The Spy Who Came in from the Men’s Room

By Penny Sterling, playwright and star of Spy in the House of Men

On November 8, like the majority of Americans, I voted for Hillary Clinton. This election had special meaning for me. For one thing, it was the first time a woman was a candidate in a major political party. But more importantly for me: It was my first major election where I voted as a woman.

I had “come out” in October of 2015, but since I haven’t legally changed my name, I went to that election dressed very androgynously. But for this one, I wore one of my favorite outfits: A teal sweater, houndstooth miniskirt, black stockings and knee-high black boots. And even though I was still legally using my old name, I walked through the election process joyfully and with absolutely no resistance from anyone.

And then—because I live in Rochester, NY—I decided to place my “I voted” button on the grave of Susan B. Anthony: suffragette, political activist, and the first woman to vote (albeit illegally) in the United States. Susan B. lived and died in Rochester, and placing “I voted” stickers on her grave has become something of a tradition for area women, and it seemed a fitting end to the day for me.


When I got to Mount Hope Cemetery, it had the familiar air of a Rochester Festival (we have festivals for everything—jazz, flowers, theatre, hills, streets, even clotheslines. Like festivals? Head to Rochester on any given weekend between May and October and there will likely be one). A happy line of women and men wound its way through the 175-year-old graveyard, patiently waiting their turn on a perfect late autumn afternoon. I spent my time uploading photos of the event (and of some of the more interesting nineteenth-century headstones I passed) onto Facebook.

By the time I actually made it to Susan B.’s grave, night had fallen, but portable lights had been set up to allow us to see the headstone. Well, actually the headstone was still invisible, because by the time I got there, the “I voted” stickers were a quarter-inch thick, covering the entire headstone, as well as other markers with her name on it, and even a few on Frederick Douglass’s tomb, a dozen or so feet away. A volunteer offered to take my picture as I put my sticker on the stone. A photographer from the New York Times took a photo of me and asked permission to use it in the next day’s edition.

It was a glorious day, a glorious evening, a glorious time to be alive. I chose to not turn on the TV or get on social media that evening because I didn’t want to sit through interminable talking heads reviewing and reacting to the day’s events. I had done all that I could. No reason to ruin a good evening. I turned on some music, made a delicious salad, and started reading a novel.

Unfortunately, just before bed, I decided to turn on the TV to hear Hillary’s acceptance speech.

The Times photo never ran, since there seemed to be other, more pressing news to cover.

I tell you this because it’s an important part of my story—something that isn’t part of my show Spy in the House of Men: a One-Woman Show with Balls, but it informs a lot of the decisions I have made subsequent to the election, including performing my show in Fringe Festivals around the country. So let me catch you up on the story I tell onstage, in as tight a paragraph as I can write:

I’m transgender. I’ve always been transgender. I expected to have this information buried with me. But 55 years into my life, I figured out that if I didn’t admit this, the burying would happen sooner rather than later. So I came out. And then some shit happened. Some good, some bad—but even the bad stuff had good that came with it. Laughter and tears. The end. Want more? Come see my show.

The idea for doing this show came from two places.

One of them is social media. Facebook had put me in touch with a lot of people from my past. When I started living as Penny, I transitioned on my profile as well, which prompted a fair amount of “what the hells” from many of my friends. So I offered to answer questions and explain my life to them. Which resulted in a plethora of “you should write a books” from my friends who have always enjoyed my ability to work words like “plethora” into conversations. “But I don’t wanna write a book,” I’d respond. Writing a book is a solitary endeavor, and I’m rather gregarious.

The other place this show came from is the stage. I like to perform. I have a degree in drama, and I did standup comedy for several years. In fact, I was voted “The Funniest Man in Rochester” in 1992. Of course, something’s changed since then: I no longer live in Rochester.

No, that’s not what’s changed. What’s changed is that I’m no longer funny.

That’s not true. I got back into standup after I came out.* But in standup—especially of the five-minute, open-mic variety—if you don’t get a laugh every twenty to thirty seconds, you don’t go anywhere. I realized that I was sacrificing truth for laughs. So I decided to do a show (borrowing heavily from the stuff I wrote on Facebook), applied to the Rochester Fringe Festival, and was surprised when they offered me stage time.

I finished writing it thirty-six hours before my first performance. The reaction to my show was universally positive, which prompted a lot of “everyone should see this” from my friends. My friends say a lot of things. But people I had never met were also saying it, so I figured there might actually be a reason to continue performing.

Up until election day, I sort of figured my show would be a victory lap: a show that celebrated how far we have come! And a society that embraced diversity—even allowing a fifty-something father of four to be who she really is!

Yeah, not so much.

After election day, I was filled with doubt. I had a rather disturbing encounter with a Trump supporter earlier in the year—an encounter I included in my show. After the election, I saw a lot of bad behavior from an emboldened faction of Trump supporters.

Did I really want to expose myself to that sort of scrutiny?

But something else happened on election night: After I placed my sticker on Susan B.’s grave, I decided to go back to the spot in the line where I started to tell whoever was there how long it would take to get to the grave (a little less than three hours). Turned out that the folks who were at that spot were two women and a man that I had met in the open-mic trenches. They all friended me on Facebook the next day, and a few weeks later one of the women started a comedy fundraiser for Planned Parenthood, and was looking for performers. I offered my services, and told her I could do some comedy, or I could do the segment of my show where I talked about the encounter with the Trump supporter.

Which is what she asked me to do. I have never been in a bar that was as silent as that one was when I told my story. Even the bartender and the wait staff were listening.

That sealed it. I applied to five Fringe Festivals all over the country, thinking I might get into one or two. I got into all five.


Photo by Annette Dragon.  

All of this brings me to a somewhat spiritual, kismet-ish conclusion, which is this: I’m doing exactly what I need to do exactly when I need to do it. If I just keep doing the next right thing and letting go of the outcome, I’ll be of service, and I’ll get compensated for it.

I suppose I could say that I perform this show because it puts me out in the world in a way that writing a book never would: I travel to different places, which forces people to deal with a 6’ tall fabulously dressed woman with a voice that hovers in the contralto range on her best days, who can ride a bike up a mountain and can crack walnuts with one hand yet is unmistakably feminine. I am in your face in a way a book will never be, but I do it politely and genteelly, and with good humor and how weird is that? And not only in Washington, or Cincinnati, or Ithaca, or Minneapolis, but in all the gas stations, restaurants, convenience stores, rest stops and hotels in between where I’m going to and where I’m coming from. I’m in the world, forcing you to deal with me, while I ask you for nothing more than coffee, or a bacon cheeseburger, or where do you keep the Epsom salts.

I’m forcing you to deal with me as a normal person in the normal world, and deal with how you are doing with that.

But that’s not true. I mean, it is, but it’s not “why” I do this—even in the era of Trump, where people tell themselves stories about who you are and why you are a freak and how you should be destroyed—because like it or not those people have always been there. They are just more emboldened.

I do this because I like it. I’m good at it. I’m entertaining. My show, ultimately, isn’t about what it’s like to be transgender as much as what it’s like to be me. And, in the end, isn’t that enough?


Photo by Doreen Tominez.  


*  “Transgender is the joining of two Latin words: trans, meaning “across,” and gender, meaning “to the other bathroom.”  On second thought, maybe we should revisit that whole “not funny” statement.

Spy in the House of Men is lived, written, and performed by Penny Sterling and directed by Lynne Sánchez-Fries. Tickets are available here

Penny Sterling lives in Rochester NY with her kids (when they’re home from college) and her cat Neil (who has no interest in higher education).


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