Towards a Framework for Responsible Trans Casting Part 4: The Framework
After pondering a list of 10 questions representing the most frequent and pernicious” you should ask yourself to avoid bad trans writing in opera and music theater, we encourage you to “unlearn the lazy shortcuts that use binary genders to bypass genuine characterization.”
By Brin Solomon & Aiden Feltkamp
We’re almost done. Having laid out some trans theory and heard from trans practitioners, we’re about to lay out a framework for responsible trans casting in singing theater.
We intend this to be a minimal framework, in two senses. First, we have kept the number of guidelines to a minimum, balancing thoroughness with flexibility to produce something that is clear and concrete while also being adaptable to a wide variety of on-the-ground circumstances. Second, however, we want to emphasize that this is not a maximum standard to aspire to, but a minimal bar that must be reached. Following this guide cannot guarantee you will make good trans representation, but it will hopefully help you avoid making bad trans representation.
We recognize that as culture changes, so do the boundaries between the acceptable and the reprehensible. Swastikas mean something different on contemporary US white-supremacist rally flags than they did in 12th-century Buddhist iconography. We know how things stand where and when we are; we do not know how things are in every single other place, nor can we anticipate how things will change in the future. We offer this guide to those who share our cultural context; writers working outside it will need to adapt it to the specifics of their own surroundings.
Please don’t refer to this as the Feltkamp-Solomon Test or any similar moniker. We may be the two people putting these words in this order, but this guide has grown from innumerable conversations, formal and informal, with other trans people over the course of years of our lives. This document is inseparable from the community it emerges from.
That said, we are under no illusions as to the unity of trans communities. We anticipate that other trans people will disagree with us—indeed, the writers do not even agree with each other on all things trans related. We welcome this disagreement and look forward to engaging with it. We offer this guide as part of an ongoing conversation, an attempt to publicly draw together numerous threads into a document for others to remark upon, critique, and add nuance to.
In particular, we know that not all trans people will agree that cis people have any business writing trans characters at all. While we are sympathetic to this position, and while cis writers’ track record is far from exemplary here, we feel we must disagree. Trans actors need jobs. Cis writers should not be exempt from the work of dismantling transphobia. The stories you see shape the worlds you can imagine, and we do not wish to encourage cis people to keep imagining worlds in which we do not exist. To forbid cis writers from writing trans characters is, in some ways, to forbid cis writers from imagining trans people as real, complex human beings, which, we feel, casts trans people as an unknowable Other. We find this profoundly dehumanizing.
This obviously raises the much larger issue of which writers are “allowed” to tell which stories. Discussions of this question frequently lack even a rudimentary understanding of structural power imbalances between marginalized and non-marginalized groups. This lack inevitably dooms them to confusion. To put it bluntly, asking who is “allowed” to write which stories without analyzing the power imbalances at play is rather like doing a harmonic analysis by looking only at the bass drum part—you’re simply missing critical information.
Analyzing the underlying power imbalances reveals facile accusations of having unfair double standards—if cis actors can’t play trans characters, why can trans actors play cis characters?—for the vacuities that they are. These purported equivalencies fall flat because cis people and trans people are not equivalently situated in society: cis people have far more structural power. Trans actors cannot have stable careers if they aren’t cast by cis directors. Trans writers cannot reliably get their work produced without cis producers. Trans artists of all stripes depend on the support of cis-led institutions. The most prominent stories about trans lives, stories that have real consequences for how safely we are able to live those lives, are overwhelmingly created and controlled by cis people. In all cases, the reverse is not true. Until this changes—until we root out transphobia at every level, dismantle these pervasive inequities, and create a society truly founded on Justice—it is absurd to propose there is any double standard to questioning cis writers’ ability to write trans characters without also questioning trans writers’ ability to write cis characters. Build utopia, then we’ll talk.
This brings us to the scare quotes we have been putting around “allowed.” That phrasing crops up often, but it is fundamentally misleading. There is no all-powerful trans cabal whose permission you must secure before undertaking a new work. No one can stop you from writing whatever you want. Indeed, judging by Tootsie’s Tony nominations and American Opera Projects’ continued pride in Three Way, you may even be richly rewarded for it. The success of these shows (and many others like them) should put to rest any fears from cis people that they will not be “allowed” to write about trans people.
