18 posts tagged gender
18 posts tagged gender
INTERVIEW WITH TRANS ARTIST ANNIE DANGER
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Annie Danger is a rip-roaring, crowd-wranglin’, ring-tailed buckaroo dead set on proving the deep efficacy of political art. She is a trans woman born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico and rooted in the San Francisco Bay Area for 13 years running. Annie makes theatrical works that make a potent soup out of cunning spectacle and dynamic interactivity. She plays with archetypes like nobody’s business and is interested, above all else, in the profound efficiency of hybrids in every aspect of life.
For more information, track her down on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/annie.danger
For more interviews from Bodies Of Work Magazine go here: http://bodiesofworkmag.com
Morty: Hi, Apaulo! I just spent some time on your website and really love the work you’re doing. When did you begin as an artist?
Apaulo: Thank you! I started drawing when I was wee high to a chicken thigh. A bit later in life I started drawing dirty pictures. One I can vividly remember is a dragon boy with a huge dick. I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian household with no TV or radio. I was also born and raised as a girl, so you can imagine how shocking it was for my family when I was caught drawing sex pictures… let’s just say I became convinced I was possessed with demons or something. That captive feeling and the lack of words I had at the time to explain my gender truly led me to the art I do today. My art has a lot of creepyness and colorfulness because that’s how I deal with mortality and myths we believe are true about life, sex, and death. I believe my art is activism and therapy. I also perform as Puck Goodfellow doing burlesque, porn, and circus. I love using performance art to poke and prod at our society and morality and sexuality.
Morty: You’re also doing amazing signage work. How did you get into doing it?
Apaulo: I got into sign work because I need to make the money any way I can. Also, I think hand crafted signage is a dying art that I would love to keep alive … with a bunch of recycled parts like Frankenstein. HA HA HA HAH! *sinister laugh*
Morty: Are you involved in any Bay Area art scenes?
Apaulo: Honestly I know very little about the Bay Area art scene, or any scene for that matter. I have always found scenes confusing… unless I am creating them from my mind… with lots of mythological creatures and zombies. … or a BDSM scene, yeahhh!!! I know a little about the queer porn scene and the burlesque seen, but not so much the whole bay area art scene. Really, I’m in my own little fantasy land most of the time. I do love the Center for Sex and Culture and Counter Pulse, I love all the scenes there!
Morty: How would you describe yourself - with gender and beyond?
Apaulo: I simply identify as an animal and a dandy. I have found that when I am broad or creative in my identity it encourages curiosity and evolution in myself and other people and when I narrow it down to job, gender, or sexuality it encourages assumption and I get stuck in an ego box. Identifying this way makes my art hedonistic and childish and iconic and I feel free to just let my instincts do the work and not try to over think everything … I can just live in the moment and enjoy every second of my life!
Morty: I love that! Would you ever call yourself a “trans/genderqueer/gender non-conforming artist” or does that feel too limiting?
Apaulo: I guess I could call myself a trans artist because I am always growing and changing and learning about myself. I am always in some sort of magical transition. I was diagnosed female at birth and now I have more testosterone in my body, so… I guess that we humans have created a symbol to sum all this up. Like I mentioned before I identify as an animal because I think I am bigger than the word trans… it’s like I’m a nudest or a dog and people keep putting me in clothing they want to see me in because it makes them feel more comfortable.
Morty: What are you up to lately?
Apaulo: I am working on my rope (Circus performance), xxx burlesque performance and a stained glass series called “Holy Perversion”. Also, since there seems to be a need for a kinky queer art and play space in the East Bay my lover, Jay Very, our friend Becka and I are putting together a queer artist collective and kinky/xxx performance/play space called The Velvet Rope. I’m so excited!
Morty: Please send the details when things are up and running! Lastly, who do you feel inspired by?
Apaulo: I like the photographer David LaChapelle and Leonardo da Vinci. But really I feel inspired by my fellow artists and queer family that are always pushing the boundaries of our society and art. People like my lover Jay Very, my girlfriend Poppy Foxheart, my tattoo artist friends Tanya and Monster, performance artists Ben McCoy, Sadie Lune and Dave End, and photographer Ryan Donahoo. I could go on an on and list all my friends who have been working their gay asses off for art but it would take a lot of time! Thank you for reading and getting to know me!
Get to know the art and life of Apaulo Hart even more here:
(Drew Deveaux photo by Ellen Stagg)
Morty: Hello, Drew! It is so nice to see you here in San Francisco.
Drew: Thank you!
Morty: So, lets get right into it shall we?
Morty: I’d love to start off talking about what you were like when you were younger.
Drew: What defines “younger”?
Morty: Well, good question! I suppose I’m asking: when did you first come to figure out that you were a creative person?
Drew: I think I’ve always been a person who has seen themselves as a creative person. I’ve been reluctant to use the term artist. Although I would now. At 32, I’ve come a long way. It’s interesting to see how we are first reluctant to adopt certain terms like artist, pornstar, trans, queer until all of a sudden we’re in it and start using those terms. I was organizing events from a young age. I think I’ve been a person ahead of their time in terms of ideas, in terms of identities. When I was 17 and 18 I would organize these creative events in Toronto that were a melange of art, music and dance, spoken word, drumming…coming out of 90’s rave culture. The shows were called Lipsafire. The tag line was to break down the barrier between performer and audience. There was always an open mic, people could come up and speak and do dub poetry or whatever. Or, you know, people would come up and drum. At the time I was this really genderqueer person before the term existed. I was figuring out my identity and a lot of that stuff about breaking down boundaries was kind of ahead of its time. It is certainly a theme of a lot of my creative work. The boundaries between performer and audience, between professional and ametuer, between trans and cis, queer and non-queer and all these ideas and categories. At the time I was kind of finding out about art and artists through my organizing. I dated artists. I mean, we are who we date. Well, I’m not sure about that but lets play with that a bit. Sometimes we are attracted to people who can help move us forward in life. People have things to teach us at particular times in our life and hopefully for the better. I have almost exclusively dated artists and it’s not been a conscious thing. I’m not an ‘art chaser’ if that term exists. But it inevitably happens. I’m attracted to creative people. In part because I am a creative person myself.
Morty: What did you start out doing?
Drew: I was into visual art, for sure, from the start. It’s interesting to see how our creative work responds to where we are in our identities. Though not surprising. I was making photography, doing abstracted color work. I wouldn’t even use negatives. I was using projected light and my body to make shadows that went directly onto photo paper. Expressionist photography. There was an element of the body and performance in that but it was in the dark room. My identity as a queer trans women and the relationship of that identity to the world we live in was not graspable to the world at that time. Shifting forward to today and the work that I do in relation to the identity I have…I see that so much of my work relates to the fact that I’ve had to figure out an identity that is one of obfuscation, marginalization, liminality….it’s one that I’ve had to fight for both in the world I live in as well as in myself. Now my work is visceral, now my work is embedded in my body.
Morty: Was this conscious?
Drew: I think certainly by the time I ended up transitioning, about 8 years ago. I think there was a lot of anger and frustration at the fact that …I was outwardly trans at 15 and 16. I was quote unquote crossdressing in high school and was suspended for that. I was suspended for getting physically and verbally assaulted as the victim.
Morty: What!? How did that happen?
Drew: Well, it was seen as attention getting. This was 1996/1997. There was no trans awareness whatsoever at the time. So, the shit I was getting along with the fact that in a pre internet age I didn’t know that this made sense. Actually, I did know a trans female artist who was living in Toronto at the time, Mirha Soleil Ross, who is a Canadian groundbreaking trans woman artist…her work spans almost 20 years now. I knew her as a teenager. She was good friends with this artist I was dating at the time. It was like I was in this weird, queer, transsexual Toronto version of Warhol’s Factory. It was awesome but also very intimidating to recognize I was a male assigned birth person seeing myself as trans but I was attracted to women. I didn’t see myself as the high femme transsexual aesthetic that was, to me, the only image that was available at the time. So, I thought, well, since I can’t exist, I don’t exist. Since I’ve come out in my academic work and my porn work and my activist work and my writing - a lot of it has been about making awareness and making bold leaps about the reality and the validity of trans identities across the spectrum. Not stopping at where the movement is at but always trying to push the movement forward. I’ve always said that the bedroom is the last frontier of social justice. Sex and sexuality are often the last places of inclusion not only for trans people but for all minorities. This has been the big motivation for me to do a lot of the work in porn that I’ve done.
(Drew Deveaux photo by Morgan Weinert)
Morty: What did your activism look like then?
Drew: My activism was very academic. Like writing academic articles, working on research projects. At the time I coined the term ‘cisnormativity’ or ‘cisnormative’ as analogous to heteronormative. At the time I was a ferocious blogger on LiveJournal. I was working through a lot of things and probably making more enemies than friends within the community in part because I was seen as going too far. I would, for example, downplay the idea of a Trans 101 being an okay thing…I was always doing education work and began to feel like I was going to stab my eyeballs out if I had to do another Trans 101. Not because I wasn’t passionate about education or that I didn’t think it was an effective way to make change in the world, because it is. It was the way Trans 101’s were traditionally undertaken where it felt very othering. Creating distance between the unspoken cis audience and the trans people who they were being introduced to and studying. Learning about how difficult trans peoples lives were, learning about all the barriers of the experience without having to think about the way cis privilege
shapes the oppression experience of trans people. So, I started to do anti cis-sexism trainings. Basically, turning the idea of a Trans 101 on it’s head and turning the gaze inwards. Which is what anyone doing any sort of anti oppression training should be doing. So, that is one way of moving dialogue forward. And also bringing in concepts like cisnormativity - a word to describe the world we live which normalizes and expects everyone to be cisgendered. As that work continued, I realized that I could do class education, I could do all this academic intellectual work and people would be on board. People would listen, and it would change people. But there is a limit to this work having a visceral impact - people can often be intellectual allies without being physical allies. And I think you see where this is going…
Morty: Yes. Please keep going.
