This is a transcription of an interview between SFShakes Literary Intern, Lily Goldman, and Jade Blackthorne, our Community Consultant. We first met Jade when SF Shakes conducted a Shakespeare workshop with community members experiencing homelessness in partnership with Project Homeless Connect and Simply the Basics. Since then, Jade has become a valuable member of the as a Community Consultant. Jade is a trans woman. The intersection of misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and often racism work to make trans women some of the most vulnerable people of our society. They are often victims of direct violence and a host of biases that excludes them from proper housing, medical care, and employment. In SF Shakes’ efforts to acknowledge the urgency of modern urban exile and exclusion into this summer’s production of As You Like It, Ms. Blackthorne was generous and open in sharing her experiences. She is now contributing to the production with her expertise in sound engineering.
Jade: I’ve mostly worked in the performance art, theater and music world in supporting roles. I’ve always wanted to be a performer, but being transgender and how people treated me when they found out (in the past) made me fear I’d get hurt so I avoided that kind of public exposure. I’ve always been a musician and composer at least in my own world and now that I’ve come out and transitioning I want to try and get out, but I have a lot of work to do. For the last 25 years I’ve been unable to function because of PTSD stemming from my early childhood experience of abandonment, rejection, emotional, physical and mental abuse. When I was a child I didn’t understand why it was bad to tell people I was a girl and not a boy. This put me into children’s mental illness homes, foster homes and eventually I ended up living half my life on the streets. I had been given antipsychotic medications and other treatments that were supposed to cure me, and when the foster homes found out they locked me in closets, forced me to do things like write over and over again that I wasn’t a girl or that I’m bad, evil, sick and worse. Really, my story’s a book if I were to write one. It’s pretty amazing I survived. At age four, I told my father, a Hells Angel, that I was a girl, and he abandoned me in a Southern California desert. I really think if people understood what some of us went through they wouldn’t treat us as badly as some of them do.
Lily: So, Jade, can you tell me a little about your life’s trajectory and your artistic background?
Jade: Well, I’ll answer the second question first, because it kind of leads into my life trajectory. From as young as I’ve known, I’ve been attracted to music and theater and art. I was involved in a singing choir as young as five, and I was a soloist, a soprano. We actually travelled around the Bay Area, usually doing ladies auxiliaries and churches and stuff, usually singing stuff like “Edelweiss” and Sound of Music songs. I really enjoyed that, and sought out music and theater. The first instrument I got to play was a cello, it was donated by some woman who donated instruments to people, and I just kept on doing it and wanted to do it and play more and more. But by the time I was in my early teens I had moved to foster care and their attitude was that those kinds of things were for privileged people, people who deserved it, and somehow I didn’t. So, it was denied to me pretty much until young adulthood for a number of years. But I still kept on wanting to do it; every time I found a piano I would play it, every time I found an instrument I would try to play it. It became everything to me to get musical instruments and learn how to play them, but being poor and usually on the streets because of my gender, it was very difficult. But it it didn’t stop me. How I got here kinda relates to that, in that I just never stopped. I always had a musical instrument with me, whether it was a harmonica or a guitar or a flute, whatever I could bring with me when I was living on the streets and could have some kind of musical instrument. It’s just how I feel—very strongly about music. So, when I started looking for things to do so I wouldn’t isolate, ‘cause that’s a huge problem for trans people, I saw these events, and one of the events was the Shakespearean Festival, and the workshop, and we were invited there through Homeless Connect. And, so I came and I just was open about what I felt, and I came up with ideas and the next thing I know I’m talking to Rebecca [Ennals] and she’s saying you should come check this out and wanting me to be a part of this. And so, I said okay, this is something I can do, instead of sitting at home by myself, avoiding people, which is really hard for us. So that’s how I came to be here!
Lily: So that leads into my second question of how you found your way to this company and production. Do you feel like there’s anything you want to add about that one?
Jade: I was just completely surprised that I was asked to be an official community consultant. That blew me away. I just – it makes me feel accepted. I’m tearing up –
Lily: Thank you, Jade. So, in our production, our Forest of Arden has been heavily inspired by communities that exist where housing does not, and we know that you have some experience in those kinds of places. Is there anything that you feel is accurate, or really inaccurate, about our fictionalized world?
