What are your pronouns?
“They/them” at the moment. I also go by “he” or “she” – “they/them” feels the truest most of the time.
Where do you work?
I co-own Esh Circus Arts. I have two business partners – Ellen Waylonis and Roger May – who are fabulous, and the three of us own and manage the circus school.
I started out when I was 17 doing fire performance and street performance, miming, that kind of thing. When I was 19, I was doing object manipulation in a theater show called Mission in the Machine with these fabulous people who turned out to be the people who now run the Boston Circus Guild. Through that I also met Liz Lamanche and Phil, who are both aerialists who had this skillshare down in [Jamaica Plain], and my friend Clara (also an aerialist) who just moved back from San Francisco, and they told me to come play around on aerials with them.
I was never a dancer, or a gymnast – I rode horses, that was the most physical thing I did as a kid. I was a bookworm and a nerd. But I turned out to really like it and I turned out to be really good at it. So, on a whim, I auditioned for a professional circus school. I had never taken a lesson in my life, and they accepted me. I ended up going to the professional track program at the New England Center for Circus Arts in Brattleboro, Vermont. That was amazing. I majored in aerial hoop and minored in aerial rope. When I came back, I wasn’t really sure where to go next, and my partner at the time owned Crossfit Fenway, which had a back room where I started teaching. Teaching was totally not what I wanted to do with my life, I really wanted to focus on trying to perform for money. But it turns out I don’t like other people telling me what to do, so performing for money doesn’t work very well if you don’t like [that], and second of all, I really like teaching. I really like setting my own schedule, and making my own work. And that’s what teaching allows me; to be able to make the art I want to make and not have to rely on it for money, while also giving people this amazing gift of knowing their bodies better.
Making this business go – Boston was very ready for this.
When I came back from circus school there was no place to train, or learn, circus in Boston. I had come back and I was one of the more advanced aerialists in the city at the time, and none of us really had a training space, and there was nowhere for [untrained] aerialists to go learn. We’ve basically never really had to market. We have done some marketing, but word-of-mouth and people just knowing about it and wanting it have had them show up. We also work really hard to create a really open and welcoming environment, and make sure that what we’re putting forward is a safe product – or as safe as can be, there’s inherent risk in this activity at all times – but we try to mitigate as much of the risk as possible and make it as safe and accessible as possible, and make sure that we’re putting forward a really well-rounded class experience. That’s just kind of worked.
Do you have any hobbies or special interests?
I am awful at hobbies. This started out as a hobby. Working in food service and retail jobs as a teenager was the closest thing to a real job I’ve ever had, because I started doing this so early. Even while I was working retail jobs as a teenager and young adult, I never really had hobbies, I had “the thing I’m doing with my life” and then a job. Right now the closest thing I have to a hobby is a side business, because I can’t not make a business out of everything I do. I make scale maille. It’s a lot of fun. It’s really meditative, because there’s a lot of creativity that goes into the design of it… The actual making of it is like knitting, which is really good for quieting my mind. And then I get shiny things afterward, so that’s fun.
What do you do for fun?
Dance. I’m actually currently injured, I currently cannot perform aerials, and that’s been for about three years. I’ve had a couple of shoulder injuries that have really put me out of commission, but that have been incredibly good for my teaching. I have become a much better teacher in my understanding of body mechanics and anatomy, and how to see these things and how to approach these things. So it’s been good and horrible, because not being able to do this has been really awful. But, it has pushed me into dancing as a creative outlet in and of itself. I’ve started dancing much more seriously; I take 4 or 5 classes a week, and I perform. I’ve gone through a lot of depression because of my injury, and dance has been a lifesaver.
How do you handle the issue of pronouns and being gendered when interacting with strangers / mixed company / etc?
For the most part I am gentle about it. I feel a little bit of discomfort around “she,” it just doesn’t feel right, but I don’t feel a huge amount of dysphoria. It does not throw me off my game, it does not trigger me, it does not have a lot of the really deleterious effects that I know it does for a lot of my friends when they get mis-gendered. Especially for the friends of mine who have known me for a very long time, I’m aware that it’s going to take them a long time to switch to Sable, and I’m aware that Rachel is going to be what I hear a lot. I have found that what works when people mis-gender my friends in my presence is not necessarily even correcting them, but just being like, “Oh yes, they do this thing.” So I’m going to ask my friends who are already on the ball about this to do that for me when I’m not around, and then I’m going to be very vocal about announcing what I need, and I‘m probably not going to correct people very often. Mainly because when I’m teaching or leading a class, that starts to get in the way of the flow of the class a lot if I have to stop every five minutes and correct someone’s pronouns. Managing five people doing acrobatics is already complicated.
