COME HOME - June 23, 2016
Saturday morning we swung back through Raleigh so I could pay a visit to the State Legislation Building. I wore my daintiest floral dress and a cute pair of kitten heels, walked right up to the visitors’ desk and asked for directions to the men’s room. The central stairway was regal, dark red carpet and golden stations dividing the visitors corridor from the area reserved for ascending lawmakers. From the second floor I could look down into the chambers where this hateful bill was signed into law. I imagined a posse of old, straight, white, cisgender men congratulating themselves on their victory, writing discrimination into law and passing it off as the protection of privacy.
There was some local press there to capture my visit, and I waltzed into the restroom with my own film crew as well. Just as we were wrapping up a young man came through the door. He was clearly startled, but apparently not pee-shy. I washed my hands and exited the men’s room to find the Raleigh press facing off with a police officer. The man in uniform hurled questions at the reporter, trying to bully him into some sort of confession. The reporter held his ground, answering calmly in the curtest sentences possible: “We’re doing a story on her visit to the men’s room.” I had never been so happy to hear someone use the correct pronouns. Meanwhile, I shooed our filmmaker away, standing there silently, waiting to get the hell out of the Legislation building.
On Sunday, before our final show, we enjoyed one last potluck with the band and some local members of the community. I spent some time with photojournalist ML Parker who runs a project called the Strength of Spirit Blog, a series of photos and interviews with folks who by all account should have had their spirits broken, but somehow persevered. She snapped a few photos of me and we talked about a moment from Manifest Pussy when I sing an original song by my friend and frequent collaborator Nikko Benson called “Spirits Don’t Break.” In the song I talk about my time in Thailand, just before my gender confirmation surgery, when I spent a week volunteering at a sanctuary for abused elephants on the grounds of a Buddhist temple. I place the song alongside a story from earlier in my youth, when I was unfairly institutionalized because my school and family didn’t know how to deal with a transgender teenager. At the institution I would ensconce myself in the solitary confinement room, singing at the top of my lungs for hours on end, praying that the music would deliver me. Nearly 20 years later on the elephant sanctuary, I would watch a 72-year-old elephant steal away into a thicket of trees, pulling on the branches with youthful vitality, shrugging off the years of abuse she suffered in the logging and tourism industries. Watching her play in her secret grove, I was reminded that our spirits are indeed indomitable.
Also at the potluck I learned the state motto of North Carolina, Esse Quam Videri, or “To be, rather than to seem.” Suddenly it dawned on me what this whole tour had made clear. With the passage of HB2, the national and international reputation of North Carolina had become that of a bigoted, discriminatory state; one that singled out its most vulnerable citizens, stripped them of their protections and subjected them to ridicule and segregation. However, the reality I encountered on the ground throughout the state was totally different, refreshingly, though alarmingly, so. How could it be that the small-minded, fear-based, ignorant actions of a few people in power could so jarringly misrepresent the heart and will of the people? While HB2 painted North Carolinians as transphobic and inequitable, the people of the state put forward a different truth. In eight different cities over nine consecutive days, we met people who were welcoming of difference, inspired by self-expression and protective of the rights for all citizens to live freely and without fear of discrimination. Better to be, rather than to seem. Good call, North Carolina.
Our final show was at The Pinhook in Durham, a radical queer rock club so anarchist, in fact, that the staff objected to our hiring of off-duty police officers to provide security. The place was small and dank, with all-gender restrooms covered in band stickers and graffiti. We decided at the last minute to stream the show live on Facebook, which brought in nearly another 700 audience members. There were a few people in the audience who had seen the show earlier in the tour, including Tiffany Morones (Michael’s mom). I also spotted a woman I hadn’t seen since the elephant sanctuary in Thailand, a fellow volunteer who had come home to Durham after three months on the temple grounds!
The show was a challenge, if for no other reason than I had hit and passed my point of physical and emotional exhaustion. About three quarters into the piece there is an intense and aggressive punk rock song about some complications I faced after my surgery and how the experience of recovering nearly made me lose my faith. It’s my words set to a hardcore punk arrangement by Teresa Lotz. Onstage I felt like I was giving the last of my energy, leaving it on the floor so to speak. But I also know that this level of offering, depleted and still generous, is when the greatest communion takes place.
