Non-binary performance artist Travis Alabanza’s new show, Burgerz, has been inspired by an incident in which they had a chicken burger thrown at them. Travis talks to Zone about dealing with transphobia ahead of bringing the show to Birmingham’s SHOUT Festival and Coventry’s Warwick Arts Centre...
How would you describe your art form?
I'd say it’s always been bold, challenging and hopefully unique in its perspective and approach. I would also say that it's always in relationship to the audience.
What do you hope people will take away from the experience of watching Burgerz?
The ability and desire to stand up for other people. I think what the show is trying to hone in on is that we can no longer be bystanders to each other in public. In this moment in time - and in the current political climate - we really do need to learn how to move past discomfort to stand up for other people.
What shocked you more - the incident in which you were verbally abused and had a chicken burger hurled at you, or people’s reaction to it?
People's reaction, definitely. The show actually doesn't talk about the incident in huge detail. It's more of a catalyst for what’s happening during the show, which is cooking a burger on stage with a random volunteer each night. It’s not a show to regurgitate all the violence I've experienced. What’s stayed with me isn’t the fact that a burger was thrown at me, it’s more the fact that on a busy London bridge in broad daylight, people saw what happened and carried on walking by.
Do you have any understanding of why people did that?
It’s complicated. There were lots of types of people on that bridge. There could have been someone who didn't respond because they thought someone else would. There could have been someone who didn't respond because they were afraid. The show touches on how we're facing a joint oppression a lot of the time between trans people and other marginalised people. But you know what? It's just gender. Some women know what it feels like to experience male violence and harassment on the street. Who knows whether someone chose not to respond through fear of it turning on them?
I think there's also a problem with transphobia being so in-built in us that sometimes, when we see gender non-conforming people experiencing violence - even if we don't think this is what we think - there's a subconscious impulse to blame gender non-conforming people for choosing to look like they do. Almost as though by wearing a dress and makeup while looking like a man, they’re somehow asking for it. Who knows what goes through people's heads?...
How can society become more understanding of differences between people?
I think it's about not distancing ourselves from people who we're seeing as ‘different’. Everyone needs to realise that we all have a relationship to our gender and we all have a relationship to our gender expression. I'm pretty sure that it's not just trans people who have a complicated relationship. I think there is so much that we would learn from listening to the trans experience and realising, ‘Oh, this doesn't seem that far away. I can understand this’. If we build a closeness to each other, a proximity, then we could see where our struggles are intersected.
The news at the moment is pitting cisgender women against trans people in this fight for safe spaces. It’s a very purposeful tactic to distance oppressed and marginalised people from one another. When we actually look at what’s happening with trans rights, it’s very similar to the core principles of feminism - the right to wear what you want and not be hurt and fought against for it. The right for consent over your body, the right to say who you are and not to have that affect your workplace environment or how your level of intellect is perceived. All of these issues were fought for as feminist rights for women in recent history and are still being fought for today. I think what the media is currently trying to do is separate us instead of getting people to look at the commonalities.
What’s the arts’ role in helping with this, when many of the people perhaps most likely to judge may never go to a performance space?
What’s been interesting in doing this show is that, unfortunately, even in liberal groups a lot of people actually hold lots of really dangerous misconceptions about trans people. Labour MPs are still voting against trans rights. I think liberal-minded people may still have the idea that everyone can be who they want to be, but when it comes to laws and regulations, I think there’s still a lot of caution as far as trans rights are concerned.
Burgerz was originally shown in a queer venue in East London, and although the show went down really well, I had this itch to take it elsewhere - to the wider community. I took the show to the Edinburgh Fringe, and what was beautiful about that was that I came out on stage one day and 80% of the audience had grey hair and were above the age of 60. That was a real buzz for me because the show had an effect on those people which was similar to the effect it had had on my queer audience a few months earlier. I think what's exciting now is that we're going to different venues in different cities and are now reaching more people. Hopefully they’re telling their friends that they should go along to see Burgerz for themselves. I hope this will then inspire them to have conversations with their family or with people back home. That's how things work. It's like a chain of effects.
Have you ever considered taking Burgerz, or a version of it, into schools?
We’ve talked about that a lot, but I’d obviously have to edit out a lot of things that wouldn’t be appropriate.
Maybe it's something for the future, but I do think we need to have stuff about gender and trans covered in schools. I think you have to get people thinking differently from a very young age.
Did you always want to perform?
Yeah, I was always a queen and always dancing around the house. But I grew up in a house where arts weren’t the thing. We didn't go to the theatre because we couldn't afford to. I didn't know any artists either, so there was no role model, but I knew I wanted to perform and I loved drama at school.
I thought the only way to do that was to be like a Hollywood actor. I didn't realise there were different careers in the arts. For me, it wasn’t accessible, and being the realistic kid that I was, I felt I needed to get a job and make money. It was only when I moved to London for university that I discovered the queer arts live scene, and it was all downhill from there...
I remember ringing my mum and saying, ‘I’m going to be performing in a club tonight’, and she was like, ‘Oh no, I hope you stay at university!’ I was like, ‘Of course I’m going to stay at uni’. A year later, I told her that I’d dropped out to become a star!
How old were you when you realised that you were non-binary?
I didn't just pop out and use the word. I’d always felt that I was, but the word came later. From a young age, 13 or 14, I would express my gender in non-traditional ways, and from the age of 16 or 17, I was wearing dresses and makeup. I didn't have the word non-binary because I wasn't on the internet, and I didn't know anybody who was using it. I knew I was trans, but I hadn’t quite figured out what that meant. I was, like, does this mean I'm a woman? Does this mean I'm going to be transitioning into a woman? I was confused.
Then, when I was 19, I met an artist who asked if we could use the pronouns ‘them’ and ‘they’. I was, like, ‘What?’, but at the same time I realised that this was something that could be a bit more chilled for me. I don't really like seeing myself with a label; that’s not what’s important to me. What is important is that gender is complicated, and this is the thing that makes me feel less stressed-out.
I’m not excited by the non-binary label, but it simplifies things for me. It sounds like a shorthand way of describing what's going on in my head.
How do you deal with the day-to-day challenges you face?
It depends what place you’re in. You might go to a different part of town and your experience will change. I live with three other trans people and, sadly, we’re just really used to it. Living in that environment really helps, though, as it means you can have frank conversations. When I go out with the other girls I live with, if someone's pointing at us or taking a photo of us, we'll look at each other and, in that moment, decide whether or not we want to make a thing out of it or not. Moments like that really remind you that it can take over your whole day, but there are mechanisms to ensure that it doesn’t. I think wearing headphones really helps, and I've worked on my self-defence classes as well. I don't feel disempowered by it anymore.
I think reminding myself that this is a problem that they have with themselves and not me really helps as well. Of course, there are situations where things escalate and are more dangerous, and then those mantras aren't going to save you. But at the moment, with day-to-day stuff on the street, I just take a deep breath and carry on listening to my music.
Finally, what piece of advice would you give to your 15-year-old self?
I would say, don't waste any more time on trying to fit into other people's expectations of you, because you will achieve so much more when you're just yourself.
Travis Alabanza’s Burgerz shows at Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, on Friday 15 & Saturday 16 November, and as part of SHOUT Festival at Midlands Arts Centre, Birmingham, on Sunday 17 November.
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