Back in 2002, I performed in The Vagina Monologues — a show intended to be performed exclusively by women — without having a vagina. I was 25 and working as a technical assistant in a cognitive science lab at MIT, and a student production of Eve Ensler's play was about to be mounted there for the first time. I auditioned in front of several directors and producers in a clinical classroom typical of that school, under fluorescent light across a gray steel table designed for discussing formulas rather than private parts. When one of the directors asked me why I wanted to be in the show, I said, "I want to learn more about womanhood because I'm transgender."
It was the first time I told a group of strangers I'm trans. Though it had been only a few months since I began living as a woman, I learned that people could be oddly unpredictable when it came to seeing my history in my appearance: Sometimes, they read me when I thought I blended in; other times, they were entirely oblivious. I was already familiar with that awkward silence from telling people one-on-one, that brief pause when eyes and mouths would open a little wider. After the silence stretched itself thin, one of the producers recovered her wits and said, "Thank you. We'll be in touch." I fully expected it to be the end of my experience with the play.
But then they cast me. I spent the next three months rehearsing with a group of 20 women three times a week. Quite a contrast, since I'd been working in an all-male (well, except for me) lab for most of my time at MIT.
The rehearsals were not really about the monologues — we rehearsed our scripts individually with one of the directors — but more about what it meant to be a woman. In the theater department rehearsal rooms, our sessions were less about refining our acting and more about group bonding. We discussed what we thought our vaginas would say if they could speak, and even performed our own vagina interpretative dances for each other. All the while, no one ever questioned what my body part was, from what place I accessed my vagina's words. My vagina said, "I don't know who I am yet. I'm not fully formed," then I turned myself into a tight, squirming ball for my dance, imagining my vagina in a larval state.
These sessions were also opportunities for us to talk about our personal experiences as women. I must have talked about my transition, but what I remember most was hearing about other women's experiences and, for the first time, thinking of their world as one to which I also belonged. I had known about the harassment and violence that women face, but when I'd previously heard friends discuss those elements of their lives, I hadn't fully imagined myself as someone who might share those experiences.
I also learned that we, as women, are taught to stifle our sexualities; a number of the women in rehearsals spoke about how they or their friends feared sex or orgasms. Even though I didn't identify with those fears because of my personal history, I learned that all women don't need to have identical experiences to think of ourselves as belonging to the same shared community.
The directors picked one of the funnier monologues for me to perform. "Because He Liked To Look At It" is about a woman who hated her vagina until she met a guy named Bob who adored her vagina's beauty. She understood how unfeminist it is to learn to love your vagina because of a man, and this contradiction was a big part of why the piece is funny.
Every time I performed the monologue, my mind went to an amazing place where my genitals no longer seemed so remote from the body part that, to many people, defines womanhood. I felt like maybe all I had was a different type of vagina, and I only needed affirmation that what I had was enough. My fellow cast members, in fully accepting me and praising my work, were that affirmation. It wasn't in them praising me for being brave, or for taking on my role as a trans woman, that I found acceptance. It was in the very fact that no one ever mentioned my trans status unless I specifically brought it up, and no one made me feel like I was any different because of it.
I remember on opening night being alone on a vast stage in a sold-out 200-seat theatre. I had been in many plays, and had even been a child star when I was growing up in the Philippines, but that night was the first time I played a woman onstage. I wore a red sleeveless top and a long, black cashmere skirt that made me feel sexy when my legs brushed against it. I pitched my voice low in rehearsal to make the audience aware, even if unconsciously, that I might be a different type of woman than they were used to. But I didn't expect my voice to waver when I said my monologue's suggestive first line: "This is how I came to love my vagina." Thankfully, the audience chuckled. Soon, when my adrenaline kicked in, I was no longer afraid. After a while came the open laughs, full-throated by the time I talked about how Bob wanted to see my vagina and I asked, "This is awfully intimate. Can't you just do it?"
There's this strange thing that happens when you're playing a role: The pain you feel can make something funnier, can express more of your need to laugh about it. The woman I played thought her vagina was ugly, sure, and that was why she was afraid of showing it. But for me, presenting as a woman and revealing my own genitals to a partner did not only put me at risk of being found undesirable. Exposing myself risked ridicule, violence, or worse. Performing this monologue highlighted the absurdity in how much meaning our society invests in this one body part, and how much pain trans women endure because of it. I hoped this vital part of my experience seeped into the audience's unconscious as they applauded me.
In the middle of these public performances, I also dealt with my private struggle over whether or not to undergo sexual reassignment surgery, and it was through The Vagina Monologues that I decided it was the right decision for me. I've always been proud of who I am as I am, and it was hard not to think of sexual reassignment as a form of surrender to society's idea of who a woman should be. But I also didn't want to feel so endangered when I encountered strangers on the street, or to feel so fetishized when men were so eager to sleep with me, even though they didn't want to be seen with me in public. And I had to admit to myself that as I talked to other women at length about their experiences, my sexual identity increasingly shifted; I began to actively fantasize about having the specific body part that The Vagina Monologues revolves around.
Performing my monologue, and the time I spent with my fellow cast members, allowed me to fully imagine what it would be like to have a vagina, and to understand that there's nothing inherently wrong with wanting one. So by the time I underwent the operation four months later, my vagina already felt part of me even before it fully healed — so much so that it's sometimes hard for me to imagine having had anything else.
Even though, after a decade of transition, I am now indistinguishable from other women to the vast majority of people, I continue to be openly trans. Just like when I performed my role all those years ago, I want people to know that it's possible for them to both see me as any other woman, and at the same time, appreciate the difficult journey I've gone through to be who I am. The Vagina Monologues has given voice to women's previously untold stories, and I am proud to have told my own.