Transgender artist Shakina Nayfack is tackling HB2, which bars transgender citizens from using public bathrooms that do not correspond to their biological sex, in a very different way. She is taking her show, Manifest Pussy, on the road in North Carolina as a subversive act. Manifest Pussy combines her two earlier solo shows, One Woman Show and Post-Op, which together chronicle her transition story, leading up to and following her gender confirmation surgery. Her North Carolina tour will begin and conclude with performances of Manifest Pussy at Joe's Pub June 8 and June 23. Performances are set to take place June 11 at Fayatteville's Rock Shop Music Hall; June 12 at The Pour House Music Hall in Raleigh; June 13 at Asheville's Altamont Theatre; June 14 at Juggling Gypsy in Wilmington; June 15 at Upstage in Charlotte; June 16 at The Crown in Greensboro; June 17 at Chapel Hill's Local 506; and June 19 at The Pinhook in Durham.
As part of Playbill Pride, Nayfack is documenting her journey in an online blog.
COME HOME - June 23, 2016
Saturday morning we swung back through Raleigh so I could pay a visit to the State Legislation Building. I wore my daintiest floral dress and a cute pair of kitten heels, walked right up to the visitors’ desk and asked for directions to the men’s room. The central stairway was regal, dark red carpet and golden stations dividing the visitors corridor from the area reserved for ascending lawmakers. From the second floor I could look down into the chambers where this hateful bill was signed into law. I imagined a posse of old, straight, white, cisgender men congratulating themselves on their victory, writing discrimination into law and passing it off as the protection of privacy.
There was some local press there to capture my visit, and I waltzed into the restroom with my own film crew as well. Just as we were wrapping up a young man came through the door. He was clearly startled, but apparently not pee-shy. I washed my hands and exited the men’s room to find the Raleigh press facing off with a police officer. The man in uniform hurled questions at the reporter, trying to bully him into some sort of confession. The reporter held his ground, answering calmly in the curtest sentences possible: “We’re doing a story on her visit to the men’s room.” I had never been so happy to hear someone use the correct pronouns. Meanwhile, I shooed our filmmaker away, standing there silently, waiting to get the hell out of the Legislation building.
On Sunday, before our final show, we enjoyed one last potluck with the band and some local members of the community. I spent some time with photojournalist ML Parker who runs a project called the Strength of Spirit Blog, a series of photos and interviews with folks who by all account should have had their spirits broken, but somehow persevered. She snapped a few photos of me and we talked about a moment from Manifest Pussy when I sing an original song by my friend and frequent collaborator Nikko Benson called “Spirits Don’t Break.” In the song I talk about my time in Thailand, just before my gender confirmation surgery, when I spent a week volunteering at a sanctuary for abused elephants on the grounds of a Buddhist temple. I place the song alongside a story from earlier in my youth, when I was unfairly institutionalized because my school and family didn’t know how to deal with a transgender teenager. At the institution I would ensconce myself in the solitary confinement room, singing at the top of my lungs for hours on end, praying that the music would deliver me. Nearly 20 years later on the elephant sanctuary, I would watch a 72-year-old elephant steal away into a thicket of trees, pulling on the branches with youthful vitality, shrugging off the years of abuse she suffered in the logging and tourism industries. Watching her play in her secret grove, I was reminded that our spirits are indeed indomitable.
Also at the potluck I learned the state motto of North Carolina, Esse Quam Videri, or “To be, rather than to seem.” Suddenly it dawned on me what this whole tour had made clear. With the passage of HB2, the national and international reputation of North Carolina had become that of a bigoted, discriminatory state; one that singled out its most vulnerable citizens, stripped them of their protections and subjected them to ridicule and segregation. However, the reality I encountered on the ground throughout the state was totally different, refreshingly, though alarmingly, so. How could it be that the small-minded, fear-based, ignorant actions of a few people in power could so jarringly misrepresent the heart and will of the people? While HB2 painted North Carolinians as transphobic and inequitable, the people of the state put forward a different truth. In eight different cities over nine consecutive days, we met people who were welcoming of difference, inspired by self-expression and protective of the rights for all citizens to live freely and without fear of discrimination. Better to be, rather than to seem. Good call, North Carolina.
