- Anaughty Miss
- My stage persona, Misterectomy
I was flooded with questions that even formal histories have left unanswered. Two days later, with my own queer and trans identity at the forefront of my consciousness, I took part in an historic event — New England’s first Transgender Pride March and Rally in Northampton, MA. I marched next to living cornerstones in transgender history — Bet Power and Miss Major who carried the names of Sylvia Rivera and Angie Zapata along with them. We filled the streets singing, “Remember Stonewall? That was us!” Like the people in that march, transgender histories are difficult to categorize. The details and their significance are rarely agreed upon. Accessible accounts of our past are precious few. And our contested stories vary widely.
What I attempt to offer here is not a complete or encompassing history of a trans/gendered past, but a look at the differing ways in which that history has been fashioned. I have always found inspiration in theatre.
The Heyoka Project, is a theater piece about being “the other” in society. Director Bill Bowers was originally inspired by Two Spirit people who embody both the masculine and the feminine in Native American families, and who serve as a sort of mirror to teach within their communities. In the Lakota language, Heyokah translates to “the one who walks backwards; the contrary, opposite the norm." The role of the Heyokah or Two Spirit is to highlight or make visible the injustices, inconsistencies, and differences that comprise a society — the differences that drive us apart or draw us together; that mark the line between who is “in” and who is “out;" between who belongs and who does not.
One of the underlying questions in The Heyoka Project is “who decides?" Who decides who is different? Under what authority? With what consequence? Who decides if we are men, women or some “other” gender? Who decides if we are citizen or alien; legal or illegal? Who decides what rights, privileges or protections we are granted or denied based on those gender(ed) and other(ed) categories?
Who decides who is different? Under what authority? With what consequence? Who decides if we are men, women or some “other” gender? click to tweetOne of the Heyoka clowns struggles with these questions as he tries to cross an imaginary border in the play. As the clown attempts to cross, he stops dead in his tracks, halted by a whistle shrieking in the background before an officer demands his papers. The clown, of course, just wants to cross the bridge. He doesn’t have any papers. Since he needs to get across, he compliantly navigates a complex maze to the desk where he’s been instructed to get his papers. Papers in hand, he goes back to the bridge, attempts to cross, and the whistle blows again. The officer informs the clown that the papers must be signed, which they are not, and so he must navigate the maze back to the office again, get his papers signed, go back to the bridge, and attempt to cross. The whistle blows again. The bridge is closed. He cannot cross. And his papers will not be valid tomorrow.
I often reflect on this story for Pride, and find that the metaphors become increasingly salient with time. Trans people are still demanded to “show their documents” in order to access “transgender rights” like competent healthcare, education or restroom facilities. Migrants at the border are being forced to surrender their children into cages at the hands of the state. Latino citizens with a (dis) similar skin color are demanded to show their papers because they are speaking in “foreign tongues” at the grocery store. Black parents and their children are being terrorized with threats of vehicular impoundment or even death at routine traffic stops. Each of these issues are queer issues, and mirror a long history of oppression within our communities.
Prior to colonization — before the intentional murder of Two Spirits and the systematic destruction of gender variance — Native communities offered a wide range of socially accepted and institutionalized gender alternatives that included any combination of cross-dressing, cross-gender role behavior, cross-gender identification, heterosexual and homosexual orientations, and/or or a complete transition from one sex/gender role to another. The Two-Spirit people who occupied these roles are documented in more 130 indigenous groups. Rather than being hated, they were often revered and enjoyed privileges that were available to neither men nor women in their respective communities. In fact, it was not until after colonization that a two-sex system of seemingly “traditional” gender roles began to appear as “neutral” or “natural” at all.
Yet popular narratives for trans history often ignore this past, beginning much later in the 1950s with the story of Christine Jorgensen — the first person to become widely known for having sex-reassignment surgery in the United States. While Jorgensen was hardly the first embodiment of trans experience, she represented a critical moment in transgender history as “the world’s first transsexual celebrity.” Men and women around the world took notice, tuned in their radios, opened their newspapers and flooded the night clubs where the “blonde beauty” performed, making transsexuality visible on an unprecedented scale within a modern Western context.
