MJ Kaufman: For Showing how Transgender Characters Onstage and on Page Uncover Stereotypes We Carry
Why do cis-gendered people feel awkward sometimes around transgender people? It's one of those things that can be hard to see when you look at it directly. That's why I was so fascinated to read this blog post by MJ Kaufman
Kaufman is a playwright who identifies as trans-masculine. He explores his own eye-opening challenges writing trans characters and seeing the audience reactions when his plays are performed. How much do the characters have to conform to the norms for their assigned genders, or their identified genders to be believable as transpeople? Do they need to be cast with transgender actors? Does casting depend on how successfully (or not) the actors "pass" as their identified genders? It might not be surprising that audiences often have rather limiting views on what is believable, even when, as Kaufman points out, theater is a world where audiences will easily accept a time and place setting just from a stagehand holding up a sign that says "Victorian London." But Kaufman admits surprise at his own semi-conscious use of gender norms in writing. Even if you are not a theater fan, Kaufman writes so engagingly it's worth a read.
Having binary anything is simpler than having multiple possibilities, and knowing what we can expect in others' behavior and what they expect in ours seems to simplify interactions. This is why we gravitate toward binaries, I think. People who stretch or defy gender norms and seem to get away with it shake up cis-gendered people's notions of what we are supposed to do. This could be liberating for all, but maybe it prompts a feeling in the cis-gendered that we have been duped into doing those normed things that aren't our favorite, when we actually didn't have to. That's uncomfortable, so maybe we back away a little. Consciously or not, we all have a way of talking to men, and a way of talking to women, and when we have to stop and think how to talk to a person outside of those categories, it has to be more specific to that person as an individual, and that's more work conversationally. So again, maybe we back away, when it might well have been our most real conversation of the week.