On Robert Paterson and David Cote’s “Three Way”
“I am a human; nothing that is human is alien to me.” Composer Robert Paterson cites this line from the Roman playwright Terence in defense of his choice, along with librettist David Cote, to write an opera with characters that don’t share his demographic background. “I think there’s too much of that these days,” Paterson writes, “the notion…that if you’re a straight, white, cisgendered [sic] male of European descent, you can’t write a story about lesbians, [or] a postgender couple.” The opera in question is “Three Way,” a triptych of one-act stories about sex that had its New York premiere recently at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. In an interview printed in the program, Paterson doubles down on this view, describing the notion that “art can only be created by people who are the characters” as “false logic.”
Obviously, the claim Paterson (and, by association, Cote) is pushing back against isn’t that cis men are physically incapable of writing trans characters—plenty of cis authors have written trans characters in the past, after all—but that they are unqualified to do so; it’s not that they can’t write trans characters, it’s that they can’t write trans characters well. In the interview, Cote says that “any worthwhile art is born of empathy,” and in NewMusicBox, Paterson reassures readers that “[they] did [their] research”: “If something didn’t ring true to the characters or the rules of our world, we tried to address it. . . . [W]e wanted people who have had these experiences leaving the theater feeling like these stories might actually be somewhat plausible.” Taking them on their own terms, then, their position is that with enough empathetic research, creators who occupy privileged positions in society can portray marginalized characters in a way that resonates with the experiences of marginalized individuals who come to see the show.
On its face, this isn’t an inherently implausible claim. Unfortunately, it is not one that is supported by the operatic work that the two have produced. Whatever Cote and Peterson set out to do, they have created a show that is, in fact, an excellent illustration of the dangers that come when cis authors set out to write trans characters. When it comes to the depiction of trans lives on stage, “Three Way” is a travesty.
Setting aside a sequence in the second act that reinforces the transmisogynistic idea that it is hilarious and humiliating for a man to wear a dress, the third act, “Masquerade,” is where issues of trans representation really come to the fore. The premise of the act is that four couples have come together to have some casual non-monogamous sex in a swinger’s party. Three of the couples are comprised exclusively of cis people, but the fourth contains two trans people, Kyle and Tyler, who are marked from their first entrance as being fundamentally strange.
The cis characters are dressed in stylish, somewhat retro fashions hearkening back to 1950s white suburbia, with variations to provide characterization. Kyle and Tyler, on the other hand, are dressed identically in starkly tailored suits and futuristic bolo ties, with identical glasses and haircuts to boot. This indistinguishable sameness is re-enforced by their musical entry: almost all of their introductory lines are sung in exact unison, which is not the case for any of the other couples. These choices not only imply that transgender people are strange, but also that all of us can be lumped together in one homogenous, undifferentiated mass. The cis characters are specific individuals; the trans characters are just trans.
The content of Kyle and Tyler’s entrance is also cause for concern. They introduce themselves as a “postgender pansexual couple,” and the music leaves space for the audience to chortle, as it does again after the baffling line “Hetero. Gay. There’s always a third way. Or a fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh way!” I’m still not sure what that line means, but the way it is delivered suggests that nonbinary genders and sexualities don’t deserve to be taken seriously. The two complain that “[swinger’s parties] can be so hetero”—an irritation that’s very relatable—but they then seem very happy to explain the basics of gender theory at length to Larry, an older cis man at the party who is dismissive and interrupting, being primarily concerned with not doing anything that might challenge his masculinity or heterosexuality. Trans people are allowed to poke light fun at unspecified heteros somewhere else, but they must be impeccably patient and polite when interacting with the cis people actually in the room.
I’m willing to cut some slack for Kyle’s terminological definitions—which struck me as muddied, like they were being regurgitated by someone who had looked them up once but only half-remembered them—because different trans people have such different preferences here, but I’m less willing to do so when it comes to the repeated misgendering that Kyle and Tyler are subject to. Neither of them specifies their gender beyond “postgender,” nor do they specify their pronouns (I will be using “they” to refer to each of them, as that seems the most neutral option), but it’s clear that both of them are outside of the gender binary. And yet after an encounter that involved Tyler, Larry sings that he was just in a room with “two ladies,” and later when Larry’s wife Connie is beginning an encounter with Kyle, she sings that she’s open to sleeping with “a woman or a man,” despite Kyle’s explicitly being neither of those. It would be one thing if these invalidations were recognized as the microaggressions that they are—I’m definitely not claiming that no one should ever mistreat a trans person on stage—but they aren’t. Cote and Paterson don’t realize that anyone is doing anything wrong.
