Saturday, August 27, 2016
Queen Jesus, FK Alexander, and the gift of performance.
“Am I being stupid?”, One of the old ladies said as she left FK Alexander’s (I could go on singing) Over The Rainbow, “It’s just I don't see the point of it”.
She wasn't being angry, or dismissive, but genuinely curious.
And as I become an old lady myself I completely sympathise.
At first I couldn't see the point of it either. It was one of those puzzling live art events that don't seem to make much sense at first, but which grow in meaning and richness if you plant their little seed in your heart.
I suppose I could say to her that it was an act of love. Audience members came up one by one to have “Over The Rainbow” sung to them while Alexander looks them tenderly in the eye.
I know that impulse, and whenever I perform The Gospel According To Jesus Queen Of Heaven I try, if I can, to look each member of the audience in the eye at least once.
And I'm not sure I understand fully what the point of it is. Perhaps its like meditation, which both has and has not a point at the same time.
My meditation teacher used to say that it doesn't matter if nothing seems to be happening. That all you can do is the work.
And the performance was work: and a gift, given not just to the individual concerned but to each member of the audience in that tiny basement at the very bottom of Summerhall.
Part of the gifts was the ritual. A ritual that in the midst of a performance of auditory and visual overload gave a strange kind of peace.
Part of it, too, was the invitation to reflect on the words as we heard them over and over again. To imagine that maybe there really is a different dimension to our lives, where all the fear and uncertainty of this banal and terrifying world is somehow resolved.
It's a precious gift they gave us and it gives me comfort today. Today is the opening of Jesus Queen of Heaven in Brazil and I know that will be a demonstration tonight to try to stop it happening.
I remember all too well my fear at the hate-filled demonstrations that greeted my first performances in 2009, and I can't stop myself feeling intense sympathy and concern for Renata Carvalho, the gifted and beautiful trans-actress who is taking on my role
The political situation in Brazil is more or less the same as it was when I performed the piece there in May. A right wing clique is trying to govern through fear and hatred. Hatred directed at LGB T people in general, and trans people in particular.
Hatred sanctioned, supposedly, by Christian belief.
In these circumstances to call the play challenging would be an understatement..
I lost count of all the people who came up to me after the shows to say that somehow I had given them hope and courage.
Because then, as now, theatre matters.
And it is about creating a gift the audience. Whether they can take it or not.
How important it is that the gift be a good one. That it does not simply spread fear or outrage or despair but comes from a clear-eyed looking at the world and the ability in spite of of it all to find hope and strength.
Friday, August 26, 2016
Rash Dash slipping past the gender police
We’re mostly unaware of the Gender Police.
It's under the level of consciousness that they do their insidious business of governing our identity, our expectations, and our lives.
I say “we” even though I’ve been aware of them for as long as I can remember.
Only they were too powerful and I was too frightened and ashamed.
I never imagined I could escape them, or cross the terrifying frontier between the genders, and so did all I could to put them out of my mind.
But everyone, I think, trans or not, needs to confront them at some stage or another. And this takes huge courage..
Huge courage in living, and huge artistic courage in imagination and performance to explore who these police are and cross the frontier they guard.
It's very hard. We quickly discover we don't have the words because the words we do have all belong to the gender binary, to the world of men and women and no one and nothing in between: a divide held onto all the more ferociously because more and more it becomes clear it does not correspond to the deep truths of human experience.
I remember how for years in the 50s and 60s there were no words for who I was.
I was something unspeakable.
And even now the words I have to use to describe myself don't really correspond to who I am.
To find then, I have to look to other cultures.
“Bissu” is probably the best. we are both men and women in one and our function is to bless.
But I can't put that on my passport, nor do I generally have the energy to explain that it's a term used by the Bugi people of South Sulawesi who believe there are five genders.
Life is a little too short.
So I use ‘trans-woman’: and fiercely defend my right to my woman's passport, to my female birth certificate, my woman's NHS number, and my woman's social security number.
And when you try to create a show about is all, it gets so much harder.
Because all the artistic forms we know come from the gender binary and trying to go beyond it is a step into the deep unknown.
It is so easy, as I know to my cost, to get lost in the process.
But what I loved about Rash Dash’s “Two Man Show” is that they have the courage to enter unknown gender regions and the skill to navigate them.
I don't want to describe the show because one of its many strengths is its continual inventiveness and it's wonderful capacity to surprise.
All I want to do is celebrate their artistry and their courage:
Because what they have created is something that truly breaks new ground.
Something filled with insight, understanding, and rage. And something also full of compassion and a truly beautiful angry tenderness.
Thursday, August 25, 2016
Dancing in the museum...
I used to write about dance. In the Scotsman.
It was so hard! Hard to give words to an experience that's so intrinsically belongs to the wordless. Hard to give expression to the experience of viewing it without taking refuge in technical language.
I'm not sure I can do it any more. But the reason I want to try is to say thank you to Janis Claxton and her dancers for a beautiful experience
They are dancing what they call pop up duets in the large open spaces the National Gallery of Scotland–beautifully crafted short pieces about the joy, the pain, the tenderness, the anger, the Vulnerability, and the strength of love.
