Yesterday I arrived in Tacoma for my week as University of Puget Sound’s Artist in Residence. They comfortably settled me into the Trimble Guest Room, a cozy accommodation replete with imported Chinese rosewood furniture and delicious satiny sheets. Choreographer and dancer Twyla Tharp stayed her in February 2008 when she gave a lecture on campus. I adore Tharp and her work and get a creepy artistic thrill at lying in the same bed that supported her graceful frame.
The producer of my event, Jane Brazell, has organized a series of performances and classroom appearances that will showcase two presentations while also giving me a chance to connect with both theater and religious studies students (and lots of LGBTQ folks).
As I look over the week I am especially pleased about three theater classes I will teach on Tuesday. Often on campuses I teach classes but typically in subjects like Sexuality, Gender Studies, Sociology or Religion. I hardly ever get to do theater classes. You have to understand that in many universities the theater department doesn’t take kindly to a full-time performance artist who circumvents the tradition theater trajectory. But on this trip I will get to present to theater students about the work of a solo artist, the process of character development and the steps I take when building a play.
On Thursday I will also hang out in a Shakespeare class where we will focus on gender and the Bard. When I studied theater at City College in NYC back in the early 1980’s I was most drawn to modern classics by Ibsen, Strinberg, Shaw and O’Neil, mostly the most serious and tragic plays and to Shakespeare. I even got coaching from actress Diane Venora who had just completed her run as the first female Hamlet on Broadway. I wanted to be a SERIOUS actor doing SERIOUS plays. I wanted nothing to do with comedy.
Tonight at Tacoma’s Rainbow Center I will perform excerpts from my comedy Queer 101–Now I know my gAy,B,Cs. In it I look at homophobia, identity and activism through the words and lives of lesbian and gay poets. I imagine I will also mention my own sordid past of trying desperate to be anything BUT a homosexual. I wholeheartedly believed that gender-normative straight men were more valuable than me, and I did everything in my power (and God’s) to change all that. The process weakened me considerably, but I did live to tell the story and to analyze why someone might spend so much time, money and effort to annihilate a part of themselves.
Tomorrow I will perform on campus Doin Time with Peterson Toscano, a variety show of sorts with performance arts bits mixed it. I give the audience a sampling of excerpts from most of my plays and also perform monologues specifically created for this presentation including my new Rainbow Monologue. I believe Marvin Bloom will also make an appearance and tell his story about his encounter with Samson. (It’s not what goes in your butt that makes you gay; it’s what’s in your heart.) Of course I will also share material from my newest (yet to be premiered) play, I Can See Sarah Palin from my Window! Lessons Before the Second Coming.
Wednesday is the BIG night with a special performance of Transfigurations–Transgressing Gender in the Bible. It will include “inserts” between scenes when members from the trans community (turns out all male-identified trans people) will take a few minutes to read their poetry or share a moment from their lives. We are celebration Transgender Day of Visibility, and I am very excited to see how these men’s contributions will add to the evening and my performance.
I also get to spend time in a religion class where we will discuss gender non-conforming Bible characters and saints. The professor has done research and presentations around “transvestite Saints.” I imagine I will learn a thing or two.
As some of us met last night to consider the goals, expectations and hopes for the week, a strong and passionate ally to the transgender community made a mistake. We sat together on a couch. She was on my right and turned to the trans man on my left and then called him a female name. I imagine it was his birth name, the first name she learned associated with him. She immediately apologized, and we spoke briefly about how this happens and what we can do when this happens. Often it is an innocent mistake–using the wrong the name or pronoun after having used a different one for a time. Other times it is beyond a mistake, particularly when it seems someone does not try to use the correct name or pronoun and there is an attitude of intolerance coming off of the offender.
In my immediate family we all have long names. My oldest sister is Nardina, but we have always called her Dina. My sister Maria has always been Marie to my parents, and my family and school friends have always known me as Peter. I get that some family and childhood friends don’t call me Peterson. I have never asked them to do so, and I don’t mind because it reminds me of a special intimacy we share. BUT when people I meet today or who write about me on their blogs or in e-mails or in news stories refer to me as Peter, well I feel like they are talking about someone else. I feel like they are being rude. I feel they disrespect me.
What do we do when someone in our community refuses to use the correct name or pronoun? A transgender man in Hartford told me that he had been active in the gay male community for years before he came out to his gay friends as trans. He said suddenly people who ONLY ever knew him as male started screwing up pronouns. He told me how much that hurt, how he felt invalidated, disrespected and unaffirmed by his own community.
What can we do? A passive-agressive side of me (mixed in with my teacher side) wonders if we should give the offender a dose of their own medicine. How about a assign them a new name that is usually used for a different gender? How about I also use some new pronouns. So Chet becomes Samantha and she is soooo unhappy about it. It might just get the point across. But it may be also practicing a form of violence. I’ll have to think about it.
Last night as we sat on couches together in the tense moment after a person was mis-named, I saw community and relationship at work. These are folks who are on a journey together. They both have transitioned in a public way–one female to male, the other unaware/uninformed lesbian to engaged and passionate ally to transgender people. They trust each other. They can talk. She apologized. He accepted. I suggested, “Hey, maybe every time someone messes up on a name, they have to pay $10. For misplaced pronouns–$5.” (of course the amounts can adjust according to the means of the people involved) From my right to my left $10 passed. Trans Action complete.
I have a good feeling this is going to be an excellent week.