Dismantling Transphobia at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Dismantling Transphobia at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Dismantling Transphobia at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Three performances at the world’s biggest arts festival react to transphobic rhetoric in the UK.

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If there’s one thing we’ve learned from history, it’s that it’s unwise to let yourself be listed,” says Emma Frankland. She’s at the Edinburgh Fringe, the largest arts festival in the world, performing her show Hearty: a reflection on hormone replacement therapy in what she calls “an increasingly hostile environment” for trans people in the United Kingdom.

Frankland is wearing bright blue makeup around her eyes and a white vest emblazoned with the words “Lop your dick off.” She drags a thick pink prosthetic tail behind her and has strapped a pair of metal wings to her back, each feather a steel blade.

Politics in the UK over the past few years has been dominated by the Brexit process and the rising influence of the far right. At the same time, a new facet of the UK’s layered identity crisis has emerged in debates over the state’s official understanding of gender. Anxieties have coalesced around proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA), the legislation that determines how a person can change their legal gender.

In its current form, the GRA requires a lengthy and invasive process of medical and psychiatric assessments, and applicants must “prove” to a panel of clinicians that they have lived in their chosen gender identity for at least two years. All this places a great strain on mental health while impeding access to gender-identity health care services for vulnerable and marginalized people.

Debates over how to improve the law have given bigots with major platforms in liberal and respectable media outlets the opportunity to express openly transphobic views similar to those expressed by conservative white evangelical groups in the United States. A reform process that could have been a chance for modest gains for trans people has instead turned into an ordeal: In 2018–19, reported hate crimes against trans people across England, Wales, and Scotland rose by 81 percent.

Trans dramatists and performers at Edinburgh responded this month to this onslaught with innovative, textured, radical work, using the stage to explore fundamental questions about the violence of the political and economic structures trans people must negotiate.

When Frankland says, “We have always been here,” she’s addressing the erasing quality of anti-trans discourse in the UK, which frequently figures trans people as a sudden imposition on British life. At one point in her show, Frankland meets the gaze of each member of her audience and pleads with each one in turn, “Don’t hurt me.”

The show ends with her crouched in a ragged plywood shelter. She builds a fire in a small wooden crate. Affixing a few leaves of paper to her bladed feathers, she sets her wings ablaze. They could have been shopping lists, pages from a book, loose notes, love letters, or medical prescriptions. It’s an apocalyptic tableau: Frankland’s boldly self-fashioned body salvaging whatever shelter and comfort she can muster against the fascism she warns us is rapidly on the rise.

The Edinburgh Fringe may like to imagine itself as a space of special cultural freedom but, politically and economically, it reflects the inequalities of Scottish society—and that’s led to efforts to challenge them. Last year, writer and organizer Jessica Brough formed Fringe of Colour, an initiative to raise the profile of shows at the festival by performers of color. That inspired Harry Josephine Giles, an Orcadian poet and performer, to start the hashtag #TransFringe as an online gathering place for trans and nonbinary performers.

Giles describes #TransFringe as “a very basic piece of worker organization: We need something that just affirms trans life, and isn’t about being in this defensive position all the time, justifying our existence.”

Giles’s show, Drone, is a shattering cabaret of poetry, music, and video, narrated from the perspective of a military drone wracked with social anxiety and loneliness, sickened by the tedium of the workplace, and impervious to the faddish therapies on offer from bourgeois life. Giles recites a portion of the monologue atop a filing cabinet with their head jammed inside a drawer, their poetry muffled through metal sheeting. The drone decides to sign the organ registry and longs to simply rust away. “You have work and love that fulfills you,” the drone’s therapist tells the drone. “All I have is bombs,” the drone replies.

There’s a dark humor in Giles’s elaborate act of empathy for a military drone, and the writing is frequently very funny. But it’s also devastatingly sad. “We’re all aware of our participation in extraordinarily large systems of violence,” says Giles. “We’re all surveilled and surveilling each other in global networks of violence.” There are particular themes here one might think of as trans, such as the difficulties and ironies of embodiment, but they’re not named as such. “I’m a poet,” says Giles, “so not saying it directly is kind of my stock-in trade.”

