TW: transphobia, misgendering, cross-dressing
I don’t want to come across as just another angry member of the (mythical) ‘powerful transgender lobby’ that wants to reshape the whole of society to suit its own priorities. I know that cis fragility is running high at the moment in the wake of Periodgate, the scandal of a multinational company being, erm, ‘forced’ (by a tweet from a single teenager) to make their packaging more inclusive of trans men and non-binary people who menstruate. So let’s make one thing clear from the outset: I’m emphatically not saying that the brilliant new dance production Some Like It Hip Hop should be changed or banned. I’m not complaining that it offended me or upset me. I’m not planning to start protesting outside the Peacock Theatre with anti-transphobia placards.
What I am saying, though, is that the production left me with a lingering sense of disappointment. It felt like a missed opportunity to make a powerful and necessary statement about trans realities. With just a tiny tweak to the storyline, it could have validated not only trans and queer people, but also gender non-conforming straight cis people. And if I’m brutally honest, it’s still fuelling a pervasive myth that puts trans people’s lives at risk on a daily basis — not because of what it says, but because of what it doesn’t say.
The energy of the production, the skill of the dancers and the overall performance quality can’t be faulted, but the storyline — from a trans perspective, or at least from my trans perspective — is frustrating. It takes a dig at homophobia and the misogyny of hip-hop culture, but leaves some of the most dangerous stereotypes unchallenged. It hints at the possibility of a queer love story but doesn’t follow it through to its logical conclusion.
Some Like It Hip Hop is influenced, of course, by the 1959 comedy movie Some Like It Hot (citing Mad Men and Shakespeare among its other influences). I haven’t watched Some Like It Hot, so I can’t comment in detail on that, but a quick search tells me that it’s about two witnesses to a gangland murder who disguise themselves as women and run away with an all-female choir. The dangerous myth underpinning this and other movies with cross-dressing themes — Mrs Doubtfire, Austin Powers and Police Academy, to name but three — is that people whose gender presentation doesn’t match their assigned sex at birth always have an ulterior motive. Whether it’s for their own protection or to get access to women and children, the entire reason they’re dressing that way is to deceive people into thinking that they’re something they’re not.
In movies like these, the assigned-male-at-birth (AMAB) characters in wigs and dresses aren’t trans women: they’re Men-With-An-Agenda. They never claim to be women, but they’re seen and accepted as women because that’s how they present themselves. The problem is that most people raised on these movies have never been taught the difference between those fictional characters and real transgender people. When they hear about an AMAB person presenting female and asking to be admitted to women’s spaces, they don’t think ‘trans woman’. They think ‘Man-With-An-Agenda’, or, to use the popular term in gender-critical circles, ‘trans-identified male’.
For cis women who are survivors of male abuse, the immediate assumption is often that the Agenda is rape. This results in the genuine, justifiable fear at the heart of the so-called ‘TERF’ (trans-exclusionary radical feminism) movement, which seeks to exclude trans women from women’s spaces.
For cis men who are insecure about their sexuality, the immediate assumption is often that the Agenda is gay seduction. This results in trans women being referred to as ‘traps’, and in the worst cases, brutally murdered.
Some Like It Hip Hop flips this well-known trope on its head. Instead of Men-With-An-Agenda posing as women, it has two Women-With-An-Agenda (JoJo and Kerri) posing as men. The characters’ agenda isn’t controversial in itself: they adopt their male roles in order to earn a living wage in a dystopian society where women are only allowed menial jobs, and try to change the system to make it fairer. At first, ‘Joe’ and ‘David’ are accepted without question into male spaces, despite being what a reviewer for The Guardian describes as ‘ hilariously unlikely men’ — but after a while they’re unmasked and unceremoniously evicted from the city. JoJo changes back into a tight top and miniskirt and falls in love with a man, while Kerri keeps the costume and flirts with a woman, referred to only as ‘New Girl’.
I’d have loved to see the Keri/David character realising they were a trans man (or, for bonus anti-erasure points, a non-binary transmasculine person) and continuing to wear a suit, but still being loved anyway. Even as the optimistic person I am, though, I figured it was unrealistic to expect a mainstream scriptwriter to come up with that particular storyline. What I hoped for instead was a pansexual love story, in which Keri revealed that she was actually a woman in disguise but ‘New Girl’ didn’t mind in the least, and they ended up having a cute wedding with two brides. Spoiler alert, which will come as no surprise to anyone at all: that doesn’t happen, and by the end, all the characters are living happily and heterosexually ever after.
I have nothing against cross-dressing in itself, but the imbalance between cross-dressers and genuine transgender people in mainstream plays, movies and TV shows means that most cis viewers never learn the difference. They simply don’t get the fact that, far from pretending to be something they’re not, trans and non-binary people dress a certain way in order to express who they are. In the rare cases when trans characters are featured as something other than murder victims, the focus tends to be on their medical transition and/or their experiences of transphobia (with a few notable exceptions like Pose, Steven Universe and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina).
Yet in reality, there’s so much more to us than our gender. I’m a writer, an artist, an activist, a faculty member in a new institution that’s rewriting the rules of higher education, a researcher, a project evaluation consultant, a songworker, a friend and a family member. I love forest walks, Star Trek, fresh-picked strawberries, lentil dhal, Marmite, chats over coffee and cake, community art spaces, pagan folk music, pilgrimages to ancient sacred places, books about Mary Magdalene, hedgehogs, and lots of other random things. And I don’t like to boast, but I have a PhD in Education for Sustainability, speak fluent Swahili, and was a founder member of an NGO in Tanzania. Sure, I like to wear a suit and tie sometimes, but is that really what you’d pick out from the list as the most interesting fact about me? Seriously?
It’s widely recognised that one of the most effective ways of countering unconscious bias is to expose people to more positive images of the group that they’re biased against. That’s why it’s so crucial to get more trans and queer people involved in the arts, not just as writers and spoken word artists (and yes, I’m doing my bit, publishing a poetry anthology and working on a historical novel with a central character who happens to be non-binary transmasculine!) but also as critical friends. The wonderful charity Inclusive Minds offers a critique service, in which authors can have their draft manuscripts read and constructively criticised by members of marginalised groups — not just trans and non-binary people, but also people of colour, followers of different religions, neurodiverse people, and people with chronic health conditions or disabilities.
It could be enormously valuable (and shouldn’t be difficult) to introduce a similar programme for scriptwriters and others who create content for live performance. I’m not exaggerating when I say trans lives might very well depend on it.