Audio Interview with Bez Ely transcribed by Stephen Davidson and Ariel Cardoso Albuquerque
S: So hello. Hi. What is your name? And how would you like me to write down your gender?
B: That’s a good question. My name is Bez, and I like saying I’m a gender anarchist. I do stand-up comedy and my tagline is “Gender Anarchist stand-up comedian”. Say, I don’t really subscribe to gender, is how I describe my gender. *laugher*
I like the pronoun “They”; I like any gender-neutral pronoun. I quite like “Ze”, but because it’s not in common parlance, it’s easier to just say “They” and people are used to using it.
Although you still get issues with people saying that it’s impossible for them to use it for a single person, even though, when someone has a partner and they go, “Oh, my partner’s coming”- or if I say, “My friend’s coming”- people say, “Well, what are they called?” without thinking. They wouldn’t think, “Oh, I have to use ‘they’ in a singular way”, they just say ‘they’ automatically but suddenly when it’s conscious as apparently impossible.
But anyway, rant over. *laughter*
S: Cool. *laughter* What’s your improv experience so far?
B: Well say, obviously all of life is improvised. I didn’t practice this interview this morning. *laughter* My family’s always liked games, so as a family when we get together we tend to just do improv games without consciously thinking we’re doing improv games.
They will do you like Party Quirks, don’t know if you know that game, where we pretend to be different characters at a party but the host doesn’t know what your quirk is and has to guess it throughout the party. And the adverb games, where one of you goes out of the room and then comes back in and everyone else has chosen an adverb- like “crazily”- and then they say, “Can you clean your teeth in the manner of the verb?” and then that person has to guess like what that verb was.
I did quite a few workshops at the Nursery Theatre last year and I went to loads of Thursday Night Jams at the Nursery, which I really enjoyed, and then I went to Qi today- queer improv- which is really fun.
Thing is, I feel like a lot of comics don’t go and watch Comedy and a lot of improvisers don’t go and watch improv of but I just love watching it; and I think, if you don’t like watching Improv, I don’t know why you’re doing improv. *laughs* I find it just as fun watching it as performing it and I particularly love seeing something that’s based on my suggestion.
At Uni I did reviews of plays and The Oxford Imps were doing an improvised radio play and I was the only review that had come. I was the only audience member and it was a play based entirely on my suggestions and I was just like “This is amazing”, especially because no one else will ever see it and there’s entirely created a show for me. And yeah, I just get a massive kick out of seeing shows based on my suggestion even though it’s silly *faint laughter* especially cuz I think I’m quite silly.
I’d like to be in an improv group that performs regularly. But I have been easing into it, I did a beginner’s level 1 course at Hoopla earlier this year, which I really enjoyed, with Liam Brennan- which was amazing, he’s really good teacher.
S: How does, or if it does, how does your gender affect your improv?
B: It can be annoying when people assume gender in improv based on what I look like, but on the other hand, I feel more freed because it’s like “Okay, I’m playing a character” so it could just be that they’ve given you a name. I really like it.
If I perform a gender in a certain way in an improv scene and someone else- if I think I’m performing vaguely male in a scene and then the other person then naturally gives me a male name, I think that’s quite a nice space to have.
I like introducing gender anarchy or non-binary-ism into scenes, because you can have that as an idea. I also like trying to fight against heteronormativity in scenes, and I think it is good to, in a scene, give someone a name which might correspond to a gender other than that they identify with, because I think it’s interesting- Why not?
It doesn’t really matter and I think it’s fun to play different characters and different genders, but it does annoy me if I see lots of scenes that are very heteronormative and very much like “You must be male because you look male, you must be femme because you look female”, even marriage is normative. Just because we’re a couple, we must be married or want to get married, you know, I mean just like anything normative, I don’t like, but I’m an anarchist. Improv is so freeing, why would you just play out real life?
