WHAT: Holiday spook from the creative team behind “Ditzyland,” featuring Ricky Graham, Varla Jean Merman, Jefferson Turner, Sean Patterson, Brooklyn Shaffer and Michael P. Sullivan
WHEN: Dec. 2-18
WHERE: Rivertown Theaters of the Performing Arts, 325 Minor St., Kenner
INFO: Rivertown Theaters website
WHAT: This week’s show will focus on transgender issues, with guests Brooklyn Shaffer (“Steel Poinsettias”), AJay Strong (Bella Blue Entertainment), Wesley Ware (BreakOUT!), and journalist Katy Reckdahl
WHEN: Sat. (Dec. 3), 3 p.m.-4 p.m.
WHERE: WHIV (102.3 FM); www.whivfm.org
Sitting in between Brooklyn Shaffer and AJay Strong in the back of the CC’s Coffee House in the French Quarter this week was watching, and listening to, one of most bizarre and fascinating mirror images one might imagine. There sat AJay Strong, the co-producer of Bella Blue Entertainment who, after transitioning from a femaile during relocation to New Orleans a couple years ago, discussing how his transgender journey has finally helped him feel comfortable in his own skin.
Across the back table from him sat his friend, Brooklyn Shaffer, the actor who, just a few years ago as Brian Peterson, was one of New Orleans funniest and campiest performers — often in drag. And, after having transitioned to female at almost exactly the same time, Shaffer could only nod her head in agreement with Strong and expressed her own improving sense of self. She feels so comfortable, in fact, that Shaffer returns to the stage with her current co-conspirators that include Ricky Graham, Varla Jean Merman and Sean Patterson in the holiday spoof “Steel Poinsettias.” It’s got the same kind of campy fire that Shaffer used to produce in Running With Scissors’ annual “Grenadine McGunkle’s Double-Wide Christmas” as well as the Graham-Merman concoction, “Ditzyland.”
When one was speaking, really, the other would nod their head. For even though these are two people who have transitioned from exact opposite gender to the other — conjuring the image of two genders crossing in the night — they both appear to have landed in the same type of contentment one gets when they better recognize themselves in the mirror.
It started as soon as Strong recollected a childhood in which he sensed as early as 4 years old that something wasn’t quite right, and how even coming out as a lesbian at the age of 18 didn’t feel quite right.
“On top of the average everyday struggles that people experience with sex and sexuality, I also was feeling this very deep sense of being misplaced and misunderstood,” said Strong, sporting a dress shirt and tie wrapped by a fest, a fedora lending a shadow to his face sporting facial hair. “Since I was very, very young, I would say about the age of 4, and I feel like this sounds like a cliché with a lot of trans folks, but I knew then. I knew better then at 4 that I was a trans person than I did at 24.”
Shaffer listening intently, nodded and said, “That’s so true.”
“Yeah,” he nodded back.
She repeated it, for emphasis: “That’s so true.”
That familiarity came at a similar age, early on, recognized in everything from clothing options to toys with which to play. She started noticing being noticed by adults when trying to make those choices, and started “editing myself.”
“It makes you almost a loner in a lot of ways,” she said. “I preferred to play by myself than with other kids because then I could do whatever I wanted with no judgment.”
And so both Shaffer and Strong tried to go with the sexual orientation flow, with Strong (as a woman) dating other women because that made the most sense, and Shaffer dating men because that made the most sense. Even identifying as “gay” didn’t make sense, either, and as each hit their 30s, the deeper they’d get into relationships, the less satisfying they became. Strong, a Minnesota native and popular DJ in the Minneapolis’ gay and burlesque scenes, began seriously considering gender reassignment at a younger age until a devastating car accident put everything on hold for several years.
Around this same time he’d met New Orleans burlesque producer and performer Bella Blue, at the Burlesque Hall of Fame event in Las Vegas, and over time a friendship blossomed into romance. A move to Los Angeles didn’t work out, and so, at Blue’s urging, he moved to New Orleans to be with her. By then, he was deep into the transition process.