The depiction of trans characters in this work wasn’t entirely a barrage of confusing and unrelatable misrepresentations. Kyle has a few moments where they describe feeling invisible, where they yearn to transcend their body, and in their longest aria, they grapple with the disconnect between their philosophy and the reality of their desires. Cote doesn’t ever use the words “dysphoria” or “dissociation” in the libretto, but in combination with Paterson’s music, these moments captured something of the feeling of being a young dysphoric trans person struggling to connect with a body that doesn’t feel like home.
Unfortunately, that moment of resonant poignancy was followed by the most astonishingly transphobic incident in the entire work. After Kyle’s big aria, Connie comes out into the living room fresh from an invigorating encounter. Kyle waves at her invitingly, and she joins them on the couch. With no warning or negotiation, she then gropes Kyle’s crotch before grabbing their head and shoving it between her legs, shortly thereafter forcing their face between her breasts. This is sexual assault. Connie does not know whether Kyle is interested in any of this, and makes no effort to find out before plunging ahead and using their body as she wants. But as with the misgendering, Cote and Paterson don’t seem to realize that that is what they have just depicted: not long after this moment, Kyle enthusiastically runs off stage with Connie to continue the encounter.
According to the most recent survey from the National Center for Transgender Equality, 41 percent of all nonbinary people who were assigned male at birth (which Kyle was) will experience sexual assault in their lifetime. RAINN estimates that the figure for the general population is around 11 percent. That is a horrifying discrepancy. And yet here we have an opera that—whether the creators realize this or not—depicts a trans person being turned on by being assaulted, an opera that implies, however inadvertently, that it’s fine to treat our bodies like objects for public consumption because that’s what we want anyway.
Defenders of this opera may try to argue that Kyle implicitly consented to this kind of contact by attending the party in the first place. This is not how consent works. Consenting to be in an explicitly sexual space does not mean that one automatically consents to any and all forms of contact with anyone else who happens to be in the space. Then again, “Three Way” in general displays a shaky understanding of consent. The first act, for example, features a sentient robot created to be a domestic and sexual servant, and when the robot starts refusing to have sex with the person who owns him, this is treated as a problem that tech support is supposed to fix, even if that means completely erasing the robot’s mind, effectively murdering him. (Paterson and Cote made a bizarre satirical website for “biomorphic android Companions,” but the effect is creepy rather than hilarious, especially since one of the “models” listed for sale is a child.) “Three Way” treats the drama not as a sentient being being coerced into sex under penalty of death, but as a wacky result of people not quite knowing what they want in a partner.
Sex is certainly sometimes a source of wacky misunderstandings, but it can also be the source of our heaviest, most gut-wrenching emotions. “Three Way” wants to be an opera about the lighter side of things, but Cote and Paterson’s lack of understanding means the show treats subjects that require sensitivity as fodder for irreverent jokes.
Apparently all of this “[rang] true” to Cote and Paterson, and that is exactly the problem. In the interview printed in the program, Paterson describes having lived experience in common with the characters you’re writing as a “luxury” that is “not necessary” for writing well. This fits with his philosophy that a cis author should theoretically be able to accurately present trans experiences, but it also reveals its limitation: most cis people have no idea what it’s like to be trans. Since Cote and Paterson are relying on their own experiences of living in the world—and nowhere in his article does Paterson mention so much as reading a blog post by an actual trans person, despite making time to go to both a BDSM dungeon and a swinger’s party—there is no guarantee that things that “ring true” to them when creating transgender characters will have any relationship to what will ring true to actual trans people.
The only way to have a subjective understanding of what it is like to be a trans person is to live in the world as a trans person, and it is painfully obvious that no trans people were involved in the creation of this work. (As far as I can tell, the actors who played Kyle and Tyler are both cis. The harm that comes from casting cis people in trans roles has been covered repeatedly and at length elsewhere.) Lacking this experience to draw from, it’s no wonder that two cis creators wrote a piece that displays a cis (mis)understanding of who trans people are.
But, of course, accurately presenting trans experiences isn’t what Paterson and Cote are concerned with doing. “In the end,” Paterson writes, “what really matters is people leaving the theater after a great evening, having enjoyed the work. …If they really like it, maybe they’ll tell their friends.” The team settled on this subject matter not because they wanted to amplify trans voices or de-stigmatize certain sexual practices, but because this was “a topic that might intrigue a larger audience, maybe even get someone to attend their first opera.” Their goal, in other words, was to use stories about marginalized people for their own artistic and financial gain, as well as for the propagation of the medium they’re working in. It would be hard to find a clearer example of a team of privileged creators using their privilege to exploit the stories of people already pushed to the margins of society.
None of this is to say that no cis writer will ever be able to present trans characters in a way that feels authentic. We are not, after all, some incomprehensible, unknowable Other. But doing it well takes research and hard work; it requires engaging with actual trans people and the things we have written about our experiences. It’s totally possible to get to know us, it just takes time. Cote and Paterson have not put in that time. They’ve barely even said hello. ¶