The Performance of Gender: Improv and the Exploration of Identities and Norms with Ali Hannon

Jennifer Brown | | , ,

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Speaker, trainer, performer, and activist Ali Hannon joins the program to share their diversity story, why we need to move beyond the binary when it comes to gender, as well as the performance of gender. Ali also shares their thoughts about why they doesn’t like the concept of allyship when it comes to gender, and what they’d like to see instead.

In this episode you’ll discover:

  • Ali’s diversity story and their experience with gender norms growing up (16:00)
  • Why gender is a collective trauma (28:00)
  • Ali’s experience with gender in the improv world (30:00)
  • The problems with call-out culture (35:00)
  • How improv can be used to create transformation (40:00)
  • How gender interacts with language and culture (42:00)
  • What happens when we deviate from gender norms (46:00)
  • The limitations of allyship when it comes to gender (49:00)
  • The need to examine our own gender experience (53:00)

Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

JENNIFER BROWN: [inaudible 00:00:02]. Ali, welcome to The Will to Change.

ALI HANNON: Thank you for having me. It’s an absolute pleasure to be here today.

JENNIFER BROWN: I’m so glad you’re here. Where are you calling in from? Tell us where you are.

ALI HANNON: I am calling all the way from not-so-sunny Brighton in the UK. Others know it as gay hub of the UK.

JENNIFER BROWN: Fun. What a fun place to live. Yes, so you and I discovered each other through the fabulous Jenn T Grace. So I want to let people know who Jenn Grace is. Jenn is a publisher. Her publishing company’s called Publish Your Purpose Press, and she and I have worked together for many years. And she actually published my first book, which is called Inclusion.


JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, Ali. So I don’t know your status as an author. I’m sure that that’s a-

ALI HANNON: I’ve got some cracking poetry I wrote when I was 15.

JENNIFER BROWN: Maybe not for the light of day, huh?

ALI HANNON: I think it’s on a hard drive of an old home PC somewhere, like in the garage somewhere hidden. I dread to think.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh no. Maybe a book is in your future, but everybody who’s listening, if you think a book is in your future, absolutely engage with Jenn Grace and her author development process because it takes a lot for us to bring our stories to the light. And then for us to believe that our stories are worth telling. And that’s something, especially those of us who are underrepresented in our fields, in our professions, in our worlds struggle with especially. That imposter syndrome, sort of who am I to put my story out there, and what could it possible effect in the world? And the beautiful thing is you have no idea what it will affect in the world, and that is this journey of discovery into ourselves and our lives. And then finding that universal truth or truths that then can make somebody else’s journey easier in some way, which is such a beautiful gift and so important that all of us do that, especially those of us of identities that have not been highlighted and celebrated. Right, Ali?

ALI HANNON: Oh yeah. I mean, storytelling, my family is quite a lot Irish, and I think one of the cultural aspects of being Irish that I love the most is storytelling. And storytelling permeate every aspect of culture in Ireland. When you’re a kid around your auntie’s or your grandparent’s house and everybody’s taking turns telling stories, reading poetry, not my poetry obviously, but other peoples, or singing or dancing. This beautiful exchange of information that happens. So I think for me and the performer stories are the best way of sharing knowledge and information.

JENNIFER BROWN: We share our Irish background. Thank you for that.

ALI HANNON: There you go.

JENNIFER BROWN: Absolutely. From County Cork.

ALI HANNON: No. We must be related. Stop it.

JENNIFER BROWN: We will explore that later. I love that though.

ALI HANNON: Can you imagine if it turns out we’re cousins? That would be cool.

JENNIFER BROWN: I know, exactly. But I’m endlessly interested in as a white American, I guess to put this broad stroke on it, my lack of cultural understanding of my own culture. It’s sort of like when you speak to men about gender. They’re like, “Well, what do you mean?” It’s almost as if they don’t have a gender because they’re in the warm water of the world, which is male dominated. And so it’s like they don’t think about it as a cultural identity. There’s so much to explore there, but I am getting off… Not really off topic, but I want to…

ALI HANNON: Something spicy in it, and it excites me.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, we will get to that. We’ll get to that. But tell us about how your identity developed? How did you come to yourself in this world? I know perhaps generationally how you identify because I don’t know if we’re different generations, but I always fascinated too to understand how we come of age, specifically because of the norms of our generation, which is so different. As a Gen X-er, we didn’t have language. We were the LGBT generation, Q was not a thing.


JENNIFER BROWN: We sort of conflated LGB and T, although they should not have been. I mean, in a community yes, it should be conflated, but identities-wise, completely conflating completely separate things. Anyway, so I will not say much more than that. But tell us about who you are and how you came to be the voice that you are today.