A better framing of this question is to ask not who is allowed to write what, but who is able to do so without hurting members of a marginalized group. If you do not care whether your art hurts people, we cannot help you. Nor can we help you if you refuse to believe trans people when we tell you what hurts us. But if you do care, and if you are willing to listen, we hope that the guide below will help you tell trans stories responsibly.
This framework has two tiers. The first tier is a bar to clear—any production that cannot meet it may be presumed transphobic with no further analysis. The second tier is a series of questions, each of which is a common red flag. The more you answer yes to, the more likely your show will hurt trans people. If you answer no to all of them, you are likely fine. If you answer yes to all of them, you should almost certainly not proceed as planned.
As will be discussed at more length below, it is possible to handle most of these things well, and we certainly don’t mean to imply that any show that does any of these things must, necessarily, be transphobic. But there is a difference between playing with a single match over your kitchen sink and playing with a flamethrower in a propane factory. Handling these things well is difficult, and cis people, not having lived these experiences, are starting at a considerable disadvantage. Attempt them at your peril.
Tier 1: The Bar To Clear
Any trans character in your show must be played by a trans actor, and, where applicable, that actor’s assumed gender at birth must match the character’s assumed gender at birth.
The reasons why it is unacceptable to cast a cis actor in a trans role have been covered extensively elsewhere, so we will not reiterate that reasoning here. If you still feel that you do not understand why this is important, we ask that you simply believe us when we tell you what we need.
The second clause, however, requires explication. In recent years, there have been several instances where a trans man, for example, has been hired to play the role of a trans woman. We are surprised that cis people need to hear that men and women are, in fact, different, but here we are: Men and women are different, and one cannot simply be subbed in for the other. As Brin has articulated elsewhere, doing so not only confuses cis people about what basic terms like trans man mean (thus undoing countless painstaking educational efforts by trans activists) but also encourages audiences to misgender the actor, the character, or both.
Human beings are complex creatures, however, and we wish to respect that complexity. Insisting that an actor’s gender exactly match their character’s would trample this complexity, potentially forcing, for example, a transmasculine actor to hide his nonbinary identity lest he be precluded from playing a trans man in a new show. Such rigidity would also give rise to interminable, unanswerable disputes about whether, say, a transfeminine agender person is the same gender as a transfeminine neutrois person, disputes that would only grow more intractable when it comes to contemporary actors playing historical figures. While grouping trans people by gender assumed at birth may, understandably, be uncomfortable for some, we believe that this approach strikes a reasonable balance between respecting the differences among different kinds of trans people and allowing for the multifaceted fluidity of specific individuals.
That said, there are many situations where a character’s assumed gender at birth may be nonexistent or irrelevant. Your show may involve a Biblical angel, the Personification of the Abstract Concept of Forgetfulness, or a singing loaf of bread—all cases where gender assumed at birth does not apply. Or your show may involve a character that must be nonbinary, but whose gender assumed at birth does not matter to the drama at hand. Your show may well read differently depending on whether you cast an AFAB or an AMAB actor in such cases, just as your show may read differently if you cast a bombastic actor to play your villain or a calculating one. Every individual actor will bring a unique energy to the roles they play; that energy will naturally be shaped, in greater and lesser ways, by many different aspects of their being. We cannot anticipate every possible production of every possible show; we trust creative teams to know what they need in their actors for the dramas they are creating to make sense.
Tier 2: The Ten Questions
Tier 1 had more to do with casting than writing. In Tier 2, we’ll reverse that. These questions are not presented in any particular order, and nor do they exhaust the possibilities of bad trans writing. We included ten questions because ten is a round number, and we included these ten because they represent the most frequent and pernicious tropes that the actors and writers interviewed for this series complained about. Here they are:
- Is it a coming-out story?
Coming-out stories are important, but they’re also massively over-done, and their prevalence makes it seem like transness is something unfamiliar that must always be explained. These stories usually imply that coming out and transitioning are tidy, finite processes, and they also limit our ability to imagine trans people living rich, long lives after telling everyone we’re trans. There’s so much more to us than these initial announcements.