I talk a lot about God in Manifest Pussy, an element of the show I didn’t think would fly at The Pinhook (where I noticed a tag “Queers for Satan” in the bathroom stall). To me, there’s nothing more subversive than a tatted up transgender woman talking about Jesus and her new vagina in the same breath. Most queer people have been made to feel unwelcome to a relationship with the divine, and part of my objective as a performer and storyteller is to help heal that rift. There’s no point where that’s more clear in Manifest Pussy than the song “Come Home,” with lyrics by me and music by the great Shaina Taub. A gospel-pop tune about returning to your spiritual source and laying down your burden, the song urges the audience to “take the chance to feel the pain of being real, then come home to the sweetness of laying down the heal.” On one hand, the song is literally about my return to New York City from Thailand, and the weeks I spent bed-ridden, in pain and in tears. But also, it’s a message of hope, the strength and relief you can find in community, in forgiveness and in spiritual surrender. Perhaps this was my gift to the transgender people of North Carolina, a little encouragement to come home to the state that had rejected them.
On Monday morning, I split up from the band to fly home early. I’d been invited to participate in a photo shoot with some LGBTQ Theatre pioneers at the Stonewall Inn, part of Playbill’s Pride coverage and this week’s commemoration of Stonewall as an historic landmark. I got camera ready in Durham, and took a cab straight from the airport to Stonewall. Before I left, though, I made one last trip to a men’s room in the Raleigh airport.
Again, the heaviness weighed upon me. So often in my work there’s darkness and pain just below the surface of the humor. In fact, some of the more difficult details of my life that I lay out in the show I originally refused to talk about until I could find a way to make them funny. Laughter opens your heart; it enables you to receive a painful story without having to feel it as such. That’s what these bathroom selfies had come to be for me, a cheeky veneer for what is truly a heartbreaking and dangerous reality. For a few brief moments over the past ten days I had put myself in threatening situations, but with the protection of a rock band by my side and the assurance of impermanence behind me. This last bathroom trip I made alone. I felt the fear and tension well up as I braced myself for conflict. I thought about my transgender comrades in this state, the risks they are forced to take daily, facing violence just to use the restroom. Again, I get to leave North Carolina and come back to New York, but for them, this is home.
I arrived at Stonewall to find a barricade along the sidewalk and a mountain of flowers in front of the entrance. It didn’t occur to me before then that New Yorkers who felt devastated by the shootings in Orlando had nowhere else to place their grief. I was on the road, galvanized into action on an itinerary of resistance that was already planned out for me. But for LGBTQ New Yorkers, Stonewall had served—as it has for nearly 50 years—as a memorial to our struggle for justice and equality and a symbol of our spaces of sanctuary—safety zones like Pulse, violated by this unimaginable atrocity.
For an hour or so, I hung out on the periphery alongside gay legends of the Broadway stage. Ultimately none of them knew who I was or what I had just come back from, but there I sat, in Stonewall, where generations ago young, poor, transwomen of color started a revolution. I fan-girled in the corner with Andrew Keenan-Bolger while Harvey Fierstein, Tony Kushner and Jerry Mitchell posed for a photo together. “This is my legacy,” I thought. “I’m part of it, and I’m creating it.”
When I got home I cried. A lot. An ugly cry that nearly had me collapsed on the kitchen floor. I was on the phone with my boyfriend, gasping about the guys his age gunned down at Pulse, weeping for the transfolk of North Carolina. Everything I kept inside so I could get through those eight shows on the road suddenly rose up and poured out without warning. The next day I could barely get out of bed.
Take the chance to feel the pain of being real, then come home to the sweetness of laying down to heal.
Tonight I will present a homecoming performance of Manifest Pussy, back at Joe’s Pub, just two weeks after this whole thing began. I feel victorious, like we really accomplished something important with this tour. I feel driven, to continue sharing this show with folks who stand to gain something from hearing my story. And I feel grateful, for the hundreds of people who helped make this tour happen and for the honor of being able to lend my voice to the movement. I think, for the first time in a long time, I understand what Pride is all about.
Thank you for following me on this journey, thank you to Playbill for giving me the space to share my experiences. Thank you to the strong-spirited people of North Carolina and the folks around the world who have been praying for Orlando. As I said in closing at every show on the road: Be good to each other and Manifest Pussy!