Writing a Semi-Autobiographical Play Unlocked the Artist I Was Hiding as a Trans Man

This is a first-person column by Jay Gallant, a trans man living in Charlottetown. For more information on CBC’s First Person Stories, please see frequently asked questions.

March 31 is International Day of Trans Visibility. The following piece features excerpts from Gallant’s play, What’s Eating You? Public readings of the play will be held in Charlottetown from March 31 to April 2.

Do you know what nostalgia really means? Homesickness. A desire to return home, a place that is familiar to you. Where you felt safe, cared for and loved. I never had that feeling looking at childhood photos because I never felt at home in my own body.

These are words spoken by Sam Goody – a trans character from my play What’s eating you? as he comes to terms with his gender identity as an adult. Although the character is fictional, his experiences and feelings are not.

Because they are mine.

What’s Eating You plays in Charlottetown from March 31 to April 2. (Submitted)

And just as Sam finds his own voice and identity as the story unfolds, I discovered my own voice as an artist while writing it.

I have been a trans activist for six years, lecturing locally in Prince Edward Island and offering consultations on creating safer spaces and pathways to health care for the diverse community. I use my voice to educate and inform in formal settings.

But when I started writing this semi-autobiographical piece two years ago – as a way to cope with the anxiety and uncertainty of living through a pandemic – I discovered within myself another desperate voice of be heard. Buried under layers of self-doubt and shame was the voice of a writer.

I thought the problem was me

To accept that I am trans now is to accept that for most of my life I have lived as a fraction of a person when I could have been whole…all these years I can never go back to back.

As a trans kid growing up in Charlottetown in the 80s and 90s, I had no access to gender-affirming care – like hormone blockers and hormone replacement therapy – or support of any kind. nature whatsoever. Words like “trans” and “gender diversity” weren’t even part of my vocabulary. There were no visible trans models to admire (that I know of) nor rainbow stickers on the doors of the guidance counselors signaling that it was safe to talk about this.

There was nothing to make me feel like what I was going through – what I was – was normal. So I grew up thinking that something was wrong with me.

For many years, writing has been my solace – a way to make sense of the world around me and within me.

I’ve always had a wild imagination, my young mind often brimming with fantasy worlds and characters. I started writing stories as soon as I was able to string words together on a page. In college, I wrote poetry about everything from the beauty of the island’s beaches to grieving the loss of loved ones. I was fascinated by the use of metaphor to capture and convey elusive ideas and feelings.

This started to change, however, towards the end of middle school when the shame I felt for my gender identity led to an obsession with perfectionism – a desperate attempt to make up for what I perceived to be a lack deep inside of me – same.

And, because of that, I’ll never know what it’s like to grow up without being in a constant battle with my body and how society perceives me.

Shortly after the onset of puberty – a traumatic time for many people of different sexes – untreated gender dysphoria began to eat me alive. Literally. Boobs, hips, my period. Anorexia slowed the development of body parts and processes that caused me great pain but at a high cost to my health.

Struggling with my own transphobia

Piece by piece, my body became my prison, and I was powerless to stop it. Anorexia gave me a sense of control even if it was an illusion.

I was lucky enough to get help for my eating disorder before it was too late, but the gender dysphoria that triggered it was ignored and left to fester. Just as I was instilled with shame by a society that either vilified gender diversity or completely refused to acknowledge its existence.

My shame led me to apologize to bullies who beat me up or yelled at me for being in the “wrong” bathroom because of my appearance. Because deep down I believed I deserved it.

That’s what happens when you grow up being told that your existence is a sin.

Even though I’m no longer ashamed of my gender identity, 20 years of internalized transphobia still affects me. I had found my voice as a queer activist years ago, but the scars left by decades of trauma and shame prevented my artistic voice from breaking through the surface.

I silenced the voice of a child who – before I made myself small and quiet to survive – had fallen in love with writing and the magical power of creating.

This perfectionism was so ruthless that nothing I wrote was ever good enough. Shame had convinced me that I wasn’t good enough, and my creative writing had a lot of me in it. So by the time I got into high school, I had stopped trying.

Until decades later, when the shock and existential threat of the pandemic fractured the scars left by shame, allowing the creative waters within me to once again flow freely.

Specifically, writing a play about a trans man coming to terms with his gender identity in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. I thought it was an appropriate setting for a story written during a global viral outbreak.

I still have a lot to say

The dam is destroyed and it remains so.

What’s eating you? began as a private exercise as an attempt to frame my own lived experience – a story I’ve told countless times as an activist, but this time in a fictionalized horror tale. It’s a genre that has always appealed to me because of its subversive nature, but I hadn’t anticipated how easily I would fall in love with the writing process again and feel inclined to share it publicly.

I had finally given voice to the artistic part of me, and it desperately needed to be heard.

For many years I have helped bring the words of playwrights to life as an actor and director of community theatre. I hadn’t considered the possibility of one day taking on the role of playwright because I never thought of myself as a writer. That changed, however, when my own words first came to life during a dramatic reading of What’s eating you? during a workshop last October.

It was a transformative experience that pierced my shell of self-doubt and validated the writer inside.

Jay Gallant identifies as a trans artist because both aspects of his identity – being visibly trans as well as an artist – are important to him for visibility. (Jane Robertson/CBC)

I can’t forget the past because it’s been dug up and exposed to the light of day.

Although writing this piece was a process of release and healing, it was also a challenge. There is an emotional cost to sharing such a personal part of myself. I had to step away from the script at times to process the feelings and trauma it uprooted, but I think it was worth it for me as an artist and as an advocate.

I am extremely grateful for the support and encouragement I have received from my family, friends, and the diverse arts and gender communities in the region. I identify as a trans artist because visibility is important to me, as is sharing our stories.

I will continue to give space to the artistic voice in me because it still has a lot to say.

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