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CN Lester: Theatre allows trans performers to represent ourselves truthfully

Publicity image for Transpose at the Barbican
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When was the last time you listened to a trans person talk about their life? Not in a radio or television debate, not being asked to justify access to emergency care, or to explain away growing numbers of people coming out, or even to prove that we’re not a threat to supposedly ‘ordinary’ people.

And not in a documentary that has a trans person as its subject, but not in creative control – programmes that might have the ring of truth, but have been commissioned, scripted, directed and edited by people who aren’t trans. People who often fall back on stereotypes about us: close-up shots of surgery and mirrored reflections of make-up application.

I started the Transpose arts night six years ago in the knowledge that we could do better. Instead of being the subject of other people’s ideas, Transpose puts trans people like me front and centre – as performers, but also as organisers, writers and directors. After our 2016 show at the Barbican, we decided to take this concept one step further, and question the very idea of transgender ‘performance’ itself.

Maybe the need for trans-led art seems less pressing now than it did back in 2011. In terms of media visibility, we’ve never been so under the spotlight as we are right now. But when we look at who’s controlling the conversation – which questions are asked, how our answers are edited – we can see how much work still lies ahead of us.

At the heart of so much of the current debate is the idea that all trans people are ‘performing gender’ – that the rest of the world is the real deal, and we’re just playing dress-up. That we can be tolerated – celebrated, even – but only if we admit that what you see is a costume, and that what we really are was fixed at birth and decided by other people.

As trans performers – poets, musicians, spoken-word artists – these are assumptions that cut deep. What do audience members see, when they look at us on stage? What are they comfortable seeing? Are we there to provoke pity, confusion, excitement? Acceptable under the footlights, but targets on the walk home?

I’ve been out as trans for more than half my life, and have got used to hearing the same refrain, as a performer and in daily life: “People just can’t understand – don’t make it too complicated.”

But six years-worth of Tranpose audiences have taught me otherwise. We don’t need to regurgitate the same tired arguments. We can trust an audience to follow where a performer leads, and enjoy the newness of the scenery. We can show you our vulnerabilities, our strengths, and – most of all – our authenticity. And know that the magic of live performance, which operates on empathy and enchantment, can open up an experience in a way that cold debate never could.

Trans people are tired of being looked at wherever we go. But, if you’re willing, you can come and look with us, and find something remarkable there.

Transpose: Barbican runs on December 8 and 9

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