JOHNNY BLAZES

Somerville, MA

What are your pronouns?

They/them.

Where do you work?

I have two jobs. I work at Esh Circus Arts in Somerville, and I work at the Neighborhood School in Jamaica Plain. At both jobs, I have a lot of things that I do because I’m multi-talented. [laughs] And because I just really like having a lot of projects going on, that’s how my brain works.

So at Esh I teach theater and dance, and I co-direct the Professional Preparatory Program, which is a part-time program for people who want to go into the performing world/circus arts. Basically, short answer is, I teach theater and dance and I’m on the management team and I do a bunch of manage-y things.

At Neighborhood School I teach theater and dance, and I lead a rock band of fifth and sixth graders. I do some administrative work in admissions and development.

I teach a social/emotional skills class for fifth and sixth graders where we talk about sexism, homophobia, racism, community activism, world religions, community organizing, gentrification, all that stuff, and then also about the personal and emotional side of things. Like: how do I respond when I feel anger, and what are my go-tos, and how do I escalate or de-escalate a conflict, how am I growing my friendships? Am I working for each other in this class or am I working against each other and how are we creating a dynamic that is who we want to be?

The school is really special. It’s 30 years old this year. It’s only 60 kids, kindergarten through sixth grade, and it’s in a three-family house in JP. It was started by these three women, their husbands there supporting them, and they just started this little school with seven kids in a house based on the philosophies that they had sort of come up with together and that developed over time. The philosophies are personalized learning within a community, and at the core of our values are representing the diversity of Boston racially, economically, across the board, and putting anti-racist and feminist work at the forefront. So the school is really intentionally diverse, and the philosophy of building community and of having an emotionally intelligent life and putting arts at the forefront is just as important as math and science and literature. So every kid’s in chorus, every kid is in the school play that happens, every kid takes dance when I’m offering dance. We have kids with learning disabilities, we have kids who are considered “normal” learners, but we try to individualize their education.

The curriculum is really me and Tricia having a conversation once a week and deciding what the kids need that week and then working on it, and sometimes we outsource. This class has existed for 30 years as Tricia builds it. And sometimes we use curricula that’s been written by other people. The American Friends Service has a great curriculum called Help Increase the Peace that we use sometimes. So not always reinventing the wheel, but each week we sort of tailor it to where the kids are at that week.

Do you have any hobbies or special interests?

I never know what to say about hobbies because I’ve made the things I love into my career. I’m a musician. When you ask me where I worked, I said the two concrete places that regularly pay me. I’m also a professional performer, I get paid to perform; there just isn’t a single building I go to to do that. I front a funk and soul band called Johnny Blazes and the Pretty Boys. I’ve been a vaudeville performer for the last decade, doing drag, burlesque, clowning, other circus arts… I MC a lot of shows, directed a lot of circuses… So I don’t consider those my hobbies, because I consider those my career, and I consider both education and performance dual careers at the same time. Hobbies… I’m teaching myself German. I don’t know. [laughs] There’s not a lot I do that I don’t dive into fully and then end up having it be a big part of my life and career.

The only thing I probably haven’t monetized is sitting on the beach. [laughs] I’m also really interested in sexual health and human sexuality, so I’m on the board of a queer, feminist, anti-racist porn magazine called Salacious. The drive was to really include comics and have queer comics, and it ended up expanding to more written word and photography and fine art. So it’s like low-brow fine art. 

We haven’t put out any issues in a while because it’s all DIY, and the editor-in-chief is just swamped with her life and job, but we have four issues and we’re working on an omnibus I think. So that, and sometimes I go to kink conferences and MC there and teach classes on drag and the performance of gender, and that kind of stuff. So I’m really interested in human sexuality in that I mostly haven’t monetized or I break even on it, let’s say that.

How do you handle the issue of pronouns and being gendered when interacting with strangers / mixed company / etc?

Well, it really varies from situation to situation. So, I go to the airport, I look like a woman as I go through security, they take a picture of my body, and I look female, and they assign me a female guard to pat me down. I just want to get on the damn plane. I don’t care. It’s really not on my agenda. For me, it’s about picking my battles. I’ll go the coffee shop and somebody will be like, “Here’s your coffee, ma’am,” and I don’t necessarily have the energy for that. If it’s somewhere where I’m invested in the community, I will really politely and gently correct folks, or I’ll just set people up for success at the beginning. So in my dance class, at the very beginning after they do their warm-up, they come over to me, we stand in a circle, and we do some stretching. I have everyone go around and say their name, pronoun, and how they’re feeling that day. And I do it every week, even though sometimes I get the same people, because people’s pronouns change sometimes. So I’m setting people up to have my pronouns already in mind. At Esh it’s really not a big deal, because there’s such a great queer and genderqueer community there, and people who are really aware of stuff and really try. And even people who are straight, cisgender, this is new to them; they’re in the Esh culture, they get it.

Sometimes when I’m taking a class, as we go around and say our names, the teacher won’t necessarily think to say, “Name and pronoun,” because if it’s not part of their experience. They won’t think to say it. 

So I’ll just say my name and pronoun, and I’ll be the one who does that, and that’s fine. But those are in spaces where I’m comfortable. If I’m taking a workshop that’s not about gender, that’s about anything else in the world, not in my homespace – if I’m doing a CPR training with mostly cisgender people – it really depends. It kind of depends on how much energy I have, am I willing to take on that conversation, am I willing to do a bunch of educating, am I willing to watch people feel really uncomfortable when they inevitably mis-gender me and then don’t have the vocabulary to quickly apologize and move on? I think in part because I’m so empathic, it just becomes exhausting for me to feel bad for them that they feel embarrassed that they got it wrong. So I make the decision from moment to moment whether I’m going to be “out,” I guess. That’s never a word I’ve chosen to use about my gender, but it is the common slang about that.

