Trans representation and casting. Where are we at?

Jay Stewart, CEO of Gendered Intelligence

As a trans-led organisation, Gendered Intelligence wants to see more roles for trans actors as well as trans people represented in all aspects of the creative process of theatre and performance making (trans writers, trans directors, trans stage managers etc.) Trans people, including young trans people, need to see themselves positively represented on stage and elsewhere.

Trans people face significant barriers in their careers in the creative industries. These are often due to barriers of opportunity to learn and gain skills, as well as experiencing prejudice in the industry itself. In addition, trans people can experience internalised transphobia (the learnt shame of being trans) and consequently have feelings of low self-worth and confidence. We need to work together to remove these barriers in order that all trans and gender diverse people thrive and fulfil their potential.

Gendered Intelligence wants to be part of the change that needs to happen.

At Gendered Intelligence we deliver training and consultancy with organisations to support them in their understandings and in working towards their delivery of trans inclusive services. These services include working with theatres and drama schools. We want all trans people to feel welcomed and supported, whether they are employees, customers or students.

Some will know that Landmark Productions and Galway International Arts Festival co-produced by Birmingham Repertory Theatre and in association with the Donmar Warehouse are working in collaboration on a musical theatre production of Breakfast On Pluto. The production is based on a book written in 1998 and is about a young Irish trans person in the 1970s.

On Monday 9th March they released a press release about the production, which included information that they had cast a cis actor to a trans role. 

Gendered Intelligence was not involved in the casting process of Breakfast on Pluto and suffice to say Gendered Intelligence does not endorse the casting of a cis actor to a trans role.

We did arrange to deliver consultancy and training for staff at the Donmar Warehouse who reached out to us in order to work with the team to ensure trans inclusive practices will be carried out in the run up to the production. Indeed, we have carried this out with a number of other theatres over the years.

In addition to GI delivering this work, there was discussion around recognising the difficulty and complexity of the task in casting for trans characters. The identity of the character Pussy Braden is both trans and Irish. We also discussed the skillset required in the mix with it being a musical.

Having already cast for the production, our discussions moved to considering those wider, ongoing aims mentioned earlier – to nurture trans talent in the theatre industry. So, a question we posed was:

What could the Donmar, their partners on ‘Breakfast on Pluto’ and the industry more generally, do in order to invest in trans actors and to ensure that things change for the better, so that we won’t see the casting of trans roles going to cis actors?

One idea we had was for the Donmar to donate space for a trans led show, that Gendered Intelligence is involved with. The show is written by trans artist, with a group of young trans people. The show will be directed by a trans person and performed by an all trans cast. The show will involve a short tour across different parts of the country, but this gave us an opportunity to showcase trans talent and tell trans stories at a large theatre space in London where we could offer low and no-cost tickets for a predominantly trans audience alongside our allies.

Another idea was to arrange a showcase later in the autumn period to, once again, showcase trans talent and create discussion and debate about the experiences, representation and politics of trans people in the industry.

Other actions taken by the production have been the employment of two people, who have shared their trans status, in the job roles of production consultant and Assistant Director, as well as a trans academic to curate a ‘wrap around programme’ in Galway and Dublin.

My view is that these actions were taken in good faith to further contribute to the ultimate aim of increasing opportunities for trans people in the theatre industry. I am not of the opinion that these efforts are cynical acts on the part of the Donmar, and their partners, as a way to legitimise decisions around the casting of a cis actor to a trans role.

Some people may feel that the casting decision far outweighs any other positive endeavour. It sends the wrong message and ultimately is highly inappropriate, especially given our current climate of increasing toxicity in the media. Some believe that there are talented trans people out there and more efforts needs to be made to cast them into these important high-profile roles. Others have highlighted how damaging it is to have cis performers playing trans roles. Whilst others still feel that it should be trans people telling trans stories. In short, a line needs to be drawn: no more cis actors for trans parts.

I want to say that I applaud these sentiments.

