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Newest Tool to Battle Transphobia: Puppets

Puppets

An actor in a new puppet-based video series for students says storytelling is how we'll break down the gender norms that hold us all back.

They were playing one of those magical self-generating kids' games, where the rules are fuzzy, the atmosphere electric. I was, as usual, walking between pockets of people. I do not know what trickster-god possessed me on that day. Before I could stop myself I'd crossed the threshold.

"Hey, can I play too?"

Katie, the leader, didn't hesitate: "No. Only girls can play this game."

I sputtered, "But ... Steven's not a girl!"

Katie's expression, the mixture of amusement and surprise as she stopped short and gazed over, is forever fixed in my memory.

"Oh, yeah!" she said, "I forgot!"

I stood bewildered, frozen, as the group giggled away from me back into their secret realm. I was trapped in Boy World, where every game (sometimes, it seemed, every interaction) needed to come down to being a winner or a loser -- "neither" didn't exist. Competition causes me psychic pain which, at that age, I did not yet have the tools to handle. Here was Steven freely walking the mysterious Girl World that I was forever barred from, and I had just witnessed a girl have to re-realize Steven was a boy. Mythologically speaking, this impenetrable, confounding, aching moment, at 7 years old, was precisely when I decided to pretend to be cisgender.

Years later, when one of my best friends inadvertently sparked me remembering who I am, I found I'd built a prison out of imposed maleness compounded by my natural weirdness. Friends always affectionately called me an alien. But whether accepted or rejected, I always felt like an imposter. An ever-present sense of terror and unbelonging. I even slowly forgot what I was hiding. I just knew that, whatever it was, I must not be exposed. And then came what storyteller Ursula Le Guin describes when she writes, "Anyone who has been able to break from the grip of a controlling, crippling belief or bigotry or enforced ignorance knows the sense of coming out into the light and air, of release, being set free to fly, to transcend."

A new video series, BreakthroughU, is delving into complicated social issues, including the daily struggles of a gender-nonconforming person. The series, which is mainly intended for college and high school audiences, explores events arising from gender-based discrimination and violence as they commonly occur in campus and school life. Through storytelling, the videos address issues including intimate partner violence (in heterosexual and same-sex couples), nonconsensual image sharing, sexual harassment, discrimination against gender-nonconforming and transgender people, hypermasculinity, and gender policing. The videos also take an unusual approach -- the characters are played by puppets.

When I first saw the BreakthroughU script, about 10 minutes before my audition to play the role of Sam, the gender-nonconforming character, I discovered this person's experience of gender to be different from mine. Whereas Sam (at least on the day the script takes place) identifies as a woman, so likely has some sense of what a woman is, one of the major qualities of my gender experience is my lack of this sense.

I simply do not have the seemingly innate sense of womanness or manness that many cis and trans folk do. I honed in on the "fluid" in "gender-fluid" and decided to work with water imagery. Water is something nonhuman that led me out of my own story, into the space between stories, and into Sam's story.

Sam and I have an overlap of experience, but we do not experience gender nonconformity in the same way. Like how a trans woman and a cis woman are both women but have been given different experiences of womanness. Same concept, different context.

Finding my way into Sam's story drove home an important lesson. I was able to imagine into both the story Sam uses to identify themselves and the context from which that story arose. This practice is my job as an actor, but I am realizing I do not always carry this practice everywhere I go. I would like to learn to, and I would urge you to do the same.

The ability to walk out of one's own story and experience the story of another is not something new we need to add to ourselves, it is something ancient we can work to remember, re-embody. Storytelling helps us do this. Stories that explicitly seek to move us to think differently and create change in the world -- like BreakthroughU and the rest of Breakthrough's wonderful content -- or any other mode from fiction to memoir to journalism.

Any story, well told, can awaken and heal. We can all learn to name the sensation of leaving our own story, entering the land outside the stories, and passing into the story of another. We can carry this sensation out of the helpful -- but often passive -- privacy of our inner lives and into active, engaged, moment-to-moment practice. The video series helps viewers enter into this practice by providing tools, like an action hotline, which is a one-on-one coaching and mentoring resource for students who want to challenge gender norms and change the culture of gender-based violence in their campus communities.

As a storyteller and a gender-nonconforming human, there is a part of me that makes its home in that space outside our poisoned stories. But I make no claim to that space. My circumstances may have brought me there, but no one can own the in-between. No matter who you have been told you are, you are welcome there. It is a place of power. Power that no one is required to take or earn. Power that does not seek to overpower. Le Guin writes, "There is a kind of refusal to serve power that isn't a revolt or a rebellion, but a revolution in the sense of reversing meanings, of changing how things are understood."

Our identities contain our stories; our stories contain our identities. Any separation between the two is a game of the socialized intellectual mind; the two are not in fact divisible. Only by witnessing our fellow beings in context -- imagining into their world and their relationship with both their world and all the many worlds that make up Our World -- do we have a chance to see each other with open eyes, hear each other with open ears, and help each other with open arms. This is the only way true culture change is possible.

GABRIEL RODRIGUEZ is a storyteller featured in an educational video series developed by Breakthrough, a global human rights organization working to make violence and discrimination against women and girls unacceptable, through cutting-edge multimedia campaigns, community mobilization, agenda-setting, and leadership training.

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