What struck me first was the amazing operatic sound emanating from the North Carolina General Assembly.
I had never before been to an opera, so perhaps this music was ordinary in its extraordinariness. But still, the amount of effort and finesse in sustaining those songs was astounding, powerful, and resonant.
When I arrived at the Thursday afternoon performance of The Body Politic in the auditorium of the state’s legislative building last week, five people stood on the low stage, each with a music stand. The accompaniment was simply piano. This was a concert only, not a fully staged production. But the text is what mattered.
The Body Politic follows a boy as he navigates American identity politics after fleeing Taliban-era Kabul. Written by University of North Carolina School of the Arts graduates Charles Osborne and Leo Hurley, the play is loosely based on Ovid’s tale of Iphis, a girl who is raised and disguised as a boy so her father doesn’t kill her. The gods eventually turn her into a boy in response to continued prayers from his mother. Sound relevant in Raleigh right now?
Indeed, the opera was originally intended to open in New York following its world premiere at the Boston Center for the Arts earlier this month. After the passage of House Bill 2, though, Hurley and Osborne decided to bring it back home, deploying a crowdfunding effort to make a detour for the legislators in Raleigh. Their hope, they’ve said, was to inspire “civil discourse through art.”
The crowd filled about a third of the auditorium, with attentive news crews perched with cameras, pens, and pads along the sides. Only after I entered the building did I realize the risk I’d taken. As a transgender woman in North Carolina, I wouldn’t have legally been allowed to use the women’s bathroom while attending the opera in this public building. Then and there, though, I vowed to myself that even being in the heart of North Carolina’s discriminatory government wouldn’t have stopped me.
But I didn’t need the bathroom. Instead, I paid close attention to the songs, spotting several key phrases that resonated with my experience both in this skin and in this state.
“My body is not a soapbox,” Iphis says near the end. “I do not exist for you to preach your body politics.”
To the detriment of my mental health, that’s a feeling I’ve had every day since HB 2 passed. I’ve had to see my therapist for the first time in months. The past few weeks have been especially difficult, as depression continues to deepen in a place that continues to focus on which bathroom I use.
Supporters of the law oversimplify the body and biology. Yes, aside from rare medical conditions, sex is a binary, but that doesn’t mean you get to ignore disorders of sexual development, which includes gender dysphoria. This is an extreme discomfort with the primary or secondary sex characteristics of one’s body. The biological basis for this condition hasn’t been determined, but lots of research suggests the cause comes from the brain. When that something is thrown off, as happens with gender dysphoria, feelings of wanting a male or female body or something in-between (“feeling like a man or a woman”) can only be met by transitioning. That urge isn’t something I’ve sought.
This misunderstanding of a medical condition makes acceptance incredibly hard, another issue addressed in the opera. Iphis and Eugene talk about leaving Chapel Hill and beginning new lives in New York because they simply aren’t fitting inIphis because of gender dysphoria, Eugene because he’s a drag queen.
I’ve had to deal with such isolation and feelings of escape since HB 2 cleared the governor’s desk. I don’t feel welcome here; as I prepare for my first year at UNC-Chapel Hill, I fear I will have to live with this feeling until I graduate or the law is overturned. No, Iphis, I don’t have the option of fleeing Chapel Hill.
“You have one body. The one that I gave you,” Iphis’s mother tells him during one of their many arguments. One of my most recurring thoughts since I transitionedand one I imagine I’ll have the rest of my lifeis that this body is the only one I’ll ever get. My one and only chance to be born a girl in this life is gone. But I never really had a chance, did I?
The only circumstances that could have given rise to me, to my consciousness, is this exact situation. I maintain the small hope that there might be another life, another chance; that belief inspired me through my transition and through today, to tomorrow, and into the rest of my life.
Life since my transition has been harder than I had imagined. The process is an experience I don’t think you can appreciate fully without enduring it. So I found some strange, defiant comfort in an early portion of the opera: “Just do what you’re told. Don’t make the world harder for yourself,” Iphis’s mother tells him.
In October 2012, when I began therapy for my struggles with gender, I didn’t intend to transition. I recognized the societal benefits of being a white man in America, like no pay gap or catcalling. In that past life, elected officials and entertainers amply represented my kind in culture. I didn’t have to worry about discrimination with employment, housing, or dating. If I transitioned, I knew I would have to worry about all of that while also stressing over surviving my transition (the attempted suicide rate of the transgender population is about 40 percent), passing as a woman in public, and affording things like hormones and surgeries.
Still, I decided I had no choice.
Sitting in a room in a legislature that seems to believe otherwise, I hoped for more civil discourse, through opera or merely through understanding.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Not Your Platform”