Gloria Swansong @ The Brick

“May you hear my feeble voice! It will tell you that here below there is a heart full of the memory of you.” - Herculine Barbin

Transverse: An Autopsy of Gender

Performed by Gloria Swansong
NYC Trans Theater Festival
The Brick

July 15, 2018

When you meet someone who is trans, or intersex, or anything unfamiliar, fucking listen to their story. That is the message of the mesmerizing Gloria Swansong, who brings to life the remarkable and true story of Herculine Barbin as part of the Trans Theater Festival at The Brick this month.

I'll admit I didn't know of Herculine before last week, though their birthday on November 8th is recognized as Intersex Remembrance Day. Gloria, a stunning performer and "NYC's Old Hollywood Queen," brought Herculine's memoir to life so convincingly and reverently that, for 2 hours, the breath was sucked out of the room and blown into 19th century France, where the spirit of our star lives on.

In a poorly explained and dry nutshell, Herculine was born in 1838 in France and raised as a woman. They grew up in a convent, no less, and eventually became a teacher. After a tender "affair" with a fellow instructor, excruciating pain led Herculine to seek medical attention, at which point the doctors and the court of law forcibly reassigned them to male. A few months living under the name Abel Barbin, Herculine was found dead in their home from suicide.

Their memoirs, among the most complete documentation of any person living as intersex at that time, were translated by Michel Foucault (my favorite philosopher and the foundation of my entire Masters dissertation!). In our little story, Gloria Swansong finds a copy at The Strand and thus a vibrant journey of self-discovery begins, culminating in a poignant and memorable celebration of diversity in our little corner of Brooklyn.

I loved every minute of it.

Gloria steps into Herculine's persona like putting on a pair of old slippers, and intertwines elements of her own story so seamlessly it's like watching a master tailor on a sewing machine. Contemporary music - from Judy Garland to Radiohead - also found its way into the story's plot. These exquisitely performed lip sync renditions were so convincing I had to blink my eyes several times to believe Gloria herself wasn't singing! Poetry, Shakespeare, a dancing wig, and audience participation worked their way on stage and, although claiming it was a "workshop" when fudging a line, the piece felt more thoughtful than most polished Off-Broadway performances I've seen this year.

Ultimately, the production felt like a reverent gift to Herculine's memory, one that they would have probably found just as entertaining as the rest of us. In the final climactic scene Gloria pronounces, "It's messy, it's complex. Welcome to 2018. That's gender." Preach, sister, preach.

But the work is tempered by sadness and an overwhelming lack of control over destiny. That is where Gloria and Herculine's stories diverge. Though we're still struggling (perhaps more-so today than ever before) with the concept of "gender," Herculine had no escape from their gilded prison in the 1800s. They had no words to explain or contain the physical and emotional trauma of forced gender reassignment, and ultimately died alone.

Today, we have more words to explain intersex, and Jeffrey Eugenides brought it vibrantly to the fore with Middlesex, claiming that "Normality wasn't normal. It couldn't be. If normality were normal, everybody could leave it alone. They could sit back and let normality manifest itself." In politics, we're debating about trans and intersex issues. At home, we're meeting more people who are vocal about their experiences. We have Pride marches. We have experimental theater festivals.

But the most important thing, claims Gloria, is still to listen. Just sit, shut up, and listen to someone who is different from you. That's the whole damn point: "Queer people have always existed unseen, but no longer unheard."

Photo by Jody Christopherson

Ticket Price: $20

My Price: $10ish?

I bid on an "experimental theater" package at The Tank's annual gala, and won tickets to 3 shows via silent auction for only $20 (not!). As part of the package, I also saw She Calls Me Firefly and Fire in my Bones.

Transverse: An Autopsy of Gender
July 15 – 22, 2018

Written and Performed by Gloria Swansong
Directed by Alex Tobey
Emily Fischer, Stage Manager
Jean-Luc DeLadurantaye, Costume Designer
Cati Kalinoski, Lighting Designer
Jaymie Bellous, Props Designer

Herculine Barbin was raised by nuns as a woman until, at 22, they were forcibly reassigned to male. Before taking their own life at 30, Herculine left the world with the first memoir and first thorough autopsy of a Trans/intersex person. ‘Transverse’ explores how Barbin’s life and body changed the world and echoed a mantra of today’s LGBTQIA rights movement: queer people have always existed unseen, but no longer unheard.

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