Learning and Unlearning Gender: the personal and political aspects of the performativity of gender
This is the sixth post is a series of blogs about our upcoming production, Ex-Gays, written by Eric F. Avery. Ex-Gays will be presented at Matthews Park and Recreation Center opening July 15th. This blog is written by guest artists and cast member, Sheila Regan.
Imagine this: it was my first soccer team. I was in the first or second grade, I can’t really remember. What I do remember is the bright yellow-orange t-shirts we wore. They said SWAC on the front. (Maybe it was short for Southwest Athletic Association?). My father was the coach. I’m pretty sure he had never played soccer before, aside from perhaps a soccer unit in his gym class. My father isn’t exactly one for sports. He’s more into ancient literature and classical music. But for some reason he decided to coach my soccer team.
Anyhoo, so it turned out I was pretty good, for an eight year old, or however old I was. For a girl. But on one occasion, I remember very clearly, one of the teammates on my co-ed team came to the sudden realization that I was of the female sex. “You’re a… girl???” he said to me. I was mortified. Was it my short hair? Was it my aggressiveness on the soccer field, or just the fact that I was better than him? For whatever reason, this boy had thought that I was a boy, before I told him otherwise. It was devastating for me.
After that, I started wearing dresses full-time. No pants for me! I was going to look like a girl no matter what. As I grew older, I learned to flip my hair, to tilt my head, to walk in a straight line, just like the models do, swinging my hips ever so slightly. These were things I practiced. I learned to smile coquettishly. I learned how to cry- that got me out of quite a few traffic violations (which, for some reason, hasn’t worked for me since the age of 30).
Along the way, I decided that I liked to act, and despite my desire to play Juliets and other ingénues, I have, for the most of my acting career, played men. I’m not sure why this is. My low voice, perhaps? (I like to think it’s because of versatile acting ability). Whatever the reason, despite my years and years of nurturing my feminine persona, when directors see me audition, they think: man.
So, of course I wasn’t surprised when Laura Leffler-McCabe, director of Ex-Gays, emailed me and asked me if I would play a butch lesbian for a play written by Eric Avery about the ex-gay movement. I mean, I play men all the time, surely it couldn’t be hard to play a woman who identifies more with male characteristics.
Still, I have found it to be an intimidating prospect. I can play a man in my sleep, but why do I find it so difficult to play butch? The reason, I think, is political. I have no problem playing a man, because, as a woman, I am of the oppressed part of the occasion. I can observe, appropriate, and take on the characteristics without worrying about men being offended that I’m misrepresenting them.
Not so with playing a butch woman. Perhaps I’m overthinking it, but I worry. I worry that when playing my character, a butch lesbian who has decided to become an ex-gay, I will somehow misrepresent the character.
I look in the mirror. My hair, for one thing is a problem. I wish I was strong and could cut it for the play, but I’m too vain. Laura tells me I can tie it back in a ponytail. I’ve been trying different things, physically. At first I was working with a body-builder type stance, with a puffed-out chest and strong arms. Lately, I’ve favored a more relaxed stance, with my stomach and pelvis being the center of energy. I don’t know if it’s right, but it feels more natural for the character.
I guess when it comes right down to it, I’m concerned that as a straight woman, I feel awkward, I guess is the word, about playing a part that could be played by someone who identifies more closely with the character. Certainly, my gay brothers and sisters still face prejudice when playing straight characters. Just last year, Ramin Setoodeh wrote a ridiculous article in Newsweek where he says it’s “weird” for Sean Hayes to play straight: “He comes off as wooden and insincere,” Setoodeh wrote, “as if he’s trying to hide something, which of course he is.” Even Rupert Everett has warned gay actors about coming out, saying it limits their casting options.
It seems unfair, given this state of events, to play a lesbian character. Uh, but I’m doing it anyway. Because I was asked, because for some reason Laura believed in me that I could do it. And because Eric Avery’s script is completely brilliant and hell, if they want me to be involved, of course I will say yes. I only hope I can do my part justice.
Comments are closed.