Towards a Framework for Responsible Trans Casting, Part 1: Words, Words, Words
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.
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 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 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. 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.
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). 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. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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. 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 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 past that seem likely to have under-explored trans histories, discuss the failings of several high-profile 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.
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.
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.
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 — 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.”
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.