Transgender Performers on How Art and Identity Inform Each Other

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The statuesque and striking Bianca Leigh admits that exposing one of her breasts in her one-person musical "Busted" was a vulnerable moment. But it was not gratuitous, confessional, or therapeutic, she says, despite her being a transgender woman.

Indeed, Leigh never planned to write a piece about the transgender experience, but she felt that audiences were ready, and so was she. "With humor, I showed how the abuse of power can affect any disenfranchised person," she says. "Busted" recounts what happened when she was arrested for alleged solicitation.

Leigh no longer feels disenfranchised but concedes that she faces obstacles, especially as an actress. (The majority of the trans women interviewed prefer the term "actress" to the gender-neutral "actor.") Transgender roles are few—often they're prostitutes, criminals, or murder victims—and when a good part surfaces, more often than not it does not go to a transgender actor. The films "Transamerica" and "Boys Don't Cry" are classic examples. Leigh wants to do more than transgender roles but will seize any small opportunity. "I will work nonstop," she insists. "I have to prove I am an actress who happens to be trans."

Leigh is luckier than most transgender actors in that she has representation. Her agent, Judy Boals, says she had no reservations in taking on Leigh: "I will submit her for everything, but mostly beautiful, glamorous, upscale female roles. I haven't gotten her much yet, but mostly because of her many downtown theater credits. Also, in the few films she's been in, she's played transgender characters." Generally, Boals explains, casting directors and agents like to put people in boxes.

A Trans Life On Stage and Off

"Transgender" is an umbrella term for a person whose gender identity and lifestyle don't match his or her biological sex. Most transgender people know at an early age that they're "trapped in the wrong body" and are usually "out" as homosexuals prior to making the actual gender transition. Some have surgical and/or hormonal treatments, though typically they won't discuss whether they've had so-called "bottom surgery." Others don't take medications or undergo gender realignment procedures. Still others want to "pass," while some see themselves on a gender continuum, sharing characteristics of men and women. A fair number continue to identify with queer culture.

"I am going to face hatred and discrimination and therefore feel part of a larger queer community," Leigh explains. "But it's not about being gay. I am a woman of transsexual experience." In contrast, trans woman and actor Laverne Cox identifies as a straight female, despite knowing discrimination not only as a trans woman but as an African American.

Trans male standup comic Ian Harvie describes himself as a man, but not male. "A male is what you are biologically, while a man is something you can create," he says. He maintains the F (for female) on his driver's license, contending that "if I ever get arrested, I want to go to the women's prison. That's a female privilege I'd like to keep. I don't want the privileges of a straight male, though sometimes I get them because of how I look."

Justin Vivian Bond, previously best known for the persona of inebriated lounge singer Kiki of the duo Kiki and Herb and who has been taking estrogen for a number of years, says, "I identify as a transgender. I do not believe in the gender binary, and I do not live as a male or female. When I played Kiki, I was playing a woman. But I was not a man playing a woman, or a woman playing a woman. I was a transgender playing a woman." In his more recent incarnation as a singer, Bond evokes a sophisticated man-woman, but with no campy overtones. Author of the recently published memoir "Tango: My Childhood, Backwards and in High Heels," he is now participating in a queer art mentorship program and will be guiding a trans male dancer, who did not wish to be identified but who said, "My trans body allows me to occupy a new artistic space."

Ambiguous gender identity is part of a long theatrical tradition, says David Kaufman, theater critic and author of "Ridiculous!: The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam." Ludlam's performance as Camille in his comic version of the Alexandre Dumas classic was an iconic and moving example of gender blending onstage. "He wore gowns but also exposed his chest hair," Kaufman says. "He was not trying to conceal his male identity. He did not embrace camp. In fact, he felt camp was in the eye of the beholder. He said, 'I'm doing real acting in drag.' " Ludlam was gay but not transgender.

Is it Necessary to Pass?

Transgender performers are not new. Consider Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis, and Holly Woodlawn, who all starred in Andy Warhol films. The most famous transgender person today is probably Chaz Bono, and the brouhaha over his appearance on "Dancing With the Stars" has brought the topic front and center. The precise number of transgender performers is not available, but all the interviewees agree that their presence will be increasingly felt.

They can currently be seen performing cabaret acts, experimental solo pieces, standup comedy, and roles in film and TV. Candis Cayne was on "Dirty Sexy Money," and Harmony Santana played a young boy beginning to transition in the highly praised indie film "Gun Hill Road."

Casting director Sig De Miguel, who has cast transgender actors in films, looks forward to the time when a character's transgender status is incidental to the script and an actor's trans identity is irrelevant to casting. "You may be born male, but you're a woman now," De Miguel says. He doesn't think passing as one sex or the other is relevant.

By contrast, Cox wants to pass and would love to play a straight woman. "In the film 'Musical Chairs,' my character's sexuality was not an issue," she says. "I had a love interest, and I played it as a straight woman." Similarly, Santana hopes to pass onscreen and believes it's her job as a performer to do so. "The only challenge right now is my voice," she says. "I think it's still a little masculine, but I've been told by men it's sexy." She acknowledges that she would be a little uncomfortable doing a romantic scene with a straight actor, unless he knew she was a trans woman.