I’m in a transitional moment at Neighborhood School where my colleagues I’ve known for some years have known that I prefer gender-neutral pronouns and weren’t ready to take it to the student and parent communities, which was really tough. But we’ve decided this summer that it’s time. So I’m about to write an email to all the parents and students, and about to take on a lot of educating, and a lot of uncomfortable correcting or not correcting, because they both suck. So I can tell you in six months how that feels. [laughs]

Have you had difficulties with changing your name and the way it affects you moving through the world, being recognized how you want, or being mis-gendered?

Changing my name just colloquially, like getting people to call me my name, wasn’t really an issue when I graduated college. Johnny had been my nickname among close friends since high school, but then by the end of college I just asked everyone to call me that, and then when I moved back here I just introduced myself as Johnny, so that wasn’t tough. Interestingly the elementary school where I work is the one that I went to, so my boss for example has known me for 29 years. She’s great, and every time I’ve changed my name, even from my given name to a nickname, at age 13 and 16 and 20, she always just falls right on and has gotten it right. 

Legally changing my name has been a nightmare, and I’m still undergoing it. I know some people who it was a breeze for, and for me it has been hellish. And I think some of it is just circumstance, some of it is being female and changing both your names but not changing your gender marker, changing your name from a female-sounding name to a male-sounding name… I also just happen to have a lot of different credit cards, and bank accounts, and savings accounts, and just so many different institutions that I’m connected to, and all of them are not really equipped for a full name change. Almost every single one of them has been like, “Oh, you’re just changing your last name, just fill out this form. Oh, you changed your whole name? Oh, you have to send us like, 85 pieces of paper, and we’re gonna send them back to you, and we’re gonna put you on hold for half an hour,” and yeah, huge song and dance. But if you just get married, it’s really easy.

What word(s) would you use to describe your identity?

I use the word “genderqueer” first and foremost. Gender nonconforming. I usually don’t say it because it’s too many syllables. Sometimes also I say non-binary trans. Again it’s a lot of syllables, and…it’s an identity I have a complicated relationship with, and it’s one that I think is important to stake a claim in. Because the notion of being transgender obviously has broken into the mainstream, and the narrative that’s going along with that is the “born in the wrong body” narrative. A lot of the people who are most visible in the mainstream – Laverne Cox, Chaz Bono – because their genders do fit within the binary, them being the only ones who are visible reifies the notion of the gender binary. Not them personally, I think it’s great that they are the genders they are, but the fact that they are the ones who are visible reinscribes that. So I think it’s important to have a stake in the notion of trans as being able to include people who don’t fit in the binary.

I also say “gender fucker” depending on whether I’m in front of kids and parents or not. But to me that’s important because I do think I fuck with gender, and as a performer, definitely. And also, I love swearing, and I love the word “fuck.” I like all the meanings it has. I like the notion of fucking with things. I like “genderqueer” because of the implication of queering gender or fucking with gender. That’s why I use that more than gender nonconforming. Because whether or not I conform to gender isn’t really the issue for me, conformity has never been of interest to me, but actively fucking with something is interesting to me. I’m not just sort of passively like, “I don’t fit in,” I’m like, “No, let’s fuck this shit up. Let’s totally confuse people.” Some people consider themselves agender, and I do not, because I don’t think I have a lack of gender, I think I have an excess of gender. I’m just really emphatic as a human.  

So those are just gender words I would use to describe myself. I think it’s also really important to name other things like: I’m white, I’m from the Northeast – that’s really important to me – I’m of the Oregon Trail generation, meaning between the Millenials and the Generation X. I still remember CDs and cassettes. So remembering before the Internet existed, but still, the Internet came to be really popular when I was a tween/teen. I remember when tween wasn’t a word.

I would also say that important words for me are feminist, anti-racist, sex-positive, body-positive, size-positive. I’d say activist too, that fits. I’m really interested in having conversations about privilege and oppression and intersectionality, and always learning, and finding the edge. For me, a lot of the growing edge is around ableism and paying attention to my language, and accessibility, especially teaching really physical arts. Being aware of the ways that we are and are not accessible to people who move through the world differently, and how to start accessing that.

Naming “white” as part of my identity is important because I think so often white people skip over that part because we don’t have a strong white identity. I mean, unless you have an intentional white supremacist identity. 

And if you have any sense of whiteness, either you’re white and you think that you’re superior on purpose, and this is the stuff we equate with the KKK, or you eschew that so much and you’re so afraid of that that you just don’t acknowledge that you have a white identity. In part because of the invisibility of whiteness, but also because the idea of having a positive white identity, you associate with white supremacy or you associate with racism. As opposed to being able to say, Okay, I can be proud of being white, or I can have a connection to my whiteness, without thinking that it implies privilege or thinking that I’m entitled to things or entitled to privilege. I’m still developing that theory, and how to be maybe, at first, okay with being white, and then into being a white person. Because I am, I can’t change that about myself, and figuring out what parts of white culture I can connect with, and what parts I find that I don’t care for. For example, thinking that you’re entitled to things. [laughs]

Are there ways that you dress / act / speak / etc. to specifically make a statement to others about your identity? Why?

I think I used to, when I was in my early 20s. It was really important to me that people see me and read me. Now I wear whatever I can dance in. [laughs] So when I teach at the elementary school, I definitely dress in bright colors, and I’m not afraid to wear button-downs and bowties and jewelry, so I like to mix and match gender markers. I don’t know that I’m doing it with that same sense of “I want people to see me,” so much as I love fucking with gender. 