With my family, I don’t think they’re ever going to really do the name change thing, and that’s fine. I don’t dis-identify with Rachel, it is still very much a part of me; it is more an internal part of me at this point, it is less the external part of me that I want people to be recognizing. I’m not going to push [my parents]. My sister will be fine with it. Our family’s really gay. [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?
I have found that since I have been presenting more androgynously, I have actually gotten cat-called a lot less. I still dress extremely outrageously and provocatively, which is really interesting. When I used to dress in jeans and a T-shirt, I would get cat-called all the time. I think I just look so…big, that when I do get people saying things to me they’re just like, “Wow, your hair,” or “Oh my god, you look great,” but I get far less of the, “Hey baby, do you want to – explicit sexual comment.” I don’t know what it is about that. The way that I hold myself is much more masculine. I have noticed a very steep drop-off in the amount of cat-calling I get over the last few years.
Are there ways that you dress / act / speak / etc. to specifically make a statement to others about your identity? Why?
This is actually something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately as I more fully and completely inhabit my gender fluid identity and really own both my masculinity and femininity. For a long time, I think I was sort of still playing into heteronormative gender roles in both of those senses. I have been grappling with the idea of testosterone or not recently – medical transition in some way, shape, or form. I’m not going to have surgery if only for the [way] that my body reacts to physical injury and trauma. I don’t feel enough dysphoria about my breasts to feel like I need to put my body through that much trauma. And since I use my body as my job, it’s not worth it to me. If my level of dysphoria changes, I will re-address that, but right now I’m not going to have surgery.
But I do very much want facial hair. I would love to have a more masculine shape to my body. That would be great. But again, my body is just really hypersensitive to everything, so I’m just really leery about fucking with it. I haven’t ever been able to do hormonal birth control without having horrible, horrible side effects. But I really do want the masculine parts of me to be more seen. I am not willing to dress in a way that doesn’t feel authentic to me, and no part of me is butch. My masculinity is faggy as hell. The closest I get to butch is dapper. I’m a peacock. I feel the most masculine when I’m peacocking out really hard, and I feel really feminine when I’m covered in dirt and earth. So my masculinity is not what most people read as masculinity, which is tricky and difficult. Any situation where I feel like it would be okay, I do draw on sideburns, because one day I would love to have those.
How early on did you know or suspect that you did not identify within the binary?
I was always a gender non-conforming kid. I guess people called me a tomboy at the time, but – I didn’t not like ballerinas, I just also liked football. As a kid, I never had more than two friends at a time really, but I always had one male friend and one female friend. I never gravitated to one or the other. For a very long time, I think I just didn’t want to examine my gender identity so I was saying, “I’m just queer, bisexual, pan, I’m a girl I guess, sure,” and then, actually, meeting Johnny Blazes [a friend and colleague] was a huge thing where I thought, “Oh! That’s a thing!” So it was around 19 or 20 that I started to think, “Okay, maybe I’m…butch? No, I’m not butch. Maybe I’m something else?” And it was really only about 5 years ago that I started really internally feeling and identifying as non-binary, or gender fluid, or genderqueer. It took a long time for me to feel like I could use those labels, because of [the idea that I was] “not trans enough,” “not queer enough,” like I can’t claim that term. At this point, I am confident enough in my identity to be under the trans umbrella, because I am transgender. I am not binary transgender, but I am transgressing gender in a certain sense. I do feel very decidedly not cis, at all. There is nothing about that that works for me.
Do you think anything about the way you were raised or where you grew up affected how easy or difficult it was for you to draw conclusions about your identity?
I was raised by feminists, which is awesome. My mother is from Israel and my dad is from Iowa. He was raised in the Jesus Christ Church of Latter Day Saints, but he converted to Judaism to marry my mother and I was raised very liberally Jewish. [My parents are] both very thoughtful, very intelligent, and very progressive-minded people who raised me with the very clear value of: what you do with your body is your choice, and who you are is your choice, and what other people do with their bodies and who they are is not your business. When I was a kid I’m sure I regurgitated crappy shit that I heard from the culture that I live in, but when someone really posed the idea to me of, “What if a man wanted to be a girl?” I thought, Why should that even be a thing I have an opinion on, if I don’t want to do it? So that really put me in a very safe place to examine all of this from, because I’ve never been afraid that my family wasn’t going to accept me in any way, for anything that I do. Which is absolutely amazing. And, I live here. I grew up in Baltimore. Baltimore is super queer, Baltimore is super weird, it’s awesome. My high school marched in the gay pride parade when I was 16, and then I marched in every Baltimore pride parade that I was there for until I moved away. I’ve never been in an environment where the people closest to me felt hostile about gender, about sexuality, about any of that. I’m incredibly grateful for that. I think I’ve had a much easier time of it than most people because of the environment that I live in and the people that are close to me.