ALI HANNON: Yeah. So I would say I’m an early Millennial. So just made it into the Millennial category. I think there’s a big different though between the early and the late Millennials.


ALI HANNON: Yeah, I think a lot of my sensibilities are X-ey in a way.

JENNIFER BROWN: You are a cusper.

ALI HANNON: Yeah. I mean, a couple of years on the Millennial side, but I think I have a lot of peers growing up would qualify as Gen X-ers. I had quite a diverse group of friends when I was growing up. I grew up in an estate where we had lots of different people from different backgrounds and lots of different age groups. So I was always around different people, and actually it’s something I’ve inherited from my mum. My mum always had this incredibly intergenerational friendship group. My mum was friends with people from every decade, and I always admired that as a child. And it’s something I’ve always tried to replicate as I’ve grown up because I think what I learn about myself through people who are younger than me is important, as is through people who are older. That for me is a really important aspect of how I interact. But I think that probably set me up for my exploration of my identity from quite a young age.

My mum was always very open minded. My dad, less so, but then he was the Irish Catholic side of things. I was gender non-conforming from the earliest age. My mum did a wonderful job of recognizing that and affirming that in me without any pressure. As I’ve got older, I recognized how amazing that was for her to do in that time in the ’80s and ’90s to have the wherewithal to not challenge it, not try and coerce me. Well, I say that. There are a couple of times she tried to coerce me. One time I won, and the second time I ended up being the narrator for my nativity in a very big, fluffy pink dress, which was borrowed. Honestly, it was the age of Spice Girls as well. So I was like, “Do I have to wear a skirt, mum? Can it not be like a cool Posh Spice black number?” No. It has to be the pink [inaudible 00:07:10]. No, you know what, it’s these kinds of traumas that stay with you.

But ultimately, as soon as possible, I was presenting in what society would’ve said was the way a little boy would present. So again, there were loads of issues around the social construct of gender and applying that to children. But as it goes, society had this model, and this model and I very much aligned with the boy in vertical commons model. It also coincided I think when I was about 10 or 11 falling deeply and madly in love with my then science teacher, which I then realized perhaps was an answer to my question that all of this gender non-conformity was a distraction and actually I was just a little baby lesbian. That was something I grappled with for a number of years until I came out at 16. And for a long time, I developed my identity through that lens. I thought, “I’m a lesbian. I can do lesbian things.” So I bought myself a waist coat and got a nice asymmetrical haircut, as was the thing back in the day.

But I think what I realized is that me trying to appropriate that identity was as incongruent to me as trying to appropriate a girl identity that I was still failing to be what society was telling me was acceptable. So by the time I was about 27, 28, I realized that actually a lot of this disconnect from myself was about my gender. The sexuality aspect was never the big issue. It was much more about how I fitted into this binary setup that society had created about what a good woman is or what a good man is. And I was like, “Well, first and foremost, I don’t make a good woman, and I really would make a terrible man.” There’s no in between. Until I discovered that there was a way.

It was interesting what you said about language, Jen, because I think language is the key to so much of this. When I had the language to describe my experience as non-binary, everything fell into place.

JENNIFER BROWN: I almost feel like I remember the year that we started to speak of this. When was that? Because that was an evolution, a really critical evolution that we always needed and we didn’t even know we needed it.

ALI HANNON: Yeah. Certainly when I first came into contact with the fray or word non-binary, it was probably 2014, 2015.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, that’s when I would’ve said it, five years ago. Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yup, gender fluid, gender non, which are not the same thing.

ALI HANNON: No. But they’re family. I think there’s this acceptance now that gender is a construct, but it’s based in lived experience, in reality, and that there’s nothing wrong with the binary. It’s just that we shouldn’t be using a binary to describe things that don’t fall into those categories. It’s ridiculous to do that. We can’t force things to fit because it is easier for us to have any two options.

Back to the Irish analogy, Protestant or Catholics. You are either Protestant or you’re a Catholic. But what about the atheists or the Hindus, for example? We just ignore those people because they don’t fall into those two religious categories. I think with gender, we struggle to make space for anything that isn’t clear one or the other.

JENNIFER BROWN: There is such a fear of deviating from it. It’s true. I don’t know why we cling to and punish, cling to these norms that are so inaccurate or incomplete I guess, not inaccurate because there are binary gender identified people, of course.