Drew: Really that was the genesis of some of my work. Starting in 2007/2008. I remember writing this one blog post that was basically calling people out - those who identify as a lesbian but who don’t consider trans women within your sphere of attraction, thats transphobic and cissexist. Which was like a thermonuclear explosion! And that was like 5 years ago, before the cotton ceiling ever came out. This was before making pornography. I was thinking, “how can I change these limitations of inclusion?” You can’t really educate people on sexuality without having images to draw on, without examples to grasp. In terms of images of trans women that I wanted to see in porn, as a queer trans woman, there was next to nothing at this time, about five years ago. My day job was in sexual health. Sexuality, even if one is asexual, is an important part of one’s identity and part of ones embodiment. I think for trans people it is important to have positive, healthy sexual experiences, and a positive, healthy sexuality, which is still not accessible to a lot of people because there are a lot of people out there who will enforce the delegitimization of the experiences of trans people again and again and again. It happens in the street, it happens in the bars and at our jobs but it also happens when we are hooking up. When we are trying to have an intimate experience.
(Photo by Rae Threat)
Morty: So, your entry into making porn was super conscious, not only of the why but also the image that you were going to make?
Drew: I’d say there was a very intentional awareness. I do want to say that not everything that I have done I am equally proud of. In terms of creative control and ownership, depending on who you are working with, you are going to have different levels of agency on how you look or what you say. There could be a script that is thrust upon you. Anyone who hires me knows who I am. So, they are still casting me as a post-op trans woman in their work. However they want to dress me up, whatever words they want to put in my mouth, they can’t take away that part of my identity. So, there is and always will be a radical quality to it, even in, say, like, the movie Lesbian Sorority that I’m in.
Morty: Do you feel like porn is artistic or has artistry to it?
Drew: Yeah, I think it goes without saying that porn, at least for me, is a creative process. It is an artform in itself. Just because there is a sexual element in it - I mean, if you look at the history of art, any art that has been sexually explicit in some way has had it’s artistic validity called into question. Porn is something that often is not even— calling yourself an artist isn’t necessarily isn’t going to make you more money in the porn world. But I think if you ask anyone making porn, is it art? I think most people would say yes.
Morty: Even those in the mainstream porn community?
Drew: I think they would call themselves creative individuals. Whether or not they consider themselves artists, I don’t know. Maybe it is internalized. Maybe the mainstream porn people are not immersed in a critical art community but I think directors like Nica Noelle and Jincey Lumpkin, who are working in and funded by mainstream companies…I know Nica takes a long time crafting her scripts, and I’ve seen her freak out over the set, making sure it’s just right. I mean, there is a lot of artistic passion. She has a vision she wants to get out there. The porn I do is definitely a part of my body of artwork and something I continue to do, even though I’m not shooting as much as I once was. Certain scenes I feel more strongly about saying, this is a work of art, because I’ve had creative control over it. But again, I’ve always had the privilege to have the complete freedom to choose what projects I want to be involved in, or not. Some of them I’ve done because of directors I’ve really wanted to work with, or costars. Other times it’s because I’ve wanted to break through to parts of the industry where trans women have not been able to work in.
Morty: What area of the industry are we speaking of?
Drew: I’m speaking about the work I’ve done with companies like Sweetheart Video and Girlfriends Films, which are Los Angeles based production companies, girl on girl companies, meaning lesbian films often implicitly reaching out to the straight community as an audience, though those who watch these movies runs the gamut. There is a privilege I have as post-op trans woman. I have never loved the term post-op, though that’s what it is, a trans woman with a vagina. I am able to pass as a cis-gendered woman in settings where I am totally naked. Yet, I am also out, so if someone does want to find out more about my work they won’t have to search long to realize this pie has some hidden ingredients. But that’s the beauty of it. One thing I mentioned when I won the Heartthrob of the Year Award at the Feminist Porn Awards a year and a half ago was that I wouldn’t be there without directors taking risks. We are talking about me breaking through first in the queer porn world. I was one of the first trans women to receive acclaim in the queer porn industry and then into the mainstream lesbian porn industry, which wasn’t a goal because I thought it wasn’t accessible to me. I wouldn’t have been able to do this work without directors willing to take a risk and work with me. Nica Noelle for instance, cast me four different times in films and fought to get me cast in another film after Mile High Media found out I was trans and got really angry. I also had director Jincey Lumpkin, whose work was being distributed by Girlfriends Films, cast me in a film though Girlfriends had a policy saying no trans performers can be cast. They just have a no trans performer policy but Jincey basically cast me as long as I don’t talk explicitly about being trans on film.
Morty: Did Jincey explain why she chose to ignore the Girlfriends policy?
Drew: I really don’t know. Something also occurred with director Shine Louise Houston, where she was going to shoot a film for Mile High Media but when they found out Shine wanted to cast me they said we won’t back this movie if Drew is cast and Shine said well, you gave me creative control and I want Drew in the movie, so she turned her back on Mile High and, I’m sure, a lot of money.
Morty: So, none of these directors have explained to you why they are willing to fight for you to be in their work?
Drew: Well, the only explanation I got was that all of these directors really wanted to work with me. I hope that doesn’t sound conceited and it’s not a sufficient explanation…but I think with me…I’m thin, I’m white, I’m attractive in a fairly traditional sense and being post-op I have a lot of privilege and for them I would be an easy way in to cast a trans person without raising too many red flags and it’s something I recognized early on – where I saw that I was getting a lot of work but other trans women weren’t. And still aren’t. I think that things are moving forward though. I have put out over 20 movies, worked on several different films and websites and I think there is a body of work there that needs to be acknowledged. I think we need to figure out what’s stopping further work from happening. More trans women in queer porn but also in mainstream porn…I mean, will there be another trans woman to work for Girlfriends Films? Or will I be the only one. The exception to the rule because of my thin body, my white skin etc. etc. On one hand I feel like I’ve done all this work and broken through barriers and I think it’s great and it does change things. I mean, people can look at it and say, well you cast Drew and the sky didn’t fall in! I’d like to think that my work opens the door to even trans male inclusion in mainstream, if trans men want to be there.
(Photo by Dave Naz)
Morty: Let’s switch gears a little bit and talk about the cotton ceiling and how this has changed your life….
Drew: The cotton ceiling, in my own words, is talking about the limitations of inclusion, the limitations of peoples spheres of desire – and spheres of desire are what we all have with who we would consider fuckable and not fuckable. Those spheres are not essentialist things, though for a lot of people they can feel that way. They are shaped by cultural representations on what is considered fuckable in a general society as well as subculture and microculture representations about what’s considered part of a particular community - the queer community or the lesbian community. Who is considered part of the community and who is considered fuckable and those aren’t necessarily the same things and thats where the cotton ceiling comes in. The disjoint - and this is what I’m speaking of specifically - a disjoint to who is considered part of a community and who is considered fuckable as part of that community. I first made this public at a conference in Toronto that was put together by Planned Parenthood Toronto to speak about issues of queer trans women within the queer women’s community. That was the explicit theme of the conference and the context to which I introduced the concept. It is a way to think about an issue that a lot of queer trans women experience - the limits of inclusion in the queer women’s cis-gendered dominated community. The cotton ceiling was a way to make visible, in a playful way, with the cotton signifying sheets or underwear, the issues surrounding intimacy and thats what it’s really trying to get at. There is a limit to solidarity and a limit to trans women getting full inclusion, which would include sexual inclusion. There might be queer women who accept trans women into their space but there are still prevailing notions that shape desire in the queer women’s community that trans women do not constitute fuckable people. I think we should strive for full inclusion and it behooves all of us to reconsider those boundaries and why we draw those boundaries. Something that gets often ignored is that just because I raised this issue within the context of trans women doesn’t mean it doesn’t have utility for all trans people - I think it can have particular relevance to a lot of communities where visibility or identity, if found out, can impede on embodied experiences.
Morty: When I was doing research on you for this interview it was really…scary, to be honest, to see all the things being said about you in forums, blogs, twitter, etc just basically breaking you down for discussing the topic of the cotton ceiling. I know you are raising consciousness and this work is very meaningful…but you’re still human.
Drew: As a trans activist and as a pornstar I put myself out there. I certainly wasn’t expecting the thermonuclear maelstrom that the cotton ceiling unleashed. At the same time as this storm around cotton ceiling was happening there was a huge response to Lesbian Sorority coming out, tearing down my identity in a porn context… I mean, this is what I wanted to get people to talk about - this is what the cotton ceiling elucidates. The degrees of marginalization. In the way that people talk about the cotton ceiling, the way that it’s come out has been really revelatory. The people that are writing these things, the Pretendbians website for instance, are those who just don’t consider trans women to be women. As trans women have made more gains and asked for more levels of inclusion the hate ebbs and flows. It’s almost comical to watch the radical feminist community go bat shit crazy over a group of people asking to be seen for who they are and be treated as equals. The genesis of it is so easy to see, if you just scratch the surface. From a trans perspective, we see those who are cis-gendered as being in a place of privilege.
