Following Rebecca’s biographical statement, please read below for an interview:
Rebecca Kling is a transgender artist and educator who explores gender and identity through solo pieces and educational workshops. Her multidisciplinary performances incorporate conversational storytelling, personal narrative, humor, movement, video projection, and more. Kling takes the position that sharing accessible queer narrative with a wide audience is a form of activism, and that understanding combats bigotry.
Rebecca has performed her material around, in nine states and at over a dozen festivals. Some highlights include Chicago (The Athenaeum Theatre, Temple Gallery, Links Hall, About Face Theatre, Center on Halsted, the DCA Storefront Theatre, and more), the 2010, 2011, and 2012 Chicago Fringe Festivals, the 2011 and 2012 Kansas City and Indianapolis Fringe Festivals, San Bernardino, California, and elsewhere.
Rebecca has received praise from The Chicago Tribune, TimeOut Chicago, Newcity Stage, and Centerstage Chicago, and more. Rebecca regularly speaks at high schools and universities, including Northwestern University, Columbia College, Roosevelt University, Loyola University, Harold Washington College, Butler University, Smith College, Bucknell University, and elsewhere. She has been a recipient of the Chances Dances Critical Fierceness grant, an Illinois Arts Council Grant, and Chicago Community Artists Assistance Program funding. In 2013, she was named as part of the inaugural Trans 100, a list of transgender educators, activists, artists, and more who are working to further trans rights and support the trans community.
Rebecca’s writing has been published at Jezebel, in Chicago IRL issues 1 and 2, Bodies of Work, the Center for Classic Theatre Review, and elsewhere. For a behind-the-scenes look at her writing process, check out her blog. She also occasionally contributes to In Our Words, a queer Chicago blog.
A graduate from Northwestern University’s Department of Performance Studies with an Adjunct Major in Animate Arts, Rebecca Kling is also an instructor at the Piven Theatre Workshop, and on the Pride Films and Plays board of directors.
What was the process like of becoming a performance artist and an author?
Honestly, it was kind of gradual. I’ve been involved in theatre for much of my life, taking classes and participating in shows from a young age, but I didn’t plan to be a theatre artists when I was growing up. My junior year of high school, however, one of the founders of the workshop I attended passed away. I certainly didn’t have a revelatory epiphany, but as I processed his death – and thought about applying to colleges my senior year – I realized I’d much rather work in theatre than not. I still didn’t know what that would mean for me, as being a professional actor didn’t hold much draw, but I knew I wanted to be in the arts in some way.
In college, I began blogging as a way of keeping track of my experiences and emotions. I was in the process of transitioning, and starting to come out as trans to more and more people, and wanted to be able to look back on where I had been.
It wasn’t until after college that I had my first performance opportunity to explore my trans identity, and that was a revelatory experience. For the first time, I was taking text about my experience – some from my blog, some newly generated – and sharing it in front of an audience. It was incredibly validating to have others respond positively to my experiences as a trans woman, and it made me crave further artistic and emotional outlets.
Since then, I’ve quit my full time job and struck out as an artist and educator. As part of that, I’ve continued blogging and recently put together some of that written material into a book. The motivation for the book was twofold: to capture people’s excitement after a show or performance and give them a chance to continue our relationship, and allow people who might not be able to make it to a performance of mine to still share in my work. I see the book as an extension of my performance and education work.
Who and what have inspired you (and continues to inspire you)?
There are certainly some amazing trans figures I looked up to while growing up and as I transitioned: Kate Bornstein, Leslie Feinberg, and Julia Serano particularly come to mind. But I’d say in my day to day life I am inspired by the artists and activists I have met and continue to meet who are doing really incredible work, often with little or no recognition. Jen Richards and Toni D’orsay recently launched The Trans 100 (http://thetrans100.com/
) to try and combat this, as it highlights 100 trans people in the US who are working to support the trans community. It’s a list of really amazing people, and I’m honored to be on it.
From your perspective, what are some issues that bring cisgender lesbian, gay, bisexual communities and transgender communities together, and what are tensions that divide them?
Whether or not the T should be included with the LGB is an ongoing discussion. From a personal, experiential, and emotional perspective, there is definitely reason to separate them. Specifically, being trans is primarily about gender identity – one’s sense of self as a gendered being – while sexuality primarily about attraction. Yes, there’s overlap between gender identity and sexuality, but they’re very much not the same thing. Likewise, the act of coming out as gay or lesbian usually doesn’t necessitate changing of presentation, or pronouns, or legal status, or require medical intervention. Coming out as trans, on the other hand, is often part a very visible shift of identity, whether or not we want to be public.
For all of that, I think it’s incredibly important that trans and cis queer people band together for political reasons. Marriage equality is a perfect example of an issue that, on the surface, is about gay rights. But dig deeper, and it impacts trans people, too. As someone who is presenting as and identifies as female, but has a male birth certificate, who am I allowed to marry? Legally, I can marry another woman (according to my birth certificate) in a heterosexual marriage. But that’s kind of silly. Likewise, if I tried to marry a man, my birth certificate would indicate we were attempting a same-sex marriage. That’s not right, either.
