7 min read

'I, Joan' is a celebration of trans love and trans power

The audacity of loving yourself without cis people’s permission can get you killed, but there is so much power in loving yourself.
'I, Joan' is a celebration of trans love and trans power
Joe Henry, Azara Meghie, Isobel Thom and Natasha Cottriall in I, Joan. Photographer: Helen Murray.

[CW: transphobia, violence, discussion of the state-sanctioned murder of trans people]

The audacity of loving yourself without their permission will get you killed.

– Charlie Josephine, I, Joan

The way to get me to go and see something - apparently - is to tell me that it’s pissing off a load of transphobes. While I wasn’t being entirely serious when I said this to a friend, it’s on this information and little more that I booked a ticket to see I, Joan at Shakespeare’s Globe when I was down in London a few weeks ago. I’m so glad I did.

I, Joan is a re-telling of the story of Joan of Arc, written by Charlie Josehpine. An explicitly queer retelling, where Joan is non-binary and is played by non-binary actor Isobel Thom in their professional debut. A non-binary actor, playing a non-binary character. How rare is that?

I didn’t go into the play knowing that it was written by a trans person, but I came out of the theatre certain of it - even before I’d found Josephine’s Instagram. I don’t think a cis person could have written a story that spoke to me as deeply as I, Joan did.

From the first words spoken on stage, I, Joan pulls none of its punches. Joan enters by sliding down the ingenious half-pipe stage wearing a sleeveless t-shirt with ‘Pride Began With An Uprising’ emblazoned on it in red letters. “Trans people are sacred. We are the divine. We are practising divinity by expressing authenticity,” Thom tells the audience in their opening monologue.

I’ve never felt more seen by a character. I feel like every word out of their mouth could have been spoken by my seventeen year old self, who still believed in god – or could be spoken by me today if I was talking about queer community and gender euphoria rather than god. Joan of Arc’s story is centred on religion, but I don’t think I’m wrong in interpreting Josephine’s play as being far more about gender and power than about god.

I’m not non-binary, but I felt so seen by how Joan talks about their gender dysphoria, how trapped they feel in a body that is only seen as a woman’s body, how wrong it feels when people perceive and talk about them as a woman. Thom’s performance captures the pain of moving through a world who refuses to see you as who you really are. Every time they were misgendered, hot, heavy discomfort rose in my own body. When they were forced to wear a dress, my own chest became tight. It hurt.

When another character used they/them pronouns for Joan for the first time, after they are honest about how much they hate being called 'she' and 'her', I wanted to stand up and cheer. But I was eighteen weeks on testosterone when I saw I, Joan, and for the first time realised I couldn’t ‘woooooh’ in encouragement and appreciation. My voice was too deep and squeaked. Trying to replicate the sound in a lower key sounded like I was booing - the opposite of what I wanted to convey. Putting into play Billy Lore’s advice from a long-ago episode of The Dildorks, I attempted to remind myself to shout ‘yeeeeah’ instead.

It was a shout of excitement and support in a voice that feels more mine than it ever has before; raised in celebration of a play that is so politically and unapologetically trans.

The play felt all the more magical for taking place under the open sky, in Britain’s most famous theatre. Shakespeare’s Globe is one of the best known theatres in the world, and by putting on I, Joan they put trans people and trans voices front and centre. The Globe’s artistic director, Michelle Terry, wrote about how ‘they’ has been used to describe a single person from as early as 1375 - years before Joan was even born. The Globe’s website features blog posts about how we can interpret Joan’s gender non-conformity that are actually written by trans people. They also have a list of books, charities, podcasts and other resources about gender and transness.

This is what allyship looks like. In a time when candidates battling to be Prime Minister used their anti-trans views to gain support, it means a lot that the Globe didn’t court the controversy around the play to sell tickets. Instead they stood whole-heartedly with the queer community, and in doing so created a play that is loud, rebellious, joyous, and an utter delight to watch. And while some people might find this more blasphemous than Joan referring to their god as ‘she’, I think if Shakespeare could have seen it, he’d have loved it too.

