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Remembering who I am

I act for a living. That would make sense, what with going to drama school. It’s tough – brutal at times – but I love it. And I love being trans, in every capacity. Simply knowing myself to be ‘trans’ makes me feel whole. And being both trans and an actor makes me a ‘trans actor’ – I love that, too. But, prior to this year, I was stuck in a habit of forgetting who I am.

by Jo Eaton-Kent

I came out at drama school. I broke up with a boy, couldn’t stop crying for a week, and one night, “I’m trans” just popped out. It stuck – that was five years ago.

I act for a living. That would make sense, what with going to drama school. It’s tough – brutal at times – but I love it. And I love being trans, in every capacity. Simply knowing myself to be ‘trans’ makes me feel whole. And being both trans and an actor makes me a ‘trans actor’ – I love that, too.

But, prior to this year, I was stuck in a habit of forgetting who I am.

This isn’t uncommon with actors. Getting lost in a role might be what you call a ‘workplace hazard’. People often think of Method acting (even though that’s just an excuse for men to behave badly on the job), but there’s a harsh reality behind the mythology:

What we do as actors is hold up a mirror to the world we live in – cliché, I know. As a result, we end up scrutinising ourselves (and our egos) endlessly, often leaving us with a lot of existential questions: “who am I, really?”; “where am I headed?”; “did I leave the iron on?”

So much of ‘acting’ is personal. The real world is very present in your work, and who you are in that real world informs the work you do.

What an actor exudes, beyond technique and self-importance, is a reflection of their own personal identity – that’s what the audience sees; when we talk about “vulnerability”, that’s what we mean.

Consequently, with every job you book, the character you play on that job is reflective of your identity… Let me explain:

When you book a job – any job – you think your character must be a reflection of your identity, or else why would you get the job? When you don’t book said job, you think the opposite – “oh well, that must not be me”.

When the character you’d be perfect for hasn’t even been written yet (and I’m talking about nuanced trans characters here), you could say the latter outcome is doubly true, because, if you’re someone with no reflection (and you’re not a vampire)… do you actually exist?

“Am I destined to only help the cis-het (white) people achieve things?”

“Do I even have wants and needs?” 

Stood on the back of the sofa, re-enacting scenes from The Wizard of Oz. Ever the fashion icon.

My career path always seemed kind of destined. It was going to be the arts. Both my parents work in the same industry, so, besides having it in my blood, knowing they had my back let me feel secure in my choice of, at best, a precarious career. Plus, when someone knows the ropes of the industry, of course, you’re going to trust and respect their opinion.

You respect the opinion of your colleagues, also; people with whom you have no choice of being around (much like parents), but are generally* creatively and politically aligned (*the industry is a majority liberal).

However, when none of them know what being trans means, what it entails, how you fit, or don’t fit, into this weird old system … you’re left with a world of people who give you funny looks. Parents included.

It’s a semantics-driven industry – hardly surprising when everybody is emotional for a living. Having a fruitful career rests (dare I say it, solely) on reputation. If you make people uncomfortable, or upset them, you get a bad rep and you won’t work.

I know (being well-versed on the subject) that transness can upset people. They don’t know what to do with it, they don’t know how to talk about it, they don’t want to upset you … so, they get upset and avoid working with you… How do you fix that?

I fixed it by apologising. By saying it doesn’t matter. By smiling and laughing and never, ever getting upset. And I grew so accustomed to compromising, self-deprecating, lying to save face, that I “forgot” how trans I am. For the sake of comfort – their comfort, and, in turn, my comfort – I invented a reflection of myself, and I got lost in that reflection. “It’s fine. I get it wrong all the time, too!”

The Watch, behind the scenes. Growing out my body hair made me realise how much I didn’t want it. Mug was always beat, though.

I filmed in beautiful South Africa for six months, just before COVID-19 hit hard. I’d landed the role of Constable Cheery on BBC America’s ‘The Watch’ – a non-binary dwarf (the Tolkien kind) in a subversive fantasy-comedy; a rare, nuanced depiction of a trans character – one episode is even dedicated to Cheery’s own gender exploration … A pretty big gig, if you ask me!