I have had negative experiences in improv where other people haven’t necessarily respected my request for a pronoun or have acted like that’s a bizarre idea or have laughed at me for it. Normally I’ve had very positive experiences, it’s been really helpful when teachers have used my name and pronouns, and then that kind of sets the tone if it’s in a class and normally if you’re just in a big group, there’s too many people for anyone to even know each other’s name or pronouns anyway, but sometimes I feel you know experienced people not really being open to that, and that’s been disappointing because I usually feel like improv is a safe space.
S: Yeah, I’m glad it’s usually a safe space. *laughter* I think that’s important. Do you consciously or purposefully play trans or non-binary characters?
I played Dungeons and Dragons before I came out as gender fluid last year. I made my Dungeon and Dragons character gender-fluid. So I called them Septimus Bellatrix Slytherin, but then it ends up getting shorten to Septi and “He”, but I mean if you really want to identify me, you can identify as non-binary transmasc (you know- ish) but yes, it was quite helpful to have a kind of fantasy improv-y type of environment to play that out.
It’s nice that my character gets called “He” for example, you know, because that feels affirming even though it’s my character and then you know, I could pretend that that meant they were calling me “He” or whatever, before I came out, and it was quite a good space to test it out.
Also, I was in a play last year, I was in Twelfth Night, and I played the character first as gender fluid and again, that was quite a good testing ground for improv away, it’s quite helpful.
I try to play gender fluid characters in D&D and Shakespeare, because Shakespeare is pretty good for that. It would be good to try and play trans characters as well. I’m just not really sure how that would work because I don’t know if it would come up, if you have to talk about specific topics, I guess.
Yeah, I think is easier to play gender fluid or non-binary characters in a way.
S: How do you feel about cisgender people playing trans or non-binary/gender fluid et cetera characters?
On telly, I think it’s much better- same for race, same for disability- for people who are disabled to be played by disabled people, and people who are trans to play trans people, but I think that goes without saying.
In improv, I guess it can be helpful though. It’s sort of like therapy, in a way, putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. I think as long as it’s done respectfully and with love, then it’s fine, if it was started to kind of stereotype, it would be really bad.
S: *laugher* Agree. I feel like the answer to a lot of these is “It depends”.
B: I was just – if you do it with love and it’s fine. Yeah, if you’re listening, if you’re exploring, because improv is all about losing the ego, right? And yeah, you know, it’s really helpful when you’re acting as well, to lose the ego, although it’s traditionally seen on stand-up comedy. But I think it’s really helpful because then you don’t mind if no one laughs, because you’re like “Who am I to expect laughter?” *laughter*
You know what I mean? Yeah, but so I just think it’s all about inhabiting another character. So inhabit other characters and you’ll become a more open person.
S: I agree. *laughter* What are some things that teachers and directors can do to make sure their classes are inclusive for Trans and non-binary people?
I think, I said at the beginning, whenever they talk about a person who’s trans or non-binary to make sure that they use their correct pronouns and that if they notice someone else isn’t, then maybe point that out to them gently, because often if you’re trans or non-binary you’re quite anxious, you don’t want to cause a scene, so you might just allow the wrong pronouns to be used, even though it’s making you really upset. And then you just might not come again. Do you know what I mean?
When I had an upsetting experience, it kind of put me off improv for quite a while because it’s difficult, especially if someone is normally in a safe space and then it stops feeling like one, you know- if you go somewhere which you were expecting to not be a safe space, then you kind of can accept a bit more; then you probably wouldn’t hang out there that often.
It’s just less shocking, I suppose, but you know at the end of the day like there’s always a mix of people in any scenario, and I think it’s just about teachers acknowledging that they might have to do that and not saying “Well, I don’t see what that has to do with anything. Why did you need to tell me that?”
And also if teachers can encourage scenes to be played which aren’t normative; what if they, you know, give people different genders to what they present as in a scene or play a scene with like a gay couple, or a bisexual character or just anything that’s non-normative. I think that’s really helpful because then everyone starts thinking more outside the box, and then it’s not unusual if someone plays a non-binary character or a trans character.
