Shakespeare can teach us about the stereotypes and struggles transgender people experience, says University of B.C. English professor Mary Ann Saunders.

She is one of many researchers, opinion leaders, activists and students coming from around the world for an upcoming international conference on the lives of trans and gender nonconforming people, which is taking place at the University of Victoria from March 17 to 20.

The Moving Trans History Forward: Building Communities – Sharing Connections conference is being led by Aaron Devor, the world's only Chair in Transgender Studies, who was appointed at UVic in January this year.

Shakespeare and gender identity

Mary Ann Saunders

Mary Ann Saunders is one of many researchers, opinion leaders, activists and students around the world that are participating in the conference taking place at the University of Victoria from March 17 to 20. (Mary Ann Saunders )

For her presentation, Saunders will be speaking about the character Ariel in Shakespeare's play The Tempest.

Ariel is a spirit who is the "indentured" servant to protagonist Prospero, who makes Ariel do his bidding, and specifically take on female form on three occasions.

Saunders based one of her English literature courses around this character after reading a paper that focused on the 2010 film version of Ariel, in which the male character has breasts when taking on female form, but a masculine face.

Saunders said she said she was "irritated" when the article she read described the character in the film as an example of "body horror."

"These are her words: is grotesque, is monstrous, and she refers to these embodiments as impossible. "When I read that I was thinking well, okay, but this body looks an awful lot like my body," Saunders told North by Northwest host Sheryl MacKay.

"And, it looks an awful lot like the bodies of a lot of trans women I know. And our bodies are not horrifying, they are not grotesque, and they're certainly not impossible. Otherwise I would not be here."

Trans stereotypes

From there, Saunders realized there were a number of interesting parallels between Ariel and the lives of trans women.

For example, when Prospero makes Ariel take on the form of a sea nymph to lure a prince, it "draws on kind of a cultural stereotype … which is that we take on a false female form in order to seduce or lure unsuspecting men into relationships that they would not otherwise want to be in or chose."

Saunders, who is emphatic that she doesn't believe this stereotype, recalls watching the movie scene in which Ariel watches the prince with Prospera's daughter.

"At that moment I see playing out a feeling I know a lot of trans women experience, which is this feeling that the people who we want to love us, the people who we want to be in relationship with us, are not going to be," she said.

"They're always going to choose the person who isn't trans over us."

Saunders said she realizes this isn't always true, but said it speaks to an anxiety that many trans people have.

"There's this place of identification there, which I find really beautiful, and also really bittersweet."

With files from CBC's North by Northwest


To hear the full story listen to the audio labelled: UBC prof featured at international transgender conference coming to UVic