has time to teach everyone all these things,” Ho commented. “But if a trans performer doesn’t have the music theory background or needs help learning the music, it’s worth it to teach them.”

This is a delicate point, but it’s worth pressing. Allying yourself with trans communities doesn’t just mean tweaking the language of your casting calls, it also means giving us material resources. There are real inequities in the educational and professional opportunities that trans people receive; redressing those inequities is an inextricable part of bringing our stories to the stage responsibly.

That said, transphobia is obviously not the only form of marginalization, and it is irresponsible to set about redressing it without also redressing other unjust inequities, many of which overlap in mutually reinforcing ways.

Intersections[9]

Younes, who is of mixed Lebanese and Puerto Rican descent, feels that their race and queerness are often forced to be at odds by the limited visions of those doing the writing and casting. “For Latino and Arab men,” he said, “There’s still a portrait of hypermasculinity that theater conforms to, so much so that I don’t get those roles either. It’s like I’m too brown for being trans and too queer for being brown.” Sheth, meanwhile, feels that her transness has overshadowed her ethnicity. “When people talk about me, it’s always about my transness. When people are talking about hiring Aneesh, they’re talking about hiring someone who’s trans. It’s very rarely a conversation of ‘We’re also bringing in someone who’s South Asian; what does that do for our script? For the trans South Asian community?’ There’s a whole other piece of me that’s being excluded from this conversation.”

Aneesh Sheth (Photo by Billy Bustamante)

Aneesh Sheth (Photo by Billy Bustamante)

This emphasis on transness over race can fly directly in the face of an individual’s own perspective. Sinclairé was adamant: “African American, Asian performers, we’re still not getting hired as much as our white counterparts. I feel like that’s the first barrier that needs to be broken down, before we even get to the trans issue.”

For others, issues of race and gender can’t be so cleanly separated. “I’m an average US size for white people,” Bork explained, “But beauty-standard-wise, the representation of Asian people in the West is skinnier, and so even if I’m the same size as my colleague on stage, people are going to call me out for being tall or fat first. And I’ve had that happen before, people telling me that I’m not castable because I’m not feminine or demure. And they’re not saying that to my colleagues who are the exact same proportions as me but who just happen to be white.”

“A lot of gatekeepers are not prepared to welcome talent outside their comfort zone.”

These critiques point to deep structural issues, many of which are exacerbated by the reliance on wealthy white donors who actively resist structural change. “Opera and classical music are still very much driven by older white men,” Hollie says. “A lot of these gatekeepers don’t know how to behave and aren’t trying to be better people. And they’re not prepared to welcome talent outside their comfort zone.” Younes sees similar dynamics at play in musical theater: “There are a lot of trans creators making work, but that stuff doesn’t get the big commercial funding. I love theater, but it hasn’t aged well. The boards haven’t changed for decades, they’re beholden to their aging pool of subscribers who can complain and pull their donations if they don’t like something, so they hew towards the more conservative plays. The most daring thing they can do is put an interracial gay couple on stage. And for me, the product of an interracial couple, I’m like, ‘That’s not daring, that’s life.’”

Marques Hollie (J Demetrie Photography)

Marques Hollie (J Demetrie Photography)

But Younes also sees these disparities being perpetuated within the queer theater community itself. “If you’ve opened a door, don’t shut it behind you. There are a lot of LGB people in theater who have done that. That’s not me trying to pit myself against them, or to say that it’s easy—I know quite a few people who are not out as gay in theater—but I also know a lot of cis gay people who got what they wanted and shut the door behind them for everybody else. I would hope that a win for one of us is a win for all, but don’t forget to take the rest of us with you.”

Some Rehearsal Room Advice

The previous sections have focused on problems, many of them large structural problems that will not be swiftly solved. Even so, gentle reader, there are steps you can take to make your rehearsal rooms more welcoming to trans individuals.

“It’s a matter of respect, respecting the artists in all ways,” Sinclairé said, when I asked what makes for a welcoming rehearsal room. One key way of respecting trans people is using the right pronouns. To do this, of course, requires knowing what the right pronouns are. The quickest way to be certain of this is to ask, and so the practice of sharing your pronouns along with your name at the start of a rehearsal is becoming increasingly standard in queer-centric spaces.

