This is a speech I wrote for a Town Hall Meeting on gender representation and equity in the arts that was held by The Public Theater on March 7, 2016. I gave about 65% of this speech at the meeting. Now you can read the whole thing at your leisure, blessedly free of 'ums' and awkward microphone adjustments. Thanks for reading.
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TOWN HALL MEETING SPEECH
I'm Taylor Edelhart, a genderqueer theatremaker. A couple months ago, I wrote an open letter to Oskar Eustis and The Public about Southern Comfort. Mr. Eustis wrote back to me, and now, we're having this meeting on the set of Southern Comfort.
In all seriousness, I am so incredibly happy to be here. The fact that this meeting is taking place is a huge testament to The Public's commitment to improving itself as a result of the Southern Comfort process. And I can personally say that, in all the interactions I've had with The Public since writing that letter, I have been met with nothing but kindness, respect, and a joyful curiosity about how this institution can learn more and do better.
In my letter, I asked a lot of questions - about this musical, and about how The Public interacts with trans individuals, artists and communities. Now, I have some statements. Here they are.
First, I want to assure everyone that the message has been received. The Public has heard what I, all 300 plus people who signed my letter, and so many other artists and allies have told them. They now know that having cisgender, i.e. non-trans, actors, play trans characters, in a story focused on trans experiences, on a stage here at The Public, is, for lack of a better phrase, fucked up. They know that we live in a post-Laverne Cox world, one where casting cisgender people in trans roles is no longer edgy or acceptable. They know that trans people are real, and that many trans people are vital members of the theatre, cabaret and performance art communities here in New York. And they know that several local theatres have, in fact, cast trans actors in trans roles in major productions just this past season.
They also know that, sadly, this production of Southern Comfort has now joined The Danish Girl, Transparent, Ray, and Zoolander 2 on the wrong side of history when it comes to trans representation and storytelling. All of these cultural artifacts make the same mistakes - not only are they cast inaccurately, they focus too heavily on surgery and the genitalia of their trans protagonists, and use trans narratives as vehicles for cisgender anxieties, instead of letting the trans people and stories speak for themselves.
And The Public knows that they're going to have to do more than just talk to earn back the trust they've lost among many trans community members and their allies because of Southern Comfort. They're going to have to do something. They're going to have to change.
Second, I want to let everyone here know that the The Public is an institution that puts artists first. As far as I can tell, that’s why Southern Comfort is currently cast the way that it is. The creators of Southern Comfort have been making this piece with this team of cisgender actors for ten years, long before this trans 'moment' we now find ourselves in began. For The Public to ask those creators to recast the piece now is to not put those artists first. As an artist, I appreciate The Public's commitment to the people it works with. I also appreciate how closeknit a group of artmakers can become when working on a project together, and how painful and difficult it can be to replace members of that group late in a piece's process. And I want to take this moment to say that I'm not here to disparage the talent of any performer in Southern Comfort. I saw the show last week, and it's clear to me that every performer on that stage is incredibly talented. But like I said in my original letter, what's at issue here is not talent, but equity. And I can't help but wonder if The Public would, say, go along with a commissioned artist of their's casting a piece about a real, poor black family entirely with white actors in blackface. Not for any artistic or abstract symbolic purpose, just because the artist had been working with this group of white performers for a long time, and thought that they would do the best job of telling the story of this poor black family. Would The Public agree to that, in the name of putting that artist first? Would it do a nationwide search for black actors, only to cast just two roles in the piece with black actors and leave the rest of the roles to the white actors in blackface? Would the marketing for this production say that it's about a "group of black friends"? Would it consider any of this a step forward, or something to be proud of? I know I've gone back into question territory, but only because I've had to. I have no idea how far The Public would go to put their artists first. But I do know that I feel deeply unsettled by the fact that right now, artistry is being given as the excuse for why the gender version of blackface is happening here, on this stage, at The Public Theatre.
[EDITOR/WRITER’S NOTE: If I had a magic time machine, I would go back and make sure I wrote something about how the phrase “gender version of blackface” is a highly imperfect one for describing the situation, because gender and race are different, and because blackface and “the word for cis-actors-playing-trans-people” aren’t mutually exclusive by any stretch. Then I would write that I’m using the phrase anyway, because I don’t have any other phrases that can convey to cis people who don’t know much about trans issues the gravity of this epidemic of inaccurate casting we find ourselves in now the way this one does. And, that one of the problems is that we’re in the middle of this epidemic, but we don’t even have a word for what’s happening. The closest one I’ve heard is “transface”, which I personally don’t like at all, and which I think is still contributing to the co-opting of blackface for gender problem. But I don’t have a magic time machine, I just have this note. Thanks for reading it.]
