Last week, Marcy and I were treated to, and I won't hesitate to say, a tour de force (for once it's actually used correctly) named Alexandra Billings in her performance, "I'm still here."
It was... life affirming, life changing and... just plain ole life. But, an extraordinary one... as there’s nothing, not even her propensity for McDonald’s, is ever plain.
Now fair disclosure, Alexandra and I are getting to be better friends every day (when she picks up the phone), and I've written about her many times. Yes, I do think she walks on water and, no, you will never catch me saying that out loud—especially to her.
Nonetheless, her show consisted of more than an hour and half of songs belted to the rafters, enrobed in comedic bon mots that were both planned and spontaneous. Perfect example was when spilling her water glass on the piano became a Groucho Marx routine complete with enlisting help from the hapless, off-stage manager, and an innocent 80 year old bystander's shawl to mop it up. And there was planned patter & jokes that even tho’ I (in my few months of friendship) had heard a variation on, still got the big laugh out of me anyway.
An amazing, yes amazing performance.
In my continuing efforts at this fair disclosure thingy (I think I’ve already told you), Alexandra has signed on to the drama series based on my book. Yay! And I, in turn, have signed on to develop her stage show into a television event (stay tuned for updates on this all). None of this skews my admiration of her as a woman. As an artist. As a role model. As an activist. As a great spokesperson for our community...
that being said...
Her performance shook me all night long, and then some.
After her 90 minute set, Alexandra came out in street clothes (one of the first of many areas where we do disagree—jeans and a “t”? Please girl!) to answer questions from at least half the house that stayed for this rare chance. The audience, made of students and supporters of USC's arts community, were also, it turned out, fans of both her work on “Transparent,” and fans of the Director who runs this performance series program.
There were, you can image, the requisite questions about being a professional actor that one would expect from this crowd, not unlike the atmosphere created on “Inside the Actor’s Studio” (but without James Lipton being all James Liptony—which I rather like).
And, I saw a chance to open up a door to do another thing that Alexandra does best... represent.
Now, her show had already been a musical journey of her life from young boy to showgirl to mature professor and artist, through the broken glass-filled trenches of AIDS, drug addiction, and heartbreak (oh, so it's a family show) that’s as much the story of one amazing person’s life as it is a chronicle of the LGBT movement, experience, and legacy of the last 50 years.
But... for those of you who maybe follow her through social media (and if you don't, you should), you might know that Alexandra gets to deeper, more relevant issues in her own daily life, calling on us all to be divine, while acting humanely—with all, for all, not just the trans community. It’s one of the reasons why I value not only her friendship, but her voice in the trans community.
So, Yes, I tossed her a softball (news-speak for "an easy one"). But in this case, my intention was to give her a pivot to talk about subjects that hadn't been covered in her performance (so, sue me). And I wasn't even disappointed when she cast aside the notion in my question, reframing my premise about there even being a trans narrative into the bigger “human narrative” (that's my girl), before answering. (As I said this was her show.) But the magic worked, and the next phase of questions opened up to the broader issues about being oneself, and true to the art, and connecting with the audience… for real.
But I don't think either of us expected it to take the turn that it did, and I didn’t expect to still be “shook” days later. It started innocently enough…
One young playwright earnestly asked in this open and very public forum if Alexandra would be willing to be interviewed for her senior thesis project (a bold move that even Alexandra must’ve appreciated for its sheer chutzpah). Her play, she continued breathlessly, was about women, and Alexandra had on this night demonstrated, a perspective on being a woman that this playwright hadn't considered before (and there it is) nor, the playwright continued, even knew existed. Okay we can get into just how “sheltered” this young woman confessed to being, later. I hear my inner critic screaming from the porch, “Scottie Jeanette, you come down off that soapbox, this instant!”
The point is, she meant well! And like us all, she was captivated by Alexandra’s story & performance.
But it was Alexandra's answer that shook me, oh yeah, and probably the playwright too.
"Well, as you know, I've been married for over twenty years to a woman I've loved for over forty, and I can honestly say, having lived beside her, that I don't share the same experiences as she and her cis-sisters. I consider myself a trans woman. I'm proud of that. So, no, maybe I'm not right for your project."
Which sounded to everyone as a perfectly reasonable, gracious, maybe thanks but no, thanks dodge. But smiles and nods and the love in the air seemed to egg Alexandra on, so she continued to say, "... and if you're okay with that; and you still want me? Talk to my manager."
I was… floored. I… was… did I hear her right? Was I just… sold out?
