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.