Gendersaurus Rex talk

On 13th May at the Traverse Theatre, Imaginate hosted a “Breakfast Club” talk as part of the festival to introduce the Gendersaurus Rex project to the festival delegates and spark some discussion. We’d just woken up to announcements of the new Conservative government cabinet including some suitably conservative appointments. So there was a sense that this kind of project might be more important than ever.

I’ve condensed the discussion a little here – most of it is from my point of view in response to questions and thoughts brought up by the group. Please comment on any of it below.

Firstly I introduced the project and then we opened up the discussion. I stated that it’s very important that the project isn’t only reduced to exploring gender, but that we can be brave and expansive enough to try to speak to feminism and queerness and sexuality and sex. And when I’m talking about gender I’m thinking of it in terms of gender being separate to your anatomy. So it might be that someone is described or assigned the gender of boy or girl, but that might not be how they identify for a variety of reasons.

And it’s not to deny that there’s plenty of work to do in terms of aiming for equality between men and women. I think that in performance, especially in theatre for adults there’s a clear and important discourse around the need for more women to be visible in that field. But I also see the need to discuss what we mean when we say “woman” or “ man” – to explore these binaries.

I think we’re all living in a heteronormative society where the default position – ‘the norm’ – is assumed to be that you’re heterosexual, that you’re really clearly either male or female, that you will meet someone, fall in love with them, maybe have a couple of kids (not too many), you’ll get a job for life, you’ll have a mortgage, you’ll pay your taxes…

And everything is bound up in that life narrative. But I feel that nowadays, more than ever, that’s a fiction that doesn’t ring true with a many people’s experiences. I think that fiction is really restrictive as a set of ideals to aim for in life for anybody. But when you’re being sold this myth by society and consumerism and the government, it becomes difficult to imagine any alternative ways of living.

There’s also a difficulty in trying to talk about children and sex. That’s when people put the brakes on for fear of either spoiling a perceived innocence or of encouraging sexual behaviour before the child is old enough. So I can understand that people would get anxious to creating work about or dealing with sexuality and children. I feel that children have a sexuality without them actually having sex and I think that’s a contentious issue, and a difficult thing to talk about. But I think it needs to be spoken about.

Then we chatted about how in other countries, specifically Germany, there’s much more comfort with being naked. So children grow up seeing other children and adults going swimming or sunbathing with no clothes on. This means that if any part of the body is shown on stage, it’s more about that individual being themselves, rather than about sex. It was thought that in Europe there’s a little more lenience. Whereas in the UK if there’s any nudity in a performance or in everyday life it becomes a really big deal because it’s assumed to be sexual.

Someone mentioned that often when the subject of LGBT issues come up, those identities are limited to being exclusively sexual and about who that individual might have sex with. So that as soon as you broach this area, you must be talking about sex and that must be inappropriate for children. There was a call for a broader, non-sexual exploration of sex.

I talked about how, as adults, we may not have had a great sex education in the first place so we may need to do work ourselves to explore our own sexualities and bodies before we can speak to children about it. And that lack of understanding can easily lead to misunderstanding and prejudice. In some of the chats I’ve been having there’s greater awareness of homosexuality and how homophobia needs to be combated. But for some people, the idea of being trans feels like another level because the existence of trans people destroys the myth of the gender binary. We can see that these binaries aren’t actually set in stone – that it’s not just ‘natural’ to be either a masculine boy or a feminine girl, there’s a whole spectrum of identifications.

And when that idea of what’s ‘natural’ gets broken down, it can be unsettling, which is where the phobia comes from.

And, to extrapolate from that, I think there’s a sense within the form of work that gets made for children that a piece that does not stick to a traditional story or narrative might be a bit scary as well. Or not sticking to clichés that we already know about. And I think it’s easy and understandable that, when we’re trying to make work for children, because they feel so different to us somehow, it’s becomes about how to find the right stories for them or how to find the right situations – it’s understandable that we would go to things that we know – go back to older stories, or go back to things that feel solid somehow. But for me there’s something untrue about that solidity.

We spoke about how live art might be a performance mode where we could get away from a form that’s based on well-worn clichés or stories to something non-linear or image-based. Also a lot of live art is an exploration of identity and comes from the body so it can become a space that can easilty speak to what goes into making an individual.

Similarly with dance work or interactive performance in non-theatre spaces there can be an openness to exploration. Sometimes the adults in the room feel uncomfortable with that openness and through labeling and trying to explain what’s going on, they quash the young people dealing with the questions.

We talked about how it must be difficult for adults who are responsible for children to deal with open-ended ideas around gender and sexuality. Teachers may not feel confident about discussing these issues with anyone, let alone their young pupils. I said I think the sex education guidelines are quite vague as well for teachers and there’s definitely a sense of, “OK, homophobic bullying is not right – we have to stop that,” but beyond that….I think teachers and all of us still have this spectre of past laws hanging over us. It’s not that long ago that it would have been illegal for a teacher to promote the idea of homosexuality as a “lifestyle choice”. So that’s in living memory.

I think it’s also difficult for people to feel comfortable with promoting something they might not know about. They might feel as if they’re going to say something offensive if they don’t personally identify with the ideas they’re discussing. They might feel like, “Well, I’m not that, and I don’t know anything about it, so I’ll just carry on without touching on it”. There’s a fear of getting it wrong or offending or having a child go home from a show or a class, telling their parents about it and then getting that adult into trouble somehow. So that fear has infected parents, teachers, artists and programmers.

There’s a sense that it’s difficult for the artists to take this on as to create something even mildly controversial feels like a big risk, especially if it’s being taken into schools. There’s a conservatism which needs to be fought, but it needs to be fought on all levels as it’s too great a risk for the artists on their own and challenge the norms in performance and society. But then at the same time, if we don’t do it with all our skills in creating ways to communicate complicated ideas and concepts, then who will?

There was a discussion about how pervasive the idea of gender binaries is for children and what’s for boys and what’s for girls. From a very early age children are putting themselves into restrictive boxes coloured blue or pink and forming really strong ideas about gender and wanting to identify with that. It’s easy to understand that children, as we all are, are trying to find out who they are and it’s about forming those alliances and finding out where you fit in, how do you belong, how do you find something out about yourself. So it makes sense, this desire for pink or blue. But there’s a problem if the only things they can grab onto to identify with are those binaries. And it’s a lot to do with commercialization. It’s marketing trying to double what they sell by saying, “We’ll have a pink version and a blue version” Like the pink globe and the blue globe for children to find out about the world. But where are the moments where they can grab hold of something else? How can we offer alternatives through our work?

There was a sense that good work can touch on these matters incidentally without necessarily being a specially-devised “issue-based” work, and that for audiences, seeing lgbt characters can be really powerful for both children and adults in articulating their own experiences. Personally I’ve never had a strong desire to make work with a specific message but now I feel a responsibility to engage with these matters that link in with my autobiography. And I also feel the work needs to be quite direct but still artistically complex.

We rounded off the discussion with an acknowledgement of how far things have come and the changes in visibility and acceptance for LGBT people that have occurred in just one generation. Children and young people are much more likely to have friends with same-sex parents for example, but there’s also a sense that some aspects in society are still harking back to “traditional values” or the pinkificaiton of girls’ toys, so there’s a need for cultural productions that can question that and bridge the gap between the narrative of “the Norm” and lived realities.