And I love being a great role model for kids to be excited about being a peacock and just being ridiculous. I really like clothing as an expression. To me it’s a form of art, and it’s cool to me that not everybody’s into that form of art. I don’t judge people for wearing jeans and a T-shirt, because often I’m wearing a leotard and tights. But when I do have the opportunity, I’m real excited to wear my flowered shoes or my gold high-tops with my bright blue shiny pants and a button-down and a tie and a necklace. So I like messing with stuff, but more it’s just that I like being ridiculous. I wouldn’t say that I act differently in order to be read. It’s important to me that I act like me. There were definitely times when I experimented with that, and sort of posturing myself differently out in the world. On stage it’s totally different. When I’m embodying a character, I embody the gender of that character. But to me that’s work, that’s different. I assume you’re talking about day-to-day; I just move and talk like me.

How early on did you know or suspect that you did not identify within the binary?

I think that trans people are often asked to prove their history. “I always knew I didn’t feel like a girl,” or “I always played baseball with the boys,” so this notion of “I always was this way,” or “I always have been this way” is really common in trans narratives and narratives that we ask trans people to have. Instead of saying I’ve always been this way, I like to say I’ve always been becoming who I am. Because I can stand here at 32 and look backwards at my life and say, Well, at 5 years old I got my hair cut “like a boy,” and still wore dresses, and ran around and climbed trees and got holes in my tights, but insisted that I had to wear tights because I liked tights. So was I behaving genderqueerly, was I fucking with gender expectations at 5? Sure. I don’t know that I want to start using that as proof of who I am, because I think that’s a slippery slope, especially for folks who don’t have that as part of their narrative, and who maybe didn’t come to a sense of self-awareness until adulthood. I just want to make sure that there’s room for people to make decisions about their genders or have realizations about themselves at any point in their lives.

The real answer to your question is – I don’t think I had a conscious understanding of it until I was a teenager. And even then we didn’t even really have words for it, so we made up this word “boygirl” to describe me. And I didn’t feel super precious about it, I wasn’t like, “I’m not a girl, I’m not a boy, don’t call me that,” it just kind of was like this joke amongst us that was like: I like to wear short skirts and fishnet shirts, and I have a shaved head, and basically I look like a dyke, but I am not. And I kind of walk like a guy. I have this strut with my Doc Martins or whatever, and I don’t really know how to walk in heels. But I still really love going to ballet class. So I had this – this word that I had made up. I think as a kid I was very much like: I’m a girl. I’m a girl with short hair. I’m a girl with short hair and a flowered shirt and boys’ cargo shorts. And I just was really okay with being a girl who didn’t look like other girls, which I guess is sort of related to one of the first things I said – when the TSA wants to call me “ma’am,” I’m like, eh. [shrugs]

Do you think anything about the way you were raised or where you grew up affected how you drew conclusions about your identity?

Yeah, absolutely. I grew up in Boston, in Roslindale, Jamaica Plain. My mom has always had a buzz cut. There was like, two years when she grew out her hair. The same two years my dad grew out his hair. My dad had long hair a lot when I was a kid. And my mom was clearly the boss. So gender roles in my family were not normative. My parents always supported however I wanted to dress, and whatever activities I wanted to do. I do think that they treated me like a girl because everybody treats girls like girls and boys like boys to some extent. We do our best now in our generation to get away from that, but there are still things like – I remember having arguments when I was a teenager with my mom about coming home alone on the T. My mom would say, “Yes but it’s not safe for you, you’re a 16-year-old girl,” and I’d say, “Well it’s never gonna change unless we change it. You know? I don’t care. I’ll be fine. I’ll be safe. I have my pager.” [laughs] “Are you really gonna wear that shirt, low-cut like that?” But ultimately I would say, “Yes I am,” and she would say, “Okay, it’s your body, I can’t force you to change your clothes.” Whereas many people’s parents did force them to change their clothes.

I grew up in a really liberal household, I grew up with friends whose parents were lesbian and gay, going to this really progressive school where we talked about racism from the time I was 5 years old. I knew what slavery was in kindergarten. So, yes? And I just had role models around me of a lot of different types of genders, and butch lesbian moms, and fey gay dads and just lots of different models for that. And given that it was the 80s and 90s, it looked different than it does now. We didn’t have the word “genderqueer,” like I said, but I certainly knew people who were gender nonconforming as adults who modeled that for me.

Can you give any examples of misconceptions people have about those who identify outside the binary? Have you personally dealt with them?

So I live a little bit in a queer bubble. I live in Somerville, I teach in Somerville and JP, I went to Oberlin – which if you don’t know, it is a really liberal, hippy school in Ohio. Like lots of student co-ops, I don’t think I wore shoes the whole time I was there. I certainly didn’t shave my armpits the whole time – I mean, I still don’t. But also really radical. It was the first college to accept women, it was the first college to accept people of color; long history of radicalism.

I would think that the main thing that I’ve experienced is this idea that it’s a choice. Because it is, you get to choose what pronouns you want to be called, absolutely. And it’s not a choice any more than being gay is a choice. Like we know that the radical right, the fundamental right, wants to believe that being gay is a choice, and that you can de-gay-ify yourself by just making a different choice. It’s not true. It’s just not true. You’re not choosing who you’re attracted to, you’re just attracted to who you’re attracted to. And so the same thing I think is true of gender, that it’s not like I got radicalized by learning the word “genderqueer” and all of a sudden I was; it was that this was something true about me and that “he” and “she” weren’t fitting for me, and then I found the word for it.