JENNIFER BROWN: Nothing wrong with those ends of the spectrum, but the complete unexplored middle and then the process of sort of the punishment we put ourselves through as we discover that we don’t conform is so bad for our health, for-


JENNIFER BROWN: … just everything for our lives, et cetera. We always ask people on The Will to Change, what was your evolution like into being comfortable and fully yourself in naming that and living into that? When did that moment happen? Was it a moment? Was it an evolution over time?

ALI HANNON: It’s almost more complex than that in a way. There’s a part of me that looks back on my teenage years, my early 20s, and the level of energy that I poured into trying to comply, what great things could I have achieved, Jen, if I had poured that energy into more constructive things?

JENNIFER BROWN: Good question.

ALI HANNON: I know. I think a lot of queer people have this real… I think it’s also similar for other people from minority groups is like the amount of energy I pour into just being different is exhausting, and it’s not constructive energy. I’m not making things better. I’m just floating along, just trying to keep on the surface. If I had that energy back and could apply that to other things, the opportunities would’ve been afforded to me or I could’ve taken advantage of opportunities but I had to not because of all the energy I was just expending trying to live as a young queer person. I think the power that I’ve… Maybe this is moving into your 30s. I don’t know, and I think there’s a generational thing that the power that I feel now as a human adult, not anymore burdened by trying to be a good woman, and being myself, being non-binary is just… I mean, it’s an amazing, freeing, empowering feeling that I am just who I am. I’m not a weird version of woman or a problematic version of man. I’m just me, little old me getting along with my life. It’s a simple and pattern that’s taken for granted. It’s a key that unlocks so much energy.

JENNIFER BROWN: When you show up that way, I want to get to your classes and how you teach and your background in improv and all of that. But I just imagine you, your comfort is so important as a teaching tool and puts people at ease immediately I know. But it was really hard fought, and I just always want to acknowledge the struggle that might look easy to those of us who haven’t been through the struggle. But the appreciation that I have and the, what we call in my world, the covering behaviors that you engaged in for years, which we know sort of leak our energy out.

Our tremendous distraction from what we could be accomplishing, and I really believe carrying that giant weight on our backs through our childhood and into our adulthood of identity and stigmatized identity specifically. It does simultaneously I think distract us and deprive us of energy. But the struggle to align finally to our authenticity and to our truth is also this huge gift because you really have to stick up for yourself. You really have to live into that and the resilience that you develop in the process of doing that. Once it’s yours, I can understand what you describe as this like feeling that you are inhabiting something so true and you fought so hard to own that.

I think that that is a source of… I mean, I feel that in myself too. It’s a source that we pull on now that is sort of took us to the bottom of a deep, dark well, and having to like climb back out of that is…

ALI HANNON: Yeah, exactly. There’s a joke in Brighton. It’s Peter Pan Land. The joke is that nobody grows up in Brighton, and it’s kind of true. I think for a lot of queer people we defer our adolescents into our 20s because we’ve had such abnormal adolescents where we’ve had to mask and cover, like you say. That when we hit our 20s, suddenly we’re doing all the things that most hetero normative people do in their teens with the loving support of a family unit hopefully, mostly, fingers crossed. There’s lots of us queer people, we have to relearn so much in our 20s that it eats up all of our time, and not to say that people don’t have prudent careers and progress socially during that time. But there’s just an added burden, a second growing up that has to be done. It’s a lot.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. That’s so interesting, and at the same time, gosh, I remember coming out in my 20s. I really came out when I was about 23, and it was like the most fun time of my life too.

ALI HANNON: Yeah, of course.

JENNIFER BROWN: It was really like discovering this whole different community, and when you say family, it’s that family of choice in addition to hopefully your birth family or family of origin that, like you say, fingers crossed, which is a huge kind of… In many, many quotes because so many young people are rejected by their family for their identity, but it sounds like you were loved. I know I was loved and supported, which I never, ever take for granted on any day. I also think about the privileges I have that protected my coming out as well.

So anyway, I want to use that as a bridge, and I want you to talk about that because I find that fascinating. Male privilege, female privilege. What gender non-binary people understand intrinsically about those things that I think are important lessons for the rest of us in understanding that dynamic. And you tell the story in your TED Talk, which I encourage everybody to go watch, about how you discovered gender problems and toxicity in your improv world. I wanted you to describe that and then we’ll get to… I do want to hear about how you teach all of this stuff with the improv lens, which sounds super fun, even if it’s on Zoom, which it is these days. But first of all, tell us about what you stumbled on that was so problematic in improv, and what did it tell you about where we are in our gender performance?

ALI HANNON: Yeah. You know what, I am a gender heathen if you will.

JENNIFER BROWN: I love that word.

