reported by Derek Bedry
(originally published March 29 at www.vancouver.openfile.ca)
Miss Universe Canada officials said they booted transsexual Vancouver woman Jenna Talackova from the competition earlier this month because she lied about being born a female. But while debate rages over the pageant’s discrimination against transgendered people, some activists and academics argue that she didn’t lie at all.
In her application to the pageant, 23-year-old Talackova apparently violated a 2003 clause requiring that participants be naturally born female. Her ouster has generated international interest, including a petition started in Brooklyn, New York, to have her reinstated. Canadian transsexual performer Nina Arsenault, who in February wrapped a Vancouver run of her one-woman show The Silicone Diaries, said she doesn’t think Talackova lied.
“I think that as transsexual women we are born women,” Arsenault said. “I think when women are born, they’re born in lots of different types of bodies. Fat bodies, thin bodies, bodies of different races. Women are born sometimes without an arm or without a hand. It doesn’t mean that they’re not women. What makes you a woman is what’s in your heart and your mind.”
Arsenault said the pageant’s requirement strongly implies that trans women aren’t real women—a hypocritical position, given the overtly constructed version of femininity it displays.
“Women don’t come out of the womb looking like they do in a Miss Universe pageant,” she said. “Let’s acknowledge how that type of femininity is based on artifice. So why do you have to be born a woman to do it?” She added the pageant should include trans women as a way of celebrating that such a gender performance is not natural, but an art form.
University of British Columbia gender studies instructor Carellin Brooks agreed Talackova’s presence in the pageant would destabilize conservative views of femininity. “If anyone can enact this performance of gender, it’s really irrelevant,” Brooks said. She added the government seems to validate transsexuals by accommodating changes to passports and identification.
However, she said it’s reductive to insist that the experience of being a trans woman is the same as that of biological women. “It’s a much more complex conversation,” she said. “Trans people may say ‘I’ve always been a woman,’ but other people’s experience of them is not of a female up to when they have sexual reassignment surgery … [Being trans] is a different experience from being born a woman. When do we say they should be treated as women, and when do we treat them differently?” She cited difficulties trans women face playing women’s sports and volunteering as rape counsellors.
Although the B.C. Civil Liberties Association had not released an official position by the time of publication, policy director Micheal Vonn said the pageant rejects plenty of applicants for various discriminatory reasons. “They disqualify you if you’re pregnant, if you’re married,” Vonn said. “And if you’re four-foot-nine you probably aren’t getting in.” She added though the competition is antiquated, it isn’t clear that participating in a beauty pageant is a right.
What is clear is that, in a society where a broad spectrum of gender expression is increasingly accepted, traditional beauty pageants appear increasingly retrograde. Arsenault pointed out that she knows many trans women who have had full sex changes but live as “butch” women, or who keep their male genitalia, or who simply don’t identify as trans, pointing out Talackova’s reference to herself in a video from Thailand’s Miss International Queen 2010 pageant as “a woman, with a history.”
Whether or not the experience of being a natural woman is the same as having a feminine mind, a world where gender is increasingly self-determined may be simply incompatible with an organization that prescribes what femininity must look like.
Written by Mark Robins
(originally published at www.gayvancouver.net, TUESDAY, 07 FEBRUARY 2012)
Nina Arsenault says she is an open book and it’s difficult to argue that fact with someone who each night chronicles their transition from a self-described awkward man into a 36D-26-40 bombshell in Silicone Diaries, set to play The Cultch later this month.
Three questions into our interview, Arsenault proves that she is that open book as I dance around the one question about her 60-plus surgeries that I think (perhaps naively) everyone else is too polite to ask: does she still have her penis?
“I still have it,” she replied without hesitation. “I have considered it. I still consider it but I have had so many surgical procedures I don’t know if I could do another. I read once in the Toronto Star that I refuse to have a sex change but I haven’t refused to have a sex change, I just haven’t got there yet or I don’t know how I will deal with that yet”.
Besides, Arsenault says, the whole question of what remains ‘down there’ is really only important to two people: herself and her boyfriend.