For some people their experience is that they don’t realize that that’s who they are until they learn about the concept of it, and that’s totally valid also. And it’s still not like they’re making a choice. So it’s tricky with language, because I don’t think we need to eliminate the word “choose” or “choice” from our vocabulary at all when talking about it, because I might say, These are the pronouns that I chose, because especially with gender nonconformity, you might choose zie and hir, you might choose ey/em/eir, like you might choose one of a number of gender neutral pronouns. And every day I make a choice about whether I’m going to engage in a conversation with someone about my gender or not, but that doesn’t mean I’m choosing to be genderqueer, I just am, and I’m choosing to live authentically. So I guess that’s the main misconception.

I guess maybe another one would be that all people who are genderqueer are agender, or are gender neutral. That’s a term that I think gets misused. And it’s a term I don’t have a lot of use for. People use it to describe bathrooms, like a gender neutral bathroom; I kind of get that, it’s a bathroom that isn’t committed to one gender or another. But when we start using it for people I think it gets tricky, and some people may identify with that word, that’s great; but again for me that’s not the thing, it’s a plethora of genders. Plural, rather than a lack of gender.

In your own words, how would you explain that gender identity is different from sexual orientation?

They’re totally different things. Your gender identity is who you are, how you feel inside, and your sexual orientation is to whom you’re attracted. So one is inside, and one is outside, in a sense. Gender identity can be how you feel, how you express yourself, how you dress, how you talk, anything that you choose. So orientation and sexuality also often get separated into separate categories, like your sexuality is who choose to have sex with, and your orientation is to whom you’re attracted and how you’re oriented in a sense. So I would say my orientation is that I’m queer, and I’m using that in the most expansive way possible, and my sexuality is that I’m bisexual or pansexual. I don’t make a huge difference between those words; I think for some people it’s important to differentiate those. At this point I think bisexual has expanded enough to mean essentially pansexual.

I went to Boston Latin School. I’m not [proud of it]. [laughs] Latin School is an incredibly problematic institution. I’m proud of my language nerdery, I’ll say that. And I learned a lot of stuff at Latin School, absolutely. So, as a Latin nerd, I used to be really against the word “bisexual” because “bi” means “two,” and I was like, what are the two things? Man and woman? I don’t believe in the binary, so why would I believe in there being two sides of sexuality? That’s an argument that people have been making. So the choice was either eradicate the word, or expand what the word means. And I think there are a lot of folks in the bisexual community who have worked really hard to expand what that word means. I personally feel conflicted. I think I started to come around to the word “bisexual” as I got older and mellowed out a little bit.

How do you feel represented in media and society at large?

Well as a white person, I feel very represented. There’s lot of white people. [laughs] And as an educated person of middle class background, certainly that representation is there. As a genderqueer person and a non-binary trans person, I don’t see a lot of that representation. I think that we genderqueers have people that we gather to the cause who wouldn’t have necessarily stood for us. Prince as an example, or David Bowie, who I think was more likely to have stood for us. Michael Jackson even. Folks who have been fucking with gender. Even people like Annie Lennox. Women with short hair. Sinead O’Connor, Tilda Swinton to an extent. Boy George. People who mess with gender in really visible ways, but didn’t necessarily choose to come out and call themselves that, or we didn’t have a word for it. I can’t think of anyone currently that I think is really representing genderqueerness, but I just may be detached from mainstream media.  

There’s a show, House of Lies I think it’s called, with Don Cheadle, and his character’s son is genderqueer and it’s fantastic. He’s an incredible, incredible portrayal. It’s definitely findable on the Internet. I find it really funny, and it really tackles race head-on, and it’s a lot of really unlikeable characters. So if you don’t like that kind of show, it might not be your thing. But it’s brief. I think trans people have been in the media enough for there to be the trope of the beleaguered trans person, the trans person who’s misunderstood, who’s estranged from their family, who just needs that final surgery, who’s looking for acceptance from sources external to themselves, absolutely. Conflict makes better TV. I’m glad that we’re moving past the trope of trans person as psycho killer, or suicidal. Because that’s boring. [laughs]

[Jennifer Finney Boylan’s autobiography] pissed me off because for me it felt like so many times she was like, “My poor wife. My poor long-suffering wife. My poor wife who went through so much. My poor, poor wife who’s so brave, and this was so hard for her,” and I was like, “What?” Everybody I knew around me who was transitioning, their partner was like, “Okay. Well, sounds like you’re being more authentically you.” Especially when you’re queer, and your partner says, “Hey, so, actually, I’m a dude,” and you’re like, “Well, first of all, duh, I already knew that, and second of all, that doesn’t change who I am. Your gender change doesn’t change my identity.” For some people, it’s a little more wibbly. I had a friend who was like, “I’ve always been lesbian-identified. My partner identifies as male now. That’s problematic for me, and I’m just gonna keep moving forward because I love them.” So the fact that it was like her poor wife was thrown into the deep end, I just didn’t get it, and finally I was asking a friend, and the friend was like, “Well, because her wife is straight, and really attached to this straight identity, and straight people don’t know how to handle it.” Okay, fine, it’s just so weird to me.

I remember reaching a point as a teenager and being like, When can we just have a movie that just has gay characters in it and is not about them being gay? I think we’ve gotten farther along that path, and it’s still not quite there. 

The only movies about trans people are about their trans-ness. I don’t know when we get to just have trans characters where that’s just who they are. The Sandman comics, in one of the books there’s this secondary character who’s trans – and you kind of figure it out, if you’re paying attention to how she’s drawn, you can tell. I think she makes some references to it, but you really figure it out after she dies and her friend goes to her funeral, and her mom will only call her by her [old] name. But that’s really at the end of this character’s arc, so she’s just a character who’s supporting the main character and is being a badass and doing her part to move the story along, and she just happens to be trans.