Men dance with each other, Women dance with each other, men and women dance together in beautifully crafted pieces that each have their own very distinct Energy and character. But each tell a story that may be you could never put into words, which has a form and the shape and a beauty.
They they began and they ended always wittily and a bit unexpectedly in and out other crowds visiting the museum. So you never quite knew where they were going to come from, also they would end, or where they would go in between.
So everyone watching seemed also to be part of the dance–the surprised visitors scurrying past on my way somewhere else, the old man utterly astonished to find his bench being shared bye two dancing lovers, the museum attendant protecting a priceless Buddha, the two young girls sitting on the floor beside me improvising their own dance of love and playfulness.
I so love words, and working with them gives me so much pleasure and joy and satisfaction.
But this was something gorgeous to witness. It was so beautiful to be reminded of the space that exists beneath and beyond words.
So moving to be reminded that dance comes out of life:
And life comes out of dance.
Wednesday, August 24, 2016
Me and gender neutral toilets on Dive's Rainbow Soap Box
There have been three beautiful cabaret nights this year at the Edinburgh Festival that go under the name of "Dive".
They are a gorgeous eclectic mix of everything queer you can imagine.
And other things you cannot....
One number is a speech from their Rainbow Soap Box on something political.
Last night I was invited to give it.
And this is what I said:
Dear ladies, dear gentlemen,
Dear those of you who are not ladies, and not gentlemen,
But like me, maybe a bit of both, or maybe something in between,
Or maybe something, or someone, who hasn't been thought of or invented yet and who this amazing queer evening may help bring into being:
I am going to talk about the most political thing I know.
I am going to talk about public toilets.
About 10 years ago, when I was just beginning to live as a woman, I was in New York and seeing a whole week of long operas.
Which meant there were long queues at all the toilets. Or rest rooms, as I was trying to learn to call them.
Nothing restful about these places for me.
The line at the ladies was full of feeling women in dresses and immaculate hair that looked as if it been set in concrete, and I knew I would stand out a mile.
And I was afraid, because I also knew that trans women had recently been arrested in New York for trying to use the ladies toilets. Trying to use the toilets we they had every right to use.
But I didn’t totally believe that then. I was too afraid.
So I joined the man's, and I still stood out a mile.
Men would snigger, and point, and tell me I was standing in the wrong line.
And I couldn't bear it.
So I went up to one of the young women who were working front of house. They all wore pink miniskirts with matching jackets, and had dazzling white teeth and professional smiles, and were apparently there to help me.
But when I went up to them and said I was a trans woman in the early stages of transition and I was wondering if there was a gender neutral toilet somewhere in the building that I could safely use, the smiles immediately disappeared from their faces and they all said
Until I got to the fourth, or maybe the fifth, and she frowned and thought and said, yes. I think I can help you.
And she went to the phone and made half a dozen phonecalls, and said, come this way.
She took me right down to the very lowest floor of the building, where was a line at the ladies, and a line at the men's, and in between a door that said SECURITY.
She knocked on the door and behind it was an enormous man with a gun, wearing a policeman's uniform, with his feet on the desk.
And he grunted, and took his feet off the desk, and took out a huge bunch of keys, left the office, and locked the door behind him.
He took me across the lobby to another door that said STRICTLY PRIVATE. NO ADMITTANCE.
He unlocked the door and then locked it behind us again.
We walked down a long dark corridor, and there at the end of it was another locked door that said
He opened the door and pointed inside where at the far end of the room was another door.
And behind that door was the only gender neutral toilet in the whole of the New York Metropolitan Opera House.
And as I walked back down the corridor, escorted by a man with a gun, I thought:
Gender neutral toilets are obviously very dangerous.
And so they still are.
Because lately in America a chain of department stores has announced that trans-women and trans men are welcome to use the toilets that correspond to our identity.
As a result, they have been boycotted, and picketed, and attacked all over the media by concerned citizens who think this is a danger to women and children.
States all over America are in the process of, or have already passed, legislation that makes it illegal for me to use a women's toilets.
These toilets may have to be guarded by officials whose job it is to check my birth certificate and/ or my genitalia.
And were this legislation to be enacted here and were you, madam, were you to encounter me in the ladies loo next door you would have every right to sue the proprietors of these premises to gain compensation for the fear and the distress my presence would cause you.
The other week, the Pope said to a gathering of bishops in Poland that people like me who wanted to pee in the ladies represent an assault on the wisdom of God.
And that a beautiful queer assembly like this one is like an atomic bomb that will destroy the fabric of society.
And I say:
Free the toilets!
Because, after all, the dear man might be right.
And in changing toilets, we change the world….
Labels: gender neutral toilets
Monday, August 22, 2016
A night with Theatre Alba. A night in the Secret Commonwealth...
It was 1982, I think.
Soon after I’d become a theatre reviewer.
The Scotsman had sent me off to a disused dance hall in Abbeyhill.
Sent me to an unknown venue to see an unknown play by an unknown author performed by an unknown theatre company.
I hadn't become a reviewer because I knew anything about theatre: I had become a reviewer because I knew so little.