ALI HANNON: I think there lots of various, lots of much more smart people out there, much smarter people, if I can get grammar right. They are much smarter people out there who articulate this better than me, but I strongly believe that gender is the biggest, if not the most wide scale collective trauma of our species. I think there are very few examples of people who have exclusively positive and uplifting stories about how they were taught to perform their gender, and actually for most people, their performance of gender or the way in which they were taught to perform gender has been fraught with trauma and discomfort and fear and shame.

On that basis, I think gender as we see it now, and I talk about gender in a specific way as separate to sex. Sex, biological sex, bits and pieces for want of a better phrase, your chromosomal makeup and so on. That’s that. Gender for me is everything else that comes with that. It’s the societal constructs of how we then perform the presumed genitals that we think someone has and all of the stuff that goes with that. I think even to the point where I think sometimes that introducing someone as mister or missus is weird. I apologize. Feel free to cut this out if this is too rude.

JENNIFER BROWN: No, I couldn’t agree more.

ALI HANNON: You walk into a room and someone says, “Hello, everyone. This is Mr. Hannon.” First and foremost, unless you’ve asked that person if that’s the correct way to refer to them, you’re basically naming what you think their genitals look like because you’re not really communicating anything more than that. You’ve made a stab at what you think their genitals might look like, and then you introduce them as that. It feels weird, awkward. I don’t really understand why we would do that as a society unless it was something that we’ve been traumatized into because it doesn’t serve a purpose. So that’s my general kind of fear and concern around gender.

When it comes to improv, I realized that I was experiencing male privilege, and what I mean by that is that as a performer, a gender non-conforming performer, I wasn’t being treated as a woman in improv. So I was not experiencing so many of the things that my female and the women in improv who were experiencing this weird toxic masculinity of being sexualized. There’s this trope in improv where there were lots of improv groups where men make the female performers either whores or mothers. This whores or mothers thing is a trope that’s as old as time, but it was so prevalent in improv, and it was putting women off joining improv tropes, playing in jams, joining workshops.

Because I was exempt from that as somebody who didn’t present in a female way, so wasn’t experiencing that, in the same way that I don’t get cat-called in the street. But my sister for example who’s very feminine presenting does. She’s also much better looking than me, irrespective of gender.

This stuff was happening in these classes, and it was not being challenged in any meaningful way. I think it is now more than ever. I think there’s much more awareness about it, but it made me realize that we are living… If this is happening in improv spaces, then it is happening in the world around us all the time. I don’t think men mean it or the men who do it mean it. I think it’s something that is so in built in them. Improv is great for this. It’s about bringing lots of things to the surface that are perhaps sitting much further below in our subconscious or in our psyche, brings things to the surface that would otherwise not be brought up. I think for a lot of performers, it’s a space where the best and the worst of us shows. I think in those circumstances, men were performing gender in a way that was making women feel really uncomfortable.

JENNIFER BROWN: And the women couldn’t play… I mean, playing cross-gender. I mean, you talk about the lack of comfort in our exploration of even hopping gender identities in improv context. I mean, just the fear of the sort of, if you’ll forgive the word, straitjacket of…

ALI HANNON: Yeah, yeah.


ALI HANNON: Oh no, it’s true. It’s so true. I mean, I don’t think about it anymore because it doesn’t even occur to me. But for so many people, the idea of performing outside of their gender is inconceivable. How could I possibly as a male-bodied person perform femininity without in some way undermining my masculinity, and not to say that there are lots of cultures that do that much more confidently than my own. But there’s a lot of fear around it. And the more precarious the masculinity, the more terrified the man is of falling short of those standards.


ALI HANNON: If that makes sense.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, it really does. So I guess I’d love to know how did you challenge that? Did you being an insider in an improv world, did you invite people to a different awareness and the challenge, and how did that go? What did you learn I suppose about building queer friendly or all-gender identities and expression friendly like creative processes? I mean, what did you learn about that, and what did you set up? And then I’d love to know do you even go there with all of this with your corporate clients? I’m kind of curious how that’s received.

ALI HANNON: Yeah. Good question. I’m a lover, not a fighter, Jen.

JENNIFER BROWN: Me too. Me too. That is a Gen-X reference, by the way.

ALI HANNON: I know, I know. I’m not good at directly challenging people in areas that I’m not already in, and I think for me, what I thought was the best thing I could do was be a role model in some respects but also create spaces that were safe. And I think with improv, like any industry, if you start offering something that is a better quality, is safer, is better for a certain type of people, it increases everybody’s awareness. And I hope that my approach to improv, which is first and foremost we create a safe space.

