As the only white dancer in the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater circa 1969, my moniker was “Miss Scarlett.” Fresh from high school, I remember thinking it hilarious at the time. While touring Africa, the company played 12 countries, including Kenya, where there was a press conference at the embassy before opening night (you may remember this tale from a story that I wrote for the CFR last April). A reporter asked Ailey, “Do you want to be known as ‘Negro’ or ‘Black’?” I saw him struggle with frustration as he searched for an honest answer. Finally, he said, “I want to be called Alvin Ailey, the choreographer.” This began my lifelong fascination with the profound impact of identity on our deeper selves, whether it is personal or within society.
In inner-city Denver, I grew up in a multiracial school system that included “state homers.” These were orphaned or abandoned kids who were called “Mexican,” “Negro” or “Indian” — the latter slinking around the edges of our world with downcast eyes. There wasn’t a word about any of their cultures in our history books, unless you counted a passing reference to slavery, the Disney-like depiction of the Alamo, or the myth of the jolly Puritans at Thanksgiving time. We weren’t made aware that the various Native American kids were from different tribes, with different names and languages. Despite the fact that Christopher Columbus got it wrong, they were all lumped together in that single misnomer: “Indians.”
The girl I absolutely worshipped was my Mexican “state homer” friend, Jackie. Overnight, I was no longer allowed to identify anyone as Mexican. “The term is now Hispanic,” my dad said, “even though Jackie’s parents may have come from Mexico.” This was illogical to me. “Grandma Johnson comes from Sweden, so I say I’m Swedish,” I reasoned. “Many people use the term ‘dirty Mexicans,’ so we now use the word Hispanic,” my dad insisted. He was vice principal then at a tough high school — and a civil rights activist ahead of his time. So “Hispanic” it was — until I moved to NYC and used the term and accidentally insulted a girl who said, “It’s Latina!” The term has since, somewhat controversially, morphed into Latinx.
When I danced in Broadway shows, singers were listed under “male” and “female”; dancers were listed under “boys” and “girls.” I never felt fully adult until I proudly took the term “Ms.” in front of my newly hyphenated married name. I assumed back then that “Ms.” was invented by Gloria Steinem. In truth, it has its origins in the 1700s, from the word used for all women: “mistress,” pronounced “miz.” In 1969, during a WBAI interview with a group called “the Feminists,” Sheila Michaels suggested “Ms.” as a form of address to free women from definition by marital status. A friend of Steinem’s listened to the interview, and then suggested Ms. as a name for her new magazine. When Ms. magazine appeared on newsstands in 1972, the term went mainstream; the US Government Printing Office even approved it in official documents. In 1977, Marvel Comics introduced its first feminist hero, Ms. Marvel. Overall, the term had a huge, empowering effect on many women who, until the late 1970s, for example, were still required to get their husbands’ signatures to apply for a driver’s license.
Our society’s recent re-examination of gender identity has brought a whole new range of terms to the fore. I first noticed pronouns below sign-offs while exchanging emails with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2017: “he/his/him” below one email, “they/theirs/them” at the bottom of another. The 2019 application for the Johnny Mercer Writers Colony retreat at Goodspeed Musicals requests, on the line directly after “Name,” the pronouns preferred by each writer.
Last month, I directed an Off-Broadway show, When It Happens To You. I employed an assistant, Aidan, who identifies as neither male nor female but chooses to dress like an attractive young man. Throughout rehearsals, I constantly defaulted to the “he” pronoun out of habit, followed by stuttering apologies as my brain recalibrated. Aidan always smiled and said, “That’s OK.” I always felt terrible anyway. Later, when I interviewed Aidan for this article, they explained it like this:
The last few years have heralded the mainstreaming of language for trans and non-conforming people. Ranges of identity that used to be contained in the word ‘gay’ have exploded to contain an entirely separate (though related) umbrella called ‘trans.’ There’s a word to describe almost anybody. Naming something brings legitimacy.
Our show’s superb costume designer, David Woolard, in his typically whimsical fashion, skews his email sign-off pronoun statement like this:
He / Her / Kween / Gurl
On a darker note, a young theater student I know once told me the following: “Growing up in the theater industry in Texas, the first thing I learned was that every role is gendered… If you were a young girl, you could play boy soprano roles but after you hit puberty, you were put into the boxes society has labeled female and male. For me, that was a difficult experience because, despite being in a female body, I didn’t identify with that, and in the South there wasn’t really a word for transgender or non-binary.”
Their misplaced identity manifest as constant, somewhat mysterious illnesses. There’s no easy diagnosis for being trapped in the wrong body. One night, on suicide watch at the local hospital, she figured out she needed to take action. She forged a plan to retire Danielle and transform into Elliott — a much happier “they.”
The awful pejoratives intended to marginalize, diminish and denigrate people have been on the rise during the age of Trump and the resurgence of the white supremacy movement. The leader of the so-called free world still calls Sen. Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas.” Perhaps in response, the National Museum of the American Indian recently released a press release announcing an upcoming seminar: “Pocahontas: Her Place in the Emerging World and Nascent United States.”
(And yes, Donald, Pocahontas was a real woman who played a real — and critical — role in US history. Your overall relationship to women is forever immortalized in the sexist slurs you used in the Access Hollywood tape. If there are indeed “shit hole countries,” doesn’t it stand to reason that people living there should be called “shit holes”?)
One can’t dismiss the damage done, the reinforcement of stereotypes, the permission that has been granted, it seems, to act out the violence just beyond the words. It is well worth struggling to use the “they” word, if preferred, or any other word that assigns dignity to an individual or a group of people. Perhaps it helps to push back the spate of spiteful, ignorant terms of identity being leveled at people who are already struggling with their identity. One more time, from Aidan:
We are unique individuals unable to be defined by any word…. When we stop trying to translate our complexities into language, when society (our trans community included) ceases to demand binaries, then and only then will we be free and fully ourselves.
Ailey, of course, realized that decades ago.