S: I like that. Thinking about media broadly, what are some examples of Trans and non-binary characters that you like or think are really accurate?
B: It would be lovely if there were non-binary characters. I think there might be some somewhere, but yeah, it would be really good if they existed.
Boy Meets Girl is quite good- it’s set in Newcastle. What I like about it is that it’s about a couple, one of whom is a trans woman, but that isn’t the focus. It’s a love story. The main issue is that he’s a lot younger than her, he’s worried about telling his parents but you know the age gap more than anything else, and it’s just quite nice that that isn’t the highlight of it, because I think often trans people are sensationalized and it’s like, “This is a show about a trans person” whereas the reason I watched it is because my partner at the time was a Georgie and he was like “Oh, this show set in Newcastle. Let’s watch this.” I mean, it wasn’t like “Let’s watch this thing about a trans person, and like, be all liberal” *laughter*
I like it when trans people get to just be humans and not “trans people” in a show and I think that [Boy Meets Girl] was quite good in showing certain negative ways trans people can be treated. There was someone they knew from their school, who didn’t know they were now trans, and was asking loads of inappropriate questions and the way that they presented, it was really obvious that it was inappropriate, all the questions that this person was asking- you know, in real life people can’t ask those questions and I think if they watch that show they might think, “Oh shit, actually that’s really invasive. Maybe I won’t do that.” I think it’s helpful for people to just take a moment and think “Would I have asked this of my friend? No? Why am I going to ask this person then?”
It was interesting in Orange is the New Black, the impact of being in prison and then not having access to hormones. I think that was quite a good social issue to raise. I do feel that often, trans women on telly are portrayed as very glamorous and I think it’s helpful like in Boy Meets Girl for trans women to look like everyday women who aren’t dressed to go out- if they’re going to work or whatever-because it gives like a really one-sided view of what being trans is like and it’s you know, even if you know trans people who aren’t like that, the media can even override your thoughts on that.
I’d like to see some trans men and non-binary people. The L Word was really disappointing when I watched it years ago. Their trans man is really misogynistic. I only really realized who I was last year/ this year, and I think watching that made me think “I can’t be a trans man because I’m not like him”, and also their portrayal of bisexuality was really bad; their portrayal of assigned male at birth who identified as a lesbian was awful.
Of course, it’s good to have media about the LGBTQ+ community but it can actually make you feel even more like alone if the people that you might identify with are portrayed in such a negative way that you’re like “Oh shit. I can’t be like that because everyone will hate me”. So yeah, it’s quite hard to find positive examples.
I’m watching One Day at a Time on Netflix, I haven’t got that far through it- I think there’s meant to be a non-binary character in the second season, but I’m on the first season at the minute. It’s very nice actually just because it’s not normative, it’s not a married couple and children. It’s a single mom with her mom in the household and their two children and that’s quite nice, because there’s more females than males, and then the daughter– spoiler- comes out as gay like partway through the first series, which again is just like quite nice, you know, it doesn’t happen in Friends, it doesn’t happen in How I Met Your Mother. And the fact that it’s a family is nice because I like multi-age things. I think a lot of events are quite one-age-y.
Basically, I’m not going to pretend that there’s representation of trans men or non-binary people. There isn’t. Please make it happen. I will say there’s a really good book, Trans Like Me, which was written by a non-binary person and I think came out last year or the year before, by C.N. Lester and is absolutely brilliant. And if you are a trans non-binary person, it’s a really good book to give to your friends to explain.
The first few chapters are kind of about the media, about how it can be more damaging to have media about trans and non-binary people that is wildly inaccurate, then it can to have none. People say “Oh, it’s great for trans people now because there’s so much visibility”- if all the visibility is negative, why is that good, if it’s all really stereotype? That’s not good actually.
