It was all about transformation.
“Trans Arts” was a two-hour panel Wednesday of poets, critics, and performers who in some cases identify with the gender opposite from the bodies in which they were born.
Stephen (sometimes Stephanie) Burt, a Harvard professor of English, moderated the late-afternoon panel at Sackler Lecture Hall, wearing flats, a stylish black dress, and a deep black, shoulder-length wig.
He also emceed two hours of evening performances, including a video by documentarian D’hana Perry and storytelling by transgender legend and “Gender Outlaw” author Kate Bornstein, whose 2012 memoir is titled “A Queer and Pleasant Danger.” To see Bornstein at work, said Burt afterward, was “transformational.”
That was the idea. Before the event, Homi Bhabha, director of Harvard’s Mahindra Humanities Center, described it as a University-wide coming out for the trans arts, including texts, media, and performances from within the world of what insiders call the trans and genderqueer life. The center was co-sponsor of “Trans Arts,” along with the Committee on Degrees in Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality.
It is time “to help build communities” in support of art-making outside the cultural binary of gender norms, Bhabha told an audience of 70. “Transgender occupies an extremely important political and cultural territory in contemporary society.” Its art and even its existence, he said, “trumps the tyranny of identity… It disturbs gender norms grounded in polarities.”
In April, Bhabha read Burt’s “Diary” in the London Review of Books, an account of a convention for the transgendered in suburban Massachusetts. (“I am looking for better answers,” Burt wrote of his periodic adult experiments in cross-dressing, “and for better shoes.”) Bhabha wrote his colleague the next morning, and the idea of “Trans Arts” came to be.
The panel, as the subject might suggest, offered a modern touch and a skew toward youth, as did the audience. Panelist Kat Baus ’15, an English concentrator, is on Harvard’s slam poetry team. Perry, a video experimentalist with a recent M.F.A. from Emerson College, is a DJ who follows New York’s club scene. Michael M. Weinstein, a Ph.D. student in English at Harvard, is a young critic and creative writer. And Tim Trace Peterson is co-editor of “Troubling the Line,” a new poetry collection featuring trans writers.
But the panel embodied the fact that transgender life is for some older people too, and that it goes back in time. Bornstein is 65, and joked that her performances — theatrical, one-woman renderings of written texts — evoke the past. Panelist Michael Bronski, a journalist and critic in his 60s who has written “A Queer History of the United States,” kept going back to the cross-gender explorations of 18th-century novelist Samuel Richardson.
The 40-something Burt opened with a few lines from Book I of the 17th-century epic poem “Paradise Lost,” which even today delivers a whiff of modern air: “For spirits when they please / Can either sex assume, or both …”
“Trans Art” was about the ambiguities that emerge when a person “can either sex assume,” to say nothing of those making a transition from one gender to another. “It’s complicated,” said Burt — a statement he said could easily be “a crawl along the bottom of the screen” if “Trans Art” had been a television show. “Your inner feelings complicate the binary.” The first thing gender ambiguities often yield is an attraction to live theater, he said, where from the beginning gender-switching was a part of acting, and where men for centuries played women onstage.
But with the emergence of video, said Burt, the trans art world is no longer dependent on just books or on live theater.
Such gender ambiguities can yield a commonality of experience. Panelists recounted those moments when, say, someone confronts you on the subway or in a coffee shop with a question that might be just existential if it were not funny too: “Who are you?”
Perry “experiences life in between,” in a gender twilight outside cultural norms. Someone might say “sir” in line at a checkout counter, and “at home I might be ‘they’ to them. To other people I might be ‘she.’”
Burt called it a case of “bodies and gender roles that don’t match with one another.” That clash itself could lead to “lives as works of art” among the transgendered, said Bronski. If so, those lives are often performance art. Perry remembered being called “a twofer” by a man puzzled at the idea of gender ambiguity. “I’m someone who ends up existing nowhere and everywhere at the same time.”
Weinstein recalled a stranger asking, “Are you a male or a female? I can’t quite figure it out.” His answer was, “Have a nice day.” Baus told a story like that about the subway, and the apparent need “to be read as one or the other” by people in public — wanting to explain that, in gender terms, “there are folks who can’t live in your architecture.”
In a clip from “Loose,” a video work-in-progress, Perry showed a black girl coming out as a boy, but whose outfit, attitude, and skin color now made her threatening as well as puzzling. It’s part of “the doubletalk you get,” said Perry, “when you don’t fit in someone’s box.”
Peterson said that a few themes emerged among the 54 trans poets featured in the collection, all in answer to the pressures and pleasures of gender ambiguity. One theme concerned the imagination that the cultural margins sometimes spur in artists and writers. (She mentioned Burt’s poetry as an example.) Then there was the courage it takes to write from the cultural outside, and the trauma that can reflect, too.
The panel showed there was plenty of room for trans artists to poke fun at one another, and at the carnival the transgender world can sometimes appear to be. There’s a lot of “let’s show” to trans arts, said Burt, but sad social realities leaven that playfulness. “A lot of people are being fired, hurt, or being killed for who they are,” Burt said.
Celebrate the “culture of the trans,” Bhabha suggested earlier, but be awake to transgender realities that exist “at the limits of love and rejection. The trans arts are as much about justice as they are about joy.”