Our final show was at The Pinhook in Durham, a radical queer rock club so anarchist, in fact, that the staff objected to our hiring of off-duty police officers to provide security. The place was small and dank, with all-gender restrooms covered in band stickers and graffiti. We decided at the last minute to stream the show live on Facebook, which brought in nearly another 700 audience members. There were a few people in the audience who had seen the show earlier in the tour, including Tiffany Morones (Michael’s mom). I also spotted a woman I hadn’t seen since the elephant sanctuary in Thailand, a fellow volunteer who had come home to Durham after three months on the temple grounds!
The show was a challenge, if for no other reason than I had hit and passed my point of physical and emotional exhaustion. About three quarters into the piece there is an intense and aggressive punk rock song about some complications I faced after my surgery and how the experience of recovering nearly made me lose my faith. It’s my words set to a hardcore punk arrangement by Teresa Lotz. Onstage I felt like I was giving the last of my energy, leaving it on the floor so to speak. But I also know that this level of offering, depleted and still generous, is when the greatest communion takes place.
I talk a lot about God in Manifest Pussy, an element of the show I didn’t think would fly at The Pinhook (where I noticed a tag “Queers for Satan” in the bathroom stall). To me, there’s nothing more subversive than a tatted up transgender woman talking about Jesus and her new vagina in the same breath. Most queer people have been made to feel unwelcome to a relationship with the divine, and part of my objective as a performer and storyteller is to help heal that rift. There’s no point where that’s more clear in Manifest Pussy than the song “Come Home,” with lyrics by me and music by the great Shaina Taub. A gospel-pop tune about returning to your spiritual source and laying down your burden, the song urges the audience to “take the chance to feel the pain of being real, then come home to the sweetness of laying down the heal.” On one hand, the song is literally about my return to New York City from Thailand, and the weeks I spent bed-ridden, in pain and in tears. But also, it’s a message of hope, the strength and relief you can find in community, in forgiveness and in spiritual surrender. Perhaps this was my gift to the transgender people of North Carolina, a little encouragement to come home to the state that had rejected them.
On Monday morning, I split up from the band to fly home early. I’d been invited to participate in a photo shoot with some LGBTQ Theatre pioneers at the Stonewall Inn, part of Playbill’s Pride coverage and this week’s commemoration of Stonewall as an historic landmark. I got camera ready in Durham, and took a cab straight from the airport to Stonewall. Before I left, though, I made one last trip to a men’s room in the Raleigh airport.
Again, the heaviness weighed upon me. So often in my work there’s darkness and pain just below the surface of the humor. In fact, some of the more difficult details of my life that I lay out in the show I originally refused to talk about until I could find a way to make them funny. Laughter opens your heart; it enables you to receive a painful story without having to feel it as such. That’s what these bathroom selfies had come to be for me, a cheeky veneer for what is truly a heartbreaking and dangerous reality. For a few brief moments over the past ten days I had put myself in threatening situations, but with the protection of a rock band by my side and the assurance of impermanence behind me. This last bathroom trip I made alone. I felt the fear and tension well up as I braced myself for conflict. I thought about my transgender comrades in this state, the risks they are forced to take daily, facing violence just to use the restroom. Again, I get to leave North Carolina and come back to New York, but for them, this is home.
I arrived at Stonewall to find a barricade along the sidewalk and a mountain of flowers in front of the entrance. It didn’t occur to me before then that New Yorkers who felt devastated by the shootings in Orlando had nowhere else to place their grief. I was on the road, galvanized into action on an itinerary of resistance that was already planned out for me. But for LGBTQ New Yorkers, Stonewall had served—as it has for nearly 50 years—as a memorial to our struggle for justice and equality and a symbol of our spaces of sanctuary—safety zones like Pulse, violated by this unimaginable atrocity.
For an hour or so, I hung out on the periphery alongside gay legends of the Broadway stage. Ultimately none of them knew who I was or what I had just come back from, but there I sat, in Stonewall, where generations ago young, poor, transwomen of color started a revolution. I fan-girled in the corner with Andrew Keenan-Bolger while Harvey Fierstein, Tony Kushner and Jerry Mitchell posed for a photo together. “This is my legacy,” I thought. “I’m part of it, and I’m creating it.”
When I got home I cried. A lot. An ugly cry that nearly had me collapsed on the kitchen floor. I was on the phone with my boyfriend, gasping about the guys his age gunned down at Pulse, weeping for the transfolk of North Carolina. Everything I kept inside so I could get through those eight shows on the road suddenly rose up and poured out without warning. The next day I could barely get out of bed.
