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The Naked Playwright’s Transgender Jesus

By Jacob Anderson-Minshall
Published: April 24, 2008, San Francisco Bay Times

“The basic premise is that Jesus was FTM,” says award-winning playwright Tobias K. Davis, describing his one-act play, Crossing, which retells the story of Christ’s crucifixion with this transgender twist. “His struggles and persecution and crucifixion were motivated not only by his teachings and how they threatened the Roman Empire, but by his gender, and how it threatened the rigid binary society.”

Davis lives in his hometown, Northampton, Mass., where he graduated from Smith College. It was during his senior year there that Davis collaborated with classmate Claire Avitabile in creating and directing The Naked I: Monologues From Beyond the Binary (“a transgendered take on The Vagina Monologues”), which won first place in the 2003 Five-College Denis H. Johnston Playwriting Competition. The Naked I and Davis’ short, The Best Boyfriend, have been performed at a numerous theater festivals and college campuses. His latest work, Standards of Care, premieres this June 6-15 in Minneapolis and explores the “strange relationship that exists between transgendered people and the medical and therapist community.”

Standards explores those relationships and issues facing two transgender guys – one older and one a teenager – who battle gender dysphoria, struggle with therapy, fight for family support and search for love. The title refers to the Standards of Care for Gender Identity Disorders (SOC), which spells out standards for psychiatric, psychological, medical and surgical management of gender identity issues. Davis suggests that these standards exist not for the well being of trans patients, but for benefit of the medical community and society at large.

“If gender identity disorder or gender dysphoria are truly mental disorders,” Davis says, pointing to the American Psychiatric Association handbook – The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) – which catagorizes the trans experience as a pyschiatric problem. “Then why won’t insurance pay for the treatment? And if they aren’t mental disorders, which I believe, then why do we not have agency over…our own bodies?”

In Standards, Davis adds complexity to the psychiatry-patient dynamic by allowing their bourgeoning relationship to threaten boundaries of intimacy and ethics. “It’s difficult to sustain an equal relationship in a situation where the two parties have an inherent power imbalance. However, in Standards…the client is less in therapy because he actually needs help…and more because he needs some paperwork completed. I like the ethical dilemma as a dramatic tool, because I think that difficult situations make for more interesting theater, and I think that it strikes a chord with audiences.”

Contending that people’s identities shift when they are around others, Davis examines interactions beyond the therapist-client relationship. For example, Standards’ gender therapist may be professionally supportive of transgender patients but that doesn’t make it easier for her to accept her own kid coming out trans.

“I think that a lot of parents who are perfectly accepting of LGBT or other identities in their friends, acquaintances – even siblings – have trouble when it comes to accepting those identities in their own children.”

Davis hopes that other trans folk will see themselves – and their struggles – reflected on Standards’ stage. “Theater is [an] incredibly vivid and human form of art. It also offers more of an opportunity for transgendered people to tell their own stories, rather than having talk show hosts feed them lines and set them up to be ridiculed.”

Davis’ college buddy Avitabile, who now runs Minneapolis’ 20% Theatre Company (tctwentypercent.org) dedicated to work by female, transgender and gender-queer artists, helped stage a reading of Standards last year and is producing the world premiere of Standards June 6-15 at Twin Cities’ Patrick’s Cabaret.

Seeking additional venues for Standards, Davis also hopes to revisit Crossing, and says he’s been working on a young adult novel about a transgender teenager in boarding school.

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