Can you give any examples of misconceptions people have about those who identify outside the binary? Have you personally dealt with them?
I actually just had a conversation with someone that was a very good reminder to not fly off the handle with people immediately, because sometimes they’re just really ignorant. Somebody posted a thing [on Facebook] that was like, “So, I think that gender fluidity is actually just really un-feminist, and re-ifies gender roles, cause like what, do you just wake up in the morning and think you’re a boy and then you have to dress like boys dress?” And it’s just like, oh, you’re making so many assumptions… Also, first of all, other people’s gender identity is none of your business. Second of all, other people’s gender identity is none of your business. Third of all, whenever you have a question about what someone else is doing with their identity or their body, a really good place to start is, “Hey, you’ve probably thought about this a lot more than cis I have, how have you approached your identity in terms of feminism and gender roles?” As opposed to, “So I think your identity isn’t feminist, can you defend it for me?” But, I reigned it in. I just said, “So here’s how I think about this thing: for me, I feel most like a boy when I’m in 6-inch heels and glitter on my face. And I feel the most a girl when I’m covered in dirt and rolling around in the mud. What is boy, what is girl? It’s about what feels authentic to you.” And their response was, “Oh, cool, I didn’t realize that!” They were super gracious, and really just had no idea and didn’t have any idea how to ask the question. But that is something that I ran into – a lot of people have never had to examine their own gender identity; they just think, well everything I do is girl, because I’m a girl. So if you are both, does that mean that you have to adhere to external ideas of gender? Because your internal idea of gender seems so undefined. It’s this idea that we don’t have an internal gender identity, that we are all presentation, and no internal sense of self.
And then the question is, what separates you from a genderqueer person? Internal intention and desire. It really does come down to what feels authentic in you. For me, language is really important. I get a lot out of language, I love language, I love all the nuances of language, and so when someone says something, how that word resonates with me informs me a lot about myself. And when I realized that some people were referring to me as “she,” and “woman” was feeling – not bad, just not true – that was a big turning point for me.
In your own words, how would you explain that gender identity is different from sexual orientation?
What I always tell people is, gender identity is what you feel about yourself and what you feel about who you are with gender, and sexuality is what you are attracted to, what you are into. Those things inform each other. Particularly gender identity, for me, is very tied into my sexuality. And sexuality has helped me find so much of my gender identity. I have had relationships that have, through the sexual aspect of them, really shown me a lot about my gender. I can’t speak to anyone else obviously, but for me they interplay a lot, but they are coming from different places and meeting rather than both coming from the same place. So one is who you are, and one is who or what you are attracted to, or how you are attracted to someone. I know there are people who include kink as a sexual identity. For me, that is a sexual orientation. So how I am attracted to someone, the kink dynamic that is present, is part of my sexual orientation and identity.
How do you feel represented in media and society at large?
That’s a troubling one, as usual. I, as an assigned-female-at-birth [AFAB], masculine-ish person, am represented pretty fine. Because Ruby Rose is a thing. Not my favorite thing, but a thing. Non-binary identities that are not white and skinny and assigned-female-at-birth masculine-of-center are not very well-represented. So I have mixed feelings about all that.
What improvements would you like to see happen in and outside of your community?
What I’d really love to see is more inclusion of assigned-male-at-birth people. Transfeminine people. People of different body type and shape and size. People of different ages would be lovely. There are not a lot of older non-binary people that are represented. Non-binary people of color. That would be fabulous. Just generally not the masculine-of-center AFAB white person.
Who in your life do you feel you can trust or depend on?
I am again very lucky in that my family falls under that category. I have never felt like I could come to my parents with anything and not have them be as supportive as possible in every possible way. I am really, really lucky in my family. I also am very lucky in my chosen family, in the people that I have around me. My business partners are amazing friends. They’re not just business partners, they are part of my life. I have a really lovely, tight-knit network of fabulous humans that I can call in a crisis and have called in a crisis, and that’s really amazing.
How has your identity played a role in your relationships, romantic or otherwise?
