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Unpacking Transphobia in TRUNK

Opinion | September 28, 2016

It’s taken me many months to even begin processing the transphobia I’ve faced the last two semesters since coming out as non-binary. I’m scared of hurting the people who’ve hurt me, scared of making them look bad, scared of tarnishing their reputations, terrified of being further scapegoated, hated, and damaged. But I’ve tried reaching out to them to talk, tried being understanding, tried talking honestly and openly, and that has been used to abuse and erase me.

I auditioned for The Traveling Treasure Trunk during the first few weeks of my freshman year. On their website, TRUNK self-describes as “Tufts University’s own children’s theatre troupe that uniquely blends theatre performance with community service. TRUNK writes, directs, and costumes its own original skits, songs, and plays and performs them for kids at daycares, hospitals, and preschools in the greater Boston area.” The instant I saw the goofy, handmade costumes, I knew it was something I wanted to try out. TRUNK has a difficult audition process—you must be unanimously voted in. The group thinks of itself as a family; every member even adopts the last name Trunker, and new Trunkers are highly sheltered and guarded. These members, “the babies,” are brought in with “unconditional love.” As an incoming first-year, struggling, confused, and lonely, it made the transition into life at Tufts so much easier. I had people who said they had my back, people who promised to support and love me through anything I may face. I got to perform plays, try out weird voices, make fun costumes, and see kids several times a week. I had a family. It was a dream come true.

A dream is a great way to think of it. After first semester, I started to realize that this group of people was not quite as perfect and well put together as my vulnerable heart had wanted me to believe. I was questioning my own gender identity and began to pick up ways in which gendered dynamics—along with racial and class dynamics—were, and always had been, very present within the space. By sophomore fall, my third semester in TRUNK, I’d changed my pronouns and started working harder to understand what was going on in my head. Between this process and conversations with other Trunkers, I noticed more and more how harmful the plays we performed were. By harmful, I mean the messages that they promoted included core tenets of the gender binary, the values of meritocracy (wherein anyone’s ability to succeed is promoted, despite living within a system that actively enforces a social hierarchy), and other ideals that are used every day to promote capitalist, racist, and cisheteropatriarchal ideologies. As a non-binary person, that means our plays were performed in ways that actively hurt me. As the oft mentioned quote goes, “the personal is political.”

When I tried to point it out, I got the feeling other Trunkers felt I was ruining their fun or making things unnecessarily difficult. I was asking for more intentionality within that space because I was being hurt. It hurt when the only people who would deign to play the tooth fairy character were cis women. It hurt that the only way the tooth fairy could be imagined was prancing and singing. It hurt that to have her played in a traditionally masculine way meant she was “funny.” It hurt to get completely shut down in the face of mentioning it and, later, to be told I’d chosen an “inappropriate” time to bring it up. It hurt that after three months of using they/them pronouns, I was misgendered at least once a rehearsal. It hurt that nobody ever stood up for me when that happened. It hurt that I did not feel I could stand up for myself.

I tried going to some individual members of the group for support. I told them I felt unsupported, that these things were happening and I needed people to care more, to try harder. I asked that they learn more about what it means to be non-binary, that they question the gender binary as it exists in their own heads, and that if I said something was harmful to me, they listen and change their behavior. The response? What you are asking of us is unfair and hard.

So much for family.

 

We decided earlier that semester that we needed to have a conversation about our mission as a group. I decided, at that discussion, to bring up the feelings I’d been having to the group at large. I felt that Trunk was failing at one part of its mission: to be a supporting and loving space for all its members. What followed was a two-hour sob session. I did none of the crying. Only a couple of people in the 13-member group supported me. Two cis White men remained silent the entire time. Many of the cis White women told me—no, literally yelled and cried at me—that I was invalidating their womanhood. They said they had looked at the gender binary and knew that they were women. They loved and supported me, but what I was asking was “too much” and “not fair.” One said she was bisexual, but she didn’t try to bring that part of her identity into TRUNK. Multiple people were so overcome with emotion that they just had to leave the room, one even saying she was going to vomit. I sat there calmly the entire time, wondering: why did they feel so invalidated by me trying to bring myself into this group?

 

Coming into spring semester, I realized that I could not, would not, bring new members into a group so unwilling to support the people that were currently members. I talked with the few people who’d been there for me the semester prior. The aforementioned “conversation” sparked some of them to question their own relationships to TRUNK, too. Ultimately, for our own reasons, but in support of one another, we all decided to take our leave. We wrote a letter explaining the decision and the ways in which those of us with marginalized identities struggled to feel safe and loved within TRUNK. In my part of that letter, I offered myself up to talk to Trunkers about what happened. An entire semester passed in radio silence.

 

Upon talking to a TRUNK alumnus, I learned that current Trunkers were propagating a story that I had political differences with the group, that it had been me against everyone, that they all felt antagonized by me, and eventually I left. They turned me into a dissident and destroyed all evidence of any wrongdoing on their part. I heard this and felt crushed. I’d been totally erased.

 

What’s worse is that TRUNK is a children’s theater troupe that performs every weekday morning. And that group continues to go present these seemingly innocuous plays to kids—little sponges who need to learn something other than meritocracy and traditional gender roles. And some of those kids are trans; they statistically must be! It pains me to know this. I feel like I’ve let them down. I feel like I’ve let yet another kids’ performance group show children the same things that hurt me, that hurt everyone.

 

The Traveling Treasure Trunk, as it exists now, is a group that has made the active choice to continue upholding systems of power even when confronted with opportunities to question them and push back. They’re a small group that gets to exist without much attention from the Tufts community at large, but I can’t sit and let that happen anymore. It eats at me every day. TRUNK has been incredibly transphobic to me. People need to know that before they decide to audition. They need to know that before they head to the On Campus show at the end of the semester. And if, by any chance, this gets into the hands of a school or a teacher, you need to know this before you ask TRUNK to perform for your students.

 

This is a story about TRUNK, but there is a reason they got away with the described emotional violence. These attitudes are everywhere on this campus and they go wildly unchecked. Do not be quick to condemn TRUNK without first examining yourself. If someone in one of your on campus groups came out tomorrow, how would your react? If there are trans/non-binary/questioning people in one of your groups, do you think they feel supported? The violence of my experience is overt, but not unique.