I needed to learn.
And the lessons the play taught me have stayed with me ever since.
The play was “The Shepherd Beguiled” by Netta Blair Reid and the company was Theatre Alba.
The play tells the story of a 17th century minister in the Church Of Scotland in Aberfoyle, the Reverend Robert Kirk, whose grief at the loss of his wife opens him up to the existence of the supernatural world.
He wrote a book about it, “The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies”, an extraordinary and beautiful book I’ve read in the National Library of Scotland.
Reid made it the subject of her extraordinary play. It is a profoundly poetic exploration of grief, and a magical evocation of an unacknowledged spiritual world.
It helped me understand that it is possible, and necessary, to write poetic plays in present-day Scotland. I remember walking up the long hill of London Road late that night in a state of exaltation and rapture. I loved it then and I love it still.
So it was profoundly moving to see the play again last night, 34 years later, performed by the same company, directed by the same director, and even with several members of the same cast. And all to the same beautiful and evocative music.
For Charles Nowolskielski, the director, inspires an extraordinary degree of love and of loyalty from his company.
I have worked for them myself and coming back to them last night was like coming back to a family.
Each festival they perform in the magical garden of Duddingston Kirk, beside the waters of the loch, and under the shadow of Arthur’s Seat.
It's a hard place to find, well off the map and completely off the critical radar.
You risk getting cold, you risk getting wet, and you almost certainly will be eaten by the midges.
But you will see something unique and important, work that no other company in Scotland is able, or even trying, to achieve.
See it in a magical place. Where magical things happen…
Monday, August 15, 2016
How a non-binary and trans Jesus came to be born
This picture was released by Glasgay! 7 years ago today.
I was hardly aware of it: I was in France at the time, on a writing fellowship. I’d just had my surgery.
I’d been turned down fro full gender reassignment surgery in 2007 because of my heart condition. I remember at the time being determined to live as I needed to anyway, in spite of all the abuse I was receiving on the street.
I’d been turned down by a surgeon in Thailand; I decided to get myself fit, put myself through the NHS system so that when I had the operation I would know that any necessary facilities would be close at hand.
So I went through all the humiliation of seeing the two psychiatrists and getting their approval, and when the referral to the surgeon finally came instead of feeling happy and excited I found myself feeling appalled.
I realised, very much to my dismay, that I neither wanted nor needed a surgically constructed vagina.
The female hormones I was taking were battling it out with the male hormones my body was producing. I realised I needed an end to the hormone warfare.
And the simplest way to achieve this was through an orchidectomy. Which is the polite word for castration.
And that’s what happened, 4 or 5 days before I was due to go to France.
The huge practical advantage of it was that I hardly had to wait; there was minimal risk of complications; and the recovery time was very quick.
Which is how it turned out. A week later I was able to ride a bike into the beautiful forest of Fontainebleau.
I wore no make-up, I’d probably hardly bothered to brush my hair. And I was wearing gender neutral clothes.
I passed through a village where a woman was working in her garden. She looked up at me, smiled, and said quite naturally, “Bonjour madame”.
And I knew something very profound had happened.
In the meantime my gifted friend Neil Montgomery (http://www.besite-productions.com/) had taken this beautiful picture.
I borrowed a white top and skirt from a dear friend and we took the photo in the basement garage.
Neil had brought lights, but he discovered that if I stood in front of the light that went on automatically every time a car came in he could get the effect he wanted.
So I would pose, and try to look loving and calm… and then the light would go out, and I’d have to wave my arms or jump up and down to get it on again, and often both.
But I must somehow have still managed to look calm and majestic and loving…
The photo caused a lot of offence, and probably contributed to the hostile demonstrations that happened when I opened the play.
But that’s not what I’d intended. I was just looking for an image that was obviously Jesus; and obviously trans.
Not easy, as it happens. Men can do it with a robe and a beard. But not a trans woman.
I didn’t want to hang on a cross, because the play does not focus on suffering. So we went for an image of a resurrected Queen Jesus with her stigmata, which Neil realised quite brilliantly.
And there she is, and I’m proud of her. A non binary Jesus, I think, as well as a trans one.
7 years ago is hardly any time at all. But it feels like a lifetime.
And the whole trans debate has moved on so radically in the meantime.
As I so fearfully and nervously performed the show in that tiny theatre, it never occurred to me that I would still be performing now.
That I would have taken the show to so many different places I’ve lost count of them, or that I would have taken the show to Brazil.
Or that a beautiful and gifted travesti actress would soon be giving the Brazilian premiere of the play in Portuguese.
When I performed in Belo Horizonte a viciously transphobic right wing government with links to evangelical churches had begun to claw back our (very limited) right to our real name.
And doing so in the name of Christ and the family.
So there was I, an openly trans father and grandmother performing a play about a trans Jesus which made it so clear that He would never support such loveless and antichristian prejudice.
Speaking the play’s words in that context made me profoundly aware of how much they matter. And I know Renata Carvalho will make them more urgent and immediate still.
And I also know that the pilgrimage of Queen Jesus has hardly begun.
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