The Eyes of Others
– Sandy Stone, “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttransexual Manifesto”
“That’s why I’ve changed to mortal form—
how do I look?
– Dionysos in Anne Carson’s Bakkhai
One of my first therapists was named Andula, a trim, auntly woman with a slight European accent. Her office was right at the MUNI stop for the Castro, which I took as a sign: obviously I had to take the train to the Castro to seek treatment for my gender dysphoria! But when I would describe my dysphoria, I sensed a shift in Andula’s attention, a tightening up. In the years and therapists since, I’ve learned that when a patient describes their suffering, a therapist’s first response is typically to validate that pain, to mirror it. “That sounds really hard.” “That is a lot to carry.” Andula, in contrast, would re-cross her legs and say, “You know, in certain cultures around the world, you would be considered a priest or a shaman. A god, even.”
The first time she said this, I laughed aloud. The tenth time, I silently blinked. Even as a baby trans, I could call cis bullshit when I saw it. My vulnerability was not met with compassion. I didn’t feel recognized. This feeling was not unfamiliar. At the time, I was openly trans to some extent, but I didn’t yet possess the courage to take hormones or the confidence to correct strangers who sir and he’d me. I told myself these hurtful moments of mismatch didn’t matter in the long run. I was in denial about my own need for recognition.
I am writing this while in rehearsals for Hope Mohr and Maxe Crandall’s Bacchae Before, a reimagining of Euripides’s Bakkhai as translated by Anne Carson. Recognition lies at the heart of the ancient play. In Bacchae Before I play Dionysus, the son of Zeus and an absolute diva who demands that the city of Thebes recognize him as a god — or else. Stinging from misrecognition, Dionysus transforms himself, taking human form in order to take matters into his own hands and ensure that those who snubbed him will pay for their sins. The god closes his first monologue with an acknowledgement of his physical transformation: “How do I look?” he purrs. “Convincingly human?”
As a living, breathing transsexual, I love delivering this line. Like Dionysus, I long for recognition, to be told yes, I do look convincingly human. Convincingly female, sure, but convincingly human above all. Unremarkably, self-evidently, human.
Successfully passing (for cis, for female, for a woman) means receding into the background: passing for scenery, for passerby. It is a task I take on every day. Looking straight at the audience and asking how I look winds me; it’s almost too literal. Never mind that I’m playing a (male) god, barking into a microphone under stage lights. However artificial the frame, the question comes from somewhere deep within, from the kind of terrain I tried to tread with Andula, who could only compare me to another culture’s god. Superhuman is still other than human. That’s not what I aspire to.
I stopped seeing Andula after twelve sessions. Eleven sessions too long, really. I never told her how I felt about the way she related to my transness. I still have a hard time correcting misconceptions about my gender. I understand Dionysus’s frustration, although clearly he takes it too far. He drives the women of Thebes to a nearby mountain where they become Bacchae “frisking like colts set free” and living a life of sensual abandon. Thebes’s rigid king, Pentheus, is Dionysus’s loudest detractor, while his mother, Agave, is one of the Dionysus-worshippers who have gone mad upon the mountain. At the end of the Bakkhai, Agave, under Dionysus’s spell, rips off her son’s head, under the hallucinogenic impression that he is a mountain lion. This is how far Dionysus takes it: the murder of a son at his own mother’s hands. In the world of tragedy, such are the stakes of misrecognition.
As a performer it is challenging to try and embody Dionysus, to drop into his hysterical whirl of anger and narcissism. The havoc he wreaks — mass hysteria, citywide chaos, and not just murder but filicide — is so extreme as to be camp. His petulance makes me think of evil transvestites: Buffalo Bill, Dr. Frank-N-Furter. Untethered by morality or reality, these are some crazy cross-dressers. Anyone who gets in the way of their good time becomes a necessary casualty. Autogynephilic Cruella de Vils, they are not supervillains but sociopaths, their gender transgressions symptoms of a larger impropriety.
In the same tradition, my Dionysus is a laughably evil gender-bender who controls everything in the play except his own capacity for vengeance and destruction. Evil transvestites don’t possess much psychological depth or likable humanity to tap into, but I take a certain pleasure in performing his acts of outsized rage. Imagine a world where the punishment for misgendering someone is not only death, but death at the hands of your mother. Call me sir and I’ll burn this city down!
I am further delighted by the slippage between a trans woman passing for female and a god passing for human. There’s no one-to-one relationship here. I’m not, no matter what Andula says, a supernatural being trying to pass as human. For better or for worse, I am quite human enough. But I, like Dionysus, feel the uncanny double-vision of seeing out of my own eyes while seeing myself out of others’ eyes, too.
The eyes of others, rather than my internal view of self, often decide for me the pace and priorities of my transition. As I inhabit my own body more fully, feeling more embodied and more expressive, I also feel more trapped by expectation; I have to find the woman I am while transforming myself into something publicly legible as woman. “Transition” sounds so decisive, when often the act of changing sex is an endless series of compromises between how I’d like to look and how I have to look in order to pass. And so however two-dimensionally evil Dionysus may be, the insecurity he feels at being misrecognized, cast aside, or laughed at is a soft spot I can relate to. (I see something to love within Buffalo Bill and Frank-N-Furter, too, for the record.) “How do I look?” he asks you. Don’t laugh at him. Do not call him fabulous, supernatural, godly. Tell him he is looking just right.
