Eighteen is my new favorite number. It has to be. Mercena, my daughter, recently informed me that I could no longer claim five as my favorite. As with so many things I used to own, five now belongs to her. But I’m feeling very good about 18, and not just because Jewish tradition has 18 as synonymous with life.
In 2018, my life changed. In January, I accepted myself as a transgender woman. By November, I was out to the world. In between, some extraordinary things happened.
I have kept a journal for many years, off and on. My first week and a half of entries in January make for strange reading now. It’s as if my repression, knowing itself to be almost at breaking, wanted one last hurrah. The entries talk of brunch and games, agendas for TCG and Flux. There is no hint that the black hole at the center of my life was about to turn sun.
Then, on January 9, I woke up early in the morning and in my journal, wrote this:
I am a woman.
I am a trans woman.
My name is Gus Schulenburg, and I am a trans woman.
I had never written those words down before, let alone said them out loud. An electric feeling shook my body. Release, relief, life. Eighteen.
Two days later, I told Heather. The first thing she did was hug me. It was like I was drowning and she pulled me back to shore. I’d seen her give birth to Mercena in our home, her unfathomable strength. Now I felt that strength turn toward me with such grace. There would be many hard days to come, and they’re not over, but our love is strong. After all, eighteen is also the day of our wedding anniversary. 9/18, as if our separate lives were each a nine and together our life became whole.
That very same day, I watched ICE nearly drag my friend Ravi Ragbir away.
I went to the rally knowing that ICE had been targeting immigrant justice leaders. Hundreds of us gathered to make sure that wouldn’t happen. They tried. They snuck him out in an ambulance. We found out. I saw people throw themselves in front of the ambulance. They were arrested, including Father Juan Carlos Ruiz, a man of kindness and compassion, throne on the car below.
Why couldn’t I join them? Why couldn’t I step in front of the ambulance to stop them from taking away my friend? On social media, we put out a call and people answered. Ravi’s deportation was prevented. I realized the most important reason to build community isn’t for anything you plan. It’s to be ready when a crisis occurs. When they come for those you love.
I shaved my goatee. Mercena cried. It was the only time she’s cried about my transition. We begin to play games where I play female characters. She asks for these games, as if she knows. On January 20, we walk together in the Women’s March.
The month ends with Flux Theatre Ensemble voting to produce my play The Sea Concerto in May. It’s an older play that Heather resurrects as an option. We’d just lost a wonderful play because we couldn’t reach agreement with the playwright on casting. For the first time ever, Heather and Kelly (founding Creative Partners) agree to co-direct. I figure out the ending of the play in the middle of a TCG Books Marketing Meeting.
February marks the beginning of my hormone replacement therapy. The first time I take the pills, I feel again an intense joy, what some call gender euphoria. I’ll feel that over and over. It lets me know I’m on the right path. I begin laser treatment to remove my facial hair. It feels like a thousand rubber hands snapping into my face, and I love it.
February also means another rally for Ravi, and it is joyous to see him move through the crowds after we’d had so much fear of his deportation:
We take Mercena to see Ty Defoe’s beautiful Ajijaak on Turtle Island, one of the many plays she loved this year (and we loved with here). I’m grateful she’s bored with screens and enchanted by plays. I’m more grateful that she’s growing up witnessing brilliant work from Native artists, from trans artists, from queer people and people of color, and that we’re not abstractions, but people she hugs after the shows.
This was also the month where her love for art-making, which was always strong, began to feel central (captured in Heather’s brilliant quartet):
We have two family trips, a joyful one to her cousin Robert, and the worst vacation of our lives at Mohonk Mountain House. Parenting is hard. Parenting during the enormous pressures of gender transition is even harder. I begin to feel that I’ll need to be twice as good to deserve things as a trans person. Where this idea comes from, I don’t know. It remains difficult to shake.
March begins with terrible news: my old childhood summer home, the inspiration for The Sea Concerto, sinks into the ocean after a terrible Nor’Easter:
I bring the images to our design meeting for The Sea Concerto.
