As Metro Theater’s “Unsorted” debuts for public audiences this weekend, the playwright reflects on the personal difficulties that contributed to her exploration of gender.
When Wesley Middleton was growing up in Macon, Ga., she was shocked to learn that boys and girls had to play by different rules. She chafed under the pink-or-blue scenario.
“I always felt more like a person than a girl,” Middleton told St. Louis Public Radio.
Being an only child may have been a factor. If she’d had brothers and sisters, it might have been more clear which group she belonged to. She did feel more female than male. But so many directives for girls were about what they couldn’t do.
“A bunch of neighborhood boys were riding bikes with their shirts off and I asked my mom if I could,” Middleton remembered. “She said, ‘Little girls don’t show that part of their bodies,’ and I was astounded by that.”
It wasn’t long before she, like most children, internalized the tenets of the boy-girl gender binary.
“As we get older, it gets harder and harder to remember that we had these questions because we’ve learned these rules so well,” Middleton said.
Reluctantly Claiming ‘Queer’
The rules also demanded that girls like only boys when it comes to romance. But Middleton experienced a growing awareness that she also liked girls. As a young adult in the mid-1990s, she told her parents she was gay, a term that seemed like the best fit at the time.
But as her parents grew into acceptance, Middleton surprised them again with another announcement: She’d begun dating a man.
“Now the best way for me to identify is ‘queer,’ because that’s the most encompassing term,” she said.
Even so, the word “queer” is also problematic. It carries “negative baggage and sounds confrontational,” Middleton wrote in an email. “I would prefer not to label myself at all.”
Middleton acknowledges that her more traditionally feminine appearance makes it easy for people to assume she’s straight. But close relationships with two transgender individuals added to her knowledge of how it feels to be different and also to her frustration.
“It made me more angry about how difficult it can be, culturally, for people who have a different gender identity to accept themselves, she said.
An ovarian cancer diagnosis in the early 2000s further illuminated her awareness of difference. Her resulting inability to have children and weight gain from anti-nausea drugs exacerbated her feelings of not belonging.
“I felt invisible in a way I hadn’t before,” Middleton remembered.
Gender Isn't Sex
As Middleton’s own experiences bubbled in her conscious and unconscious mind, a magazine cover about the suicide of gay Rutgers University student Tyler Clemente cemented the idea to examine gender in a play.
Already working with Metro Theater in connection with “The Tomato Plant Girl,” an exploration of girls’ friendships, Middleton approached then-artistic director Carol North about the concept.
“She immediately loved it,” Middleton recalled.
Visits to local schools helped Middleton form a theme and characters. When she witnessed young children debating which articles of clothing belonged to the “boy” pile or the “girl” pile, she found her focus: “Unsorted” would feature animated “Clothings” resisting an attempt to sort themselves into two groups, as she explained in this St. Louis Beacon video last year. The sticking point: Is it OK for girls to wear red outside of baseball season?
It’s important to point out that “gender” does not equal “sex,” Middleton said. Gender is about self-identity; sexual orientation is about who you’re attracted to.
“Elementary-school audiences are generally not figuring out sexual orientation. But they are figuring out who they are,” Middleton said. “The play helps people see gender as part of that very integrated, subtle, important process of developing a sense of self.”