By this point, it won’t surprise you to learn that not all trans people are on board with this.[10] For some, being able to share pronouns in this way is essential. “I really like the pronoun thing,” Ho said, “And I like the ritual of it at the start of every rehearsal, just a check in. Because there are days where I’m so tired I don’t even want pronouns, just use my name today.” But having everyone go around and share their pronouns may put trans people on the spot, forcing them to decide whether to out themselves in a room full of strangers or lie about their gender and resign themselves to being misgendered in the rehearsal process. Sharing pronouns when there’s only one trans person in the room[11] can also single out and other that trans person, as Jouléy describes: “There should always be a question about pronouns. But if I’m the only one who’s going to be using ‘different’ pronouns, and you’re only doing it for me, I don’t need it! I know I look different, people are going to see that and know something’s up. If they have a question, they can ask.” A reasonable middle ground, I think, is to provide an opportunity for people to share their pronouns if they want without mandating that anyone do so. Respectfully asking any trans people involved in your production in advance how they’d like you to handle this is also a good idea.

Esco Jouléy (Photo by Ronnie Nelson)

Esco Jouléy (Photo by Ronnie Nelson)

If you need to be flexible in how you approach sharing pronouns, you may need to be even more so when it comes to making musical accommodations. As Eckelhoff pointed out, these kinds of adjustments are hardly unique to trans performers: “Tenors sing castrato roles down the octave all the time. Why can’t we do that with other roles?” Sheth called attention to accommodations cis people regularly make in re-arranging ensemble tracks to better fit their range: “It might take a little extra arranging work that people don’t want to do, but when it comes to cis people who need to jump staff lines, it’s very easy. Then when it comes to trans people, suddenly they get very in their head about it, like it confuses them somehow.”

If you need to be flexible in how you approach sharing pronouns, you may need to be even more so when it comes to making musical accommodations.

When octave shifts and re-tracking ensemble numbers isn’t enough, you may have to change a key or two. Indeed, it’s probably best to include options from the get-go. “When you’re composing, just write alternative stuff,” Lucas suggests. Madagame explains that in the development process for Good Country,[12] composer Keith Allegretti prepared three alternate versions of Madagame’s role in different ranges. “Be flexible, don’t be fussy,” Madagame advised those planning to write for trans singers. Lester had some tough love for composers who feel changing keys or vocal lines infringes on their vision: “As a composer with synesthesia, I’m not trying to dismiss the importance of specific keys and timbres. But, ultimately, the composer is only one part of the musical whole.”

Lucia Lucas (Photo by Josh New)

Lucia Lucas (Photo by Josh New)

Everyone stressed the need to have more than one trans person in the room. “There needs to be a trans voice therapist, a trans vocal coach, a trans pianist present,” Sinclairé insisted. “I always look at the team,” said Jouléy, when asked about how to decide whether to join a new project. “Who’s working on it? Because when I come into the room, I don’t want any problems.”

The presence of other trans artists can make it easier for trans actors to speak up when they feel trans issues are being mishandled, but often more explicit permission is necessary. Hollie explained, “Working with directors, it’s really hard to be That Person. It can be hard to bring these things up.” Madagame said that the most helpful thing was “to have people explicitly say, ‘If you are uncomfortable with something, we want to hear about it so we can solve it.’”

Should Cis People Even Be Writing This?

Inevitably, conversations about including trans people in the rehearsal room circle back to the question of who’s writing these stories to begin with. The performers I spoke to were unanimous in their desire to see trans writers bringing trans stories to the stage; they were much more ambivalent about the role of cis allies.

Younes was the most optimistic. “Given the fact that [trans people] are a minority, it’s going to take cis people writing trans roles for us to see more employment opportunities. Obviously there need to be more opportunities for trans people to have our work produced, but simply based on the numbers, there’s never gonna be enough trans creators for the body of trans people who need to be working.” Bork was more hesitant: “This isn’t a hard rule, but I’m more cautious when people who aren’t from a particular community approach me about a project without explicitly saying they’re not from the community.”