 

The premise of Sandman is that it’s a bunch of different stories that fit together sort of; there are these 7 characters called The Endless who are metaphysical beings, even beyond Gods. Destiny, Dream, Desire, Despair, Death, Destruction and Delirium. Desire is represented as this gender ambiguous character, because desire is whatever you desire. So you might be a straight person, you might be gay, so Desire doesn’t really fall on one side or another. So in the late 80s/early 90s there’s this beautiful androgynous character who’s explicitly non-gendered. But this is Neil Gaiman writing this, and he’s a badass forward-thinking person.

What improvements would you like to see happen inside your communities and in society at large?

Overall, I would love to see all of my communities focus on examining privilege, and the invisibility of those privileges – and it’s different for each community – and for each individual in the community to do a lot of self-reflection so that we can start to dismantle a lot of these oppressive systems together. So in music, for example, racism is really important because it’s present all the time. Sexism is also really rampant, especially in rock’n’roll. It’s stupid how far behind we are.

As opposed to at my circus community, sexism I’m not super worried about. I’m working at a company that’s owned by a cis man, a cis woman, and a non-binary trans person. We’re not perfect, obviously, and we have to keep doing work. In that community, I want to look at diversity and accessibility, and how do we keep our business running while also making ourselves economically accessible and what that means for ethnicity and race and demographic.

Boston as a whole, Somerville as a whole, we need to look at gentrification, at housing costs and inequity there, how it’s affecting people of color, how it’s affecting artists, and how the city wants us artists to be around to make the city cool but then doesn’t really want to support us in doing that or in even being able to live here. So those are a few answers out of the many, many answers. In general, I want white people to take a look at themselves and stop being quite so defensive, and do the work to unpack their knapsacks.

Could you tell me about an experience or moment in your life that was very impactful for you? It can be in regards to your identity, or not.

Something that happened really recently. In this social/emotional skills class that I teach, the very first thing that we did in the school year was talk about grief, because the fifth/sixth grade class, one of their two co-teachers is in her mid-20s and her mom had just died. So the kids knew this; she was not coming in until the second week of school. So we had a conversation in the class about, The teacher’s coming back, you all know her, you care about her, and how are we going to interact with her when she comes back? What are some things you can say to somebody who’s grieving, and what does the process of grieving look like, and what are things you may have grieved in your life? I had them come up with things that they might have grieved in their life besides a death, and they came up with some really beautiful things like moving out of your house, or your parents getting divorced, or an older sibling going away to college. So we had this really beautiful discussion about grief and all that it contains, and what are some helpful things to hear and not hear? One of the things that I really tried to drive home for them was: you can feel multiple feelings at one time. You can feel happy and sad at the same time.

This conversation kind of came back around when it came time for graduation, and in the rock band they were writing a song about that sort of bittersweet feeling of moving on from a place and feeling excited about what’s next, and then feeling sad about what you’re leaving behind. So at graduation, the sixth graders each gave a speech, and one of those sixth graders gave this really beautiful speech using this metaphor about different shades of blue for the different experiences she had at school. She said, “Thanks to Johnny, I learned that I don’t have to feel just one feeling at a time, and so I can feel all these different shades of blue mixed together, and I can feel hopeful and excited about my next step, and totally done with sixth grade, and I can feel sad about leaving and about leaving my friends, and I can grieve leaving here too.”

 

It was impactful for me because I’ve struggled for many years between feeling like I have this destiny to be famous and to be a famous performer; that the only way that I can really enact change in this world and really have gotten to my deathbed and feel satisfied is if I’ve gotten so famous that I get my message out and I really get people to start looking at how they interact with each other, and being kinder, and dismantling oppression. Struggling between that and actually really loving what I do, and it’s on such a small scale – I meet with 16 kids to talk about feelings, and about how to be awesome in the world, and it feels so small and like I’m not making this huge impact that I “should” be making. I finally sort of gave up struggling with that and was like, Well, it feels right, I’m gonna do it. I love doing this thing. And being famous has become more and more abstract and less interesting to me. So it was impactful because it was this moment that cemented for me that it matters. This girl, her mom died when she was very little, and I made a difference for her, and she named it. I taught one girl that she can feel multiple feelings at a time, and so she’s going out there empowered with this emotional intelligence. It sort of made me feel like, Yes, this is your sign from the heavens that you’re doing the right thing.

Could you give me an example of something difficult that occurred in your life how you dealt with it? It can be in regards to your identity, or not.

My sister committed suicide when I was 28, in 2012. She was 23. Being her sibling through her addiction and all of the stuff that comes with that, was perhaps equally as hard as her death, just in really different ways. So yeah. How did I deal with it? At the time I was really entrenched in church life. I was the music director at a Unity Church in Brookline, so I had a really strong spiritual community, and a strong spiritual practice that I relied on. The director of the School in JP, I lived around the corner from her at the time, and I would sometimes just go sit on her porch and she’d feed me dinner, and we’d just talk about how unfair it was, and about my sister, and about her experiences with death of someone really close to her when she was about my age. So she was there, and Roger, who works at Esh, and a couple other circus friends, helped me move all my sister’s stuff. I was directing a circus at the time, and I just quit full-stop, and everybody on the team was like, Great, got it, we’ll do the show without you. I relied a lot on community and on my spirituality at the time, and my family.

My parents are both re-partnered, and so the four of them and my former partner and I, the six of us kind of made this little team that we called Basecamp.

