MEAGHAN & ASH
New York, NY
What are your pronouns?
Meaghan: I use “she/her,” and “they/them” occasionally.
Where do you work?
Ash: I’m a freelance lighting and sound designer.
Meaghan: I'm freelance, so I work anywhere and everywhere. Depends on where I get that young work.
Do you have any hobbies or special interests? What do you do for fun?
Ash: My special interest / hobby / career is theater. It sucks. [laughs] No, I think my new hobby is fostering dogs. And starting to get into music production.
Meaghan: I draw a lot. There’s that whole thing where you turn your hobbies into your side hustle, so I’ve been trying to do that with web comics and stuff. And I am also an avid video game enthusiast. Bioshock is my favorite. Sonic is an old love. Oh yeah, I have a djembe [a type of hand drum]. Which is cool. I can say that it’s an instrument that I play. It’s fun. I started playing it because we had an introduction week my second semester being a freshman in college. I was in an acting company, because that’s what they did in a conservatory setting; they got like 20 kids together and that was who you were going to be with for your four years. And they did this little workshop on hand drumming with this guy who did drums for the dance classes, and it was kind of like, “This will bring you guys together in a rhythmic kind of way,” and I really got latched onto it. I love Dave, the instructor, so I asked him if I could sit in on his classes, because it was really informal. And – I took it for the next 2 ½ years. It was the beginning class over and over and over again because he doesn’t have any other classes. [laughs] But it was a lot of fun, and I’ve gotten okay at it. It’s something musical to do besides singing.
How do you handle the issue of pronouns and being gendered when interacting with strangers / mixed company / etc?
Ash: I think for me it really depends on age, and identity of those strangers in mixed company. I think we’re lucky enough that there’s a lot of awareness in the theater community – if I’m working with a younger crowd, and I tell them my pronouns, I usually don’t have an issue. There’s not a lot of straight people, obviously. I mean there’s a fair amount of straight people in theater, but we’re in this weird period where it’s the hip new thing to be accepting of pronouns and diversity, so it’s kind of exploitative. So it’s a weird place to be at, because a lot of theater companies right now [say], “We really wanna do black theater, and we really wanna do queer theater and trans theater,” and it’s good that they’re doing that, but they’re doing that because it will sell tickets.
So it’s a complicated issue where I’m happy that acceptance and diversity is happening, but for the wrong reason. And a lot of people don’t fully understand or grasp what they should be getting out of it, and what they should be creating and cultivating. So when I’m with a younger crowd, or with a crowd that’s “focused on diversity,” I don’t really have a problem. If I’m with an older crowd, sometimes I won’t say what my pronouns are, especially for day events, because they’re already looking down on me, especially for overhire [temporary extra help] and day events, because I’m a “woman” in a male-dominated industry. It’s just not worth it. I’m just getting paid and I’m never seeing them again.
If I’m working creatively together – it’s on my resume, it’s on my email signature, it’s on my website, it’s on my online portfolio. Can’t really miss it. But people do. [laughs] Lately my biggest problem is that people will see my name, Ash, and they will call me “he,” which I’ve never gotten before. I had an older white woman [who] sent me a contract that said “Mr. Zeitler” and “he, he, he,” and blah blah blah. Because if you’re read as a woman, or as other than male, in my industry, you won’t get hired at the same rate. And also I don’t know anyone that puts their gender on their resume. What? There’s a picture of me on my website.
I guess doctors, and overhire, they don’t need to know. They’re not my friends. They’re my one-day co-worker, or they’re my doctor who’s looking at it from a medical perspective. You’re looking at a form. I don’t blame you. But my friend are my friends, and my creative partners when I’m in a design position or a creative position, I’m pretty vocal about it. And people are pretty good about it.
Meaghan: Okay, so I was on three flights yesterday, because I had to get from Cali to here. So I flew from Cali to Denver, and then that same plane was going to Milwaukee. And I got to stay on the plane, because why would I leave the plane, my least favorite part is getting back on the plane. So I just sat there. And I was just chillin’, you know, I went to the lavatory, and I was getting out my sketchbook. And this flight attendant comes by – one of the new ones who had gotten on the plane – and he clocks me, and then he looks at another flight attendant down the way and is like, “So is he a minor? What’s happening?” And I [said], “That’s funny.” And he [said], “No it’s not, it’s a serious issue.” And I [said], “Dude. I’m 24.” [laughs] And he [said], “Oh, I need to get my eyes checked. I need new glasses.”
I don’t really care, to be honest. I don’t think about it a lot. And I haven’t since forever. It doesn’t really matter what people call me, because I just know who I am in here. [points to chest] And other people can figure it out, you know? So if other people call me “he,” I’m just as pleased as if they were to call me “they/them.” “She/her,” depends on the day, you know. I’m just a wild card. I’m just an unaccompanied minor. [both laugh]
Ash: On the plane of life. [laughs]
Meaghan: On the plane of life. Yes.
Ash: I have an Irish-Catholic family, so it’s over their heads. They just don’t get it and they still love me. So Meaghan’s parents try, and my family it’s just a conversation that doesn’t get brought up.
Meaghan: But my dad has a hard time with it, so he’ll say “she,” and then my mom look at him like, “Mm-mm, you know that’s wrong,” and he’ll be like, “Sorry, sorry.” It’s always like the intense guilt, like, “Oh gosh, I’m so sorry.”
Ash: Which makes it worse.
Meaghan: Yes! I know, I know. And you know, genderqueers across the – everywhere – have had this conversation. On the plane of life. Please, just stop apologizing.
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?