That is at the beginning of every single course that I run, the group that is in front of me create a set of rule sand guidelines that keep them safe. I don’t write them. I mean, I always put one down, which is don’t be a dickhead because I think that’s a really good rule to live your life by. But all the rest of them, the group always comes up with those rules. And invariably, they’re very consistent. People want kindness. They want to be called up when they say something that’s inappropriate and to be forgiven quickly. I think once you create a space like that, people feel safe to explore something like improv, which is hugely intimate and vulnerable, very rewarding. But you have to shake off so much baggage when you go into improv and start really playing like a child and that’s difficult to do when we’re sensible grown ups, Jen, with important jobs.

JENNIFER BROWN: Very adult. Have all the answers, right?


JENNIFER BROWN: What you just said was so beautiful, forgive quickly. We are not in a forgive quickly world.


JENNIFER BROWN: That’s a question that I am just constantly asked of why this call-out culture, cancel culture… You talk about a binary, right? In a different respect, it’s I’m right, you’re wrong. How dare you not know that. How dare you stumble into a harmful gender stereotype. So funny enough, I would imagine if I were in your improv, that if I’m under the pressure of improv, which to me is exciting but terrifying. I sort of respond and something comes out of my mouth that is conditioned in me, and could very well be perpetuating or causing harm because I’m responding instinctually. That’s the place that you want to put people in. And I would imagine what comes up when we are in that instinctual kind of pressured place is some problematic stuff.

So I just am curious how… And I know in your trademark way, you probably pause the action or maybe you debrief or you process it, and then there’s some beautiful learning. So it isn’t just like fun and games and a way to blow off steam. I’m sure there’s these beautiful moments of what was said and how it landed for others, and then what might have gone differently, and the quick forgiveness. And then sort of let’s try it again. Let’s jump back in the arena, which is so important to inclusive leadership when I teach it. But it can’t work if we don’t hold the space for each other, and particularly I think ideally a facilitator. You or me sort of holding it because I think people left to their own devices don’t even see it happening, let alone understand how to unpack it, how to I guess maybe address it, heal it, enable everybody to feel seen and hear, and then jump back in.

ALI HANNON: This is something I could talk about for hours with you, Jen, because I find it so fascinating, and I think you’re touching on the psychology of it now, which is for me fascinating. And there’s a book called The Body Keeps The Score by a guy called Bessel van der Kolk, and it talks a lot about trauma within the body. I mean, lots of important stuff, and then at the end it talks about some of the ways in which we’re the species have tried to manage trauma. One of which, would you believe it, it’s through theater and performance.

JENNIFER BROWN: Aha. Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ALI HANNON: But from the time of Spanish Latin theater, Artonian theater, it’s all about experiencing things that you wouldn’t normally experience. I think Bess van der Kolk talks a lot about how within the space of theater, improv, you can explore things, feelings, situations, voices, circumstances in a way that you just can’t do elsewhere. And it can be incredibly therapeutic. And when you overlay that onto, like you say, pausing the action, recognizing something that’s come up that might be uncomfortable as a group whose come up with a shared set of values and a way of approaching things, they feel safe. Reflecting on that, moving on.

It talks a lot to some of the anti-racism work that people are undergoing. You need to acknowledge that the racism is there. It’s deep down, but it’s there. The only way to get rid of it is to bring it up, journal it, explore it, understand it in order to tackle it and eliminate it. You can’t make it go away by squishing it further and further down and praying that the box will never be unlocked. The box is still there. Improv with gender, all of the gender stuff, all the gender trauma that people come into my classes with. They’ve been squashing it down for years, decades. Some day they can bring it up. They can explore it. They can talk about it. They can be the quiet woman who never speaks up, and improv can be the loud white dude who tells everybody to smile. It’s an amazingly cathartic experience to flip that around and therapeutically examine their experience but from a place of power.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s so good.

ALI HANNON: Like I said, I get very over excited about this stuff, Jen.

JENNIFER BROWN: I know. Well, you should be because it’s important. It’s transformational. I mean, I guess if the business world were more comfortable using this modality and frankly, a lot of different modalities. I mean, I feel we’re so constrained in terms of our toolkit for teaching, our toolkit for encouraging the digging up of the box, and the unlocking of the box. And there’s so much unfortunately, whether it’s true or intended or not, there’s a lot of people who don’t feel they can dig up that box and open up that box in front of other people or even to themselves. And you’re right that we can’t move forward if we don’t do this. But the safe space you create, and really frankly, the fun and to me it sounds like a fun and loving safe space that you enable. I can just imagine it just shortens and accelerates our processing time and our healing. I would imagine to have probably a lot of aha’s that people have in working with you to see themselves in a different light, to find different aspects of their voice, to criticize or critique certain things that have been causing harm for so long, to bring all that up is fabulous.

