The first time I saw a production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch the only song I understood was “The Origin of Love.”
John Cameron Mitchell’s story of a drag queen bitter about her famous ex and botched sex change was on Broadway for a splashy revival and I never missed a splashy revival. I was a 20 year old art student more closeted to myself than to anyone else. Too young and straight to have seen Hedwig before. Too young and straight to understand it now.
But I understood this song. Based on Plato’s Symposium, it describes a past where all people were two before Zeus split us apart. I connected with this idea of soulmates wandering the world looking for their destined other half, because that’s how I made sense of my confused gender. If I could just find the right person, these feelings might go away and I could finally feel whole.
I found it in a girl and then I found it in myself and then I was a girl and then I was myself. And part of being myself meant re-examining every work of trans art I’d ever been exposed to — including finally watching the movie of the play that had left such an impression.
Gone was the polish of the Broadway show, present was Mitchell’s inimitable performance and a crackling queer energy. This was how Stephen Trask’s songs were meant to be heard. Not in a theatre surrounded by rich straight people, but on a couch in an ill-fitted dress next to my cis girlfriend as she grew increasingly concerned with the whole spectacle.
In theory, Hedwig’s forced bottom surgery should’ve offended my baby trans heart too. But the more I watched, the more I liked it. The more I thought about it, the more I hungered for this kind of complicated trans story. Because that’s how my gender felt. Complicated.
Around the time I first watched the Hedwig movie, I belonged to a free support group for trans women. The cis straight therapist who led the group had two rules — everyone had to have their own therapist outside the group and everyone had to be a binary trans woman.
The therapist said she’d been working with trans patients for decades and the experiences of binary and non-binary trans people were vastly different. She said it was important that we had a space as trans women to discuss our similar journeys.
And so people followed directions. As we went around the circle the other girls shared feelings that could be found in any trans memoir or talk show interview. It really did feel like they were all on similar journeys. But not me — I felt different. As the weeks went on, I started sharing my actual feelings, my actual experiences. I started being more honest and less binary. “You’re just a big ol’ queer, aren’t you?” the therapist said one time after I was done speaking.
But the thing is I wasn’t alone. Once I started being honest, some of the other girls did too. They echoed my experiences or shared new ones of their own. None of us are that unique — binary or not. The question is whether defending our experiences to a cishet gaze is worth restricting ourselves and the other trans people around us. The lesson a lot of us have to learn is it’s not. That’s the lesson Hedwig has to learn too. Because there is, in fact, a trans woman at the center of Hedwig and the Angry Inch but it’s not Hedwig. It’s Yitzhak.
While the musical primarily focuses on Hedwig and her relationship with rock sensation Tommy Gnosis, Hedwig’s current husband and bandmate Yitzhak holds equal importance.
Throughout the film, we watch Hedwig take out her anger on Yitzhak as Yitzhak quietly struggles with her own place in the world. She brushes Hedwig’s wigs and then dares to put one on. When someone calls Hedwig faggot, Yitzhak is the first to attack. Playing Angel in Rent — musical theatre’s most famous trans woman — becomes Yitzhak’s dream.
Despite Hedwig’s long hair and Yitzhak’s beard, it’s the latter who is more in line with what my former therapist might call a “binary trans woman.” And Hedwig won’t allow it. For Hedwig transition is when everything went wrong. Surgery did nothing for her except make it harder to get sex work clients and give Tommy an excuse to leave her. She yearns for the way Tommy can be an androgynous rock star who has packaged Hedwig’s true self in a way the public can understand. Hedwig ruins Yitzhak’s chances to play Angel because she’s controlling, but she also does it because she cares about her. She doesn’t want Yitzhak to make the same mistake that she made. She fails to realize that what might have been a mistake for her is not a mistake for everyone.
Yitzhak is played by Miriam Shor in the movie and is always played by a cis woman on stage. (Hopefully in the future, trans women will take over the part.) This casting makes for a powerful reveal when in the end Hedwig let’s go of her own gender performance and hands her wig to Yitzhak. The transformation is immediate. Yitzhak is suddenly the woman she always knew herself to be.
Hedwig accepts that her other half isn’t Tommy and it isn’t Yitzhak. Envying Tommy and controlling Yitzhak won’t settle the turmoil within herself. It’s a powerful revelation that lends the film its happy ending. But this isn’t a happy ending where Hedwig declares herself to be non-binary and asks the audience to please start using they/them pronouns. This is a happy ending where Hedwig, naked, walks down a dark alley into the unknown.
For some of us — binary, non-binary, and everything in between — that will always be our relationship to gender. I’m a woman. I’m trans. I’m non-binary. All those words feel right for me. But I’m still naked walking down that dark alley a little unsure of who I’m meant to be.
My favorite song from Hedwig — everyone’s favorite song from Hedwig? — is “Wig in a Box.” It’s a tribute to drag and the rightness a trans person can feel when first donning a new presentation. What I love most about the song is that it’s not about self-discovery — it’s about self-discoveries. Every verse, every wig, makes Hedwig a different person. And there’s joy to be found in all these different identities.
“Some girls they have natural ease,” Hedwig sings. But I’m not so sure that’s true. Not Tommy. Not Yitzhak. Not even Farrah Fawcett who Hedwig models her most iconic wig after. Because I don’t agree that non-binary and binary trans women have vastly different experiences. I don’t even know what those words mean except that they’re important to certain individuals and I’ll always respect that. Binary, non-binary. Cis, trans. Natural ease is a performance like any other.
The final identity that Hedwig sticks with in the last verse is punk rock star of stage and screen. It’s true for Hedwig. It’s true for John Cameron Mitchell. And I feel it’s true for me. Today marks the 20th anniversary of the film’s wide release and to me its importance has only deepened. I see this movie as a guide for being a queer person and a queer artist amidst ever-shifting language and community divides.
Be comfortable enough in yourself that you don’t try to control other people’s identities. Be comfortable enough in yourself that you don’t try to control other people’s art. But you don’t have to actually be comfortable. It’s just not possible for some of us. And if you get too uncomfortable you can always try someone else.
You can always take another wig off the shelf.