Friday, June 21, 2013

A Thousand Tiny Glories: Standing Beside Yourselves

"Who is that?" * "I think that is me"
Friends & I looking through old photographs


Broken Selves

Last night I saw a few pictures of me from high-school where the child (almost hard to say it's me) looked so sad beneath a forced smile, a spirit clinging to a body, making it go through the motions to avoid the appearance that anything is wrong --- a real zombie --- although I was clearly with friends which were the best parts of those years.

I scraped past a point which is terminal for approximately 60% of trans people, and generally hell for everyone else. Globally, we can do better. Locally, there are reasons that people do survive and flourish --- and in these pictures (as well as around me now) I can see their faces.

Keeping busy with shared work towards a shared community, i.e. theater, orchestra, RPGs, speech-team, provided a feeling and logic of acceptance and value externally, enough of which pierced into the internal to give a reason to get up the next day. Passing photos around the table, most of what I can remember from high-school happened in the auditorium, practice rooms, or hallways in between.

These places provided me a way to simply be. To persist. A zombie may mostly do a bunch of staggering forward and eating things now and then, but often that is enough. It is enough to exist, especially in a community. I could live for them, because I knew from experience that they were worth the struggle, even when I couldn't see that in myself. Working hard to do it for them, was enough for a time, when I couldn't yet do it for myself.


Breaking with the Self

And over time the zombie travels, after circling and falling over, every so often getting its head bashed in, until maybe it becomes something else.That something starts small. Desperately small. A flicker. A dark dot that most anyone wouldn't notice. A life. I've written before about "a thousand tiny glories" and for most things and many of us, we exist inside those tiny ontologies, those mico times, those pez-strip universes.

In many ways I do see that person and me as two different people. One child that would pass away carries and sustains the seed that would bloom into a wild and sensational life. I don't see this distinction as absolute nor simply as one of utility, although there is a genealogy, but the distinction is important. It's my way of honoring that person who would give birth to me. 

People can be really harsh about enclosures, setting things apart, but growing up Catholic and generally preferring the indoors (specifically small places where only I could fit), I always thought that giving something a frame was one way of marking it as special. CS Lewis in That Hideous Strength (one of the better passages) and Cary Howie in Claustrophilia (one of my favorite theory books on the Middle Ages), both attest to this logic. To mark something as ending, is really to mark a transition, but change is without sense or value if we don't recognize the bounded spaces and times in which things and persons exist.

 Of course, often in anecdote or even in looking at other photographs, I will freely use the "I" across divides and transitions. There is a part of me now in the then, just as the then is in the now. The evidence is in my company, my friends, some of which I've known for well over a decade and approaching 20 years. That cross-fertilization of identity is what binds us together. It's what binds me to myself. Across lives, across deaths, across unlife and the undead.


Standing Beside Yourselves

Remembering those crossings, looking at their remains, telling stories, walking those paths, seeing those faces and living in a world which is the same but changed, gives me so much. A part of me comes back to myself and tells me how I made it through hard (perhaps harder) times in the past, showing me not only that I can persist through present cross-roads, but showing me how I might do it; what sorts of things may come in the next life; and the one after that; and the one after that.

As each of these mementos come back across my path, they carry me a little further and across them all I get the sense of an even bigger story. One that encloses every version of myself in this world. I get a sense of the story that I am not only telling, but living, for whom I may not even be the best audience. My values, challenges, and choices emerge as patterns. I find those patterns comforting (I generally find patterns to be somehow comforting). 

These things open me up to new ways I can change. They hold my hand as I find ways to persist. They remind me that I can do this for another person, not only my community, but the person I may become. Give myself as a gift to that future. Also, they remind me to do this & be this for myself; whoever, whatever, whenever, and wherever that may be. In the dark avenues of memory outside of time, I stand together with my selves and glorify the value of each other.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Joining the T Party :: Transforming Gender on the Stage

"Three "women" go out to a bar: one crossdresser, one transgendered escort, and one playwright..."
Summary of a scene from The T Party, Natsu Onoda Power


The Show

Meanwhile, as my summer research project continues, I was recently invited by the prodigiously creative Natsu Onoda Power, an Assistant Professor of Performance Studies at Georgetown University, to speak with her cast as they realize what she calls a "Celebration of Gender Transformation in the Nations Capital" (Forum As we ran through the show, it became clear that the form of the performance was designed to match the content.