- Is the trans character deadnamed, misgendered, or otherwise subject to transphobic violence? Are they sexually assaulted?
Obviously, conflict is the heart of drama, and conflict more or less requires characters having bad things happen to them. But there’s a difference between an ordinary plot-related bad thing—a natural disaster, a surprise betrayal, untrammeled arrogance—and a bad thing brought about because of a character’s transness. Basically, we want you to imagine transness not as a source of suffering, and trans people not as tragic figures who inevitably wind up getting raped.
- Are the trans character’s emotions explained or excused by hormones?
Hormones may alter our emotional landscapes, but testosterone doesn’t make someone an aggressive monster, nor does estrogen make someone a weepy mess. Trans people on and off hormones experience a full range of emotions and can control our reactions to them; trans characters shouldn’t be let off the hook because hormones are making them “emotional,” and nor should their emotions be dismissed as “just a side effect of hormones.”
- For transfeminine characters: Does the trans character commit sexual assault?
It is a core plank of many transmisogynistic attacks that trans women are inherently sexually predatory. While some real-life trans women do commit sexual assault, just as some real-life cis women do, it is extraordinarily difficult to depict this in fiction without strengthening the idea that all trans women are inherently predatory threats.
- Do we know more about the trans character’s genitals than the cis characters’ genitals?
Cis people tend to fixate on our genitals, stripping away every other aspect of our personhood to obsess over what’s between our legs. If you’re writing a sex farce, it may be appropriate to mention a trans character’s genitals, but if we don’t know whether the cis men in your show are circumcised, or if the cis women shave their pubic hair, we shouldn’t know anything about the trans character’s junk.
- Is the realness of a trans character’s gender made contingent on medical interventions?
It’s obviously abhorrent to say that a cis woman isn’t a “real” woman because her body is the wrong shape and she hasn’t gone to a doctor to change it. Similarly, trans people aren’t less “real” if we never step into a hospital or swallow a pill.
- Does the trans character exist primarily to teach the cis characters a lesson?
The archetypal example here is probably Angel from RENT: A larger-than-life figure whose unshakable authenticity inspires the other characters to be truer to themselves and embrace living in the moment. This frames trans people as primarily existing for the benefit of cis people, and denies us the possibility of having goals we pursue for our own sakes. A very concrete red flag is if the trans character is called “brave” merely for existing.
- Is “being trans” the character’s only defining feature?
Trans people are just as individual as everyone else, with interests, projects, and goals that have nothing to do with being trans. Flattening out that individuality to write a role whose defining traits begin and end with being trans not only paints trans people as an interchangeable monolith, it’s also just bad writing. Your characters should be characters—rounded creations with depth and nuance, not a collection of half-baked stereotypes thrown together in a rush.
- Does the trans character die?
Stories where trans characters die re-enforce the idea that trans existence is tragic, doomed to come to an untimely end. Imagine us living, and living well, instead.
- Is there only one trans character in the show?
If writing one trans character is hard, writing two is easier. When there’s only one trans person on stage, it’s almost inevitable that they’ll be seen as representing All Trans People Ever. Having multiple trans people on stage diffuses this tendency and helps root the characters’ traits in the individuals themselves rather than in their demographic. In fact, you could do a lot worse than filling your entire cast with trans people—we do like to hang out together, after all!
Again, these questions do not exhaust the catalogue of transphobic tropes. Some runners-up that didn’t make the final list:
- Is the trans character’s violation of Western gender norms tied to moral deviancy?
- Is your only trans character an antagonist?
- Does the trans character transition for deceptive purposes?
- If the trans character is nonbinary, is their assumed gender at birth the topic of speculation from the other characters? Are they treated as a 50/50 mix of masculinity and femininity?
- Is transness conflated with drag?
Still, the above reflect issues that were repeatedly raised by those interviewed for this series, as well as issues that the authors have encountered frequently and perniciously in our own lives. If you can say no to all of them, you’re off to a solid start.