These hesitations were often deeply rooted in having seen too many attempts from misguided would-be allies. “I’d rather not quote some of the lyrics I’ve seen,” Ho vented, “Because I understand that new musical theater writers are trying to learn, but like, learn faster.” Lester pointed out that many of these projects are bad art: “The main problem [with cis-led trans works] is that a project will be ‘trans themed’ but have no trans people involved at all. So the story is literally just a cis person’s imagined idea of how trans people live. These kinds of ‘trans’ projects aren’t just politically suspect—they’re artistically played out and stale.”

CN Lester (Photo by Raphaël Neal)

CN Lester (Photo by Raphaël Neal)

Most of the failures that these artists detailed stemmed ultimately from a limited imagination of what trans lives look like, offstage and on. “For some reason, cis writers can’t just write that a character happens to be trans and has characteristics like any other character they would write,” Sheth said. Hollie emphasized more emotional limits: “When it comes to trans representation, a lot of the works that are getting play are rooted in trauma and suffering. What about trans joy?”

“A lot of the works that are getting play are rooted in trauma and suffering. What about trans joy?”

One answer emerged clearly above all others: “I really hope more trans composers come out and compose full-on operas,” Sinclairé said. “That would be amazing.”

The good news is, those composers are out there. In the next installment, we’ll be turning our attention to them.

Further Reading

As with last week’s article, this post only scratches the surface of these conversations. Here are some avenues for further exploration:

Notes


1. Full disclosure: I have worked with several of these artists in the past, and have plans to work with some of them in the future. I write from the perspective of someone who is deeply embedded in this community.


2. The people spouting these views are often called TERFs, or Trans-Exclusive Radical Feminists. TERF was originally coined as a technical shorthand for transphobia rooted in radical feminist thought, but is now thrown around pretty freely to refer to anyone who holds any trans-antagonistic position whatsoever, with the predictable dilution of its meaning. This has resulted in a confusing multi-player tug-of-war, with some advocating it be restricted to its erstwhile technical use, some accepting the diluted meaning, some trans-inclusive feminists arguing against it on the grounds that trans-exclusion is inherently unfeminist (a position often built on unfamiliarity with the specific ideology of radical feminism), and TERFs mendaciously claiming the term is a slur. (It is not.)


3. Then again, as was noted in the article linked above, these TERFs have been cited in at least one amicus brief before the US Supreme Court that could make it legal to fire any woman, including a cis woman, for wearing pants, so there’s some trans-Atlantic dialogue going on here.


4. Of course, trans women also experience sexual harassment in entertainment-industry workplaces and steep wage disparities, but there’s no denying that the highest-profile figures in these fights tend to be cis white women, and these women haven’t always been the most adept at including other women, let alone trans men and nonbinary people, in their gender activism.


5. The technical term for an actor bringing their own life experiences to shape a role and make it theirs is, of course, acting.


6. An adaptation-in-process of the film about Lili Elbe, currently slated to be composed by Tobias Picker specifically for Lucas in the title role.


7. Some AMAB trans people, of course, do retrain to sing at a higher pitch, but they won’t necessarily lose access to their lower registers if they do.


8. For a full breakdown of the xe/xem/xyrs pronoun set, see this guide. To practice using it (as well as other pronoun sets that are less familiar to you), go here.


9. This section was largely guided by what my interviewees shared with me, and as such, it deals fairly exclusively with intersections of race and transness. Obviously, other axes of marginalization exist, but many, like class and disability, are frequently invisible, and I did not think it appropriate to ask invasive questions about, for example, people’s legal, medical, and economic histories. The intersections not included here are just as important as the ones that are, but I am afraid I must leave it to others to fully explicate them.


10. Indeed, in the week before I sat down to write this, trans Twitter was consumed with an endless, acrimonious debate over this practice.


11. As will be discussed at greater length below, this is not ideal practice.


12. A chamber opera about the life of Charley Parkhurst, which will be discussed at greater length in next week’s installment.

Towards a Framework for Responsible Trans Casting, Part 1: Words, Words, Words

18th century style painting of a group of white men

Introduction

Nothing tests my conviction that cis people can write good trans characters like seeing the trans characters cis people actually write. In all the stories I’ve experienced across all forms of media featuring trans characters written by cis creators, only a handful haven’t been deeply misguided at best, and that number keeps shrinking because the creators who get it right keep coming out as trans.