In 2015, GI began its Trans Acting project – a project that engages with trans and non-binary people’s place within the creative and cultural sector. Over the years we have engaged with over 200 people who have participated in a range of masterclasses, panel discussions and workshops. The Trans Acting project began as a collaboration with the My Genderation duo (Fox Fisher and Lewis Hancock) and Dr Catherine McNamara now Head of School (Art, Design & Performance), at University of Portsmouth. At Trans Acting we want to develop and deliver high quality trans-inclusive performer training with trans and non-binary participants, nurture the creativity and talent of trans and non-binary participants, give producers, directors and others involved in making TV, film, radio, theatre and other media access to that talent and share a model of practice that might be used by other practitioners and professionals.

Over the years, we’ve worked with a range of organisations including the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Bristol Old Vic, the West Yorkshire Playhouse, the Royal Court Theatre, Scottish Queer International Film Festival and BFI Flare. Partners in delivering the project include Outbox, an LGBT Theatre Company with a remit of making performance and doing outreach with young LGBT people.

Trans Acting, among others, are the initiatives needed to nurture talent and profile it in the West End and elsewhere.

Thinking back to 2015, I am reminded of an article I did about The Danish Girl – a Hollywood movie about trans woman Lily Elbe (played by Eddie Redmayne). I wrote:

Representing trans lives in films or elsewhere is a nightmare task for anyone and I applaud anyone who gives it a shot. But this film [The Danish Girl] made by cis (non-trans) people and performed by mostly cis people… will be mostly watched by cis people.

Claudia Rankine…  argued in The Guardian that “Blackness in the white imagination has nothing to do with black people” and I… want to make this parallel.

These films are not for ‘us’ trans people and yet ‘we’ view them nonetheless. What kind of politics emerges specifically from a trans perspective? We are living in very interesting political times right now when it comes to trans equality. We need to make films like The Danish Girl (and the public encounter that comes with it) count. The story of Lilly and Gerda is extraordinary, challenging and painful. So talk about it. Discuss with friends over dinner, colleagues at work, family members, in the classroom. And when you do this ask yourselves “What is the politic here?”, or to put it another way: “Who gets to say what about whom – to whom?”

In 2020, there is certainly more engagement with trans people when producing plays about trans people. But we are still a long way off from bridging the gap between the ways in which mainstream plays portray trans lives, with that of the amazing, rich, intelligent, nuanced, and often quite hilarious ways in which trans and queer people create art works that are by us and for us.

So, I’m still pondering: how can we utilise this debate of casting to progress the aim of getting trans talent nurtured and out there? What is a good way forward? I’m keen to hear your thoughts.

Gendered Intelligence is holding a roundtable ‘think tank’ space for trans people currently working in the industry. If you are keen to attend or can’t make it but want to contribute your thoughts email me: jay.stewart@genderedintelligence.co.uk.

The usefulness of gender neutral language

Simon Croft, Director of Educational and Professional Services at Gendered Intelligence, shares his thoughts on how using gender neutral language can help to make everyone feel included and how small changes to the way we address people can make a big difference. 

Gendered terms are some of the most common words we use – pronouns like ‘he’ and ‘she’, titles like ‘Mr’ and ‘Miss’ and honorifics like ‘Sir and ‘Madam’. Gender is also present in collective terms such as ‘ladies and gentlemen’, ‘girls’ and ‘lads’.

There’s nothing wrong with using gendered terms, once you know what a person’s chosen terms are. Before we have that information, then gender neutral, or to put it another way, universally inclusive, language is how to ensure we don’t misgender anyone.

Misgendering means referring to someone with a gendered term that doesn’t match their gender identity, for example referring to a trans woman as ‘Sir’, a trans man as ‘she’, or a non-binary person as ‘he’ or ‘she’ or ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’.

Many trans people find it extremely validating when their chosen gendered terms are used.  I can still remember how amazing it felt when people first said ‘he’ to me, even though it’s now over 20 years ago.  So using gendered terms correctly can be a really supportive thing.

