On opening night of Off-Broadway’s safeword, actor Maybe Burke walked onstage excited to tell a daring story, to contribute to the de-stigmatization of BDSM, to explore relationships and power dynamics, to demonstrate the toxicity of secrecy in the play about two interracial couples rocked by hidden truths. As a transgender non-binary actor, Burke was also thrilled to play a non-binary character in a play that didn’t perform the “101 conversation,” explaining what it means to be non-binary through dialogue or plot or focusing on the gender exploration of the character; Burke’s character Chris just existed as non-binary. But, on that same opening night when Burke walked offstage and scrolled through the reviews, excitement turned to shame and anxiety because every single critic had misgendered both Burke and their character—one review (which has since been deleted) going so far as to call Burke a “man in women’s dress.”
“Some of the critics have made edits to correct their mistakes,” Burke wrote on social media, “but their mark has been made.”
Burke reached out to Playbill, sharing their statement and their story. We wanted to take the opportunity to learn more and then educate others about trans and non-binary communities—through the lens of Burke’s individual story—and provide guidance about how to be an ally.
Burke grew up on Long Island, a musical theatre kid from the start. As they matured and began thinking about undergrad programs Burke realized: “I’m non-binary and there was no way I could stay in musical theatre because there aren’t roles for people like me and the roles that I did want to play, people weren’t going to be casting me in.” Burke entered the directing program at Pace University, nudged by an impulse to take an offstage role in theatre, but discovered a passion and talent for directing in its own right. Now an artistic associate with Honest Accomplice Theatre (and host of their Trans Literacy Project), Burke traverses the worlds of directing, acting, and advocacy.
“I’ve made the conscious decision to be as loudly trans as I can,” Burke says. “I walk into a room and I’ll slate for an audition for a TV show and they’ll be like, ‘Say your name,’ and I say, ‘My name is Maybe Burke and I go by they/them pronouns.’ They didn’t ask for my pronouns, but I’m going to be like, ‘I’m trans and you have to see me.’ I’m fighting those fights in small ways every day.”
Which is why being misgendered—in print, no less—with safeword was particularly devastating.
“As a person who considers myself a voice for my communities, the first thing I felt was that I was a disappointment to my people,” says Burke. Though it can be hard to grasp for those who have never been misgendered (this writer has never had to fight for her “she”), the effect on someone who has had to fight for their pronouns and their identity can be devastating.
After reading those reviews, “every costume I put on, I was uncomfortable with how it would be perceived,” Burke explains. “Every time I put on a dress or my more femme outfits, I was crying backstage and I was scared to let people see me, which is not a thing that happens to me ever. But also, being misgendered all over the internet is not a thing that happens to me ever.”
Burke identifies as non-binary and trans “because, to me, transgender is a word for anybody who doesn’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth.”
To put it in linguistic terms: “ ‘Cis’ and ‘trans’ are prefixes adopted from chemistry. ‘Trans’ means ‘across’ or ‘on the other side of,’ so it can be point A to point B, or somewhere on the way between those two things,” Burke explains. “Whereas ‘cis’ means ‘on the same side.’ There are non-binary people who don’t use either ‘cis’ or ‘trans’ for themselves.”
It’s crucial to remember that gender was made up. “My gender is not this newfound gender and yours was grown on the organic gender tree,” they say, pointing out that other cultures boast three-gender and five-gender structures. “Language is made up—this is what social constructs are.”
Though language is made up, it is powerful. Which is why Burke urges everyone—especially writers and critics—to be sure they’ve got identifiers, qualifiers, and pronouns right. Particularly as casting becomes (rightfully) more representational.
And Burke has a slew of dream roles. “I did three different productions of A Chorus Line while I was on Long Island and I played Mike, Paul, and Mark, and I won’t rest until I’m Cassie,” Burke says. “There’s so much more beauty to be found in casting different kinds of people in roles. If you cast me as Cassie and I say, ‘I can’t get a job, Zach,’ for him to tell me, ‘You don’t dance like the other girls.’ Well, I’m not like the other girls. There’s more nuance to be found in a lot of dialogue when you cast people in a different respect.” And Burke counts the recent castings of MJ Rodriguez as Little Shop of Horrors’ Audrey and Alexandra Billings as Wicked’s Madame Morrible as examples.
“I’m all for just casting any type of marginalized person in a role that is typically not meant for them because nine times out of ten, it makes the story more interesting for everybody.”
Also on Burke’s wish list? Everyone from Princeton in Avenue Q to Belle in Beauty and the Beast, Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors to Ilse in Spring Awakening to the genderless narrator types of Seussical’s Cat in the Hat and Cabaret’s Emcee. And Burke’s ambitions don’t stop with theatre.
“I want to play women on TV because I want people to see somebody who looks like me as a woman on TV,” says Burke.
Burke wants to help re-condition audiences when it comes to perception of gender. “There are stories that are being told through casting.
“If I was a young person watching all of these men play trans women, it would just tell me that no matter what I do, no matter where I go, if my story gets told, it’s going to be told as a man’s story,” says Burke. “That’s not fair and I can’t let young folks continue to see that.”
In moving forward, Burke hopes that the entertainment communities will continue to be open-minded when it comes to casting, but also about the types of stories we tell and who writes them.
“We need to stop having trans people’s stories just be their gender transition,” says Burke—which was why safeword appealed to them in the first place. “The only way we’re going to get there is to change who’s writing the narrative.”
This is where Burke believes the theatre community can take a note from Hollywood. “There’s a lot more queer and trans people working on the scripts and working behind the scenes and creating and directing things [on screen],” they say. Those stories ring with a newfound authenticity—because words matter. Perspective matters.
“A lot of people don’t understand all of the labels we use and don’t get why we need to have all of these words. But you might not realize the power of words until they’ve been used against you,” says Burke. “Words are ideas and words are feelings and words have impact—that’s why we’re storytellers.”
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