Ash: I haven’t legally changed my name. I think I’m going to. It hasn’t affected me except for going to the doctor, and the DMV. I’m interested about changing my gender marker, so I think at the same time I’m just going to change my name. But apparently in New York state, you have to post in a newspaper that you’ve changed your name. Which sounds way more complicated to me than it probably is. But for some reason that’s the piece of information I heard where I’m a little nervous. I’m pretty much professionally Ash Zeitler. My birth name is longer, I don’t really use it. No one in my family calls me my birth name. [My] nan does, but she’s 86, she gets a pass. Some people think I’m a man now, and use “he/him” pronouns. I’ve been going by Ash for over 6 years. Not being in the educational system, and having an email address that’s made for me – because I can make my own email address, and I have my own business cards, and my own website. I get checks written to Ash Zeitler and my bank will still deposit them. It’s a shortening, it’s not a completely different name. So I think I’m having a lot easier time than some people might. It was great when I was in school, because people knew me as Ash, and they would try to contact me about the student government, and they wouldn’t be able to find my email address. [laughs] Because a lot of people liked to complain. So it was honestly really great. People do love asking me if it’s my name, though. I just say “yes,” because it’s how I think of myself, and it’s how I identify, it’s what everybody knows me as. But people [always say], “Oh my god, is that your real name?” And I’m like, “Well, yeah.” And they [say], “So that’s your birth name?” And I’m just like, “Mhm.” Because why get into it? And I think it’s such a rude question.
What word(s) would you use to describe your identity?
Meaghan: Non-binary genderqueer, I suppose.
Ash: Yeah, I’m non-binary, but if somebody calls me genderqueer – I don’t really vibe with agender, but if that’s how someone understands it, I’m not going to be like, “No no no, I identify as this.” Not a woman, definitely, for me.
Meaghan: Yeah, no. Not a girl. I just think of genderqueer as being more like an umbrella term, and non-binary being a more solid idea. I know that seems probably backwards.
Ash: I think it depends on the person. What you’re comfortable with. I did a lot of queer educating in college, and I learned that everybody identifies differently and everybody has a different opinion. So I think that whatever makes you comfortable. It’s hard, I think, because the “trans umbrella” – I don’t even know if that terminology is still being used, because we are as a community learning new terms, creating new identities every single day. And that’s really great, I think, for when you’re first coming out and trying to figure out who you are, and you need those terms, and I think some people respond to them and some people really don’t. So some people consider themselves trans if they’re genderqueer or non-binary, and some people don’t. I think it just depends on the person.
I definitely had a hard time considering myself under the trans umbrella when I first started identifying as non-binary, just because I didn’t want to take anything away from someone else’s experience. Because I wasn’t legally changing my name, I wasn’t going through hormone replacement therapy – not saying that everybody who is trans has to do those things, but just the cis/het [cisgender/heterosexual] idea of being transgender is. If you see me on the street, I’m not necessarily going to get violence directed towards me. I use stealth a lot when I’m at work, like I said about pronouns, so it’s a weird thing, where if you consider yourself trans, you’re trans. But for a while I didn’t feel comfortable taking up that space. And I don’t know if I still do to a certain extent. Definitely don’t think I’m cis, I can tell you that. [laughs] For me, it’s been helpful to think of it kind of like a Kinsey scale. Like in my life, I think about it if male is on one side and female is on the other side, I’m probably leaning towards more masculine, but I’m definitely in the middle. I don’t even know if this is correct, or what this is, but if there’s “cis” and then “100% trans,” you know what I mean – fully encapsulated, that is your identity and how you identify –
Meaghan: And even that’s squishy. Like what does that mean?
Ash: In my head of taking up space, where you’re like, “This is fully my identity,” or “This is fully my identity.” I feel somewhere – squishy. Everybody is different. Gender is a social construct. I definitely think it’s opening up a whole new area of the trans umbrella.
Are there ways that you dress / act / speak / etc. to specifically make a statement to others about your identity? Why?
Meaghan: I just kind of dress the way I feel. Maybe subconsciously I’m trying to tell people I’m a little boy, but… I wear what makes me happy, and what makes me feel like I’m expressing who I am. Not necessarily to other people, but what makes me feel happy. I wear stuff that makes me feel masculine, but it’s not so that other people will know that I am a masculine person. It’s not for that.
Ash: I think a lot of what I wear is for work, and work clothes. I definitely like wearing darker colors, but I don’t know if that’s a gender thing. For work I have to wear jeans and a T-shirt, and close-toed shoes, and I have to have a tool belt, and have my wrench on me, and that kind of stuff. So I think that definitely opened me up to being more masculine, as far as my sense of dress. Because I hated jeans for a really long time. But I don’t think the way I dress is necessarily for my gender presentation for other people, like Meaghan said. It’s definitely for me. I’m going to be comfy. I think there’s an element of safety with my clothes now that I’ve graduated. Because I do think a lot about what is going to get me cat-called on the subway, if I wear this lipstick color am I going to get more attention. My hair is bleach blond, so I’ll wear a hat or I’ll wear a hood… To parties I’ll wear stuff over it. I’m getting back into funky button-ups after a little break from funky button-ups. And I own dresses but I don’t really wear them. Halloween I wore fake hair.
I guess when I do perform femininity, besides my normal level of femininity – because I do wear eyeliner every day and a full face of foundation [laughs] – it’s definitely a performance that I’m aware of, and it’s kind of like a costume. Because it’s fun. Glitter’s fun, and makeup’s fun. But I don’t wear it every day, because I’m lazy, and safety is a big thing. Comfort, ability to work – I definitely get more respect in my field if I dress more masculine. But also it’s comfy for me. That’s what I like. And I think since we’ve moved in together I’m stealing [Meaghan’s] clothes more, but that’s been the whole time we’ve been dating. It’s weird. I don’t talk about my sexuality, but I’ll talk about Meaghan. And then people will just infer what they want to infer - and make assumptions. Which is fine. ‘Cause they’re not my friends. [laughs] I’ll switch between “girlfriend” and “partner” and “boyfriend” for [Meaghan], and for “girlfriend” people our age or our generation won’t look at me and be like, “You’re a lesbian,” they’re more likely to be like, “Oh, you gay?” or “You’re queer?”
How early on did you know or suspect that you did not identify within the binary?
