On Friday, March 2, SUNY New Paltz professors discussed transgender issues as part of a panel coinciding with the school’s newest production, “Eugenia.”
The panel titled, “Women Passing as Men: Transgender, Sexual Orientation or Survival?” was held before the first showing of the theater department’s opening night of “Eugenia.” The play tells the story of a transgender woman from Italy who comes to New Zealand in pursuit of a new life during the early 20th century.
Professor and Assistant Chair of the theater arts program Stephen Kitsakos served as moderator for the night’s panel discussion. Members of the panel included Karl Bryant from the sociology and Women’s Studies department, Anita Gonzalez from theater arts, Morgan Gwenwald, library outreach coordinator of Sojourner Truth Library, and Susan Lewis of the history department.
Along with serving on the panel, Gonzalez directed the play while Kitsakos composed the score.
Kitsakos said the idea for hosting a panel came from the desire to have something that would appeal to the entire campus community.
“The department is committed to interdisciplinary discourse and, in that regard, we try to create opportunities to reach out to the overall college community,” Kitsakos said.
Panel members were selected based on their knowledge of the issue and how their areas of study would further enhance the audience’s understanding of transgender persons and the struggles they face.
“Director Anita Gonzalez and I discussed what the topics should be and how they should be approached,” Kitsakos said. “In the case of ‘Eugenia,’ it seemed natural to connect our production with the department of history, sociology and Women’s Studies.”
Gwenwald serves as a historian for the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn, N.Y. and was an important person in gathering necessary documents for the play, Kitsakos said.
“She was instrumental in gaining us access to documents, photographs and other ephemera about women who ‘passed’ as men in the 19th and early 20th centuries,” Kitsakos said.
Lewis conducted research alongside Gwenwald while the play was being produced at New Paltz. She said while the play shows an early look at transgender history, the research she and Gwenwald have done goes back to the 19th century.
“In the 1970s, there was a burlesque troupe where, instead of taking off your clothes, women would dress as men and it was all about acting like a man,” Lewis said. “There’s a long, long history of women in the theater dressing as men.”
Gwenwald said women have always been dressing as men but little documentation about what these women’s lives were like exist.
“The records that are available, one of the biggest things about it is the economics of it,” Gwenwald said. “Back then, you could make three times as much as a man than you could as a woman.”
The panel, the first of its kind in terms of topic and controversy, had an audience of about 40 to 50 members of the campus and village community. Kitsakos said the turnout pleased and surprised him.
“The size of the audience for this event was larger than many other interdisciplinary panel discussions we assembled,” Kitsakos said. “It might have been due to the subject of the play or the diversity of the panel.”