The Times described I, Joan as “A gender-fluid revolutionary for our times,” but I can’t help but wonder whether they were talking about Joan themselves or the whole play. Because to me, Joan isn’t genderfluid, but rather steps into their identity as non-binary and stands in it solidly. Maybe the reviewer is referring to the brilliant gender-fluidity of the cast who play the ordinary people who fight with Joan in their army. Their presentation is unambiguously queer and I absolutely love it - though The Times review did make me wonder how many trans and non-binary people had the chance to review the play.

Joan of Arc wouldn’t have had language to talk about gender in that way, but that doesn’t stop Thom’s Joan from using the words trans, non-binary and queer. By saying the words, there’s no room for ambiguity in what they are talking about. I hope Thom felt as powerful breaking the fourth wall to talk to the audience about trans rights as I did watching them. After all the online abuse thrown their way - even before the play had started - I hope they felt like they were fighting back at all the transphobic hate with every impassioned speech that made my breath catch in my through.

We all know how Joan’s story ends, but it’s still hard to see them offered the chance to live - if they’ll just confess that they are “a silly little girl” and repent, promising to never wear boy’s clothes again, of course. “It seemed like it wasn’t a casual fashion statement that Joan chose death. It was seen as both a sin and a crime to present in the way they did. They knew the risk and they chose it. [...] I couldn’t read that as anything other than a trans experience.” Josephine said in an interview for The Guardian.

I feel the same way as Joan: I would rather be killed for being a man rather than be forced to live as a cis woman.

Before they’re dragged off to be executed for refusing to deny who they are, they tell the audience to “make sure you’re watching so this shit never happens again.” I wondered if cis people in the audience understood the heartbreaking irony in those lines. What happened to Joan is happening right now. Trans and non-binary people are being killed for who we are - whether it’s by the violence of fists and feet or by the violence of inhumane waiting list times that stop us from accessing life-saving gender affirming healthcare.

The audacity of loving yourself without cis people’s permission can get you killed, but there is so much power in loving who you are. Stepping into my transness has allowed me to love myself in a way I never thought was possible. I, Joan is a celebration of that love. It is a celebration of trans love and trans power, and I will never forget how right watching it made me feel.

It is an act of revolution to feel right in who you are when the whole world is telling you that everything about you is wrong.

🍆 Cruising the internet

What I've been writing, reading, and generally getting excited about recently:
  • As of yesterday, I’ve been writing about sex on the internet for five years! I can’t believe how much starting a sex blog to help me get through an especially bad night of suicidal ideation has changed my life. I’m really proud of how long I’ve stuck with writing on my blog - and while I haven’t been posting there as much over the last year, that’s because I’ve been prioritising projects that I’m paid for, something that would never have happened without the blog!
  • If you’re reading this on the day it lands in your inbox, you have a chance to see the last performance of I, Joan at the Globe Theatre! As I’m writing this, there are still tickets left for the 2pm matinee performance on Saturday 22nd October, and I cannot recommend enough that you should go and see it if you can.
  • After seeing I, Joan, I told a friend I was considering only watching plays written by trans and non-binary people from now on. The last piece of theatre I’d seen prior to I, Joan was Happy Meal* by Tabby Lamb. My girlfriend and I went to the play on our anniversary, and we both ended up crying at the brilliant, powerful portrayal of two trans people falling in love.
  • I’m currently halfway through Strong Female Character* by Hanna Flint and I’m absolutely flying through it. Half-memoir, half-cultural commentary, her feminist film criticism filled with anger at the sexism that exists in the media industry and left me wanting to "Hulk smash the the patriarchy." (I will note that some of the book’s attempts at trans-inclusivity are rather clumsy and somewhat miss the mark, but I think it’s a brilliant and important read regardless.)
  • I’ve been listening to Emma Gannon’s podcast, Ctrl Alt Delete, recently. This episode, with Renay Richardson - founder and CEO of Broccoli Productions - really stood out to me. They discuss making the audio space more equal and the importance of getting more minority talent both in front and behind the mic. While their conversation focused on podcasting, it’s definitely very applicable to other creative industries too.
*Links marked with an * are affiliate links, so if you click through and buy a book then I get a small commission at no cost to you.