For 54 years, Penny Sterling had the hardest acting job out there.
She had to play the role of a man.
It wasn’t until 2014, after being married and raising children, Sterling acknowledged to herself that she was a transgender woman.
From there, she got to work on the stuff of stage, eventually crafting and starring in a one-woman show called Spy in the House of Men, which searches for the humor, loneliness and strength that defined her life before and after the big switch.
Another of Sterling’s shows, Parents & Children, Husbands & Wives: It’s All Relatives, will bring songs and stories to the Geva Theatre Center: Fielding Stage as part of the Rochester Fringe Festival (ticket info here).
Here’s some of the Q&A between Sterling and Adam Chodak:
Adam: What was that like, pretending?
Sterling: Scary, infuriating, really, really lonely, confusing. I had to behave in a way that I didn’t understand, I learned how to be a man by watching others around me and imitating them and the ones that were easiest to imitate were the jerks and I was a jerk and I hated myself for doing it, but I couldn’t let anyone know that I was transgender.
Adam: Do you feel like you were dealt a bad hand, where you were a woman (in your mind), but a man everywhere else?
Sterling: I was woman everywhere except for my skin. I was furious at God and, “Why did you do this to me?” I was furious at my parents. My dad’s biggest critique of me was that I did things like a girl. A lot of why me? Why is this the way I am?
Adam: Do you still have that feeling?
Sterling: No, not really. At the risk of sounding too religious, I’m wondering if I had to do all that so I can do what I’m doing now because I believe I’m helping people. Helping understanding by getting up and telling my stories, speaking for no one but me.
Adam: What’s performing been like?
Sterling: The first time was so scary. It’s still scary. I’m doing a lot of emotive stuff out there, Spy in the House of Men especially. It is very, very cathartic is the right word, but it’s almost tragic when I do it because the only way I can do it justice is by putting myself back in those positions of when my mother caught me in one of her dresses when I was 14 years old and when a guy propositioned and threatened me while I was getting a cup of coffee at a gas station on a Sunday morning.
Adam: How do you respond to those people who say this is a choice?
Sterling: I them that they’re wrong, I tell them I tried for 54 years to not and if I could have, I would have. I did not expect to tell anybody about this. This was going to be a secret that was going to buried with me, but back in 2014 I realized that if I didn’t do this the burying was going to happen sooner rather than later.
Adam: You’re performing at places like Geva Theatre Center, what do you think about the Rochester community providing these platforms?
Sterling: Oh my word, it is so nice. It is so nice to be accepted. It is so nice to have people who make no bones about the fact that they’re on your side.
Adam: You are on the other side, you are out in the public eye, are you happier now?
Sterling: Happiness is fleeting. There are things that I’m happy about and there are things that make me sad. I would prefer to say that I’m more joyful, far more joyful, that’s a much more inside thing. Joy does not respond to the vagaries of society, I’m still looking for work, I have children in college, I worry about bills, all these things, it’s hard to be happy all the time with this situation, but I’m always joyful, I’m grateful for everything I have, I’m grateful that I can be the person that I really am, I’m grateful that my children were able to see me for who I really am and love me and that brings me joy. So, yeah, I’m far more joyful than I every was.