I was laughing and gasping so much after seeing Jordan Gray’s Is It a Bird? at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival that I could barely find my way out of the tent. “She is going to be huge,” my friends and I agreed once we had collected ourselves. One of the great joys of Edinburgh is happening on a show so special that you know you’ll be boasting, in years to come, “I saw her in a tiny venue with about fifty people – and look at her now, stunning audiences on mainstream television/headlining a gigantic stage in front of thousands!” All I was wrong about in Jordan Gray’s case were two minor details: point one, that it’d be a case of either TV fame or stage success; why not, as seems somehow fitting, both? And point two, that it’d be years before I’d be making my brag – not just eight weeks.
How does this work? What actually is this person’s body? – “something for everyone!” laughs Gray
Gray’s comedy show Is It a Bird? is in part about how readily we absorb the ludicrous premise of superheroes – see how many grown adults argue over the fictional powers of fictional people or look up Wakanda on Google Earth – yet struggle with the concept of real, actual human people who… look a bit different to ourselves. As a trans woman, Jordan Gray is by default telling jokes that are punching up, not down, and yet she makes herself the butt of them, fully aware that she’s going to be the target of some people’s ire and ready to pre-empt their feckless attempts to belittle her. “If I’m a joke, I might as well be in on it,” as she charmingly concludes the full version of a song you may have seen her perform on Channel 4 recently.
And quivering with self-righteous indignation the irate come, or tweet at least. “It’s not feminist,” to paraphrase one Instagram account railing against Jordan Gray’s Channel 4 performance of a song with the refrain “I’m better than you!”, “for a trans woman to tell [cis] women we aren’t exciting enough to keep a man faithful.” Hmm. An earlier line in Gray’s song goes: “Never thought I’d live to see / The death of comic irony.” Meanwhile: if only there were some overarching or underlying force that has an interest in keeping trans and cis women under the thumb. Something that begins with “p” and rhymes with “atriarchy”? Even people who spend way too much time on social media should be able to grasp that.
The denouement of Is It a Bird? – as it was of Gray’s Friday Night Live spot – involves her stripping off completely. It’s interesting to me that two very different and equally striking shows I saw this year utilise – weaponise – trans nudity. As with Cade & MacAskill’s The Making of Pinocchio, a witty deconstruction of the transitioning experience, there’s an acknowledgement here that, on some level, the reason people want to see shows like these is curiosity: what’s all this about? How does this work? What actually is this person’s body – “something for everyone!” laughs Gray – like? Where Cade & MacAskill stage a striptease to simultaneously mock and titillate but also satisfy their audience’s curiosity, Jordan Gray, describing her birthday suit as a superhero costume, lets it all hang out.
Violence against trans people is abhorrent. Violence against cis women is abhorrent. There is no difference
It certainly needn’t be a prurient curiosity; in fact, I think, this sort of full-frontal visibility is a kind of armour of openness. Without performers like these, a gap is left in the world into which prejudice is able to slither, insinuating that because trans bodies aren’t seen, they shouldn’t be seen, and the people who have them should also be hidden away, forcibly if necessary. In his excellent book The Pink Line: Journeys Across the World’s Queer Frontiers, Mark Gevisser devotes some pages to what are generally termed “bathroom bills”: efforts by right-wing political interests to legislate against trans people under the pretext of protecting other citizens – notably cis women, who one might have expected to be a little more suss that they were abruptly prioritised by an unholy alliance of Republican politicians and christofascist evangelicals, groups not traditionally noted for their liberal feminism. As Gevisser notes, the tactic didn’t get very far in the US; rejected stateside, the anti-trans lobby tried it across the Atlantic and were delighted to find the UK much more receptive. It’s bewildering to me that historically oppressed parties should excitedly seize upon the opportunity to enact their own trauma on a newly identified less powerful minority, but seize they have; suddenly “gender-neutral bathrooms” became a frontier in the culture war gleefully fomented by UK right-wingers.
There’s something telling, I think, about the very phrase “bathroom bill”. The nursery-rhyme alliteration, and that namby euphemism “bathroom” with its puritanical overtones: heaven forfend we acknowledge the biological functions going on behind the lavatory stall door. Like having a non-standard body or a non-binary identity, it’s not polite, it shouldn’t be talked about or even alluded to. It’s private – the kind of private that merely doesn’t mean “personal” but “shameful”. You should go through one set of doors in life. You should have one type of body, based on the binary doled out in the Garden of Eden, and anything else, anything that subverts or exceeds, is to be pilloried, suppressed, destroyed – hell, murdered.
It’s vital, and, what’s more, it can bring about a shared joy
That’s the shared truth that all LGBTQ+ people live with. It’s one of the reasons that the word “community” is important: a history of prejudice is something we all share, and something we can fight against. It’s what powered the arm that hurled the brick that started the Stonewall riots, and it’s what Pride events are about: piling up all that antagonism and bigotry, setting it alight and using it as a power source. Fear be damned. It’s also what cis women have lived with. Violence against trans people is abhorrent. Violence against cis women is abhorrent. There is no difference. Attempts to pit the historically disenfranchised against one another – to sow dissent – must be resisted. It’s vital, and, what’s more, it can bring about a shared joy.
Jordan Gray’s mother and father were in that Palladium audience, and her wife. And so too were hundreds of men and women and nonbinary people thrilling to – sharing in – Gray’s megawatt energy as she rebounded around the biggest stage of her career (yet). Again and again she boggled at the crowd, unable to believe “the best week of [her] life”. To be part of the crowd that helped boost it a little further by delivering a standing ovation was a deeply emotional moment. A profound joy. Jordan Gray is a star in near-vertical ascent, and she’s bringing all of us with her. C