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.
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. 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.
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.”
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. 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.” 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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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. 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.”
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.”
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.”
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. 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.”
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.”
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. And so with [Michigan Trees], 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.”
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, 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.
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.”
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.”
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?’”
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 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.”
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.
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.
This article opens up many avenues for further exploration. Here are some potential next steps down a few of them:
- The phenomenon of feeling an affinity for monstrosity is not confined to trans people. While some fiercely resist the association of queer people with monstrosity, others embrace it. Sam Wall has a lively and endearing essay on this topic.
- Trans economic woes are not wholly separable from the generally bleak economic outlook facing Millennials, just as trans people who are kicked out from their homes and/or who face housing insecurity, often exacerbated by other forms of oppression, get swept into the general nightmare that is homelessness in the United States.
- For more on the toll that performing trauma on stage can take on the body, Melisa Pereyra’s “We Have Suffered Enough” is a must.
- This illuminating interview with Akwaeke Emezi contains a beautiful meditation on the potential of imagining trans joy as an antidote to trauma.
- Those wishing to get a taste of the diverse ways in which trans people write about our own experiences could do worse than picking up a copy of Meanwhile, Elsewhere, an anthology of speculative fiction written by an international roster of trans writers. (Those wishing to see how trans people make theater should check out the calendars of their local queer performance venues.)
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.