Terpsicorps is mounting a production centered on trans people — without their involvement or aid. Here’s the problem with that, and a satirical counter-suggestion
Above: the marquee for Terpsicorps’ Transform production on Biltmore Avenue
Recently, controversy erupted over Terpsicorps announcing a production centered around the story of a trans person and combatting HB2, but without any trans people directly involved, and no partnership with any trans organizations. In this opinion piece, local activist Brynn Estelle lays out the problem with that, and offers a satirical counterproposal. — D.F.
In the first week of June I began receiving inquiries from local trans folk and allies, to the effect of: had I heard about Terpsicorps Theatre of Dance’s upcoming production, Transform, and did I know where the proceeds from the event were going? In fact, I didn’t, but a quick look at the production’s event page on Facebook explained a lot; references to HB2 surrounded by vague advocacy language such as “an act of creative resistance to the laws of oppression,” and, “let’s come together to show N.C. government that these issues are not taboo, and that we are ready for change.”
This suggested some kind of political action, or at least a fundraiser to benefit organizations and groups fighting transphobic legislation on the ground. Otherwise, we would be looking at a for-profit event using the current hot button status of trans issues just to prop up its own advertising and promotion, which would be disingenuous at best and exploitative at worst.
So I and other local transgender activists and allies reached out to Terpsicorps on the Transform event page: Who exactly is benefitting from this production? How is the trans community involved in this event, or the conception thereof?
Our first response came from the choreographer, who over the course of a meandering and indulgent wall of text confirmed that the event is not a fundraiser, and as such will only benefit those involved with production. She also noted that only a small segment of the performance would feature a trans character, despite the entirety of the event’s promotional materials being trans-themed. Despite a reliance on clichéd language such as “a soul in the wrong body,” she believed herself well equipped to tell a trans story because, you guessed it, she knows some trans people. But fear not, because the true benefit of the show will be the “awareness” it intends to provide our community.
So what’s the problem there? Those of us engaged with Terpsicorps attempted to explain our community’s long history of misrepresentation and exploitation. That heightened visibility without representation has only led to an increase in violence perpetrated and legislation passed against us. We noted that the piece, as described, seemed suspiciously like the only trans narrative cis folk who want to portray us ever seem interested in telling: a soul in a body that is somehow “wrong,” that is then somehow made “right” through the process of transition, after which: happy ending. This story is not helpful, and in focusing on transition (itself a small, overly sensationalized part of our lives), it says nothing to the struggles and oppressions trans people experience both before and after transition.
For example, you don’t suddenly get access to employment, health care and housing after you’ve changed your name and gender marker; in fact, because social, legal and medical transition tend to leave such an extensive and easily accessible paper trail, these basic dignities may seem forever out of reach for many of us. If it is the purpose of the event to raise awareness, shouldn’t we be raising awareness about trans issues that matter? Because if the message is: “trans people exist,” well, the general public is already well aware of that fact and it has not helped our public image in the slightest.
This would have been a good opportunity for those with positions at Terpsicorps to open up a dialogue with the community, but instead they started coming out of the woodwork with the sole intent of doubling down. The ballet master blamed the school’s declining enrollment on the studio’s decision to go ahead with this production, implying that it was Terpsicorps that had something to lose from this performance and not the community upon which it is based.
This is the “table scraps” mentality: that we should be satisified with anything short of outright hate or threats, regardless of how exploitative or insulting it is, because “awareness” and the supposedly good intentions of supposedly liberal cis people. It is, bluntly, not what is necessary for our lives — that’s real power and protection — as well as deeply bigoted and insulting in its own way.
The board chair, in a since-deleted statement, accused trans critics of “manipulation” and relative inaction on HB2 while championing a strategy of “passive persuasion,” a method notable for its lack of success in securing basic civil rights for anyone. Eventually a board member sent me a private message claiming that the production was actually the idea of a trans student at Terpsicorps, despite the choreographer’s original assertion that it was she and she alone who conceived the event. All along, those employed by Terpsicorps noted their non-profit tax status, as if that somehow precludes an organization from exploiting a vulnerable minority.
So perhaps a different type of event in order. After all, if a project entirely of cis people can try to portray our lives and experiences without our involvement, perhaps we can attempt the same for cis people, complete with unrepentant arrogance. So I present: Transicorps.
A counter proposal
The Transicorps Ballet Academy is proud to announce STAY THE SAME, a life-affirming artistic fundraising and protest event! For advocacy! STAY THE SAME aims to humanize the struggle of so-called “cisgenderist people” (those incapable of identifying as anything other than the gender their parents tell them they are) while simultaneously benefiting no one but ourselves. Inspirational!
