What Theatre Can Learn from Taylor Swift

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  • Maybe Stewart

In the LGBTQIA+ community, we rely heavily on our “Found Families.” These are the people that may not share our blood, but they always have our back. They’re the people that will go to bat for us as our family should have, the people we call when we have news to share, and the people we can depend on no matter what. Ever since I was convinced by a professor to audition for my first production, theatre has been my found family.

It was the first community I truly felt I belonged in. The first place I felt safe, loved and accepted. I honestly believe that without theatre, I would never have found or accepted myself, and it was through my work in theatre that I became the proud trans non-binary artist that I am today.

But despite all the things that theatre has done and continues to do well, it still has a very long way to go. Over the past few years, it has become increasingly clear to me that the theatre community is in a dangerously stagnant place, and recent conversations during Pride Month have helped me realize why.

Theatre as both a community and as an industry has long been on the forefront of acceptance and visibility – something I think we all take great pride in. But that pride has grown into some incredibly toxic traits. Because theatre, especially in the US, is so far ahead of society at large when it comes to acceptance and diversity, there is an increasing level of complacency forming in our community.

It is easy for allies to look at the progress we’ve made, pat themselves on the back, and say, “we did it!”

But for those of us in the queer community, particularly TGNC (trans and gender non-conforming) artists, there is still a great deal that needs to change. And that change cannot happen when the voices calling for it are actively drowned out by self-proclaimed allies shouting about their good deeds.

Perhaps the easiest way to identify this hypocrisy is by taking a look at World Pride Month. We’ve all (hopefully) heard the complaints about major corporations – and even a certain well-known homophobe currently residing in our nation’s capital – using Pride merchandise and professed ally-ship to capitalize on minority groups, but I’d like to focus on the more specific example of Taylor Swift’s recent Pride Month release.

For anyone living under a rock, the pop star released a new song and music video in the midst of the World Pride festivities entitled “You Need to Calm Down.”

In this song, she voices the hate she receives online as a comparison to the hatred levied at the queer community and uses it to align herself as an ally, loudly telling both her haters and bigots at large that they “need to calm down.” While the intentions behind this seem pure and supportive, there are many issues with the final product, not the least of which is the fact that releasing this song during Pride Month indicates the same commercial greed mentioned earlier.

What Taylor Swift and the theatre community have in common is the hurtful monetization of the struggles the queer community is facing without listening to the conversations and concerns of the community itself. When you proclaim to be an ally while removing queer voices from the picture, you are taking advantage of that title (and the allies that then support your efforts) without doing the work to earn it. And while that may not seem like a big deal in these somewhat harmless instances, this model of loud and proud ally-ship leads powerful theatre makers to believe that they are beyond reproach. It gives them the power to gaslight those from the queer community when they try to voice their concerns.

Take, for example, the massive success of the revival of TOOTSIE on Broadway. At the center of this show lies the harmful, age-old comedic trope of a man donning a woman’s clothes to lie his way to success. Most of the comedy in such a show is derived from the mere fact that he is a man trying to look, act, and sound like a woman, which few people recognize as problematic.

But in the eyes of a trans woman just trying to stay alive in this political climate, and in a time where our trans sisters are literally being murdered in the streets while no one seems to care, this trope indicates something far more sinister. It paints trans women as a farce – or worse, people that can’t be trusted. It feeds the toxic masculinity that has made it so dangerous to be a trans woman and does so in a way that many think of as harmless.

Worse yet, the producers of TOOTSIE have actively been silencing the trans artists voicing their concerns about this production. Rather than using TOOTSIE as an open door for this important dialogue before, during, or after their process, they have chosen to delete comments from trans artists on their social media channels and refused to reply to these concerns in any way.

This is just one major and controversial example of a problem playing out in theatres everywhere. Time and time again, we see theatres capitalizing on the queer community for commercial gain, without allowing them to take part in the conversation. Every time I see another queer story focused on the tragedy of our identities in which the queer roles are played by cis-het (cisgender and heterosexual) actors and the producers neglect to involved queer artists in the creative team, I feel a little more invisible, a little more hopeless, a little more exploited, and a little less safe in the one place I thought I could call home.

When even my greatest allies refuse to include my voice, what do I have left to fall back on?

Theatre at large needs to take a step back. We have to stop congratulating ourselves for being so accepting and start listening to those we claim to be supporting. Stop praising ourselves for speaking on behalf of oppressed minorities, and start opening the platform for them to speak for themselves. Otherwise, we risk becoming just as oppressive as the society we claim to be so far ahead of.

If the theatre community wants to continue to be the impressive, progressive ally it claims to be, it’s time to stop telling everyone to “calm down,” and allow the LGBTQIA+ community that calls theatre home to speak up. We’re here. We’re ready. We’re waiting.

Photo: Sara Rampazzo

Photo: Sara Rampazzo