Operas and musicals are no different. Although there are increasing numbers of trans characters on stage, the quality of that representation remains dispiritingly low. Still, I want to believe that cis people can get it right, albeit with some help. Hence this series.

Over the course of these four articles, I am going to take a deep dive into issues of trans representation on stage, culminating, in the final article, in a how-to guide for cis writers who want to tell trans stories responsibly. Because this guide will, necessarily, be tailored to the societal context it’s being written for, the first three articles will explore that context, beginning, in this article, with a survey of trans language and history before proceeding to a series of interviews with trans performers and writers navigating these issues in their lives and work.

My hope, gentle reader, is that this contextualization will equip you with a robust understanding of the values and stakes at play in telling trans stories responsibly, so that rather than viewing the guide in the final article as an inscrutable diktat for rote regurgitation, you have the tools to adapt it to whatever situations you find yourself in as you pursue your artistic career.

A Trans Vocabulary Primer

If you want to write trans characters from the ground up, you need to understand us.

If you want to cast trans people in your projects, you need to be able to talk about who you’re looking for. If you want to write trans characters from the ground up, you need to understand us, including the language we use to talk about ourselves.

This is a problem, because different trans people have conflicting needs when it comes to language, to the point that some trans people vehemently argue that no one should use the very terms that other trans people insist are crucial to their sense of self, in debates that can be as acrimonious as they are inscrutable to outsiders. Unsurprisingly, these differing linguistic camps are frequently demarcated by lines of age, race, class, geography, and so on, and if you spend much time deeply immersed in these debates, it quickly becomes apparent that you fundamentally cannot separate out trans issues from other kinds of social hierarchies.

As such, the vocabulary framework I’m laying out below is more of a set of least-bad compromises than best practices. This framework is informed both by my years living and interacting with trans communities in Massachusetts, LA, and NYC as well as by the perspectives of English-speaking trans people around the world I have encountered online. Even so, it is necessarily limited and imperfect, and it will become outdated as language evolves. To my cis readers, understand that much nuance is missing from the below, and best practice is always to defer to the trans people in your own community. To my trans readers, I hope you can forgive me if the terms you prefer are omitted by my infelicities and elisions.

Western societies[1] tend to divide people into two big categories: men and women. Sex refers to the physical markers of these categories — genitals, chromosomes, hormone levels, facial hair, and so on — while gender refers to the social ones — hairstyles, clothes, personality traits, and so on.[2] The underlying assumption is that these traits are all binary, coming in two neat, mutually exclusive sets.

Unsurprisingly, reality is more complicated. It’s fairly trivial to point out that social gender cues can be endlessly varied, remixed, and recombined — there are many more than two hairstyles, for example, and knowing a person’s hairstyle doesn’t reliably tell you what clothes they wear — but physical bodies are similarly unruly. For all that trans people are often accused of denying science, it’s those who insist that human bodies fall neatly into two distinct kinds who are ignoring the actual scientific facts of human sexual development.[1]

It’s fairly trivial to point out that social gender cues can be endlessly varied, remixed, and recombined.

The mainstream view sees the gender binary as growing out of the sex binary when, in reality, the relationship between the two is less linear. Doctors, believing in the gender binary, operate, without consent, on intersex newborns (whose bodies match neither the paradigmatic male nor female forms) to force them to conform to one or the other. Parents encourage children they think are boys to eat well and play outdoors while encouraging children they think are girls to watch their weight and stay indoors, with predictable physical effects. Thus, there are ways in which the gender binary gives rise to the very sex binary that people then use to justify the gender binary itself.

Western societies ignore all this. A doctor looks at an ultrasound, sees a penis, and tells the parents they’re having a boy. This process of assigning babies to a gender category based on their genitals leads, in queer circles, to the practice of calling people AFAB (Assigned Female at Birth) or AMAB (Assigned Male At Birth).[4] Since the word assigned in this abbreviation leads many people unfamiliar with the underlying conceptual framework to think, not unreasonably, that these terms imply this assignation is random, I prefer to describe this as gender assumed at birth — like many assumptions, the assumption that any given baby with a vagina will grow up to be a woman could be correct, but it’s far from guaranteed.

