Out of the corner of my eye, I see the threat. Pulsating as it usually does, my shadow haunts, foretelling the arrival of reflection. It’s the fear of myself – my body and its image – that is on my mind as I make my way to class. It’s not that I’m resolutely afraid of my essential self; rather, I’m scared of seeing the image of that person, how it moves, how it acts, how it looks.
Walking through campus is a skill I have mastered, probably the most refined talent I have developed in university. I’m not talking about the literal action of moving my legs (not my arms, they are usually awkwardly static); I am talking about the performance inherent in the walk. Performance in the sense that I see myself as a focal point, performance because it demands my concentration and it forces me to calculate my gestures.
In most aspects, my upbringing in Colombia was a privileged one; I do not remember any instances of having to worry about having food on my plate, as some of my peers often did. I lived in an upper stratum of society that allowed basic freedoms to pass off as niceties. But the unlimited abundance of food did little to appease the ever-pervading hole in my stomach; instead, my growing pains were aches of a different kind of absence – I lacked myself.
In my memories, the men surrounding me were masculine and macho. They were capable, strong, and powerful. In a sense, they were everything I thought I could never be. I grew up knowing I was different. In most social situations I was on the outside looking in: window-shopping for social affirmations and positive reinforcements. Queerness created the gap between me and them. To this world, queerness was signified by effeminate mannerisms and deviation in physical appearance. From an early age, I learned to adapt and move my body to mimic those of the macho ideal.
I went through childhood and adolescence constantly oscillating between safety and danger – between hiding and showing. At an early age, I started my magnum opus, the same performance I have continued to this day, and the day-to-day performance by which I undo my queerness when I feel surveilled. It is a perfect balance between self-loathing and self-control, in which a constant fear of being different morphs into supervision of body flow. The way I move my hand to smoke a cigarette governs my thought and debilitates my confidence.
By experiencing a type of privilege, I grew to loathe its absence in other aspects of my life. Leading up to my high school graduation, McGill’s campus took upon itself bold tones of utopia. I thought of it as a space I could truly inhabit; after living life in moving between various stages and catwalks, the university was the place where I destroyed the macho character I had perfected. It didn’t take long for me to realize that it was less about the campus and more about my life and experiences. It took an even shorter time to see that I had not reached utopia.
In a sense, McGill’s campus is a maze, a space of confluence where all our stories and experiences intersect in a common physical space. We interact with it in similar ways, yet these interactions vary tremendously, just as our backgrounds do. In the process of navigating to the end of the maze, we realize that it is harder for some to make it to the end, that every experience we live informs our decisions to turn left or right, and that in end we are all lost.
Angel* is a U2 Sociology student at McGill, and a newcomer to the Montreal performance art scene. After being encouraged by a friend with more experience in the art, Angel gave it a try with a performance relying heavily on drag. They described the performance as being grounded in a concept of “a sad striptease.”
“[…] I wanted to start out your run of the mill popular drag performance where it is just like fun and silly. But as the performance progressed it got more and more intense, so I pulled a marker out of my underwear and I would write insults on my body that I have received and then I would lick them off and then undress, and at the end I would unroll my dress, I was just in the bottom of the dress. Before the performance I had written a whole bunch of shit over my stomach.”
Angel’s performance asked for a physical transformation in many senses, transforming the way they were dressed and painting themselves in “blue alien-y” paint, and also adapting their mannerisms to their performance.
“I was in this outfit the whole night. It was weird; I was pretty frightened to be honest. […] I had friends come with me, but taking the bus from […] the venue was pretty terrifying. I got a lot of funny looks… It was terrifying but it was really empowering, I felt really badass. To be honest, the looks I was getting were looks of confusion, scared [ones]. I feel like if anyone did anything, I would have the confidence to freak them the fuck out. But the venue itself, going there, was great. It felt fine there, because it was a performance,” Angel said.
“And then when I was going home, at this point I was wearing shorts and a tank top, I had washed most of my makeup off but there were still remnants of blue, I actually got followed and kind of attacked by two guys, not physically, but like a verbal fight.”
Apart from being a Social Work master’s student at McGill, Kai Cheng Thom is a queer performance artist. In an interview, Thom and I discussed our experiences with performance and gender. When we were about to start, I asked what pronoun to use for the article, and inadvertently started a discussion about the politics of self-identification.
Thom spoke of an acquaintance they met at a critical ethics studies conference, where they discussed giving people the choice of pronoun identification. In our interview, Thom problematized the institutionalization of this practice, “I generally go by they, but I have a long answer to that question,” they said. “[It is] not necessarily liberatory, it creates this illusion that gender is a choice, when gender is not a choice, it is a systematic expression of violence.”
“If other people want to self-identify and go by they, she, he, that’s awesome and people should definitely respect that. But the institutional practice of saying what gender pronoun do you prefer as a way of alleviating liberal guilt is not necessarily something that erases the fact that when people look at our bodies, […] there’s a kind of violent choice that occurs when gender is imposed regardless of what the person says he/she/they/zie are,” Thom said.