Arsenault’s transition from Rodney to Nina began in earnest sometime around 1998 and has since included the over 60 surgeries with a price tag of $200,000. To fund her surgeries Arsenault took to the streets as a sex worker for eight years, a time in her life that she looks back at quite fondly. “I had a blast … I have nothing bad to say about being a sex worker.”
When asked if she would consider a return to that previous life, Arsenault says that while those days are behind her she proudly acknowledges that they were great training grounds for her current role as a performance artist.
“I always talk about how being a whore was the best acting training you can get … especially when you’re stripping. What makes him stay [to watch] is if he feels like he has real intimacy and authentic passion. That’s an incredible incentive to keep things vital at twenty dollars [every three minutes],” she laughed.
While describing stripping as some of the best acting training she has received, she also points to the endless number of fantasies that were demanded by clients in shaping her as a performer. “Not only did I have to keep it real, I had to read the guy and be the fantasy he wanted to be and bring it to life.”
Besides using the acting training she learned as a sex worker, Arsenault tells the story of her eight year transition through a variety of multi-media elements including actual video of her undergoing surgery, something she says was necessary for her to tell the full story.
“It is quite visceral to watch but quite artfully done and my intention is not to shock people with it,” she explained. “If you’re going to do a play about 60 cosmetic procedures, it is going to be about cutting. If I only presented the beautiful side of plastic surgery I would be glamorizing it, but my intention is to show it for all its sides.”
Sometimes characterized as having been obsessed with her transformation and surgeries, Arsenault prefers to look at them as “passions with a capital p”, something she hopes audiences will think about for themselves as they leave her show.
“Everyone has that thing they are passionate about whether it is partying, sex, alcohol, religion, violence or politics. Mine happens to be beauty,” she concluded. “I want people to leave [the show] knowing that the thing they are passionate about or obsessed with is part of what makes them great. We are all here to live big lives and live passionate existences. That means sometimes going the dark side of our personalities but we must do that so we can go back into the light and realize why we are here.”
CO-PRODUCED BY BUDDIES IN BAD TIMES THEATRE
Tickets are available at www.thecultch.com or 604-251-1363.
The Cultch is located at 1895 Venerables Street, Vancouver.
The Silicone Diaries plays Feb 14-19, 21-25: 8PM. Single tickets from $21.
Post-show talkbacks: Feb 15, 16, 21, 22
“Beyond acceptable, beyond reasonable, Nina validates and celebrates choices that are mythic in proportion, and human in depth of feeling.” – Judith Rudakoff, Dramaturg
“Nothing last season was as totally memorable as Nina Arsenault’s self-revelatory portrait of a man who underwent countless surgeries to become the “perfect woman.” She’s back again and if you miss it this time, then you’re just being stupid.” – Toronto Star
**** (out of four) “profoundly moving” – Toronto Star
Most of the year’s work in review. Click on the thumbnails to see images and brief descriptions of the works and the works-in-progress.
What will 2012 hold for Toronto? Will we see more service cuts, higher property taxes and a playoff berth, maybe, for the Maple Leafs? We all have our own visions for the city, both what we like and what we’d like to see changed immediately. In the spirit of new beginnings and in the age-old tradition of starting over, we asked some of our favourite local personalities what resolutions they’d like the city to adopt in the new year.
***My resolution is below. To read what 15 other Canadians said -including filmmkaer Bruce LaBruce, city councillor Doug Ford and rapper Kardinal Offishall said check out: http://news.nationalpost.com/2011/12/31/be-it-resolved-resolutions-for-the-city-of-toronto-and-its-people/
Nina Arsenault (performance artist): “Everyone has to get as much breath into their bodies as possible through exercise, singing, athletics, yoga, meditation or whatever works for you. Having more breath will give you more empathy, more sensuality, more lightness, more brilliance, more outside-the-box thinking, more ferocity, more love, more libido, more stillness. You will have more life. Life will be more.”
painting: Deep Breath by Melanie Weidner 2005 www.ListenForJoy.com
I will be talking about the realities, the dangers and the complexities of silicone injections from the perspective of someone who has had them for ten years. Although I have covered this topic before in my play, The Silicone Diaries, this topic also merits a lengthy frank back-and-forth discussion outside of a conversation about art and artistic theory, particularly with youth in transition.