The Secret Third Tier: Sensitivity Readers
By this point, gentle reader, you have probably realized that this guide is not a cut-and-dried checklist that can be mechanically applied to greenlight your work. Indeed, we do not intend it to be. As has been emphasized throughout this series, responsible trans representation must always be grounded in trans communities. We, the authors, can speak to our own communities, but we cannot speak to all trans communities, potentially including the specific trans community (or communities) your work engages with. You will need to engage with members of those communities directly.
Fortunately, there’s a framework for this. Many trans people from all different backgrounds offer their services as sensitivity consultants (also called sensitivity readers). The specific details will vary from situation to situation, but the underlying relationship is the same: You hire them to read your script, and they tell you where you’ve gone wrong in telling the story you’re trying to tell. Ideally, this should be an ongoing relationship that lasts for most of the writing and development process, though they need not be consulted for every single line edit. Some actors may be willing to serve this role in addition to acting in your show, but this is emphatically not part and parcel of an actor’s job; any actor who steps into this role in your production should be compensated and credited appropriately.
It bears repeating that you should be looking to hire someone who is part of the community you are hoping to represent. If you are telling a story about a black trans woman, don’t hire a white sensitivity reader. If you’re writing a transmasculine character, don’t hire a transfeminine person. As has been emphasized again and again in this series, trans people are anything but monolithic; we cannot simply be swapped out for one another like interchangeable assembly-line parts. If you cannot find anyone who’s part of the community you’re hoping to represent, you may not be the person to tell this story. To put it bluntly: If you aren’t connected in any way to the community you’re hoping to write about, you will almost certainly not be able to write about it responsibly. Gently but firmly, we suggest you set your sights on something else. “Kill your darlings” applies to entire projects, too.
We wish it went without saying, but experience shows this needs to be said too: Once you hire this person, you need to actually listen to what they tell you. The point is not to add a team member as a pro-forma publicity stunt and then proceed with your original plan. The point is to change your show—potentially all of your show—in response to their feedback. If you blanch at this, if there are parts of your show that you cannot bear the thought of parting with no matter how insistently and adamantly you are told they are harmful, that is a sign you are not ready to do this work. Please don’t write about us. The show you produce will almost certainly do more harm than good, and more harm from cis people is the last thing that trans people need.
A Brief Aside on Character Flaws
Whenever members of a marginalized group ask for more sensitivity in how they are portrayed in media, they are invariably charged with censoriously advocating for flat, flawless characters who are bastions of goodness and who never have anything bad happen to them ever. To take that from this piece would be a gross misreading of our position. By all means, write messy, flawed trans characters who get thrown into conflict with themselves, other people, and the world. But if the only flaws you can think to give a trans person are textbook transphobic tropes, and the only conflicts you can imagine us facing stem directly from our transness, we gently suggest that you may need to expand your imagination.
A Longer Aside on Trans Creators
It may happen, gentle reader, that you see a trans creator making art that has several red flags in it per the list of questions above. Indeed, you may even see a trans creator make art that does not even clear the initial hurdle we propose. You may then feel an urge to critique this work for its transphobia.
For starters, as stated explicitly above, answering yes to any of the questions on our list does not automatically make a work transphobic, it just makes it far more likely that the resulting work will be transphobic. Having lived as its targets, trans creators have an insider’s knowledge of how transphobia works, and thus have an automatic bonus in navigating these issues deftly on stage.
That said, in and of itself, being trans is no guarantee of getting it right. Sometimes trans people, wittingly or not, make deeply transphobic art. Even more likely, we may create art that some trans people find reprehensible and other trans people find responsible. We’re not a monolith, any more than any other demographic is.
In cases where there’s no community consensus—and, frankly, even in cases where there is a strong community consensus—against a trans-led project, we urge you to stay on the sidelines. By all means, share trans-written critiques if you find them compelling, and, if you are in a position to, offer trans people a platform to discuss such works, but think twice (or, really, three or four times) before diving into the fray yourself.
Trans people are constantly critiquing other trans people, and also constantly discussing how public to make these critiques, knowing that there are cis people out there who will gleefully leap on any chance to say negative things about trans people, not as a means of pursuing justice, but simply so they can give their transphobia a veneer of social acceptability. There is just too much hurt here for critiques from outsiders to be effective. Your energies will be better spent on building a world where we are not a community perpetually at siege.