From the radical feminist community they see trans women as male born people and ultimately as men who have privilege over them. I’m not going to be in a dialogue with someone who does not recognize my identity, all I can do is keep advocating for recognition and privilege within the community and to make visible the exclusion of the experience and I’m going to keep the struggle positive.
Morty: But you are human, and it’s great to keep moving things forward but you are also a person who feels and that’s also a part of it…
Drew: Yeah, there is pain. I touched on getting beaten up in high school and part of me is still there, in those moments. And sometimes reading the comments can trigger the pain and the fear and the shame that I carried…and part of me does still carry…but it’s a battle in me to combat that shame. So much of this work is about changing the world but it’s also about changing myself, to make myself believe that I am equal. And if I keep saying that, and knowing that, then it’s a part of me healing from the trauma that I experienced from being trans in the 90’s. And I know from my own experience as well as talking with other trans women that there is this hyper-attunement. One might even call it PTSD - a hyper awareness that the world we live in is not safe. If I’m not afraid to be who I am, if I’m resolute and certain in calling for full inclusion and not stopping until there is full inclusion and being seen as an equal, even in sexual ways, then part of that fear and shame starts to recede. I firmly believe art can be a form of activism and can change the world…and this is when I start to call myself an artist because a lot of my work is about me working through my shame and trauma from the past that still exists in the present.
A lot of work from trans artists is about liminality, gender bending and playing with gender and it’s interesting how that’s not really a big part of my work - compared to a lot of trans artists I know I couldn’t be more gender conforming, yet at the same time, through that conformity I’ve brought more attacks. And I love that. Certainly in the future there might be elements of my work that will explore the idea of fluidity in gender but it is fascinating to think when you are so close to being cis-gendered, yet you’re not, it’s somehow going deeper into the heart of what keeps peoples identities stable and in some ways gets bigger blowback.
Morty: How are you going forward with your work in porn?
Drew: That’s a really good question. I feel like I don’t know where to go forward from here. I just don’t know what’s left to do. I could continue to get hired but the whole reason to make porn was to put my image and my body out there and at what point am I putting my body out there at the expense of maybe cockblocking other trans women from doing porn. The shoot I am doing tomorrow for Doing It Again with director Tobi Hill-Meyer might be my last shoot, at least for a while. It’s been my first shoot in almost a year.
Morty: Now might be a good time to write a book….
Drew: Yeah, maybe. I’m just struggling with what the format will be for how I can move my art and activism forward for myself and for the broader movement. Maybe it is writing a book, I don’t know. I’m at a point of reflection, and searching and grasping again.
Morty: Do you call yourself a “trans writer/ performer/artist”?
Drew: Yes, and I’m sure that’s not surprising given all we have discussed. Being out as a trans artist is a powerful, important act but there is a lot of complexity. I don’t want to say it’s better or not better… As a trans artist I want to be connected with myself fully and be communicative about who I am …I know that it’s complicated for people to be out so I can’t say it’s right for everybody but it is right for me.
Morty: Drew, this has been a wonderful interview. Thank you for taking the time to sit with me and discuss your life and art. I look forward to seeing more of your work in the future, so please keep me posted!
Drew: It was a total pleasure! Thank you so much, Morty!
Drew Deveaux on the web:
(Morgan M Page (Odofemi))
Morty: Alright, rock and roll, here we go. Okay, thanks for being here with me. I’m excited.
Morgan: I’m excited!
Morty: You’re excited, I’m excited! Alright! Okay, first of all, lets talk about kind of your beginnings. Where did your understanding of being an artist come from? You know, how did you get into making art?
Morgan: Well I, ah, my family is a theater family. So both my parents were actors, my brother is an actor. I was involved in some theater stuff when I was a kid, but more dance. I was more into dance. And…So there was that whole thing. And then when I transitioned I felt like I couldn’t do that anymore, cause I felt like there were not bodies like mine onstage, in anything other than being the butt of jokes. So I completely let go of all of that. But I still wanted to be involved in art, and I was like, okay, how am I gonna do this? Like, i don’t have any support of any kind. My mom had passed on and I wasn’t in contact with the rest of my family. And I thought, how am I gonna make being an artist work? So i thought, “I’ll go become a make-up artist because that has artist in the title which must mean that its about art and I’ll magically be able to make money.” Both of which are completely untrue, because being a make-up artist is the least artistic profession you can do. You do the same face on everyone, everyday. And, so its very non-creative, and anti-creative. They are super not into letting you do anything interesting. And its also really difficult, at least in Toronto, to make money as a make-up artist because there are so many make-up artists here, that everyone just expects that you are working for ‘experience.’ So I ended up not getting any money, ever. So I gave that up for a little while. And I got involved in trans activism. And through that I met a bunch of trans people who were artists and performers. And I started to read more about trans folks, especially Mirha Soleil Ross who is a Québecois video and performance artist, and an amazing trans activist. And through that I was just so inspired, I thought, okay, maybe I actually can create things and have that be okay. And even be a trans person who is celebrated for creating things rather than being just a joke or an oddity.
Morty: How old are you now?
Morgan: I’m 25.
Morty: And when did you say to yourself I don’t know if I can be an artist because I’m trans?
Morgan: That was when I was like 16.
Morty: Okay, so, its been quite a journey from make-up artist to where you are now.
Morty: Once you decided to become an artist, what did you first? I know that you make film, you’re a writer, and you are a performance artist. What did you first start out kind of tackling?
Morgan: Um, well i was writing first beause I had never sort of stopped writing. I had always been writing. And one of my speeches got picked up by Prettyqueer.com and I ended up writing a series of articles for them. And through that, I was given my first opportunity to do a reading, and ahhh…after the reading I was asked to perform at other events, and suddenly I just started doing all of these performances that I had always wanted to do. I’d always been very interested in experimental performance art and that just kind of snowballed over the past year, with more and more opportunities. And I’d always really been interested in doing video and doing theater, and I got the opportunity to make my first video last year when I applied for the queer video mentorship project which is part of Inside/Out Festival. Every year 8 people get the opportunity to learn how to make a video, and then make their first video. And, so thats where I got the opportunity to do that.
Morty: You said it was a short film?
Morgan: Ya, its a short film. My film is called IYA MI KU YEO/death ate my mother. It’s an 8 minute long film that touches on religious stuff. In addition to being an artist and an activist and all of these other things, I am also a Santeria priestess. And so the film was kind of my attempt to show that trans people have things to say other than ‘this is how my first T shot went,’ or, like, ‘this is my experience of coming out to my family.’ I think I certainly have a lot more interesting things to say about my life then just the standard trans narrative. And transness is totally a part of it, but like, there are other more interesting parts. And for me that involves my religious stuff. And, so the film is like…an 8 minute version of a ritual thats used to contact the dead. And then its me speaking to my mothers spirit. And I also portray my mother by using a projector where I project an image of her face onto my face and then I speak as her to myself. It’s very self reflective.
Morty: What does the title mean?
Morgan: It is Lucumi for death ate my mother. It is also a line in a ritual song of the dead in my religion. In my religion we speak in the Lucumi language, similar to how Catholics use Latin in their ceremonies. The song is about how these people still exist in our life even though they are dead. I knew I wanted the title of this movie to be in Lucumi and scrolling through these notes my godmother had given me about songs of the dead. It was the one line that mentioned a mother and it was exactly how I felt. I had a visceral connection to the line ‘death ate my mother’ - and it’s shocking as well.
Morty: I’d love to also have you explain another performance I saw of yours online called Hunter Splayden frayden Dicklitlover.
Morgan: Well, okay, so how that performance came about was that I’m kind of androgynous, I keep a short haircut and dress androgynously. And for a really long time people thought I was a trans man and not a trans woman. And, as a result of that, I got laid more often. I mean, like, all the time as compared to before when I could not get laid to save my life. So, when I started getting laid all the time I thought, “That’s fucked up and weird”. In addition to that I was dating all of these trans guys and a couple of them were amazing and many were also totally misogynist. I saw a lot of their misogyny going on in the community and the way trans masculinity was being hugely celebrated and trans women were being shit on all the time. So, that, combined with my unapologetic love of really bad trans Youtube videos - I used to watch all of the videos of, like, ‘this is my third week, second day and third second on…you know’
Morty: Yes, I’ve watched my share of those.
Morgan: It was a very interesting performance to navigate emotionally too because I am very strongly woman identified and wearing a binder and when rehearsing for it on stage being introduced with male pronouns and a male name was emotionally difficult for me. Sometimes I introduce myself to people as Hunter just to see how long it can go before they clue in… I have full on had sex with people without them realizing that I am a trans woman. Some have been completely convinced that I am Hunter.
Morty: That is kind of mind-blowing.
Morgan: I am a post op trans woman so there is not much that would tell them there is much difference, other than the fact that I’m pretty tall - but there are also tall trans guys in Toronto so…
Morty: What are you trying to say about this hyper understanding of transition through video on Youtube for those that put up their transition videos?
