The Bookshelf: Coming Out As Trans, With Help From Shakespeare

Mar 29, 2019

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Fionn Shea is an actor, activist, musician, and writer from New Hampshire. He is also transgender. In the new book, “transVersing,” which is also a play, Fionn Shea contributes his thoughts on what it means to have made the transition from woman to man, and to navigate a world that Shea says “rejects my manhood [and] forces my womanhood.” 

Scroll down to read a transcript of the interview as well as Fionn Shea's top five reading recommendations.

Fionn Shea's Top Five Reading Recommendations: 

1. The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost. 1A book of Frost's poetry stays with me at all times, no matter where I am in the world, a reminder of home. His poetry captures this place perfectly, and urges the reader or listener to consider their own existence within a place."

2. The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman. "A rich and mesmerizing novel. The story, set in 70 C.E., follows four women whose paths converge at the holdout on Masada, under siege by the Romans. It is a story of hope, and resilience, and the sheer power of human agency."

3. Tomorrow Will Be Different by Sarah McBride. "This is truly one of the best memoirs I've ever read. Sarah McBride tells a powerful story, challenging the way America as a whole thinks about identity and equality."

4. Angels in America by Tony Kushner. "Kushner's play is one of the most profound pieces of theatre out there. Set in New York City during the height of the AIDS crisis, this story is a beautiful mix of harsh reality and magical realism; it is, in turn, hilarious and heartbreaking. Art such as this is crucial to understanding -- understanding history, and understanding humanity."

5. Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff. "A new novel, and a completely brilliant one. It's based in Gothic Horror, exploring the conjunction between Lovecraftian horror and race in America. Perhaps the best description of this book is that it is, ultimately, the true horror lies in the constant bigotry that the characters face."

This interview has been edited for length and clairty.

So you wrote here in your part of this book that you came out as queer in the middle of Shakespeare's "As You Like It." Can you talk a little about how that happened?

Absolutely. It was my senior year of high school. I was playing Rosalind in "As You Like It" who is a character who essentially is a young woman who dresses up as a man and goes into the forest in pursuit of Orlando. To protect her cousin, she dresses like a man. I was playing Rosalind and she has this line (I was on stage in the middle of the production): "Were it not better [...] That I did suit me all points like a man?"  And all of a sudden, I sort of understood what she was talking about and had this realization and complete certainty of just how much that felt like it applied. And suddenly all of these things started connecting. In the space we were performing in, little things like, I refused to change in the women's changing rooms, even though there were only four of us. It wasn't this, you know, huge cast. Then, at the end of the play, there was a moment when Rosalind changes back into her very classic court clothing. Very stereotypically feminine. I had this moment of understanding with this character of just how uncomfortable I was and the conflation of how uncomfortable she must have been in that moment. 

So what happened from that point going forward? Did you think about it for a long time? Did you come out immediately? What happened? 

It took a while to come out. A lot of people will come out in terms of sexuality before gender. Also, with "As You Like It," it was a moment of, "Oh, something feels off, so I must be gay or bi or..." So I played with that for a while, thought of that for a while. It wasn't actually until I was in my first or second year of university and I finally met a couple of people my age who were trans.  Through meeting them and talking with them, they gave me a language and a vocabulary and the ability to articulate what felt different about me and what I was feeling. And so it was a long process, but it was a couple of years after that. It wasn't an immediate transition from one headspace to another.  

In addition to "As You Like It," you also have found inspiration in Shakespeare's "Richard III." You've incorporated a section of that play in your contribution to transVersing. What about the passage of "Richard III" that you found so resonant? 

Richard III is fascinating because he's a villian. He's a horrible person. Richard III is a terrible person. But he has this passage in which he says, "I am not shaped for sportive tricks." And he talks about his physicality and the fact that he very physically moves differently through the world.  

He writes, or Shakespeare writes in his voice: "So lamely and unfashionable that dogs bark at me as I halt by them." 

Yes, and he sees himself as so wrong, so "deformed" that even dogs hate him as he walks by.  

Is that you felt? Did you feel deformed? 

I try not to but every once in a while that creeps through my mind, especially in this sort of...my first and second years of college made up a very nihilistic period in my life. That passage certainly held some weight in that feeling of wrongness and how people see me is somehow lesser than those around me.  

Why do you think it's valuable to offer up words like these, either in book form or on stage? 

I think it's valuable for a lot of reasons. The one that immediately comes to mind is visibility and resilience. We don't have, especially as trans youth, we don't have a lot of representation. We have more than we did, but we don't have a lot of representation in media and on stage in the theatre. And so I think on a very surface level, it's really important for other trans youth and other trans people in general and for cisgender people, people who don't categorize themselves as trans, who don't fit under this umbrella, as it were, to see that we're here and we're creating work and we're actively working to make the world a better place for ourselves and for our peers and for generations down the line, and to be visible, especially in a time of such political polarization. 

A lot of what personally I took away from the show and from this book, and try to forward with this project—the production and the book itself—is the notion of unity. We're all here, we're all people, we have to take care of each other and support each other in any way that we possibly can.