Television has so refined the model of caddy woman-centric talk shows that nearly every major network has one. The "by women for women" panels of hostesses typically include a stand-up comedian, an African-American woman ( or two ), an A-list headliner and a lesbian. Then there's the wildcard: likely to be Asian or Republican, possibly both. Discussion points run the gamut of hot topicseverything from ISIS to Sarah Palin, from a woman's perspective… and that is, in part, why The Skew is so important.
On a frigid Feb. 18 onstage at the Edlis Neeson Theater, the latest ladies' talk show warmed up the Museum for Contemporary Artwith a twist. Zackary Drucker's The Skew began with Drucker pacing through the audience poetically setting the scene through her handheld mic. "This is a talk show," she said, "skewing a platform that has no legitimate platform for us… yet."
Drucker then introduced audience members to an impressive panel of key players from within the trans community to dish on talking points primarily related to trans visibility, activism, and a little bit of sex and dating. Performance artist Drucker hosted and moderated the 90-minute discussion featuring Precious Davis, a community activist and Assistant Director of Diversity Recruitment Initiatives at Columbia College Chicago; Co-Director of The Trans 100 and writer/creator of We Happy Trans Jen Richards; Angelica Ross, Executive Director and CEO of TransTech Social Enterprises, and actor Van Barnes. The five fabulous ladies are only representative of a narrow slice of the trans community, but it quickly became clear that opinions widely varied, particularly when the talk turned to trans visibility and the choice to be out.
"We are amongst you," was the resounding statement of the night, indicating that trans people are bank tellers, bartenders, and top-level executives. However, as Angelica Ross stated, "Americans are poor in spirit, because we throw away people who have skills and value." As Van Barnes was transitioning, she found a place in e-commerce buying and selling antiques, because she was judged by the job she did and service she provided, rather than what she looked or sounded like. Today it's a much different story as she splits her time between Hollywood and The Sticks ( her term ). The panel urged LGBT businesses and employers to advocate for their community, which is, at times, still exclusive of trans people.
The women agreed that there is a privilege that goes with beauty. Their outward appearances as beautiful, gender conforming women affords them the luxury of "passing" with others who might otherwise disregard trans people. However, Jen Richards stated, "pretty will get you through the door, but it won't keep you in the room." Richards also admitted to having drawn privilege and strength from having lived much of her life as a middle-class white man, which perhaps are why she never doubted the choice to be out. The choice to be out extends to the partners, spouses, and lovers of trans people, who perhaps have even less support than the people they love, and a greater desire to protect their privilege. "We are fighting to stay alive," said Angelica Ross, "and they are fighting for their secrets." To most of the ladies on the panel, the privilege they share as beautiful and feminine women is all the more reason to be out, but Precious Davis stated that while she agrees with the decision to be out, every person should have a right to choose his/her/their level of transparency ( pun intended ).
The visibility and responsibility of out trans people of influence is no more apparent than through how trans people are represented in the media. If the panel agreed on one thing, it was this. Jen Richards' We Happy Trans was created with the intention of diversifying trans stories in television and film, and marks the first time a trans story is told by a trans woman. "We are erased from history," said Angelica Ross, "and we're erased from the media too… it's always the same story."
Indeed, trans stories in television and film tend to concentrate on stereotypes, as in OITNB, Transparent, the Dallas Buyer's Club, and two attempts on Glee. Writing for The Advocate, Parker Marie Malloy cites Calpernia Addams, a trans woman and Jared Leto's acting coach in Dallas Buyer's Club: "Addams suggested that cisgender ( nontrans ) actors should be able to play trans roles, so long as they're the most qualified person for the job. In doing this, Addams, like so many others, understates the frustration many trans people have with Leto's portrayal; it's not simply that he was a cis actor playing a trans role but that he was a cis actor playing the same trans role the world has seen a hundred times before." Occasionally, characters are played by trans people, most times not. Actors are showered with awards for the bravery it takes to play such a rolesometimes acknowledging the courage it takes to live that experience every day, sometimes not ( which, in the case of Jared Leto's many acceptance speeches ignoring the trans community, resulted in a public outcry ).
Near the end of the evening, an audience member expressed similar frustration with lack of representation by a wider spectrum of trans people in television and film, particularly when it comes to trans people playing trans characters. The panel was splitacknowledging that actors desire roles that allow them to live difficult experiences, be that cis gender people playing trans roles, or transgender people playing cis gender roles. Until the trans community gains an equal playing field, however, the women largely agreed that cis gender people are likely to remain in trans roles while they have more access to resources and training. Better representation is likely to come if and when the playing field levels.
Whether audience members expected a spectacle performance from a fierce group of women or a serious talk on tough issues in the community, it seems that everyone got what they came for. As The Skew drew to a close and its hokey theme song played one last time, the house lights came on to reveal an energetic group of inspired humans, ready to continue the conversation. Here's hoping that Zackary Drucker, and others with her courage and tenacity, will continue to provide platforms to do just that.