Interview with J. Deschene
J. Deschene is an actress, director, and singer living and working in the Greater Boston area. She began working in the theatre over ten years ago and has since shown no signs of slowing down.
J. was born in Melrose, MA into a very expressive family. This type of environment taught her very early that expression could be a powerful thing, and it is often said that she began singing before she could talk. Naturally, she took a great interest in theatre as a result, but did not even consider acting until her senior year of high school. Late though it may have been, the acting bug bit her at last and she has been hooked ever since.
In 2008, she was bitten by a new bug: directing. Since then, she has been enjoying and combining her three loves whenever. Companies she's worked with include Moonbox Productions, MIT Gilbert & Sullivan Players, Theatre@First, Open Theatre Project, Unreliable Narrator, as well as many others.
We recently sat down with local director and performer J. Deschene to talk about some of her experiences as a trans woman. Here's what she had to say.
BOC: When did you know you wanted to transition? Was your family supportive?
JD: For a long time, I just thought, "Whatever, I'll just never transition. I can keep this to myself and no one ever has to know." It wasn't until I was nearing my late 20s that I really decided that, if was ever going to live my fullest life, I had to start transitioning. My family, especially my mother, really didn't like it at first. She spent at least a solid year feeling very upset that I had "killed" her "little boy." I don't remember how or when she came around exactly, but everyone's all good with it now, except for the occasional slip in names or pronouns.
BOC: What sort of discrimination/misconceptions do you face? How do you deal with it?
JD: This might surprise a lot of people, but far and away, the most discrimination I get is from cis women. I'd say about 90 percent, without exaggeration. This is true both within and outside of the arts community. The sense I get is that some women in the arts don't trust me, because what they see is a man trying to move in on their territory. I've experienced this from some well-known, well-respected directors. I'm not completely sure it's intentional, but it can still be pretty heartbreaking. The best way I've found to deal with it is to keep in mind all of the support I have. I've been extremely lucky that, for every person who discriminates against me, there's at least one more who has validated and taken a chance on me. I just try to remember that and keep going.
BOC: How can people be allies to the transgender community?
JD: The best ways to be an ally are to listen and never assume. There are a lot of very well-meaning folks out there who really want to be good allies, but end up missing their marks and overstepping because they've drawn conclusions without really listening. Ask me if I'm offended before you decide I should be. Don't assume you know how, or even if I want to be represented. And when you do listen, take what I tell you as meaning only that. Don't draw any conclusions beyond the words I've spoken to you. Also, please understand that screw-ups are going to happen and there's no reason you should be less forgiving of yourself than I am of you. We're all sailing uncharted seas here, and it's not always going to smooth.
BOC: You're a great singer and performer. Did you also perform before transition? What challenges/hurdles (if any) did you face after transition?
JD: Thanks! Yes, I did perform before my transition. I was actually a tenor once upon a time, although I feel really weird and kind of uncomfortable talking about those roles now, even the successful ones. I describe them as being "a whole other life ago" because that's really how it feels. I guess I was lucky in that I faced fewer hurdles than some other folks might. In addition to singing tenor, I had been playing "drag" roles since I was 19, so it really wasn't hard for a lot of people to see me as a woman onstage.
BOC: Transgender people are not well represented in the music world (as characters in operas, etc). What can we do about this, and what avenues do you see developing?
JD: I think new works are going to be the key to wider representation. You can play around with the casting of some of the established classics, but they're not really intended to tell the trans story. I think we absolutely should keep playing with the classics, but new works that utilize trans voices to tell the story of the trans experience are the only things that will really do the trick in the end. The opera world is starting to see this and do something about it. Fresh new companies and productions seem to be sprouting up and we have to make sure they keep going and growing.