I am the first openly trans student to enter a top Musical Theatre program.
No matter how many times I rattle off that tidbit of information to myself or let a friend in on it, it still doesn’t feel real.
How can that be? How am I the first? Have there really been no others?
Some students have come out as trans later in their college careers or waited until after graduation, but I am the only trans person that has gone into that college audition room fully as myself and come out on the other side. I have to first acknowledge that my specific ability to make it through that door most definitely has a lot to do with the fact that I am a mostly-binary, cis-passing, white man.
That said, it can be lonely.
There’s no one on campus I can ask for help who’s been through it. I can’t really vent to someone who understands what I’m going through. My professors and peers are wonderfully accepting and eager to support me in any way that they can, but they are learning how to teach someone like me even as they are actually teaching me – I’m the guinea pig. In many cases, I find myself as the one doing the teaching.
I would like to be able to expand on the nuances of my experience and learn how to specifically infuse them into my work, but oftentimes the people around me – although eager to learn and understand – only comprehend the most base levels of it. How am I to be challenged as an artist when I am not learning from someone who has my same baseline? How can I avoid having to tread backwards to explain myself, as opposed to taking on the kinds of works that I want to explore in my career?
This year, I have started a Trans Artist Coalition on campus. I created it to be surrounded by fellow trans artists who can challenge one another, help each other delve deeper into the experience they all fundamentally understand in their work, and have a sense of belonging and community. This group was also formed to create initiatives that push our university and the greater arts world to create a more equitable space for us.
For instance, to find plays about my experience, I have to do a deep dive. Typing the word ‘transgender’ into the search bar in an American Drama database gets you zero results.
Needless to say, the theatre world is very ill-equipped for those of trans experience.
I’m going into a field where I don’t know if there will be jobs for me. I want to be able to tell stories to which I feel connected and to be the representation that I never got to see, but there is one (1) transmasculine role on Broadway currently (or, before COVID). And that role wasn’t even originally written for a trans person; it was written for a cis lesbian but was adapted. And to my knowledge, the shows that are coming to Broadway when it re-opens don’t look promising either.
On the other hand, I am afraid of being tokenized. I am afraid of being taken advantage of for my story and my experience. I am afraid of being paraded around to show just how ‘woke’ or ‘diverse’ a theatre is, while not being equitably paid or being mistreated, something that has happened to me before. I have said yes to sharing my story at fundraising events, thinking that any exposure was good exposure, and that getting to tell my story at all was a blessing.
I feel an awful amount of pressure being the only one representing my entire community in this specific avenue. I feel that if I fail, I am letting my entire community down. Falling flat on your face is an integral part of any education; there’s no way I can learn without allowing myself to do that. But my knowledge of that fact doesn’t take the pressure away.
When some of my peers are allowing themselves time to relax, I find myself feeling guilty if I take even a moment off. The words scream in my head, “If you’re not working 10x harder than everyone around you, how can you expect an industry that historically has not allowed you in to let you in now?” which is usually followed by “There are so many people that would kill for your spot, and you’re taking a BREAK???”
Warren Egypt Franklin, a grad of my university who has graced the stage as Jefferson/Lafayette in the Phillip Tour of Hamilton, paid a visit to one of our classes to answer questions and offer advice. He discussed how he was the first member of his community to go to college, so, after explaining my particular situation, I asked him, “How do you deal with the pressure of being a first? How do take off the notion that if you fail, you’re letting down an entire community?” His answer was swift and clear: “At the end of the day, the only person you have to impress is yourself.”
I am becoming hopeful with the growing examples of representation in TV and film (and there need to be many more), and I hope that the theatre world can follow suit. All that I do know right now is that I’m going to do everything in my power to make it easier for the next student.