Benny LeMaster

Artist Statement

On June 5, 2011, CeCe McDonald and her friends (all young, black, and queer) were walking to a store. As they passed a local bar, white patrons began yelling homophobic, transphobic, and racist epithets at them. McDonald approached the group of white cisgender terrorists stating that she does not accept hate language. One of the white cisgender terrorists responded, “I’ll take you bitches on,” and proceeded to smash a glass bottle onto McDonald’s face. The bottle punctured McDonald’s cheek lacerating her salivary gland. A fight broke out and one of the white cisgender terrorists was fatally stabbed. Even though there were numerous bodies involved in the altercation, only McDonald was arrested that night. Despite having her salivary gland lacerated, McDonald was not found to be standing her ground; rather, she was suspected of murdering a white cisgender terrorist. The ensuing trial revealed that the white cisgender terrorist had a swastika tattooed on his body. Unfortunately, yet predictably, the presiding judge did not allow the tattoo to be used as evidence of the white cisgender terrorist’s hateful beliefs. Nearly one year later, McDonald accepted a plea bargain and plead guilty to 2nd degree manslaughter—she did so in order to secure a lesser sentence. As a result, McDonald was sentenced to 3½ years in a men’s prison. On January 13, 2014, CeCe McDonald was released from prison and is now completing her sentence under parole.

I share CeCe McDonald’s story because it matters. Also, her story is the reason why I came to this project. This film is part of a much larger academic, activist, and creative agenda that my mind, body, and soul are engaged in. “Circles,” is an experimental film that focuses in on the space between systemic and individual acts of violence. At the start of the film, a white-masked character (named “white mask”) approaches “transwoman.” My partner, Arynn Klein, performs both of these roles; she identifies as a transwoman. She is at once the transbody and the masked-everybody. “White mask” represents both cisgender persons as well as gender-variant folks; in short, “white mask” can be anyone who misgenders persons and who, as a result—whether intentionally or not—performatively buttresses the power of gender normativity. In the film, “transwoman” is asked “How can I help you, sir?” “White mask” misgenders “transwoman,” which spurs a verbally silent and nonverbally robust performative exchange that triggers bouts of gender dysphoria, confusion, and second guessing one’s own gendered sense of self in relation to the one doing the (mis)gendering. At the same time, however, the same person who performs “transwoman” performs “white mask.” This performance choice, points to the ways that gender-variant folks are ill-equipped—in ways similar to cisgender folks—to perceive and process fellow gender a-normative bodies on the subjective terms that they/we might individually prefer. There is, thus, no easy answer to the conundrum of learning to perceive and process differential gender and/or sex in ways that belong solely to the one being performatively read. Thus, any and all viewers can imagine themselves as being in the positioning of “transwoman,” “white mask,” or the other haunted/haunting masked characters, which I will turn to in a moment. First, a word on gender dysphoria.

Gender dysphoria can be understood in a number of ways. Many bodies experience dysphoria: a feeling of discontent over ones perceived and felt sense of embodiment. Gender dysphoria involves discontent over gender(ed) embodiment, which can be triggered by both/and/neither/nor physiological components and/or social refusal to acknowledge and embrace ones self-determined gender. “White mask” asks a seemingly inconsequential question: “how can I help you, sir?” The “sir” in this utterance serves as a cog in a persistent chain of events that work to secure gender normativity by refusing to acknowledge the transwoman’s gendered performance. In essence, the “sir” in “how can I help you, sir” is code for “you’re still not quite making it; you still look like a man and I am going to remind you of that.” This may or may not be conscious or intentional on the part of the gendering entity. Nonetheless, it performatively accomplishes the systemic goal of securing gender normativity and saliency by placing the burden of gender performance on the one being (mis)gendered. One way that this manifests is in the slow turn of the haunted/haunting masked characters.

The haunted/haunting masked characters are, like “white mask,” players that shore up simultaneous support and resistance to cisgender systems of oppression; in essence, they can be the viewer, whoever that viewer is. We, in short, are all playing a performative role in securing the normativity of cisgender supremacy. In this case, the “sir” signals for the haunted/haunting masked characters to stop what they are doing and to focus their relative gazes on to the misgendered person. The haunted/haunting masked characters are extensions of both “white mask” and “transwoman” working as a rhizomatic assemblage that works to realize cisgender normativity. More specifically, the “sir” signals at least two co-constitutive performative responses: (1) is ensures a cisgender normative center that (2) triggers potential bouts of gender dysphoria, which links the systemic performative response (i.e., gaze at the gender freak) to the individual performative response (i.e., gender dysphoria) such that the individual and the systemic complete a circuitry of gender normativity. In this way, I include the haunted/haunting masked characters as performative points of entry for viewers.

The ambiguity of the masked characters falling in line with that of “white mask’s” utterance, allows for the viewer to contemplate how they may and/or may not aid in maintaining cisgender normativity in mundane moments: will you, too, turn and gaze effectively completing a circuit of cisgender supremacy? While the film is roughly nine minutes long, the whole filmic experience can be said to take place in a fleeting instant when “sir” is uttered. The visual and aural work in tandem conveying a performative response to (mis)gendering and the resulting dysphoria that can be triggered deep within the transbody who is located at the nexus of cisgender supremacy. The “sir” combined with the haunting/haunted masked characters conjure in the transwoman’s mind a multitude of temporally archived items, which emerge as flashing moments of potential realities. Whether or not the “sir” was and/or is intentional, the ramifications are always and already potentially fatal and dangerous for the transperson who is located at the helm of cisgender supremacy. The larger question that “Circles” asks is: how will/do you intervene in the persistence of gender normativity? My hope is that “Circles” functions as a performative tool that aids viewers in rehearsing for acts of resistance to gender normativity.

Benny LeMaster is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication Studies at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Hir research interests include queer and transgender theories and subjectivities, critical intercultural communication, performance studies, and intersectionality. "Circles" has been screened with and without performing bodies in a variety of venues. To that end, the author would like to thank the various performers that dedicated their time and energies toward helping to animate this emergent project. This project is dedicated to my transgender siblings, allies, and accomplices working to make this world a more just one; sometimes, those efforts include simply being present.

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