Theatre and Queerness at St. Olaf

By Leilah Kidess

Theatre has always been a place for people to explore different controversial topics. It is often a judgment free place in which audiences are able to form their own ideas about issues based on what they see on stage. In the past, theatre has been used to discuss issues such as wars, poverty, racism, and LGBT+ rights. The theatre community in general is often a place where minorities and those discriminated against can feel welcome. This has included the LGBT+ community and continues to do so.

The inclusivity and ability to talk about issues for the LGBT+ community is true of the theatre department at St. Olaf this year. As a member of the LGBT+ community, I have always felt welcome in our theatre department. There are many other members of the LGBT+ community in the theatre department and the professors of the department go out of their way to be welcoming and respectful to everyone. Many of the theatre productions this year had some queer ideas present and students in the department have also been exploring ideas in the LGBT+ community.

In the fall production of the comedy Love of Three Oranges, written by Carlo Gozzi and directed by Jeanne Willcoxon and Irve Dell, many of the characters were intentionally gender-bent. This created a very queer feel to the show. The prince in the show was played by Shannon Cron. This created an interesting dynamic, especially when the prince married a girl at the end of the show and the prince took of his hat. There was a bow in Shannon’s hair. This little touch created a subtle yet powerful statement about LGBT+ rights and the complexity and fluidity of gender and sexuality. Denzel Belin and Joey LeBrun both dressed in drag for the show. Denzel played a princess while Joey played a witch. They both wore heels and wigs to enhance their characters. Seton FitzMacken also played a man who assisted the villains of the show and wore a baseball cap. Along with the gender-bending, the king’s assistant, played by Nathan Aastuen, and the king, played by Memo Rodriguez had some implied onstage romance. The assistant comically portrayed his crush on the king and they shared some comical romantic moments. All in all, this show challenged the norms of gender and sexuality in a very palatable manner.

In the interim production of Cymbeline, written by William Shakespeare and directed by Gary Gisselman and Jon Ferguson, there was a lot of intentional gender-bending. Lily Bane played Polydore, a son to Belarius and was a hunter that lived in a cave. The character was fairly masculine and engaged in sword fights and even chopped off the prince’s head. Megan Behnke played Belarius, the father of Polydore and a hunter as well. Seton FitzMacken played Doctor Cornelius, a comical doctor that knew all the events of the play. Christine Menge played Caius Lucius, a Roman general that battled the Britains and King Cymbeline. Victoria Green played a French gentleman, a British lord, and a Roman attendant to Caius Lucius.

In the student-directed one-acts this spring, The Twilight of the Golds, written by Jonathan Tolins and directed by Olivia Mansfield, dealt with issues of abortion and homosexuality. The play follows the journey of a family comprised of a mother, father, gay son, daughter, and her husband. The play takes place at a time when prenatal screening has just gotten to the point where physicians can detect almost everything about the fetus with almost-complete certainty, including the fetus’ sexuality. The daughter of the family discovers that she is pregnant and learns that her baby will be gay, like her brother. The daughter and her husband must then decide whether or not to abort their child. The son finds out what his sister is planning and confronts his parents about it and asks them whether or not they would have aborted him if they knew and then confronts his sister. This show was very powerful and confronted many controversial issues without explicitly telling the audience what they should feel. I think that this show very effectively portrayed the subject matter and introduced issues for the LGBT+ community in a very accurate and captivating manner.

For his theatre senior capstone project, Joey LeBrun decided to look at gender as performance. To do this, Joey dressed up in drag for a full week and documented his experience. He called his project “Born Naked” and was looking to start a dialogue of gender as performance on the St. Olaf campus. He went about his daily life dressed as a drag queen and had different costumes each day. He got his inspiration from a RuPaul quote which says: “We’re all born naked, and the rest is drag!”

The Evolution of Gay TV

By Maddie Braun

The representation of LGBT characters on television has come a long way since 1971, when the sitcom “All in the Family” introduced the first openly gay character on broadcast TV. “All in the Family” tackled many controversial topics in its 12-year run, but the subject of homosexuality was an especially timely topic, as the gay rights movement was just beginning at that point. The show started many conversations and brought new, heavier topics into the public eye. For five consecutive years, from 1971 to 1976, the show ranked #1 in the Nielsen ratings, which measure audience size. There was both support and disapproval for the subject matter of the show. President Nixon, for example, expressed in an interview that he did not think the homosexuality represented in the show belonged on TV. Forty four years later, the representation of LGBT characters on television has changed drastically. The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) annual report on the diversity of television characters shows how.

During the 2014-2015 season, there were 65 LGBT regular and recurring characters on scripted primetime broadcast series. This made up 3.9% of the regular characters, up 0.6% from the 2013-2014 season. Besides these regular characters, there were also 33 recurring LGBT characters on these series. On cable series during the 2014-2015 season, there were 64 regular LGBT characters, including 41 recurring characters.