But, again, this was Alexandra’s show.
Which is what I had to keep telling myself to get myself to take my finger off the launch buttons.
For those of you who've been following me, forgive me for repeating myself. I am a woman. I use the trans prefix only as a shorthand in pertinent conversations and context.
I struggle with this paradox (see previous posts), like last week when we pushed back on little old me, Ms smarty pants, with the unanswerable question, “Oh yeah? If you’re a woman, then how do you explain your body?"
But before you offer me up the usual get-out-of-jail-free cards,” like chromosomes and DNA and other cultures’ historical embraces (India’s Hijera, First Nation’s Two-Spirits, etc.), I will confess that, tho’ some find solace in these, I don’t. What happens for others is rarely easy for me to adopt as an explanation for my inner experience of reality.
It’s nice to know, but nothing has actually worked, except my own mental elbow grease.
I write often about how I cherish sisterhood and seek it out and, yes, get disappointed when I'm cut off from it, either by self-inflicted wounds or good ole fashioned misunderstanding.
So, when the divine Ms. Alex makes self-acceptance of the trans kind seem so easy and so... de rigueur, so… required, what's a girl to do?
I do still, obviously, duh, struggle with this.
You can see it as I'm trying to get the world (or at least my world) to not only see me as a woman, but capital “B,” Be with me as a woman. When we are capital “B,” Be-ing, we are surfing that powerful wave of connection that we are suddenly sharing (for whatever reason), ignoring the mental obstacles that judge, misjudge, fire and misfire like so much flotsam and jetsam… the ocean of truth between two people pounds the rocks of fantasy and imagination (of each other) into the fine beach sand of each of our inner shores. And we… just… connect.
I’m using the word connection as a metaphysical, spiritual, sacred embrace.
And that’s why I shy away (shy being the operative word here) from the word "acceptance." I’m not asking anyone to accept my womanhood that’s a mental surrender to a previously held prejudice. No, I'm an "all or nothing" girl. Wait… in this case, even that isn't accurate…
I'm an all or all, girl. There’s no room for nothing.
I know, and have learned from deep meaningful relationships with amazing people, that deeper spiritual connection is there for us with each of our very next breaths.
All it takes is for us to stay in that beautiful bubble that our hearts created when first they met.
So, I figure that it’s even better when we are able to now, breath freely in our bubbles with a deeper understanding of my true femininity, because now we can, when we both are just Be-ing together, achieve... well, an even richer state of love. Of connection. Of meaningfulness as two humans, you and I.
Now, put in these terms, I know Alexandra (maybe with far more inspirational prose) would say the very same things. And no, gender is not even a part of the above equation, except for my case alone. I ask that those close to me regard me as a woman and treat me in the same way they treat the other women in our life. In our bubble. According to the social rules that we have created together.
But when those close to me step outside the bubble we created and look instead to the outside society for clues and cues as to how to live with me, then, yes, I get... well, uncomfortable. It happens more often than I care to believe, and has happened to a greater degree (and heartbreak) ever since I came out.
So, when Alex so boldly declared how she wants to be regarded... yes. I braced for impact.
And I had good cause. Because it happened to me on the way home.
And it happened from the one person who loves me most, and proofs this blog and should know better than anyone else, why I feel the way I do… and I would hope be able to answer this question (were it to come up) in my absence.
And… even I, intelligent woman that I am, can see why even Mylove could agree with Alexandra, despite all of the above.
Because Alexandra declared her views from the context of being the star of the night, and Alexandra had a microphone that amplified her perspective for her life (somehow hearing things in a concert hall seems, I dunno, more important or have more value?). And maybe I'm nervous that someone else may hear Alexandra’s declaration and, knowing that I respect her, naturally and innocently apply her views to me. (I can and did correct Mylove’s misunderstanding. But I was able to talk it through with her. What about those who will just assume? What about people I don’t even know? Breathe Girl! Calm down! Ah, the wonders of being trans. We can be so consumed with making preemptive strikes to safeguard our future kerfuffles, that we walk around like porcupines!)
Truly speaking, I don't have an answer for the criteria that Alexandra presented.
