Trans Feminist Killjoys Just Wanna Have Fun

Production photo from Travis Alabanza’s BEFORE I STEP OUTSIDE (YOU LOVE ME) at Brown University.

This is one of two simultaneous performance reviews of Travis Albanza’s BEFORE I STEP OUTSIDE (YOU LOVE ME) Anomaly is publishing (see also: “About Me, For Me, By Me, Near Me: Travis Alabanza’s Radical Narcissism” by Anh Vo). Performance is ephemeral: it sparks layered discourse then dissipates, leaving only traces in the minds of those lucky enough to be in the audience. In this case, two Anomaly reviewers shared the experience of a special U.S. performance by U.K. emerging artist Travis Alabanza at Black Lavender Experience. Two gender-nonconforming critics, both deeply moved, recuperating the material traces of memory as performative (and reverberative) steps out, towards potential liberations. In laying these responses side by side, we hope to propel conversations about the subjectivity of witnessing and documenting trans performance art. Perhaps the doubled perspectives will create a buzzing surplus, an “open mesh” (in the words of Eve Sedgwick) “of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning.”

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“On stage is the only place where I’m celebrated for what I’m punished for in the street.”

Queerness and transness step outside the here and now to imagine alternative possibilities. This was evident on full display in Travis Alabanza’s solo show Before I Step Outside (You Love Me), performed at the Black Lavender Experience, a festival of Black queer theatre at Brown University. Travis Alabanza is a rising star of London’s queer performance scene, but their increased visibility has not guaranteed their safety. Their show, based on a chapbook of the same name, navigated the complexity of trans hypervisibility after the “Trans Tipping Point” — or, as Alabanza memorably renamed it, the “Trans Catapult Point.”

The title Before I Step Outside emphasizes how gender outsiders, especially trans and gender-nonconforming people of color, are particularly vulnerable to scrutiny, policing and violence while in public. Most of poems performed in the show were written on public transit, often in direct response to incidents of harassment. To battle against the psychological repercussions of constant physical and emotional threats from others, Alabanza practices rituals of self-love, repeating mantras like “Travis, you deserve more than the violence you experience” and “Travis, I love you before, during, and after you step outside.” Since these poems remained unedited in published form, they document a raw and visceral archive of Alabanza’s day-to-day experiences as a Black, transfemme/gender-nonconforming artist and activist in the UK.

Alabanza initially addressed the audience from a dimly lit platform with obscured visibility. In one poem, the spotlight shined not on but behind Alabanza, casting their figure as a silhouette. Their speaking voice was intentionally harshly performative and overlaid with a heavily distorted background loops. These somber sonic and visual choices rejected immediate legibility and reflect a disruption of the audience’s expectation of trans spectacle. Alabanza brought out darker elements of their quotidian experience, which they likened to a “constant obstacle course” (all the while making a parallel obstacle course for the audience):

“TO BE TRANS, BLACK, AND FEMME IS TO BE A CONSTANT OBSTACLE COURSE // IT IS TO BE IN CONTINUOUS MOVEMENT DICTATED FROM THE TRACK // IT IS LEARNING HOW TO SIMULTANEOUSLY APPLY YOUR LIPSTICK WHILST JUMPING AWAY FROM INCOMING TRAFFIC”

As Alabanza demonstrated, though, stepping outside can also entail a more metaphorical stepping outside of normative structures — the status quo which supports and reinforces systems of gender binaries, racism, classism, and ableism. After opening with a fifteen-minute poetry set, Alabanza suddenly shifted gears. Breaking the fourth wall and stepping off their platform, Alabanza stopped the show and grabbed the mic to reprove the audience for their lack of applause or response, as if they were at a funeral. “It’s a cisgendered awkwardness.” House lights came up. Alabanza threw on a party hat and announced, “I’m actually throwing a party today, in case you didn’t see.” Less than a minute later, a change of mind: “You’re here for my therapy session.” Both and neither — an assemblage of ambiguous affects followed in the form of a half-hour set of roving, off-the-walls comedic improv oriented towards confrontational audience participation. In going off script, Alabanza sidestepped audience expectations of genre or comfort, juxtaposing trauma and humor, rage and joy. Alabanza’s larger conceptual step outside enables a recognition that prioritizing trans safety opens doors for our collective liberation — a realization that, as Jack Halberstam attests, “discrimination does not only impact the people toward whom it is directed, it affects everyone.”

Publicity poster from Brown University’s Black Lavender Experience.

Before we can step outside, however, there’s a lot of work (and werk) that must be done to reimagine the normative structures of everyday publics, particularly the overlapping policing of race and gender. Alabanza’s improv was geared towards critique, including of instances of being misgendered during their campus visit at Brown. The heavy lifting of critique — which Foucault once defined as “the art of not being governed quite so much” — is strangely accompanied by joy. Sara Ahmed gestured at this with her figure of the “feminist killjoy,” whom conservatives may deem a buzz kill for problematizing the unacceptable. Alabanza pulled similar punches by embracing the self-designated role of “party pooper,” bursting against trans exclusionary feminists. “Mainstream feminism told me it was here for the liberation of people, for the liberation of women, told me it was a safe space. Then it turns around and says, ‘Actually, bitch, you’re not welcome.’” They threw on a campy pink wig and, as funky fuscia lighting kicked in, they performed a poem about violence they’ve experienced from cis women over Cindi Lauper’s bopping “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” This moment’s playful tension of rage and fun highlighted Ahmed’s provocation that “we need joy to survive killing joy; we can even take joy from killing joy.”

“They only care about me when I can do a death drop, but do they care when I’m about to drop dead?”

But the fullest expression of trans joy was yet to come: a trans-centered dance party. First Alabanza called on three volunteers from the audience who identified as cis white women and giving them signs which read “Trans Joy = Cis Tears,” “You don’t deserve me,” and “We just had loads of fun.” Then, as Janelle Monae’s euphoric queer anthem “Make Me Feel” pumped into the theatre, Alabanza instructed them to sad dance. Oh, and the rest of the cis people in the audience? “Close your eyes! You don’t deserve to see my trans joy.” Flashing lights as Alabanza thrashed around the stage like a club dance floor, while any and all non-cis identifying people were invited to come up and join the fun. While cis audience members diligently wondered what they were missing out on, we were thrilled by our sense of aliveness and community — without any fear of what they thought of us.

The show did not end on this high note. Instead, Alabanza made a sharp transition back into sobriety for the final piece. Alabanza had the audience form a background choir, chanting “I owe you” on loop.

“They owe us a life where we do not have to hide in order to survive.”

In emphasizing debt, Alabanza highlighted the legacies of trans and gender-nonconforming people of color at the forefront of resistance movements. For example, Pride celebrations of the Stonewall Riots — widely regarded as a flashpoint for gay liberation in the United States — often whitewash what transpired to elide the role of gender-variant activts of color like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, as well as the backlash and abuse they received within the assimilationist gay liberation movement. It matters how we recount these histories. Giving credit where credit is due helps us recognize that trans people have fought for everybody else’s rights and that trans liberation will bring our collective liberation.