Ash: Uh…forever? I had an inkling. I threw myself very heavily into hyper-feminine activities and presentation. I was a competitive cheerleader in high school. I did dance, I did musical theater… It was always a performance though, in everything that I did – and I think that’s probably because I like theater. It is and was a performance of femininity. Like cheerleading, you got done up; dance, you got done up. And I also like the sport, and I like dance, and I like theater – but it was all putting on a costume. And I did not realize that for a very long time. And I think “cis” kind of went hand in hand with being straight, and I knew I wasn’t straight, but we were going to pretend for a while. It was a game of faking it, but I didn’t realize that I was faking it for a while. I knew I was going to be out in college, because I went to an all-girls Catholic school for three years, up until senior year of high school. So I didn’t really have resources besides the Internet, as far as figuring out that I wasn’t going to hell for being gay, which was a big thing. So gender wasn’t even a question, because even being in lower New York state, I didn’t have access to understanding gender; that it was a spectrum or that there were other options. And I knew I didn’t want to transition, because that’s not how I feel as a person or how I’ve ever felt. So it was strange.
"I went to an all-girls Catholic school for three years, up until senior year of high school. So I didn’t really have resources besides the Internet, as far as figuring out that I wasn’t going to hell for being gay, which was a big thing. So gender wasn’t even a question, because ... I didn’t have access to understanding gender; that it was a spectrum or that there were other options."
But then I would really like all of these boy characters in movies and film and video games and books, and I’d identify with them, and I [would think], Do you want to be them or do you want to have sex with them? You know, that kind of question. And it was the same way with some women characters, but they were never hyper-feminine. You know when you’re younger and you [think], This is my favorite character. They were always boys. They were never women. Then once I went to [SUNY] Purchase, I got a very fast queer education, and I joined LGBTQU. I was on the executive board of LGBTQU within my first month at school, and that kind of became a place where I learned what being transgender was, or what being bisexual was, or queer, or any of that kind of stuff. And it opened my eyes, and I did more research – because I had to do it, because I didn’t know what was going on [with] terminology and labels, and when you first come out, labels are really comforting. Because at least for me, I definitely needed to classify and understand that other people felt this way too. And then it was just kind of a slow, “Oh, I’m not a woman. And I’ve known I’m not a woman, but this isn’t pressing, let’s focus on schoolwork.” Let’s change the pronouns, and there was a slow “she or they, I don’t know,” and then it was very strongly “they.” And now it’s who I am, but it’s not necessarily my shining identity, if that makes sense. It’s just part of me. But it’s not what I revolve my life around in the same way I think it is when you first come out.
Meaghan: I think I’ve had very much the same experience. I mean obviously I didn’t go to Catholic school, but I grew up in suburban Colorado. So you know, it was just a lot of normal kids running around, and I didn’t really have any idea that there was anybody like me. I didn’t really think, I was just a tomboy, and I wanted my hair short, and I wanted to wear boy clothes, and I wanted to play with video games and dinosaurs. And I still do. And my mom was a little sad because she wanted me to be her little girl, and that was just never me. I always wanted to play with the boys and run around LARPing [live action role-playing] with them. [laughs] “I’m a fire mage, and you’re a warrior, and let’s run out in the park and climb trees and shit!” And that was my summers, and I didn’t know that there was necessarily anything different about me. I was just a person who didn’t feel like what people wanted me to be. But nobody [said], “This is weird,” [it was like], “That’s just Meaghan.” And I never got bullied or anything about myself, which is great, I’m shocked. Coming out of it, I am impressed. And growing up I eventually aged into the theater kids, and I was accepted there. I’m sure everybody knew I was gay. But I had no idea! Until like, senior year of high school that I was any kind of anything! And I [thought], You know what, maybe I’ll try it? [laughs] And I kissed a girl, [and] I was like, “Well, I guess we’re doing this now.” But I dated boys for a long time. I had a gap year, and then I went to college, and I was like, “Oh wait a minute! Wait a minute! It makes sense!” Yeah. I didn’t know anything about anything until I came to college.
Ash: Purchase is pretty gay.
Meaghan: Yeah. Purchase is so gay.
Ash: It was hard for me, just because my grandfather is a deacon, which is basically a priest that can get married. And we knew gay people, but we don’t talk about it. Not because we don’t like them, it’s just – my family is very laissez-faire about everything. “We have gay friends, but we don’t talk about them being gay, they’re just people.” Or “we don’t see color.” That kind of thing. So my grandmother came to this country at 19, my mom had me at 22 and got separated at 22 as well, and raised me pretty much a single mom. I was also in Girl Scouts. So I had all these strong female role models. So it was also a question of, “Why don’t I want to become a woman? Why is that not my goal?” So then performing femininity to the farthest extent, kind of almost drag-like if you think about how you did makeup in 2010 and 2008, like how bad makeup was then. [laughs] I’m thinking about Ugg boots and Juicy sweat suits. That’s what I wanted. That was the goal. I think having a uniform for so long kind of took out questions for me, because I didn’t have to think about it. Then I went to college and I was like, “I don’t know what I like to fuckin’ wear.” I think there was maybe a couple-month period where I didn’t wear makeup, but then I remembered that makeup is fun. I’ve pretty much worn black eyeliner since 6th grade. [laughs]
Do you think anything about the way you were raised or where you grew up affected how you drew conclusions about your identity?
Ash: Yeah. I think definitely having very strong women – my mother and my grandmother are very opinionated, and loud. My grandmother is very independent, and still is very independent. She’s 86, and she drives, and she cooks. She’s very into her independence. And my mom raised me herself and worked in corporate America for a very long time before she [realized], “Oh, I don’t like this, it’s soul-sucking,” and started her own business. She’s a nutritionist and a colon hydrotherapist. She also owns a dance studio. That’s her real passion. So she’s a dance teacher. So I feel like I was raised to be very independent and driven and confident to a certain extent, and have strong women in my life.