If you’re familiar with Hope and Maxe’s work, it won’t surprise you to hear that our Bacchae is not an exactly faithful adaptation of Carson’s translation. In our production, Euripides’s ancient story collides with the new story of Jessica and Lyle, contemporary parents-to-be excitedly planning a gender reveal party for their unborn child. Gender reveal parties have become a punchline this past year as expectant parents, in their drive to one-up one another with more and more elaborate spectacles, inadvertently cause deaths and environmental disasters. Increasingly, each gender reveal party is a kind of Rube Goldberg machine whose final impact has escaped the control of its makers, an “ever-escalating phenomenon,” in Hope’s words, a violence that “happens constantly in front of our eyes, on our phones, and on our feeds.”
Our script alternates between these poles of tragedy ancient and modern. The wildly destructive Dionysus, the stubborn Pentheus, the tragic Agave, and the hapless Lyle and Jessica are complicated vessels for their culture’s violent desires. No one is wholly guilty, just as no one is wholly innocent — except perhaps the trans kids our show does not depict but certainly invokes, if only by omission. As we dance gender reveal and filicide, their futures hang in the balance.
When I brought my idea for this essay to him, Maxe told me he hesitated before agreeing to participate in an adaptation of Carson’s Bakkhai. His doubts stemmed in part from her questionable interpretation of Pentheus as a proto-trans figure, as pointed out by classicist Kay Gabriel in “Specters of Dying Empire: The Case of Carson’s Bacchae,” a 2018 review in Tripwire:
In Euripides’ play, the god Dionysus humiliates Pentheus, king of Thebes, by dressing him in the clothes of a female Bacchant before leading him offstage to his death. In Carson’s interpretation, this robing scene actually discloses Pentheus’ repressed transsexual desire. Carson again splices a present configuration of gender together with a 2400-year-old representation of transvestism. This interpretation is, to put it bluntly, bizarre, either a baldly anachronistic reading of Euripides’ play or a cynical publishers’ ploy to drive up sales among a voyeuristic cisgender readership eager to consume a titillating trans narrative with an especially violent conclusion.
Gabriel argues essentially that Carson is invoking another cinematic trope, not the evil transvestite but the doomed transsexual. From the brutally murdered Brandon in Boys Don’t Cry to Venus Xtravaganza in Paris is Burning to countless Law & Order episodes, film and TV have long depicted spectacularly gruesome murders of trans people for cis enjoyment. Carson’s “exploitative deployment of trans lives,” as Gabriel puts it, gave Maxe pause, but it also presented him with an opportunity to remake the show by re-centering it around trans people and our needs.
In order to counter the problems Gabriel identifies in Carson’s text, Maxe says he and Hope wanted to make Bacchae Before “as trans as possible.” Our cast and crew, cis and trans alike, build a world not only hospitable to transness and gender non-conformity but also reflective of the nuance and texture of trans life. We’ve paid particularly close attention to the tone of our “robing scene” in which Dionysus puts Pentheus in female disguise, imbuing it with as much tender love and care for the curious Pentheus as possible. It is a gentle, if murderous, seduction; dressing as a woman might be the first step in Dionysus’s scheme to punish Pentheus, but it doesn’t have to be a humiliating one. Pentheus’s excitement at the prospect of cross-dressing serves here as an especially poignant note to the end he meets, rather than an indignity he suffers along the way.
Yet it is ultimately cis people whose acts of recognition and misrecognition delineate the limits of possibility for trans people of all ages; it is not, for the most part, trans people who make trans people’s lives more difficult: it is cis people. No matter how good their intentions, their frames of misrecognition loom over our heads, threatening to undermine each transformation we undergo. These acts of misrecognition pose a vital threat to trans people’s lives, especially when it comes to cis parents and their trans kids.
One possible dramatization of the relationship between these parents and kids lies in our show’s final line of text: “What am I seeing? What is this I have in my hands?” Delivered by Agave in the aftermath of her brutal murder of her son, this line breaks my heart every time I hear it, as the Bacchae perform a stuttering choreography of half-spoken words and half-formed sobs. Ultimately, Agave is banished from Thebes. It does not matter that she committed her crime in a state of temporary insanity. It remains unforgivable.
This unforgivable tragedy takes place off-stage; it would simply be too much to enact it. Equally invisible are the domestic interactions between countless parents and their trans kids whose bodily autonomy and freedom of expression are hampered, often violently. Under a spell as strong as Dionysus’s, these parents think gender reveal parties, conversion therapy, and anti-trans bills are actually good for their kids, even as they’re killing them. With such strong certainty in their own good intentions, they insist on celebrating their children’s assigned sexes and disputing trans kids’ legislative and cultural futures all too publicly, debating the viability of their very existence, or at least their participation in public life. It is against this backdrop that Maxe asks in his director’s note: “What if we warped the gender reveal party into a ritual for the trans kids we love, value, and want futures for?”
Still, our production respects the traditional decision to keep Pentheus’s slaying out of sight. In a play all about becoming, the most vital transformation remains invisible: Pentheus transformed from man to animal in his mother’s feverish eyes, and then transformed quite brutally from alive to dead at her hands. I wish my more brutal transformations could take place off stage, too. Writing this piece in the hopes that others might read it, I have the feeling of giving away too much: I yearn for the opposite of a gender reveal party. I might be comfortable on-stage as loud, proud Dionysus, but in everyday life I usually long to be disguised, invisible, passing by. I want a gender invisibility cloak. I wish I could transform at will, like Dionysus can. I wish I could snap my fingers and have those around me simply see the new me, no in-between stages. I wish my transition could happen as quickly as a transition between scenes in a play:
A woman stands in his place.
And the crowd goes wild.