Thom started as a literary artist, focusing on experimental poetry. Their transition to performance art arose from a confluence of elements: their desire to experiment with drag and an opportunity at Radical Queer Semaine. Thom’s performances have evolved from their desire to be a storyteller incorporating theatricality in actions, as well as an emphasis on vocalization in all its variations – screaming, chanting, singing, sighing, et cetera.
Thom strives to make people uncomfortable through their art, but for the right reasons. “People who are oppressed are often prevented, literally, from speaking what is true to them. This attracts me: the idea of speaking truth to power, the idea that when we speak a thing, it becomes reified as truth and then we can reify our own experiences – these violences, wars, and oppressions that are actually happening. That draws me to performance art, and I also like making people feel uncomfortable.”
In speaking truth to power, Thom brings these ideas out of their performance and into the spaces they inhabit. Like me, Thom comes into contact with campus quite often, and this particular space influences a lot of our experiences outside of it. In spite of this, our relations to it differ immensely.
“There is a constant knowledge that I am not normative, or that I don’t fit. This plays out a lot around narratives of who should be in the academy and who gets to do things,” Thom mentioned.
“This speaks about the necessity or pressure of attempting to conform to an ideal through […] which you can attain safety or power, respect. […] I [certainly] think the academy is conservative in some ways; McGill particularly. It can exert this pressure to comport ourselves in a certain way, in terms of gender it came down to this decision of: ‘do I try to conform?’ […] I made the decision to not change myself for school in terms of gender, or not try to restrain myself. I don’t really see a difference in how I perform gender [at] school and other spaces, but there definitely was a time [when that was the case],” Thom said.
“Being non-normative in gender performance creates a lot of backlash. You are constantly reminded that you are different. I’m sure that has some sort of effect on how I feel; it’s stressful being at school, I’m not going to deny that. There are spaces, queer spaces, where I work, where I feel more relaxed. I’m sure my physicality changed in relation to how I feel, but I don’t intentionally try to change gender physicality for school.”
For Shahir Omar, an Arts student, performance at McGill’s campus is also a way to push boundaries in an attempt to make people question gender roles.
“This school is extremely conservative, in terms of queerness and identity. I definitely feel like I try to test limits at this school, I try to push aesthetic choices that relate to identity politics because […] that’s how I feel, but also what I hope people […] question. This school forces you to feel like an outsider as a queer person, or as not really feeling like you fit. But I… started to embrace that, because it is not going to change here, and push those boundaries, because I think that [pushing boundaries] is beautiful.”
Omar has encountered performance in different ways. Although they have just started experimenting with performance art, Omar was part of Effusion, a campus acappella group.
“I was always really conscious of the fact that I was transforming to have a way more masculine presentation in order to perform. […] So it did feel, in a microcosmic way, like a transformation to perform in a way that I was never comfortable with,” they said. “It definitely comes with a certain vibe or a certain mentality that you take on. But I guess I just felt very insecure about myself and the way I was orienting myself toward my environment as a performer. I felt [like] I had a projected path of ‘this is how you are going to relate to the space as a conformist, mainstream singer who wants to appear the same as everyone else.’ It was a constant place of insecurity for me, because it was so not how I would feel, or how I would want to perform, and none of my politics were in my performance. […] That is what made me quit.”
For Thom, performance was at first an opportunity to explore a more feminine physicality.
“I started out doing drag. I was gender bending for artistic effect and now I find that my, like, daily appearance has been modelled around my stage appearance. I think my stage appearance is a lot more hyped up; I wear a lot of makeup and really try to create a mask – like a storytelling mask out of makeup. I try to embody the same physicality now, [wherein] the physical body is embraced… I believe I can perform any kinds of gender regardless of anatomy, and I try not to work with progressions from male to female or from female to male just in case, it’s not who I am,” confessed Thom.
Performing is institutionalized in many ways: by placing oneself up on a stage, by standing in front of an audience, but most importantly, by acknowledging a performance as performance. For Angel, Shahir, and Kai Cheng, many actions become institutionalized performance in this way; their self-expression becomes an emancipatory act, or gesture of rebellion.
Performance is, and will always be, present in my actions, but after talking to other performers I realized that I am privileged in many senses. Cis privilege earns me a sense of security and access to many spaces on campus with which other students have more difficulty interacting. From the people I talked to, I learnt that there are many similarities, but also immense differences, in our experiences. For many students, moving through campus comes with many more prejudices that affect their lives. I also came to realize that to many of them I owe a lot for their constant efforts to engage in ‘gender-fucking’ actions. In the end, on a day-to-day basis, my performance is much less subversive and much less pervasive.
I also gained a grasp of what my performance ought to be. Art and performance are about self-expression, about the creation of characters and acting out their storylines. The script I want to act out is one written by me: with all its complexities and falsities, sure, but a script I can fully support, no matter what the plot twist. This is my way of effacing empty gesture, of getting rid of generic movements and performances that don’t speak of me. It is my way of burning the tired, destructive script.
*A stage name has been used