So, the first week after Simone died, we all camped out at my dad’s house, and my moms took the couch, and dad and his partner were in the bedroom, and me and Ging were on the air mattress. So we’re all crowded together, and a couple people would go for a walk in the park, then come back, and a couple people would go get groceries and come back. So we would have these little ventures out, and then come back to basecamp. So we started making this joke, and we started calling the group of people Basecamp. So, just being really close with them, and really relying on them, and then also being an anchor for them, which was both challenging and fueling for me. Because I’ve had a peer relationship with my parents for a while; my dad and I run the band that I’m in together, and my mom and I go to church together, and we’ve been teaching at Neighborhood School together for this past year. And when my sister was alive, because she needed so much team support in handling her addictions, I often was on that team, until I finally was like, Actually I need to just step back and be her sibling. Which was a choice that I’m glad I made.

So I had a peer relationship with my parents for a long time, and because I had a really strong spiritual community and felt just really solid in that, I was really there a lot for them and what they were going through. So I guess that’s how I got through it. And a lot of crying, and being angry, and feeling a lot of things all at once, because that’s what grief is. Particularly with suicide, I think it’s really complicated. And humor, also. My family is very much about using humor to handle grief. Even in absolute times of devastation. There was this one moment in the hospital where my dad collapsed, just went boneless and was sobbing on the floor, and so all of us gathered around him and – my parents met at the opera house, they were both stagehands – and so somebody made some traviata joke about him dying on the floor and singing the final aria. [laughs] So he’s sobbing and laughing, and we’re laughing at him, and crying with him, because we can’t help but be ridiculous and make jokes.

Who in your life do you feel you can trust or depend on?

My partner, definitely. My close friends. I have a pretty tight-knit circle of friends. My co-workers at Esh, absolutely. All of them, but especially the three owners. Ellen in particular, who’s one of the three owners, I work really closely with her in running the professional programs. I think I probably trust her more than anybody besides my partner, just because we have to do our job, but also she’s just an excellent friend and great listener and supportive and honest and really direct, and I know is never going to lie to me. She’s never even going to beat around the bush, she’s just going to be completely direct. To me that’s what I find trustworthy. I think that’s also a sign of emotional maturity, and it trusts my emotional maturity, that I’m not going to take it personally. I think that people have a responsibility to use language that is kind and generous, and that doesn’t have to mean circuitous or disingenuous.

A lot of my job in the professional program is teaching circus artists how to make their acts look better. I do a lot of private lessons with students who say, “Okay so I have this act, I’m gonna do it for you, and then tell me how to make it look better.” Make the dance look better, but also how to tell the story better, how to make the character be more embodied. So it’s my job to be really honest with them, and really kind, because when people make art and hand it to you to do something with, if you say, “Well actually that was really cheesy,” or “That was shitty,” that’s not going to help them. With the right person maybe it would, but I think that would be really negative. So even if it is really cheesy, I’m not going to say it’s cheesy. I’m going to say, “Why did you choose that music? Let’s talk about what gestures you can use that will move away from some clichés and into something that feels more authentic and individualized to you.” So I use really careful language to talk to people about their art, but I’m not being disingenuous and I’m not beating around the bush.

[Ellen] is an incredible powerhouse of a person. She really sees and values what I’m strong at, and holds me to a high standard. She kind of knows where her weaknesses are, and the things that I do that compliment what she does. She asks for help really well and lets me do the things that I’m really good at. Because when you’re a powerhouse, you could just try to do everything – and she does a lot of things, and maybe sometimes takes on more than she should – but she doesn’t try to take things away from me. So I feel really seen, and wanted, and respected. And I trust my family and can rely on my family too. I didn’t say that, but I feel like that’s implied from what I said before. [laughs]

How has your identity played a role in your relationships, romantic or otherwise?

I guess that’s a hard question for me because my identity is who I am, and my relationships are who I am and another person, so it’s just inherently there. Specifically being genderqueer, how has that impacted my relationships? I suppose in some relationships, not at all, in some, it’s made me a mentor or a spokesperson, especially as a performer – which is not necessarily something that I was taking on – or an object of desire, or someone that people look up to or fetishize. (Relationships with people that I don’t actually know very closely but who know me as a performer.) In my family, there was a moment where I had to say to my parents, “Hey, you guys have known about my pronouns for a while, you need to start doing the work to actually call me what I want to be called.” And it wasn’t really that hard, and they did it. They’ve known me my whole life; I’m still me.

At work – not really a big deal at Esh, I am who I am. The Neighborhood School, it remains to be seen; we’re going to make this transition with pronouns and see how that goes. Again, I’m me wherever I am. I think in my romantic relationships it’s depended on the person. I think it’s most interesting when I’ve been in a relationship with straight-identified people, which has been pretty infrequent in my life, but when it’s happened it’s interesting – because if you identify as straight, but then you’re dating someone non-binary, isn’t that kind of inherently a queered relationship? But that doesn’t mean that that person needs to take on a queer identity for themselves, because their identity is still theirs. So I suppose that’s been the place where it’s been the most interesting. But I’m not sure how it’s impacted it because I just get to be me. I think the challenges I’ve seen are when I have a partner who really likes me in one type of presentation, but isn’t super interested in me in another presentation – and that’s challenging, and I respect it, it’s just challenging. In contrast to when I’m in a relationship with a person who is attracted to me no matter how I’m presenting, because I can really feel what it’s like to be seen and desired for my entirety.

Are you able to find adequate medical care?

Yes. I go to Fenway, which was life-changing – also, very impactful moment. Just filling out forms where they ask you your pronouns, and then being called by the correct name and pronoun. I didn’t go to doctors very often as a young adult. I never had a relationship with my doctor. I didn’t bother to tell them my chosen name or pronouns, because it wasn’t part of their practice. Then when I switched to Fenway, there was a slot for preferred name and pronouns. It was a whole different way of interacting with the medical system. Almost every time I go there I feel sad that all of our medical care isn’t like that, because it’s actually kind of ridiculous now in 2016 that we’re not there yet. But, it is what it is.