Morgan: Well, I’m very amused by all the videos. I get why it feels really important to document every detail of their transition but it is also indicative of a problem in the trans community where…it becomes their only interest and becomes the only thing you can talk about. I think we can poke fun at ourselves and as a trans woman I’m in a really excellent position to do that because I’m not in a weird power dynamic with trans men where I have more power and it would be kind of cruel to poke fun at these things. I’m in a position of lower power so I feel I can playfully critique the things that are going on. And hopefully in a way that makes the people I am critiquing laugh. Which it did! At the event there were like two trans women and a few butch lesbians and a lot of trans men, oh and a lot of femmes. All the femmes were in hysterics and the trans men were too, so, it went off well.
Morty: So, I am really interested in knowing more about the TWAT Festival. And it’s coming up soon, August 9th and 10th. So, please tell me all there is to know!
(Photo of the performance immaculateCUNTception at TWAT/fest)
Morgan: TWAT/fest stands for Trans Womens Art Toronto. The name has kept me so motivated to do it because it’s such a good name! It’s very tongue in cheek too given, you know, that it’s all trans women artists. Lot’s of whom don’t have what most people would call twats. The festival is very exciting, also super stressful. I’m doing it all on my own and I don’t have any grants or funding of any kind, so I’m paying for everything.
Morty: I really do want to pick your brain about this art show. First of all I think it’s fucking fantastic! Can you take me through how you did it?
Morgan: Well, umm, it was kind of funny I was filling out a lot of calls for submissions for my own art and I started thinking about it because I thought “why aren’t there any trans-specific art shows where I can send my stuff”…so, I had been thinking about that and the artist I spoke about earlier who has been such an inspiration to me, Mirha Soleil Ross, she had previously run a trans and intersex arts festival here in Toronto in the late 90’s and early 2000’s called Counting Past Two. It ran for about five years. She had artists come from all across North America and other parts of the world too. It was a really huge thing but it fell apart because of lack of funding and the organizers had other stuff going on. I was thinking ‘Damn, why isn’t Counting Past Two here now because thats the show I want to go to! That was combined with the fact that I was seeing all of these queer art shows which were mostly queer cis women and a handful of transmen who are showing work….and I had never seen a trans woman show work in these places. Then I thought, I can count on one hand the trans women who are doing fine art and actually getting their stuff shown anywhere in the world. And who are out as trans. I thought, instead of just complaining about it I just need to create my own space. So, I started talking about it with people and gauging peoples reactions. Many were really excited about it but thought it was too much work to get involved in. So I just went ahead and created a call for submissions and just sent it out there and see what comes back to me. The whole process was about 10 months of working on it, sending out the call, talking with people, connecting with those in Montreal, Philly, really everywhere about. Then there was the process of figuring out what were the best submissions that worked together really well. There are some amazing trans women out there making fine art right now!
Morty: Overall how many submissions did you get?
Morgan: Around 40 submissions. I was really disappointed about that because I felt like there are so many other trans women doing amazing art that I know who don’t get shown anywhere and yet were not submitting. I tried to solicit submissions from a bunch of people and none of them sent me anything. A lot of them were busy. Many just couldn’t decide on the project they wanted to do. Some didn’t think they could make it to Toronto. I had a decent amount of international artists as well. I also feel like the call for submissions didn’t go very far. It might have been reblogged like 50 times. It just didn’t go out as far as I would have liked it too. But, still, I am super excited about the art that I will be showing. Right now we are at about 10 artists work, right now it’s mostly Toronto and Montreal based artists. A couple are American. I’m very excited about the work we have and how the different types of art, from photography to film to performance…
Morty: How did you get Buddies in Bad Times Theatre to give you the space?
Morgan: Well, they rent space in general. I chose Buddies because it’s an incredible historic place for art in Canada. They are hugely important to the queer arts community. In addition to that, the building is wheelchair accessible. So, Buddies is really the best place for this show. I was also hoping to include some stuff in an art gallery, and unfortunately most places were fully booked or not interested. The Feminist Art Gallery was really interested but there were timing conflicts. But they were super lovely and supportive of the whole idea which is pretty wonderful.
Morty: The space will be rented for one night?
Morgan: Yeah, it’s a one night event.
(Photo from TWAT/fest of the performance ‘What You Really Want’)
Morty: Knowing that this is all coming out of your pocket, did you think about crowd sourcing the money to fund this event?
Morgan: I did sign up to do an Indie-go-go thing but this year has been just non-stop traveling to perform and my work has been crazy… I just didn’t have the time to put it together.
Morty: I hear that. I really wish I could be there!
Morgan: Yeah, it does feel really exciting. There is going to be an after party the following night where I will be doing a new performance piece and I have two trans women DJ’s - one from Toronto and one from Montreal. Both of whom are amazing. I am super excited that I was able to get two trans women DJ’s - in Toronto there is only one trans woman DJ and they don’t give her many shows. The DJ’s who are trans in Toronto are mostly trans men. There are also two trans male specific parties here and no trans women specific party. And most trans women that I’ve talked to don’t feel welcome to go to any queer dance party at all. It’s usually like me and Drew Deveaux in the room and were usually the only trans women there. The performance I’m doing is going to be…provocative, to say the least!
Morty: Can you, without ruining the surprise, tell me what inspired the performance?
Morgan: A little background is that I was invited to perform at a radical queer performance art night and I did this performance called, “What You Really Want, a Trans 101” in which I basically performed trans phobia. I came out as this stereotypical trans woman in this pink mini dress with a blonde wig. I announced that is was Trans 101 and spent 10 minutes putting on make up without saying anything and then I started disclosing really personal things about my life that I would never tell anyone - like what my name used to be and a photo of myself as a child. In the background there were clips from really transphobic films, like The Crying Game and Ace Venture Pet Detective and Trans America. It was the most horrendous clips of those scenes in a montage behind me. Then I did this manic striptease to Aerosmith’s “Dude Looks Like a Lady”, then I invited for cis gender people to come onstage and put on latex glove and do whatever they wanted with my vagina for 30 seconds.
Morty: Did they actually touch you?
Morgan: Yeah! The first two were gay boys who had never touched a vagina before. One guy totally stuck his fingers in me and just didn’t move he just kind of stood there and then the next one got lube and was much nicer but said really fucked up things will he was doing it. I didn’t know these guys. He was trying to get the audience to name the different parts of my vagina and then he would say it totally doesn’t look fake! And then there was this cute cis lesbian who was super gentle and I think she got that the performance was about violation. She was very unsure of herself and really gentle. So that was quite the performance and apparently it’s still being talked about in Montréal!
Morty: Did you record this performance?
Morgan: I record all of my performances but this one I’m not sure if I’ll put up because I do say what my birth name was and I put real pictures up of me as a child. I’m not sure how to navigate that because I really don’t want that information out there, yet it is so integral to the performance. So, this performance has inspired this next performance. Specifically the part about my vagina. So, it is audience participatory, it involves my vagina, and the virgin mary and Madonna’s Like a Prayer.
Morty: Between your performance art and your writing you sound very busy. On top of that you work at the local LGBT center and teach…
Morgan: Yeah. I run the trans programs there. We have a weekly drop in for lower income, homeless trans folks. Mostly trans women. And that has a meal program. And I also do a trans youth group, which is the worlds longest running trans youth group. Trans Youth Toronto. And the other program I run is a trans sex worker outreach project, where myself and a co-worker both have current or past experience as sex workers we go out and hand out condoms and lube. I am also involved in some advocacy, policy and research stuff revolving mostly around trans HIV issues, sex work and trans youth stuff. Thats my work, my 40ish hour a week job in addition to all of my art and my writing and my crazy party lifestyle! I’m also guest lecturing in some classes at the University of Toronto this semester, which I’ve done a bunch before. Specifically, I’m lecturing about trans people and HIV, and trans peoples’ interactions with the medical system. Pretty good for a high school drop out! Maybe one day they’ll let this high school drop out teach a whole course! If anyone wants to bring me in to lecture, you let me know. Will teach intense things for money and travel expenses.
Morty: Do you feel that trans art is like the bastard child of the queer art scene?
Morgan: I absolutely do feel that way. I think to change it we just need to get more in control of our own stuff. There needs to be more trans people curating their own work and creating space for that work to be shown. In addition, I think we also need to produce high quality work. As much as I love going to community art shows where we are really excited because of the identities of the artist but not actually their work. I want to see good work. I think if we create really good work we can push through and break out of the freak show area where a lot of trans art gets put. Unless it’s in a specifically queer show and then a trans woman just never gets featured. I think there is a lot of pigeonholing that goes on where you can only be a trans artist. I know for myself, I do identify as a trans artist but I identify equally as strongly as a feminist artist and as a Santeria artist. So, those parts of my identity are just as important and I feel like my work has just as much of a place in feminist art shows as it does in trans or queer art shows. I have definitely seen a lot more trans work getting included and it’s mostly folks who have education behind them like BFA’s and MFA’s and all that. A lot less for people like me who is a high school dropout without that background.
Morty: Can you speak a little about how you see community support for trans male artists versus trans female artists? Do you see a difference?
Morgan: Oh yeah. It’s night and day. If you go to any queer cabaret show or art exhibit in Toronto you are going to see a whole bunch trans men and very few if any trans women and there will probably be no trans women in the crowd. It’s the same with our dance parties. Thats been one of my motivating factors for making spaces for trans women. Not just TWAT Fest but also earlier this year I co-organized No More Apologies, which was a dialogue between queer trans women and queer cis women and it’s gone on to spawn other conferences in Ottawa, Chicago and a few others. In the art world I so readily see trans masculine artists that I can look up to but so few trans women artists and I have really had to spend a lot of time trolling the internet, looking via the Wayback Machine, to go find sites that no longer exist to see a handful of trans women artists that have inspired me to make the kind of work I want to make. Thoroughly looking at the internet has brought me great trans female artists like Greer Lankton and Mirha Soleil Ross. Nobody talks about the accomplishments of trans women artists. We have Loren Cameron’s book of photography, which is on every persons shelf along with Original Plumbing Magazine but where are the trans women? Where are we as artists? The only trans woman artist who is getting serious attention right now is Zackary Drucker from the Translady Fanzine and her art is pretty great and it is getting seen, but there isn’t really anyone else.