Towards Transphilia: What Are Cis Roles, Anyway?
So far, this series has more or less tacitly ceded the premise that almost all singing theater roles in existence are cis roles, even where we have argued that trans people should be cast in them.
Strictly speaking, this is not true. Certainly, the vast majority of singing theater roles are either men or women, but it’s quite rare that these roles are specifically cis men or women. The text of Don Giovanni may be quite clear that Don Ottavio is a man, but it tells us precisely nothing about his genital anatomy. We may feel quite confident that West Side Story’s Anita is a woman even as we know nothing about what assumptions people made about her gender when she was born. The vast majority of theatrical roles cannot accurately be described as cis because they do not contain the information necessary to apply such a label. The perspective shift called for by trans liberation goes beyond opening “cis” roles to trans performers, it requires dismantling the notion that these roles were ever cis to begin with.
Some may object that, even if these roles aren’t explicitly marked as cis by the text of the show, the creators certainly thought of them as cis, because it would be “unrealistic” for trans people to occupy, say, the status of a minor noble in 1600s Seville, or a core member of a group of Puerto Ricans in New York City in the 1950s.
This is silly.
First, we reiterate that historical conceptions of gender were often quite different from those in the present. If you actually do the painstaking work of exploring the historical record instead of making assumptions about it, you will find many instances in which someone who lived a life that resonates with contemporary trans experiences was accepted and embraced by members of their community. Such figures include those with prominent, high-status positions in society—their stories are not confined to the societal margins, though they do exist there as well. If you exclude people who could now be considered trans, your show isn’t historically accurate, even if the original creators didn’t explicitly envision this possibility. Trans people can be dignified nobles, scrappy underdogs, dashing rogues, romantic leads. None of these things are implausible; they are our past and present realities.
And anyway, singing theater is inherently unrealistic. In reality, people do not spontaneously burst into song. They do not perform elaborate choreography to leitmotif-laden dance breaks. They do not hold for applause after particularly bravura turns. The unreality of singing theater is among its chief joys.
We also disregard creators’ intentions all the time. If Così fan tutte can survive being transported to Coney Island and Les Misérables to the present day, casting a male actor to play a male character shouldn’t ruffle any feathers just because of the assumptions people may have made about the meaning of said actor’s body.
Clearing away these stale preconceptions opens the door to imagining a world transformed. There is no inevitability to trans- and cisness. Both are predicated on the act of assuming an infant’s gender based on their genital configuration. Stop making that assumption, respect the nested infinitudes of human variety by treating individuals as individuals, as they are instead of as you think they should be, and these categories will melt into air. To be sure, there will still be people who desire to change their names, their pronouns, their bodies, but there will not be trans or cis people per se. There will just be people, choosing of their own accord how they wish to move through the world.
There will still, probably, be men and women, too, but those two genders will no longer be seen as two complementary halves of a system with no other parts, nor even as two ends that anchor a spectrum, but as two pinpricks in a vast, radiant nebula, popular ones, perhaps, but no more central than any other mote, nor any less fractaline in their variable complexity. We do not know exactly what this world will look like, but on a clear day, you can almost see its outlines dawning on the far horizon.
This calls for both individual and societal change, and our society, in its present form, is deeply invested in binaries of all kinds, gender chief among them. There will be active, sustained resistance to making these changes, resistance that will not be swiftly overcome. This is the work of lifetimes. Imagining the destination is only the start.
And yet it is a necessary start. We invite you to join us in this collective endeavor, in imagining this world into existence. Unlearn the lazy shortcuts that use binary genders to bypass genuine characterization. Write characters in your shows, rounded and messy and deeply human. Make room for the unruly wild array that genders and bodies come in, without forcing this exquisite natural chaos into artificial, sterile boxes. Cast trans people in everything, and don’t remark on it, because it shouldn’t be remarkable. It’s that simple. It’s that hard.
We look forward to seeing what you make.
There is always more to say. We expect that trenchant critiques of this series will emerge, and regret that we cannot link them here. In the meantime, here are some avenues to explore:
- Although not directly modeled on it, this article draws inspiration from James Mendez Hodes’s “May I Play a Character from Another Race?” While acknowledging the many dissimilarities both between gender and race and between theater and role-playing games, we feel the approach Hodes takes to navigating power inequities between marginalized and non-marginalized groups is lucid, compelling, and well worth reading.