What is SOY?
Supporting Our Youth (SOY) is an exciting, dynamic community development program designed to improve the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and transgendered youth in Toronto through the active involvement of youth and adult communities. We work to create healthy arts, culture and recreational spaces for young people; to provide supportive housing and employment opportunities; and to increase youth access to adult mentoring and support.
in Istvan’s words:
“inspired by [Nina's] possessive demons and all the pain, misery and crime that comes with it…”
The paintings are a part of an on-going multi-stage project that Istvan and I are working on together called The Crime of Embellishment / The Book of Neoism. I posted the earlier works (below as well as an artist’s bio of Istvan, as below, in a separate entry)
For purchase contact Istvan Kantor Monty Cantsin? Amen! use this email:
CLICK ON THE THUMBNAILS TO SEE THE FULL IMAGES.
Because I’ve had the privilege of performing the same autobiographical play a number of times I could see how the play would shift during my training as a performer. The text was the same, but I was different because I had more life experiences, more acting experience but also because I have more breath in my body because of the training I have done with my voice teacher Fides Krucker.
Having more breath means the stories are rendered with more scope and scale.
Acting teachers and voice coaches know that it takes an actor more breath to perform Shakespeare or any kind of heightened poetic text. You can be as authentic as you want, but if you only have a small amount of breath in your body you will only be able to bring a small amount emotionally to the words which are poetic, not casual. Our emotional life exists on the breath. It is the breath.
But, theatrical genre isn’t just an aesthetic. It isn’t just a convention of form. IT IS A WAY OF EXPRESSING TRUTH. IT IS THE FORM OF EXPERIENCE.
This brings a question to the forefront of my practise as an artist.
We can write and live our lives with the vitality and scale of a sitcom. But could our lives be as expansive as the Greek plays? Shakespeare? Beckett? All these theatre makers were inscribing their truths. They weren’t just being theatrical.
If you are performers or not, I urge you to continue voice work, body work, breath work or if that doesn’t resonate with you then athletics or yoga or meditation, whatever you can do to get more breath into your body
To be inspired is literally to be filled with breath.
The more breath in your body means the more life in your body –> more sensation, more emotion, more awareness, more heart, more empathy, more sensuality, every moment becomes heightened.
from Monty’s mouth:
“Implant Media announces: THE CRIME OF EMBELLISHMENT –We (and Istvan Kantor Monty Cantsin? Amen!) started a major project with Nina Arsenault, Neoist transsexual criminal, android creature, cyber model, body reconstructionist, performance artist, shape shifter…that will feature Nina as the embodiment of Neoism, goddess of contemporary mythology,a cyber diva of Neoist propaganda reaching out without limits of communication,…
pls look up her site for more introduction where you’ll also find information about my new paintings inspired by Nina’s plastic surgery campaign, available for sale in order to cover production costs of “Crime of Embellishment” (the video)
ISTVAN KANTOR A.K.A. MONTY CANTSIN? AMEN!
Istvan Kantor was born in Budapest where he studied medical science. In 1976 he defected to Paris and from there he immigrated to Montreal. He also lived in Portland, New York, Berlin and presently is a resident of Toronto where his three children, Jericho, Babylon and Nineveh were born in the 90’s.
His main subjects are the decay of technology and the struggle of the individual in technological society. His work has been described by the media as intellectually rebellious, anti-authoritarian, as well as technically innovative and highly experimental. He likes to break things and set things on fire. He uses conflict and crisis to present his cause, often placing himself in the center of danger and uncertainty. His radically changing creative ambitions are always related to his living environment and social situation.
Throughout the past three decades he has been arrested and jailed many times for his guerilla interventions in museums. He also received many prestigious awards among them the Telefilm Canada Award for Best Canadian Film and Video in 1998, the Transmediale Award in 2001, in Berlin, the Governor General’s Award for Visual and Media Arts in 2004, in Canada, and the EMAF 2009 Award at the European Media Art Festival in Osnabruck, Germany.
Here’s some photos of Monty Cantsin – performance documentation, Neoist propaganda, self-portraits.