Incomprehensibly Trans

Incomprehensibly Trans

[Ed Note: This article is a modified version of a talk Brin Solomon prepared for the Portland Opera’s production of As One this past March.]

I am going to say some things about the opera As One and its representation of trans voices, but first I need to say some things about trans people more generally.

Trans people share a lot of memes on the internet. Some of them are public, but others circulate on private message boards as inside jokes. One meme in the second category features two images: On the left, a group of rabbis are engaged in vigorous debate over dense Talmudic texts; on the right, a rabbi is showing an alphabet book to a toddler. The left image is labeled “talking about gender with other trans people”; the right “talking about gender with cis people”.

Cis people just don’t know very much about trans issues.

That might sound rather harsh, but there’s really no way around it: Cis people just don’t know very much about trans issues. (For example, most cis people don’t understand that “cis” is just an adjective meaning “not trans”.) This wouldn’t be a problem if cis people weren’t constantly demanding that trans people make ourselves comprehensible. As a composer, I can talk with other composers about motivic verticalization or cross relations and society shrugs and lets me go about my day. When I talk with other trans people about distinctions between neutrois alternatives or Asterisk Discourse, society demands an explanation. What does all that mean? Why can’t you just be like everybody else?

And so we write thinkpieces and books and operas, all trying to Explain What It Means To Be Trans to cis people. All of them overkill. Here is everything you need to know about trans people: Some people, instead of wanting certain names, pronouns, clothes, physical attributes, and similarly gendered things, would rather have different names, pronouns, clothes, physical attributes, and similarly gendered things, and take various steps to make these changes in their lives. Like everyone you will ever encounter, these people would like to do their thing in peace and not be gawked at, mocked, harassed, assaulted, or killed.

Many cis people find this answer unsatisfying. After all, it gives zero insight to the inner psychological landscape of a trans person. It does nothing to let cis people conjure up the feeling of being trans in a way that makes intuitive sense to them. Which is why we get the thinkpieces and operas so on, because cis people keep demanding that kind of answer instead.

I want to be extremely clear that when I say “cis people” here, I don’t only mean hardened transphobes. I also mean ordinary, well-meaning cis people who just find this whole transgender thing very confusing and want someone to explain it to them. (I’m using “they” here to be polite, but if you, gentle reader, are cis, I encourage you to consider whether this “they” might apply to you.) It sounds like such a reasonable request until you see the subtext. Cis people won’t call us by the name we want until they understand why we care so much. Cis people won’t let us pee in peace until they understand how we define “woman”. Cis people won’t vote down a referendum stripping us of our rights until they understand what dysphoria is. Cis people want to be the ultimate arbiters of whether trans existence “makes sense”, and until they’re satisfied that it does, they’re not going to let us exist.

Which is how we get alphabet books. It is extraordinarily difficult to put complex internal mental states into words. It becomes considerably more difficult to do so when your audience is markedly skeptical about whether the thing you’re describing even exists. If trans people point to external things like clothes and makeup to explain dysphoria, we’re accused of reinforcing stereotypes and reducing gender to an aesthetic. If we eschew references to external things, we’re faced with a task tantamount to proving feelings exist to an alien with no concept of emotion. In lieu of deeper explanations, then, we often offer reductive stories that, while overly simplistic, are at least easy to grasp. We’re then, of course, accused of having reductive and overly simplistic ideas about gender. There is no way to win this game.

The incessant demand that trans stories be comprehensible to cis observers has far-reaching consequences.

The incessant demand that trans stories be comprehensible to cis observers has far-reaching consequences. For decade after decade, the medical community tried to restrict access to transition-related care to as few people as possible. The ideal candidate was young, white, conventionally attractive, heterosexual, and committed to being a stereotypical exemplar of their target gender — someone who would effectively disappear after being treated. Patients who deviated from this ideal were routinely denied life-saving care. In many places, this is still the case.

Trans people figured this out pretty quickly, and trans support groups are full of tips about how exactly to present to doctors to secure hormones and surgery. Don’t ever tell your doctor you’re attracted to people of your target gender. Don’t say you liked playing with any of the toys associated with the gender your parents thought you were when you were a kid. Definitely don’t express any positive feelings towards any part of your current body. This may make it sound like trans people are liars, but if you knew your boss would fire you for being gay, you might be less than honest about the gender of your spouse. We tailor our stories to the audience at hand.

As One must be understood in this context. It is one story about one person told by one creative team. It is a story that is expertly crafted to be as comprehensible as possible to cis audiences with minimal knowledge of trans lives. This is not to decry the show as inauthentic — there are absolutely trans women who feel that As One powerfully captures their stories in a sensitive, nuanced way. There are also trans women who are deeply uncomfortable with the work, most notably with the way that referring to the two singers who together play the show’s sole protagonist as “Hannah before” (a baritone) and “Hannah after” (a mezzo soprano) implies that transition is a singular event instead of a protracted process with no defined beginning or ending, and with the way the show typically casts cis singers in both roles.