Heather and I are slow to share the news of my transition. She tells a few people in March, and I tell one: Elena Chang, my closest collaborator at TCG. We celebrate together. Her friendship sees me through many difficult moments at work.
And the difficult moments come. Monica Byrne, a writer and activist I’ve long admired, calls out TCG for not publishing the names of abusers in our #MeToo stories. I am part of the staff team tasked with responding to her concerns and to supporting TCG’s #MeToo programming more generally. One day, maybe we’ll tell our stories of that process. It was the most painful experience I’ve had working at TCG, and also the most important. Above all, I will always carry an abiding respect for Diep Tran, who carries the stories of survivors.
At the end of the month, I fly to Milwaukee for the Intersections Summit, where, with Emilya Cachapero, I co-lead a daylong session for what will become TCG’s In Equal Measure: A Workbook for Equity in Evaluation, Research, and Assessment. I hear collaborator Sara Mokuria describe equitable research as measuring a shift in power. The simplest way of saying something is often the hardest for me.
In April, we begin rehearsing The Sea Concerto. I’d written the lead role for a mixed race (black and white) actor. In every other way, my dear friend and creative partner Lori Elizabeth Parquet is right for the role. After a beautiful and complicated conversation about colorism, mixedness, and representation, we decide to hold auditions first. Lori’s decision to make space for others is one more reason I love and respect her.
And she’s right. Morgan McGuire is perfect from the moment she first auditions. I have the joy of working with Emily Hartford as an actor for the first time in a Flux play. I worry she’ll be too kind to play Penny. She surprises me. I watch John Lenartz as Chappy perform a scene so perfectly in rehearsal that director Kelly and I still talk about it in awed tones. How does greatness like that come and go? You can only make space for it.
Mercena does her own storytelling. We craft together over twenty different tales of Orlock Morlock the Evil Vegetable Wizard and Ella the Flying Bunny Who Was a Twin Dragon. Here’s a picture from an adventure with a Water Fairy.
We suspect dairy as the culprit in the Parent Torture Game that was her cruel and mercurial GI system. Those horrors culminate in an MRI that thankfully comes back clean. Another great gift of 2018: our child getting regular.
In May, The Sea Concerto opens. A play about my family and the loss of creative voice. I have lost my creative voice. I used to write three to five new full-length plays a year. Since Mercena’s birth, I’ve only written two. Yes, I did finish a novel that our turned out to be two novels, but I am a playwright if I am anything else.
This production gave me back my voice.
Thank you Corey, Greg, Emily, John, Morgan, and Alisha. Thank you Will, Kia, Johanna, Jodi, Gabe, Jaclyn, Matt, Lauren, Sienna, Isaiah, Megan, Caspin, E.L., Najiyah, Karila, Asa, Becky, and Rachael.
Thank you, Kelly and Heather.
Thanks to everyone who came to see it, especially my family, and most especially Mercena, who emerged from the show with a crush on Morgan and eyes alive with life:
That a play of mine could make her look like that is an unsayable happiness.
And as soon as the show opens, I leave town for the Twin Cities, for the only event that could pull me away from the run.
At the June 2017 meeting of TCG’s Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Institute, one of our participating theatres walked out of a meeting. They walked out for the right reasons. The space wasn’t safe for them. At the time, the rupture felt irreversible.
Yet there we were, flying to American Indian Cultural Corridor, to share work and meals with New Native Theatre. Thanks to the generous invitation of Rhiana Yazzie, we witnessed their courageous production of Native Woman the Musical. In particular, I am moved by Toni Stillday’s ritual performance of healing from abuse. The next day, the Institute participants circle with the cast. We spend all day together. I feel the deep healing of Indigenous feminist cultural protocols.
“Now it’s medicine,” her daughter answered.
Before The Sea Concerto closes, I have my first real new idea for a play with roles for Lori, Morgan, John, and Isaiah Tanenbaum. It’s called Operating Systems.
I learn that artEquity, our partners in the second cohort of the EDI Institute, will not be participate in the next meeting. They are acting in solidarity with those protesting TCG and American Theatre’s actions with the #MeToo stories we’ve received. I support their solidarity, and TCG’s evolving process, and work with Elena to figure out a new plan for the Institute gathering only a few weeks away.