I saw how my family lovingly raised my sisters to believe they could be anything they wanted, while actually kicking my butt (also lovingly) to make sure that I made it actually happen. It's subtle, but the girls weren't hammered and hammered and hammered to make sure they would follow through to success like I was, they were given the room to be or not be, and they would be loved no matter how they turned out. And now, as mature women, none of us are really sure which way was best. But…
I wasn't raised on the inside of things that are a woman's natural life—like what a period is, childbirth and childbearing, etc., though I was, as the oldest, and as my father's "second in command," the steward of the women in our house. I was keenly aware and directly involved in making sure that “our four women,” whose cycles invariably aligned, were taken care of, and this time had very high significance and attention in my family. And no, I never really disliked this. And yes, as a smart person, I knew that this made me unique—the boy who knew as much about periods as the blushing mothers of my friends. And well, let's face it, it became a great part of my stand-up routine. (Doesn’t everyone have a stand-up routine? You know, the answer that you give your friends’ parents when they ask, “So… how've you been?”)
But it also, when I'm brutally honest with myself, paradoxically spotlights that I was still separate from my sisters. I was their steward, their guardian, I understood that they were going through something. As time went on, and the female intuition of my creative mind empathized even further, I understood even deeper…
... what I was missing, and where we differed…
This alone is what made me shudder when Alexandra declared her "not-ness." On this, she was right. And I had no rebuttal.
This question even comes up in feminist circles as being "what defines a woman?" But that's not what we're talking about here. Like it or not, know it or not, women have a shared experience that I have only had from the outside looking in. Though we both may have had the same reactions and emotions to a situation, I'd be naive to think that my cis sisters, feeling both the warmth of being cherished and the bite of sexism (and being the object of both) is the same as my witnessing it “once removed.”
This is what "other" feels like on my side of the fence.
So, is she right? Is Alexandra's declaration supposed to be how I should feel? Is acceptance of my trans-ness the goal?
Do I need to get that I am not a woman but rather a woman with the trans prefix?
I fully admit that this has got to seem strange coming from a woman who wrote a book and records a regular video vlog and writes a weekly blog about being raised by wolves. Yes, I had to accept that this gender dysphoria wasn't going away. Yes, I had to deal with the fact that I had… something to deal with. Yes, I had to involve doctors and counselors, and I had to find a way to describe to my family and friends why I would be looking and living so differently from the way they had comfortably learned to live with and look at me for over 45 years. Yes. Yes.
But I never called what I was "trans;" never thought of myself as other than me. I used the words “woman” for what I was and “man” for what the world thought me to be. Trans only came into favor within the last five years (I guess we had to wait long enough for the stigma of being “Not a Camaro” to wear off?). And before that, saying I was a transsexual was too... optimistic.
And why, Ms. Scottie, yes, why dig this deep into semantics in the first place?
Why was I shook all night long and then some to make me take to the keyboard to figure it out?
… each term, each word, each label, each title, comes with a short hand that, good or bad, will be the way the world regards us all. Each has a set of social rules. (We’re talking big picture now, outside the sacred bubble described above.) Admittedly those rules are broken and being re-written all the time, but are nonetheless there to make the blind spots less blind, the unpaved roads less bumpy; to give us a way to see around corners, and more importantly, protect us from the unknown. And tho’ we’ve talked to death about the notion that “labels can limit,” but “labels should not limit,” labels are here. We’re learning that being “color blind” with race is… actually just blind—blind and, actually, a dismissing of someone’s humanity.
So, back to the word “woman,” we all have a pretty common starting point for how you can relate to me. With trans, I'm stating that, unless you're trans, you will never understand me.
But… and here’s the big “but” coming… you ready? I am, as a member of the trans community, able to make room for both my view and Alexandra's. As she does for me. Without either of us canceling out the other. (I know, what was I worried about? Geeze…)
We can do this because something that is possible to generalize about as being true across the board with trans people is that we make room for the various variations of gender identity that appear daily under our side of the LGBTQIA tent—gender non-conforming, gender neutral, gender queer… and that's just this week. We hold ourselves to the same standards we ask of the world—accept that what and who we say we are, is who we are. (Yes, I still feel the same way about the “A-word” but it’s different when we’re talking the whole community.) Please don't discriminate against us. Allow us the same opportunities as everyone else. Please treat us as equals.
So. I can make room for Alexandra's declarations just as she has generously made room for mine. She sees me as a woman. I see her as a trans woman. We see each other as sisters.
And so, I can still hate her for the way she rocks the Marilyn “seven-year-itch” dress and sparkly platform pumps.
And she will defend me when our feminist sisters judge me for making this (yet again) about shoes and hair.
And she probably still won’t answer my texts, emails or voice messages for weeks… but she will come running whenever I need her.
We’re sisters, after all.
Scottie Jeanette Madden
Screenwriter, Author, Cook and Lover. Author of "Getting Back To Me, from girl to boy to woman in just fifty years"