Gendering Improv

07/08/2014 02:10 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

When I was 18, I auditioned for my university's improv comedy team on a whim - in a desperate attempt to both find friends and challenge myself with something new. I had just moved to San Francisco, had yet to start transitioning, and had just been relegated to living in an all-female dorm where I felt - to say the very least - uncomfortable. It's ironic that, at a time when I felt painfully self-critical, I decided improvising in front of audience would be the solution to my woes. Unexpectedly, improv taught me it was O.K. to reinvent myself.

When an improv scene calls for you to have an object - like a table - that you clearly do not have with you on stage, the very purpose of improv is to create the table for yourself, to define its size and purpose, and to confidently assign the table's place in the scene. Similarly, even if you don't have any self-confidence or don't have any clear sense of identity, your purpose as an improviser is create self-confidence and create identity.

For the first two years on my improv team, I identified as female. I hadn't even really conceptualized being transgender and was largely living day-to-day in a gender-centric world that felt a little bit like an alien spaceship. But when I did improv, I felt differently. In any given scene I could be angry, ecstatic, or completely aloof. I could be an aging grandmother, a teenage boy, or even an inanimate object. As my discomfort with my identity grew, improv gave me the opportunity to create a character or place where I felt I belonged.

After three years on my improv team, I started transitioning. I never thought transitioning would affect my performance as an improviser, but it quickly did. The ease I previously felt in flinging my identity aside started to slip away. In inheriting new masculinity - or at least perceived masculinity - I suddenly started to feel like I couldn't commit to new characters. I felt like there was an expectation for me to be a man - or at the very least be masculine- in all of my scenes. When I played female characters, I felt cripplingly self-conscious. As if somehow playing a female character was negating my transition.

Before transitioning, improv was comforting. As the world started to perceive me as male, doing improv provoked acute self-awareness. The realization that, in adjusting my gender presentation to be more comfortable day-to-day, I was actually losing an important part of my identity was incredibly distressing. After graduating from college in 2013, I stopped doing improv, unsure about how I would be able to approach my favorite pastime as male.

After a year of doing a lot of thinking and not much improvising, I've reached some conclusions. Not surprisingly, I feel like part of my identity has been hijacked by a world of gender normativity that I have just never been able to grasp. But I've realized that, in improv, I can define my own gender, even when our hyper-masculine society pushes me to doubt myself. I've realized that I don't really care about how men are supposed to act, because I don't want to be that kind of man that buys into binaries of behavior anyway. Finally, I've realized that I need to keep doing improv because every time I feel uncomfortable, I'm pushed to keep defining myself on my own terms.

A few weeks ago, I started taking an introductory improv class with a local troupe and feeling out how to use my (considerably deeper) voice to build the scenes and characters that used to consume so much of my time.