So all that being said, in the next few years I’m looking at getting pregnant, and so I don’t know what that’s going to look like. I would love to go with a mid-wife and I’d love to have a queer mid-wife, but if there’s not one at the place I want to go… So finding all the puzzle pieces that fit for what my needs are. I’m not certain that I’m going to get called the right pronouns, and even just the research that you do in the process of conceiving – everything is gendered. And it’s always about women getting pregnant. The pregnancy test that you buy at the store, the app that you download on your phone to check your ovulation, everything is about women’s bodies. So I trust that I’m going to get excellent care from a medical perspective; I’m not super hopeful that I’m going to get care that’s respectful of my gender. I’m going to do my best to advocate for that, and as I said, you have to pick your battles when you have the energy to be doing educating and defending your identity. And sometimes it’s not safe, and sometimes it’s just exhausting, and I’m not sure that I’m going to have the energy to be defending my chosen pronouns; perhaps in labor, as an example of a stressful moment. [laughs] You know, with people who are ancillary to the process, like the tech who’s doing the ultrasound, are they going to call me “mom,” or “mother,” or “woman,” or “miss”? Those kind of questions. So we’ll see.

How has your view of yourself changed since you were younger?

Oh man, it’s changed a lot of times. I have words for parts of my identity now. I have a much better understanding of my privilege and my race and class privilege. That one, I’m still working on untangling a lot of what’s embedded in me. I think I used to be cockier. In adolescence I felt sort of impervious and unstoppable, because that’s what it feels like when you’re adolescent, and now in my 30s I’m like, Fuck, my body is deteriorating. [laughs] There was a time where I was really attached to people seeing me, and my gender, and it was paramount that people call me the right thing, and I was really defensive of it, and now I’m way more relaxed about it. So that’s definitely changed.

It’s not so much that I’ve changed how I look at my gender so much as I’ve changed how I interact with the world. I’m way better at feelings now. I used to have this sense of self-righteousness, especially as a teenager and in my young 20s. I loved to argue, and I was very hot-tempered and adamant about things, and really vehement. I learned how to listen a lot better, and became a lot more invested in hearing what people were saying and slowing down in conversation. That was an ability that I had before, but I would choose not to tap into it. I would get in an argument with my boyfriend in high school, and I knew what he meant, but I would argue with his words because I loved to argue the rhetoric of it.

So after college and moving into adulthood, realizing, Actually I’m more interested in what they do mean than how they said it. Conflict isn’t actually serving me. I don’t need that sense of drama, and that adrenaline; actually what I need is to be connected with people. So I think I’m much better at feelings now. There’s even more lessons to be learned about what it feels like to feel multiple feelings at once and be really present and authentic. My sister dying was huge for me, it was a huge leap in the learning curve of learning how to feel feelings, and I feel things way more intensely now. I’ve always felt really strong feelings, but it’s way more intense now after my sister died. I actually cry really easily, and I’m not ashamed of that. I think it does impede me sometimes practically, but I tear up at things all the time.

 

What advice would you give to your younger self?

My younger self wouldn’t have listened to advice from my older self, probably. [laughs] So I don’t know that there’d be any point in that. I think maybe I would say, “Really think about who you want to be in the world in terms of kindness and generosity of spirit.” I was very passionate about social justice, and about dismantling oppression, even as a high schooler, even with the more limited vocabulary that I had. I was on it, I was an activist, cutting school to go protest the bombing in Afghanistan. So I knew who I wanted to be, I wanted to be an activist, I wanted to be an agent for change in the world. And I was very confident in who I was, I didn’t need to conform to anybody’s ideas. I could give a shit what people said behind my back. And I think there were moments where I was unkind to people, because I was self-righteous and because I was a badass, and I was invested in kind of a badass identity, and because I was confrontational, and feminist, and an activist.

There were moments that I could’ve chosen to be more generous. But I think all learning happens when it’s supposed to happen, so I’m not sure that I would give advice to my younger self, and like I said, I probably wouldn’t have listened to it, because I had to do what I had to do. I think I learned each thing in the right moment. I don’t have any regrets. I’ve certainly made mistakes, but I don’t regret anything, and I think you need to make mistakes in order to learn. You don’t learn why not to touch hot things until you touch a hot thing and you burn yourself. So, I appreciate that I learned each thing as I needed to learn it, and how I needed to learn it. I could wish that I learned something sooner, but I like who I am, and I like what I’m learning now. Also I think it’s a little presumptuous of older people to give younger people advice. In this scenario, is my younger self soliciting advice from my older self, and on what topic specifically?

…You know, I wish that I could give myself some sex advice. That actually is really true, because I wasted time having some stupid-ass, boring-ass sex as a teenager because there were just tiny little pieces missing from my sexual education that I wish I could go back and be like, “This is where your clit is,” or “You don’t have to do that if you don’t want to.” That’s what I would go back and say to myself. And I probably would’ve listened to that happily. [laughs]

What are your concerns for the future?

I’m concerned about my body. I have a lot of joint pain that is out of scale with how old I am, and a lot of doctors want to tell me, “Just keep plugging away at your PT.” It’s pretty disheartening to hear. So I have some maybe more radical things I’m going to try, and we’ll see. I’m hopeful about that. But I still feel this concern that I’m going to be crippled pretty soon, and that it’s going to impact my ability to raise a child, especially a young child, and having my mobility limited. I’m such a physical person that the idea of not being able to move is really scary. I worry about how my identity will shift when I become a parent – I’m not losing sleep about it, but I’m curious, I guess. I try not to be concerned for the future, because it hasn’t happened yet. Also I plan things, and then I do them. I want something, and I go get it. I’m worried about money. I’m worried about maintaining my independence and sense of individuality when I’m a parent. I’m worried about defending my gender constantly. I’m worried about my child having the burden of defending my gender constantly. But I’m also not worried about it, because I’ll do it when I get there. And I always find that my community rallies around me when I need them to.