The racial diversity of LGBT characters has also broadened over the years. Interestingly, the diversity of LGBT broadcast characters mirrors the diversity shown among broadcast regular characters of all sexualities. Of all of the broadcast characters this season, the make-up was 73% white, 13% black, 8% Latino/a, 4% Asian/Pacific Islander, and 2% multi-racial. Of the LGBT broadcast characters, 74% were white, 11% were black, 11% were Latino/a, 5% were Asian/Pacific Islander, and there were no multi-racial LGBT characters. While the percentages of black and multi-racial characters were lower among the LGBT characters, the percentages of Latino and Asian/Pacific Islander characters were slightly higher. On cable series, the racial diversity of LGBT characters was even greater. The make-up on these series was 66% white, 10% black, 11% Latino/a, 5% Asian/Pacific Islander, and 8% multi-racial.

As these statistics show, diversity amongst LGBT television is growing. This diversity does not pertain just to race and sexuality. These characters represent different age categories, economic standpoints, careers, family situations, and personalities.

Of all of the broadcast networks, Fox had the most LGBT characters, with an impressive 6.5% of their regular characters being lesbian, gay, or bisexual. One of the network’s new shows this season, “Empire,” a drama about a family in the music business, depicted two young gay characters: one regular character and one recurring character. The regular character here is Jamal, the young, black son of the main characters. The recurring character is his boyfriend Michael, a young Mexican man. Jamal faces negative attitudes from his parents regarding his sexuality, especially from his father. This is a main recurring theme on the show in regard to this character. Though Jamal’s mother thinks he will have trouble in the music industry because of his sexuality, she still supports him and believes he can become a star. His father, on the other hand, disapproves completely of his sexuality. Jamal is portrayed as a smart, talented musician, but he refuses to pursue a career in the music industry, due in part to struggles he envisions himself facing because of his sexuality.

Over on CBS, “The Good Wife” presents the character of Kalinda Sharma, a young bisexual Indian investigator who is good friends with the main character of the show. The character of Kalinda is powerful and compelling. Though she is revealed to have an estranged husband, she dates and engages in sexual activities with multiple men and women during the course of the show.

When LGBT characters first began appearing on television, they had a personality and story of their own, but the storylines regarding these characters were one-dimensional and faced the same issues of homophobia and disapproval. Both of the characters discussed here, along with many other LGBT characters on TV now, are strong, unique people that are more than just a label, even as they still face issues common to the LGBT community. They represent real people, with their diverse personalities and backgrounds, but facing the same issues underneath their differences. Even so, LGBT characters still make up a small percentage of all of those on television. There is an even larger, more diverse LGBT community in the real world, whose experiences are not all represented by these few television shows.

Of course, LGBT characters have always drawn both praise and criticism. One of the most recent controversies involved the television show “The Fosters” and the youngest gay kiss in TV history. Recently, two 13-year-old male characters were shown kissing on the show. Some made remarks calling the event a “sin” and “cultural suicide,” but the co creators of the show, Peter Paige and Bradley Bredeweg, spoke out in defense of the scene. Bredeweg explained, “When people question the scene my response has been: ‘Everyone has a first kiss and you remember it. How old were you?’ Ninety percent of people who have an answer come back and say, ‘I was 12, 13, and 14 years old,’ and I say, ‘Exactly. It was time to see this, time to put this up for the world.'”

Bredeweg’s point is fair, and brings to mind the progress that has been made so far on television. Homosexual romances in general were once seen as a huge taboo and were criticized, though graphic heterosexual romances were seen as acceptable. Over time LGBT characters and relationships have become much more accepted in the media. The young kiss will, hopefully, mirror this progress in television. Though it has caused a stir recently, it is over an issue that has been seen many times from young straight characters of the same age. Hopefully this scene will break ground and pave the way for young gay characters’ romances to be just as accepted as those of straight characters.

So the question remains, where are we now? LGBT representation on television has shown a definite improvement over the years, but is it enough? It seems to me that the diversity of television characters could, and should, be broadened even more. Steps are being made in the right direction, but hopefully in years to come, we will be able to look back at today’s lineup and see an even more diverse and accurate portrayal of LGBT characters.

Pride Reconsidered

By Lilia Escobar

Every year, Chicago hosts its annual gay pride parades. I have, unfortunately, only attended the parade once but I hope to attend again in the future. These yearly events bring out the inner “divas” in all of my friends. Every year, I see countless posts from my friends dressed in the clothes that make them feel sexiest and surrounded by the most colorful individuals. The parade itself is very representative of the sexual liberation in the LGBTQ community. It is an event where it is okay to be who you are and being gay is something to celebrate! It is always a fun time, although it never fails to bring its share of business, traffic, violence, and accidents.

