If you listen to common discourse, asserts Mona Malec, there are two kinds of parents of trans kids: Those who thump their Bibles, scream and yell about hell and damnation and "unnatural" things and kick their kids out of the house; or those who, the moment their kid comes out as trans, turn into a fierce trans-flag-waving protective Pride-planning behemoth of inclusivity. There is no in-between.
What about the in-between?
In Motherhood, Barbells and T-Shots, Malec explores the intricacies of what it means—or, perhaps more accurately, how it feels (because "meaning" implies there is a certain way it always is)—to be the parent of a trans man. Through a one-woman monologue that incorporates weight-lifting, cookies, unnerving meta elements and a digestible amount of interpretive movement, Malec expresses how she fiercely loves her son while simultaneously grieves the loss of her daughter.
It's tempting to entice you and say that Malec approaches tough subjects (deadnaming, top surgery, family estrangement) with humor—but that isn't necessarily true. Sure, she's an approachable person, comes across as warm and honest, and I certainly chuckled a few times while watching her rehearse the piece with director Rod Harrison. But the piece is not a knee-slapper. It's pretty intense, to be honest.
But don't let the intensity scare you off. If there is any one word that would describe this piece more aptly than "intense," it's "important."
The simple set features a rocking chair, a weight-lifting rack and a gym bag. The scene sets us up for two-thirds of the title; the "motherhood" (because what traditional image of a mother doesn't include a rocking chair?) and the "barbells." Malec is a world-champion Highland Games athlete, having discovered weight-lifting and "throwing trees" as an empowering and fun way to get exercise and meet people. In this show, it also gives her the perfect in to discuss what it means to be a masculine woman walking through a world obsessed with gender, and how her experience in her body is so vastly different from her son Emery's experience coming out as trans. Malec uses anecdotes and poetry-esque repetition and movement to deftly communicate points that might otherwise take a dissertation.
And we need this story right now. In a world where 41% of trans people attempt suicide, in a country run by what the National Center for Transgender Equality calls "The Discrimination Administration," in a political climate in which whether someone can use the bathroom becomes a legislative question, this is one of the most important conversations we can be having with regards to civil rights. Further, it's a story of love and support, rather than the tragic stories we often see in the news about trans folk shunned and disowned. There is a lot of love out there, and we can't despair thinking there isn't.
And Malec approaches her own story with the nuance and delicacy it deserves, too. Never does she question the validity of Emery's gender or emotional experience; if there is any doubt in this piece, it is of herself.
She spends a decent portion of the play questioning her own skills as a mother. But that shame is not related to having a trans kid; she knows and makes clear that there isn't anything "wrong" with her son. Rather, the questioning of her motherhood takes the form of agony over his suffering. When Emery doesn't leave his room for months, when he bakes obsessively to try to process his intense feelings, when he distances himself from his supportive stepfather—she knows he is suffering, and she also knows her job description as his mom is to alleviate that suffering. What does it mean about her abilities if she can't change his life for the better?
So she does everything she can. She travels all over the country to bring him to Fall Out Boy concerts (the only place he seems truly happy). She sells his cookies to her friends to help pay for his name change. In a particularly infuriating section of the piece, she educates her friends when they ask endless stupid questions, assuming a trans body is public domain. She fights for him in the ways she knows how, but openly admits the times at which she's most lost.
Motherhood, Barbells and T-Shots is one of many stories we need to hear right now; about love, about family, about struggle and about sadness. There are no right answers, but two things are more clear than others: Treat others with kindness, and have a cookie.