Appropriation

By , April 8, 2011 2:20 pm

I’m working on No Gender Left Behind right now, reading through the script I have so far and thinking about where to take it next. And I’ve hit something of a roadblock. Or, at the very least, some speedbumps. I’ve been thinking about the dangers of appropriation.

Specifically, I’m at a part in the show where I’d like to get into issues of discrimination. Of violence against trans folks. Of harassment. Rape. Murder. Of things that I – bless the gods – have only experienced peripherally, if at all.

How do I move from telling my story, to telling our story?

The work that I’ve done in the past has consisted of primarily two types of on stage storytelling: metaphor, and my own personal narrative. The former is, I’ve been told by audiences, really helpful: using The Little Mermaid, creating my own stories and myths and metaphors, talking about recipes and lectures and the like. The latter, while somewhat more ‘obvious,’ has also been positively received. I’m often the first trans person audience members have seen who is telling her own story, in her own words. From friends to reviewers, I’ve gotten the message that personal narrative is a key part of what makes my performances powerful.

But what about the stories of other people? I’m looking right now at the National Center for Trans Equality’s report on the status of trans folks, and horrible things are happening that I simply have been lucky enough to not be a target of:

  • 16% of trans folks have worked in the underground economy (sex work, drugs, etc) for income
  • 19% have been outright refused medical care
  • 57% experienced significant family rejection
  • 19% experienced violence at the hands of a family member

And on and on and on.

How do I tell those stories without acts of appropriation?

I’ve been talking with some friends this week about that problem, and the biggest thing I keep being told is I’m blowing the ‘problem’ out of proportion. I should absolutely be conscious to not cast stories as my own unless they actually happened to me, but this is violence and discrimination happening within my community. I can acknowledge and embrace that in a way a cisgender person probably couldn’t. (At least, not without great difficulty.) So I’m not appropriating in the same way I would be if I were trying to tell the story of people of color. Or disabled folks. Etc, etc, etc.

Second, to help reassure my own worries, I should start talking with some other trans folks. Whether or not they were the specific targets of the discrimination I’ll be portraying, they can offer there thoughts and insights in how to respectfully and truthfully address trans issues. I’ve already started doing this, and the general consensus is I’m going about this in a respectful and methodical way, and that I worry too much. (Which shouldn’t be news to anyone.)

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I need to acknowledge that these issues are mine, even if they didn’t happen to me. As one friend said, “your body has been targeted and implicated [in this violence], too.”  Systemic violence and discrimination against trans folks is directed at me, even if I’ve been (mostly) fortunate enough to not be on the receiving end so far.

And it’s royally fucked up to say “Well, I’ve only been fired, but I haven’t been raped or beaten. I’m pretty fortunate, all things considered.” I’m allowed to acknowledge that, too.

11 Responses to “Appropriation”

  1. Treasa de Gruyl says:

    These experiences are very real whether or not you’ve been ‘lucky’. These are things that are happening to our trans siblings, and at least some of them must have–at some point–been concerns you have faced in your own life–most likely you still face some of them at least every once in a while. I don’t want to presume to know your experience, but I’m sure you can find that feeling (maybe it’s the same place that was hit by being fired) and accurately portray it.

    I have my own experiences, many of them empowering–but there are the ones that aren’t. The ones that tear at your soul when you think of how crappy the world can be, and how there is real evil alive and walking around. The experiences that take away any hope that there is real fairness and justice in the world–unless people work to make changes, to help foster understanding (and hope it takes root). But, that’s just my thoughts.

    Go ahead. You can’t appropriate something that’s already directed at you for being you. Just because the more violent aspects haven’t hit you doesn’t mean that they aren’t there.

    And, yeah it is really fucked up to feel like you have to say it’s not that bad when you’ve had your own experience.

  2. Tristan says:

    Could you do some sort of Trans Day of Remembrance style reading of names and stories. I don’t know if that would flow with what you have already, but makes it clear that the stories are yours and takes part in the context of something that is shared by the whole community.

    • Rebecca says:

      Oh, that’s a good idea. I’m not sure how it’d fit, but I think it could nicely supplement the narrative stuff I have from the survey.

  3. Nessie says:

    If you also have some kind of “multi-media background” on your presentation, you can also embedd some newspaper articles, captions of blog articles and so on that report of violent attacks, discrimination and so on..

    I think in that way you can emphasize that you are telling ONE story – but there are many people out there who experience the same, similar things or even worse..

  4. J says:

    Few people fall into all four of the groups above (let alone all other stats, too). So long as you’ve been touched by the discrimination underlying all four groups — as you have — it doesn’t seem inappropriate to include what’s relevant to your show. Even your last paragraph there sounds like something worth saying; you consider yourself lucky to be only fired. I consider myself lucky to only have been assaulted once. How lucky are we, really. Kinda hits home.

    • Rebecca says:

      Even your last paragraph there sounds like something worth saying; you consider yourself lucky to be only fired. I consider myself lucky to only have been assaulted once. How lucky are we, really. Kinda hits home.

      Absolutely. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Paula says:

    You can tell other people’s stories too, and tell the audience that you’re portraying a real person, or you can use a character that’s an aggregate of the worst experiences we’ve suffered as a group. Though there’s enough of us that have had those real experiences at their worst too.

  6. Jadey says:

    What if you got permission to tell other people’s stories? It would take some investment in terms of tracking down people who are interested in sharing through you, getting their stories, getting their feedback on “draft” versions (whether written or performed – not sure of your method), etc., but that way you would know that you were sharing real experiences in an ethical way, expanding the scope and diversity of your project beyond only your own experiences, and also providing others with a way to share their stories when they might not be able to otherwise. Also, excuse to make new friends. :)

    Appropriation is when you take without asking, without respect, and without return. But being given a gift and accepting it with love and respect is not appropriation.

    • Rebecca says:

      Appropriation is when you take without asking, without respect, and without return. But being given a gift and accepting it with love and respect is not appropriation.

      This is a very good point. :)

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