To understand why the show has been cast this way, it’s necessary to go on a brief digression about hormones and the human voice. One of the things that testosterone does to the body is that it causes the voice box to physically drop, resulting in a lower speaking and singing voice. This is obviously a familiar phenomenon from puberty, but it can also happen in adulthood for people who take testosterone as part of their transition. Importantly, this change is not reversed if you switch from having a lot of testosterone in your body to having a lot of estrogen. So for trans people whose voices dropped during a testosterone-induced puberty as teenagers, their voices don’t rise again if they take estrogen as adults.

It’s possible to adjust your speaking voice so that the difference in register doesn’t flag you as trans (and if you think about it, there are plenty of cis women with deep speaking voices — just look up any interview with Nina Simone), but the singing voice is another matter. Flipping up into falsetto may allow a transfeminine person to sing in the same range as a mezzo soprano, but the timbre of the voice remains noticeably different for most people who do this, and the chest voice still sits where it always sat.

It’s effectively impossible to cast a trans woman in As One.

As such, it’s effectively impossible to cast a trans woman in As One. (There have been at least two productions that cast a trans man in the role of Hannah after, which is a bizarre choice that implies that Hannah transitions from living as a man to . . . living as another kind of man. I have struggled to come up with an explanation for this that is more charitable than assuming a bewildering ignorance of basic trans concepts on behalf of the responsible casting directors.) This is, on the surface level, an economic issue — there are already vanishingly few roles for trans women in the operatic repertoire, so creating such a role in a way that a trans woman can’t sing it adds the insult of exclusion to the injury of invisibility — but the problems run deeper than that.

I think the strongest reading of the choice to write Hannah after to be played by a cis woman is that the creative team for As One are trying to dispel any doubt that Hannah really is a woman. Everyone agrees, after all, that cis women are women, so by casting a cis woman to play Hannah after, I think the creative team are trying to get that agreement to transfer over, such that everyone will agree that Hannah, a trans woman, is a woman too. Unfortunately, this arrangement also says that to be a woman is to be a cis woman specifically. By having a cis woman represent femininity, As One strengthens the cissexist idea that women are people who went through an estrogen-based puberty, who have a uterus and breasts, and who sing in the mezzo soprano range. It holds up cis womanhood as the standard that trans women are trying to imitate.

This is an idea that gets trans women killed. There’s a well-attested pattern where straight cis men find trans women sexually attractive — because straight men are attracted to women and trans women are women — but then, because trans women aren’t cis women, and cissexism says that only cis women are “real” women, these cis straight men worry that liking trans women means they’re secretly gay, so they start seeing trans women as threats to their sense of self and commit murder to resolve this contradiction. These forces are amplified tremendously if the trans woman in question is not white, and similarly if she is a sex worker.

Some of you may recognize this as a carbon copy of the gay panic defense. It’s called the trans panic defense, and it is currently legal in most states in this country.

A baritone can be feminine and a soprano can be masculine.

And so this is one of the reasons that many trans artists are invested in completely redefining vocal gender categories from the ground up. Aiden Feltkamp, a trans opera singer and librettist, recently wrote a series of articles about this for NewMusicBox, and writers like Sandy Gooen and Ianne Field Stewart are creating works that defy traditional vocal categorizations. Collectively, these figures are launching a structural critique, asserting that a baritone can be feminine and a soprano can be masculine, insisting, in short, that trans femininities and masculinities are not inferior copies of their cis equivalents, but are instead fully and adamantly complete in their own right. To be a woman is to be a woman, and neither trans women nor cis women are any more real than the other.

None of this is to comment on the artistic quality or dramatic effectiveness of As One. You are not a bad or foolish person if you find it profoundly moving. As I said, there are trans women who love this work, and I would not be at all surprised if there are trans people out there who only realized they were trans because of this show. The world is a complicated place, and the very same piece of art can both help and hurt at the same time. Its failures do not blot out its successes, but neither do its successes blot out its failures. Both exist at once.

It is inevitable that trans women would have such diverse reactions to this show. Trans women are not a monolith and do not share one singular experience; no single work can capture the ecstatic diversity of our lives, just as no single work could capture “the” experience of being a cis man. As One is not an encyclopedia. It is an alphabet book, and an alphabet book where two of the three authors are not native speakers of the language in question. Treat it as a narrow gateway, not the gospel truth.

Stop trying to understand us.

I want to end this article with a request. Whenever a show features a marginalized character, there’s always talk about how the show will humanize real-life people who are similarly marginalized and help non-marginalized audiences understand—and thus support—them. This is a noble goal, but it has a troubling flip-side: The idea that being understood leads to being seen as fully human implies that those who are not understood aren’t fully human. So this is my request to cis people: Stop trying to understand us. Instead, believe us when we describe our experiences, however incomprehensible you find them. And then treat us like fully human beings anyway.

Mx brin solomon [they/themself] writes words and music in several genres and is doing their best to queer all of them. Their full-length musical Window Full of Moths has been hailed for its “extraordinary songs” that “add magic to otherwise ordinary lives”, and their latest one-act, Have You Tried Not Being A Monster, has been described as “agitprop for Julia Serano”. They are a 2020/2021 Turn The Spotlight Fellow being mentored by Kamala Sankaram.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.