It was with skeptical hopefulness that I went to see Johanna Nutter’s one woman autobiographical show entitled “My Pregnant Brother”, presented in the excellent SummerWorks Theatre Festival in Toronto. The show had won several awards and this made me even more curious to see what audiences who I’ll bet are mostly cisgendered (meaning – not trans) are consuming about trans stories.
For 60 minutes, I wavered backwards and forwards between some appreciation of Johanna as an individual and growing increasingly irate at the painful barrage of transphobia and uncontextualised trans stereotypes. I valued her basic acceptance of her brother because unfortunately a lot of trans people don’t have supportive families. I cringed through the continuous hurtful jokes which could only have been pulled off by a trans person or if the rest of the show been more politically responsible and accountable to trans communities. I was horrified at overt and hurtful transphobic comments. I felt alienated by an audience of seemingly mostly non-trans people who were laughing at the jokes. I tried to be as small as possible during the applause so that no-one would notice I wasn’t clapping very enthusiastically, because I didn’t want to be the overly-sensitive//angry//party-pooping transsexual. But the fact is, I am. And for good reasons.
I believe the audience was lured into thinking the jokes were acceptable and taking the content at face value because of Johanna’s great stage presence, her “bare all” style honestly and the way she positioned herself as a trans ally in contrast to their overtly transphobic mother. It is complex, because Johanna has seemingly done a decent job in some aspects of her personal relationship with her brother. This however, does not translate to a doing a decent job of presenting a trans story in a public realm. I don’t want to demonise Johanna. I know how painful it can be to have your work publicly reviewed and criticised, especially when it’s about your own life. I have made plenty of political mistakes in my work and I am deeply grateful for the people who have held me accountable.
As someone who makes partially autobiographical performance, I have often come up against the fact that “authenticity” of personal story and presenting work that is politically responsible is not always an easy fit. This is where we, as theatre makers and storytellers, need to remember that we can go to therapy. We can seek help from our family, friends and support groups. It doesn’t all have to go on a stage. I’d suggest that key parts of ‘My Pregnant Brother’ belong in therapy rooms and at trans family member support groups. Or alternatively, that Johanna’s story and the lens through which she is telling her brother’s story, be contextualized more politically responsibly. Particularly given the artistic medium (the show was narration/ storytelling with occasional characterisation), it would be easy to add direct comments which contextualise the piece and address stereotypes and misunderstandings which trans communities have been fighting against.
Let me be more explicit with some examples. Her pregnant brother had specifically said that he wanted his baby to get to “choose” their own gender when they were old enough and therefore he didn’t want others to impose a gender identity. Johanna was at the birth and out popped the baby, to the standard doctor’s comment “it’s a girl!” Johanna’s delighted awe-struck reaction was “ooh, it’s a girl”, followed by a realisation that she was gendering the baby against her brother’s wishes as she turns to her brother with “oh sorry”. The audience laughed. The moment was crafted to be funny. I get that it is very difficult to unlearn gendering babies. However, to intentionally craft a humorous moment out of disrespecting her brother’s wishes, was one of the many examples where a joke delivered by a cisgendered person was too painful for me to laugh at. Apparently, the rest of the mostly-cisgendered audience didn’t feel that same pain. So I can only conclude that the joke was at the expense of trans people. Not cool.
When the baby was born by C-section, while her brother was in recovery, Johanna told of how she was nursing her “niece” and whispering something like “ooh you’re so beautiful. I wonder if my credit card would have enough on it to get us to Mexico. We could just take off, disappear, just you and me. A baby needs a mother, not a…. question mark. Doesn’t it? Just you and me.” We later heard that she had been wanting a baby but was unable to conceive. Were we supposed to draw our own conclusions that she was being 1. Grossly transphobic in not even being able to call her brother a dad (she’d quoted him earlier “I guess I’m gonna be a pregnant dude and then a dad”) and in questioning whether a baby’s needs could be met by a trans person and 2. fucked up by considering abducting her brother’s baby? In no way did she craft the rest of the show to gently guide us towards those conclusions – which is obvious for many trans people, but I believe would have served only to fuel transphobic sentiments from uneducated cisgendered audience members. This is damaging and irresponsible. I may been prepared to sit through the transphobia of “a baby needs a mother, not a…. question mark” if she had more explicitly referenced her own transphobia as a stage on the way to trans-positivity, to model this process for other cisgendered audience members. However, it’s important to note that I don’t have kids – my heart went out to trans parents and the kids of trans people, this must have been unbearably painful for them.
In fact, she went on to present how irresponsible a dad her brother was, which is obviously horrible for the baby, just like it would be horrible if a non-trans parent was irresponsible. Given that most audience members would know nothing about great examples of trans parenting, I could understand the audience concluding that trans people shouldn’t be parents, and yes a baby needs a mother. Furthermore, I’m gonna bet the audience is left thinking a baby needs a mother like the cisgendered woman sweetly cooing the baby we see on stage. I don’t actually think this is what Johanna was trying to say. As I said, she seemed accepting of her brother, at least on a trans 101 level, and I’m willing to extend a generous interpretation that she is supportive of trans parents in general, but that her brother, like many non-trans parents, found himself unable to cope with an unplanned baby. I don’t trust that many of the other audience members, steeped in a transphobic and cis-sexist context, would have the experiences with amazing trans-parents in their community to counteract the one story they may ever have heard about trans parenting. Once again, the problem is not the telling of this story, it’s the lack of context.
