In 2010, Tyler Clementi was a freshman at Rutgers University. After his roommate secretly recorded him kissing another man in their dorm room, Clementi jumped to his fate off of George Washington Bridge. It’s a story we should never forget and, unfortunately, one of many cases in which bullying and anti-LGBT sentiment has led to youth suicides.
Teddy Ferrera is a play loosely based off Tyler Clementi’s story and playwright Christopher Shinn’s (a Pulitzer Prize finalist) own experiences. It runs from February 2nd – March 3rd at Chicago’s Goodman Theater and features the theater’s first transgender actor.
Casting cisgender people for transgender roles has long been a habit of Hollywood (think Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry, Felicity Huffman in Transamerica and Chloe Sevigny in BBC series Hit & Miss, who by the way “cried every day wearing a prosthetic penis“). This is a larger problem in Hollywood where producers are reluctant to finance projects not featuring white, male leads and where, oftentimes, characters of color are changed to white characters because, ya know, people can only relate to white people. It seems Hollywood is one of the most reluctant frontiers in this country to embrace diversity; even the few mainstream stories that are being told about people of color, women, LGBT folks, etc. leave these very same people out of the picture.
While it isn’t exactly Hollywood, the fact that a Chicago theater cast a transgender person for the transgender role is a step in the right direction. If you’re in the Chicago area during its run, make sure you check the play out.
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Jax Jackson.
Anna Sterling: Tell me about the play. How do you relate to the struggles your character faces? And what kind of effect do you think a play like this will have on its audiences?
Jax Jackson: It’s a play about how students, faculty and staff at a large university respond to the suicide of a freshman, Teddy Ferrara. Mainstream media selectively reports that the suicide came on the heels of bullying by Teddy’s roommate. I play Jaq, a transgender grad student who is part of a group trying to address the university’s structural homophobia which they believe contributed to Teddy’s death.
Jaq and I both want a world that’s more inclusive, a place where people can easily question social constructs and express themselves. We both believe that this is possible if people are honest about the role they play in contributing to the pressure marginalized groups feel to assimilate to a dominant ideology. We are both trans men, new to understanding the set of privileges and responsibilities that being read as a white man in the U.S. entails. The main difference is that Jaq is a Women/Gender Studies grad student, and I’ve never taken a WGS class! I’m taking one at DePaul for research purposes now, and finding it very informative.
I hope audiences come away challenged to keep an open, questioning mind about things they think they are sure about, and to recognize that conclusions are just the point where someone stopped thinking.
AS: What recent news story made you want to scream?
JJ: Every time I hear about another trans woman murdered I want to scream about it because it feels like nobody cares about our trans sisters. I was very saddened by the recent Julie Burchill rant on the Observer, which is now censored. Where does that come from? That rage, that severity of purposeful ignorance in the name of feminism?
AS: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?
JJ: I think it’s a constant challenge – whatever identities we align ourselves with – to face our own privilege, and kindly, constructively call each other out when we don’t.
AS: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?
JJ: I don’t know if she’s my favorite, but I’m not ashamed to say I’m a fan of Ariel in the Little Mermaid- now I realize that in some light, her story seems like a lovestruck kid who gives up everything to be with a man, but hear me out…she knows what she wants, even though her entire culture wants to deny it to her. She’s not afraid of a huge personal change or collaborating with outcasts in order to achieve her goals. That is pretty radical.
In real life: my grandmother. She is always asking questions, learning new skills and challenging herself to grow. When I came out to her she knit me a tie.
AS: You’re going to a desert island and get to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?
JJ: Food: garlic bread. Drink: chocolate milk. Feminist: Tina fey, I think we’d have a good time.