Trans mission: how to tell our stories on stage and screen

When a cisgender person tells a trans story, the potential for damage is high. This #Idahot, trans writer Fury discusses why it’s important to get it right

There’s a reason trans people say cis people shouldn’t tell trans stories. It’s not that it can’t be done, because it can: if we didn’t have cis-trans collaborations, we wouldn’t have Tangerine or Laverne Cox.

But when you’re cisgender – when your gender identity aligns with what you were assigned at birth – the stakes become higher for everyone.

Cis people have had a long history of profiting from their interpretations of trans stories, which is why many trans people feel that the use of their stories equates to theft. The criticism levelled at Dallas Buyers Club and The Danish Girl showed the ways in which getting it wrong can really hurt the trans community, and the great financial failure that was Stonewall served as a warning to creators of and investors in poorly appropriated stories. As trans issues begin to permeate pop culture and the arts, conversations about representation become more and more important.

Rough Drafts is a prestigious program presented by Sydney Theatre Company, which offers workshops to successful applicants to develop new pieces of theatre, and offers the public a rare glimpse at the works in progress. One of the latest, Something for Cate, had a public showing this month after just a week in development. It explores the life of the former cricket commentator and 2015 Queenslander of the Year Cate McGregor, who was a lieutenant colonel in the Australian defence force when she came out as being transgender in 2013.

Although the play is very much in its nascent phase of development, it offers an insightful look at a timely question: how can cis people ethically tell trans stories?

The director, Priscilla Jackman, approached the Sydney Theatre Company to produce the piece after meeting McGregor and finding her stories electrifying. The script comes directly from those interviews. Hearing vignettes of McGregor talking about cricket, it’s clear why Jackman was struck by her subject: McGregor tells a damn good story.

But letting McGregor dictate the narrative is a good move for another reason: it reduces the potential damage to trans people that comes when their stories are appropriated from outside the community.

In Something for Cate, McGregor talks about how she has felt confronted by trans people who do not “pass” for the gender they identify as; and growing up, she says, she was taught to believe that trans people were unstable and mentally unwell. She knows that this internalised transphobia has shaped how she behaves towards herself and others; being trans, she also knows how confessions like this can be dangerous and alienating.

But they would be more dangerous and alienating out of the mouth of a cis person, so putting McGregor front and centre is smart.

Casting is another important consideration. In Something for Cate, some monologues are read by a single actor – at the Rough Drafts public performance, the cis actor Kym Vercoe – but often McGregor’s words are distributed among other cast members, so McGregor seems to be a disembodied spirit in the room. This Greek-style chorus minimises some of the damage that can occur when casting cis people in trans stories.

Here’s why that’s a problem: every time a cis woman is cast in a trans woman’s role, the trans aspect of the character is effectively erased – no matter how good an actor she is. At best, this can feel like a calculated decision to ensure that cis audiences don’t feel confronted, as McGregor did, with the reality of a trans person. At worst – such as in 2005 film Transamerica, starring Felicity Huffman – the casting of a cis woman reinforces the narrative’s prejudice, implying that only some types of bodies can belong to women.

The casting of a cis man in a role for a trans woman can be even more damaging: in The Crying Game and Dallas Buyers Club it fostered the idea that trans women are just men in drag, bolstering the kind of prejudice that can snowball into deeply oppressive laws.

Many directors justify their casting decisions in the same way: they argue that there simply aren’t any trans actors with the clout or ability to tell our stories. On a show like Transparent, this is understandable: the part of Maura called for an actor in his 70s who hadn’t medically transitioned. To try to find a trans woman of that age who was not only happy to be outed and interested in acting, but also with the talent to carry a lead Netflix role wouldn’t have been easy.

Judith Light as Shelly Pfefferman and Jeffrey Tambor as Maura Pfefferman in season two of Transparent
Judith Light as Shelly and Jeffrey Tambor as Maura in Transparent. Photograph: Jennifer Clasen/Amazon Video

For a local theatre production, of course, that justification is harder to sympathise with. There are talented emerging trans actors who would have relished the opportunity to be a part of Rough Drafts – which is, after all, about fostering new talent. All it would have taken was a call-out in the community (trans actors are often locked out of casting pools).

Casting trans people in trans roles has another benefit: it gives a leg-up to trans people who can then make room for others in the industry. By casting Laverne Cox, for instance, Orange Is the New Black provided a huge platform for her to advocate for trans people – especially trans women of colour, who are among the most disadvantaged people in the world. Cis actors, on the other hand, are free to walk away from the community after the spotlight shifts.

Which brings us to another issue: Priscilla Jackman is an undeniably talented director who has approached this narrative with good intent. But by choosing her project over a trans-led one, Sydney Theatre Company is denying opportunities to the exact group of people who are the most skilled and equipped to take a story like this on. This won’t have been a concerted effort to lock trans people out, of course – but unless there is a holistic approach to representation, trans people face the equivalent of a glass ceiling.

Consultation with the trans community isn’t always the answer, either: it can insulate a creator from blame and can pit trans people against each other – particularly when that consultation doesn’t produce inclusive results. Those funding productions and those creating them need to push for more significant and less tokenistic inclusions of trans people in their stories.

In Something for Cate, McGregor is in raptures when she recounts the 2011 Sir Donald Bradman oration by the former Indian cricket captain Rahul Dravid, in which he likens cricket to war and talks about the strong resilience of both India and Australia. It’s a fascinating segment of the play that presents an opportunity to examine how McGregor’s femininity and womanhood existed – and continues to exist – in spaces that are rooted in jingoism and rigid masculinity.

There’s a temptation to focus on the vignettes of trans experience that titillate and humour cis audiences – but with such a fascinating, complicated subject at its core, who is defined by so much more than her gender, Something for Cate has the opportunity to make a powerful impact.

Find out more about Sydney Theatre company’s creative development program Rough Drafts here
Read more about the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (#Idahot)


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