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Richard Jordan: Why toilet signage was the most powerful theatrical gesture of 2016

Photo: Richard Jordan
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Last year, the most powerful statement I saw in theatre had nothing to do with what was on the stage. Instead, it was two signs displayed on the entrance to two Broadway theatre toilets, reading: “Gender diversity is welcome here; use the restroom consistent with who you are”.

In the last two weeks, we have seen the Trump administration repeal the Obama era guidance around the rights of transgender students to use school toilets matching their identity. It’s an act that should cause concern, particularly as it is directed towards young people, many of whom are vulnerable and early in their own lives, coping with enormous challenges regarding their identity and acceptance.

We should be worried about what this potentially represents and where it could lead next for the rights of transgender people and other minority groups, many of whom have bravely endured years of difficult personal and mental challenges to be who they are.

The significance of these two Broadway theatres displaying those signs is enormous. They appeared at two musical revivals: City Center’s Encore revival of Elizabeth Swados’ Runaways and William Finn’s Falsettos at the Walter Kerr Theatre. Both works deal with gender identity issues, but I very much hope this is a policy that will continue at these venues and others will roll this out as standard practice in the US and internationally.

By displaying these signs, the theatres made an important statement for themselves, not for the political or marketing purpose that it could easily have been. These signs are just part of the everyday working fabric of their buildings and stand beside others familiar notices such as “box office”, “bars” and “merchandise”.
It is appropriate that theatres are leading the way on this issue, as they have done throughout history, because theatre has always been a community which embraces and celebrates everyone and their individuality. This must never change.

Look at organisations such as West End Cares and Broadway Cares Equity Fights Aids, and the Phyllis Newman’s Women’s Health Initiative. These organisations were some of the first to draw attention and provide essential help and support to individuals in the arts industries affected by Aids. When Aids first appeared shrouded in stigma and ignorance, these organisations held out their hands to those who were suffering from the illness and told them they were not alone.

I watched interviews from the US Republican conference in Maryland where the repeal of toilet use for young transgender students was announced. I listened to many young Republican student supporters, many of whom are the same age as the transgender students who will be affected by this. I was saddened by the delight of these individuals applauding this decision combined with a terrifying level of ignorance and prejudice that surrounded their remarks. We should only look back at history to remind ourselves of the consequences and danger that such attitudes can quickly engender.

Recently in the US, the American Repertory Theatre in Boston has presented an urgent new play called Transcripts, created through interviews with transgender men and women from across America and around the world by its writer Paul Lucas. Originally seen at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2015, it is a work that has taken on even more urgent resonance over these past few weeks.

The same is also true for Stu: The Musical, which premiered at Seattle’s Intiman Theatre 2013. It tells the remarkable true story of Stu Rassmussen, a US transgender Silverton local who ends up in public office as the local town mayor to help save his town and break down barriers of intolerance. It’s an incredible and joyous story which, if you do not know it, then find out more here.

These are both works that have a tremendous reach and importance in what they have to say across all audiences. But for a young audience member, they could prove to be hugely influential in making someone feel accepted for who they are. More than ever before, theatre has a vital role to play making sure that people realise it is a safe haven where everyone is, and always will be, welcome.

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