On June 9th, my Great Aunt Mary passes away at 99 years old. Nine plus nine equals eighteen. She ran triathlons into her late 80s. May we all have such endurance.
I think about endurance as I fly to St Louis and have an opening team dinner with the core conference staff: Elena, Hannah Fenlon, Devon Berkshire, Nissy Aya, and Callan Gies. Women I love and deeply respect. Only Elena knows my whole self. After drinks and jokes, the conversation turns to our fears. I am too afraid to tell them. Instead, I share a poem by Mary Oliver that ends:
the fox came down the hill, glittering and confident,
and didn’t see me—and I thought:
so this is the world.
I’m not in it.
It is beautiful.
At the last minute, we have local restorative justice activists Tabari Coleman and naomi warren join the Institute. Elena and I facilitate with Claudia Alick and Annalisa Dias. They are extraordinary collaborators. Somehow, we make it through the day, and rather than feeling like disaster, it feels like progress. I’m so exhausted it almost feels like a miracle.
That’s all before the Conference itself begins. So many important things flash by in a moment. Two different #MeToo Town Halls, four different sessions I’m co-leading, the execution of our new anti-harassment policy, and grace pouring down like water from the stage of poet Naomi Shihab Nye.
But for me, the 2018 National Conference will always be about the protest at the MUNY. I feel such gratitude for the courage and strategic clarity of the protest organizers. I feel energizing pride at how our TCG staff team rallied with moral clarity in support.
Elena says she’s going to join the protest. I remember the shame of not stepping in front of the vehicle taking Ravi away. I ask if I can join her. She says yes.
Life life eighteen life.
The conference is somehow over.
For a long time, Mercena has told herself stories out loud in the dark of her bedroom to fall asleep. “My brain is always going ‘say say say say,'” she tells me.
July is the month she stops. I don’t know why. We are such mysteries. She wakes up on the 4th to watch the fireworks. With awe, she tells us: “they will fall in the grass and I will look at them all in my dream.”
We escape to Nantucket. The beach is hard for us. I love the ocean. I would swim it for hours every day if I could. But my body is different now. I wear baggy long-sleeve shirts and sneak my in-between body into the ocean. My parents visit. We have the best time together that I can remember. The next time I see them I’ll be out as my true self. But I don’t know that yet. And who can dwell on the future when this smile is your present?
The month ends with a celebration of Sandra Morgan, Mercena’s MomMom. This picture summarizes Mercena’s feelings on the subject:
One of the many great gifts of 2018 was how my relationship with MomMom deepened.
August begins and ends with a deluge. First, we see a performance of Twelfth Night in the Park just before a deluge begins. The rain it raineth every day.
Mercena turns four, which prompts this memorable exchange:
The month ends as it begins, with a great deluge of water. This time, it was from my own body.
I head to a TCG Retreat at the beautiful Ryder Farm, where we focus on our EDI work. A conversation takes a difficult turn. As my colleagues leave for lunch, I find myself slipping into a well of grief I hadn’t known was there. I feel as though I’ll never escape being a man, that no mater what steps I take in my medical transition, I’ll never be free. I cry. I weep, and for the first time in a long time, I can’t stop. I try and try but can’t stop. I cry all through lunch and can’t stop.
I stumble down to the pond. I splash cold water in my face. It shocks me out of my tears. I calm down.
I guess it’s just grief. Grief for the girl I’ll never get to be. Grief for the boy I was and am no more. Grief for only one life and one body. Grief like a hand reaching into the dark and not finding any bottom. Grief life eighteen eighteen life grief. Sarah Bellamy’s compassionate facilitation of our Retreat helps bring me back.
September means Jewish holidays which means school holidays which means playground sprinklers.
So. Many. Playground. Sprinklers.
I know there were non-sprinkler things that happened, but it’s hard to remember. I feel scattered. I hear the Shofar blast and for a moment believe I don’t need to be perfect to come out. I could come out now. Can I come out now?
