Dear reader, in my last days of secondary school I was utterly typecast as ‘the one boy who’d put a dress on for a play’. Not that I’m complaining – as a slightly podgy and profoundly uncool year 11, the experience of having people pay attention to me made for a thrilling departure from the norm. Obviously the practice of men portraying women on the stage as a long and illustrious history; Shakespeare’s plays would have initially been performed by all male casts, with prepubescent boys filling in for a Juliet or an Ophelia.
This practice was often carried out with gay abandon by the English teachers at my single sex school, who took an remarkable pleasure in casting the most ruggedly good looking footballing types as the femme fatale in group readings in classrooms. Getting to dress as a woman on stage was not only enormous fun, but it played an important role in the on going development of my understanding of, and interaction with sexuality. It made me conscious of the ‘acting out’ of masculinity that happened off stage – the intentional and the subliminal, the former of which I was never any good at, but the latter, I began to realise, formed a massive and unanticipated portion of my identity. By building up the persona of the towering and screeching Lady Bracknell, or the saucily conspiratorial nurse, I began to deconstruct some of the assumptions I’d had about my identity, and the role that gender plays within that.
However, in recent months, especially given the increased prevalence and discussion of trans issues, I’ve begun to question the very simple narrative I’d formed with regard to portraying different genders on stage. As a cis person, I have a degree of privilege with regard to my gender, which allows me to stand on stage one minute, portraying a woman, then step off the stage and continue being Matt. Whilst this has been useful for me in exploring and understanding my own gender, I’ve begun to worry that this might actually be damaging to the cultural acceptance of transgender identities.
There is still a sad lack of understanding around LGBTQ issues even in an age where Caitlin Jenner can embrace her identity on the national stage – and a distinct lack of space for trans identities in popular culture. My instinct is that playing other genders can help in the fight for greater equality, but that it needs to be done sensitively – for much more delicate exploration of trans identities in theatre, I strongly recommend you go an see both Cashiered and Binding at the BT this week.