Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Interview with Rebecca Kling


Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honour to interview Rebecca Kling, a transgender artist and educator who explores gender and identity through solo pieces and educational workshops, praised by The Chicago Tribune, TimeOut Chicago, NUVO Indianapolis, the Coyote Chronicle, instructor at the Piven Theatre Workshop, author of The Thang Blog. Hello Rebecca!
Rebecca: Thanks so much for chatting with me, Monika.
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Rebecca: As you mentioned, I'm a transgender artist and educator. I tour to colleges, universities, and theater festivals around the United States to conduct educational workshops and perform solo pieces focusing on gender and identity.
Monika: Is there anything like transgender art? What does it mean to be a transgender artist?
Rebecca: For me, being a transgender artist means that my work is being fed by my identity as a trans woman. I use my experiences as a trans woman to fuel my art, and my art to fuel my identity. I do think that trans art - like any type of identity-focused art - runs a risk of being boxed in; that someone can only be a woman artist or an artist of color or a trans artist. I hope that the work I do can speak to a wide audience, and not simply people looking for "trans" art.
Photographer: Peter McCullough.
Monika: You explore your life as a transgender woman in the performance titled “Trans Form”, recommending it is perfect for anybody who thinks they have gender all figured out, and for the rest of us who don't… 
Rebecca: That's a phrase borrowed from Kate Bornstein, and I think captures the idea that gender is complicated for lots of people, not only trans folks.
Trans Form in particular is a chronological look at my life as a trans person, so I view it as a potentially gentler look at trans identity for an audience who might not be sure what they're getting into.
Monika: On the other hand, in “Uncovering the Mirrors” you focus on your first explorations of gender at six years old, naked and uncomfortable in your body, and you contrast that with Jewish coming of age rituals: Bar Mitzvah for boys and Bat Mitzvah for girls…
Rebecca: Each piece I've done has some sort of focus, and Uncovering the Mirrors explores my relationship with Judaism and - more broadly - with ritual and ceremony. How we think of ourselves comes in part from all these ceremonies in our lives: Birthday celebrations, graduations, and - in Judaism - Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. I wanted to look at the ways in which ritual can negatively impose identity, but also the ways in which it can allow us to choose our identity or explore it more organically.
Monika: In the fall of 2010 you were fired from a teaching position for being a transgender woman. That experience was the basis of your performance titled “No Gender Left Behind”. Why did you decide to cover a theme that was so sad for you?
Rebecca: For months after being fired, I couldn't really talk about the experience. It was too difficult, and too raw. This wasn't an abstract politician or religious leader saying that, in general, trans people are icky. This was a specific principal saying that I wasn't qualified to teach his students, that my very presence in a classroom would bring up what he called "uncomfortable conversation."
But as I gained some distance and the hurt started to lessen, it was replaced with anger and frustration. As I usually do, I turned to art to process those emotions. The writing and performance pieces that stemmed out of being fired eventually became No Gender Left Behind.
Photographer: Peter McCullough.
Monika: In “Storms Beneath Her Skin” you show your identity and experience as a transgender woman, including apologies, surgery, the equations of sex, the weather (metaphorically speaking), and boobs…
Rebecca: In 2012, when I was writing and performing Storms, I was still heavily in the process of researching gender reassignment surgery. I was struggling to define and determine what it meant to be comfortable in one's body, and how that related to comfort in one's identity.
Much of that exploration and struggle went into Storms; the piece is very much my attempt to tease out why I wanted surgery, why I ultimately decided to undergo gender reassignment surgery, and to move away from cliches like "at home in one's body," "whole," or "complete." All of those cliches resonate with me, but they didn't get to the core of why I was considering this scary, expensive, unknown thing.
And ultimately I had to admit that maybe I don't have the words - maybe no one has the words - for why, other than I want to feel like me.
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Rebecca: Sure, although that list has grown by leaps and bounds over the past few years. When I began thinking about transitioning I looked to authors like Kate Bornstein, Julia Serano, and Leslie Feinberg.
I also looked up to some of the fierce trans folks who helped run young adult programming at Chicago's Broadway Youth Center. More recently, I've added people like Jen Richards, Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, Kortney Ryan Ziegler, and more to the list.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Rebecca: The fear and the repetition. I've been incredibly lucky, in that my experience of transitioning has been almost universally positive. Even when people in my life didn't understand what I was going through, or why, they demonstrated consistent love and support; family, friends, coworkers, peers, I've been overwhelmed by how positive the vast majority of people have been. That said, the same fears came up over and over and over again while coming out: How will this person react? What will I do if they react negatively? Can I handle that?
Photographer: Peter McCullough.
Monika: Transgender ladies are subject to the terrible test whether they pass as a woman or they do not. You are a lovely lady yourself but what advice you would give to ladies with the fear of not passing as a woman?