I didn’t have a lot of strong male figures in my life. Before my grandfather got sick, he worked for the church, and he did magic, and he bumbled around, and he made jokes. He wasn’t the one “wearing the pants in the relationship.” And even my stepdad, when my mom got remarried, he’s very passive, and he’s a quiet boy that plays World of Warcraft. And my uncle isn’t reserved, but he’s also not your typical manly man. And then I was in Girl Scouts, I went to an all-girls school. [My dad is hyper-masculine] but he’s not a good person, so I took my own connotations of, “This is what a man is, and I don’t like it.” It’s not fun. It doesn’t make me feel good. So I think that, and also – we couldn’t have a GSA in my high school. Because it was Catholic school. When we did Day of Silence, some of the teachers [told me], “You have to talk in class. You can’t do this. This is ridiculous.” And another teacher, she took us into her office and [said], “Can you explain to me what’s going on? Can you talk and explain?” Then she told us that her brother had actually died from AIDS. So nothing was ever put out on the table as far as, “Queer people exist,” or “are people.” Not even “They’re going to hell,” it just wasn’t talked about, period. So when we did find out, and I think me especially, that this was a way to live your life, it was always in that tragic, “They’ve passed away from AIDS,” or on screen, they’ve died, or in theater, they’re always being killed. So it was subconsciously not a good thing.
Meaghan: I was raised in a very loving environment and they didn’t really care what I did. They sheltered me like fuck. But my dad’s from a very religious Christian family, and he kind of grew out of that. And my mom is from a Catholic family, and she also grew out of that. So for being from what they were, it was a pretty progressive household. And they let me express myself the way I wanted to, but they didn’t talk about, “What if you’re,” “Do you feel like,” blah blah. So that language was never used around me, so it didn’t ever enter my mind.
Ash: Yeah, my focus was definitely, “Are you doing well in school,” and “When you go to college, what are you going to do in college?” So me [saying], “I wanna go to a college for theater,” no one questioned that, since it was what I’d been doing since I was little, but there was never a, “You’re gonna get a boyfriend, you have to get a boyfriend,” but there wasn’t another option. Just because I didn’t have those role models, or those experiences, or those ideas. And when I got my own laptop, and I was curious, then porn is the only example. Not that all porn’s unhealthy, but when you’re younger and that’s the only thing you can be exposed to, especially in media too, in films, you’re either being killed, which is the tragic gay character, or the hyper sexualized lesbians. That’s it.
Can you give any examples of misconceptions people have about those who identify outside the binary? Have you personally dealt with them?
Ash: I mean, the bathroom bills are what I think about. If you consider being trans outside the binary. Because a lot of people do. I don’t know if in the queer community – and I think it’s person to person – if trans is outside the binary, because some people transition or consider themselves trans and don’t transition, but they’re very much in a binary. [An assumption is that] they’re going to turn all our children gay, and touch us in the bathroom and assault us, which is so not true. Or [that] it’s unnatural. I think definitely being assigned female at birth, we’re unassuming and not a threat. So I haven’t really dealt with it. I mean people think I’m a lesbian. That’s really the hardest thing. Or that it’s a phase. I think that’s a big one. I think it’s just a willful ignorance of not caring that I’ve experienced the most.
Meaghan: Yeah. I think perhaps some people think if you maybe mentioned it once, they think it’s your whole identity. Which for some people that is a reality, and they want to be identified that way. But that just isn’t something that I’m about. You know, they’ll want to have a lengthy conversation about how I feel, and it’s just a thing. It’s just who I am.
"The minute you start exploring sexuality, sometimes gender can be a thing as well. I’ve talked to a lot of people about how sometimes when they’ve noticed that their sexuality is fluid, they’re like, “Wait a minute. Can my gender be fluid as well?!” Yes! It can!"
Ash: The, “Well you’re seeing it all over, so of course you feel that way,” kind of thing. And I think that definitely since I’m not in the process of legally changing my name, and not wanting to get top surgery, or not going on hormones, and that kind of thing, that it’s a fad, and I’m doing it because it’s cool and popular. And not because it’s how I feel. Or it’s not valid enough. Sometimes in the queer community, especially at Purchase, there was a period in time where a group of people all started using “they/them” pronouns. And it was spreading, and everyone was like, “I don’t get it,” and “Everyone’s just doing it because the cool people are doing it.” And well, maybe some people are doing it for that reason, but they can do that if they want.
Meaghan: Yeah, I mean if they want to explore, that’s not a bad thing.
Ash: And yes, that’s how trends work, but I think using that language and painting it that way is harmful. It’s exploration, and some people try it and it doesn’t fit. But that’s a part of becoming who you are as a person. Trial and error. And also people change their minds. It might fit for 5 months, and after that it won’t, and that’s also okay.
Meaghan: People just think I’m gay.
Ash: We have a lot of friends who are queer or who went to school with us or have a lot of queer friends (the few cis friends that we have) – we’re just people [to them]. We’re not necessarily “queer people” in the way of, that’s our whole identity. Which I think for some people it is, which once again isn’t a bad thing, but I think theater being our identity is way more prevalent.
In your own words, how would you explain the differences between gender identity and sexual orientation and/or how they may be related or not related?
Ash: So there’s sex, like medical sex, genetic sex, which is male or female, and then there’s gender, which is your identity. And you can have an assigned sex at birth – assigned female at birth (AFAB) or assigned male at birth (AMAB) – and gender, I’ve heard it described as the coat you put on.
Which I don’t know if I definitely like that, but it’s definitely an easy analogy for people to understand. I think it’s a spectrum. I think a lot of people feel very one way or the other, and a lot of people don’t. And I think that sexuality is also a spectrum. They are two separate things. So you can be non-binary, but if you identify as straight, you can be straight. I think you have to ask everybody, because everybody’s going to have a different answer as far as how they feel and what they identify as. But I don’t think they necessarily overlap, if that makes sense. I think they’re two separate things that can have things in common with each other, but they’re definitely two separate systems.
Meaghan: I agree. I feel like it’s a Venn Diagram with a very small [overlap] in the middle. It’s a tough thing. The minute you start exploring sexuality, sometimes gender can be a thing as well. I’ve talked to a lot of people about how sometimes when they’ve noticed that their sexuality is fluid, they’re like, “Wait a minute. Can my gender be fluid as well?!” Yes! It can! But I think, like Ash does, it’s not necessarily related. It’s squiggly.