You are the perfect teacher for it. I feel like you can bring all these different viewpoints because you’ve lived it. You’ve had these feet in multiple worlds. You’ve witnessed and been perhaps assumed to be… The assumptions made about you and your gender identity and how you’re going to think and behave, and what you will agree with and what you don’t. I remember when I came out sometimes, and I would be with a straight guy, cis gender, straight guy. And they would like try to bond with me over how they view women. It was like the strangest thing. I thought this is like I don’t even know what to do with this.

ALI HANNON: So interesting because it shows you that there’s this… Gender is language. It’s culture. It’s the way we interact. It’s the topics we speak about. Gender is insidious and it has worked its way into absolutely everything from what we see when we go into whatever high street clothe shop we choose to go into, the boys and the girls section, from the way that we think about parental lead. All of it is drenched in gender, and to the detriment of everyone because I’m sure you to that chap and you would have bonded nicely over a shared interest in literature or daytime TV, whatever you’re into. But misogyny obviously wasn’t a good call when it came to engaging with you.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. You’re right. You just explained it to me. The other thing that was really traumatic for me I think to realize as a… So we don’t know each other well, although I feel like I’ve known you forever. But I was, as an opera singer and a music theater performer, I was always cast in the ingenue.


JENNIFER BROWN: Right. And I had performed by gender as a child and growing up as a teen, I look back at pictures and you see me trying to perform a very feminine, a sort of extreme feminine normative gender. And at the time, I wasn’t in touch with my queerness, but I certainly had a lot of boyfriends.

ALI HANNON: Yes, cool.

JENNIFER BROWN: I knew how to do that. I studied that, and I got really good at it. Like really good.

ALI HANNON: It’s a performance. It’s fascinating as a performer.

JENNIFER BROWN: Fascinating. So then I thought to myself, and then subsequently everybody knows my story I think. And if folks on The Will to Change don’t, I literally lost my voice. I injured it and I had to get surgeries. It was a whole drama. So the universe sort of directed me to use my voice I think in a different way, thankfully. But I was already struggling and closeted of course because you don’t want your ingenue to be out in the press. That doesn’t work. Because you need somebody to perform gender in a certain way based on the character that she’s playing.

So anyway, we didn’t have the language for that back then. I mean, this was 20 years ago. And I don’t even think the theater world is so confining in its way, particularly music theater, particularly opera. I mean, no way. This is such a sort of history-based art form that’s sort of frozen in time in terms of gender norms. So I knew that it couldn’t hold me. So I performed it well. But it felt, in my heart, I knew this would never tap into all the different ways that I wanted to express my gender in the world. It would be too confining.

JENNIFER BROWN: Anyway, so it all happened for a reason.

ALI HANNON: It’s fascinating. Honestly, it really interests me your experience of gender because I think you’re speaking for a world of cis women who understand the complexity of gender non-conformity and how are presentation and our performance of gender can be very different to how we identify ourselves.


ALI HANNON: My non-binary identity means that I am predominantly masculine presenting but not always, and I have plenty of non-binary friends who are much more feminine presenting or very much both, sometimes simultaneously depending on how fancy the night out is. But within opera, within theater, and it goes back to what I said about… Sorry again to use this phrase, whores or mothers. Women have roles, and they always have done and they’re historic. And society doesn’t like when they deviate from those two roles, let alone from performing femininity well.

There’s an interesting show actually. I don’t know if you’ll be able to get ahold of it in the US, but you’ll be fascinated by it. A woman called Bryony Kimmings who’s one of the best performance artists I’ve ever come across. She did a show called Opera Mums where she took I think it was five single working class mums and wrote [inaudible 00:36:46], is that the right phrase?

JENNIFER BROWN: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ALI HANNON: For them to perform. And they were stories about femininity, womanhood, and being mothers. So someone like Bryony who was like I don’t know if I like hot prot. I don’t know if I like the messages within opera. She happened to fall in love with opera, and it’s just a stunning thing to watch.

JENNIFER BROWN: Wow. That’s really fascinating. There’s so much there. So funny enough in getting reacquainted I guess all these years later with the language I have now and what I do for a living, I’ve re-engaged with my graduate school of music. And what’s fascinating is they’re sharing with me all the gender challenges they have. You can imagine as younger generations come up into being performers and expressing their gender in a variety of ways, can the roles that are out there be inhabited by those of us that don’t necessarily conform to the gender that was “originally” envisioned with that role? So the question of who can play what and whom, and is that allowed? Is it okay? What does it mean? How does the audience absorb that?