When this assumption is correct, you have a cis person, someone whose gender matches the gender it was assumed they were when they were born.[5] When this assumption is wrong, you have a trans person, someone whose gender doesn’t match (or doesn’t always or only match) the gender it was assumed they were when they were born. The line between these two categories is fuzzy, and there are many edge cases.[6] But just as it’s useful to talk about the differences between teenagers and adults without being able to pin down a sharp divide between youth and maturity, it’s useful to talk about trans and cis people while acknowledging that actual humans are more complex.

Trans is a broad umbrella that includes both binary people (men and women) and nonbinary people.

In this usage, trans is a broad umbrella that includes both binary people (men and women) and nonbinary people (all other genders, including fluid genders and lack of gender). Nonbinary can itself be used as an umbrella: While some people use it and it alone to describe their gender, others identify with other terms under its broad canopy. Not all nonbinary people think of themselves as trans; this is a developing area where language is extremely in flux and there’s little consensus on standard usage.

As a way of including nonbinary people in discussions of the different experiences of different groups of trans people, people have developed the terms transmasculine and transfeminine (denoting “trans men plus nonbinary people who were assumed to be female at birth” and “trans women plus nonbinary people who were assumed to be male at birth”, respectively), but these terms have their flaws. For starters, not all transmasculine people are masculine, nor all transfeminine people feminine.[7] These terms also erase the experiences that nonbinary people have in common regardless of gender assumed at birth, and any grouping based on gender assumed at birth is guaranteed to alienate some trans people. Still, these terms are in widespread use, and many of the people featured in this series use them as self-descriptors. Language remains an imperfect tool, too clumsy and inexact to do justice to the richness of humanity.

A few final points before we proceed. There are a number of formerly in-vogue terms that are now broadly considered dated at best.[8] For example, it used to be common to refer to (binary) trans people as either Male-To-Female (MTF) or Female-To-Male (FTM). But many trans people feel they were never the gender people assumed they were when they were born, and feel invalidated by this framing. Similarly, terms like biologically female and biologically male should be avoided, as they’re often used to deny trans people’s actual genders.

Natural language being what it is, some shibboleths are profoundly arbitrary. Use transgender and cisgender, not transgendered and cisgendered. Put a space after trans in phrases like trans man; don’t make compound words like transman.[9] There’s no inner logic to this, just as there’s no inner logic to the fact that shortening homosexual to homo is pejorative while shortening bisexual to bi is totally fine. Language is weird like that.

Other terms are more of a grey area: Many trans people use transsexual[10] as a reclaimed self-descriptor, but it usually comes across as stigmatizing when a cis person uses it. Some trans people find terms like female-identifying empowering and welcoming, but many find such terms de-legitimizing. There was a brief window where it was de rigueur to use the label trans*, and some trans people still do this, but general practice has now come around against asterisk.

Three bad things and we’re done: Transmisogyny refers to the combination of transphobia and misogyny that AMAB trans people experience. Misgendering refers to the act of using the wrong pronouns for someone, or using other terms that don’t match a person’s gender. Those who adopt a new name as part of their transition often call their old name their deadname; using this name for them is known as deadnaming, and, as with misgendering, it is absolutely something you should not do.

With this terminology under our belt, we’re finally ready to talk about art.

Trans People in Singing Theater History: A Cursory Sketch

When I initially sketched this section of the article, I planned to give a brief overview of the difficulties of trans history, highlight a few areas in the singing theater[11] past that seem likely to have under-explored trans histories, discuss the failings of several high-profile[12] efforts in recent years, and close with a survey of more successful projects. But as I began interviewing people for later articles in this series, I quickly discovered almost everyone I talked to has been involved in projects I’d never heard of, and these projects frequently defy easy categorization.

Almost everyone I talked to has been involved in projects I’d never heard of, and these projects frequently defy easy categorization.

That’s great news for demonstrating the vitality of trans art, but it rather derailed the original plan. Adequately surveying just the works from the past half-decade now seems like a dissertation project to me, not something that can be satisfactorily done in one half of one article. I hope someone writes that dissertation, but it’s not something I can do right here right now.

I’m still going to give a cursory overview of some (potentially) trans histories as well as the difficulties in uncovering them, both because those histories help illuminate where we are today and because several of my interviewees allude to this past in more and less explicit ways, but when it comes to more recent years, I’m going to hold off on generalizing and opt instead to describe specific projects as needed in the conversations with performers and writers in the next two articles.

