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“His Name Was Shawn”

In my last blog I spoke about the movie Leave It On the Floor, an independent musical that highlights the perils, pageantry, and prominence of the ballroom scene in the minds of many marginalized predominately black gay youth. I again hasten to stress the importance of this movie as a valiant—though imperfect—launching point for conversation about this misunderstood and academically neglected subculture. But it is at this time I want to turn to one of the most poignant scenes in the film—a funeral scene, in which strife erupts over the identity of a black transgender youth.

Eppie Durrel is the name of a trasgendered female within the film. Arguably one of the most thought provoking characters in the film in that not only is she transgender, but believes herself to be capable of giving birth to a child—despite the skepticism of many of her friends. I will keep the spoilers to a minimum. Through her complexity, viewers ultimately find themselves in the midst of a funeral scene, where Eppie lies in her casket while her “house mother” (see my last blog for an understanding of this term), Mother Queef begins to speak over her.

As one would expect, Mother Queef beings to recount fond memories of her friend, using heartfelt invocations laced with feminine pronouns. But the crux of the scene erupts when Eppie’s father stands and sharply declares. “With all due respect, I’ve had enough of this…His name was Shawn.”

What follows is a soulful musical conflict in which parties on both side of the funeral begin to sing about the loved ones in their life who rejected previous identities in favor of new ones. “His name was Dwayne,” sings one family “…that boy has gone away…” retorts Dwayne himself—newly self-identified as Roxie Glamour. The drama of the scene fully surmounts as battles over identity ignites between family and the exiled youth that are the backbone of this movie.

The scene dramatizes the complex haze of identity in which many queer youth can become ensnared. As they grow as humans, with values, emotions, and motivations, they can find that their various identities become an affront to their loved ones. As a result, their loved ones abandon them. Instead of accepting the identities that their children amass, these jilted parents continue to hold onto their mantras of “His name was Shawn,” in essence attempting to maintain the pictures of their children that are consistent with their own pre-existing expectations. And thus, the very notion of identity becomes a statement for queer youth. Their identities are the very fabric that can bind them or break them from family, friends, and quite often—themselves.

Even in death, Eppie Durrel’s identity was at stake, and quite frankly, not for her, but for her family and friends. Unfortunately, Eppie’s untimely death left her voice out of the debate. But it is important to remember that in the struggle for identity—the agency that comes with the power of self-identification must be underscored.  So whether “His name was Shawn,” or Eppie Durrel, the song must be sung by Eppie herself. Just the same, marginalized queer youth—especially those of color—cannot have their identities hijacked by the myopic sensibilities and expectations of outsiders. They must continue to lay claim to the right to claim their own identities. It is a shame that Eppie left without leaving explicit directives, but I truly believe that she would added a little extra emphasis to her father’s statement. His name was Shawn.