Take the chance to feel the pain of being real, then come home to the sweetness of laying down to heal.
Tonight I will present a homecoming performance of Manifest Pussy, back at Joe’s Pub, just two weeks after this whole thing began. I feel victorious, like we really accomplished something important with this tour. I feel driven, to continue sharing this show with folks who stand to gain something from hearing my story. And I feel grateful, for the hundreds of people who helped make this tour happen and for the honor of being able to lend my voice to the movement. I think, for the first time in a long time, I understand what Pride is all about.
Thank you for following me on this journey, thank you to Playbill for giving me the space to share my experiences. Thank you to the strong-spirited people of North Carolina and the folks around the world who have been praying for Orlando. As I said in closing at every show on the road: Be good to each other and Manifest Pussy!
SOUTHERN REVIVAL - June 19, 2016
We arrived in Charlotte just before the rain. The air was thick and heavy, like it was about to break under its own weight. Seth, our bassist, pulled the van into the parking lot of the Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, where we would be meeting with Charlotte Trans Pride, a small but active group of transfolk who have been organizing against HB2 since the moment the law passed.
Inside the church we sat around a conference table, dining on cold pizza and ambrosia salad. We met Lara, a former U.S. Airman who transitioned after she left the service. Now, she builds electric guitars, which is like the most badass thing imaginable. We also met Liam, this charming, punkrock-looking trans dude who was out in the streets protesting HB2 two weeks after his top surgery.
Technically after a double mastectomy you’re not supposed to lift your arms overhead for six weeks, but he was out there holding a sign in the air, bleeding through his shirt from the fresh incisions in his chest. After sharing a meal we made our way to a small lounge area, the Charlotte Pride headquarters (yes, still in the church). Lara played a couple of original tunes for us, and we jammed on a song from Manifest Pussy.
That night was our biggest audience yet. We played at Upstage NoDa, an upstairs cabaret on North Davidson. I explained, as I have been before every performance, how even though my show is a solo performance, it’s actually a love-letter to North Carolina from the entire New York theatre community. I told them how over 200 people had lent their resources to make the tour possible, and while I supported the celebrity boycotts of the state, I felt that removing arts and culture from a community that was already losing their rights felt like adding insult to injury.
After the show, one of the audience members came up to me and said, “It’s a really loving thing you're doing, to bring something in when everyone else is taking things away.”
Another dude told me, “Yours is the perfect show for anyone seeking understanding. I didn't know much about transgender experience, and I'm so glad I came tonight and that you're doing this. When we can just see each other as human, it's like, we're not really that different. We all go through some crazy shit.”
I couldn’t have said it more eloquently myself.
On our way out of town, we stopped at WBT talk radio, where I joined conservative personality, Keith Larson, for an hour of his morning show. We had chatted twice on the air, over the phone, and this was a chance for us to sit together and hash out some of the differences in our opinions. Fundamentally, he doesn’t support HB2 either, but he also couldn’t really wrap his mind around the transgender experience. In a heated moment when we were discussing the idea of transfolk in locker rooms, I suggested that academic institutions need to develop policy to create safe spaces for transgender athletes:
“All this talk about children being protected from women like me in the bathroom, that if I went into a women’s restroom young girls will somehow be morally traumatized for their entire lives. But then I think about what’s going to happen if we send, without any sort of warning, education, or policy—not me, but a young transman, someone who was born female, but is now living as a male—into a locker room at a high school or a college, places where one if four women are subject to sexual assault. That’s where I think, ‘Oh my god, all these dudes are gonna rape this poor person in the shower.’ That’s what I think. I think the safety issue is about the young transman who’s not protected against sexually violent heterosexual males. That’s why I think we need clearer policy.”
With that mic effectively dropped, we took of for Greensboro.
The Carolina Theatre is nearly 100 years old, and just down the block from the Woolworths, where in 1960 four African American college students sat down at the counter and asked for service. In the main stage auditorium of the theatere there is a balcony that used to be “coloreds only.” It was closed after the sit-in and now serves as a platform for a more advanced lighting and sound rig. Still, from the stage looking out, there’s a gap between the curtained trusses where you can see the empty bench seats of the balcony, a haunted reminder of North Carolina’s legacy of segregation.