Morty: Right, I agree. It begins to go beyond art to just who means more in our society. And trans men have taken the highest rung within the trans community. And I do ask this from the trans women artists that I speak with: why don’t you organize together? And what I get back is well, we don’t feel that great about ourselves and are constantly being pushed aside, so what would make you think we would be organizing?
Morgan: I feel like that is definitely the prevailing feeling but for me I have spent so much of my time trying to create spaces that don’t exist, trying to organize all of these things to bring trans women together and raise the profile of trans women within queer culture because we can’t just wait around for the trans men to decide that we can be a part of their trans art shows and trans parties that are not advertised as trans mens art shows and trans mens parties. And we certainly can’t wait around for the cis gender folks to wake up. So, rather than getting angry and critiquing culture I’ve decided it’s a much better use of my time to create culture, to create everything that I don’t currently see existing.
Morty: Is there a way for people to see the work in the TWAT/fest?
Morgan: I’ll definitely have photos from the evening. I don’t know if I’ll be able to put up the video of the performances online - I’ll have to ask for the performance artists permission. I will do as much as possible in terms of recording to make sure this event is not so easily forgotten. I don’t know if I’ll have the time, energy or money to do it again next year so I have to commit to preserving as much as possible. For me, as a trans woman artist, if I were to find documentation of an event like this from say 5 years ago in, say, Milwaukee, I would’ve gone nuts. I would have looked up every artist that was involved and it would have been such an inspiration to me. So, I feel it is my duty to document all of this so people can go see it and make their own events and make their own art and get it out there.
Morty: Do you still try and involve yourself with queer art shows in your area?
Morgan: Yes, I want my work to be shown in queer art shows because I identify as queer. I also want to be shown in trans art shows. I do want there to be more trans specific events and exhibits that are not necessarily tied to queerness 100% of the time. I would love to be able to be part of both scenes and have them be separate but work together. As trans people, most of us do not have the kind of money or other resources to fully support our own stuff. Most of the time. There are a few individuals who are able to contribute a lot more than others but I think we’d be shooting ourselves in the foot to not work with queer cis people to get access to those resources too. I definitely think we still need to be organizing our own stuff. Those of us in the position to be able to do it really need to commit to organizing our own stuff to increase our communities ability to have our own festivals, art shows etc. The more we support our own stuff the more art that will be made to be supported, the more stuff that will make its way to queer, or even non-queer, programming!
Morty: What words of wisdom would you give to a newbie trans artist?
Morgan: My first piece of advice is to finish whatever you start. Or at least start a lot of things. You actually have to create things to be an artist, so you have to spend a lot of time making stuff and that is how you get better and that’s how you get known. So, create a body of work and keep creating. Don’t stop creating and if at all possible finish all the things you start because maybe you think they’re shit when you first start making them but they may turn out amazing in the end. Plus, the feeling of accomplishment after finishing, even if you hate the end product, is something that will help you to create more in the future. My second piece of advice would be to find other trans people doing the thing that you want to do. I feel like I was held back 5 years because I simply didn’t see artists that looked like me who identified in similar ways to me. And, they are out there - they may be few and far between but they are out there. So, Google until you reach the end of the internet! You will find them and they may be hugely inspirational or they’ll make you mad and you’ll be so mad that you’ll make art. Either way, you’ll be creating and that’ll be great.
My third piece of advice is if you don’t see a place for you and your art, make your own space. And if you don’t feel like you can do that, maybe you don’t know enough people in your area, you should just try and guilt people! All the identity politics shit, drag it all out until someone gives you some opportunities. Guilt cis queers into giving you opportunities to be a part of their show! When you’ve done one then you can get so many more. It’s just getting the one or two first chances to do something that are hard. The main piece of advice is to create as much as you possibly can and don’t stop creating.
Morty: How do we know when we are making high quality art?
Morgan: I think it’s really individual. Obviously, it’s all subjective. I think one might scan what is out there in the art world to see what quality art looks like. Just like what is good writing. Read good writers, look at good art and push yourself to learn just a little bit more and work just a little bit harder so that you can improve little by little. I want to see MoMA quality art from trans people and I know we can do it, we are doing it. It’s about looking for sources of inspiration to create high quality work. Not necessarily emulating what they are doing but learning from it and what makes it high quality to you! It is always about creating the work that you want to put out there.
Morty: What’s next for you?
Morgan: I am collaborating on the next series of AIDS Action Now! posters. It’s a Canadian group a lot like ACT UP. They released a series of very provocative posters last year and they have contacted me to collaborate with them along with LA-based artist Onya Hogan-Finlay and this amazing activist Jessica Whitbread on creating a poster for queer and trans women around HIV. Last years queer and trans women’s poster said ‘Fuck Positive Women’ so we’re hoping for something equally provocative and aggressive.
TWAT/fest is next week and I’m working on a few film projects right now. I am definitely feeling inspired right now but I know what it’s like to not feel that way. It’s hard to feel inspired when you never have an image of someone like you doing the same thing you want to do. It’s hard to feel inspired when you’re getting doors slammed in your face all the time or when your work never gets featured when you do make stuff. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been quite celebrated in a lot of ways and thats helped me keep my momentum up. I think we need to celebrate more trans artists - all the time!!
Morty: That’s what we’re doing here! I am so appreciative of this interview. Thank you, Morgan.
UPDATE BY MORGAN ON TWAT/fest: TWAT/fest was a huge success! We almost sold out the venue, with over 110 people in attendance. The feedback I received was very positive, and we had people who came from as far away as Montreal and Brooklyn to attend the event. Our after party was also successful, where my Immaculate CUNTception performance piece ended with five audience members putting their fingers in my/the Virgin Mary’s “hole-y of holies” to the sounds of Madonna’s Like a Prayer. All in all, TWAT/fest went really well.
INTERVIEW WITH ARTIST JAY VERY
Jay Very: Hello!
Morty Diamond: Hey! A lot of your work is a mixture of art, sex, sex work, sexuality, etc. Can you tell me first how you began to make work focusing these subjects?
JV: Yes. A large body of my work was is sexual…. I was in the closet about it for a while. I made a lot of “provocative” work in high school that was disturbing to my art instructors.
MD: Tell me a little about those early art moments.
JV: I was in an AP art program and my senior year art show focused on the theme of Madonnas. I was very much into the virgin/whore concept. Also, I was dating a teacher, and I would make a lot of art around that which was very Lolita. To go back further, I made a lot of art in grade school and would make mini-books.
MD: What did that art look like?
JV: I had an ongoing character called the “tangled up scarf” who was my imaginary friend. I was very prolific and still have all these little zines. Luckily, my parents kept them. My work was all 2 dimensional from grade school through high school. I really liked acrylic and oil pastels: a lot of messy expressionism.
MD: What was the art like that you made in high school?
JV: I drew a figure drawing of the teacher I had a relationship with in High School but I wanted to conceal his identity and so I put a mask on him. I didn’t know how kinky that was at the time. I didn’t know much about my sexuality or gender and I really figured that out through my artwork. My school didn’t have a LGBT group and I was just considered a heterosexual slutty girl who always had a boyfriend but hooked up with girls occasionally. So, my art was very much for my own therapy and I kept it private for the most part.
MD: So, you continued with making art in college, correct?
JV: Yeah, it was clear to my parents that I should go to art school, so I took the bare minimum of non-art classes to graduate and was in the AP art room a.k.a the Magic Closet most of the time, including lunch. I went to Prattt Institute in New York and moved away from 2D work and got really into metal working and mold making. My art wasn’t sexual at all at that point. I think it is because of the process. There is a lot of “reflective distancing,” as art therapists like to say, with art mediums that require a process. Mold making and metal working are meticulous and require a lot of planning with concept and materials and I think that my work became less overtly sexual and more covertly sexual. Something about working with messy materials that produce immediate results really taps into the unconscious.
MD: Do you still do metal work?
JV: When I transferred to the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, I focused on metal work and performance and installation. I decided to go there because you could design your own program. Currently, I don’t have access to a welding studio (I did oxy acetylene) but I do work with metal wire and metal parts that I find, since most of my work now is DIY garbage found art. My art shifts with whatever materials I have around me.
MD: How did the shift occur from metal work into performing?
JV: I always felt that I wasn’t cut out to be a gallery artist because my work was so personal. It felt more like “outsider art” or identified with the Art Brute genre because I created it for me. That’s when I decided to get my Masters in Counseling and Art Therapy because I was more interested in helping other people find their creativity and use art as a therapeutic intervention. When I went to Grad school in 2006, I didn’t have an art studio or any materials at my disposal. To back up a bit, when I graduated from art school, I didn’t have a job lined up and I decided to work at a strip club in Chicago as a dancer. I had worked in New York as a bartender at a strip club in undergrad and I decided to get back into it but to dance this time. As a stripper, I had a lot of down time. I would sit in the dressing room and draw pictures of myself in the mirror and draw the other girls and write. I didn’t identify socially with the other girls and my friends were embarrassed that I worked there, so I didn’t have anyone to vent with it about. I didn’t know that there was a sex worker movement either. But I did fantasize about what I wanted to do on stage while stripping. I wanted to sing and wear crazy costumes.