Giles’s hashtag, #TransFringe, is in part a response to the GRA consultation, which has been especially fraught in Scotland. Gender recognition is a devolved issue, and the Scottish government launched its reviews of the law before England and Wales did. Trans rights quickly emerged as a wedge issue within the governing Scottish National Party (SNP) and the independence movement more broadly, with a significant reactionary current growing within the broad coalition for Scottish nationalism.

Giles campaigned for Scottish independence in 2014, but would be unlikely to do so now. “The SNP thought a little bit of trans inclusion was another nice point for liberal Scotland. When it met the slightest resistance, they caved. Scotland is like the Canada of the UK. It’s very content to portray itself as ‘the nice bit.’ It uses being ‘the nice bit’ to get away with doing awful stuff, like having an economy based on oil while the planet burns.”

Giles says the ways gender is understood in Scotland are rooted in questions of race, class, and nation—that “the role of the nation is to bind the people to the ruling class. Scotland is an imperial nation, and that’s why its gender politics are bad.” For Giles, Scotland’s historically rooted investments in whiteness and colonialism are at the core of its continued attachment to “traditional” ways of understanding gender roles and family structures.

“Scotland doesn’t want me,” they reflect. “So I don’t want Scotland.”

The scholar Sophie Lewis has made similar arguments about colonialism and gender essentialism, arguing that imperial Britain “imposed policies to enforce heterosexuality and the gender binary.” “It’s not a big leap to see sexual menace in any sort of ‘other,’” she goes on, and to consider “‘biological realities’ as essential and immutable.”

The entanglement of gender with race and empire is also a major theme in Burgerz, the Fringe show by the poet, actor, and dramatist Travis Alabanza. “I can never separate the two,” says Alabanza. “I see gender as a colonizing project. Transphobia is about failure, a perceived failure at being something. Black people are always subject to transphobic framing and misgendering.”

Alabanza has become a well-known figure in the UK, partly due to their writing and performance, and also because of an attack on them in The Times of London by columnist Janice Turner in 2017 after Alabanza had been denied entry to the woman’s fitting room in a Manchester store. Turner’s article misgendered Alabanza and was titled, “Children sacrificed to appease trans lobby.”

Burgerz is a response to an assault Alabanza suffered in 2016 while walking across Waterloo Bridge in London: The assailant threw a burger at Alabanza and yelled the word “tranny.” The stage is set up as a kitchen, and each night Alabanza picks a volunteer white cis man from the audience to help them prepare a burger. A deadpan Alabanza informs their audience that the show is an attempt to recuperate “an intimacy with the burger that doesn’t feel forced,” and in that way to recover some agency.

Earlier this month, Rupert Murdoch’s Times again attacked Alabanza, this time in a negative review of Burgerz that initially used incorrect pronouns (Alabanza uses they/them) before subsequently tacking between correct and incorrect pronouns in the online version. “That’s what pissed me off, much more than the review itself,” says Alabanza. “It sums up the state of the British press: constantly gaslighting trans people. And it helped me realize that they’re just doing this for fun.”

In fact, Burgerz is a witty show that plays with the ironies of the enhanced visibility of trans people—and Alabanza specifically—in recent years. “The liberals want the burger,” Alabanza jokes. An audience member who had given little thought to the experience of trans people would doubtless learn an enormous amount by watching Burgerz.

But as an artist Alabanza refuses to be confined to educational work of this kind. “Transness is more sacred than a billboard,” they tell me. “The goal of visibility work is about trying to understand us. I don’t care if the man who assaults me on the street understands my gender pronouns. I just want them to stop killing us. Visibility goals are about explaining our identity away. I want to go deeper, and ask: ‘Why the fuck are we hurting people we don’t understand?’”

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