Having other people refer to you with the correct gender is something that most people take for granted and therefore never notice.  If you aren’t trans (or someone who is regularly misgendered), it’s quite likely you haven’t noticed just how often other people decide what gender you are and then use corresponding gendered language, but if you make an effort to try and notice for a day or two, you’ll see how pervasive it is.

Once, after I’d delivered a training session where we’d spoken about the subject, my contact showed me back to reception where I handed in my visitor’s pass. “Thank you, gentlemen,” said the receptionist.  As we turned away toward the exit, my contact said “Gosh!  I would never have noticed that before…  I see what you mean!”

Misgendering is one of the most common issues trans people encounter.  For some people it happens multiple times each day, dozens of times each week, hundreds of times each month.  This has a cumulative effect.  It’s like being bitten by mosquitoes – one bite you can shrug off; a dozen is really annoying; a hundred and you’ll be feeling really unwell.

“I’m usually misgendered (miss / she / ma’am) and it’s exhausting and invalidating. I’m left in a position to either correct them which is awkward for everyone involved…, or to feel sad and invalidated…” Trans-masculine participant in a GI survey

It costs nothing, apart from a little effort and mindfulness, to change our language to be inclusive of everyone. This isn’t trans-specific – there are plenty of women who don’t like to be called ‘ladies’; plenty of ladies who don’t like to be called ‘women’; plenty of men who find ‘Sir’ too formal; plenty of people who find their first name too informal – it just shows we need to ask.

Universally inclusive language need not be clumsy. Changing ‘Good morning, ladies and gentleman” to “Good morning everyone” will go unnoticed by most people.  But the people who are not ‘ladies’ or ‘gentleman’, such as non-binary people really will notice the difference.

There are plenty of universal terms you can use.  A few might include: people, folk, everyone, colleagues, staff, workers, employees, clients, customers, beneficiaries, visitors, students, pupils, children…  If you need to talk about relationships, then terms such as sibling, parent, child and partner are very useful.  These terms include LGB people too – not assuming for example, that the partner of a woman is a man, or that parents are a male/female couple.

It doesn’t take long to come up with a set of universal terms that work for your particular setting – three or four people getting together for ten minutes is likely to produce a very workable list.

So our top tip is start with universal /gender neutral language, until you find out what gendered terms people have chosen.  That way, everyone is respected.

Understanding Gender Identity with Future Learn

New online course on Understanding Gender Identity with OU and FutureLearn

In October the Open University launched the UK’s first ever online training course focusing specifically on gender identity, developed in partnership with Gendered Intelligence.

The two-hour short course – Understanding Gender Identity – has been created to help organisations become more trans-inclusive and understanding, after it emerged that one in eight trans employees has been physically attacked at work in the past year.[1] 

The course is based on our 90 minute training session and is aimed at a new audience of professionals and students who are keen to access their learning online.

The course is led by author and academic Dr Meg-John Barker and Dr Jay Stewart, co-founder and CEO of Gendered Intelligence, and will be hosted on FutureLearn, the social learning platform. It costs just £25, and is open to all individuals and employers looking to increase their awareness of trans identity.

The key topics highlighted in the programme include: the core contexts of gender awareness and trans identity; an exploration of key terms and use of language; a basic understanding of legislation around rights and responsibility around trans identities; and an introduction for employers on how organisations can become trans-inclusive. The interactive content includes quizzes and video role-plays showing how to be a trans ally.

This course is the first in a series being developed by The Open University to tackle workplace bias. Other short courses will look to address similar areas of bias and discrimination, including sexual harassment, sexuality, age, race, culture and religion.

Dr Meg-John Barker, Senior Lecturer at The Open University, said: “Few people have a good understanding of gender identity, and they can be negative or overly conscious in their approach as a result. Many trans people face discrimination every day – and it’s time for this to change, which is why The Open University has developed this short course on Gender Identity.

“This is the first in a series of short courses on bias. Bias is everywhere, and it’s essential that employers and individuals take responsibility for addressing it. By increasing awareness and understanding of the key issues both workplaces and society will become safer and more inclusive.”