  • "In the first act, you will be invited to one of our audience-interactive “parties” in small groups: a bridal shower, a prom, a karaoke party, or a superbowl party. You can choose to be a wallflower and nobody will bother you; or you can participate as much or as little as you like!
  • "The second act consists of a series of vignettes, viewed in a more conventional theatrical setting. The scenes include songs, dance numbers, “live action music video” with floor projection, as well as more traditional “scenes” and monologues."

In this second run of the project, Power is continuing to develop the show and its identity. Currently advertised as "the T Party," the performance show-cases an assortment of diverse trans-formations of gender, sexuality, as even animality. While sitting in on rehearsal, I was asked to stand in for a "gay dolphin" during a dance scene (an vivifying but exhausting task which left me panting so hard my blow-hole hurt).

The scenes tell stories Power has collected over the years, from friends, co-workers and various (often unexpected) media. The dolphin scene, for instance, as it stands, puts into song and dance the reading of a biology essay written by one of Power's colleagues at Georgetown. The words came to life as spoken-word poetry while other members of the cast embodied and suggested the behavior of bottle-nose dolphins known to engage in various non-reproductive and homosexual behavior.

Other stories come from more personal sources, Power admitted, combining some stories and changing names (as well as species) to give a wider degree of anonymity and applicability. A gay club full of "otters" and "bears" (a term for hairy gay men if various sizes) becomes populated by literal otters and bears as their community clashes with bodies of other gender and sexual identities. 

In another scene, the actors occupying middle (or "trans") spaces between genders, sexualities, relationships, and kingdoms as they come to put into flesh and motion they translate the story of a cross-dresser intimately communicating with a female confidant online. While I only was able to watch one of the rehearsal scenes, the content and forms of the performance are continually growing and shifting, according to inspiration found from the shows director/writer working with talented crew & performers.


The show goes up July 17 until July 27 
in Silver Spring, Maryland.


The Conversation

"Why haven't we already been working together?" Power asked for both of us as we met for food at a local Lebanese restaurant. As it happened a mutual friend and colleague of ours arranged a meeting digitally, guessing that our mutual interest in transformation, gender & performance would make for interesting conversation and collaboration. 

The e-mail introduction included a reference to Power's play and my research, but once we sat down to talk all the background and personally investment that draws both of us into these projects made it clear that we really were engaging in more than just the same conversation but the same communities. We had been working together, or at least next to each other for a few years now.

Collaborations really do spring from more than just interest, sharing a relation to the diverse and multiple Trans* worlds comes with a feeling of the personal stakes and joys that aren't often presented nor translated to a wider audience, in a field which already lacks a substantial archive for its stories. 

The alienation, disagreement and even competition between different "trans" communities, such as the often mis- or under-representation of transmen, lead to real worries for any attempt to broach the topic publicly. But the ways in which people and things bleed into and feed off each other brought us to the key word "transformation" as a way to relate to a prolific range of embodiments and knowledges.

How something changes or comes-to-be ends up being both a philosophical but also a theatrical question requires some sort of response when holding a forum on "trans" bodies. Time, space, technologies, resources, choices and context all come to bare when staging a transformation from "gay" to "bi," from "cross-dresser" to "woman," from "man" to "otter." How does one embody & express such contingency?

This absolutely stimulating start to an ongoing conversation transitioned us in terms of time and space into the performance area for "the T Party" where Power's actors and crew where already getting things ready.


