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Being Young and Trans: New Play 'Pronoun' Is Increasing Understandings of Trans Experiences in the UK

20/05/2014 13:27 BST | Updated 02/06/2014 10:59 BST

By my (admittedly very rough) calculation, approximately 16,000 people across the UK will see Evan Placey's new play Pronoun by August 2014 (published by Nick Hern books). The play's main character is Dean, a young female-to-male transgender person. The play is about his experience of beginning to transition and his relationships with his friends, his boyfriend and his family. Dean is strong and clear-minded about his own gender identity. He is at a point where he understands himself and what he wants to do about his gender. He has started hormone treatment and injecting testosterone. He is binding his chest and trying to save up for chest surgery. He has chosen his new name and has asked everyone around him to treat him as the boy or young man that he feels himself to be.

Around him, his mum and dad are struggling as they try to understand Dean's experience for themselves. They describe the love they have felt for their child from the moment of birth. They describe the sense of failure they feel as parents, having read 'all the books' and imagined a future for their child that is not unfolding as planned. They recount the time they attended an appointment with Dean to talk to a private doctor about Dean's chest surgery (still using the pronoun 'she'):

Mum: And I'm sorry. If that's what she wants to do. If she wants to mutilate her - then that's her prerogative. But we're certainly weren't going to bankroll it. When Sharon's daughter got a tattoo, do you think she paid for it?

Dad: This isn't a tattoo.

Mum: No. It's worse.

Dad: And these photos. All these after photos. And I thought

Mum: I'm sorry.

Dad: All these daughters. All these. Not just ours.

One of the young members of the Gendered Intelligence Youth Group (Johnny) saw the production at the Tricycle Theatre, London on Sunday 30th March (performed by ArtsEd, London) and said:

"the parents had a big role and I didn't realise it was that hard on them - to get used to it, the changes and stuff. It was quite interesting to think about other people's [perspectives]... I never really thought so much about how my parents really felt."

Dean's sister is the vehicle through which the play opens up the complex relationship between siblings, when a young person feels they are not the sister they have been through formative years. Dean's friends are supportive and understanding though their friendship group includes Josh, Dean's boyfriend. We see Josh working through his feelings and responses to Dean as Dean continues to take positive steps forward to make changes to his body and his appearance. Josh's love for Dean does not diminish and ultimately, the two of them are discovering how they can remain respectful of each other through Dean's transition. Gendered Intelligence youth group member Johnny said:

"relationship-wise, it [trans] isn't talked about much - the other person in the relationship and their feelings when the person they're with transitions. I thought that was interesting. Josh was really cool because he kept trying to compromise and to understand."

The play's writer Evan Placey, has said:

"I decided to write this play because I didn't feel like I was seeing any trans characters on stage. Full stop. And especially in plays for young people..."
(National Theatre Connections 2014)

Placey was commissioned by the National Theatre to write one of the ten new plays for the NT Connections 2014 programme. Early in the planning phase, the National Theatre and Placey made contact with me in my capacity as co-founder and co-Director of Gendered Intelligence (GI). We met to talk about GI's work with young trans people and from there, Placey visited the GI Youth Group to meet some of the young people who attend our fortnightly sessions and have them contribute their views on how he might represent a young trans person.

Now, 40 productions of Pronoun are being performed in various regions across the UK. 40 companies are concentrating on a play about a young trans person and thousands of audience members will experience this play first-hand.

I first saw the play performed by the West Yorkshire Playhouse WYP Youth Theatre, directed by Gemma Woffinden on 14th March. I met the cast and they said that one of the reasons they chose Pronoun over the other nine plays in the NT Connections programme was because transgender identity is not something they've done in Personal, Social, Health and Citizenship Education (PSHCE) and it's not something that is talked about in any part of their lives as other 'teen issues' are yet they felt it should be.

I'm interested in the ways that Pronoun might be activating shifts in participants/ audiences in relation to understandings of transgender young people's identities. The play is often described is a love story.

For me this play is much more than a love story. It's a story about a young person who has the right to be respected, valued and cherished. It's a story about mums, dads, sisters, brothers and other family members, about friends and about relationships that can contribute so positively to a young person's experience of gender, when their relationship to gender is complex. It's a story that should be and will be seen by thousands of people, many of whom will not have thought much about trans people's experiences of growing up, of coming out as trans and of making the first steps towards transition. It's a story that can have a seriously powerful impact on societal understandings of gender and gender diversity.

One production of the play will be selected for the final showcase of all 10 NT Connections plays later this year.