I have found that I cannot date straight people. And by that I mean, if I date someone who I think is straight, they turn out not to be. Back when I was dating straight men, it was never actually a thing. They’re usually also not as cis as they think they are by the time they’re done dating me. I just get my queer all over everybody. [laughs] And I have found that something that has been an issue recently for me, again as I more consciously and fully inhabit a gender fluid – “gender yes” – identity, even people who very much read me as male and who see my male identity, tend to still want me to stay one or the other, or stay whatever one thing it is that they are attracted to. That has been very hard for me because even though it is so wonderful and such a relief to have the male parts of me be seen, it is just as restricting to be kept in that box as it is to be kept in a feminine one. So trying to find a truly fluid identity in a relationship is tricky, because people are attracted to what they’re attracted to, and people are attached and emotionally connected to what they’re emotionally connected to. So I haven’t really figured that out, how that’s going to play out. But that has been an issue in the past.
How has your view of yourself changed since you were younger?
I feel like my view of myself has actually come around full-circle in a certain way. I was a very lonely, isolated kid when I was very little, because I’m weird. [laughs] I was weird, I’m hypersensitive, I had sensory integration problems, I was weird-looking, I had giant glasses and short cropped hair. I was day-dreamy, talked to myself, was in my own head and had these really elaborate fantastic stories that I would tell about myself to other people. I feel like I’ve come around full-circle to a certain extent because I have, at this point in my life, embraced the parts of myself that I feel are kind of mythical and fantastic as a way of embracing the power of being weird. My weirdness is what makes me who I am, and what gives me the ability to do things that I’ve done. Embracing my gender weirdness has been a large part of that, and recognizing that I am powerful within myself.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
I would say both that there is enough time, and also that every moment needs to be conscious. I feel like I spent a lot of time worrying about the future, and also not being conscious about what I was doing in the moment. [I was] both worrying about not having enough time and squandering the time that I had. The other thing that I would tell myself is I think the thing that almost everyone tells their younger self, which is: when you are trying things on, when you’re trying on different modes of being, do not let yourself become too committed to one if it does not feel right. Do not think that just because you started to do a thing means that you have to commit to that thing when you are a teenager. You have the option of trying many things.
What are your concerns for the future?
Right now? Lots. Trump. That’s a large part of my concerns for the future. But also a little bit of hope, because I look at how many people turned out both for Hillary and Bernie, and how many people have turned out for much more left-of-center ideals than have in the past in this country, and that makes me really happy. I look at how much conversation there is about race and rape in this country. And as much as the reason these things are getting talked about is because horrible things are happening, I at least have some amount of hope that the future will be better. I am very concerned for the response that is happening now. The collective racism of America is being really enflamed, and that’s really scary to watch. My mother is the daughter of Holocaust survivors. I was raised on stories of the Holocaust. As a queer person, I’m at risk, but I’m white, and that makes me safer than a lot of my friends. It is scary.
What do you look forward to in the future?
People in my generation and younger are much more willing to talk about things like this. When it comes to issues of sexuality and gender, [they] are like, “Yeah, whatever, it’s fine.” For the most part; obviously there’s fringe everywhere. But the overwhelming majority of young people don’t give a shit about sexuality and gender, which is awesome. I have hope that those issues at least will continue to head in a good direction.
What have been the important frustrations in your life, and the most important successes?
The most important frustration in my life has been this injury, honestly – this thing that has made me really face my relationship with my body, my relationship with what I do, and what is important to me in my life. Because losing the driving passion of my life was…not very good. That is not the most damage I’ve taken in my life, for sure, but that has been a frustration in every sense of the word. And that has been very useful to me as much as it’s been awful.
If we’re talking straight-up quantifiable successes? Esh. This space. It has really grown into a community. This is not just a business. This is something that people really get a lot out of. I am aware that right now it is a luxury. Our classes cost money, we are not accessible to people with lower incomes. That is a problem for me. It is something that we are looking forward to ameliorating. We have work-study programs. We are currently working with a couple of refugee kids that are coming in and doing some programs for free with us. Going down the line I’m looking into becoming a Feldenkrais practitioner myself (doing movement therapy). When I set that practice up it is going to be with a very clear eye towards trying to make that accessible to a wider range of people, and using the resources that we have here at Esh to make that happen.
Do you have a philosophy of life? What’s your best piece of advice?
I have a lot of philosophies of movement, because for me movement is the core of everything. It’s how we relate to the world; it’s how we relate to ourselves. There is no brain-body separation. Your brain is your body. How you move is your brain. How you relate to the world affects who you are, and who you are affects how you relate to the world. So I guess if I have to boil it down to a pithy phrase: “As without so within, and as within so without.” There is very little [in] interaction that is a one-way street. There is very little that people perceive to be a binary that is actually a binary. There are always ways around and between pretty much any two concepts.