Newest Tool to Battle Transphobia: Puppets

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

“Hey, can I play too?”

Katie, the leader, didn’t hesitate: “No. Only girls can play this game.”

I sputtered, “But … Steven’s not a girl!”

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

“Oh, yeah!” she said, “I forgot!”

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

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

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