Two summers ago, one of my closest friends came out as transmale.
Now for our conservative, right-wing, heavily Christian community, this was quite the upset. The summer became a battle. Everyone had a opinion. There was a split between those who supported him through this transition, and those who did not.
Parents were the loudest to reject it entirely.
As someone who had grown up in a household that was more akin to a warzone than a home, I knew a little about what it was like to come home in fear of the possible confrontations. I opened my house whenever I could, and the two of us spent countless nights just checking in with each other. I couldn’t imagine the bravery it took to be true to oneself in the face of such opposition. I remember constantly pestering him with the question, “What can I do to help?”
The end of the summer quickly came, and people more or less adjusted to the new normal. I went back to theatre school, but topics from the summer stayed on my mind. My schedule was more relaxed during the semester which meant I had more time to focus on writing. Walking home one day I was struck with a thought. I had never seen a transgender character onstage before. So of course, the eager and ambitious theatre-maker inside me said, “Well why don’t I write one?”
I quickly messaged my friend from home about the idea and what his thoughts were on the matter, since the character would be inspired by him. He gave me his full support and I assured him that he would be involved in the writing process as much as we both were able.
The play I began working on contained a variety of subjects and themes important to me, (rebuilding of friendship, millennials in the present economy, surviving life as a young 20-something), however, I was determined to grant equal time to Allan (the character) and his story. I quickly realized that I was biting off more than I could chew. My own themes aside, there was no way I could do Allan’s story justice from my perspective, let alone articulate the experience of a transition. As much as I collaborated with my friend, I didn’t feel I had the right to tell that story.
What I know is this:
- I want to use my position as playwright to provide opportunities for young transgender actors to play transgender characters onstage.
- I believe that as artists we must have the freedom to write about characters that are unlike ourselves.
I wish things were as simple as that.
Recently, as part of #IdentityWeek, Basil Kreimendahl wrote a piece for Howlround on cisgender playwrights and trans characters. He does a wonderful job of articulating the questions I found myself struggling with. How do I write character’s unlike myself but remain cognizant of implications? My intentions may be pure (to my eyes) but when writing about an experience that is not my own (not to mention one so charged politically and emotionally), what comes attached when writing from my perspective? How do I remain respectful and open to telling the story properly? How do I fight my own ignorance and keep myself accountable?
One solution that Kreimendahl offered, is to surround the collaboration process with trans producers, directors, designers, actors, etc. This is something that I would love to do, when I return to the play that I started or venture off into other stories pressing to be told.
This is one possible solution to a many layered and complex topic. I know that I am nowhere close to having all the answers. Instead, I am filled with questions about how to proceed.
Questions that can only find answers, if the conversation continues. If I can’t write the story now, the least I can do is open the discussion.
And simply ask, “What can I do to help?”