American Theatre publishes our #TheatreToo issue. It feels like the end and the beginning of something. It features the voices of survivors, naming names and telling their stories. Katy Lemieux’s essay overwhelms me. How her investigation of predator impacted her relationship with her dying father. This is one more cost of abuse, of oppression. The loss of time, time with those we love, time to love. Maybe we are at the end of pretending that loss is acceptable, and the beginning of healing all that loss.
Teresa and Adrian’s leadership on this issue, and their response to the MUNY, reconnect me to the place I’ve called home for so long. Their love and acceptance on my coming out seals the deal. I am all in with TCG.
Then, later in the month, I learn my former TCG colleague and beloved friend Salma Zohdi has received her O1 Artist Visa and can continue living and working in the U.S. My role in supporting this is one of the things I’m most proud of in this overwhelming year. Another wound heals.
Meanwhile, my blood levels are good but they could be better. My doctor ups my dosage. I am feeling stuck.
Then it’s October, and things start happening. We tell Mercena. We read her the book Red: A Crayon’s Journey. A blue crayon has a red label, so everyone expects him to be red. He tries. He isn’t very good at it. People try to help him, but he’s still not good at it. Then, almost by accident, he draws something blue. He’s great at it. He realize he’s blue! Everyone celebrates. I am like that, I say. I am a girl on the inside but look like a boy on the outside. I’m going to change my outside to match my inside.
She still loves me, and an iceberg of fear melts away.
We start the process of telling other family members. The hope is to tell them all in person. Then the Trump administration attempted to define transgender people out of existence. I can’t wait any longer. I can’t be complicit in my own erasure. I start video chat and calling people I love. This isn’t the way I want this go. This is the way it has to happen.
Flux decides to produce Operating Systems. In classic Flux fashion, we tell them about our transition after we vote on the play. We accidentally mess up another joyous announcement, which we learn later: Becky and Will are having a baby! Life eighteen life…
Mercena and Heather carve a pumpkin. Out of nowhere, Mercena starts to dance around it, called by the Old Goddesses and Gods:
She is gathering our family’s power. And we will need it.
Because in November, we come out.
We email all the many people we love we wish we could’ve told another way. We speed shop. Heather helps me find a bra for my trans body. I come out at the Institute meeting. Then, on November 9, ten months to the day that I came out to myself, I come out to the world. The support overwhelms me. I still have emails that need replies, calls to return.
But first I get through the Institute meeting. We gather at Judson Memorial Church, where we invite Ravi and New Sanctuary Coalition to discuss sanctuary practice. In this strange and beautiful year, my coming out is inextricably linked with my immigrant justice activism. It gives me great strength to feel this solidarity. And it’s why I tried to make my Fall Forum coming out about more than myself. I now understand you cannot truly fight for the liberation of others if you deny your own.
The November elections. Another hope.
For a few more weeks I wear men’s winter gear to avoid stares in the streets. Then, I can’t take it anymore. We go jacket shopping and Heather gives me a purple hat knitted by her sister Cathy. Now I am out everywhere.
It is beautiful. It is also very fast, faster than we planned. The reasons are good. But we are dizzy. We need to rest, catch our breath, check in with our bodies and each other. Thanksgiving in California gives moments of deep reflection that only a tree house in the Redwoods can. Heather takes the first picture of me I’ve ever loved completely:
We stumble into December. I catch up on a hundred things I’m behind on. For the first time, I hear a trans actor read a trans role I’ve written. It unlocks a hunger for more trans people in my life, more trans voices in my plays, in all plays, on all stages. We celebrate Hanukkah in New York City and Christmas on Cape Cod. My mother gives me my grandmother’s jacket and necklace. She calls me her daughter. I walk to Milway Beach and see that our Sandy Neck house has risen again. On the third day, my body collapses from allergies and a cold and a year. I am still getting better. I am finishing this post at 4am.
We return home. We cook. We go out to restaurants. We make theatre. We call our representatives. We sleep. We complain. We argue. We make up. We don’t do the dishes. Then we do them. We buy pants. We go to the Hall of Science. We go to the playgrounds.
We live our lives. We live our life. We just live our life.
So eighteen is my new favorite number. But I see great things in nineteen.
So this is the world. I am in it. It is beautiful.