What do you look forward to in the future?

Being a parent. I’m really excited about that. A bunch of the projects we have going on at Esh; just growing more into that. Becoming a better teacher. Figuring out how to develop anti-racist framework and dismantling white supremacy and really looking white culture in the face at both of the schools where I work. Building a home with my partner and eating really good food with him. Our relationship deepening and being its own thing as well as being something with a child, and getting to spend time with him for a long time. My hair going silver but not gray, hopefully. My voice getting more mature and exciting. So all the same things I’m concerned about too, honestly. [laughs] Things that are coming are exciting.

What have been the important frustrations in your life, and the most important successes?

The most important successes in my life have been the circus that I founded in Oberlin and directed for several years, because that totally changed the direction of my life. I stood up at a dance meeting as a sophomore in college and said, “I think we should have a circus,” and then some people found me, and I made a circus. Like I said, I want something and then I go make it. And that’s part of what Boston Latin School taught me also, I should say. Mostly by their total lack of support for the theater department; we had to make it all on our own. But they also taught us this sort of sense of entitlement that was like, You can get things done if you just shake hands with a nice firm handshake and talk in a nice tone. So that success of pulling off that endeavor was really important. It changed my trajectory. It put me into directing circuses and being connected to circuses, and here I am. I took some divergences from that at different times, but here I am, back on circus.

I created a one-man show that I toured. This was one of my wanderings away from group circus, was that I did this solo show for several years, and I toured it to different colleges, and I taught workshops at those colleges, and I performed in a lot of different cities. And that was also really full of frustrations, because booking yourself is lonely and boring and terrible, and performing is wonderful and enlivening and life itself. So those were wrapped up together, and that was really huge in my learning and my development as a performer and an administrator. A lot of people are afraid of cold calling – I don’t like it, but I super got over it, because I had to do it. if I wanted to pay rent, I had to cold call some college offices and be like, “Hey, did you get my email, here’s my packet, I’d love to bring my show to your school, blah blah blah.” I did shows where I performed for four people in the audience, and a show where there were two different moments when I had to pull up audience volunteers, that’s half the audience. So those moments were brutal. Brutally frustrating, and so helpful. Because if you can perform a one-hour show where you are giving everything for four people, you become invincible as a performer. Because you have to let go of your self-esteem, your ego being wrapped up. You can see every expression on every person’s face. It just rips all of this stuff off of you, and then you’re shed of a lot of bullshit.

And then also there’s successes in there. I’ve performed for thousands of people, and those are also really amazing moments where you can learn a lot too. I did a performance in Tucson, there was probably about 1000 people in the audience in this beautiful theater, and I was doing this very subtle personal piece, and what I got back from the crowd was this incredible intimacy of this piece, even though there were thousands of them; this sort of wall of emotion coming back at me was really incredible. I came backstage – I was mostly naked during the performance – and started sobbing, and I got a nosebleed at the same time because it’s so dry in Arizona, so I’m just sitting backstage in a ball, trying to be very small and not disturb anyone else because I’m very professional, but I’m basically naked, bleeding, and crying in the corner. [laughs] And I didn’t need to be consoled, it was just really cathartic. I love thinking about that moment.

I think a lot of frustrations really are tied in with successes, because they lead to learning. I think the thing that was most frustrating for the longest part of my life was my powerlessness about being able to save my sister when she was alive. When you’re related to an addict – I think it’s true for younger people too, but especially an addict who’s an adult – you can’t save them. They need to want to get better. 

And even that wanting to get better is really tricky, because they’re layers of, “Well, I want to get better, but I don’t want to give up the habit I have.” Or, “I want to today, and I don’t want to tomorrow.” It’s really complicated. And just feeling powerless when someone you love is so self-destructive. That was endlessly frustrating. And I didn’t fix it, you know, she died.

I realized very soon after she died that, while it was devastating and was tearing me apart and I was feeling this grief that was like nothing I had ever felt, what I didn’t feel was worried. I didn’t realize I had been carrying this really heavy mantle of worry all the time for years, because I was always waiting for that phone call. But then once I got the phone call, I didn’t have to worry about it anymore. Because, wherever she is, she can’t get in trouble. I’m never going to get a phone call in the middle of the night saying it’s happened, because it did. So it was an interesting moment of transformation, sort of trading one emotional limb for another. I wouldn’t say that my grief for her death is a burden; I don’t think that’s the right metaphor for me. I think it’s like your grief is like an extra limb that you grow, and sometimes you forget it’s there, and then you’re like, Oh right, I have this extra arm. Mostly you’re just used to it because you’re used to having three arms. It’s like, whatever, it’s there. But once in a while it’s kinda weird.

 

Do you have a philosophy of life? What’s your best piece of advice?

I think the most important thing is to be as authentic and fully embodied of a person as you can, and one way to do that is to do a lot of self-reflection about your emotional state, how you react to things, how you communicate, how you can be a better communicator, how you can take responsibility for your feelings. Looking at your identities, and how they overlap, and your privilege, and your oppression, and how they all overlap, and then looking at the wider world and how those things impact the wider world or are impacted by the wider world. Then really, really be your most authentic self in a way that allows everybody to be their authentic selves. So finding an authentic self that isn’t oppressive, that isn’t hurting other people. Because when we can do that, and we can shed a lot of the bullshit, then we can really make progress.