MD: When did your gender identity change? Earlier on or after stripping?
JV: I always thought gender was a stupid concept. I always felt pressure to look more feminine and working as a stripper reinforced that. At this time I got a camera and started filming myself. I would film myself doing video diaries as a way to talk about the club and as therapy. Then, when I got into grad school, there was an LGBT group and I found out about the term transgender. All I knew prior to that was Rocky Horror and Hedwig, so I was aware about transwomen and cross dressers but I didn’t think people were Female to Male trans people. I read about GID in one of my psychology classes and it annoyed me but I didn’t know why…because I was actually very transphobic at the time.
MD: Before you started filming yourself during your time stripping had you thought about making a movie?
JV: I never thought I would show that footage to anyone. I thought it would ruin my life. When I went into grad school, I thought it was evidence that I was a disturbed individual and if anyone found my thoughts or my past then I would be denied a license as a therapist. I also got deeply into alcoholism, snorting Aderall and smoking weed multiple times a day. I had really checked out. During the middle of my masters program, I thought I had made a mistake and that psychology did not make space for outsiders. I didn’t know I was kinky or into BDSM, but I didn’t think it was cool to come across peer-reviewed articles about how BDSM indicated emotional disturbances. I was excited about being in the LGBT group at least and identified as bisexual. The Illinois Psychological Association of Graduate Students (IPAGS) were going to be represented in Chicago’s Gay Pride Parade that year. I was all over that and signed on to be the art director of the float. They had a drag queen lined up to be on the float and when she bailed they asked me if I could dress up as a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. I said… I think I might be able to do that. That seemed to be a foreshadowing of things to come and was the first time I was praised for cross dressing and I really enjoyed it. My boyfriend was weirded out. After that, my video diaries included a lot of cross dressing and singing and making costumes. After a year of filming I figured out I was trans. My boyfriend came to my apartment one day and found me passed out drunk with a camera in my hand with a drawn on mustache and my tits duct tapped down. Surprise! We broke up after a very tumultuous relationship
MD: You were stripping around this time still?
JV: No, let me back up again. Three months out of undergraduate school I got a job installing exhibits at the Field Museum in Chicago full time and worked three nights a week as a stripper. I did that for a year. When I got into grad school I quit stripping, kept filming and became a librarian’s assistant at my grad school.
MD: But you went back to stripping?
JV: Yes, but not until five years later. I finished grad school in three years, got a job as a program coordinator at an LGBT center for two years, got on testosterone during that time, then quit and went back to stripping. I didn’t pass as a female at that point and transitioned into dominatrix and female fitness modeling. When I was in grad school we did daily drawing journals. I invented a cartoon character called “starface” who was self-referential and a shape shifter. I got stuck in a creative rut and no matter what I tried to make, starface always seemed to infiltrate my work. It was my way to deal with managing all these identities I had to keep separate and I would hide that from my art therapy colleagues and professors as well.
MD: So… what was next for you?
JV: While working at the LGBT center, I encountered a lot of homeless youth who were trans-identified sex workers. I didn’t like the methods that the center was using to help these kids, and I felt like I had to be in the closet about my own sex work experience. For two years I thought I was really radical because it was my first job where I could wear a suit and a tie and be as openly gay as I wanted. Also, I got to facilitate art groups for HIV positive folks, sex workers and a diverse group of people. This is when I found out that I could identify as queer and that people were genderqueer. I transitioned on the job, which was very uncomfortable, as I was the first trans person they had on staff. I decided that I wanted to start my own organization with my partner called Tongue in Chic Gallery and we would focus our efforts on creating a network of transgender sex workers. We started an artist in residency program, had fundraisers, professional development workshops and social networking. It was my intention to establish a community in Chicago where there wasn’t one and I got involved with SWOP Chicago. I spent a lot of money starting up this community and it was funded by my own sex work mostly.
MD: Why did you feel such a calling to work with trans sex workers?
JV: Because that was how I identify and still identify. I wanted a community. I felt very alone. The Midwest is different from California. Everyone and their cousin is a transgender sex worker here. Since I’ve come here, I’ve met some really inspirational people who identify that way.
MD: I’d like to begin discussing your film – how did you first decide you wanted these videos to be seen by an audience?
JV: I got in contact with other FTM and genderqueer sex workers, I realized that we had the same story! It was a relief because I felt like I was the only one who had felt a lot of painful confusion and self-hatred. I showed my film to these folks, my new friends and they related and felt better. When I meet people now, they don’t believe me when I tell them I was a high-femme girl who was transphobic and struggled with identity for so long. I was never in the queer or dyke scene. So my film, I feel, is evidence that people can change and there is life beyond the binary. I was suicidal and depressed when I started. I didn’t like people or know where I was going. Now, I love people. I feel like I can relate to practically anyone and think that they will be able to relate to me. So, I think the Jay Very story is universal, because it’s about more than being sex workers or trans. It’s about how everyone is affected by gender and class and stigma.
MD: How long have you been working on your movie? When do you see it coming out?
JV: I am fortunate that I can finally bring it out of the closet since I’ve moved to California, because I have a job where I can disclose everything about myself and be myself without repercussions. It feels really good. I have 2 editors in Chicago and Ohio doing the post production, it was a lot of footage to filter through! They are in the process of interviewing my friends. We hope to release it within 3 months.
MD: Do you have clips I can show with this interview?
JV: Yes! We produced a short film called, “Transitioning Through Sex Work” which is available to view online. We had a Kickstarter successfully funded last October called the Jay Very Story.
Thank you so much for taking the time to hear my story, Morty! I’m pretty psyched that I get to talk to you.
MD: Thanks! I look forward to seeing your movie! Do you have a website?
MD: Thanks, Jay!
Please take a look at the trailer to Jay Very’s movie HERE.
Morty: Hi Sam! Are you ready?
Sam: Hi Morty. I am!
Morty: Great. You mentioned in your Kickstarter campaign being surprised about there being no film about Kate Bornstein. Do you feel trans activists / artists are still being relegated to the margins and not getting the attention they deserve in film?
Sam: The attention they are getting is still, predominantly, about being trans and not about their work. Of course, there are exceptions, but not enough.
Morty: What has it been like to work with Kate on this film?
Sam: AMAZING! Also, it’s been hard, exhausting, but, endlessly inspiring. Kate’s enthusiasm, trust, and vulnerability (and hotness, of course) make her a dream subject. She’s been completely open with her work and life inviting me along wherever she goes.
She works like a machine, and it’s hard to keep up with her, especially when I travel with her. She is constantly on some book deadline, so our shoots have been cancelled. But, she always made it up to me.
Morty: Was it you who broached the idea of making this movie?
Morty: You two have known each other beyond working on this film, yes?
Sam: Yes, we met in 2006. I was working on a TV show called “Gay USA,” and she was a guest.
I told her how much I loved her work, and she acted like no one had ever said that to her before. She’s endlessly gracious like that. She asked me what I did and asked if she could see any of my work. So, I gave her a DVD. The next day she emailed that she watched my work with her girlfriend, Barbara, and they both loved it. Needless to say, I was floored. I couldn’t believe she would take the time to watch and reach out to me. So, we’ve been in touch ever since.
Morty: So, the progression to this feature film sounds very natural as your friendship grew…
Sam: Yes. I interviewed her in 2007(ish) for a project still in post-production. (But, she ended up not being in that.) And, we shared a few meals together over the years always talking about work.
(Film still: Kate Bornstein is a Queer & Pleasant Danger)
Morty: When did you get started on the shoot?
Sam: Two things were happening at the time. Late, 2009, I was exploring the genre of portrait film. I had made a few shorts and was planning for more. Then, a film review/critique that Kate wrote was published, and I was once again smitten with her and her mind. I emailed her about working together on a portrait film; she immediately said yes, and eight months later, December 2012 in Seattle, we started filming.
Morty: I’m a film nerd and curious what your rig looks like.
Sam: I shoot with a Canon 7D, and I’m really in love with it. Then, I use a home made target shooter, made with pvc piping galore, the Zacuto z-finder, and a wireless mic. That’s the basic rig. It’s so portable and fun.
Morty: I know you have a Kickstarter up for funding the next leg of this movie but I’m wondering if you used a lot of your own money to fund the project?
Sam: Yes, it’s been 99% self-funded with an all-volunteer crew. The grant process is brutal and getting harder and harder—every year, there is less money and fewer grants available.
(Film still: Kate Bornstein is a Queer & Pleasant Danger)
Morty: Well, you’re rocking with Kickstarter.
Sam: Kickstarter is a god-send! Kate’s friends/fans and my friends/family are amazing. The Kickstarter amount, $20,000, is 30% of the remaining budget and will cover expenses to finish production and get the edit in shape. Then, I will have to fund raise again for post-production and distribution. So, if the Kickstarter exceeds the goal we will be able to finish the film so much sooner, which, I think people will be really excited about.
Morty: Did you receive any grants?
Sam: I did get a $1,000 grant from the Frameline Completion Fund which I used to transcribe interviews.
