Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones, and Don’t You Ever “Her” Me: Dealing With Transgender People and Other Non-Conformists Is Harder Than You Thought.

An image from “Untitled Feminist Show,” courtesy of the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival website.

For a long time, my favorite borderline-inappropriate message from a public relations rep (and believe me, there are plenty to choose from; I don’t know how some people get into this field) was an e-mail I got asking for my weight in pounds the night before a magazine assignment in New York City.

To be fair, the communications staffer was asking because the story involved helicopter flights, and the pilots had decided at the last moment to make sure that all the journalists would fit.

But this year’s Philadelphia Live Arts Festival, an annual juried theater festival I have been covering for the past few years, afforded me a new favorite e-mail from a public relations staffer. This was because I had requested press tickets to a performance called “Untitled Feminist Show,” which featured a cast of six completely naked people dancing in one of the city’s premier theaters for one hour. But I was still unprepared for how tickled I’d be by an e-mail from the Festival press rep titled “Important Info for ‘Untitled Feminist Show’.”

“Please be aware of the following information as you write your features and reviews,” my press colleague wrote, introducing a message from Young Jean Lee, Artistic Director of Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company.

“Dear Critic:” it began. I am still trying to figure out whether I like being called, simply, “Critic”, even if I am a theater critic, among other things. Must I be so pigeonholed? As it turned out, I’m not the only one who dislikes a misapplied label.

“One of the cast members of Untitled Feminist Show, Becca Blackwell, identifies as ‘gender-non-conforming’ as opposed to female or male,” Lee wrote. She went on to “respectfully” warn me against referring to the show’s cast as “all-female” or, collectively, as “women,” and remember not to refer to Becca as “she” or “her.”

Performer Becca Blackwell. Image courtesy of Theateronline.com.

Lee had entire sentences ready for me to use.

Instead of referencing the cast as female, “you could say, ‘All of the performers were assigned the female sex at birth, but not all continue to identify as female.’ Or you could say, ‘The cast consists of five women and one trans person’ or “The cast consists of five women and one gender-non-conforming person.’”

To make sure I got the point, Lee continued,

“Instead of writing, ‘In Becca Blackwell’s solo, she embodies a range of characters,’ you could say, ‘In Becca Blackwell’s solo, Becca embodies a range of characters.’ Or ‘In Becca Blackwell’s solo, they [sic] embody a range of characters.’”

It’s a grammar lesson, non-traditional-gender awareness PSA, and a weird intrusion into the professional writing process, all in one.

If we can declare ourselves free from traditional categories of gender (as long as theater critics will word it properly), in the face of a world that sees a vulva or penis and labels a person “girl” or “boy” as soon as said genitals are detectable on an ultrasound, are there other ways we could publicly contradict what the world assumes about our bodies?

For example, a special irritation nags at me every time I fill out forms for my spouse and me which demand I check a box for race. With blond hair, blue eyes and sunburns every summer, I am easily accommodated by the usual options. But my husband isn’t Caucasian or Asian or Native American or Latino or Pacific Islander or any of the usual or even the unusual choices you find on US forms, and despite his dark skin, he doesn’t identify as African-American, either.

As a woman of Norwegian descent married to a Shangaan man of southern Africa, I wonder how hard it will be for our future kids to define their race – and how others will try to define them.

I guess it’s progress that an “interracial” option is beginning to creep into the language of official American demographics. Not a moment too soon, it seems – this article claims that given the erasing boundaries between modern countries, races and cultures, it’s only a matter of time before we all look like Brazilians, our petty differences in skin tone, facial features and hair texture smoothed into one lightly-brown version of humanity.

And I was charmed by a recent essay on volunteering for voter registration by my friend and colleague Susan Perloff, in which she reports that some Philadelphians are now writing “American” in answer to the question about race. It makes perfect sense – we now know that there’s really no biological basis at all for the concept of separate races (so the term “interracial” doesn’t cut it, unless you’re applying it to everyone on the face of the earth).

I think it would be great if my future kids – and any kid who wants to buck that stupid box on demographic forms – could say, “I’m a racial non-conformist.”