Most contemporary frameworks of transness treat gender and sexuality as different things. Historically, this is not how these two facets of human experience were understood. For much of Western history, attraction to women was seen as a necessary component of masculinity. If you weren’t attracted to women, you were, in some sense, not really a man.[13]

This framing persists in the stereotype of the mannish lesbian and the effeminate gay man, but it was once the dominant paradigm for understanding homosexuality. Nineteenth-century sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s theory of sexual inversion posited that homosexuality arose when the gender of a person’s psyche was somehow the inverse of the gender of their body — so lesbians, for example, had a “masculine soul heaving in the female bosom” — and many in the early 20th century described themselves with this terminology, especially after Radclyffe Hall popularized it in her iconic 1928 novel, The Well of Loneliness.[14]

Radclyffe Hall in a jacket and tie holding a dog.

Radclyffe Hall c. 1930 (public domain image by unknown photographer via WikiMedia Commons)

Needless to say, this framing makes it impossible to cleanly divide the history of homosexuality from the history of transness. It’s like trying to divide composers from arrangers: Sure, some people focus more on one or the other, but by and large it’s not a distinction you can make. Forcing contemporary distinctions onto historical people not only risks misrepresenting them, it also distorts our understanding of the past. The best approach is to use the language of their own context — language that is often deliberately obscure[15] — especially when that language represents a totally different framework for categorizing these ideas.

Unfortunately, we don’t always have that language, and often it was deliberately suppressed. In perhaps the most dramatic example of the latter, the Nazis burned the entire archive of Berlin’s Institute for Sexology in 1933, destroying some 20,000 books and 5,000 photographs containing irreplaceable records of queer life in early 20th-century Europe. All of this makes studying trans history feel like trying to decode punch cards from an early computer that have been fed through a wood chipper and stored at the bottom of a lake. We know there’s something there, but that doesn’t mean we can actually find it with certainty.

To zoom in on a specific example of historic gender diversity in singing theater, I spoke with Dr. Imani Mosley of Wichita State University.

“The music theater and opera stage have a history of being this amazing place to have conversations about gender, gender identity, and gender presentation,” she said. “There’s a lot there — we’re talking centuries of it. If anyone is under the assumption that this is a 20th- or 21st-century situation: It’s not. It goes all the way back to Venice and the beginning of the dramma per musica. It didn’t always look the same, but these things were always present.”

She continued, “[In the 17th and 18th centuries,] there’s a lot of conflation between gender and sexuality, and castrati are the best example of this because you have all of these conversations surrounding them about the fluidity they moved through. There was space to talk about their gender portrayal as masculine in some aspects and feminine in others.” These conversations in the press didn’t always involve the perspectives of castrati themselves. “The more famous you are, the more likely your words have come down to us today. But there are lots of people we know far less about.”

A 1734 paintingFarinelli leaning on a harpsichord.

Bartolomeo Nazari’s 1734 Portrait of Farinelli. Royal College of Music London CC BY-SA 4.0

And indeed, while castrati like Farinelli who became international superstars have been extensively documented, their experiences aren’t necessarily representative. At the peak of the castrato craze, around 4,000 castrati were being created every year; at this remove, it’s hard to even find their names, let alone detailed information about how they thought about themselves and their genders. It’s easy to assume that any singer before the 20th century who lived a life that we might now read as trans of course would have entered historical memory[16], but it’s also easy to assume that any well-written pieces by people other than cis white men of course would have entered the canon, or that of course people today would remember if every major newspaper, magazine, and radio show in the US had covered a trans woman positively (for the time) for six months in 1952. It’s easy to assume lots of false things.

Many of the best trans shows I’ve seen were ephemeral, performed in small venues with shoestring budgets, receiving no press and minimal documentation.

Working as a trans artist, I see this historical amnesia happening in real time. Many of the best trans shows I’ve seen were ephemeral, performed in small venues with shoestring budgets, receiving no press and minimal documentation. Given the tendency of records to be lost and destroyed over time, any historian looking back at this era is guaranteed to miss much of the dynamic vibrancy of this artistic moment. I fear that the few pieces that do have lasting records will seem like isolated blips instead of snatches of a densely interwoven tapestry.