I performed in The Crown, a new second-stage black box space and concert venue on top of the original theatre. Two local police officers were on hand to ensure my safety. We chatted a bit before the show, and they were game to join me for a photo.
I was warned by Seth, who is from Greensboro originally, that this audience might be more conservative than others. The theatre itself, while excited to present the show, had to drop “Pussy” from the title and just billed the show as the “Anti-HB2 Rebel Tour.” Still, it was impressive to see those words on the marquee! I decided to warm up the crowd by chatting a little bit pre-show. I warned them that I was a potty-mouth and to get ready for a wild time. I also asked if folks had any questions. After the first couple songs someone raised their hand and shouted, “I have a question!”
“You took a picture of your dick before cutting it off. Did you ever think of having it bronzed, like people do with baby shoes?”
“No,” I replied, “but I guess I could get it 3D printed if I found enough dick pics from different angles.”
Clearly this audience was along for the ride.
After the show, I met a woman who worked as a gender therapist, advocating for the transgender community in Greensboro and elsewhere in the state, helping people find treatment and resources. She teared up as she told me about her sister, a transwoman who has taken her own life just before embarking on a post-graduate fellowship at Yale.
“It doesn’t matter how many resources, how educated or apparently successful a person is,” she told me.
“Yeah,” I confirmed, “without harmony in ones own body, life becomes unbearable.”
The next day, our seventh consecutive show in our seventh consecutive city, we performed at Local 506 in Chapel Hill, another rock club with band fliers on the wall and the smell of spilled beer perfuming the air. Before the show I walked through the crowd, introducing myself to folks who showed up early. Two older ladies sitting in the third row informed me that they came to see the show because they had heard me on the radio. After the performance, they came up to me by the bar.
“I’m a minister at Unity Church,” one of the woman said while embracing me. “I appreciate how you wove spirituality into your story so deftly.”
She paused and put her hands on my shoulders, looking me in the eye with heart-melting gratitude. “Thank you for ministering to me tonight.”
Like I say in the show, I’m a Eunuch for the Kingdom of Heaven baby!
Tonight I play my last show of the tour at The Pinhook in Durham, then it’s back to New York for my homecoming show at Joe’s Pub on June 23rd. I’m sure I’ll have more stories to tell...
Stay tuned for my final Playbill Pride update!
MAKING CONNECTIONS - June 14, 2016
On our way out of Raleigh, we stopped by North Garner Middle School to visit Michael Morones. Two years ago, when Michael was 11 years old, he was repeatedly bullied by his classmates for being gay. Like so many kids his age, Michael loved My Little Pony. To be clear, he wasn’t gay or straight, he was 11. The harassment he faced was due to his perceived sexual orientation, and his mistreatment at school got so bad that he tried to take his own life. It’s hard to imagine an 11-year-old child hanging himself, it’s harder to imagine being his mother. Tiffany Morones found her son in his bedroom in time to save his life, but not before he suffered severe and permanent brain damage.
Some of you reading this may remember the concert we put together in support of Michael and his family, Broadway Battles Bullying. I hosted the evening and performed a song from Manifest Pussy about the first time I ever wore a dress and got in trouble for it. The song, “I Want To Wear You” by Julianne Wick Davis, features the poignant lyric, “the first time I feel pretty is the first time I feel shame.”
Michael now lives most of his life in a motorized wheel chair, his delicate hands twitching on his lap. He’s learned to blink twice for “yes,” once for “no.” Sometimes he can follow you with his eyes, every once in a while—according to his mom and his teacher Ms. Eatmon—he smiles.
Walking through the halls of a junior high school brought back memories of being taunted in sixth grade. When I was 11, I didn’t have much leg hair (I still don’t) and the other kids used to tease me for shaving my legs. I’d walk to class and people would grab my legs to feel the texture of my skin, call me a faggot and run off laughing. I called my mom from the campus pay-phone daily, in tears. One time after school, and she doesn’t know this, I swallowed a whole bottle of Advil. I thought it would do more than it did. A few years later, another friend my age, who faced similar harassment for her more masculine demeanor, hung herself in the shower while her parents were at Open House.
Well before children have identified a sexual preference, their refusal or inability to fit in within narrow gendered social structures can make them a target for homophobic aggression. Under laws like HB2, these children have no protection against discrimination in their schools. In fact, when governments pass laws like HB2, it sends a message to young people that hatred and violence directed at LGBT people is permissible, even encouraged.