Reading over some articles reflecting on the Pride parade in Chicago, there is a wide array of responses to these events. One blog post, entitled “Crime in Wrigleyville and Boystown”, called the violence and crime surrounding the event “the usual.” In the comments section, one individual weighed in, “Pride? It’s a shame how Chicago has portrayed us in the public eye in sake of the almighty $. Seriously…” This argument isn’t something new. One thing these arguments fail to see is whom these events are created for.

One of the questions introduced by this commenter is, do Pride parades create a positive or negative image of the LGBTQA community? In a survey conducted by City Data, the results revealed a general belief that Pride parades create an overall negative representation of the queer community to both heterosexual individuals and non-heterosexual individuals. Reading through a discussion of the subject on Quora.com, a commenter brought up a new perspective on the question: “The original intent of gay pride events were designed to create neither a positive nor a negative impact…it’s more reasonable to assume that the point was to demonstrate that gays were a group larger and more organized…” This is an interesting point and brings up a concern: are the parades even intended to impact the perception of the LGBTQ community? Thinking about other parades (Thanksgiving, St. Patrick’s Day, etc.) these are generally celebration, not a stage for representation of any given group involved. People rarely use the St. Patrick’s Day parade to make a critical analysis of Irish-Americans. The part in the quote where the commenter mentions organization is an intriguing concept I had not thought about in analyzing Pride parades. Sure, the event is a celebration and a public statement of liberation, but it is also a way of proving the movement’s strength, presence, and threat. It makes a statement of “we’re here to stay and we’re not alone,” as countless queer folks and allies walk proudly through the parade.

The place where this sense of resilience and power becomes tricky is when it compromises the rest of the Chicago community and/or violates other city laws. A Chicago news site called DNAinfo addressed the issue of police crackdown on public drinking. A local Chicagoan argued, “There were too many people for police to realistically enforce the rule…” This is where the argument against the parade stops being about gay public representation and starts being about the exemption of city law because there is just too large of a group involved in the breaking of a law. While the argument against Pride parades may become about crime and public intoxication, it does not change the impact and importance of the parade. The same arguments can be applied to just about any other public event, parade, or march.

Thinking back on the concept of gay liberation movements, these parades create an interesting paradox. If the parades are indeed created to show the strength of the movement and/or the organization of the movement, who are they trying to prove themselves to? Queer culture in itself calls for strength and empowerment, so why do they have to prove they can organize an event like a parade?

Even with this, the pride parade still makes a big statement, and that is something that it will never lose. For individuals seeking sexual freedom, the parade is a place to step out publicly in a way that they might never have otherwise. The parade allows for sexuality to be expressed on a spectrum in a way that is not obvious anywhere else. You’ll see all of the letters of the alphabet soup represented, as well as subtle differences from sexual/gender “norms.” This is something special that only public celebrations as this can spark.

With that, the magic and beauty of a Pride celebration should be preserved. If this means enforcing the laws in a stricter way, or assuring the safety of all the individuals involved, so be it. There is a much larger and more important message that should not be silenced by the incidence of violence and law-breaking at these events.

Queer in Magic: The Gathering

By Jakob Asplund

Magic: The Gathering (commonly abbreviated as MTG, or Magic) is a trading card game produced by Wizards of the Coast, and is played by approximately twelve million players around the globe, as of 2011.

With a variety of formats and a 22 year history, Magic continues to thrive on the creativity of its players and the community surrounding the sagas contained within. Each set of Magic is a story of a magical world, with “planes walkers” as important characters who can travel between them.

Stories follow typically follow a particular theme, and can be based on real life histories and mythologies: the two most recent blocks (three sets tied together mechanically and narratively) are based on Greek myth and Asian cultures, respectively.

Despite Magic’s rich and diverse history, the community surrounding it can have its own set of challenges. As with many gaming communities, sexist and racist attitudes can permeate a predominantly white male culture, and at times, the cards themselves can support such attitudes. There are few planes walker cards, around 30 (this is out of more than 20,000 cards ever produced), and only seven are of women, with one agender (which will be discussed later). Magic has a history of good writing when it comes to female characters, but in recent years, it has done much to increase the amount of representation.

The Theros block is based on Greek Mythology, with a fairly open queer element for the time; after all, this is the culture responsible for the word ‘lesbian’, and even the gods themselves are put in queer situations: Zeus and Ganymede, his cup bearer; Artemis and Calysto, and many others. As such, I think that it is fitting that this is the first culture used by Magic to portray openly queer characters.

As such, there are two cards from this set that stand out: The Guardians of Meletis, and Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver. The Guardians of Meletis depict two royal figures guarding a river, the one on the right wreathed in armor. The card’s “flavor text,” the italic text on the bottom of the card that helps paint the larger narrative picture, says that the two rulers were in fact lovers, not the feuding rulers history thought them to be. A fan wrote in to the blog of Doug Beyer, one of the core writers and card developers for MTG, and asked: “Are the Guardians or Meletis Magic’s first gay Couple? Or am I misgendering one of them? Also, thank you so much for Ashiok! LGBTQ representation is awesome.”

