Six years ago, I was in bed with a man. We met on a sex app dedicated to larger bois and those who worship them. Well, actually not much sex is arranged on the app because people who find each other on there rarely meet up. Rather, they text endlessly, musing ad infinitum on the possibilities of a physical connection without ever making any tangible plans for an actual liaison. So, when you catch someone on the app who actually wants to meet, you are excited - and skeptical - and completely down for whatever - because this is a rare and wondrous prospect, to say the least. A man is a man, particularly one is “invisible” within the LGBTQIA+ world: not white cisgender Adonis-bodied male identifying.
Two months, three phone calls, and four dirty text exchanges later, this gentleman caller asked me to his apartment. It was the early days of Uber, but I took the sojourn in this new-fangled ride sharing machine into a suburb outside of LA. I went because I was curious; I went because I was horny; I went because I was being asked into the intimate graces of a man and, goddamnit, I was in need of his sensual consideration. Upon arrival, he greeted me at his door with wet hair and a white tank top- Stanley Kowalski much?! We had dinner and shared a bottle of rye (actually, he kept offering the brown elixir to me, perhaps as liquid courage - a bravery, I presume, that I was to espouse for us both during the evening since I was the principle one doing the drinking. Emboldened by the drink, I made the first move: I touched a river-like vein which crawled from his middle finger past his knuckle to the soft back side of his right hand before disappearing into his wrist. And with that simple, bioelectric exchange, there he went: pulling me to his lap in his dining chair, then rushing me to his couch, then rolling me to the foot of his bed. We could not get our hands off of each other.
As we grew closer and closer to our intimate moment, breathing, sighing, thrusting, he suddenly pulled away. He asked if I had shaved my legs. The roughness of my leg hair disturbed him. I kissed his mouth and playfully apologized. He bade me to stop. No more kisses. He did not like the feeling of my stubble on his neck. He inquired if I had shaved before I arrived and pointed to his bathroom, where an extra razor was perched in a plastic cup if I needed it.
As I ripped away from his bed, he tried to apologize, saying he was accustomed to smooth Asians and he thought I was...oh let's not get into it. No. Let’s. I am Half Asian, Half Black/White. I am femme presenting. But there will always be parts of myself - physical and emotional - that are masculine. He was expecting me to present myself (in behavior and personal grooming) as a wholly feminized figure upon which he could paint a dominating, masculine, binary-affirming standard. He was not making space for the multiplicity of gender expressions that constitute my persona - or his own, for that matter. Why was it so important for him, as a cisgender male, to be in bed with someone more feminized? Was that a little justification for his queer attraction? “Well, you feel like a woman to me, so this is alright.” Oh, darlings, have I heard that one before...
The night was done.
Roger Q. Mason as Taffeta in Lavender Men at Circle in the Square Theatre (2019). Photo Credit: C.B. House
As a gender non-conforming, plus-sized queer person of color, I exist as a living disruption of the biases and binaries that keep us, the resplendent human race, confined within the regulations of dominant culture and social permission. Disrupting these sociocultural forces exists at the heart of my work as a playwright and performer, for I believe it is my (and my queer family’s) obligation to use art as a vibrant vessel of change in our world. If theater is true to its Greek roots as “theatron”, the seeing place, then we have the power - through the refractive alchemy of performance ritual - to name, call out, and change those societal structures which no longer serve us constructively and inclusively.
For my part, the writing I offer to the American theatrical conversation exists as a possibility model for queer gender and sexual imagination, agitating for the cultural changes that make space for fluid, body positive, non-binary queer futures for ourselves and the legendary children to come.
But that was not always the case.
Growing up, I was gender policed. My father is Black and Irish, the son of a lawyer and early childhood education who had moved West from Texas during the second Great Migration. My mother is Filipino Catholic, a product of the Americanized, post-World War II “Orient.” Respectability politics reigned supreme in my household. And I remember auditioning for plays in middle and high school, getting cast in them, and being taken out at first rehearsal. The reason given: my family did not want me to become a “sissy ass artist.”
But the theater is a powerful and jealous mistress, and she plays second fiddle to no one - respectability be damned. Once you and she fall in love with each other, you cannot let go. And she will not let you. So, I proceeded to find other means by which to be involved in theater and still remain respectability-approved. That is actually how I began writing. I was always interested in documenting a record of human behavior: little short dramas about how people’s physical actions, proximity to each other, diction, syntax, omissions and silences reveal volumes about their characters and interpersonal relations. I fancied a behaviorist, so to speak. And, more importantly, the work allowed me to still be involved with theater but from a more traditionally masculinized vantage point: the writer’s desk.