Of course, it becomes harder and harder to ignore the existence of the cis with each passing year, as prominent characters such as Donald Trump dominate news cycles and define their movement. It is Transicorps’ mission to take advantage of this phenomenon by charging for the privilege of beholding our own conjectured hodgepodge of the experiences and stories of cis you might see in your daily life, were you not justifiably terrified of ever encountering one: the cis who fires you because your pronouns are too hard to remember, and maybe that alienates his bigoted cis customers. The cis who evicts you because Asheville is in a “boom” period because he wants to unload his property on wealthy cis Boomer retirees before the inevitable “bust” period comes back around. The cis who supports legislation against you because it might help him get reelected by his fellow cis in November. And of course, the cis who each day somehow finds and harasses you at work, on the street, in your home, basically anywhere you are, because he wants to know how ashamed of you your cis parents must be or when exactly you are planning on cis killing yourself.
It’s time these heroes had their stories brought to life. In fact, it is my own self-righteous and completely altruistic position that these stories need to be told, and they must be told through arguably the least accessible artistic form in existence: ballet. Empowering!
In STAY THE SAME, all cis roles will be played by transgender dancers because I personally do not believe that the cis can be talented or rational enough to tell their own stories. In accordance, all dancers portraying cis characters will be forced to don comically large, featureless masks with tiny little black holes for eyes. This is so that the cis in the audience can look up at the stage and say, “That’s me!” I believe that it is very inspirational to charge people money to see my own lazy approximation of their presumed lived experiences. Inspirational!
When I first envisioned STAY THE SAME, I imagined the young cis Republican student, bullied in schools for assaulting cis women in restrooms. He would finally be able to see a trans person don the bland and inoffensive costume of his people. He would look into the vacant, tiny eyes lovingly drilled into the garish and impractical “Cis Face” masks of my performers, and see himself looking back. I imagined that his own struggles with gender conformity and sexuality will melt away instantly. Just thinking of this made me feel like a Very Good and Worthwhile Human Being, and I think you’ll agree that this is a beautiful, inspirational scenario, definitely worth your $30, or $100 for your VIP tickets! Act now! And Thank God for Transicorps!
Of course, no one involved in Transicorps or this production will receive any proceeds from ticket sales, or really any compensation of any sort, I promise, because we are a Registered 501c3 Non-Profit Organization and I assume my audience is not smart enough to know what that means. Therefore, we are above criticism and pretty much have a free pass to do whatever the hell we want. If any of you cissies have a problem with that, I will summon my BALLET MASTER to remind you that the cis are political poison, and the studio is taking a HUGE risk even considering this amazing production. In fact, the BALLET MASTER will go so far as to blame our declining enrollment and current struggles on our undying love for and exploitation of the cis. Good thing we’re the ones telling your story, huh?
Sadly, local cis activists whose names I cannot remember, because I do not have any interest in Asheville-based cis activism, have flooded our Facebook event page with unfounded and frankly ungrateful criticism of this affirming and transcendent event. I would like to remind all offended cis reading this release that it is Transicorps and Transicorps alone who know what is best for you, and maybe you should get a little better at picking your battles? After all, we’re all on the same side here, and you can tell because I say things like “we’re all on the same side here” instead of just telling you to shut the hell up because I don’t care about you any further than your existence and the exploitation thereof can finance my struggling ballet company, which I remind you is a Registered 501c3 Non-Profit Organization. Maybe all you cis should just be happy we decided to exploit you in the first place, ever think of that? Weirdos.
In response to this continued yet unwarranted rabblerousing, our Board Chair had this to say: “The constitution’s most amendments for hate can now, through dance, only to be amended. In this country. The trans founding fathers will should now must put forthwith and to go combining. Permanent changes. To not be in manipulating the now good, is only for prejudice. Only trans can but win the fight for and or against cis. I am in angry for this now and political.” Beautifully said! Bet you can’t argue against that, cissies!
However, because Transicorps is a benevolent and merciful Registered 501c3 Non-Profit Organization, and therefore incapable of committing or admitting to wrongdoing, we have graciously decided to allow select cis activist organizations to table at the event, well maybe, I’m not really aware of any so I’m going to need to go look some up, hang on. Ha ha, just kidding, Transicorps will never reference or follow through on this empty concession. If that seems disingenuous, pandering or condescending, that’s your problem. Maybe you all should have been present at the conception of the event, except you weren’t invited.
I hope you appreciate everything we’re doing for you.
Brynn Estelle is an Asheville activist, organizer and artist.