A tragic, drug-addicted hooker ( Dallas Buyers Club ). A slasher-transvestite ( Dressed to Kill ) and a slasher-transvestite dressing as his dead mother ( Psycho ). A transwoman who tragically perishes during pioneering gender-affirmation surgery ( The Danish Girl ), a trans man brutally murdered by transphobes ( Boys Don't Cry ), and even a madperson performing their own bizarre sex-change by culling skins from female murder victims ( Silence of the Lambs ).
Extraordinary exceptions? No. Sadly, these are the norm in Hollywood, and elsewhere too. In those rare instances where a trans character survives the final act, it's usually to live in infamy, destitution or disgrace.
Now imagine you are, like me, a transgender human. Nearly every cis person processes you with a brain already crammed with these lurid transgender movie tropes. Inevitably, some behave as if you're a actual threat. The bank teller poises to press her alarm; that gang member on the Brown Line threatens to carve you up ( both happened to me ). Why? Because your real-life face is just one among their familiar fictional gallery of fictional freaks, outsiders, and psychopaths. So, some respond less to who you actually are than their own unfounded fears.
Still, the question I often get is: Why does it matter in a movie or stage work who plays a certain trans role, who directs the production, or who writes the script? My answer is: Because transgender lives depend on getting it right. And because cis people have a terrible track record of exploitation, sensationalism and inaccurate trans narratives.
Receiving the Leppen Leadrship Award from About Face Theatre for my service to the transgender community was a surprise because I'm not an advocate or activist in the any traditional sense, but an actor and director. Just a storyteller doing what I know best: taking stage. Making lots of noise and being very visible on behalf of my transgender tribe.
When a raft of problematic stage shows premiered in 2016, from little storefronts to behemoths like The Goodman, it alarmed me how trans representation and authenticity were being muscled aside by otherwise sympathetic theatre artists. I had worked as a cisgender actor for 30 years and been part of that community. If I wouldn't stand up and cry foul, who would?
Compared to the brutality out in the real world, the arts probably seem pretty easy to change. Just bleeding-heart bastions of empathy, inclusion, and equality, right? Well, let me share some typical responses when I speak up about missteps in transgender representation on Chicago's stages.
"Don't you dare censor my Art!"
Live theater today is a notoriously hands-off endeavor. If a director wants to stage King Lear with Kabuki puppets wearing tutus, then he shall do so, and don't spare the tulle. The conviction is that artistic meddling from outside the rehearsal hall, be they board members, audience members, or social justice warriors, is bound to be bad. It has roots in the First Amendment, but even deeper ones in the mainstream ( white, cisgender, often hetero ) convictions that the 1950s and Joe McCarthy are just around the corner. Today's mainstream often forgets that stories about any disenfranchised group also peddle in matters of non-fictional life and death. If you shape public perception, you directly impact the privileges, laws, and even physical survival of marginalized people. So in certain cases, I will gladly see your "Hands off my Sacred Art" and raise you the lives of trans persons, persons of color and other disenfranchised Americans persons threatened by acts of hate.
"But we artists LOVE you, we feel your pain ... and also you need our skills/access/privilege to get the message out there."
To be sure, theater folk are trained to expertly insert themselves squarely into any character's tattered shoes, and walk their woeful walk. The "We Can Be Anyone" tradition of Meryl Streep, Dustin Hoffman runs deep. Their cry is We are Artists! We are Everyman!
Well, you know the problem with that? Actors and writers do exactly what they say: they put THEMSELVES into minority characters. I'm sorry, but no coffee chats with your ( one ) trans friend, no Howlround articles nor hours of RuPaul's Drag Race can change the intrinsic fact of your cisgender-ness. You ARE. NOT. TRANS.
Which is critical because ...
An artists' strongest concerns, insights, and convictions inevitably concern themselves. Life is rendered through the grimy lense of our own experiences and perspective. This is just human nature. Undeniably, today's artists sometime achieve their rainbow-and-unicorn dream world where pure artistic imagination ( and that hard-earned MFA ) magically supercede the all limits of their experience. Where trans stories are concerned, no such Superpowers are in evidence. Cis artists don't even score passing grades when depicting our transitions, our self-perception, our love-lifes, and especially not our typical roles in society.
"But I'm gay, I know your pain."
Oh dear Lord, no. You're gay and you know YOUR pain. But, because trans is hip and cool, we become ciphers for your stories. I had the displeasure to direct such a play, that tried to translate its writer's memories of mid-century gay youth into a modern transgender story. The ways he got us wrong staggered not only me but my cisgender cast, too. Yet this play had been judged exemplary by several gay theater artists until I staged a reading, and detailed its many trans-gressions. Folks are still discovering that we're not all interchangable LGBT misfits.
So I continually challenge our entertainment industry because these insitutions resist change, and trans people are still largely figments of cisgender imagination. And I believe that artists' response has to be No. No more marginalization. No more noble deaths but tales where we flourish. No more heart-of-gold whores but transgender business owners, mothers, and steel workers. Our very survival depends on this.
Like all human beings, we merit narratives which exemplify our right to exist with dignity, and to move freely among our fellow man. Only then shall I gladly confine my noise and fury to the stage.
*Note: The author here uses "transgender" to denote all gender-nonconforming persons typically grouped under that umbrella term.
Before gender transitioning, Delia Kropp trained in England and Chicago, and acted with a variety of Chicago companies including The Goodman, Red Twist, Griffin, Lifeline, and Pegasus Players. She won Best Supporting Actor for her work as Alan in "Equus" at Michigan's renowned Boarshead Theatre. She has also directed a number of productions for Chicago storefront and educational institutions. Delia's female acting career begins with "Raggedy And" at Pride Films and Plays in 2016.