Third, I want to give everyone here some big picture information about the trans experience in the US today, and how art fits into that experience. In Southern Comfort, we see a trans man die from ovarian cancer because of transphobic doctors who deny him equal access to healthcare because he is trans. 17 years have passed since the death of Robert Eads, and honestly, things haven't gotten that much better for transfolk in America. Yes, more and more trans narratives are entering mainstream culture everyday, but trans people are still murdered, denied access to healthcare, and discriminated against by landlords, employers, and law enforcement more than almost any other population in the country. According to the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, over 63% of the trans people surveyed had experienced serious acts of discrimination, like losing their job, being evicted, or being denied medical service, like Robert Eads, because they were trans. According to a recent study by the Human Rights Campaign and Trans People of Color Coalition, 2015 was the deadliest year for trans people in the U.S. on record. And it’s important to note that most of the trans people who we know were murdered last year were trans women of color - in general, trans people of color face violence and discrimination at far, far greater levels than white trans people. And for all of these reasons and more, the rate of suicide among trans people is incredibly high. According to the survey I mentioned before, 41% of the thousands of trans people surveyed had attempted suicide. The suicide attempt rate for the general U.S. population was 4.6% at the time of the survey.
None of the mainstream artistic portrayals of trans people that have been made in the past five years have done anything to change any of these statistics. The connection between what's being told on screens and stages and the real trans people who are suffering in real life simply hasn't been made yet. You want to help solve these problems? The second you leave this theatre tonight, make plans to give your time and money to the organizations that are doing the crucial, grassroots, on-the-ground work of making life better for trans people in America. I’m going to post a list of organizations to The Public’s Facebook page after this meeting, if you need a place to start. But don’t go see Southern Comfort and think that the work stops there. Right now, just art isn’t going to cut it - good-old fashioned community activism is the only way to go.
In fact, artworks can sometimes exacerbate the greater cultural problems they're trying to solve. Southern Comfort is doing this right now. One of the most common ways transphobic people try to invalidate trans lives is by saying that transfolk are just “pretending” to be their true selves - trans women are really just men in dresses, trans men are really just women with short hair, and so on. Well, right now, a man is pretending to be a trans woman and a woman is pretending to be a trans man in this musical. That invalidation is being reenacted, every night, in this show, which is all about how trans people need more validation from mainstream society. But hey, I guess hypocrisy is the price you have to pay when you put your artists first.
I also want to make it clear that trans people did not create the conditions that led to these statistics or sad truths - cisgender people did. Trans narratives are not having a 'moment' right now because more trans artmakers have suddenly sprung into existence, or because trans stories have magically become more worthwhile, but because cisgender people in positions of power have only recently decided that trans narratives deserve some time in the cisgender, mainstream spotlight. Trans people already know that they are capable of telling their own stories, and should be given more opportunities to do so. Now, we're just waiting, once again, for all the well-meaning cisgender people to catch up.
Which brings me to my final statement for tonight. And, Mr. Eustis, I am giving this one directly to you.
Mr. Eustis, you have to start putting trans artists first.
That is the only way you can begin to make any of this better.
An openly trans playwright has not had a play fully produced by The Public ONCE in its 62 year history
and sir, right now, that is on you.
And there are so many other ways The Public can begin to catch up when it comes to supporting trans people and stories. Go to your commissioned playwrights and ask them how they might open up the casting of their pieces not only to trans actors, but to underrepresented actors of all kinds. Create programming and performance opportunities for trans kids and elders. Go to the queer and trans art events that are happening all over town all year round. MJ Kaufman, a trans playwright, is now in your Emerging Writers Group - fantastic! Now produce MJ’s plays. And hire trans playwrights who aren’t MJ as well - it’s not fair to anyone to make MJ the One Trans Voice in The Public’s mainstream programming. Hire trans staff members, not just trans artists. Demand that your peers and colleagues in theatre organizations throughout the city eliminate transphobia from their workplaces and rehearsals rooms - it is there, and it needs to go. Fund artistic investigations into the intersections between transness and race and disability because trans experiences do not exist in a white, able-bodied vacuum. And speaking of disability, you should be doing all of this and more for the disabled theatremakers in this town because oh my god, injustice is not a contest, but if there’s one group whose struggles are consistently ignored more than trans people, it’s those of the disabled people who live in this country.
Take your pick, Mr. Eustis. You have to start somewhere.
And you, the rest of you here tonight, particularly the cisgender people. Just because you don't run The Public doesn't mean you can't also put trans artists first, or fight for more inclusive and equitable theatre spaces. I, for one, have found that writing letters can be an extremely effective way to create change.
But do something. Please. Change for the better is not going to happen unless you make it happen. If Southern Comfort teaches us nothing else, it teaches us that.
Those are the statements I have for tonight. I want to thank the folks at The Public again for making this all possible, and to thank you all so much again for being here tonight. I'm so excited to be part of the rest of this meeting and whatever comes after it. And for anyone who feels lost, confused, insulted, or put upon by anything I've just said, I leave you with this final message.
I can't wait for you to make it up here.