Features Essays Published 1 July 2019

Hearty: Bringing Fire to Trans Pride

Emma Frankland writes on her new show Hearty, and the shifting cycles which underpin attitudes to trans identity.
Emma Frankland

‘Hearty’ by Emma Frankland. Photo: Maurizio Martorana

Hearty was born of fire. Whereas my previous four shows were attempting to reflect on my experience of transition, or to celebrate the trans body, Hearty came about in an increasingly hostile environment and with a growing awareness of a broader global trans experience. I was feeling angry and powerful. I was exploring the science and politics behind the technology we use to bio-hack our bodies and make ourselves. Hormone Replacement Therapy. HRT. HeaRTy. Hearty. My previous show Rituals for Change had been a celebration of it; in Hearty, I wanted to look deeper at the history it was built on – or more specifically, who it was built on top of. I needed to bring fire.

Hearty is part of the Marlborough Theatre’s Trans Pride Season, following appearances at their Trans Pride Art Night in previous years. It’s the fifth and final solo show in my None of Us is Yet a Robot project – a series of performances which have been a response to my gender transition and the politics surrounding trans identity over the past seven years. Reflecting on this period over the past 12 months (for a book, published by Oberon) makes me recognise how incredible it is that a Trans Pride Season exists at all. When I first started work on this project, few people outside the community were using trans terminology or even had an understanding of what trans was. Since then, attitudes have shifted – though not always in a positive direction. It’s like we moved forwards and then we moved backwards again. Or… we moved forwards and then we moved forwards again, but the second move forwards has not taken us to a place that’s better.

I was fascinated by the fact that Rituals had resonated significantly with older menopausal cis women – the same demographic of second-wave feminists who were loudly attacking trans women and positioning themselves as ‘trans-exclusionary’. It felt like our shared use of the same bio-technologies (oestrogen pills or patches or gel) formed a strange connection between us. I’d first envisioned Hearty as a bridge towards mutual healing and understanding. And then…

A UK theatre programmed Germaine Greer, a widely known trans-exclusionary speaker, as part of their 2017 International Women’s Day events. Although they refused to cancel the event after protests from the local trans community, I was invited to take the main performance space for forty-five minutes and respond to Greer’s views. I should note that when it comes to trans-exclusionary arguments, I am of the firm opinion that there is no debate to be had: we should not be debating whether or not trans women exist. We clearly do. We have existed throughout history. So – taking the position of #NotADebate, I used my forty five minutes to sit in silence in front of a banner that read: ‘TRANS WOMEN EXIST, THIS IS NOT A DEBATE.’ I was joined onstage by Kai Harrison Moore, a BSL interpreter who rested their hands in their lap throughout – an action that made the silence even more palpable. I wanted the image of my body – the presence and reality of a trans woman, existing – to occupy the space for a long period of time; to render ridiculous any argument leveraged against us by a transphobic speaker sharing that same platform.

These events coincided with the early development of Hearty, and that’s when my desire for it to be a healing project dissipated.

Inspired by the work of American artist Margaret Kilgallen, I began painting phrases and slogans on boards as large as I could find. One of these was in response to a statement made by Greer on the Victoria Live TV show: ‘Just because you lop your dick off and then wear a dress doesn’t make you a fucking woman.’ Late one night, I painted ‘LOP YOUR DICK OFF’ in large black and red letters on an old piece of board. As with Language, I felt that the system was trying to define me by my anatomy, and I wanted to reclaim the statement as a position of power and positivity. I wanted to say, ‘Yes! LOP YOUR DICK OFF!’ And let the ‘dick’ be both metaphor and reality; let us take ‘dick’ to mean privilege and white supremacist patriarchal power, and let’s all lop that off and dispose of it, in an act of civil disobedience that will change everything. This eventually became the slogan for the T-shirt I wore on stage during Hearty.

We sold the T-shirts after the performances, and trans women got them free. Each person who bought one had a deeply personal motivation for doing so, and it reminded me of the universality I discovered in Rituals. We can all connect because of our experience of having a body; we may or may not be in possession of a literal penis, but we have all lived in a world that worships them.

Dramaturgically, I was interested in the concept of a cycle informing the structure of the production. The emergence of my own cycle had been welcome and significant, if confusing. After four years on oestrogen and anti-androgens, I could now feel the ebb and flow of my hormone cycle instead of the even flow I used to produce – especially in the week before an injection. What became apparent after some research was that trans and queer people have experienced throughout history a cycle of violence, acceptance, and massacre. It’s not hysterical to feel we must be prepared. It is foolish to suppose that we know better or are more protected than the Two-Spirit indigenous people of Turtle Island in the 1600s, or the queer and gender non-conforming people of Spain in the 1930s, or the Bissu in Indonesia in the 1960s (and again in the 1980s). Or many communities across the world today.

Conversations I’ve had with people outside the UK show just how tangible that violence is. When I led a discussion with trans and queer people in Brazil last year, they described a ‘genocide’ of trans people, particularly against the travesti section of the community. (‘Travesti’ is a term for a trans identity that is used in South America – a reclaimed slur most often used by female identified people who were assigned male at birth and who often are, or have been, sex workers.) ‘We must bury our knowledge until the apocalypse passes,’ said one person. I wrote Hearty in response to this idea. Where is the apocalypse? In the past or on the horizon? Are we the generation who must bury our knowledge or are we the ones who must dig it up? The week I started working on Hearty I also joined my local roller derby league – the Brighton Rockers. In an introductory email exchange, one of the skaters wrote: ‘We are a hearty sisterhood.’ This was another slogan that resonated with me, offered me a sense of belonging. I painted it in letters six foot high and made it the back wall of the set, at one point in the show creating a literal shelter out of it. The global community of trans women is a hearty sisterhood; the queer, cis and trans women I skate with are a hearty sisterhood. My strength is bound up in my community. The connection I feel with trans women and femmes is a power – the power. As Travis Alabanza has said: “we are the gift”.

“None of Us is Yet a Robot, Five Performances on Gender Identity and the Politics of Transition” is published by Oberon Books. Hearty will be performed as part of Marlborough Theatre’s ‘Trans Pride Season’ July 9th and at Summerhall as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival from the 13th – 24th August. You can see more of Emma’s work at www.notyetarobot.com – Rituals for Change is available online here.

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Emma Frankland is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine