GENDER IS A SALIENT TOPIC FOR ME, as I analyze situations for deeper gendered divisions, for sexism and heterosexism, and for intersectional inclusiveness. This analysis drove me into a social activist circle that provided me the opportunity to audition for and try to promote feminism in the Vagina Monologues. This seemed like a natural t for a feminist and queer activist, as I identified, but being the only presumed male cast member seemed like a complication.
The Vagina Monologues is a female space both traditionally and contractually that addresses issues of vaginas and women strictly. Entering the space as male-identified was thus controversial. Eve Ensler herself put in the V-Day production that only women-identified or homosexual males could participate. All other eight cast members were women and had vaginas, creating a dynamic in which I was othered. I wanted to act out the the oppression that women and transwomen face daily, from shame to silence to violence, yet I embodied that very sex and gender causing the oppression. I felt I had invaded a space with male privilege, and I felt slightly uneasy. I often kept to myself and observed the other cast members instead of sharing my experiences. They spoke about their trials with periods, objectification, and shame in a group discussion while I remained silent. I had to be constantly prodded to contribute to any creative part of the process, even though, when I did, there was support without backlash.
I am a white, affluent, English speaking, able-bodied, adult male and American citizen — but I am also feminist and queer. I understood my role in the Vagina Monologues as a bearer of male privilege, even though I wanted to identify as a feminist more than as a male.
I also feared how the audience would (or would not) understand my involvement in the project. The unexpected male presence might seem like an intrusion and attack on feminism even though it was an earnest presence. How would the audience read a male body on stage acting out and talking about women-centric issues? If the audience focused on my physically male attributes, they might ignore my identity as a feminist and as a queer person, and, instead of seeing my full intersectional story, some may forefront my identity as privileged white male and see nothing else.
The intersection of oppression and privilege is variable spatially and temporally, which is notable in this particular situation. I felt that my privilege was a form of alienation. In this way, some privileges lose their power as those who dominate oppressed spaces counter them.
These connections between oppression and privilege exists in the Vagina Monologues as well. Fagan’s point about the erasure that stems from the nature of non-consensual male privilege is something that affects many queer people, especially in the context of gay men at the University of Virginia. Many privileges are assigned to men and even more to white men at the University. From assumed competence to assumed safety at night, there are many things that white men do not need to be concerned about. Being queer adds some uncertainty to these assumptions. Legitimacy of thought can often be questioned for effeminate men who may also face rejection and threats of violence for their sexual, and sometimes gender, queerness. In the University context, hate crimes due to sexual orientation have occurred and many queer men find more safety, both physically and for their reputation, in the closet and through online interactions. Sometimes these interactions even police other feminine men and worsen queer oppression. These issues placing gay and queer men into self-oppressing relationships, while still maintaining an assumed and non-consensual male privilege, similarly play on a balance between privilege and oppression as did the Vagina Monologues. In this way, people erase and ignore queer identities when they assume that all men are privileged in all the same ways, or that sexual violence and objectification are strictly issues for women.
All of this came to a point after the show in my gender studies class.
We were required to watch the Monologues, so everyone was sharing their thoughts. Most were compliments. However, one person raised their hand and said, “I just did not understand why they cast a cisgender male for the transgender part.” While I did have a role as a trans person and a woman, this question made sense; however, it still seemed antagonistic. When my professor prompted me to answer the concern, I spoke about the lack of trans auditionees and trying to stop trans erasure. I also made the point that had a lot of knowledge and empathy for this issue. But it did not convince the person.
My professor stepped in. She pointed out that there were also no elderly women, Bosnians, or Iranian Americans on stage, though all of them were portrayed — that gender and sex are just as fluid as age or racial makeup and that the class needed to stop thinking of such narrow definitions of gender. This comment seemed like a neat bow atop my experience in Vagina Monologues without ever having or desiring to have a vagina.