For Jorgensen, the desire to transition was overwhelming — she was convinced that she must become a woman, no matter the cost. By nearly all accounts, Jorgensen was undoubtedly successful in that quest. As one interviewer once put it, she was “more than an interesting person; a perfect lady."
The history of medical advancements in transgender care began to take shape around the 1940s. This history of medicalization (and later legalization) of trans identities runs deeply parallel to political gender movements that the Jorgensen account of transsexual history often ignores. In 1969, as New York police raided the Stonewall Inn where sexual minorities were routinely beaten, raped, and humiliated — Christine Jorgensen was traveling the world, renting a plush Hollywood apartment and casting roles for a film about her “transformation from an unremarkable male into the feminine and beautiful Christine.” As impoverished trans people of color led the fight for their lives in the streets of Greenwich Village, Christine Jorgensen provided the glamorized account by which all such acts of resistance could be measured as unbecoming. Her story broke in an “era marked by rigidly enforced social conformity and fear of difference.” That same fear of difference is precisely what drove the scientific community’s response to sexual and gender variance.
Her story broke in an “era marked by rigidly enforced social conformity and fear of difference.” click to tweetToday, these patterns persist. Leading stories for transgender lives often remain centered on “Gender Dysphoria” — an intense feeling of discomfort or distress with a person’s birth-assigned sex. The sound bites suggest that all trans people are, can, and should be like Christine —transsexuals who ultimately transition to live as “normal men” or “normal women," indistinguishable from their morally upright, respectable cisgender, heterosexual neighbors. By 1980, gender variance had become a diagnosable condition called “Gender Identity Disorder” in the medical and psychiatric communities.
While medical advances in hormone replacement therapy and gender confirming surgery have undoubtedly improved the quality of life for queer/trans people who desire those services, is it possible that the seeming medical acceptance of transsexuality was never intended to embrace gender variance, but rather to erase the visibility of trans people as “trans?" Leading authorities on transgender issues — Dr. Harry Benjamin and his colleagues, for example — routinely “urged post operative patients to hide, or even lie about their past lives as the other sex,” effectively advocating for the social and systemic invisibility of trans identities. Instead of challenging this intentional erasure of visible gender variance, many of our histories actually champion the normative medical narratives that push out more radical perspectives on gender non-conformity.
The challenge is that many queer/trans people do not wish to become women or men. They wish to re-construct new realities. They dare to re-create themselves radically.
Like many trans people, I have experienced homelessness, discrimination in healthcare, and threats of violence and sexual assault. I am constantly subjected to gendered rules — with all the accompanying social and legal consequence — around my clothing or which public spaces I can or can’t occupy. These are the collective circumstances that create discomfort and distress for me. You might say I’ve shared a sort of “social dysphoria," rather than “gender dysphoria” in the sense that I’ve been unhappy with the cultural and legal responses I’ve received for gender variance, instead of experiencing my own gender or body as disordered inherently.
- Anaughty Miss
So, what if queer/trans people actually felt gender euphoria — an intense state of excitement or happiness in their gender(s) — instead of gender dysphoria? The stage has often offered that space for queers.
I have often explored these themes within my creative work, drawing on methods from Theatre of the Oppressed in particular. Last year, I also expanded my stage training with Colorado’s own burlesque super troupe at the Peaks and Pasties Academy of Burlesque. Peaks and Pasties has provided a unique platform to explore the foundations of “gender euphoria” — including sex and body positivity — first hand. My stage ego, “Misterectomy," has also helped forge a new dynamic between my roles as artist and activist as a Queerlesque performer in Colorado Springs. It has been a special privilege to produce our June LGBTQ Pride show.
My inspiration for this event was the 1990 film Paris Is Burning — an American documentary directed by Jennie Livingston. Filmed in the mid-to-late 1980s, it chronicles the ball culture of New York City and the African-American, Latino, gay and transgender communities involved in it. Some critics consider the film to be an invaluable documentary of the end of the "Golden Age" of New York City drag balls, and a thoughtful exploration of race, class, gender and sexuality in America. In 2016, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." My hope is that Neon Nights will help pay tribute to these rich cultural histories by suspending the notion of gender dysphoria, and replacing it with a new, universal sort of gender euphoria.
It is intended to serve as both celebration and commentary at once.