The drama of being transgender

Dad as a woman
In "Looking for Normal" one family adapts to the reality that the man of the house is really much more comfortable as a woman.
Photo courtesy of Artisphere Theatre

In Looking For Normal, currently on stage at the Minneapolis Theater Garage, Roy and Irma have been happily married for 25 years. Until Roy tries to explain to Irma that he knows inside he's a woman.

Debra Davis
Debra Davis runs the Gender Education Center, and consults regularly with companies and schools when an employee or student decides to transition from one gender to another.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

As the play continues, Roy's family and friends all have their own reactions to Roy's decision to get a surgical procedure to become a woman. At first his wife Irma is horrified, but eventually she realizes she still loves the person she married, and decides to stay with him - or her. The actors who play Irma and Roy - Fred Wagner and Sally Ann Wright, are married in real life. They've been wanting to produce "Looking for Normal" for years - not because it's about being transgender, but because it's a really good love story.

"The play is about people's ability to love each other regardless of what decision is made," says Wright. "And we feel like there's not enough of that." "It was a labor of love because it was like - oh these two people, they love each other so much, that they can't let each other go," says Wagner. "And you know - it's kinda like us."

Dad is a man
In the play "Looking for Normal," Roy (the father) suffers from constant headaches which he finally realizes are attached to his inability to be his true self. It's just one of several stories reaching Twin Cities stages about being transgender.
Photo courtesy of Artisphere Theatre

"Looking for Normal" is one of many productions that deal with transgender identity and issues. "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" is a popular musical, and then there are movies like "The Crying Game," "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" and "Transamerica." In recent years transgender stories have been getting more regular exposure on Twin Cities stages. Claire Avitabile is the artistic director of 20% Theatre Company, which focuses on creating theatrical opportunities for women and for people who identify as transgender or queer. Avitabile says she's received numerous scripts for plays that depict transgender people how they want to be seen - as just another character.

"We're trying to stay away from the 'Lifetime Movie' aspect of the storytelling," laughs Avitabile. "Many of the plays we're getting include real experiences. They're not there to educate others but to show these people on stage as no different from anyone else on stage."

Claire Avitabile
Claire Avitabile is the artistic director of 20% Theatre Company, which strives to give theatrical opportunities for people who identify as transgender or queer.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

The Twin Cities is host to an array of services, both social and medical, for transgender people. Debra Davis is executive director of the Gender Education Center. She regularly consults with corporations and schools on how to handle an employee or student who is transitioning from male to female, or vice versa. Davis worked with the cast of Looking for Normal, and has a cameo appearance in the play. She says theater manages to put a human face on transgender issues to people who might not otherwise be sympathetic. She says it makes sense that the Twin Cities is telling more transgender stories on stage.

"Our transgender community here in the midwest is extremely active, is extremely vital," says Davis. "And we were the first state in the US to offer basic protections for transgender people in our states human rights act. That was back in 1993 - 15 years ago. And it wasn't until another seven years passed by that any other state joined us. So it's a wonderful place to be."

Davis says it's too bad that there are also comic stereotypes out there of men in drag, or that news stories will tend to hold up one transgender person as the representative of an entire community. But she says even bad news and stereotypes raise awareness of the presence of transgender people, and at this point, she'll take it.