Transgender performance artist Scott Turner Schofield explores gender issues for the average Joe
'Would you believe I was almost homecoming queen in high school?' Scott Turner Schofield asks in the opening of his show Underground Transit. 'Picture it: Football field. Fluorescent light. Ms. Congeniality on one side, Ms. Best Dressed on the other, and me.' It is a little hard to imagine, given that Schofield is now a guy. Or, he'd argue, he was always a guy-albeit one born in a girl's body who grew up to be a debutante. His poetic, theatrical shows are full of such mind-twisting images, encouraging audiences to rethink their ideas about gender and identity.
Schofield, a 25-year-old female-to-male transsexual from Charlotte, North Carolina, is a rising light in the field of queer theater. He has performed at regional theaters and theater festivals in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and elsewhere, and has brought his 'one-trannie' shows and workshops to major universities. His college audiences span everyone from women's studies classes to fraternities. This month, his residency at the University of Wyoming in Laramie will mark the eighth anniversary of the beating death of gay student Matthew Shepard.
Schofield recently received the largest commission of his career. The National Performance Network (NPN), an alliance of performing arts presenters, gave him a grant to create Becoming a Man in 127 EASY Steps. The new show will debut next May in Seattle at the Pat Graney Company, and later will play at 7 Stages in Atlanta and DiverseWorks in Houston. A second NPN grant provides for Schofield to talk at community forums and teach performance workshops in conjunction with the show.
Though plenty of mainstream theatergoers are not about to sit through an evening of storytelling from a self-described gender renegade, Schofield's performances are intended to reach out to the average Joe with a mix of humor, honesty, and vulnerability. Schofield wants to tell stories that are unforgettable while helping people understand themselves better, he says: 'I'm hoping to make a space for us to grow and love ourselves, whatever we are.'
'I find his pieces to be very truthful, thought-provoking, and artistically very interesting,' says Melissa Foulger, associate artistic director of 7 Stages. 'He uses a lot of elements, like changes of clothes and integration of music, to further the emotional struggles of the stories he's telling. His pieces really come from a personal place. While it is a performance, you can feel the heart that beats beneath the piece is his heart.'
Poetic probably wasn't the first word that came to mind when Schofield, as a young girl named Katie Kilborn, started telling people she wanted to be a boy when she grew up. At 7, she thought about her body during a bath and concluded she must have received a sex change operation.
By 16, she had come out as a lesbian at her wealthy private school. Though she was accepted there, even elected student body president in her senior year, she was so unhappy she tried to commit suicide twice. Though she had come out into a community, she still felt isolated. It wasn't until Kilborn did a theater internship in New York during college that she met her first trans man and could put a name to what she felt.
Kilborn graduated from Emory University in Atlanta, where Underground Transit was her honors thesis. Students from Bennington College in Vermont and Bard College in New York saw the show and arranged for her to perform at their schools. Those gigs led to others. By 2002 Kilborn began thinking of herself as a transgender person and eventually changed her name to Scott Turner Schofield.
Today, Schofield makes his living entirely as a writer and performer. His theater pieces include Debutante Balls, in which he peers out from the folds of a poofy white prom dress and laments the fact that nobody threw a big party for him when he came out as a lesbian. 'The debutantes understand: Coming out should be your own made-for-TV movie-of-the-week, the kind that ends in a ball with the date you've always wanted,' he tells the audience. In The Southern Gents Tour, performed with Katz of the Athens Boy Choir, Schofield riffs on 'how we 'do' gender, race, class, and politics down here-in a polite and friendly manner, of course.'
His work hums with a feminist sensibility. 'The more I pass as a white man, I gain privilege that's not necessarily deserved,' he says. He believes that men who become women have a tougher time than women who become men, because of a cultural undercurrent of sexism. For some people, the idea of becoming a man earns grudging respect.
One stunning aspect of Schofield's on-stage presence is his body. Though he began testosterone therapy to lower his voice and build muscle mass last year-'it was sort of like going through puberty'-he has not had surgery. He looks like a man until the moment in Underground Transit when he briefly removes his shirt and the binding over his chest, revealing breasts. For now, he's keeping them. 'I think I was given this body as a way of doing something important,' he says. 'My transgender body says something that no male or female body can.'
Visit www.undergroundtransit.com to learn about upcoming performances by Scott Turner Schofield.