For Shaffer, it was more complicated. While still a man, he’d met Todd Shaffer, and after dating for several years, they married in Provincetown, Mass., when it became legal. But not long after, she started suffering from almost crippling feelings of anxiety of depression, even while being very much in love with her husband and while remaining active in the New Orleans theater scene. (She’s a six-time Big Easy Award-winning performer.)
“To figure out how my trans part of me was still there, I started performing in drag a lot in theater and doing things like that,” Shaffer explained. “It was in my mind I felt like I have love, I get to put on the dress, so I have enough. This is enough. I didn’t want to take that step. It was so scary. Then over time I just found that depression was getting worse, and worse, and worse, until it got so bad that I would literally sit on the couch sobbing. My ex would ask me, “What’s wrong?” and I’d be like, “I don’t know what’s wrong.”
After entering into therapy, Shaffer soon realized that she identified more clearly as a woman, and as reassuring it was for her, her partner, however supportive, ultimately let her know he wanted to be with a male partner. They amicably split.
[Learn more: The psychology of transgender]
Even before and during the transition phase, Shaffer notes, performing in drag became less reassuring than it had in her younger years. It started to feel less fulfilling and more of a burden.
“I thought, ‘Why can’t I just feel good everyday? Why can’t I be happy everyday without having to stand on a stage and work?” she said. “Though I love it, it was a job. Doing theater is a job. It’s hard work.”
Toward the end of the transition period, around the time she’d completed “Gone With the Breaking Wind” with Ricky Graham and Varla Merman, in early January 2015, she decided to take a break, and focus on “how to learn to be with myself, how to learn to be in society and interact with people.”
By contrast, Strong gained a unique form of closure onstage when the former drag king (as a female) decided to revisit his female roots and went through Cycle 4 of Vinsantos DeFontes’ New Orleans Drag Workshop. There was a little bit of overcoming fears with the decision, and after a very difficult process, Strong commanded the stage in a black vinyl bodysuit, cracking his whip while lip-syncing to Marilyn Monroe.
“I learned that I don’t really care anymore,” he recalled. “I’m not scared of femininity anymore. In fact, although I identify as male, there are just as many parts of me that are still female that I am fine with. I don’t care if they never go away. I’m actually quite happy to be riding somewhere in the middle and be this two spirit, as they say in Native American culture. It’s both sides of the coin that you can see, and it’s a blessing.”
His influence on Bella Blue has been incalculable, both as a professional and romantic partner.
“Ajay’s impact on my life in a professional sense has allowed the company to really grow as well as operate on a more organized level,” she said. “Before, I did every aspect myself. When we got together, I was producing 26 shows a month alone! It was insanity. AJay came in and streamlined much of how we do scheduling, communication, etc. And then, we didn’t know it but he’s also a great MC!
“Personally, he’s a great father to the kids and a supportive partner. (Even though I’ve put him through the ringer!) He’s shown me what it is to have boundaries, how to stand up for myself, and helped me find my voice. We take care of each other.”
Getting back onto the stage has given Shaffer a similar sense of relief. Gone is that sense of burden, replaced by a sense of liberation and maybe, like Strong, a greater sense of balance.
“I felt burdened growing up with it because I was unhappy, but all of a sudden I just embraced this venture and journey I’ve been on and thought, god, how lucky to get to experience life on both sides of the gender fence!” said the Mandeville native. “I’ve experienced life as a male, perceived as a male, and I’m experiencing life as a female. They’re very different, and it’s interesting the differences that you encounter. I do, I feel blessed. I feel blessed and lucky.”
Jeffery Roberson, who as Varla Jean Merman has seen Shaffer perform for over a decade, believes she possesses a characteristic not often seen in actors who perform in the kind of campy, gay comedies that are his and Graham’s stock in trade:
“She’s subtle in way that draws you in, as opposed to someone screaming at you,” Roberson said. “She’s also beautiful onstage, which doesn’t hurt. When someone is quiet and has this inner, quiet thing going on, you kind of lean in. Like when Ann-Margret whispers. Me, I can be a big ham, but some of the stuff I do is a subtle. When I have played Blanche Du Bois, I had to be in everybody’s face. But you buy her being the character, whether it was a man or woman.”