But if my future kids’ teachers tacitly or officially classify them as “black,” does that change the fact that they have a peachy-skinned mother? If their census forms call my kids “interracial,” does that change the fact that they’re actually no more of a genetic mash-up than you, me or anyone else alive? If I referred to Blackwell as a woman, would it change anything about who this performer actually is?

What does my language have to do with the full-bodied existence of Blackwell’s identity? Plenty, apparently. Whoever said “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” should probably put that one to bed. Words matter.

“I felt incredibly opinionated about the fact that I didn’t identify as ‘female,’” the bold and talented Blackwell says in a Village Voice interview about exploring gender identity through dance in the show. “To say that with no words felt impossible.”

Perhaps the “Untitled Feminist Show” communiqué could simply be seen as a request for accuracy and sensitivity. But I think it’s also a snapshot of the question of how much others’ language shapes who or what we actually are.

When I first got that message from Young Jean Lee, I felt a squirm of injustice at her trying to tamper in advance with what I would write, and then had a long, refreshing giggle at the message’s uppity earnestness. If the message had simply informed me that Blackwell is gender-non-conforming, I might have considered it a little superfluous, but I wouldn’t have laughed or raised an eyebrow (I don’t care if your cast is male, female, or neither. I am attending the show to see the merits of your work). It’s the “we respectfully request that when writing about the show, you don’t…” part that got to me, along with the descriptive sentence suggestions.

Because my new favorite press release implies that true non-conformity has three steps:

1)      Stop conforming.
2)      Inform others that you are not conforming.
3)      Require that others accept your non-conformity, and dictate the terms on which they speak of you.

I can see encouraging my future “interracial” family to try steps one and two. But that last one seems pretty tricky. To Lee, Blackwell, and everyone else marching to the beat of their own drum: good luck with step three.

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10 Comments

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  1. It will be interesting to see how language evolves to accommodate gender neutral pronouns. Especially with highly gendered languages, like Italian for instance, where male or female dictates so many other words in the sentence. Side note, that’s the actor from a video piece on transgendered inmates at [Eastern State Penitentiary].

    • Yes, very interesting. I’ve always been glad that English nouns aren’t gendered like those of many other languages, but the fact that the only gender-neutral pronoun that is appropriate to apply to people is plural is quite irritating. I wonder if that lack of flexibility in pronouns, such a basic language unit, is a result of (or influenced by) our rigid attitudes toward categorizing people by gender.

      I remember that installation, that’s a neat one.

  2. Sarah I was just going to mention that the actor is featured in an artist installation at ESP, and the actor actually stopped by the site a week or so ago…I am now guessing it was due to the Live Arts Festival. Interesting piece as always Alaina and it has me thinking!

  3. Interesting article. It’ll be interesting to see if/how various languages will manage to accommodate these new demands to be gender-neutral-sensitive. We invent new words in English all the time– maybe somebody should come up with something less offensive than “shim” or “shemale.” But there might need to be a few different pronouns– one for a biological female who feels male, one for a biological male who feels female, one for a female who feels gender-non-conforming (but doesn’t plan to have an operation to switch genders), one for a man who feels gender-non-conforming but prefers to stay biologically male. I can see this getting very complicated. Gender isn’t binary, and the markers on the scale are pretty tricky to identify.

    • Yep. It seems like whether you’re male or female should be the easiest thing in the world to define, but it really ain’t. And just how language could include/reflect more flexible attitudes toward gender is not as big a question as why we’re so driven to make those categorizations in the first place. Thanks as always for reading, and for your thoughts.

  4. I hate to be misgendered. I am not performing naked and pre-op, though. Before transition I did not object to being called “male” etc, but was delighted to be interpreted as female.

    THE TRUTH- ooh, that’s shouting, let’s do it again- THE TRUTH IS, I AM NOT A MAN. Now I have a Gender Recognition Certificate to prove it.

    • Alaina Mabaso May 9, 2014 — 9:23 am

      My first really good introduction to the truth about gender identity was reading Kate Bornstein’s “Gender Outlaw” several years ago. KEEP TELLING THE TRUTH!!

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