Anyway, so who’s allowed to sing what? From what gender expression, and what gender identity? Oh my gosh, it’s like hurting my head it’s so… In a really good way, I love it because secretly as a cis woman, I always wanted to break out of all this. I did. I just didn’t know. I didn’t know there was anything available to me other than how I was raised to express my gender.

ALI HANNON: It’s not healthy to be constrained my society’s version of gender. I don’t think it does anyone any good.

JENNIFER BROWN: Nope. Nope, nope, nope. Oh gosh. So I want to spend our last… I think we have like seven more minutes, Ali. I don’t even know what to say or where to go because this is such important stuff. I guess I might ask you about allyship. Let me ask that. And let’s talk a bit about just privilege and allyship. So let me bounce off how I teach this these days. I am a queer identified person from a sexual orientation perspective. I love that word queer allow I’m Gen-X. So Gen-Xers have mixed feelings about [inaudible 00:39:12].

You always say this, and it’s true. It was a pejorative term, and now it’s been re-embraced, which is very typical I think of generational language. And I love it because it’s an umbrella word. It lets you be whoever you want to be in that word, and it doesn’t necessarily force a label. However, I do believe very specific labels are really important too in terms of understanding the nuances of identity. Like for example, if we just said queer but we didn’t say non-binary, I feel that it would be a missed opportunity in really naming something that is very specific and deeply, deeply true for you for example and so many other people.

So I guess the allyship question to me is as a cis woman, the best, best things that I can do as an aspiring ally because you’re only an ally when someone in a marginalized identity says you’re an ally, right? This is not a badge we can put on. It’s not something we put on just during Pride Month. However, I view myself both as a queer woman who needs allies and also as a cis gender woman who is and needs to be a greater ally for all gender identities and all other kinds of identities that aren’t seen and heard adequately in our community, let alone in the world.

So what can we do, and now I’m sort of saying we from a cis gender perspective. You said earlier mister and missus. I love that. I think some day down the road we will say, “How could we have ever said that?”

ALI HANNON: [inaudible 00:40:51]. Are we going to make an assumption about what I think?


ALI HANNON: It’s just we’re weird. We’re a weird species.

JENNIFER BROWN: I know we are. We’re limited in our way. Isn’t it cute? Not really.

ALI HANNON: No. You know what, Jen, here’s a promise to you. I think in 10 years, maybe 20 years time, I want to see the world allyship thrown onto the heap of words that we no longer use. I don’t mean to be controversial, but I think there’s an arms length that comes with allyship. Being an ally is about standing, like you say, on the side at Pride waving a flag. And I think allyship is critical and has been critical, but as we’ve spoken today, you have so many experiences which are completely similar to mine. You know what it feels like to grow up in a world where the societal binary of man or woman simply does not sufficiently cover your experience.

So maybe allyship is something that keeps us separate and that there’s an opportunity to look at something more intimate like kinship is a word that I’ve used, but it might be that there’s a much better word where we are recognizing our shared experiences. There is not a single person, whether they are straight, gay, cis, trans who haven’t experienced the negative consequences of gender and how constricting and problematic it can be. So ultimately we are all part of a kin if you like of people who are fighting against the constraints that have been imposed on us.

JENNIFER BROWN: I love that answer. Can I just pause you?

ALI HANNON: Yeah, of course.

JENNIFER BROWN: I feel like you just upgraded my question, and you taught me something that is so important. Then as a teacher, I have to figure out how to turn around and teach that concept because it’s sort of to me a 2.0 version of allyship. You’re right that allyship assumes that I don’t understand something about what you’re going through.


JENNIFER BROWN: And when we sit on the side as cis gender people and say, “Well, I don’t have a problem or a mismatch between my gender identity expression and what the world expects of me,” that is not true of any of us.

ALI HANNON: No, gosh no.

JENNIFER BROWN: None of us. Yeah, and when we study masculinity, when we do things like the Better Man Conference, which I’m deeply involved in. I love that space because it allows… I watch the men who identify in so many different ways, of course, kind of unpack all of that and think about the norms that they have felt forced to comply with. How limiting that’s been for them, how harmful that’s been for them. What they’ve participated in unwittingly, and I feel so deeply for them. And I know that that conformity has caused such loss and death and suicide. I mean, there’s a reason why the numbers are sky high for men and suicide rate. I know you talk about that also in your TED Talk. And I think-

ALI HANNON: Well, it’s not real intimate. Again, it maybe this isn’t for the podcast. But I think to give you a bit of context, I lost my dad to alcoholism 10 years ago now. Obviously growing up, you sort of go, “Oh, you’re an alcoholic. Yeah, it’s Irish, classic.” But actually, as I’ve got older, I think what I’ve had to come to terms with is that the reason he died was not because of his alcoholism, it’s because he was entrenched in masculinity. He could not speak to people about how he felt, and actually probably as a child and teenager, all of the grief and traditional Irish tragedy that befell him, he was told to put off and shut up. [crosstalk 00:44:38] and that ultimately led to him developing all of these really problematic coping mechanisms. When I say that masculinity killed him, I’m not just trying to be provocative. I genuinely think that that’s the case for a lot of men who end up passing away [inaudible 00:45:00].

