By Lars Healy, Guest Columnist
To Gettysburg College:
I feel it might be beneficial for the community (and myself) to explain what happened from my perspective over the course of “The School for Lies” controversy: How I addressed the situation, my resignation as one of the Office of LGBTQA Advocacy and Education’s Program Coordinators, and the role I played in the Saturday night show’s walkout.
My peers and I learned from a friend only two weeks before opening night that “The School for Lies”, Gettysburg’s Owl and Nightingale’s fall comedy, was fraught with problematic tropes within its script, one of which is the transmisogynistic ‘Man in a Dress’ trope. A main plot point involves rumors that Philante (one of the play’s main characters), dresses in drag as “the Queen.” Throughout the play, co-stars deride him as a “dragster,” “check him for pantylines,” and even slanderously label him a “transvestite.” The humor in the ‘Man in a Dress’ trope relies on the established belief that men presenting femininely, as well as transwomen, are absurd, emasculated, and deserving of ridicule and laughter. The absolute inundation of pop culture with this trope echoes and further solidifies this subconscious (or conscious) belief in the public’s mind. In essence, the trope and its historically widespread usage reduces a very vulnerable community into a cheap gag. It should go without saying that as someone who identifies as a part of the trans community, and who has many transfeminine loved ones, I was not laughing.
In addition to this trope, “The School for Lies” also contains extreme ableism within the characterization of Acaste. Acaste lacks any features beyond stupidity (as he self-proclaims in a monologue). He pontificates on his lack of substance and his inability to read social situations, and worst of all, he speaks with an overemphasized lisp. Clearly this character was written and performed in a way that ridicules those with disabilities.
The rest of the script houses sexist language, homophobic gags (including a few male-male groping scenes, played up for laughs), a bit that trivializes an onstage attempted rape of the protagonist, casting it as comedic, as well as a myriad of other concerns. Some peers and I assembled a group of about ten to go over the script, talk about these issues, and develop a plan to respond appropriately. Inevitably, dozens of hours were spent on short-notice planning of dialogues, both with the cast and with the public, educational presentations on tropes and slurs, and screenings of trans and drag positive movies as socially-conscious counter-spaces during each of the play’s runs. During this time, tensions naturally mounted between our committee of organizers and those involved with the play.
Throughout the process of dialogues, cooperation, event planning, emailing, etcetera that took place in the week and a half following the initial planning committee email, I believe I was trying to work both with and against a system.
Throughout the process of dialogues, cooperation, event planning, emailing, etcetera that took place in the week and a half following the initial planning committee email, I believe I was trying to work both with and against a system. The problem we were trying to address was how to educate a campus that did not seem to hear us. While we had some success, it did not seem satisfactory given the number of people we clearly were not reaching. We can participate in as many panels, dialogues, and movie nights as we want, but if the communities we are trying to reach are not attending, not listening, not understanding the very real reasons many members of the queer community were incensed, then as educators, we have failed, and as people we remain marginal, dejected, mocked, and deeply hurt that our peers, faculty, administrators, and educators are not seeing our identities or concerns as legitimate, or hearing our voices. So, I thought, where do I go from here?
While grappling with this question, I had to consider my position within the queer community on this campus. I was a program coordinator with the Office of LGBTQA Advocacy and Education, a house leader, a member of the Gettysburg Anti-Capitalist Collective (GACC), and most importantly, an individual, but through email correspondence and conversations, it became clear to me that people were evaluating my actions not as an autonomous individual alone, but also as an extension of the Office. As a program coordinator, I personally felt pressure to appear at all times moderate, diplomatic, and an impeccable and impartial debater, so that my individual actions in regards to this controversy would not reflect poorly on the Office. However, as an activist, this approach is in direct conflict with my ethics. I felt in some ways stripped of my agency. I was angry, both about the controversy and at myself for not acting according to my most genuine feelings and best judgment on how to address the situation. In order to do the sort of spontaneous, direct, and grassroots activism I felt was warranted in response to the situation, while also not jeopardizing the reputations of my colleagues and the Office I hold in high esteem, I made the difficult decision to resign as Program Coordinator of the Office.
So, why we walked, or at least why I walked: what the campus at large could not see, unfortunately, were dialogues that had happened between my committee and the play’s director, Chris Kauffman. Through dialogues between the committee and the cast about tropes, theatre, satire, and the play itself, I witnessed a long series of explanations about why the “man in a dress” trope, as well as other tropes, were performed by the cast with more nuance, with more dimension, with a much different outcome than the script alone had given me—these were things I began to believe, and this “believing” was perhaps my greatest mistake. Despite being one of the more radical members of this committee, I believed in and trusted these dialogues- I believed for a short time that we had been heard by those who needed to hear us, and that maybe, maybe, the truth about this play and its problematic nature lie closer to some middle ground interpretation. I believed those involved in the play saw the heart of this issue and were devoted to working with us to improve the show, and, despite the initial problem of choosing this play, were perhaps growing and learning.