Some of Power's recent projects include creating and directing Astroboy (based on the anime) and God of Comics


The Cast

One thing I really enjoy about actors is how expressive they are: they know how to listen and show they are listening. They also ask really good questions. I did my best to respond to the things they were wondering about and sorting through as they transformed into these characters. In the end, if nothing else, I felt very affirmed by the experience. They care, and it shows.

Coming into these types of process oriented art forms I wanted, as much as possible, to actively listen to where they saw themselves and where they wanted to go, and meet them along the way. As their guest, I gave a brief over-view of the field of trans studies as I see it and where I am operating within that.

What struck Power, and what got a laugh from the cast & crew, was the comment that I saw myself as "politically trans" (a phrase I adapted from a colleague who described himself as "politically gay"). This hopes to express that I do operate as trans in my daily life but am also willing to talk about it and give some articulation of trans politics to the public. The danger and challenge of this, as with all theater is to be conscious & responsible to your place within a diverse community.

Stories remain a powerful way to propel change. Like Power who is offering up a host of experience she has collected over the years, I continue to build an archive in and outside my academic life of anecdotes of queer lives. Guiding me towards this is the uncanny frequency (around once a week) where a person on the street or in public transit (usually who I don't know) comes up to me with the line "so I've seen you around..." and proceeds to tell me about their life. After years of this, I'm still stewing on what is the most responsible way to honor these people, their stories and their ways of making life livable.

After the conversation, Power and I had a brief side-bar, full of gratitude. I acknowledged how impressed I was with the show and the performers and added that I hope they held onto that sense of uncertainty about what they are doing and who they are trying to be, because as far as I can tell, that is a defining quality of what it means to be a transforming body. Probably old hat for theater, a place all about discovery, but then that too was something I rediscovered during my time with them.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Morpheus Database :: A Transformative Tool

"I've got a lot of toys"
21st Century Digital Boy, Bad Religion


The Project

According to Neil Gaiman, Morpheus's library is an archive that not only includes every story ever imagined, but a copy of every book that an author never wrote. While such a database of research and such a talented librarian as Lucien is beyond my ability to replicate, I will be building a digital depository for data on every tale that I will be reading in preparation for my exams this summer.

As I continue in my working life, I am realizing more and more that to explain how I process information, charts, diagrams, props (ones to smash and other things to smash them with), as well as various computer programs are becoming invaluable to me. In private conversations a pen and a napkin can do the trick, but for a massive project like the one I am working on this summer, I need a lot more "paper" to get the job done. Eco-conscious and a technophile, I prefer to do my work digitally.

The Program

The Morpheus Database (Mark 1): By the end of the summer this program will allow me to cross-reference data on transformations from over 100 classical, medieval and early modern tales for each form taken, sequence, reason for change, type of change and possible relevance for gender, disability, queer, race, class, animal and object studies.

The aim of the project is to help (1) translate my thoughts into more easily comprehended forms, (2) allow for a quick review of a large amount of texts & notes and (3) eventually to allow for the production of data-clusters where corresponding tales can be called up at the press of a search-key. For instance, as the database gets better, I'd be able to stack information on instances where a body was transformed via surgical intervention or where the resulting form was considered to be hybrid instead of a new whole. It will start rough, then change and change again.

The Machinery

Sharing notes with fellow researchers, and reading my friend Maria Carson's blog (on study-scapes), I get a sense of how different personalities process information differently. Many friends keep detailed notebooks, others keep flash-cards, and some make poster-board diagrams with thoughts connected by colored string. The technologies we use become a part of the memory and thinking apparatus, so that the human-research machinery often reflects one another. 

Doing my 5th grade homework on the plastic mats in my father's office while he drew lines on maps and entered data for the first round of privatized satellite imaged maps and GPS and holding family dinner conversations identifying the best treatment for torn muscle groups and organ failure, the way I approach literature is bound to look different. I suppose, this is how the daughter of a nav-tech computer programmer and a registered nurse does her summer research. I can only imagine what my children's work will look like.