Jay Stewart, co-founder and CEO of Gendered Intelligence, said: “We are very excited to have partnered with The Open University to develop our training sessions for a new audience who are keen to access their learning online. At Gendered Intelligence we are experiencing huge interest from a wide range of professionals working across public, private and third sectors who are keen to learn more about how they can ensure their organisations are inclusive of trans and gender diverse people. This short course is an affordable way to address gaps in knowledge from organisations who have only a few employees and to those with tens of thousands.”

[1] Stonewall (2018) LGBT in Britain: Trans Report

Open University logo

What is it like to be trans at work? We found out at Imagining Our Futures 2017

Last Saturday at Gendered Intelligence we ran our annual day about careers and interests for young trans people in London, Imagining Our Futures 2017. 

In the morning we invited 15 diverse employers and organisations to run stalls and chat to attendees about what they can offer to trans people.

We were delighted to have stalls from Accenture, Amazing Apprenticeships, Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust, Diversity Role Models, EYLondon College of Beauty Therapy, Media Trust,  Ministry of Justice/Civil Service, NHS Employers, NUT, Royal MailSoho TheatreStonewall, TfL, with Institute of PhysicsRoyal Astronomical Society and National Physical Laboratory on one stall.

A group of trans teachers from the NUT  ran a workshop about what it’s like being trans as a teacher alongside the careers and interests fair.

At the beginning of the day we asked young people to share their concerns about their future at work or following their interest. Their comments demonstrated that there is still a lot of fear and apprehension around what it means to be trans at work. They are concerned about “being viewed as inferior compared to others”; “getting discriminated against” and “being outed against my will”.

Imagining Our Futures gives young trans people a chance to talk to employers and organisations about careers and projects that interest them. More importantly, those employers have an opportunity to tell young trans people that they are welcome in the workplace. Many organisations now recognise the value of a diverse workforce. Resilience and self-knowledge are assets. Imagining Our Futures provides a space for employers to communicate their message that trans people have a place in their workforce.

During the afternoon session, ten adult trans professionals with a range of backgrounds spoke to the audience of young trans people and their parents/carers about their experiences of being trans in the workplace. Just under half of them were non-binary. We heard from an academic, a London Underground driver, a video games developer, a charity filmmaker, a graphic designer, an archaeologist, an IT engineer at Mars, a software developer, a consultant and a primary school teacher.

Our speakers did not shy away from issues that they had encountered at work. They spoke about instances of being misgendered and when other’s lack of knowledge had created tricky moments for them. Everyone had experienced challenges and looked for advice and support from their employer, union or wider networks of friends, mentors and allies.

However, our speakers’ experience of work were overwhelmingly positive. Their employers had been accommodating and supportive and in general they were able to be themselves at work. Many found that their work improved once they felt comfortable in themselves .

At the end of the day, we asked all the young people who attended for their reflections about Imagining Our Futures 2017. Here are some highlights:

“The job fair was interesting – I felt like something positive could come out of it and it was great to speak to real people.”

“The employers I spoke to had a great attitude.”

“This morning’s careers fair showed us that employers are keen to diversify and appeal to trans people.”

“I have learnt that workplaces are accepting.”

“Thinking about a career is usually daunting, but today has given me a lot of confidence. I feel like I have a future as a trans person. “

“It’s reassuring to know that I have options in the future.”“It’s good that the fair focused on the “T”. I graduated recently and have been to LGBT employment fairs where trans gets lost.”

“It’s been empowering and encouraging. We exist everywhere and it’s been great to see companies that value our individuality.”

“I now know there is a place for non-binary people in the workforce. I go by they/them and I see that I can do that in the future too.”

There is a lot of work to be done to make sure that young trans people are, and feel, safe to be themselves in all areas of their lives. Imagining Our Futures showed attendees that progress is being made and that they can have the future they deserve.

We’d like to thank the National Union of Teachers for donating their amazing space at Hamilton House for Imagining Our Futures 2017.