Tiffany presented me and the band with a gift from Michael, a small, stuffed, pink My Little Pony who now rides with us on the rear-view mirror of the van. Before we left the school, I had to use the little boy’s room (it’s the law, remember). On the way, I was heartened to see hand-made rainbow signs in the halls proclaiming the school a “No Bullying Zone” and asking other students “Why be a Bully when you can be a Friend?”
I burst into tears when we got back in the van. We had a six hour drive to Asheville, and that night, at The Altamont Theatre, I told the audience about my visit with Michael. I tried to find a connection between his suicide attempt, HB2 and the shootings at Pulse nightclub. I spoke extemporaneously.
“When we legislate hatred we build a culture of violence. We cannot condemn a killing in Orlando while supporting a bill that promotes discrimination.”
That night, I was memed by an audience member.
After the show I went out for a late night bite with two young transwomen who came to the show. One of them told me, “I moved out of South Carolina to get away from the confederacy, and I ended up here, thinking it was a liberal enclave, and now things are more backwards than they were back home.”
We also talked a lot about anatomy. In a surprising juxtaposition these ladies, both “pre-op” (anticipating gender confirmation surgery) had a lot of the same questions that the ultra-conservative—also confessionally ignorant and transphobic NewsMax reporter Dennis Michael Lynch asked me on his show a few weeks back.
People want to know how it works, I get it, that’s part of the reason why I created this show. I’m down to talk about the ins and out of my genital reassignment. But just to be clear, not everyone is, nor should they have to be.
The next morning we took off for Wilmington, from the western mountains to the eastern coast. On the way, we stopped at a Williamson’s Bar-B-Que and Seafood, a kinda run-down stand alone place off the interstate that looked like the perfect spot for sweet tea, pulled pork and hush puppies. Thankfully, we were correct.
A demure young lady was our hostess and server. She looked high-school age, as though this might have been her summer job so she could save up for college applications and a homecoming dress. Trying an approach I’d not yet employed, I walked up to her at the counter, “Excuse me, miss? I’m transgender, and I was wondering if it would be alright if I used the ladies’ room.”
She didn’t miss a beat, just looked up from the order ticket in her hands and said, “Of course, and waddya y’all want to drink?” Like it was the most mater of fact question she’d answered all day.
Silly as the situation may seem, I couldn’t help but see our interaction within a legacy of American civil rights struggles. Like black folk sitting at the counter of a segregated diner, waiting to be served, or gay men walking into a pre-Stonewall bar back when it was illegal to serve alcohol to homosexuals, outing themselves and asking for a drink.
I know she must have said something to the crew in the kitchen because when we left the entire staff made it a point to peek out from the back and wave, wishing us safe travels and thanking us for stopping by. I gotta say, if this is the South, I love the South.
Our Wilmington show was at a charming little spot called Juggling Gypsy. While The Altamont in Asheville was more of a traditional black box theatre, the cleanest and most conventional place we’re likely to play on this tour, Juggling Gypsy is a hookah bar and board game lounge with a small stage, funky artwork and a great vibe.
In Wilmington, we were greeted by a community dinner with leaders from a coalition of local LGBT organizations, who have joined forces to combat HB2: Equality North Carolina, Cape Fear Equality, PFLAG, the Frank Harr Foundation, The Humanists and Free Thinkers and SAGE Wilmington.
They told me about their demonstrations at the city council and the school board trying to get local political officials to take a stand against the law and how, this past weekend, the local police worked with them to block off a route to the river for their Pulse Shootings Vigil. One of the organizers had created a huge wreath to be sent down stream in honor of the victims. The Wilmington Police Department offered to take her out on a boat to make sure the wreath didn’t get trapped in the docks. On the way back to shore, she sang “Amazing Grace,” and everyone joined in.
The representatives from PFLAG were a straight couple with two grown children, both transgender.
The venue filled up in time for the show, and the crowd was mixed; young hip kids and sun-kissed retirees, tough country dykes and casually sleek gay boys. The layout of the space allowed me to walk into the audience during the show, the first time I was able to explore that kind of interaction.
A transman who is part of the anti-HB2 coalition sat through the entire show with his arms folded across his chest. It’s the kind of posture that’s hard to work with onstage. “Maybe he just doesn’t want to hear songs about pussy,” I wondered to myself.