I grew out all my body hair: chest, legs … eyebrows, too. Playing a fantasy dwarf at 6 foot 1, it would be rude to remove every element of the species that we’ve come to recognise. So, since I couldn’t make myself any shorter, body-hair-covered it was to be. A small sacrifice, albeit a masculinising, six-month-long sacrifice. The one saving grace was that I could keep my face close-shaven (only for them to glue on a long, itchy false beard most days).

Now, they do have trans people local to Cape Town, but you won’t find one on a film set. It’s such a strange new thing, most of the crew just thought I was elaborately gay … not such a far cry from home, actually.

I told myself I’d be strong this time, stick to my guns. I sent a letter to the entire company explaining my gender identity – it was well-received. I corrected people when they made mistakes, and, being so hairy, there were a lot. I wore feminine outfits in public when feeling particularly brazen. But it’s a long time to be alone in your freakdom and keep the peace simultaneously. Eventually, you get fatigued. So, you “forget”, and say it doesn’t matter … Yet, fact remains, it does.

Cut to: UK lockdown, 2021 – a strange, lonely time; alone with no one but my partner, myself and my body. In my fifth year of being a ‘trans actor’, but without a job; without any roles to play…  and it’s been a godsend. Truly. I’ve had no choice but to engage with the shy little voice in the depths of my soul. I admitted to myself recently what I’d been denying and ignoring for half a decade, for fear of rejection from family, friends, colleagues and employers:

“My body hasn’t felt right for quite some time, and I need to go on hormones.”

Taken after a party in drag, the year before it all clicked into place. Much too thin. Feeling a bit lost.

Weeks before coming out at drama school, I was deep in boy-mode, struggling, imploding; probably from all those new existential questions. But then, I jettisoned the baggage, finally let that little voice speak, and I flourished. I even got better at acting; better because I let go of other people’s opinions, and stopped performing the ‘boy’ that others expected. And, although I didn’t accept (or even realise the extent of) my physical needs at that time, I accepted this queerness as part of myself and could carry on without imploding.

Jump forward to this January. Right up until COVID, the limbo of gender-nonconformity paid my bills (it got me the TV gigs, for certain), and it also suited on a social level. The convenience of that limbo – its lucrativeness; the societal privilege a male body is afforded, unlike the contentious transsexual body – made it that much harder to let go of.

But, thinking of my future, existing in, not a woman’s body, but a femme, queer, transsexual body, one I could call my own, made me feel free. Limbo has nothing on freedom.

Just admitting it felt like coming out all over again – the-lump-in-the-throat, stomach-cramps, jumping-out-of-a-plane kind of fear. But, just like my straightness at fifteen, just like my boyhood at twenty, I had to let this one go, after years of stalling, at twenty-five.

I dove right in at the deep end; took the fast-lane: therapist; dysphoria diagnosis; endocrinologist; HRT at the chemist; laser hair removal, etc. Every step of the way has felt like the buzz you get from a new tattoo, and I’m hungry for the next one.

My skin is softer. My breasts have started growing. I’m smiling more in pictures. It’s been barely any time at all, and yet I feel the best I’ve ever felt. Barely anything has shifted physically, yet I look in the mirror and I like what I see. Each day, my body is feeling more like home.

I grow into this body, able to give it what it needs, and I remember who I am.

What does the future hold? Will anyone hire me if I have a baritone voice and breasts? Will I confuse and upset people forever? … Who knows? Seeing shows like ‘Pose’, ‘It’s a Sin’, even ‘The Watch’, help me keep the faith. And, if my personal history’s anything to go off, this newfound freedom will take my craft as an actor to another level…

Soon enough, I’ll be giving Streep a run for her money!

Jo Eaton-Kent in a mustard-coloured top
Jo Eaton-Kent is an actor-writer based in London. Photo copyright owned by Michael Wharley.

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