Ash: I think Meaghan’s right, that you open the door to one, and then you’re like, “Wait, what’s this other door?” But I know straight people who play with gender. I know a lot of straight people, and usually people who have had access to a higher educational system that provides them with the access to those ideas that aren’t conventionally taught in lower education systems. And definitely people who are in the art world who are exposed to these ideas. I think it’s largely about exposure, because you can feel squiggly or icky or not fully settled in something, but if you don’t have the words to explain it – and I think also if you feel isolated – either you think everybody feels this way, which I thought for a long time, [that] this was just being a person, and you don’t necessarily have the ideas or the concepts behind it, that you’re not going to know about it. I don’t want to compare it to this, but we watched a Flat Earth documentary last night, and there were people who were [saying], “Yeah, I always thought about this, but I thought I was alone.” And all they did was highlight that everybody has their niche community, and it can be very isolating to have an idea –
Meaghan: In that Netflix documentary about The Flat Earth Society, the question was asked--“What’s your Flat Earth idea?” Because if you ask people about their beliefs, something’s probably going to come up that seems a little interesting, because everybody holds something close to their hearts. And we were both like, “That’s being queer!” That’s a community that we have that offers us a sense of being and happiness.
Ash: And I do think that if your gender is a question mark, or not in a binary, and you are straight, you can still be part of the queer community. It sucks that some of us are hanging out together because we’ve been discriminated against, but that’s real. And I think the threat of violence or the threat of discrimination and the lack of understanding, and ignorance, can definitely help make people friends. That safety net. Also we’re not Flat Earthers. [laughs]
How do you feel represented in media and society at large?
Ash: Lately? Pretty good. Not the best. Probably not where we should be in 2019. But I feel like it’s going up. So there’s that.
Meaghan: I think we’re starting to get to a point where trans or non-binary characters, that’s not all they’re about. They’re allowed to be people instead of just being “that trans character.” But I think there’s still a lot of that out there where cis/het people are trying to explore, and don’t get it, and writers are panicking, [saying] “How do we make this work?” and “How do we make this be inclusive?” And sometimes it’s for the sake of money and sometimes it’s not. I think a lot of off-off-Broadway, those new works, are starting to move past [the], “I’m trans and I feel bad, and I wanna cut up my body!” That’s an experience. That is a thing, and it should be talked about, but I really don't think it should be this cis/het people telling that story – do you know what I’m getting at?
Ash: Yeah. Like in theater, and therefore in extended media and society because “theater is a lens,” there was the history of the tragic mulatto. That’s what it was called. Where it’s someone who is black, who also is white, or sometimes is just black, [and the narrative is], “I’m tragic, and my life is hard.” It’s white people writing for black people. And that’s still happening. Then you have stuff like Green Book, where it’s, “This white man’s gonna come save the day!” It just won an Oscar. It’s one of those white savior stories. We’re reaching. We’re touching. Some people believe we’re there. We’re not. It’s all, “Woe is me, my life is so tragic, I can’t have anything other than tragedy in my life, and I need someone to save me.” In theater especially, gay characters – and at first just gay characters, because trans people didn’t exist and women didn’t exist, and you know, why would we care about them – they went through the same thing, the tragic gay, and they would die on-screen or off-screen. And now it’s extending to trans people. Being in college recently, and also working in off-off-Broadway, I have heard so many fucking plays and monologues about how “it’s so hard to be trans, I don’t feel comfortable in my body, I’m gonna kill myself. And I need someone to save me.” And it’s all being written from the perspective of usually a white cis/het man. It happens to a certain extent, too, to people of non-traditional body size as well. I just saw a musical where all of the jokes about one of the girls was that she was overweight. But it was okay because she was making the jokes. Which, yes, to a certain extent, is true, and I don’t think I have a place speaking for all of that, but the play was written by a white man who wasn’t that character.
So it’s weird because now theater’s in this place where they’re letting people who haven’t had a chance to have their voice heard [in things] written by them, have [that], and it’s like a renaissance, and it’s wonderful. But so much of it is exploitative. So much of it is because we need fundraising, and diversity is in, it’s a buzzword, it’s hot. I had a playwright that I worked with once suggest me for a queer theater festival because I was the token trans person that he knew. It’s tokenization. That’s what it is. And I’m thankful that I got that opportunity, but I didn’t like how it was handled. I’m really grateful that there’s queer women in the media, being written by queer women, where you can tell it’s being written by queer women. But growing up, I didn’t even know that Ellen was gay. And Will & Grace, I now think it’s funny, but when I was watching it – it’s a caricature of what gay people are. And I didn’t understand – I don’t even know if it’s satire. But that was the only way to get on television. And Ellen was family-friendly.
I knew about Queer as Folk before I knew about The L Word. Which are both hyper-sexualized. Channels that aren’t basic cable that are hyper, hyper-sexualized. Autostraddle.com puts out an article at the end of every year that’s [titled something like], “Gay Characters That Have Died In Media This Year.” It’s horrible, but it’s nice for me from an academic sense that this is still a phenomenon. Thankfully it’s shrinking. I’m also Native American, and that representation is even smaller. I see myself more represented in social media, theater, and Youtube, than I do in broad media. We also don’t have cable. We have streaming services. So I feel like our content with streaming services – we can see ourselves [more there] than cable. Then you have RuPaul’s Drag Race, which is transphobic as hell, and RuPaul is transphobic as hell. But it’s still representation, so most people are still going to consume it. That’s the sucky part. I find my friends making content and work [that] is way more true to life than anything that’s produced on a higher budget. But I’m thankful for theater – and theater in New York – because I feel like I’m getting exposed to way more than the average bear.
"What’s the difference between a gender-neutral bathroom in public, and a gender-neutral bathroom in your house?"
What improvements would you like to see happen inside your communities, and in society at large?
Ash: I’d like to be able to go to a meet-and-greet with a cast when the director says, “We’re gonna say name, pronoun, and blah blah blah,” not have someone [say], “I don’t understand how this works, can you explain it?” Because I feel like it’s been such a topic of discussion. Also I’m burnt out from being an educator, and it would be nice if some people could do their own Googling. Not that that’s always productive, but I’m personally burnt out from education. I’m tired.
Meaghan: If they talked about stuff in schools, that would be a huge improvement.