Turns out, he loved the show, he was just sitting like a dude. Afterwards he came up and shook my hand. He was a good ol’ boy with a genteel drawl, “I wanna thank you for doin’ what you’re doin’. I came expecting some tunes and stories, but you took us someplace. That was real theatre.”
After the show, the PFLAG parents came up to me in tears. We hugged, and the mother said to me, “As the parent of a transgender child who’s just...,” she paused, “...just hatching, I want to tell you how special and important your show was for me.”
The Wilmington show marked the half-way point of our tour. So many tears, so much love and laughter, and we’ve still got four more cities to hit. Tomorrow we’ll ride to Charlotte, where a whole new community is ready and waiting to Manifest Pussy!
Follow me on Twitter and Instagram at @shakeenz, and stay tuned for my next tour update here on Playbill!
STAND OUT - June 12, 2016
It’s my third day on the road in North Carolina. I’m writing from the van, someplace between Raleigh and Asheville. I’ve only done two out of eight performances so far, and already this trip has been life-changing.
As soon as we crossed the state line, late Friday night, we pulled off into the North Carolina Visitors Center so I could use the restroom. The men’s restroom. What started as a cheeky stunt to point out the ridiculous nature of this law suddenly became weighted and unnerving. I have the privilege of sweeping into this state for ten days to make a point, but for transgender North Carolinians the bathroom issue isn’t a joke, or a choice.
It was my first time in a men’s room in three years. My stomach sank, I felt like a clown, I worried about people staring, saying something, or worse, getting violent. I felt the civil rights struggle in my body, the stress and tension that comes from risking personal safety to fight for your rights. All this, “for the privilege to pee.”
Our first show was at The Rock Shop in Fayetteville, a big industrial warehouse on the corner of an otherwise empty block. Inside it smelled like beer, body odor and cigarettes. The makeshift green room was curtained off behind a caged-in skateboard ramp, where two dudes from the band playing after us practiced their ollies through our soundcheck. The stage itself was perched on rickety risers, a few rows of weathered chairs placed in front.
Before the show, a young guy in typical rock ‘n’ roll gear was standing out front smoking a cig. He asked if I had any music on Spotify or iTunes yet (I don’t).
“My Dad is going through the same situation, I wanted to send him some of your stuff.”
“Oh, is your dad transitioning?” I asked
“No he did it, the whole thing, operation and everything.”
“Oh wow! Congrats!” I replied, admittedly taken off guard, “That’s so great she has such a supportive son,” I added, hoping my encouragement would validate both of their processes.
There were only 12-15 people at this first show, but they were so on board. Afterwards, the young rocker from out front came up to me with tears in his eyes.
“Thank you,” he said softly, “You really helped me understand my dad. I wish he could see your show.”
I ignored the pronoun slip, clearly this guy was doing his best.
“Thank you for doing what you’re doing,” he added, and reached out his hand to shake mine.
Rob, a young army veteran who was stationed at Fort Bragg, bought the band a round of drinks after the show. “I volunteered to fight for freedom,” he told me, “all types of freedom.”
Also at the show were a few queer women who are organizing an Artists Against HB2 event to take place at The Rock Shop July 2. The local Target is sponsoring, along with the newly formed nonprofit Equality NC. They invited us all to Fayettevilles local gay bar, Jack’s Tap.
Situated in a rundown strip mall that’s home to two other equally divey bars, Jack’s Tap has the flavor and flare of any small town gay bar, different genders, ages, ethnicities, all sorts of people unified under one rainbow flag. I met a young man named Matt who’s husband died fighting in Iraq before their marriage was federally recognized. Now Matt’s dating a Transman, and while they may look like a “normal gay couple,” one of them has to use the women’s restroom when they go out together. Thanks, HB2.
We raised a glass with the local queers of Fayetteville, having no idea that at the same moment our LGBT bothers and sisters were being gunned down in Orlando.
I woke up on Sunday morning, like most of America, to the news of the Pulse nightclub shootings. My heart stopped, my breath was ripped from my chest. I sat and watched the news, checking my social media feeds over and over, fielding emails and text messages from friends and family asking if I was going to continue with the tour, imploring me to step up security. I called my producer and asked her to touch base with the police departments in every city left on our route. I watched President Obama address the nation:
“This is a sobering reminder that attacks on any American—regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation—is an attack on all of us and on the fundamental values of equality and dignity that define us as a country.”