Sam: Yeah, I paid to have everything transcribed. I’ve never done that before. The idea is to work on a paper edit, but that’s not my style at all. However, reading everything, in addition to logging, does make a difference. There’s more organization, more places to refer, and provides different ways of thinking of content and editing.
Morty: Hmmm, I really never thought of that.
Sam: Neither did I until this round.
(Film still: Kate Bornstein is a Queer & Pleasant Danger)
Morty: Now to my question I ask all artists and writers. Do you consider yourself a “trans / queer filmmaker”, or does that feel limiting?
Sam: The answer is yes/no. And, no, I don’t think it’s limiting. I love labels, the more the better; bring ‘em on! And, sure, sometimes it is limiting, but, since my work is all about the trans/queer community, it works for me.
Morty: Tell me what you think about the notion of a trans genre in film. Many filmmakers have told me they are still waiting for the next level to occur. As in we did all the coming out stories and the “I think im trans” movies, what’s next?
Sam: Ha! Yeah, I’m on that boat. There are so many things to do now. What else are trans people doing besides being trans? Also, films with trans actors where they just happen to be trans, that’s a start!
Morty: What are your thoughts on the genre in general?
Sam: Hmmmm, that’s a big one. The genre is vast, and people have approached it in so many ways. When I think about the genre, I also think about the horrendous films out there-the painful, violent, offensive stuff.
Morty: How are you approaching the trans genre?
Sam: With each project, the answer is different. My first two films/projects came from a place of activism. They were issue-oriented projects. At present, I am moving away from that, at least overtly. Kate talks about the activist always being on the front line, and she is not an activist; she is an artist. I used to think because my art was issue oriented, it was activist art. But, I am starting to question that. Yes, artists can give a big voice to activists, and activists need to use their artists. I’m still working through this change of where I see myself.
I used to think representation was essential at any cost, but I have done a 180 on that.
Morty: You’re using your work to represent trans voices and, to me, that is so important. Is there a “but”?
Sam: No, there is no “but.” Trans voices are what I find most inspiring in the world. Making this work gives me room to breathe, and understand where my position in the world. My interest in making work about gender all started from a human rights place. I’m a media person and do believe in its power to transform, create, and to destroy…ouff; that’s so dramatic.
Morty: I don’t think so, I think that is very true.
Sam: Yes, painfully so. It’s the core of what I teach: how pervasive the messages are. The hegemonic messages which, of course, we are complacent about and many, which, we aren’t—the schemas, the myths. I want people to question all images and all messages. I want people to be raw and honest yet continue to feel protective of themselves and what they see. I want people to question their reactions as soon as they have them.
Morty: What boundaries are you looking to move/break within your own work?
Sam: Well, one thing I am clear on is playing with fiction and non-fiction. I am into pushing the envelope of the expectations of documentary. Too many viewers still think documentary is truth. So, I prefer non-fiction as a term for the genre. And I want to make pretty work, something you look at and just smile or sigh because it’s so pretty… and Kate is damn pretty.
Morty: She is!
Sam: I also like to play with power in my work. I did that a lot with Kate in the beginning of making the film with her, but I’m not sure it’s going to make the cut.
Morty: How did you do that with Kate?
Sam: Realizing the responsibility of the filmmaker has been huge for me since I’ve started showing my work. With Kate, we had a negotiation scene all about the film, what we would do, what our limits are. It had the feel of an SM negotiation scene, without being explicit. I wanted to know her limits and expectations and to be overt about the power dynamic of filmmaking to the viewer.
Morty: Sam, I love that. I hope a little of that scene makes it’s way into the film. I wanted to also ask you about being a professor.
Sam: Yes! I LOVE my students!
Morty: Did you always know you wanted to teach film?
Sam: It’s funny because I don’t even teach film now. I teach theory/criticism in media. But I did start with teaching production in 2007 in Chicago.
But, no, I didn’t always know I wanted to teach. I’ve edited for other people, produced, done camera work, and thought that was they way to go, but, once, I started teaching I fell in love with it. I’m on the search for a full-time teaching position now.
Morty: Does being trans ever come into play in your teaching?
Sam: I use gender-neutral pronouns, and the faculty and students rarely get it, which is disappointing. I do identify with the word trans and I don’t. It’s still limiting in how it’s understood and granted my owning it would help broaden that understanding, but sometimes I’m just too tired/shy/not feeling entitled. But in the classroom, I own it, even when the students “she” me.
All my classes deal with gender and trans media, so, yeah, being queer/queerness/gender is all over my syllabi. And, through gender, we look at race, class, ability, etc., of course.
Morty: Alright, last question. What are some things you would say to all the beginning trans/gq/gv artists out there who are reading this interview?
Sam: Hmm, ok, what would i say…
1. The best advice I got from one of my favorite professors (Ricardo Miranda) was: Make. Work. All. The. Time. He said, even if it’s iphone photos on the train…always make work.
2. Spend the time making it really good. And, know what YOU think/feel is really good. That’s your line.
3.Collaborate, support, and use each other as resources. There are far too few of us. Rid yourself of as much internal and external competition as you can.
4. It must be fun for you.
Morty: Wonderful, thank you, Sam!
Sam: Thank you, Morty!
Morty: We will be on the lookout for your new movie, please be in touch when it’s finished!
For more information on Sam Feder, please visit: http://samfeder.com/
Trish: Hey Morty!
Morty: Hi there! Are you ready?
Morty: First, were you always excited about the written word? When did you begin to take your writing seriously?
Trish: I knew I wanted to write when I was a kid, and I was pretty intent, from around the age of 12 or 13, that I wanted to make my life writing. I wrote throughout my teens and when I decided to go to university it was so that I could practice writing in a structured environment. Also, it was economic. At the time, I lived in Quebec, where, thanks to student militancy since the early seventies, there had been a tuition freeze for about twenty years, (tuition was about 600$ a year, and there was a great loans and bursary program), so it seemed to me that was an easier way to write full time than trying to get a grant, having never published anything. So my approach to university was instrumental from the get go. The desire to write never really went from unserious to serious, but did shift from something I pursued in an untutored way to something I did in the context of the workshop and reading literature in a more intentional way, trying to learn from other writers.
I would say a strong shift occurred in the context of the creative writing workshop at Concordia, which also allowed me to come into dialogue with other writers. In Montreal in the early 90s there was this burgeoning or re-emerging spoken word and small press scene and people moved pretty fluidly between the writing program at Concordia and into that more autonomous space. So, I would say it was first in the workshop, and then in the experience of the city as a place of open publishing and performance, with my peers . Folks like Corey Frost, Cat Kidd, Sina Queyras, Dana Bath, Vince Tinguely, Taien Ng-Chan, Anne Stone, lots more…
And being able to read and write and perform in the city, and publish in little magazines and zines and the like also was an occasion for entering into dialogue with feminist and queer or otherwise avant garde writers who were better established, but very encouraging of the younger generation, I’m thinking particularly of Gail Scott, Erin Mouré, Gerry Shikatani, Robert Majzels….
Morty: Did you move into different writing genres over the course of your education?
Trish: I think before I came to university I was mainly engaged by fiction, and drama. Reading the feminist avant garde and post modern writing, really put genre into scarequotes for me and I became more interested in both experimental poetics and prose as poetry, as well as in writing as just writing something that did not stably inhabit a genre. I go back and forth between genre and ‘genre’ and what it means for an artist to be somewhat pigeonholed by this word. So, not to blur boundaries for the sake of it, but to see that interesting things could happen at the borders, or at a slant to what the most recognizable way of thinking about what story was for instance. I’m also attracted to some traditional forms, like ghazal and qasida.
Morty: And speaking of genre…I did want to ask you about the trans genre - or is it ‘trans genre’ - of literature…
Trish: In my poetry and in my critical writing, which are not always distinct, I try to engage both writing as an intervention that may transgress genre to a particular purpose, and to learn from how trans folk, and other colonized, or erased or marginalized folk, have written back or survived through master categories of discourse and language. My own background is mixed, Arab and Irish mutt, and I was also interested in ghazal as a traditional, non european, lyric form, that also can be read as trans genre.
Morty: You are a professor. Did you ever have an idea that you would make a career solely as a writer? How, if at all, does your work as a professor inform your writing?
Trish: As I said, I entered the university to give myself time and space to write, and didn’t really expect to make a career teaching and doing academic research. So, for a time, yes, I imagined that I might make my living primarily as a writer. And there are still times when I entertain the thought, but …. by the end of my undergrad I had come to see that studying literature and theory improved my writing, so I decided to do the MA. With regards to the second question, I doubt I would have had the same access to ideas like double consciousness, deconstruction or écriture féminine, or writers like Kathy Acker, Frantz Fanon, or Nicole Brossard, if I’d not gone the academic route. Though people do make their way without it, and it has a repressive and regulatory function that is only intensifying, university was a huge resource for my own thinking. But by the same token, certainly, there were times during my Phd when my research and teaching duties took so much out of me that I had little energy for creative work. And then again, I like to describe my current manuscript, Lyric Sexology, as the underside of my doctoral work on genealogies of trans figures. In the poetry manuscript I’m working with the same source texts (psychoanalysis, sexology, feminism, autobiography, queer theory), but I’m working them from the vantage of trans subjects’ slant relationship to how she, he, they is/are figured within them. The other thing is that I’ve had the opportunity to teach both intro level and advanced courses on transsexual and transgender politics and cultural production, and that certainly informs my writing in various ways. Teaching the work of folks like Rachel Pollack, Max Wolf Valerio and Mirha-Soleil Ross has taught me a lot.