Well, it’s changed over the years. I’ve been homeless most of my life, and a lot of it I’ve lived out in the woods. When I first started living out in the woods was when I was sixteen, seventeen years old, and I was living in Santa Cruz. And they have the Pogonip [Park], and I would get a tent and go out and live there. Most of the time people were pretty friendly and supportive for each other and kind of conservative about keeping it clean, ya know: if you’re going to pack something in, you gotta pack it out. There was a lot more of that. But as the years have gone by, now people are less that way. People aren’t as social, they are leaving garbage, a little bit more destructive. There’s still some camaraderie, for people who have been there for a while I mean there’s still some of that. It’s not completely bad, but it can be awful to see if you actually went into the woods these days and are concerned about nature, and that makes it hard to do. Even for people who have experience. The show is closer to what it was when I was a kid. It would be interesting to see how they would incorporate more of what’s going on now, but I’m not sure if they can do that, there’s only so much time (laughs), ya know? And so much energy to do the play. But they do cover a few things, like harsh winters and things like that, and that’s good. That’s important.
Lily: Why did that change happened? Where do you think that came from?
Jade: Well, I think it’s because of ostracization. People lost their jobs, the middle class lost their jobs because of manufacturing moving to other countries, and so they started more intensely needing to provide for families and moved into lower levels of jobs, which pushed out people who were already in the lower levels to not having jobs. They have no education and are more likely to get involved with drugs and alcohol, and that lead to people who just lost all hope. They just don’t care. They see these people who are saying, “you should care about these kinds of things; you should care and not make a mess, and not destroy the planet,” and they’re saying, “why should we care? You don’t care about us; you’ve ostracized us, you’ve basically pushed us out and said we’re at fault for this because we can’t find a way back in because there’s no room.” All these jobs disappeared. All the low-level jobs were taken, the middle class was gone.
My ostracization wasn’t necessarily that, but because I am transgender…I was… I tried to hide it. I tried to actually fulfil that ‘male role’ as much as I could, but even still, people could tell that there’s something different about me. And as soon as they thought there was something different about me, of course they would think the worst. I was let go of jobs quite often, without any explanation, without any reasoning, other than “people are uncomfortable around you.’ Sometimes I would say to somebody if I thought that they were friendly – because, you know, when you’re this way you can’t hide it. You want to let someone know, you want someone to be supportive. Often times the person you think is going to be supportive ends up complaining. They think it’s some kind of sexual thing. And, of course, you’re asked to leave because they’re uncomfortable with it. So that happened quite often. It’s not because I didn’t want to work. It’s not because I wanted to party, it’s not because I was lazy. I never got fired for being lazy or not working. I’ve always wanted to be involved and would do anything. It was almost like no, we’re not having you. That’s the ostracization now, it’s not necessarily political, it’s more social and economic. Once you’re cut off financially and you’re cut off socially, it makes it really difficult to care anymore. It wounds you, deeply.
So…getting invited to this is amazing. I’m emotional (laughs).
Lily: My last question is what do you want to make sure this community knows?
Jade: Give people a chance! Stop pre-judging everyone, you know, talk to people. We can’t solve problems by throwing money at it. You can’t go, “here’s some money, if you do something with it great, if you change your life we’re all happy for you, but if you don’t, oh well, you’re a bad person.” It doesn’t work that way. It’s like — people should start sponsoring the homeless. Like businesses sponsoring homeless people. Having people go out and find somebody who, like me, is looking for a way out. Even if they’re doing drugs and have problems, they’re more likely to stop if they have support and they have somebody going, “hey, we want you here. And we’re going to work with you to get you here.” When that happens, people change. It’s not about “go through this program, take these twelve steps, don’t drink, you change everything about you and THEN we’ll accept you.” It doesn’t work that way because you don’t believe that anyone will accept you, even if you did all of those things.
I have this really powerful belief that the only way we can change the direction we’re in as humanity is when individuals are able to heal and become educated. When you get that kind of power going as a community, we no longer need these massive regulations and rules and directionalist ideas of what is ‘progress.’ You know, ‘keep progressing, keep building, keep being bigger, keep consuming.’ Those things aren’t that important. It’s when you have community, there’s a different goal there. I think that’s the way it needs to go. I think that’s the only hope.