JENNIFER BROWN: I do want that in the podcast. Of course. That’s so important. How publicly do you share that story? I’m curious.

ALI HANNON: Not much. I don’t know. I’ve always steered away from it because it feels a bit like-


ALI HANNON: It’s an X factor. Like oh my gosh. No. I don’t know. It’s up to you. I mean, like I said, it’s… Quiet alcoholics.


ALI HANNON: Honestly. It doesn’t get more stereotypical. But yeah, I mean, I’m happy if you think it’s appropriate.

JENNIFER BROWN: Okay. No, I think it’s very important. In your analysis from where you sit of why it happened and not falling into the stereotype or using the stereotype as an excuse, I think is really important. I mean, this is where we have to learn. We’ve got to get into the specifics of why from our lens. I think deepening that, being honest. I think the more stories we can tell, but the way you unpack it matters. To me, the lesson that comes from his life, the lesson that you are pulling from his life is such… I know and you know that needs to be talked about so much more.

So we can’t rest on the stereotype that people laugh about or roll their eyes about. You know that’s never been accurate. That’s never been complete. And really that’s just papering over the truth that we really have to wrestle with. And when we don’t wrestle with it, it means that we continue to perpetuate, and we continue to lead the unexamined life with each other. That doesn’t get us anywhere. So I really appreciate you sharing that and it helps us get to know you. And it helps us also understand the stakes of the life that you’re living, the stakes of your truth that how critical it is for you to stand in your power today and in your authenticity and teach from that place and have a family experience that you had. To me, it gives you this moral authority that I already know you have to me, but to speak from that place of your own family member and the damage that happened because of these gender norms is very personal and very powerful.

So thank you for sharing that, Ali. And thank you for joining me today. I feel like this is a deep and personal, cathartic conversation for me, especially around my own performance of gender in my early days. Gosh, I don’t know if that was a waste of time. I feel like it was and yet I don’t know what the… I wish that it hadn’t been the only pallet that I thought was available to me in terms of painting myself. However-

ALI HANNON: That’s the whole point of going back and the process of all this stuff is going back to your little self and going, “Its fine. That was all that was available to you at the time.” The same for me. We’ve got to be kind to our little selves because they’re still in there somewhere, and they come out when you’re doing improv, I guarantee it. They need love and reassurance.

JENNIFER BROWN: That little self. Well, celebrating our little self and all that our limited vocabulary and now celebrating that kids are coming out with their full identity earlier in life. And they have these beautiful, again, fingers crossed, as you said earlier, beautiful parents who immediately move into advocacy and immediately revisit their own gender understanding in the process of loving their kid, protecting their kid, and who that kid really wants and needs to be in the world. Wow. What a different world. When I meet those parents and they get in touch with me, and I’m sure they get in touch with you, Ali, to say, “You are an inspiration. Thank you for talking about what you talk about. Thank you for walking the path you’re walking in public.” To me, that is like one of the deepest things that happens to me is a parent with a trans kid being grateful to me. Are you kidding? I am grateful to them. And I’m grateful to that little kid for the courage that they have because that’s going to change the world more than yours and my efforts. We’re bringing up the rear.


JENNIFER BROWN: We’re trying to say undo a lot, but I feel like this next generation is going to create something different and that’s what’s going to really change the world.

So thank you, Ali, for joining me on The Will to Change. How can people get in touch with you? I hope hire you because God knows we need a little levity coming out of 2020 and in the workplace. We’ve been through a lot, and this is such a beautiful way to get at some really important issues.

ALI HANNON: Well, I think the best place to go is my website. I feel like it’s my sort of virtual brochure if you like of the things that I do. So yeah, And it will guide you towards all of the relevant social media handles and also gives you a list of the things like improv or business training, activism, shows, performances that I do. So yes, I would say that is the best location to find me at.

JENNIFER BROWN: Awesome. Thanks, Ali. And keep up the amazing work.


Ali Hannon