Shaping a Performance

To what degree being transgender shapes a performance is arguable. Trans woman Marlo Bernier concedes that as a woman, her comedic skills are sharper than when she was a man. Still, she had no problem playing men, saying that acting is acting. For others, trans identity and artistry are profoundly interrelated. CeCe Suazo-Augustus says she brought a "unique LBGT twist" to her interpretation of conspirator Cinna in a production of "Julius Caesar" by the Los Angeles Shakespeare Festival's Will Power to Youth program in 1997.

Likewise, Kestryl Cael, an edgy "trans-masculine" (the phrase he prefers) performance artist, started writing his own pieces in part because the roles in dramatic literature didn't mesh with his aesthetic or sensibility. "I have a queer identity and don't identify with women or straight men," he says. "I use the gender-neutral pronoun 'hir.' "

Cael does not send out headshots or résumés but will perform in the works of friends, who understand that he'll bring a special "queer" spin to the undertaking. He would not play a misogynistic straight man in a representational style, but would play the part with a wink to the audience. "I will not identify with that character," he says. "My approach is more Brechtian."

Harvie wants his audiences to love him and embrace his "trans-ness" as much as he does, likening it to a "gift." Presenting an easygoing and charming persona, he discusses his life as a woman before top surgery, when he was forced to wear a triple-D bra, and the misery he endured in "lugging the girls around."

Without finger-wagging, he hopes his audiences will view sex, gender, and male and female politics in new ways. "I talk about trans-ness, so I've become a transgender comic," Harvie says, "but I see myself more as an identity comic, like a black comic or 'recovery' comic." In the end, his goal is bonding with viewers, because he is one of them. "Everyone feels like an outsider," he says.

Playing a lounge-lizard emcee with slicked-down black hair, a slightly shiny, baggy suit, and a fake mustache, standup performer Murray Hill sees himself as an outsider separate from the audience. He views his act as a fun defense mechanism. At the same time, he asserts that "living a life weaving between gender binaries" has made it more possible for him to connect to theatergoers across gender lines.

"What I love about my character is it translates differently to each person," Hill says. "Some folks have no idea, others are in on it, and some folks are just confused. That makes for a thrilling ride for both me and the audience." But foremost, "I'm an entertainer," he emphasizes. "I sing, I dance, I interact with the audience, and I tell jokes. I'm everyone's favorite uncle at the dinner table during holidays, after a few drinks."

Mixed Emotions

Being trans may inform some actors' performances, but for others, performing paved the way for transitioning. Santana had not started her change when she was cast in "Gun Hill Road," but as she delved into her role and the director insisted that she "become a girl," she was able to make the decision to go ahead with sexual reassignment. "It gave me the strength to be comfortable in my skin," she recalls.

Harvie came out onstage when he was a woman because not to do so felt dishonest, he says. "I knew I looked like a butch dyke, and I know that was what the audience was seeing. I was aware I was trans before I did standup. But performing helped me get honest about it."

Not all demons are from within. Lucas Silveira, a rock singer based in Canada, recounts how difficult it was for him when he was still "Lilia." In the male-dominated music industry, he was stigmatized as a woman and a lesbian. In addition, he felt inauthentic and self-conscious onstage.

"I came out as a gay woman when I was 17," he says. "I became a trans man at 32, and at 33 I did top surgery. Five years later I started taking testosterone. I was warned I might lose my voice." In fact, that didn't happen, and he had many more recording opportunities. "The freak aspect initially served me well," but "now it has boomeranged." Opportunities diminished while squabbles within his band, the Cliks, flourished. "When I did my last album, I was already out as a trans man and we were all queer-identified," Silveira says. "But when the photographer wanted me to take off my shirt, the other singers did not want me to do it. They had internalized homophobia and transphobia."

Transitioning is not always as liberating as one might imagine. Alekxia, a trans woman, says that before transitioning she booked a few SAG and AFTRA jobs, mostly for commercials and voiceovers in Spanish. But once she started the medical procedures, the phone stopped ringing. "In the last two years, I've only auditioned for two roles," she says.

Bernier has had a better time of it, though when she started transitioning she agonized over what would happen if she became a series regular in a male role, "with breasts growing and T-shirts getting tighter. I was terrified." At the moment, she is working behind the camera as a director. "In films centering on transgender life, usually the trans person has to make the major transition," she says. "In my film 'Stealth,' family members will have to make the major transition." Perhaps more groundbreaking, upcoming Bernier films do not deal with transgender characters at all.

Though progress may be slow, steps are being taken. The performers' dreams don't seem quite that improbable. Silveira wants to go mainstream: "My music is not based on my being transgender. It's based on my being a human being." Hill would love to move into acting and is even willing to take on a distaff role. "I'd play a woman for one of Tyler Perry's movies in a heartbeat," he says. Leigh's ambition is to tackle a larger-than-life matriarch, broad, or courtesan. "I think the male-to-female transsexual is the new courtesan," she proclaims in celebration. "You can't bring us home to Mama."

Now that's attitude.

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