Ashiok is a controller of nightmares and information, coming from an unknown world to Theros, the name of this plane, to experiment.

A decidedly cold and cruel character, many have questioned the intent of creating such an evil “token” character. Magic weekly posts fiction written by its development team to flesh out the story, and Ashiok appears in one to torment a local king and harvest his nightmares. Phenax, god of lies and deceit, one of the rulers of this plane, appears before Ashiok and says: “When the two had first met, the figure had called itself Ashiok…..  He, no, Phenax was not sure if the mortal even had a gender, Ashiok.” Thus, even a god does not know how to describe Ashiok’s gender.

Doug Beyer, the writer mentioned previously, received another comment that asked about Ashiok’s gender. In German, the card was given the pronoun “der”, which is masculine, and Doug Beyer replied by writing: “Others may attribute gender to Ashiok, but Ashiok does not define Ashiok’s own identity that way. Some languages require the use of a gendered pronoun, just like some people’s beliefs require other people to fall into clearly-defined categories. (I think Ashiok would be amused to hear those people’s attempts at categorizing Ashiok.) The effect of language on gender, and vice versa, is a complicated issue. But whatever any text or card or pronoun might claim, Ashiok’s gender identity is up to one person: Ashiok. And Ashiok hasn’t said, and won’t. So it’s officially unknown, just like many other mysteries about this mage.”

I think this response is rather fitting for a character who fooled the god of lies; the answer is simply a mystery. This queerest of characters will keep people guessing for a while.

The most recent expansion of Magic is the Tarkir block, which is set on a world populated by dragons and warring clans and is based on historical Asian cultures. There are groups based on the Thai empire, Tibetan Monks, Persians, Siberians, and the Mongol Horde. The leader of the Mardu Clan (modeled after the reign of Genghis Khan), which is devoted to warfare and freedom, is a 19-year-old transwoman with a blade canonically “as wide and as long as her arm.”

Yeah, rock on. The story for this character, known both as Alesha and by the epithet “Who Smiles At Death,” paints an interesting image of identity. The trans identity of the character is not the focus of this story, so much as knowing one’s own identity.

The Mardu people have a naming ritual where you earn the right to name yourself, and Alesha has an interesting story to tell of hers:

“She had been so different—only sixteen, a boy in everyone’s eyes but her own, about to choose and declare her name before the khan and all the Mardu.

The khan had walked among the warriors, hearing the tales of their glorious deeds. One by one, they declared their new war names, and each time, the khan shouted the names for all to hear. Each time, the horde shouted the name as one, shaking the earth.

Then the khan came to Alesha. She stood before him, snakes coiling in the pit of her stomach, and told how she had slain her first dragon. The khan nodded and asked her name.

“Alesha,” she said, as loudly as she could. Just Alesha, her grandmother’s name.

“Alesha!” the khan shouted, without a moment’s pause.

And the whole gathered horde shouted “Alesha!” in reply. The warriors of the Mardu shouted her name. In that moment, if anyone had told her that in three years’ time she would be khan, she just might have dared to believe it.”

This is an example of extreme inclusivity I think, especially in such a seemingly hypermasculine culture that this Genghis Khan expy) seems to embody. But it is much different than that, as Alesha remarks later. Her identity is called into question by a nameless orc, who calls her a “human boy who thinks he’s a woman.” “I know who I am,” Alesha says to him, still smiling. “Now show me who you are.”

This response is fantastic, such a verification of her own sense of self, while even as it questions that of a person that she knows to be lost. Later, after the battle, she confronts the orc again, who had proven helpful to everyone around him, saving them, protecting them, allowing them to deal the final blow. But he claims he has no glory, and the dialogue continues:

“I know who I am. I am not a boy. I am Alesha, like my grandmother before me.” Several of the nearest warriors murmured their approval.

“And I know who you are,” she said. “The Mardu know you. But you—you think every Mardu must be a Backbreaker or Helmsmasher. You think your deeds are not as glorious as theirs. And you are wrong.” She let go of his armor and shoved him, sending him stumbling back a few steps.

“When you learn what your place among the Mardu is, then you can choose a name.”

This story of her triumph as an individual is not about her trans identity. In fact, while the story mentions it, this is mostly about her interaction with the nameless orc rather than the fact that she is trans. This story is about knowing yourself and loving yourself, of finding a group of people who accept you for who you choose to be, whatever or whoever that is.

Alesha vows to help this nameless orc, the person who dared to misgender his leader in combat, to find his own place among the Mardu. Because knowing yourself and being yourself is the absolute freedom.