Ash: I think I should clarify, I’m burnt out from education when I’m not being paid. I mean the day to day. people expecting you to drop everything. I’ve stopped. It would be nice to not have to explain pronouns or explain what invasive questions are during jobs, and not educate during jobs, and just be able to do my job well, and that be what matters. It would be nice to see myself represented in media more.
New York’s cool, because we got the new gender marker. I’m worried about how that will go at bars. Not every bar, but some bars. In New York, you can’t ask for someone’s ID to go into a bathroom. You can’t deny someone the right to use a restroom. But I’ve been in plenty of bars where the women’s line is 50,000 feet long, and there’s no line in the men’s room, and I’ve just gone. And that’s not a gender issue, I just have to pee. I was in a place in the East Village, which is really surprising because that’s not where you would expect people to freak out, and the bathroom guard – they literally had a guy whose job was to sit across from the bathroom and make sure that multiple people weren’t going in there so you weren’t doing drugs in there, and people weren’t cutting the line – and he grabbed my arm, and [said], “You can’t go in there, it’s for men.” And I [said], “You can’t tell me I can’t go in there.” And I got in an argument with him, and I pulled up the law on my phone, and I left, and my friend went back in and talked to the owner. But I could only assume that’s going to be heightened by the marker. If someone who identifies as a transgender woman of color decides to get the “X” gender marker, their risk of violence could increase even more.
Meaghan: Just don’t beat us up. That’s what I want. Don’t hurt us.
Ash: I just wanna pee. I don’t want men grabbing me by the arm because I have to pee. What’s the difference between a gender-neutral bathroom in public, and a gender-neutral bathroom in your house? It’s the same fuckin’ thing. My other concern with the gender marker thing is that I fill out a lot of W-4s, and I’m a freelancer, so how do I do taxes?
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.
Meaghan: So, when I did Ray Donovan, I was supposed to work with one of my all-time favorite actors, Alan Alda. That was a huge thing for me because me and my grandma, who passed away when I was in 8th grade – she lived next door to us for about 6 years, and I would always go over and we would have sleepovers, and we would watch M.A.S.H. every night. That TV show [from the 70s]. We loved it. We just kept running through the seasons, and there’s like, 11 of them, so there was a lot of content, but we knew the episodes by heart. So Alan Alda meant a lot to me.
So we did a table read of a specific episode, and Alan Alda and I had a speaking scene together. I was freaking out. Then when we got to filming the actual episode, they had to cut that out because the way the mental hospital rooms were structured, you couldn’t see out a window to where I would be. So they had to cut that out. But they wrote me in the next day, so they had me come over and film another small scene. I was shoved in the room, and they sat me down at a table with a drawing of a flower that I was supposed to color in, and then Alan Alda walks in the door, and it’s all very overstimulating. I didn’t know what was going on because they really hadn’t told me what the scene was going to be. So Alan Alda comes and sits next to me, and he makes a joke about how I look fucked up with my scars and shit. And I didn’t want to be that person who’s like, “You’re my favorite, and I love you, and I am gonna fangirl all over you.” So we had chatted, [and] I felt comfortable enough when the scene was over and he was starting to get up [that] I turned to him and I said, “Mr. Alda, I just – ” and then tears just started pouring. Because I had not dealt with the grief of my grandmother dying, and he was all of everything that I had ever imagined. I [said], “Thank you so much for all that you did for me. You didn’t know, but me and my grandma loved you so much, and M.A.S.H. was incredible, and you have been an inspiration to me.” And he took my hand and asked me about my grandma, and it was just the coolest experience. And I’m going to carry it with me for a long, long time.
Ash: Going on a 23-hour-long first date. [Meaghan and I] had a class together her freshman year and my fake freshman year – my second try at a freshman year. [laughs] I clocked her. I was like, “That one’s gay.” [laughs] And then I didn’t talk to [her], because [she’s] pretty. Then we did a couple shows together, and I would talk to her conservatory mates, but not her, because she was too pretty. And she also was dating a dancer, and I was like, I’m not a professional dancer. And I had relationships some of the time, but not all of the time. And then we met on fuckin’ Her, because why the fuck not (it’s a dating app). Even though we’re both not women. It’s like Tindr but for queer women. I had broken up with my partner, and it had been a couple months, and I had only really been hooking up with cis men, and I was exhausted. So I [thought], Why not? Still in that “I’m free and wild” phase of getting out of a relationship. Casual. It’s senior year. I don’t want anything serious. I have to focus on my work. And I saw her on there, and I was in my friend’s apartment, and we were gettin’ drunk to go have a party in the woods, and I was like, “Oh my god, that’s Meaghan the actor.” And [my friend] was like, “Just swipe on her.”
So I did it, and then Meaghan answered me back a million years later the same night, and I decided to message her. And then it was Thanksgiving break, and I lived 25 minutes away from school, and I was like, “Yeah, I have to go back to do some work because I can’t get work done at my house. We should grab coffee,” but the Starbucks on campus was closed. I didn’t have to go back. But I said I was going to anyway. And then we got coffee and went to the mall where I had spent my entire high school existence because I went to high school in the city that our college was next to. We talked a lot, and then we went back to [her] apartment because we wanted to keep hanging out, and I cancelled on dinner with one of my friends. Then we watched some of an episode of Black Mirror, and then we had sex, and then I was really hungry and it was like 3 in the morning. So then we got diner food, and then I slept over, and then the next day was Thanksgiving, so [she] drove me back home, which I literally thought was the sweetest thing in my entire life. I don’t know why. Then we hung out again on Friday, and I accidentally slept over again, and then [she] drove me home again on Saturday. [She] had tickets to see Illyria at the Republic, and [her] roommate was sick, so [she] asked me to go. So then I went to the show with [her] after [she] had just dropped me off at my house again. And then I slept over again. And then it was Sunday. And then [she] drove me home, and I just went back to school because Thanksgiving break was over. Then we just hung out forever. I was going to wait to ask [her] out until after winter break, because I wanted to make sure that it was real, but then [she] asked me out. And then we were dating for only a month and I bought a plane ticket to Colorado over winter break to go see her and meet her parents. Insane. I met your parents who lived in a completely different state before you met my parents.
Meaghan: Who lived in the exact same state.