I remarked to myself how our President, who I love, failed to include gender identity in his statement; the same exclusion, along with sexual orientation, enacted by HB2 in its redefinition of North Carolina’s non-discrimination policy.
As long as a state can legislate discrimination, we will perpetuate and encourage the hatred of LGBT people.
Sunday evening the LGBT center of Raleigh hosted a vigil for the victims of the Pulse shootings. It was held in the parking lot of Legends, a gay night club just down the block from The Pour House, where I was set to play. After soundcheck we went over to the vigil, lit candles, cried and tried to make sense of the senseless act that had brought us all together. One of the employees of Legends used to work for Pulse until he moved up to Raleigh from Orlando last year. He ran the lighting for Latin night on Saturdays. “I may not have known everyone by name,” he said through anguished tears, “but I know all of their faces; they were my family.”
I refused to cry. I was furious and devastated, but I wanted to save it for the stage. That night, before the show started, I got up and said to The Pour House crowd, “If hatred silences us, then hatred wins. In moments like this it’s important for us all to come together as a community to say ‘We will not live our lives in fear, we will honor those living and dead with our stories and the force of our spirits.’“
After the show, I added an encore dedicated to the victims of the Pulse shootings, “Stand Out” by my friend and Manifest Pussy collaborator Zoe Sarnak. Watch the video below, and keep following Manifest Pussy on Playbill.
TAKING OFF - June 8, 2016
Tonight, my new solo show premieres at Joe’s Pub. On Friday, I get in a van with my band and take the show down to North Carolina. That might not sound so crazy, until you consider that I’m a transgender woman going to a state where the KKK has been using a new anti-trans law to help recruit members.
My show, Manifest Pussy, is an autobiographical solo rock musical about becoming the woman I am today. Think Hedwig, but real. In it, I combine material from my two previous solo shows, One Woman Show, which tells the story of my life up to the point of transition, and Post-Op, which follows my six-week pilgrimage to Thailand to undergo gender confirmation surgery. The whole thing is stitched together with monologues, spoken word and a kick-ass score by some of the most exciting young composers working in the musical theatre scene today.
On March 23rd of this year, North Carolina Governor Pat McCroy signed The North Carolina’s Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act (HB2), removing LGBT people from the state-wide non-discrimination policy. This means if you are LGBT and you get fired, evicted, bullied or otherwise harassed because of your sexual orientation or gender identity, you have no protection under the law. In addition to this bold step backward in history, the law also makes it illegal to use a public restroom that doesn’t match the gender on your birth certificate. When the bill passed, my initial impulse was just to go down there and take selfies in all the wrong bathrooms. Then I got a better idea...
As makers and lovers of theatre, many of us believe in our hearts that storytelling is both a sacred and a political act. We love what we do because we believe that through the guise of entertainment we can educate, empower and inspire others. We understand that there is nothing as unifying as a shared experience of live performance. We forget sometimes, when we’re focused on star casting and box office grosses, that what we do has been done for thousands of years in cultures around the world, to pass on moral lessons, establish markers of collective identity and prevent history from repeating itself.
The attempt to police social progress through the legislation of human bodies is nothing new in America. Every great movement for equality has seen a venomous backlash when the fearful and ignorant grasp for the last strongholds of their supposed righteousness. And when we find ourselves making the same mistakes—whether individually or as a nation—we must repeatedly ask ourselves, “What lessons are we refusing to learn?”
That is why we, as theatre-makers, must take to the stage to remind ourselves (and the people that see and hear us) of simple hashtag-able truths like #BlackLivesMatter, #TransIsBeautiful, #WeAreNotThis. That is why I'm getting my act together and taking it on the road.
This whole endeavor is a community affair. Nearly 200 people helped to crowdfund the tour, and over the course of the last six weeks another 20 to 30 people helped me book venues in eight North Carolina cities, offered to house me and the band, design artwork, post flyers, host meet-and-greets and potlucks so we don't go hungry. Over the next ten days I'll be doing a lot more than pissing in men's rooms, I'll be taking some radical new musical theatre on a grass-roots tour of rock clubs, black box theatres and hooka lounges (yes, I'm playing a hooka lounge) to advocate for the LBGT citizens of North Carolina and to help bring the wayward state back over to the right side of history.
Follow my journey on Playbill.com.