This past Friday night, I performed at a bar in Chicago as part of CAKE Chicago. The show contained some new material, and was a really positive experience. I performed for about 20 minutes, prior to two bands and a stand-up comedian. During my performance, the audience was silent. Quiet as the most formal theater experience I’ve been a part of. I consider this – in a bar – to be one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. I also had quite a bit of positive feedback, as well as a few comments that got me thinking about disclosure.
I disclose a lot about myself. (SEE: The blog you are reading right at this very moment.) My performance pieces may not be entirely disclosure-based – there’s some storytelling and fantasy, too – but they are entirely built around my experiences with gender and identity. I’m speaking to a class of middle school students soon, and it’ll be about on the same topic. I fully and completely appreciate disclosure as a cathartic, rewarding, and empowering act.
And yet certain types of disclosure – the type of disclosure that my brand of self-narrative work apparently evokes in certain people – makes me quite uncomfortable.
I realize my work is often the first time some audience members have heard honest narratives around trans experience. Perhaps the first time they’ve met an (out) trans person. That’s what I was thinking when a tall individual came up next to me after I finished my show and sat back at the bar. He (this person was presenting as male so I’ll use male pronouns) introduced himself as Joe. He wasn’t dressed particularly well, his hair was unkempt, and he was missing two or three teeth. He said he enjoyed my show, said I was beautiful, and told me he had “had thoughts like that.”
I never know what to say to that statement. It’s not a question, so there’s no obvious response. It’s not enough information that I feel like I can make an intelligent response, but it’s way too much for me to not say anything. This particular situation was made more uncomfortable because Joe then gave me intense, unyielding, unblinking eye contact.
I’m not proud of how I responded: some sympathetic noises and a turn back to the musicians playing on stage. But I was uncomfortable by the intense amount of focus Joe was sending my way, and could see him continue to stare straight at me even after I’d turned away. I got up and went to the bar to get another drink.
Joe followed, asking if he’d made me uncomfortable. I lied, and said no. The bar was crowded, Joe wasn’t making me feel unsafe, and I wasn’t yet willing to be explicitly rude. We made polite small talk and Joe then asked, “Promise you won’t be angry?”
Those types of questions are obnoxious and unfair. I think they should only be allowed (maybe) by close friends, along the lines of “Can you keep a secret?” But coming from an almost-complete stranger, it seemed out of line.
“Well,” I replied, “it depends on what you say. I’m not going to promise anything.”
“I have masochistic tendencies.”
At that point, I walked away.
Later in the evening, someone told me that he’d had sex once with someone who he was “95% sure was post-op.” He quickly clarified, “I mean, I’ve slept with men, women, I didn’t care. I just wanted to know! When her top came off she’d had these scars under her breasts, from implants. And her clit was bright pink. Like, bright pink.”
Why did I need to know those things? For Joe, I can understand – assuming he was honestly trans or questioning – the desire to connect with another trans person. I’ll even give him the benefit of the doubt and assume his closeted life has led to a tendency for awkward and uncomfortable social interactions. But I didn’t need to know, didn’t want to know, and wish I didn’t know that he had “masochistic tendencies.”
And I know people have a desire to identify their own experiences with something they heard from another. “I have a black friend!” is the easiest example of this behavior. But I don’t like it, even though I’ve thus far been too polite to say “Why the hell are you telling me this?”
It’s particularly hard because I know my show has exactly that type of disclosure: my experiences being sexual, exploring my identity, figuring things out. That’s presumably what makes people feel entitled to the same sort of disclosure. But I don’t know how to respond. Where to draw the line between being a supportive and engaging activist, and keeping my own personal boundaries secure.
I think, in the case of the “did I have sex with a trans woman” guy, next time I will speak up more. Say that I’m not sure why it was important for him to know if she was trans.
But if someone like Joe comes up to me again? I don’t know what I’ll do.