Roberson notes that Shaffer “struggled a bit” in her last show with the gang — “Gone With the Breaking Wind” — but this return to the stage will be a welcome one all around.
“We are so happy to have her back,” he said.“We’ve missed her. It’s like having an old friend back.”
She also snuck in an appearance in fellow New Orleanian Bianca Del Rio’s recent comedy, “Hurricane Bianca.”
While they’re both excited to be hitting what feel like personal and professional strides, the recent election of Donald Trump as president of the United States has them both on edge. After all, Strong and Blue have expanded their production capacity to include a new troupe, the Foxglove Revue and new events such as the “Legs and Eggs Sunday Brunch” at SoBou. And Shaffer is ready to build on the “Steel Poinsettias” show to become a more regular performer again.
And just as they’ve found their groove, transgender issues have become a more regular, and increasingly more understood, part of the cultural dialogue. It’s been helped in part by something as controversial as Bruce Jenner’s transition to Caitlin Jenner, and Laverne Cox’s Emmy Award-nominated work on Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” and the more recent “Rocky Horror Picture Show” on broadcast TV.
[Learn more: Scientific American on a history of transgender health care]
Trump’s election, though, has both fearing of a “turning back” on many levels, whether it’s the recent reports of hate crimes or concurrent election of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as vice president, and Pence’s reported support for “conversion therapy” to somehow make gay people straight. But, Strong points out, it goes beyond more simple gay/transgender issues. It’s about all LGBTQ rights. It’s about women’s reproductive rights in light of the potential U.S. Supreme Court’s reversal of the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. And, for Strong, it’s about Affordable Care Act, which helped him obtain insurance despite having a pre-existing condition.
“It’s any and all of those things that we were moving away from and now we’re not moving away from them anymore,” Strong said. “We’re actually facing those realistically.”
Once again, listening intently across the table, Shaffer nods her head.
“You’re scared of what you don’t understand,” she said. “That’s why people are afraid of things is that they don’t understand it. There hasn’t been enough education and understanding in our culture about transgender and what it is exactly that people are lashing out. They’re killing trans women almost daily around the world. It’s crazy how fast it’s happening.”
And yet, the both remain hopeful and determined to move forward. Strong, for example, hopes to work with infectious disease doctor and social justice activist MarkAlain Dery to promote sensitivity training at clinics and hospitals for trans patients. (Full disclosure: Dery also has interest in community radio station WHIV, which carries my new radion show, “PopSmart NOLA.”)
“We all have a choice to either be really depressed about the situation and hole up or to get out there and try to do something to help,” said, “At first (after the election), I felt very depressed, and I didn’t want to be seen at all. I just wanted to live in stealth, nobody bother me. Now I’m feeling like I need to stop that.”
When it comes to facing adversity, Shaffer points to two experiences that hearten her as she braces for an uncertain future. She recalls the sense of uncertainty she faced after Hurricane Katrina, which blew her to Atlanta with Todd for a year, but was also infused with incredible kindness from sympathetic friends and strangers. She also takes comfort in her boyfriend, whose 17-year-old daughter just came out to them as a lesbian — and who treats this own coming-out as just another point in her life. (Maybe that’s because her Baton Rouge high school as an LGBTQ alliance group to help ease this particular transition.
As Strong, who also deals with his own relationship with children back home, nodded his head, Shaffer became philosophical.
“It doesn’t matter who you are,” she said. “We’re all just trying to do the same thing in life — find time to try and be a little happy, have friends, have a nice time, and keep some money in our pockets. That’s the human experience.
“I have hope. I have hope.”
(NOTE: I hope to have more personalized “as told to” essays and personal histories by both AJay Strong and Brooklyn Shaffer linked to this story after Saturday’s radio version of “PopSmart NOLA,” 3 p.m. to 4 p.m., on WHIV 102.3 FM. Please tune in!)
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