And then, last Thursday, I saw the play.
I felt betrayed. I realized, as I was sitting in a room full of people laughing raucously at a minstrel-like caricature of an entire community of women I love and have watched ridiculed, beaten, and abused; that if someone truly understood the deep, deep betrayal and outrage being voiced by a marginalized community struggling against homelessness, poverty, illness, and murder, that someone would never try to explain away that community’s concern to their faces. They would never perform such a play they theoretically understood reinforced the very hegemonies that have been killing our community for centuries. I realized I had allowed my very legitimate feelings to diminish, that the self-sustaining pressures of the status quo had succeeded in silencing my anger, our anger, and I felt as though I had failed to stand up for the most vulnerable members of my own community. It was my job to advocate for the LGBTQA community, and I had failed. So I returned to my morals, and I walked out- on both the play and the Office I feared I might jeopardize.
I apologize to any who feel I have insulted the hard work they have put into the art of theatre. This was not my intention, but I do hear you when you say this is how you received our actions, and that is legitimate regardless of our intention. But I stand by what we did, and I hope you can understand my reasoning despite the animosity this process may have created between us. I recognize many people who have been involved in this situation had nothing at all to do with the election of “The School for Lies”, and that you still worked extremely hard on the production for the last few months. For what it’s worth, I have done theatre for many years myself, and I don’t think there’s a single more physically or emotionally demanding activity (although I’m quickly learning advocacy might give it a run for its money), and I highly respect that. In the future I hope we can mend any rifts between our communities, because yours is a valuable one- if your art weren’t influential, there would be no reason to address issues within it.
Those involved in the play’s selection will likely never understand from a personal perspective the intimate struggles faced by transfeminine people, or crossdressers, or drag queens, or anyone else assigned male who dresses feminine, and at the heart of it, neither will I.
Those involved in the play’s selection will likely never understand from a personal perspective the intimate struggles faced by transfeminine people, or crossdressers, or drag queens, or anyone else assigned male who dresses feminine, and at the heart of it, neither will I. I am not expecting them, or anyone else, to understand. The LGBTQA community asks what any other minority community asks for—that when we speak (in this case specifically, when transfeminine people speak) to the severity of our mistreatment, when we speak about what hurts us and why, that privileged communities believe our accounts of our own experiences, and begin unlearning and changing their behaviors so that we all may make our world a little less awful for ourselves and our progeny. I have learned, through this process, discussions about nuance or intention or reception, critiques on strategy or praxis, compromises made for respectability alone, emails to Deans and Provosts, can serve as distractions from the real process of learning.
Through this ordeal, I came to the point where I no longer entertained hopes of appearing palatable to those involved in the show’s selection. Winning their sympathy did not seem realistic. My priority shifted instead to preventing the situation from happening again, regardless of whether or not those tasked with this prevention sympathize with or understand the necessity of doing so for our communities. I felt that student protest was the most effective and most peaceful way to exert this pressure.
The choice to produce “The School for Lies” is not an isolated incident. It is a symptom of a larger problem with campus climate. It represents a lack of dialogue surrounding representation, inclusion, and oppression, and this lack of dialogue is what I want addressed moving forward. Inaction, in this case the lack of a discussion on the play’s implications before its choosing, is in and of itself an action, and in this case, it turned out to be a highly political and ultimately galvanizing one. May my previous and ongoing efforts be a testament to how paramount real, effective advocacy and education are to me and to the committee. They are the sole purpose behind our actions. My hope moving forward is that we will continue our work, that I will continue making myself available as an educational resource, and that soon we can all begin a policy-making process to either prevent these situations from happening in the future, or at the very least hold accountable the climate that allows them to exist. I wholeheartedly believe we can all walk away positively from this experience, and I truly hope we do. We are an institution for higher learning, after all.
Editor’s Note: This piece is in reference to the Owl & Nightingale Players’ production of “The School for Lies,” a David Ives play based on the 1666 work “The Misanthrope” by Moliere, which was sponsored by the Gettysburg College Department of Theatre Arts and directed by Chris Kauffman, Associate Professor and Chair of the Theatre Arts Department. (B. Pontz and J. Welch)