Transgender, nonbinary artists need a place they can call home

20% Theatre's Artistic Director Marcela Michelle outlines the chronic challenges facing trans and nonbinary artists

Three people sit on a stage in conversation.
Brenda Bell Brown, Artist Director Marcela Michelle and Shenique Emelife in 20% Theatre's 2018 production of "Waafrika."
Photo by Kristen Stoeckeler

News that 20% Theatre Company’s coming 15th season will be its last hit Marcela Michelle personally.

“It's hard to get your dream job and then have it not be something that is sustainable,” said Michelle, who has served as the company’s artistic director for the past year. She will continue in that role until the company closes in 2021.

The Minneapolis theater company has provided a much-needed space for transgender and gender nonbinary artists to create and perform new work.

Michelle said she’s committed to finding a new home for some of the theater’s programming, particularly “Q-Stage” — a new works series — after the company closes.

All too often, trans and nonbinary performers are forced to move their projects from one venue to another, Michelle said. She points to the closing of Patrick’s Cabaret and Intermedia Arts, among others.

She said transgender artists need a stable home they can call their own.

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"Our spaces can no longer be transient spaces,” said Michelle. “It is not lost on me that we experience drastically disproportionate rates of homelessness as youth and as adults, and that that is reflected in our arts atmosphere as well."

Michelle said funding is a chronic issue for organizations that serve queer and transgender artists.

“I think sometimes a lack of funding or lack of interest comes from a feeling of, ‘Well, that's not about me, I don't necessarily need that story or I saw a very popular version of this story. I think I have an understanding of what this community is or has experienced,’” Michelle said. “And I want people to think of trans artists and of trans art as human, as something that you might be able to learn from, and that you might be able to see some glimpse of yourself in.”

Michelle’s hope is that if people approach transgender stories with genuine curiosity, they’ll ultimately feel compelled to support the work.

Michelle says while transgender stories may be getting more visibility, transgender artists have to work the hardest to get funded. At a time when all arts organizations are suffering due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Michelle said the stakes are even higher.

She was particularly alarmed to see the Minnesota State Arts Board remove proposed language that would give LGBTQ artists preferred consideration for artist relief grants.

“It's a form of gatekeeping that sends a very clear message to me as an artist, that if I have not previously received funding from these people, my queerness is not relevant to my receiving funding,” she said. “And I think it should be, because it is certainly relevant to me not receiving funding.”

The exclusion only serves to further limit transgender artists’ visibility and access to safe and equitable arts practices, Michelle said.

The Minnesota State Arts Board says it did not include the LGBTQ community in its targeted relief grants because it did “not have data on that community.”

In addition to her role as artistic director at 20% Theatre, Michelle is also one of the co-artistic directors of the group “Lightning Rod” and a freelance artist. In addition to having a dedicated space of their own, Michelle said transgender artists, particularly BIPOC transgender artists, need consistent support from the arts community as a whole.

“We need large companies with national recognition to make an ongoing commitment to us, not just for a weekend or a production or a series, but for life,” said Michelle.

“We need to acknowledge that most often when trans voices are featured, and especially when we are placed in positions of leadership, that it is white trans people who are afforded those opportunities and given those positions,” Michelle added. “We need a commitment to celebrating specifically Black transgender artists and providing leadership opportunities specifically to Black transgender artists.”