When we talk about accessibility it usually refers to barriers within our physical environment. But for transgender people, a barrier to attending a performance about gender fluidity is a real fear that by attending that show they will in some way out themselves, and in doing so endanger themselves or others.
I recall attending Mars.tarrab’s brilliant Tomboy Blues at the Edinburgh Festival in 2011, when I was also performing at the festival in a show about masculinity and flow state. At the time I presented as male; I had a big beard; nobody knew me as a transgender person, let alone a transsexual, and I’m pretty sure few people around me even had a concept of what those things were.
I was drawn to the show by its description of an exploration of gender – something that was consuming me at the time – I remember physically palpitating as I took my seat in the audience, nervous that I was in some way outing myself. The reality as I actually did come out over the next few years was that in fact one has to practically shout in people’s faces for them to realise or change an opinion about you, especially to see you as a different gender to the one assigned at birth – but at the time I felt like any tiny association would give the game entirely away.
It was weeks after seeing that performance that a free wristband I was wearing embossed with the name of the show flipped itself inside-out to reveal a secret message: “you can wear whatever pants you like”. This continuation of the performance that I accessed in private at that random moment was hugely empowering.
In recognising that for some transgender people it is hard to attend shows that have an outwardly trans theme, we need to discover how to create greater accessibility to these performances. Especially at a time when audiences are more aware of these issues. More recently (again at the Edinburgh festival) I sat in the audience for a play about transgender issues hugely aware of the gaze of the cisgender audience – not only on the performers of the piece but on those of us who were visibly trans in the audience. I hated the show and its message of conciliation, and I hated the experience of being co-opted into something against my will.
So what to do? For sure I don’t want segregation and I don’t believe that artists have to be entirely responsible for the safety of their audience – there should be some danger in the room – but what if attendance itself is an impossibility for a vulnerable audience group who are essential to the work?
I believe that as well as interrogating our live invitation and the way we look after an audience, we need to create online spaces that can provide a safe viewing platform: not to replace the live experience but to allow access in a different way. I have found spaces that guide me to the real world to be the most helpful: pieces like Merrit Kopas’ Conversations with my Mother and A Synchronous Ritual that start online, but lead towards a point of contact in the real world, or to forum communities. It was these points of contact that ultimately led me towards acceptance of myself and confidence to talk to people, see health professionals, even to order a book and to see something in print, in my hands, which holds a very different level of status to a post online.
I am not a digital native. Born in the late 1970s I am part of Generation Analogue – the final generation to grow up without mobile phones, internet, emails. When I was a teenager I had to walk to the nearest phone box in order to gossip with friends from school, and when I first started out in theatre I remember sending physical 10×8 headshot photographs and printed CVs through the post – at great expense! I first encountered email at university and I remember my friends and I creating a game in which we would build stories one word at a time – an email game of consequences (would you like to play? email@example.com…) – playing with each other virtually but sat beside each other in the computer room. I was unable to imagine what the use of this system would be.
A few years ago, researching Free Time Radical (the show about flow state and masculinity), I read Steven Kotler’s brilliant book “West of Jesus”. In it he relates an apocryphal story about Native Americans standing on the East coast of America as the Spanish ships approached, literally unable to see the ships until they had landed as they had no frame of reference to know what they were. This is how I felt about the internet. Until it existed, I couldn’t see it.
I was not an early technology adopter, and I am still something of a dinosaur, despite the vast amount of my life that I now trust and share online and the hours of time I dedicate to social media – constructing the alternate version of myself that you would recognise from twitter and facebook or my professional website. A funnier, more politically engaged, bolder and sexier version of myself, as we tend not to create avatars for social media that display our weakness and foibles…
But that’s exactly what I eventually found the internet useful for: a place to anonymously place my foibles and weaknesses, to expose the aspects of my self that I felt shameful about and kept deeply hidden, which I felt I was unable to share with those around me, the people invested in the constructed body I guided around the physical world. On the internet, it’s a pretty good bet that whatever we admit to, someone out there will have already admitted it – and the healing power of that is huge. This is why government interventions into “internet safety” under the guise of protecting the children are dangerous. This shouldn’t be policed as what is “dangerous for the children” may well be the values of the society they are living under.
To find something online, however, we need to enter a search term – and, like the younger me looking at my empty email inbox, how do we know what we are looking for? Until we can articulate the search term, or at least the parameters, we are essentially playing Dave Gorman’s Googlewhack Adventure: throwing out random words and hoping by luck to find our match.
It is no accident that in 2014 the “transgender tipping point” occurred – but what is often reported to be a sudden explosion of awareness had been building since the beginning of the internet (and of course since long before that!) as early adopters began to build communities and safe spaces and to hold honest and frank discussions about their desires and feelings that led to the building of our understanding and – slowly, gradually – to the living of these things in real life. Able to understand ourselves from the shared experiences of others and not just through the lens of medical journals or Channel 4 documentaries that are mostly written by cisgender white men.
It seems to me that there are a lot of discussion groups and practical advice tutorials and wikis online but there is not much art. I want to use this online space to make performances accessible for transgender people, both those questioning their identity and those established in theirs. As we blaze past the transgender tipping point and on into the future, I want to see more spaces online for trans people to explore themselves through performance, guiding people through mistakes and questions and gently leading them towards safe spaces in real life. This gradual fusion of the two is important: a vlogger based in rural Scotland with a huge online following gave up posting because they were making their real-life experience more dangerous by creating a false illusion of safety online.
We are not surrounded in the street by our twitter friends and invisible online compatriots. We don’t even really know who or where they are – maybe the hot genderfluid kid we’ve been chatting with is actually our own grandma. That’s the beauty of anonymity. But the world around us is dangerous. People vote for causes we do not believe in, are outraged by the policies that seem common sense to us; we experience violence and discrimination for things we take for granted.
The internet can lead us to not see those dangers before it is too late – like the Native American who cannot see the boat full of disease-carrying, wealth-seeking, self-interested Europeans. But it can also be a stepping stone – a beautiful playground in which to take our first steps and explore the world. So let’s fill the internet with art – and from there guide each other blinking into the light…
Emma Frankland is an award-winning theatre maker and performer.
Recently she has been creating performance work based on transgender identities & the politics of transition through her None of Us is Yet a Robot project.
Throughout her work, there is a shared theatrical language that focuses on honesty, action & a playfully destructive DIY aesthetic.