Get our free email newsletter with just one click

Howard Sherman: The arts pride themselves on being progressive – they should now focus on the language of gender identity

Taylor Mac, author of the comedy Hir, above, has a preferred gender pronoun of ‘judy’. Photo: Joan Marcus
by -

The arts community prides itself on being progressive. The time has come for it to move forward yet again; the specific topic requiring progress is gender identity.

While New York stages increasingly showcase the talents of queer, trans, non-binary, and intersex artists – I recently saw a gender-identity diverse cast in a reading of the classic Our Town – the language commonly used to talk about the work of those artists hasn’t generally caught up with progress in hiring, which itself still has a way to go.

The most obvious area where this will likely become apparent relates to awards. The vast majority of competitive arts awards for performance are rooted in the gender binary of men and women.

For years, critics have said there’s no reason to separate actors into these categories, and indeed there are many performers who now want to eliminate ‘actress’ as a term for women who act altogether, relying on ‘actor’ for all. There’s no absolute consensus on this yet, but as with all matters of language and identity, one will likely prevail.

But so long as there are categories for best actor and actress (or best male and female actor), those who identify outside of the binary will be left out, misidentified and othered. This will come home to roost the first time someone with non-binary identity is nominated for an award, and then we will see awards-giving organisations doing hurried acrobatics to come up with a solution. The better option is to understand where the thinking is heading, and thoughtfully make the appropriate changes now.

Non-binary actor Ser Anzoategui raised these issues in late June in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, in a piece focused around television’s Emmy Awards. But the genuine need for consideration and change applies throughout the entertainment field. Anzoategui shrewdly points out that non-binary artists may play gay or lesbian, or cisgender roles, but that the character’s identity or sexuality is not going to necessarily match that of the artist themselves.

Improving this conversation for all concerned requires that every producing entity, whether they print a programme or publish bios on websites, has to do their part as well. All artist bios should carry the individual’s preferred gender pronouns, be it he, she, they, ze, sie or others still being evolved.

This must be consistent for all artists, not only for those who are not binary in their identity, because the burden of identification should not be placed on any one group, but common to all. The writer and actor Taylor Mac, author of the comedy Hir, has had a preferred gender pronoun declared in bios for some time; Mac’s rather singular personal choice is ‘judy’.

Aside from clarifying this for awards bodies, it will serve those who write about the arts as well. Right now, artists are often misgendered when written about – sometimes with malicious intent, often out of lack of knowledge. But if the entertainment field collectively agrees that preferred pronouns must be included, and through them gender identity is conveyed, then accidental offence can be avoided and narrow-minded opposition identified.

Writing this, I worry about even using the term actor, since that is a historically male-oriented word, although the Screen Actors Guild awards broadcast has artists of all genders clearly stating that they are actors. I’ve mostly opted for ‘artists’ in this column because these prescriptive recommendations are not meant to be limited only to those who act. Even when that’s the case, I’ve worried that ‘performer’ may not convey sufficient respect for the profession in certain instances.

As a straight, cisgender male, I am in a constant process of learning and assimilating the conversations around gender identity – that to be clear, are not necessarily the same as those about sexuality – and race and ethnicity as well as disability. I believe that the language of identity is often conferred by the dominant culture and not always by those being identified, and I believe that imposing identity, rather than letting those being identified do so, is unfair and at times cruel.

In fields where the evocation of empathy is essential to the art form, we must all seek to practise and demonstrate that empathy as well. We shouldn’t wait until there’s a crisis.

Hir review at Bush Theatre, London – ‘absurd and bleak’

This week in US theatre

The Pig Pen Theatre Company Ensemble has collaborated with director Marc Bruni to bring The Tale of Despereaux to the stage of The Old Globe Theatre as a musical, premiering tomorrow night. Based both on the novel by Kate DiCamillo and the animated film adapted from it, it’s the story of a mouse who dreams of becoming a knight.

Chris Urch’s The Rolling Stone, the Uganda-set story of two brothers in conflict, one a gay man, the other an anti-gay pastor, makes its debut at Lincoln Center Theater on Monday. Saheem Ali directs.

Luis Alfaro reset the Oedipus story in present-day LA with the Oedipus El Rey, seen at New York’s Public Theater in 2017, and now he returns to that theatre, once again with director Chay Yew, with Mojada, a new version of Medea. It opens on Tuesday.

With Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow, Halley Feiffer offers up a modern take on Chekhov’s Three Sisters at MCC Theatre, unexpectedly joining the extended run of Life Sucks, an Uncle Vanya riff, Off-Broadway. Feiffer’s frequent collaborator Trip Cullman directs, marking their second show together this year, following The Pain of My Belligerence at Playwrights Horizons. Moscow x 6 opens on Wednesday.

Next up in Audible’s ongoing series of solo dramas, opening on Thursday at the Minetta Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village, is Isaac Gomez’s The Way She Spoke, directed by Jo Bonney. Kate del Castillo enacts the story of Cuidad Juarez, a town on the US-Mexico border where countless women have been murdered.

Howard Sherman is a New York based arts administrator and advocate. Read his latest column every Friday at thestage.co.uk/author/howard_sherman/

We need your help…

When you subscribe to The Stage, you’re investing in our journalism. And our journalism is invested in supporting theatre and the performing arts.

The Stage is a family business, operated by the same family since we were founded in 1880. We do not receive government funding. We are not owned by a large corporation. Our editorial is not dictated by ticket sales.

We are fully independent, but this means we rely on revenue from readers to survive.

Help us continue to report on great work across the UK, champion new talent and keep up our investigative journalism that holds the powerful to account. Your subscription helps ensure our journalism can continue.