Next week, we’ll begin the work of illuminating a little of that tapestry with a set of interviews with trans performers.

Further Reading

For those interested in pursuing the topics discussed above in more depth, here are some places to begin:

  • Julia Serano’s book Whipping Girl is an excellent introduction to many issues related to transness and femininity, and her two articles on the Activist Language Merry-Go-Round are a must-read for understanding why trans language is both so fluid and so contentious.
  • Noam Sienna’s Rainbow Thread is a vital collection of queer texts within Jewish traditions. The introduction’s clear, trenchant discussion of the difficulties of queer historical language deeply shaped my thinking in this essay.
  • As an entry point to the literature surrounding the relationship between Western and non-Western frameworks of gender and sexuality, “The Heterosexual Matrix as Imperial Effect” by Vrushali Patil is cogent and provides references to many additional sources.
  • Siren Songs, edited by Mary Ann Smart, remains a foundational collection of essays on the topic of representations of gender and sexuality in opera, albeit one that does not always adequately account for trans possibilities.
  • I linked to this in passing above, but “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex”, the 1989 article where Kimberlé Crenshaw lays out her theory of intersectionality, is a lucid read on why single-issue politics will never adequately address the complex injustices of the actual world.

Notes

1. I’m limiting this to Western societies because the theatrical works I will be discussing were written and produced in that context, albeit in a tradition with deep roots outside of the West. Many non-Western societies have more than two gender categories, categories that were forcibly suppressed as part of the deliberate genocides of Western colonialism. While some members of indigenous communities use the language of transness to describe themselves, others feel that transness is a specifically Western concept that does not fit their work.

2. Because gender happens in the realm of culture, it is, unsurprisingly, vastly mutable, and the cultural expectations of men and women vary across time, space, and demographics. The mainstream expectations of what gay men and women will be like, say, do not necessarily align with the expectations of what rich, straight, white, able-bodied, etc men and women will look like.

3. NB: The language in that article isn’t perfect, and the legal landscape in the United States has changed somewhat since it was written.

4. Variations abound: CAFAB/CAMAB adds a “coercively” on to the front; DFAB/DMAB changes “assigned” to “designated” or “declared”; FAAB/MAAB rearranges the order of the terms.

5. As with all aspects of self-conception, the reasons someone does or doesn’t claim a certain identity are complex and hugely idiosyncratic, and there isn’t room to go into them here. I’m just going to take it as a given that people have or lack genders and are capable of knowing this about themselves.

6. These edge cases often involve other axes of marginalization. To give just two examples, there are non-trivial arguments to be made that effeminate gay men are excluded from cis masculinity, and that Black women are excluded from cis femininity.

7. When shortened to transmasc or transfem (sometimes spelled transfemme), these terms also collide with masc and femme, which are themselves important identity labels in queer circles that don’t necessarily have any relation to sex assumed at birth.

8. Though, of course, there are absolutely trans people who prefer these terms, and whenever you’re referring to a specific trans person, you should respect their preferences.

9. Nonbinary and non-binary, however, are both fine.

10. Usually with two S’s, but sometimes only with one.

11. I use singing theater as a catch-all term for pieces intended primarily for live performance that use sung text in some way to tell a story, because so many of the issues of trans representation are the same regardless of whether the specific work in question is an opera, musical, oratorio, or song cycle.

12. Well, high-profile in the world of contemporary opera and off-Broadway musicals.

13. This is, obviously, a gross oversimplification, but it will have to do for now.

14. The theory of sexual inversion isn’t the only place where different present-day queer identities blur together. To use a more recent example, drag has historically been a world where the boundary lines between identity categories are fluid to nonexistent; while many present-day trans people have nothing to do with drag scenes, many hugely important figures in trans history made drag a core part of their identities.

15. See, for example, the gay men who referred to themselves as Friends of Dorothy in a tip of the hat to Judy Garland’s role in The Wizard of Oz, which famously led the US Navy to search for an actual woman named Dorothy that all the gay men were friends with.

16. Though, of course, things that strike us as remarkable today may have struck our predecessors as too commonplace to be worth noting. “Our progenitors were not as puritanical as we might believe,” as Mosley wryly noted.