Ash: Yeah. Because you’re my whole life now. So I would say that’s impactful.
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.
Ash: I was sheltered [in the sense that] my family just doesn’t talk about things. Just straight up does not speak about things. For a tiny example: my grandmother had to give up her cat. I was at college, and I was working at a Halloween event five minutes away from my grandma’s house. So I had to grab some stuff [at her house], and [as] I was leaving [I asked], “Where’s the cat?” And as she’s closing the screen door and pushing me out, she [says], “We gave him away, he was peeing in the house.” They were like, “Oh I thought you knew.” And I’m like, “How would I have known?” It’s very Irish-Catholic stereotypical “we don’t have problems.”
My dad is not a good person. He, from what I know, got my mom pregnant with me because she was going to leave him. They weren’t married yet. [So] when my mom got pregnant at 21, my grandma [told her], “Well you have to get married. Because it’s 1993 and we’re Catholic.” So my mom got married. And I didn’t know that my mom was pregnant with me during her wedding for 14 years of my life. My dad told me at a Yankee game. So for a lot of my life I didn’t realize that my dad was a bad person, because no one sat me down and [said], “Dads aren’t supposed to be this way.” He would talk about my mom a lot, and he had girlfriends but I wouldn’t meet all of them, but [the ones I did meet], very quickly he wouldn’t have those girlfriends anymore. I didn’t know he was an abusive person in the slightest. Looking back I can [say], “Oh yeah, this explains all of these things.”
Meaghan: I don’t know, I’ve had a pretty privileged life. I’d say, honestly, these past few months have been hard. Figuring shit out and just trying to be a person, you know? It’s just hard when you don’t have money, and also you don’t want to go outside. Not that I’m agoraphobic, but sometimes I don’t want to go places because I feel very comfortable here. I would be totally fine just living a life that would be this and video games sometimes, you know? I love acting, and I love singing, and I love my art. But sometimes – living’s hard. Especially living in a city, for me, is very hard.
Who in your life do you feel you can trust or depend on?
Ash: Also my grandmother. She helped raise me when my mom was working full-time, and my other cousins, her other grandchildren, the oldest is 10 years younger than me. So I was kind of the third child. I love her, and she’s like my second mom. So she’s top tier. She’s the best. And Meaghan’s there too. But my grandma’s first. And she loves you too.
Meaghan: Yeah. And I love Nan. She’s the best. For me, it’s Ash and my parents. And my best friend Carlos.
Ash: Also my friends, but it’s different with someone I see 24 hours a day 7 days a week. And I can go to work, and then I can complain to my friends, but I can also come here and vent to Meaghan and talk about everything that’s happened, and while [she] might not know everyone or understand all of it, [she] still listen[s]. And also moving was not as scary for me as it was for [her] I feel, but it definitely was difficult, and I think it’s changed our relationship, but in a good, strong way, and not a bad strong way. I think being raised the way I was but also my dad stuff, I’m still working through it, but it’s helping me realize what bad and negative traits do I have that I have been conditioned by my upbringing to do, and making me do a lot of self-learning and re-evaluating and being a better person. And she helps me so much.
How has your identity played a role in your relationships, romantic or otherwise?
Ash: I think it’s different dating cis straight people. I’ve definitely been fetishized, both gender and sexuality, and I don’t think I realized it at the time. I’ve had partners in the past, when I wasn’t fully comfortable with my pronouns, tell their parents and their friends my pronouns without my permission. That’s always a safety thing. I will judge if someone’s older, maybe this is just not worth the time and energy, but yeah I’ve had that happen and that’s made me super uncomfortable. I’m not friends with people that don’t respect it, because that’s a waste of my time. I have friends who have questions. Most of them have been pretty respectful. Basically everybody gets it. And if they don’t get it, they want to learn, and maybe they’ll ask questions that aren’t 100% appropriate, but it’s coming from a place of curiosity and I’d rather they ask me than ask a stranger. But it can, like I said, be exhausting. Education is exhausting when it’s not your full-time job. It’s unfair.
Meaghan: With my parents I will say they don’t know that I feel that I’m not in the binary. My mom has said, “Oh it’s great that you’re gay,” and then a commercial came on one time about trans people, and she [said], “If you ever said you were anything like this to me I don’t know what I’d do.” And I [thought], Oh fuck! So I don’t even know. They would love me, they just wouldn’t get it. And I think they’ve always understood it in their hearts, but…. My family beyond my parents don’t get it, never would. My mom’s family is cool because they’re from California. They understand. [I’m not out to my dad’s family.] They would think I was going to hell. Frustrating, really frustrating. But I think my and aunt on that side does get it. But like Ash said, not really friends with people who wouldn’t really understand that kind of stuff. Some of my company members from college, I do get questions, and [sometimes it’s things I can’t talk about] necessarily, because it’s not my experience, but I can educate you about some of my experience. They’re hilarious though. They want to understand, they do.
Are you able to find adequate medical care?
Ash: Right now I’m under my parent’s health insurance still, and I’m under the City of New York Employees, so my medical care for the first time in my life is beautiful. Doctors don’t understand that you could want to skip your period, but not need birth control to prevent pregnancy. And when I’ve told doctors that I’m interested in using birth control because I’m dysphoric about my period, they’ve denied me birth control. Yup. But I use an online app called Nurx and they’re really great. They work with your insurance, or you pay, to mail birth control to you. And they’ve been really understanding for Meaghan and also for me that we want to skip periods because it makes us feel not good. I don’t normally tell doctors, but you kind of have to tell the gyno, and I’ve just had really bad experiences where doctors either don’t believe that I’ve never had sex – when it was the case when I hadn’t had sex with someone who had a penis – and they wouldn't respect it when I was talking about it. And that happened with [Meaghan] at Planned Parenthood, they made [her] take a pregnancy test.
Meaghan: I wanted to punch somebody in the face. I felt so dysphoric and uncomfortable and pissed off. I told them it wasn’t physically fucking possible.
How has your view of yourself changed since you were younger?
