It seems like all my life I’ve been constructing characters for myself. This came to mind last week when we improvised short scenes in my applied theatre class. Though they were short, I saw my life reflected back at me, or not, depending on the scene. I realized more personally how applied theatre allows people to run through relationships as practice for life.
Some of the characters I’ve made for myself help me to accomplish things. I’ve been working on these characters more in recent years, trying to practice until they become less like characters and more like me. These characters are more assertive; they allow me to stand up for myself and others instead of cowering or acquiescing to manipulative or otherwise unhealthy relationships.
These characterizations of myself are so important because for too much of my life I played characters that allowed me to be hurt. Their vulnerabilities weren’t usually my fault, but I crafted them in response to things people in power told me.
I’m six years old. My sisters and I have gone to bed. The babysitter comes into our room and says he has to talk to me. I follow him to the couch, and he tells me about sex, shows me with his hands. It’s way too late. I’m scared and uncomfortable. But he just keeps talking. I can’t leave. Suddenly, headlights flash in the window. I shouldn’t be up. I’m gonna be in so much trouble. But he has a solution: “Lie down on the couch and pretend to be asleep. I’ll tell them you were upset and couldn’t fall asleep. That way you won’t get in trouble.” I play my part well. My dad carries me to bed while I “sleep,” saving both of our asses, I think. But really, I just saved his ass.
Now I’m eleven. I’ve been playing the functional child—homeschooling is great, my sisters and I are well-educated, our household is fully functional. I listen greedily when my friends talk about school, try to absorb their knowledge when they talk about long division. Shit. I never learned that. I push down all my fears that CPS will realize that our education, if you can call it that, is a mess, and that my sisters and I will get in trouble. As if it’s our fault. The mask slips precisely once. I’m talking to a girl I meet at camp and never see again. We are both homeschooled. We both should have finished grade six. We are both at the level of third-grade math. We are both terrified. High school is in two years. I shove the mask back on, read through every math textbook I can find, and when grade nine comes, no one is any the wiser. I try to help my sisters, but it’s too much. I’ve saved myself for now, but I can’t save them.
Sweet sixteen: the pinnacle of teenage hood. While some of my peers do normal teenage things, I devote myself to learning how to be the perfect wife. Not that I don’t also have fun. This character is a bizarre cacophony—a puritan who quietly judges those who partake of the sins of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, while still enjoying elements of pop culture. I work towards the ideals of “Biblical womanhood,” striving for purity of body and mind, always trying to hide the fact that I’m not quite making it, a point I try to hide not least from myself. I follow the guidelines laid out by Dr. Dobson and his hordes of Christian cronies. I eschew sin and punish myself when I fail. My friend questions my charade of purported innocence. I mutter in protest and swear in my head I’ll do better. I ignore and repress all signs that it isn’t working, so that even though I’m vaguely aware that I’m going to crash and burn, I never acknowledge the fact until one day it hits me in a sudden explosion of realization that I am queer as the hell to which I am inevitably doomed. But that won’t happen for another four years.
When it does, I embrace this realization as relief. The mask crumbles. Then terror strikes. I awkwardly try to reassemble this façade while I process and change internally. Sometimes I venture out, take off the mask for a brief moment, and am honest with other queer people. But as soon as I’m around people I knew before, the haphazard masquerade returns. Having a disguise that doesn’t match my identity works for a while, but there is a lifetime of friction and turmoil beneath, and pressure from outside. The vessel is weak and the fault lines grow until I fracture apart.
I’m still trying to pick up the pieces worth keeping.
I’ve started being more honest about my experiences. I’ve told some of my best friends why they could never come over when we were growing up; I’m processing the emotional violence of my parents towards each other and their children; I’m working to navigate my relationship with a family that drowns me and saves me all at once.
My characters are becoming more assertive. I stand up to my parents’ mutual derision because I am not their marriage counselor. I call out transphobia directed towards my friends. I advocate for myself when doctors dismiss my health problems before they’ve even made an examination.
These actions still feel like characters. I still make new masks that shield my parents from the full extent of the pain they’ve caused, that present me as an ally rather than trans myself, that hide or diminish my experiences so others don’t worry about me. I still tell myself I should be able to handle the masquerade.
The other week, I was telling my friend a story about an evening with my family. It was all happy and mundane and innocuous. After I was done, she said, “Now I know what you did, but how did it feel?” So I told her a second story. After I was done, we agreed it was more depressing, but also more honest. Our stories have many layers. We make characters all the time. I’m trying to make mine more true-to-life.
Masquerade! Paper faces on parade . . .
Masquerade! Hide your face, so the world will never find you!
Masquerade! Every face a different shade . . .
Masquerade! Look around – there’s another mask behind you!