Another example. Johanna tells a story about how her brother was in a relationship with a woman when he first came out as trans. His girlfriend “stayed with him for years” through his transition including him taking hormones and having chest surgery. Firstly, the choice of language “stayed with him” implied that she was some sort a saint for staying with such a freak. Ouch! After they broke up, her brother moved to Portland and fell in love with a man, which apparently sparked a deep gender confusion, “he wondered if he’d made a big mistake”. After the relationship with his boyfriend ended and he came back to Montreal, Johanna says he was “heart-broken and more confused than ever”. From this, I find it difficult to believe that Johanna could have had much contact with trans communities outside of her experiences with her brother. If she had, she would understand the irritation and hurt caused to many trans people by the suggestion that we are “confused”.
I’m not saying what she said about her brother being confused in that instance is not true, just that it needs context. The difference between gender and sexuality is often very confusing to cisgendered (non trans) people and as such, it’s a topic that needs to be dealt with with care. Put in a very crude way, gender is about whether you identify YOURSELF as being female, male, genderqueer etc, regardless of what body parts you have. Sexuality is about who are attracted to. So, for example, a trans person may identify their gender as male (in contrast to their culture telling them they are female) and their sexuality as gay (if they sleep with men – cisgendered or trans) or straight, queer, asexual etc. To get a little more into advanced concepts, yes, sometimes people’s gender and sexuality bounce off each other, for example, some people’s genders are fluid. Sometimes a woman may feel kind of boy-ish when they’re having sex with a particular partner. Sometimes a trans-man might feel gay with one partner and queer with another. The fact that her brother was feeling confusion may have been a sign of gender fluidity or it may have been internalised trans-phobia and/or lack of role models. Trans people are not immune to a world that hates on and misunderstands us. Frequently we internalise all sorts of shitty messages about ourselves. I grew up with neither trans role models nor queer role models, so no wonder I initially felt a bunch of confusion about the difference between my gender and sexual identity. Now, through exposure to amazing, resilient, smart and diverse trans communities, I feel solid on my identity and it’s incredibly invalidating when people reinforce stereotypes of trans people as “confused” without providing context.
In fact, let’s take a quick look at who is really confused. Why have people been constantly mis-gendering me from the day I was born? Why did the doctor say “it’s a girl?” Considering I’m not a girl, I can tell you who was confused. It’s not my fault that my transphobic culture couldn’t see me as a boy. And considering I grew up within this very confused culture, it’s no wonder it took me 30 years to become un-confused. Now, I’m in the position of continuously educating my very confused cisgendered community and shows like My Pregnant Brother do a massive disservice to the hard work of trans communities.
On a practical level, this explanation of gender, sexuality and issues about confusion may be too lengthy to include in a show. A simple shorter version could be something like “he wondered if he’d made a mistake. We now know that trans people can be gay, straight, queer or whatever, but at the time, he spiraled into uncertainty without any role models around him” (or something more artistically put).
I did an internet search and couldn’t find any reviews of the show by people who I knew were trans (although of course, we can’t always tell who is and isn’t trans). All I found were a bunch of glowing reviews, which I’m going to bet were mostly from cisgendered people. Trans perspectives have been marginalised even in the critiquing/reviewing of the show. Offline however, I’ve spoken with a number of trans friends who saw the show and who were similarly irate and upset. Maybe some trans people just went home swearing under their breath and chalking it up to another day dealing with transphobia.
I’d like to also name the sexism that Johanna has to deal with in her life, including it sounds like her brother has a bunch of sexist behaviour. She talks about her brother’s expectations and demands of her care-taking of him and the baby. I’m super sorry to hear that. She’s not alone in dealing with trans-men’s sexism. My critique of the way Johanna has represented a trans narrative does not mean I’m not appreciative of her journey in learning to draw boundaries in a sexist world. This is very important. I feel very strongly about trans men challenging each other to be more feminist. There’s some suggestions about trans men challenging sexism in another article on this blog entitled “Femme Ally Conversation Starter”.
This does not excuse Johanna from the harmful treatment of his trans story. I believe that given the way Johanna is benefiting from her brother’s trans story, she has a responsibility to do the research and figure out this political context. Even though the story is clearly from her lens including being about her journey in giving up her family care-taking role, the fact that she called it “My Pregnant Brother” and not “The Day I Stopped Being My Brother’s Mum” is leveraging interest primarily from her brother’s story. This comes with a responsibility not just to her brother, but to trans movements. This responsibility is even more pertinent given the lack of trans stories told in the theatre, newspapers and popular media. It’s likely that many audience members may have never seen a theatre show about trans people, like EVER. This doesn’t mean Johanna should try and tell every angle of every story about every trans person ever. What it means is that she has a responsibility to properly contextualise the one story she is telling.
Concretely, what this could look like is the playwright doing a lot of research of articles, books and shows created BY trans people about trans people. Collaborating with trans people in the dramaturgy and creative development process. And I’m not talking about consulting with one or two token “friendly” trans people who are disconnected from trans movements. Paying trans consultants and being involved with trans community and making sure the support is reciprocal and built on relationships, rather than a one sided sucking of information and education.
Alternatively, I hope Johanna can find some private therapy that is not at the expense of trans communities, particularly not at the expense of trans families.
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