Ash: I think I’m definitely more comfortable in my body. I’m happier with myself. Maybe that’s just growing up too, but it feels less like I’m trying to be something and trying to achieve a goal, and more like I’m a person, and I’m comfortable and happy in my skin and deserve love and all of that stuff. I’m definitely not what I thought I was going to be. I don’t look like what I thought I was going to be. I really was performing femininity at a 15 out of 10, so this is not where it was. Didn’t think I’d be living in Inwood with a “lady.”
Meaghan: A little gay boi.
Meaghan: I feel like I’ve really grown into myself and become way more of who I wanted to be. I think college really helped with that. Well, being in the acting program really helped with that. Junior and senior year of high school I was a louder presence, but definitely I was shrunk into myself, not knowing how to express or be a human. And then I went to acting school, and they ripped me open and took out my heart and said, “Here you are,” and then put it back in. And here I am with less social anxiety than I used to have, and more self-expression, and more humanity, I think. I feel way more comfortable with myself now.
Ash: Yeah I hate myself way less. [laughs] But how much of that is gender and how much of that is being a teenager? I’m not sure.
Meaghan: True, true.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Ash: Shut up. [laughs] For one second, just shut up and listen. Look around. I don’t know, there were just so many signs and things in front of my face that I just didn’t want to see. But I do think a lot of what I did was driven by the need for safety, and fear. So I don’t know. I don’t want to say it gets better because it doesn’t always. But yeah, shut up and listen.
Meaghan: I would say, you don’t need to be such a stickler. It’s going to be okay if you put down the homework and sleep. Your parents aren’t god, but they’re trying to do what’s best for you. And sometimes that makes them a little bit crazy. And you’re allowed to be a kid.
What are your concerns for the future?
Ash: Health insurance. Security. Vacation. Paid vacation. Money. I mean, America’s really scary right now. That’s a big concern that I’m just ignoring. Being able to be out and proud, I guess, and feel secure in that, and not have to hide a part of my identity and my life just to be able to make money, I think is a big thing. Yeah. Health insurance. That’s my fear.
Meaghan: Just, you know, I hope we don’t go back to the Dark Ages.
Ash: Yeah, I’m just scared. Period.
What do you look forward to in the future?
Ash: Having fun in my career, and being able to take vacation days, and having health insurance. Moving forward in my career as a designer. Working on projects that I enjoy. Not just because I need money. Being creatively stimulated. Living with [Meaghan]. Getting a dog. For real. A permanent dog. Not a foster one.
Meaghan: I look forward to getting engaged. And, I mean, hopefully ending up doing something that I love. Getting work. That’s what I look forward to. Getting paid money for doing the work that I love. That’s really all I ask. Getting paid a living wage, not a pittance.
Ash: We’re planning a trip to Europe, so that’ll be fun, if we can afford that. We know we’re definitely going to Ireland, and England, because I have family there so we can stay with them as opposed to paying for housing.
Meaghan: And then we’ll probably trek over to France, because my parents have a house there. And I want to do a biking tour. I know [Ash doesn’t]. [laughs] I want to go to Italy.
What have been the important frustrations in your life, and the most important successes?
Ash: Meaghan, for both of those questions. Am I wrong? [both laugh]
Meaghan: No. It’s true. Sometimes I can be a lot to handle. And you can, too.
Ash: Oh yeah.
Meaghan: Yeah. But that’s been the greatest reward, I think.
Ash: Work-wise, I think definitely realizing my value as an artist, [that] I do need to be paid a living wage, and you can’t use my work without me, and without paying me, and my time is valuable, and don’t treat me like shit. That’s the frustration that has led to successes, and I think sometimes sticking through things that are frustrating. I’m currently working on something that is giving me a lot of anxiety, but I’m going to do it because I can’t quit. Which sucks. So I’m going to do it. It’s going to be worth it. I’ve had a lot of projects post-grad that have sucky suck sucked and then turned into really beautiful worthwhile experiences that have taught me more about myself and art. It’s been good.
Meaghan: Yeah, getting paid a living wage is tough in the arts. Especially if I am talking with people about my rate for commissions for art. So I do this thing that I call “Soultraits” that takes a long time. It’s a long process, because I don’t have a tablet, so I draw everything out in pencil, then I ink that shit, then I put it on my computer, and then I Photoshop it to color it. I think it looks really nice. And I can’t charge more than like, 20 bucks for that, but it takes me 10 hours. I know I can [charge more] but people won’t buy it until I’m established. So, that’s really frustrating, and being an actor is not much better, unless you’re in film and TV, which pays so well. Stupid good money. It’s just maddening. Also typecasting is very frustrating. Everything’s frustrating. But it’s not. It’s not. Life is good.
Ash: I got to assist on an off-Broadway show, and I got to associate on an off-Broadway show, and it feels pretty good. Being just graduated and getting that done. It feels nice. I got to work at the Joyce [a big dance theater in NYC], which is cool. And work with a British director who’s very famous, and a British composer that he works with a lot who I really really love. I just feel successful in my career right now, which is good. It’s frustrating because I have to remind myself, you did just graduate, and shit takes time. Because I’m over it, what’s the next thing? But I think the success is sitting in it and being proud of what you’ve done. Having this apartment feels successful.
Meaghan: Yeah, having this apartment feels good. It feels like we’re doin’ the thing. I’m taking care of myself, which is good. Going to the gym, that feels like a success in itself. And I’m forcing myself to look for work, and I’m doing work that’s related to theater, but it’s not my calling, which also feels like a success because I have never ever wanted to do that kind of thing. I only wanted to make money from my art, and right now it’s not feasible. So being able to do that for me is pretty darn cool.
Ash: Fostering dogs is a success. Because it feels like if we can take care of another living thing, then we’re probably doing a pretty good job of taking care of ourselves. [both laugh]
Do you have a philosophy of life? What’s your best piece of advice?
Ash: No. [both laugh] Don’t be dumb, which isn’t good.
Meaghan: I would say… Do the damn thing. Do it. Especially if it scares you.
Ash: Being paranoid has been really great for motivating me in life, and making me question things. Make your kids watch 48 Hour Mystery when they’re 7 years old. It’ll motivate them through the rest of their life.
Meaghan: Don’t do that.