Performance Truth

If you want to start a fight between TBB and I, just bring up the idea of gender being performative.

This is, of course, a disagreement between performers.

To TBB, performative means put-on, focused on the mannerisms, applied to the outside like a costume is out on.   She sees performative as the opposite of authentic.

To me, performative means constructed out of bits we have found in the world, an expression created like a collage, using pieces of borrowed expression to create a unique way to communicate ourselves in the world.  I see performance as an attempt to communicate the authentic and the desired in as true & authentic a way as possible.

What this really means is that I am a method actor, and TBB is not.    I need to trust my choices, while TBB feels that acting is a kind of working of a costume.   For her, authenticity just “is” — you either are authentic or you are not, and while you are acting, you are not — while for me the goal is a kind of authentic performance that meets a number of goals, including a communicating character, conveying continuity, showing style and effectively getting me what I want and need in “the scene,” which is usually building relationships.

Do you build your character from the outside in or from the inside out?   It’s always a key question in performance.  The key question for transpeople, though, is if trans is about concealing your biology & history, or is about revealing your heart.

“You should talk in put-on fruity voices as much as you want to,” she tells me when I suggest that I need support in performance, “even though I tried that and it just ended up looking ridiculous on me and creating barriers between me and the others in the room.  They knew I was putting on airs, but they just played along.”

I have seen her in this mode.  She asked me to not accompany her as a visible transwoman because my presence might tip off others to her trans status, which would be bad.   She was claiming a performance much as Dame Edna Everage claims a performance, where everyone else in the room knows Barry Humprhies is under the frock, but it is never discussed.

This is not a unique kind of performance in trans circles, where we have to be very suspect about connecting with other transpeople we meet because we have no idea if they know they are visible as trans or not.  We don’t want to queer their performance because they will blame us for breaking the illusion, even if the illusion was all about suspended disbelief to start with.

ShamanGal started a new job about four months ago, and her choice was to keep quiet about her transgender history and biology.  She wanted to be accepted as a woman, so she decided to make her past invisible, to put on a front of normativity based mostly in silence.

The problem she has found is that it is hard to keep her body silent — she may be tall and thin, but she is also a bit angular — and even harder to keep her missing girl training from being revealed.    At least one woman at work has hinted that she has figured out ShamanGal’s secrets, but until SG chooses to surface them, they will go unspoken.

TBB eventually came to the choice to open her trans history soon after she joined a new workplace.  This was hard for her, felt like a risk, but in the end, let others understand and respond to her choices in a more authentic way.

Notice that I didn’t say that TBB was being more authentic in her expression, I said that her outness  allows others to be more authentic with her, more honest in reflecting their experience of her.  They no longer feel the need to tiptoe around what they know or suspect, rather they can openly discuss their own experience.   This means they don’t have to feel like they are tiptoeing around TBB, rather they can be more relaxed.

To TBB, this feels kind of like she is surrendering the woman mask she bought soon after she transitioned, the one she wore like a costume which came with a fruity voice and all.   She is no longer applying a facade of external womanliness, which makes her think she is no longer claiming woman.

TBB works in a world where the appearances and externals of womanhood just don’t apply.  Nobody on a working ship wears cute skirts and high heels, and any makeup applied is soon devastated by weather and physical work.  It’s a hair-up, t-shirts and jeans kind of workplace.

Still, there are women in that androgynous space, and they are seen as women.  It may be most obvious on a night in port when they pull out the dress & heels, let their hair down and do themselves up, but it’s always true.

“I’m surprised at how much the crew accept me as a woman,” TBB tells me.  “They joke that my boss and I banter like a married couple, always include me in the women’s activities, and when I wear a dress out to dinner, I get compliments.”

To TBB  this means she is being authentic, but to me, this means her performance of a woman’s role is coming from the inside, not the outside.  She is trusting her woman choices and having them affirmed, rather than believing that woman is something you put on, like Spanx and a wig.

I hear echoes of Martin Luther King.  “I dream of a day when people are judged by the content of their character rather than the colour of their skin.”   I dream of a day when people are judged by the content of their hearts rather than the shape of their birth genitals, where gender is seen as an expression of who we know ourselves to be rather than something that comes with your genitals.

The performativity of gender doesn’t make it false, any more than the constructed nature of language makes the ideas and feelings we express with it false.   Every time I sit down at a keyboard my goal is to make choices that authentically express a voice, even if the only way I can do that is to press one of 26 keys in a different order.

Maybe that’s why TBB and I see the performance of gender so differently.  I come to it as an artist, who always lives on that observer/participant bias, and is always considering what choices she can make that will both be effective and authentic.  TBB comes to it as an attempt to live a life the best and most authentic way that she can.

In the end, I suspect my more considered, “method” approach and her more intuitive approach are really not that different, even if they create great semantic arguments that sometimes leave us feeling unheard and erased.

We both agree that the only way you can find your centre — the centre of the performance to me — is to push the pendulum wide, to over shoot, and then to dial it back to the power zone.   If you never do this, if you are always timid & creeping up on expression, you will never find your real groove.

To me, considered performance is a goal to fuller, more interesting, more nuanced and more effective communication of truth.    I am all about the choices that refine and finesse an authentic expression.  I am the one who will try on five variations of outfits before I go out, for example.

To TBB, authenticity is all about making your choices more clear and centred, more from who you really are and less from some attempt to put on airs.

In the end, I’m not sure that those approaches are all that different.