My early works suffered from the looming cloud of respectability that compelled me to pursue writing in the first place. Looking back on the work now, it was extraordinarily heady, constrained, and appeasing. Yes, don’t get me wrong, I still love some of the work I developed in those days (about 15 years ago).
Courtesy of Hook & Eye Theatre - Bridget Flanery and Julanne Chidi Hill in Onion Creek at Son of Semele Theatre (2010). Photo Credit: Abdullah Helwani
Onion Creek, a play about a celibate mixed race Texan peach farmer’s sexual awakening at the hands of an Irish sojourner, set forth a relationship to language, an impulse for physical storytelling, and thematic lines of inquiry about history, memory and identity that still persist in my work today. However, in retrospect, I cannot help but think how that play was a reflection of my own fear of intimacy because of its policing. Like the protagonist, I was not out because sexual desire was a source of shame due to my upbringing.
It would take several years - a vicious quarter life crisis; a forced coming out (yes, it was associated with the liaison I chronicled at the beginning of this reflection); a gender non-conformist awakening in beautiful queer Chicago (when I was in grad school living and making work amongst some of the fiercest queer performance artists I’d I had ever met, including Lucky Stiff, mayfield brooks, Bea Cordelia, and Mlondi Zhondi); and finally a reckoning with that kid who was taken off stage, cut off from self-love in mid-flight - before I could truly write and call myself a playwright.
I was already formed at 12, that “sissy ass artist” who just wanted to sing and dance and make people happy. I recognize that now. And coming into my power and confidence as a writer is intrinsically linked to my return to performing.
Let me take you back to the room where it happened.
Picture it: Soho, 2018. I was working on a showcase of a new play titled Pleasure Men about five “female impersonators” imprisoned for indecency while performing in Mae West’s The Pleasure Man. That show was to be these five queens’ Broadway debuts. A few weeks into rehearsals for the showing in Soho, director Michael Alvarez and I still couldn’t find an actor to play Molasses Jones, a no-nonsense Black queen from Harlem by way of Sarasota, Florida, censored by her family, the church and - ultimately her internalizing self. Yet, all she wanted to do was sing the blues - as a feminized siren. Maybe, subconsciously, I wrote the part for myself and this blight in casting was the universe saying, “Gurl, this is your moment. Get to work.” So I did. I bought some one-inch heel boots (mama’s flat feet can’t make it past that point, honey), a turban, and some make up. It all came together so quick and so naturally. And some of the scenes the creative team and I were struggling to build before I donned the garb just flowed, because I wrote them from the free, unapologetic place that can only exist in the performer’s body and soul. I was surprised how liberated, specific, and galvanizing the writing was; it was as though, overnight, I had become a completely different writer. And I was funny too. I was a comedy queen the whole time...who knew?! Hell, I was writing them damn jokes so my ass (and my sisters’ behinds on stage with me) wouldn’t look a fool.
I learned something through that process: as playwrights we cannot lose sight of the blueprints we are building for the actors who interpret our work. But more important than that, as writers we cannot create from a place of fear or inhibition or even too much formulaic planning. As writers, we need to exist in the unadulterated joy and pain of the knowing all and knowing nothing at the same time.
Writing is performance too, if we let it be.
A portrait of gender non-conformance (2020). Photo Credit: Abdullah Helwani
It is the dance of the mind, body, and spirit which peels away layers of socialization, homogenization, and inherited policing. When we sashay away from those stifling forces, we return to our most pure selves, those kids who stand on our middle school stages, looking out just wanting to sing and dance and make everybody happy - starting with ourselves.
I am grateful for the journey I have been invited to traverse during this lifetime. I am grateful to my parents who took me off of those stages: they helped me find a multidisciplinary life as a writer and performer. I am grateful for my family member who outed me: they abbreviated an existential process that would have taken far longer and been far more painful if it were not truncated by a callous rant. I am grateful for the man who kicked me out of bed: he drove me towards a life mission to use my voice to amplify my sistren who exist outside the binary. And I am grateful for my work as a writer and performer - it invites me to use “the seeing place” to embolden others who have been marginalized to know they are neither small nor alone.
I am grateful.
In community fighting the good fight till we all find love - of self and others.
And we are all finally free.
This essay was commissioned in collaboration with SideLight, an ongoing series of curated essays from a contingent of the next generation of artists and arts leaders. As the theater and entertainment industry rebuilds and reimagines, these pieces speak directly to our present, yet also seek to envision our future.