Rebecca: I prefer to talk about perception versus presentation, rather than passing. With passing, the opposite is failure. That is, if I don't pass, it means I've failed. But I can present how I want - how I identify - and if someone else doesn't perceive and treat me that way, it makes them an asshole. It doesn't mean I've failed. But whatever language we use, you're right that we place a lot of importance on passing, or on having others' perception of us match our presentation.
And I struggle, because on the one hand - from a political point of view - I don't think anyone needs to "pass." There's no right way to be a man or a woman (or however one identifies) and so I'd like to see the idea of passing go away.
At the same time, passing was incredibly important to me as I began transitioning, and I realize how important it is to others. It's easy for me to say - as someone who almost always does pass - "Oh, passing isn't important." So my true advice would be to find ways of presenting that make you happy, and surround yourself with people who honor and respect your gender and your presentation.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in the American society?
Rebecca: We're at an exciting and scary tipping point. It's fantastic that trans folks have gained enough visibility to push for social change. We're seeing more and more communities adopt trans-inclusive anti-discrimination statues, there's movement on trans rights in healthcare and housing discrimination across the country, and we have fabulous public figures like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock making the case for equality in the mainstream media. And yet, that visibility has resulted in a negative response from the conservative right. I think we can afford to be optimistic, but not complacent.
Monika: Could transgenderism be the new frontier for human rights?
Rebecca: At its core, the trans rights is about personal autonomy and the right to say, "Only I should have the power to decide who I'm going to be." Those ideas overlap greatly with other areas of human rights: Marriage equality, reproductive rights, sex workers' rights, labor rights, and on and on. So rather than seeing trans rights as something new, I'd like to see us as allies to human rights causes dating back decades and centuries. We're not the first population to stand up for our rights, and we won't be the last, so lets build some lasting bridges.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Rebecca: I try to be active in politics, and conscious of what's currently happening, but there's always more I could do. When possible, I donate to organizations I support. To name some Chicago organizations, the Trans Oral History Project, Project Fierce, and Transformative Justice Law Project are all doing great work.
Likewise, I try to write and call my elected politicians when I can. More broadly, I absolutely think trans women can make a difference in politics if we refuse to allow ourselves to be silenced. This goes back to the idea of building bridges, and creating strong communities both within and outside of trans populations.
Photographer: Peter McCullough.
Monika: The transgender cause is usually manifested together with the other LGBT communities? Being the last letter in this abbreviation, is the transgender community able to promote its own cause within the LGBT group?
Rebecca: From a social or lived experience standpoint, it doesn't always make sense to lump the T with the LBG. Part of that is because the experience of coming out as trans and transitioning is often so much more difficult than coming out as LGB.
Part of that is because the transitioning process often (although certainly not always) involves medical intervention in a way that being LGB does not. And part of that is because some trans people also identify as LGB, and some trans people don't like being lumped in with LGB. On the other hand, from a political standpoint, I think it's incredibly important that the T is included with LGB, because the ignorant bigots out there are going to lump us together anyway. When there's an act of discrimination against an LGB person, it's almost always based on gender presentation or behavior.
So including trans folks - often the most visible representation of non-normative gender presentation - within the larger LGBT political movement is critical, because issues of gender identity and presentation often impact that larger community, whether they like it or not.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Rebecca: Oof. I'm still figuring that out. I consider myself luck, in that there are many people in my life - friends and family - whom I love and who love me. Their love has been pivotal in giving me the strength to come out and transition, and their constant and unwavering support amazes me every day. That said, I'm still trying to figure out the whole 'romantic love' thing. Let me know if you have any tips!
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colours or trends?
Rebecca: I'd say I'm pretty ignorant when it comes to fashion. I certainly have fun playing dress up, but usually end up in jeans and a t-shirt. One of my goals for this summer is to wear more skirts and dresses!
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Rebecca: Yup! In a month I'll be in Cincinnati for CincyFringe 2014, where I'll be debuting a new performance, Something Something New Vagina. That'll be brought home to Chicago for Chicago Fringe this fall. In addition, I always have new writing and performance projects percolating, so you never know what might come next.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls, struggling with gender dysphoria?
Rebecca: Find a community, and find support. Ideally, I'd say this support should come from both trans and cis people. I know my own community, and my own support system, is made up of awesome trans and cis folks, queer and straight. I think isolating ourselves - whether that isolation is within the queer community, or from the queer community - ultimately hurts us and leaves us less strong than we could be. One of the awesome things about the Internet is it allows for community through Twitter, Facebook, places like WeHappyTrans.com, and more.
Monika: Rebecca, thank you for the interview!
Rebecca: You're very welcome!

All the photos: courtesy of Rebecca Kling.
Done on 7 May 2014
© 2014 - Monika 

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