In funding theatrical productions aimed at increasing acceptance of transgender people the National Endowment for the Arts runs the risk of reigniting a long-dormant debate over federal spending on controversial arts projects that in the past prompted calls in Congress for the defunding of the NEA.
Critics, however, say the federal government shouldn’t be in the business of “promotion of a controversial ideology.”
“The NEA is far out there on the [left side] of the ideological spectrum, and it is using federal dollars to support its main agenda,” said Emilie Kao, director of the Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation.
Among the $3,381,375 the NEA awarded to Massachusetts in its Spring 2017 grants announcement, $15,000 was given to the Boston-based Theater Offensive for its production of “They, Them, Theirs: Showcasing Trans Lives.”
The NEA said that the grant would be used “to support the development, production, and tour” of the show, as well as “a post-show analysis about the topics raised through forum theater techniques, discussions, and workshops.”
Once production began, the show’s name was changed to “The Heart of the Matter.” It focuses on the lives and experiences of transgender and “queer” youths and adults of color through narratives set in both the past and the present.
“[‘The Heart of the Matter’] utilizes immersive, participatory performance strategy to challenge theatrical conventions and confront audiences with adult, white, middle-class culpability in the oppressive systems LGBTQ youth face,” Matt Gelman, associate managing director of the Theater Offensive, said in a press release.
In December, the piece was performed for the first time by the Theater Offensive’s troupe, the True Colors Creative Action Crew. True Colors, made up of LGBTQ actors and their straight allies ages 18 to 29, in November 2016 became the first such group to receive a National Arts and Humanities Youth Programs Award. It was awarded by then-first lady Michelle Obama.
P. Carl, ArtsEmerson’s co-artistic director, oversaw the creation of the piece as it aligned with the Theater Offensive’s mission to “present the diversity of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer lives in art so bold it breaks through personal isolation, challenges the status quo, and builds thriving communities.”
This year, the NEA appears to be doubling down on its financial support of what is being called “trans theater works.” The agency in mid-March announced a $40,000 grant to the Mixed Blood Theatre Company in Minneapolis to support a series of such plays, including “a world-premiere musical” called “Mermaid Hour: Remixed,” which explores “the gender continuum through the prism of a prepubescent transgender biracial girl.”
The Washington Free Beacon reported that Mixed Blood will also present “Sensitive Guys,” which the theater company describes as “social satire,” in which female and “gender-nonconforming” actors discuss “male privilege.”
However, critics say research shows that using federal tax dollars to support such performances could instead have unintended, adverse effects on society—and on the very people it’s intended to help.
“The money of taxpayers should not go towards the promotion of a controversial ideology that the transgender movement is promoting,” said Heritage’s Kao.
“Their proposed treatments of gender dysphoria have not been shown to be effective by any medical or scientific research,” she said. “In fact, the best science, medicine, psychology, and social science show that the treatment of gender dysphoria that the transgender movement advocates for can lead to higher rates of suicide.”
Gender dysphoria occurs when an individual struggles with the idea of being one gender while identifying with the other. It can lead to anxiety and stress, especially for adolescents.
Ryan Anderson, a senior research fellow at the The Heritage Foundation, says suicide attempts occur at a much higher rate—41 percent—among those who identify as transgender, compared with the general population at 4.6 percent.
He also has found that “transitioning” treatment has not reduced the high suicide attempt rate. Instead, Anderson found that those who undergo gender reassignment surgery are 19 times more likely to commit suicide.
Although the play sheds light on the acts of discrimination that 63 percent of transgender people experience during their lifetime, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality, Kao thinks that the NEA is misusing federal tax dollars by funding theater projects until there is proof that these treatments and experiments actually help transgender youth.
“Anderson’s groundbreaking book, ‘When Harry Became Sally,’ shows we need to put a pause on the ‘transgender moment.’ The NEA exceeds its mandate and misuses funds by accelerating it,” she said.
The NEA was mired in controversy throughout much of the 1990s over funding it awarded to a number of controversial artists, organizations, and projects.
Among the recipients were photographers Andres Serrano, whose photo of a crucifix submerged in a vial of his own urine was criticized as “anti-Christian bigotry,” and Robert Mapplethorpe, some of whose photos were homoerotic.
Radical feminist monologist Karen Finley would smear her bared breasts with chocolate and bean sprouts—representing feces and semen—to represent how men supposedly abuse women. Her fiery monologues were harshly critical of Republicans and conservatives.
Though in response Congress cut the NEA’s budget, the agency survived efforts by its critics to abolish it outright.
In recent years, the NEA has remained relatively controversy-free, funding more mainstream art and music projects.
In March 2017, the Trump administration proposed in its fiscal 2018 budget the complete defunding of the NEA and its sister agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities, along with 17 other federal programs and agencies, as part of budget-cutting efforts. The NEA’s fiscal 2017 budget was just under $148 million.