Writing a semi-autobiographical play unlocked the artist I kept hidden as a trans man
My internalized transphobia had pushed down the artistic voice I developed as a child
This is a First Person column by Jay Gallant, a trans man living in Charlottetown. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
March 31 is International Trans Day of Visibility. The following piece features excerpts from Gallant's play, What's Eating You? Public readings of the play will be taking place in Charlottetown from March 31 to April 2.
Do you know what the term nostalgia really means? Homesickness. A longing to go back home — a place that's familiar to you. Where you felt safe and cared for and loved. I never got that feeling looking at pictures from childhood because I never felt at home in my own body.
These are words spoken by Sam Goody — a trans character from my play What's Eating You? — as he comes to terms with his gender identity as an adult. Even though the character is fictional, his experiences and feelings are not.
Because they are my own.
And just as Sam finds his own voice and identity as the narrative unfolds, I discovered my own voice as an artist in writing it.
I've been a trans activist for the past six years, giving talks locally in P.E.I and providing consultations on creating safer spaces and pathways to health care for the gender diverse community. I use my voice to educate and inform in formal settings.
But when I started writing this semi-autobiographical play two years ago — as a means of coping with the anxiety and uncertainty of living through a pandemic — I discovered within me another voice desperate to be heard. Buried under layers of self-doubt and shame was the voice of a writer.
I thought the problem was me
Accepting that I'm trans now means accepting that for most of my life I've been living as a fraction of a person when I could have been whole … all those years I can never get back.
As a trans kid growing up in Charlottetown in the '80s and '90s, I didn't have access to gender-affirming care — like hormone blockers and hormone replacement therapy — or support of any kind. Words like "trans" and "gender diversity" weren't even in my vocabulary. There were no visible trans role models to look up to (that I knew of) or rainbow stickers on guidance counsellor's doors signalling that it was a safe thing to talk about.
There was nothing to make me feel that what I was going through — that who I was — was normal. So, I grew up believing there was something wrong with me.
For many years, writing was my solace — a way of making sense of the world around and within me.
I've always had a vivid imagination, my young mind often bursting at the seams with fantastical worlds and characters. I began writing stories as soon as I was able to string words together on a page. In junior high, I wrote poetry about everything from the beauty of Island beaches to grieving the loss of loved ones. I was transfixed with using metaphor to capture and convey elusive ideas and feelings.
That began to change, however, toward the end of junior high when the shame I felt about my gender identity led to an obsession with perfectionism — a desperate attempt to make up for what I perceived to be a lacking deep within myself.
And, because of that, I'll never experience what it's like to grow up without being in a constant battle with my body and how society perceives me.
Shortly after the onset of puberty — a traumatic time for many gender diverse folx — untreated gender dysphoria began eating me alive. Literally. Breasts, hips, my period. Anorexia slowed down the development of bodily parts and processes that caused me a great deal of pain but at a great cost to my health.
Grappling with my own transphobia
Piece by piece my body became my prison, and I was powerless to stop it. Anorexia gave me a sense of control — even if it was an illusion.
I was fortunate to get help for my eating disorder before it was too late, but the gender dysphoria that had triggered it was overlooked and left to fester. So was the shame instilled in me by a society that either vilified gender diversity or refused to acknowledge its existence altogether.
My shame resulted in me apologizing to bullies who beat me up or yelled at me for being in the "wrong" bathroom because of the way I looked. Because, deep down, I believed I deserved it.
That's what happens when you grow up being told your existence is a sin.
Although I no longer feel shame about my gender identity, 20 years of internalized transphobia still affects me. I had found my voice as a queer activist years ago, but the scars left behind from decades of trauma and shame prevented my artistic voice from breaking the surface.
I silenced the voice of a child who — before I started making myself small and silent to survive — had fallen in love with writing and the magical power of creating.
That perfectionism was so unforgiving that nothing I wrote was ever good enough. Shame had convinced me that I wasn't good enough, and my creative writing had a great deal of me in it. So, by the time I entered high school, I had stopped trying.
Until decades later when the shock and the existential threat of the pandemic fractured the scars shame left behind, allowing the creative waters within me to begin flowing freely again.
Specifically, writing a play about a trans man coming to terms with his gender identity amidst a zombie apocalypse. I thought it was a fitting setting for a story written during a global viral outbreak.
I still have a lot to say
The dam's destroyed and it's staying that way.
What's Eating You? began as a private exercise as an attempt to frame my own lived experience — a story I've told countless times as an activist but this time within a fictional horror narrative. It's genre I've always been drawn to due to its subversive nature, but I hadn't anticipated just how easily I would fall back in love with the process of writing and that I would feel inclined to share it publicly.
I had finally given a voice to the artistic part of me, and he was desperate to be heard.
For many years, I've helped bring the words of playwrights to life as a community theatre actor and director. I hadn't considered the possibility that I would assume the role of playwright someday because I never thought of myself as a writer. That changed, however, when my own words were brought to life for the first time during a dramatic reading of What's Eating You? at a workshop last October.
It was a transformative experience that pierced through my shell of self-doubt and validated the writer inside.
I can't just forget about the past because it's been dug up and exposed to the light of day.
Although writing this play has been a freeing and healing process, it has been challenging as well. There is an emotional cost to sharing such a personal part of myself. I've had to step away from the script at times to process the feelings and trauma it uprooted, but I believe it has been worth it for me as an artist and as an advocate.
I am incredibly grateful for the support and encouragement I've received from family, friends and the local arts and gender diverse communities. I identify as a trans artist because visibility is important to me as is sharing our stories.
I will continue to provide space for the artistic voice inside of me because he still has a lot to say.
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