- With similar caveats, we feel that Lavina Jadhwani’s discussion of how casting choices can interact with stereotypes and societal power structures when it comes to race offers a useful starting point for considering similar questions as they relate to handling gender and transness when casting pre-existing works.
- This is a reasonable overview of sensitivity readers and the work they do.
- This overview of the ambivalence many trans people feel about coming-out narratives also offers a window into the difficulty many trans people feel in discussing the work of other trans creators in front of a broader cis public, while this Robot Hugs strip illustrates why trans people need spaces where we can work these issues out amongst ourselves.
- The final section of this essay gestures in the direction of queer futurity. Cruising Utopia, by José Esteban Muñoz, is one of the defining works on this topic, and you can read the introduction online here.
1. As a middle ground, some suggest that cis writers should write stories that include trans characters but that are not about the experience of being trans. This solid guiding principle underlies much of what follows, but the boundary line between these categories is vague, and we believe greater specificity is required.
2. We see no point in pretending this isn’t an unwinnable double bind: Some trans people will be upset with you if you do include trans characters in your work, and some will be upset with you if you don’t. Sometimes, these will even be the same people.
3. For a lengthier discussion of how things that are just can look unfair when analyzed outside of the pertinent context, see part ten of this extended essay on rape culture.
6. There isn’t an exact counterpart here for transmasculine characters. This asymmetry stems from a variety of factors that are too thorny to go into here. Those wishing to explore this in more depth are encouraged to read Julia Serano’s discussion of effemimania in Whipping Girl and Jay Hulme’s breakdown of how transphobes target trans men.
7. Angel’s precise gender is a matter of some dispute. We feel comfortable reading her as a transfeminine person written by a rather clueless cis heterosexual who died before he could revise a messy draft, but we recognize that others may disagree.
9. And note, we do mean hire, with money. In a theatrical context, you should also strongly consider giving them credit in scripts, scores, and programs. If you run an organization that develops new works, we urge you to budget a sensitivity reader for new works as needed.
11. These remarks apply exclusively to instances where a cis person, as a cis person, critiques a trans person, as a trans person, for transphobia. It is of course permissible for, say, a black cis person to critique a white trans person for racism.
13. Or, better: The vast majority of characters are referred to with either he/him/his or she/her/hers pronouns (or the equivalent in the language of the work) — many characters are never directly described as “a man” or “a woman” by themselves or any other character.
14. The most obvious case in which we might have this kind of information are women who get (or fear getting) pregnant. Yet even this may not be conclusive, depending on the setting of the production—uterus transplants are not unheard of, after all.
15. Indeed, we should be as cautious about calling historical figures cis as we are about calling them trans. This contemporary language has been developed in a contemporary context; applying it outside that context is almost invariably reductive and misleading.
16. And it’s not like there’s no history of Puerto Rican trans people working on the streets of New York City.
17. Unsurprisingly, the reception histories of these figures are complex. They are often written about in sensationalized, exploitative ways, and their own words and actions are often erased in favor of equating their “real” gender with their genitals.
18. If, instead of historical accuracy per se, you’re going to insist on being accurate to the creators’ intentions, no matter how historically inaccurate those intentions were, you’re in for several worlds of trouble. In many cases, those intentions cannot be determined with certainty, but even when they can, we cannot necessarily adhere to them. After all, the creators of Don Giovanni intended it to be performed by 18th-century European singers in an 18th-century European theater for an 18th-century European audience, none of which you’re going to be able to find today. If you’re flexible enough to allow a soprano born and raised in Boise in the 21st century to play Zerlina, you’re going to need a convoluted argument indeed to argue that that same soprano should suddenly be disbarred from the role just because some people mistakenly thought she was a boy for a while.
19. We wish to reiterate here that these concepts were developed in a specifically Western cultural context, and everything we are saying here is limited to that context, too. The relationship between Western projects of trans liberation and projects like decolonization that seek the broader undoing of Western hegemony are complex, to say the least.