More broadly, many of the ways homophobia expresses itself is around gender policing: women aren’t supposed to ‘act like men,’ and vice versa. We, as a queer community, need to come together to combat bigotry focused on gender identity and gender expression , whether or not the target actually identifies as trans.
What does the climate seem like for trans people in Illinois these days?
I’m cautiously optimistic. Illinois has protections for gender identity and self expression in its state human rights codes, and we’re slowly creeping toward marriage equality. I’d love to see a movement to require insurance companies to provide trans specific support, as recently passed in California and Vermont, but I’m not holding my breath.
Given your activism and experience in education, how do you define a “teachable moment?”
A teachable moment is one from which something can be learned. That’s a really unhelpful and circular answer, though, so I’ll try to expand.
In my mind, there are two types of teachable moments. The first is an in-the-moment experience: Someone says or does something that can immediately be corrected. For example, if a student of mine were to say “Well, all trans people want surgery,” I’d use that as an opportunity to talk about the differing experiences of being trans, and how surgery is not a goal or desire for every trans person. We could have a discussion about why that is, and (hopefully!) the individual who spoke out would learn something from the experience.
The other type of teachable moment is a little less pleasant. It’s when someone says or does something hurtful or harmful and there is no opportunity to educate. For example, while in Indianapolis last summer, I was asked by a man on the street if I knew where the shemale strippers were. I said I didn’t, and the man said, “But you’re one of them, right?” There was no use attempting to have a teachable moment, nor did I desire to take the time to explain to him why what he said was incredibly problematic. But I talk about that experience in workshops as a very exaggerated example of how trans bodies are often sexualized or seen as public property, and so draw something teachable from a very unpleasant experience.
In ways ways is your work feminist?
To me, feminism is about self-determination and self-definition. My body means what I say it means. Your body means what you say it means. Likewise, my gender (and yours, and everyone’s) is what we as individuals say it is. There are still camps within the feminist community who don’t consider trans women to be “real” women, and I simply don’t understand that worldview. If feminism is about pushing beyond a world in which solely biology is destiny, or solely socialization determines who we are, then self-declaring our identity is an entirely feminist act.
How do your different identities affect your work and art?
I’m still figuring this out. I make a living by sharing very personal parts of myself, and am not always sure how to balance that with having a private life. I wish I had a better answer.
When I saw you perform and speak in New Hampshire recently, I really appreciated your interactive style of storytelling. How do you see the relationship between the artist and the audience?
This may be obvious from the performance work I do, but I’m not a big fan of the fourth wall in theatre, or of a firm distinction between audience and performer. I view the work that I do as conversational, and want the audience to feel like I’m speaking with them, rather than at them. The balance of that ebbs and flows over the course of a performance, but I always want the audience to feel like I am taking care of them, and not pushing them too much or too hard.
What was the impetus for writing your book, “No Gender Left Behind”, and to make the text accessible online?
Most of the performance work I do starts as written material on my blog, fridaythang.com/blog
, so putting some of it into a physical text seemed like a reasonable next step. I also want to be able to capitalize on an audience’s excitement after a show, and since I don’t have CDs or t-shirts to sell, a book seemed like a perfect fit.
In terms of offering it free online, that decision was about openness and accessibility. I want the work I do to be available to all, because I believe in it. Getting on my free culture soap box, I think society is improved when ideas are shared freely and with as few restrictions as possible. From a more practical standpoint, though, I simply don’t think I’m losing out on that many sales. I realize the work that I’m doing is a niche focus, so making my book available for free feels like the right thing to do.
I was moved by the description of “The Little Mermaid” in your book. Clearly, pop culture has an impact on many people’s sense of self. What suggestions do you have for the media to be more inclusive and affirming of LGBTQ+ people’s experiences?
First and foremost, get queer people involved in the process. For example, I’m told Glee now has a trans character. And yet, that show made it very clear that “retard” was an unacceptable word while “shemale” and “tranny” are perfectly fine to use. That’s not actually supporting the trans community, no matter how progressive the show likes to market itself as.
On what projects are you currently working?
I’m currently working on a new one woman show, titled Get Ready for the Vagina Fairy. It’s going to be the most standup-y show I’ve done, combining older humorous material with new work, and with the (yet to be written) fairy tale of the Vagina Fairy. I’m pretty excited about it, because I’m already having fun with the concept and the process. I also look forward to using the fairy’s costume as an excuse to buy some tutus.
Beyond that, I’m continuing to push the art and education work I do and try to bring my workshops and performances to colleges, universities, and theatre festivals around the country. I’m already lining up gigs for the fall of 2013, and am excited to build that moving forward.
What advice do you have for aspiring artists and activists?
Do it! Whatever “it” is, do it. If you think something needs to change, find a way to help make that change happen. If you have a story, or a video, or a painting that you want to share, find a way to share it. We live in an age where technology has made networking so much easier (I can’t even imagine how I’d market myself in a pre-Internet age) so take advantage of that and start building relationships. And have fun!