After Leelah Alcorn’s death, a timely encore for Rebecca Kling’s ‘Something Something New Vagina’

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January 6, 2015 © WCPO/Scripps

Rebecca KlingLike the rest of America outside of Cincinnati, Rebecca Kling, who lives in Chicago, learned about Leelah Alcorn through bursts of social media.

She read the suicide note Alcorn published on Tumblr, which since has been removed, and empathized as few others could with Alcorn’s words that she feels “like a girl trapped in a boy’s body.”

By her own words, Kling’s path from male to female was lined with “incredible privilege”— supportive parents and friends and a stable home in Evanston, Ill. But among other thoughts and feelings brought to the surface by Alcorn’s death, Kling wondered what might have been for Alcorn had she seen any of Kling’s one-woman shows devoted to her journey from Jared, her birth name, to Rebecca Kling.

Kling’s latest one-woman show, “Something Something New Vagina,” which she performed to packed audiences this past summer through the Cincinnati Fringe Festival, returns for encore performances Jan. 9-10 at the Know Theatre in Cincinnati’s Over-The-Rhine.

“It’s heartbreaking how familiar her words felt to me,” Kling said during a conversation by phone. “Part of what was also heartbreaking was (Alcorn) didn’t seem to believe there were any role models for her, and part of my visceral reaction was wanting to reach through the screen and say ‘oh, but there are.’”

Kling devotes her show to the physical, psychological and surgical specifics of her gender reassignment surgery in December 2013. Kling performs the show all over the country. Her return to Cincinnati was lined up months before Alcorn took her own life by walking in front of a tractor-trailer truck near Kings Island, just after 2 a.m. Dec. 28.

But the serendipity, Kling said, can’t help but inform the experiences for audiences this weekend.

“Leelah won’t make it into the actual text of the scripted performance, but I certainly expect her to come up in the talkback afterward,” she said.

Kling, who is 30 years old, points to reality star and actress Laverne Cox, writer and trans activist Janet Mock, the television program “Orange is the New Black” and the annual Trans 100 list as evidence Americans are more ready than ever to accept transgendered people.

On the legal front, Kling cites the outlawing of discrimination in healthcare, the many states that have passed marriage equality laws and President Obama’s explicit support for transgendered people as “undeniable evidence we’re moving in the right direction.”

What Does Male and Female Mean?

At the same time, Kling has varying degrees of patience for the backlash to Alcorn that has bubbled up through social media comment threads.

To those who wrap their criticisms in religion by stating “God doesn’t make mistakes,” Kling points to vaccinations and Lasik surgery among other augmentations and corrections most people undertake with no religious conflict.

“The ‘God doesn’t make mistakes’ argument usually comes in just across the line from wherever someone has decided is comfortable for them,” Kling said.

She has less time for people who insist on calling Alcorn and others by the names they were given at birth.

“One of the things teens are supposed to do is explore their identity and see what that means. If that means a new name, then great,” she said. “If you refuse (to honor that), that doesn’t mean you’re standing up for truth. That just makes you a jerk.”

Kling makes more room for the larger societal journey, blazed only to a point, she said, by the fight for gay-lesbian rights.

“Trans people are asking for something that’s hard and complicated, which is for people to really expand their ideas of what male and female mean,” Kling said. “The physical is a lot easier to point to—people see there were pills taken or an incision or a legal document that was changed. But how does it feel to ask people to call you something different?”

To clear one of the most common misperceptions among those unfamiliar with transgendered people, Kling said trans people rarely, if ever, experience “one of those light switch moments.”

Kling legally changed her name in 2009, four years before committing to her surgery.

“I’d been thinking or fantasizing ways to reshape my body. Surgery was something I’d thought about but it wasn’t the most pressing issue,” she said. “It felt more important socially—changing my name, having people calling me Rebecca. There’s no one right path for everyone. I wasn’t sure (about surgery), and part of it was the info we get from movies and TV and pop culture that it was radical. But as I started to reflect on what was important for me, as I’d started researching and talking with surgeons, surgery felt like the right next step.”

Show Is Primer For The Ages

In a review of the show during the 2014 Cincinnati Fringe Festival, this writer described “Something Something New Vagina” as equal parts performance and public service announcement—a primer for the ages on understanding the experience of gender reassignment surgery.

Early on, Kling normalizes our view of people who believe they are born into the wrong bodies by comparing her surety to that of the title character in “The Little Mermaid.” By the end, Kling has entirely disrobed, allowing audiences to see in full detail that, to the outside eye, she’s the prototype of the beautiful American woman.

The Q&A at the end is just as revealing.

When she performed in Cincinnati, during the first week of June, Kling was just seven months past her surgery that turned “my outie into an innie. My Kelsey Grammer became a Scarlet Johansson.” Her return show is a status update of sorts, 13 months after surgery.

“Yes, there’s a date for the surgery— Dec. 10, 2013, I had surgery. But even with that, that day I felt lousy. I wasn’t cheering from the rooftops on Dec. 11 that I was done,” Kling said. “Even today, I had a follow-up from that surgery because healing takes a long time.”

Kling intends her performance to “give a narrative, emotional understanding,” particularly for those who haven’t encountered a transgendered person. Still, she said, her audiences to this point have been self-selective and overwhelmingly pre-disposed to be supportive. She hopes Alcorn’s suicide brings people this weekend who might not have otherwise come to her performances.

“The core issue is acceptance, appreciation, the embrace that trans people have just as much of a right—and that we should honor that desire—to feel comfortable in our skin,” she said. “At the end of the day, we all want that, whether or not we’re trans—to wake up and look in the mirror and feel good about our bodies.”

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