Then there’s a chapter which is about finding your voice and how important language is and people say “Well, why do you need words to describe yourself?” And it’s because then it validates you, if you don’t have words then you’re othered. That’s unhelpful.
But also, how difficult it is being trans and non-binary, and therefore, you’d have to be pretty sure to do something that would mean you’re discriminated against on a daily basis. I’m just re-reading it, so I’m sure the other chapters are equally awesome, I just really recommend that book. *laughter*
S: What do you think that trans non-binary improvisers have to offer the scene?
B: I think, because you’re outside the gender binary, or even if you’re a binary trans person, because of the transitioning phase, I think it just makes you think more about gender and fluidity and things like that, and I just think that thinking outside of gender binary is really helpful in terms of thinking outside the binary in all aspects of life.
For example, not thinking that the only purpose in life is to get married and have children- although obviously people can do that. You shouldn’t assume when you meet someone that that’s something they want to do. You shouldn’t assume that someone, if they’re in a relationship, that they kiss or hold hands or even like to have sex, you know, because like everyone is different and it’s really cool if you don’t make any assumptions.
I mean, that’s the kind of the thing about inclusivity, as to not ever make assumptions and I think that’s really good in improv, then you can just throw things in there that other people won’t expect. Then it creates a more fun environment for people, and then it makes me feel more creative, and then they come up with crazy ideas and everyone just has a great time. *laughter*
S: Yes, strongly agree. Is there anything else you’d like to say and/or have people hear about gender and or improv?
B: I think improv is great, everyone should just do it, it should be prescribed for the NHS *laughter*
I think the Nursery is great, I haven’t had experience of the other groups, but I really like that they exist and that they do so many free things, like shows and workshops and jams. That’s like really nice.
I like the Socialist vibe of it, it’s about meeting up and not having to pay- I think again, it makes it inclusive to people that don’t have much money; obviously, the Nursery’s got scholarships and things as well for actual courses. I think that’s all really important.
On gender, there’s people saying: “Well, we should just abolish gender, so we don’t have to worry about gender”. It’s like, yes, we should work to abolish gender; yes, we should work to abolish racism; yes, we should work to abolish discrimination, but we currently live in a society where people are seen as having a race and are seen as having a gender and do experience discrimination.
You have to address that, you can have a two-pronged approach; you can have a non-binary approach, where you don’t just have one way of doing it, you have multiple ways of addressing a problem. And you think outside the box more.
So yeah, I think, on gender, whilst it’s a construct, and we can think about that and work to change that, and we definitely should and I’m currently trying to do that, whilst we live in a society which particularly in the UK, sees it as just two genders normally… People need to listen to people who are trans and non-binary, listen to our lived experience and think about what they can do to do to make things better.
But also, education would be really good, again, in schools- not all societies do just subscribe to two genders. Well, there’s more awareness of non-binary people now- although, in the Equalities Act, only binary trans people are recognized, non-binary people are not in there;
But in other cultures, there’s three genders and two spirits, and arguably you can say Eunuchs in the past were seen as a separate gender; it’s not necessarily that the third gender was treated well, but the concept of having more than two genders is not a new one, that’s just been invented randomly.
And obviously, intersex people exist and aren’t talked about, that kind of erasure of intersex people was quite bad. What I found from doing stand-up comedy about gender was I just had a few people say, “Oh, hi, I’m intersex. It’s amazing that you’ve done comedy on that, that you’ve given us visibility” and other people just saying: “I really liked what you did on bisexuality”. We did just a different thing that- it’s just really nice to think that people appreciate visibility because there is so little visibility.
Even with something like bisexuality, you know, because a lot of people for whatever reason think it’s not real *chuckles* It’s really unhelpful in 2019.
So yeah, like let’s fight to abolish gender, but let’s recognize that people face discrimination because of gender. *laughter*
S: Beautiful. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
B: No worries, don’t know if I overshared.
S: No, no such thing *laughter*