Morty: You wrote this many years ago: “I’m always trying to call a readership into conversation, make a space for readers to engage me and my work — and that space isn’t made from nothing. I have to weave elements together, in the hope that I’m creating possibilities for dialogue.” Does your writing have a lot to do with making dialogue exist where it didn’t before?
Trish: Absolutely, yes. That is still something I’m striving for. I think in my critical work, again, there is the question of recognizing dialogues that have happened, and been flattened and obscured over time. So lifting them up, and saying, look, there was complexity here that we’ve come to ignore, say between doctors and trans people in crafting the diagnosis, we are, some of us, eager to get rid of… Or, following the work of someone like Ammiel Alcalay, drawing out the dialogue between Arab, Jewish and Romance cultures that pre-existed the rise of European nation states. Or, alternately, in knowing a little bit of those buried histories, to make space for a dialogue in the now, in places where it is assumed no dialogue is possible.
Morty: Do you consider your work partly motivated by activism?
Trish: Yes. I mean, I write out of a variety of motives, desires, moods, influences, but I intend the writing I do to do some work in the world. Sometimes that might be to find a way to express a difficult emotion, or to have a more interesting syntax, sometimes it might be to record struggles or lives that are threatened with erasure, sometimes it might be about calling bullshit on social violence. I do think of writing as communal, particularly poetry. And so I think it can help fashion ways for us to dwell with one another.
Morty: How do you see poetry as communal?
Trish: I think it has to do with poetry as a form for approaching subjectivity, and we can find so many ways to defend ourselves against the subjectivity of others, so many ways to not notice one another, or to protest that the presence of another is unbearable, and that we ought not be subjected to the other. I think in writing towards subjectivity, poetry can bring us into a kind of delicate encounter with one another’s particularity, and common human frailty. Maybe that’s too precious. I also think that in live performance we are occupied by the vibration of another’s voice if we let ourselves be open to that. I said delicate a moment ago, but I think it can also be shatteringly forceful, and we also learn from that. As well, since poetry is not lucrative, and in fact often operates as anti-economic activity, its value is for thought, dialogic encounter, symbolic transformation, ethical witnessing…. Even where the poet is in isolation, I think these activities invoke the social, the public, the communal. This is visible in the burst of recent work to make public poetic (trans) discourse possible. I’m thinking of Bodies of Work, Julian Talamantez Brolaski, E. Tracy Grinnell and erica kaufman with their festschrift for kari Edwards, no gender, Trace Peterson with Tendencies, Eoagh, and her collobaration with TC Tolbert on a forthcoming anthology of trans and genderqueer poetry, as well as Ahimsa Timateo Bodrán and Tony Valenzuela’s queer and trans writers of colour event Ancestors, at the last AWP. Those are just a few recent examples from the US; I could go on…
Morty: I ask this in all of my interviews: Do you consider yourself a “trans/queer writer”? I’m also interested in how your trans identity intersects other lines of identity for you.
Trish: I think I’ve made trans, and my being trans, the subject of my writing, so, yes, I think I “am” a trans writer. Similarly, I’ve tried to think what being Arab, and being mixed race, in an officially multicultural but in fact white supremacist society means, in part through the lens of my own experience, but also through looking at the discourses on Arabness, my own encounters with and internalization of orientalism, and current political events. I think that because there is an assumption of whiteness in a lot of literary and gender scholarship on trans, my being trans and Arab becomes a point of curiousity, in ways that are predictable but which also trouble me. And in terms of your second point, I don’t mind that folks focus on the trans content of my writing…but there are moments where I think assumptions are made about my body (and biography), or there are attempts to decode my body (and biography) from my writing, and that strikes me as both very strange and a little prurient. It is one of the more fraught ways in which minority, and particularly in the focus on the body, trans, writers are read.
Morty: Many trans writers are working toward freeing the transgenre, making its future…how do we keep the intersectionality of race, gender, and class present while doing so?
Trish: Well, I don’t know if we can be programatic about that. Like I said, I think it is both a history of how we’ve been written, and written ourselves, and both of those things have been bound up with an uneven discursive playing field, and have been inflected by power, privilege, oppression, etc. and that is true as well, of the boundary playful/boundary busting feminist, womanist and queer avantgardism I was talking about as a precursor to contemporary trans genre writing. I mean, stylistically, a lot of that has its roots in european modernism, though that was “itself” a more hybrid beast than its canonization allowed for, and we can unearth that more complex history and some have…. and so keeping intersectionality in trans genre isn’t a project or a to do list…our social locations and our discursive access are functions of intersecting lines of force, and we can work to mobilize that force in just ways or not.
I think we can recognize that there are ways in which avant garde writing and “conventional” writing get pitted against one another, each claiming privilege over the other, and I think trans genre could arguably refuse that dichotomization of the popular/accessible vs the elite/sophisticated… I think that we would be doing a disservice if we imagined a privileged figural economy as particularly emblematic of trans writing, or if we spent our time sneering queerly at the conventionality and normativity of the biographical text. Though I think Viviane Namaste and kari edwards were right to challenge the insistence that we perform or produce our autobiographies as authorizing signatures or as spectacle for non trans people’s curiousity. I do think that the trans genre can/does include queer writing but shouldn’t privilege it. I think that trans genre won’t speak for or to many writers who are trans or who transitioned, or who don’t use that language, because it doesn’t make sense culturally or in terms of language or class.
Morty: Thank you so much for this interview!
Trish: Thank you. This has been a really delightful chat.
Morty: Thank you! You, too!
Morty: So, you’ve been a writer for quite some time now. How did you start writing?
Everett: I actually started writing as a kid, banging away on a cast iron Royal typewriter. I don’t have any of those stories anymore, but I’m sure they were funny and awful. I went to writer’s camp in high school and as a solid middle class teen I figured any career needed to be able to support me, so I focused on journalism, rather than battle my parents over doing something “artistic.” But lo and behold the idea of writing creative fiction and nonfiction keep tugging at me, and I eventually got back to it after a professional career in project management. Which is nothing like writing.
Morty: Do you see your book as creative nonfiction?
Everett: There are so many categories in the publishing world—genres, sub-genres, niche markets, etc.—I suppose memoir is a kind of creative nonfiction. I call it memoir or autobiography, because, well, books on the history of passenger cruises could be creative nonfiction. Not that there’s anything wrong with books on the passenger cruise industry.
Morty: Your book is a humorous take on your transition. Why did you decide to write about your trans experience, and why through the lens of humor?
Everett: Great questions! I decided to write about my transition because I’d recently moved to a small town from a big city, and one of the first things anyone asked of me was to mentor a young trans man in town. He had some supportive friends, but very few resources in the way of figuring out where he saw himself in the great big gender nonconforming world, and I owed it to him not to push him in any one direction. It had to be his idea and his initiative. I’d struggled with that in my own transition, and it occurred to me that I could write a book which allowed for me to tell the just-coming-out trans person to be open to their own gender interpretation. And the only way I could figure out how to do that was to tell it from my own experience.
Humor, meanwhile, has been with me all of my life. It’s been the one thing I could count on in tough times or when making difficult choices. If I write anything about me and my observations, it will have at least a stream of humor in it. That said, my transition has really pointed out to me how ludicrous gender is in general. I really wanted to highlight that.
(Everett’s new book!)
Morty: Do you have any specific ‘ludicrous gender moments’ from your book (or life) you wanted to share?
Everett: Well, there’s the moment when post-top surgery, my nipple scab fell off, down through my shirt and out my pant leg onto the floor of the men’s room at work while I was washing my hands at the sink. I wasn’t sure what to do about it! It’s a nasty rest room floor, but I “dropped” it after all. It was part of me, but not part I’d keep, and so on. Had anyone noticed? How long was I going to wash my hands while I wondered what to do about a freaking nipple scab? The thing was the size of a dime. I left it on the floor. I laughed at the marketing of products to trans people. Stand to pee devices, packies, binders … who was selling used items, who was complaining about the cost of a $12 packer, the ways in which manufacturers tried to appeal to us as a consumer group. That was strange and laughable at times.
Morty: Yes, I agree. I’ve worked in the sex toy industry, so I have experience marketing/selling some of those products. Speaking of work, do you have job on top of writing?
Everett: Right now I’m the acting executive director of an HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C advocacy and case management nonprofit. Which is a lot more of a mouthful than “writer.” It’s a whole different job but it’s much the same, in that I’m always tasked with messaging ideas to people.
Morty: I also saw on Facebook that you are a new father. Congrats! That must be amazing.
Everett: Watching the development of a tiny human figuring out their place in the world is really amazing, that’s a good word for it. When I get stressed about my own negotiation in culture, I can come and play with baby feet, and get a reality check on what’s really important. I’m so privileged to be a parent.
Morty: I am wondering how did you find the time to write in between work and family? How do you keep the balance?
Everett: It’s all about excellent time management and learning to live with some imbalance, as well as general chaos. I’ve nearly run out of gas twice this year because I keep forgetting little things like filling the tank. Plus gas is like the price of gold right now.
Morty: Do you have any advice for new writers?
Everett: For new writers—stick to your guns, write what you most care about, because you’ll be pushed on your work at some point and you need to really believe in it and its value. And, I know it sounds trite, but don’t give up! If you’re really interested in getting your work published, accept that you will get a lot of rejection notices. It’s helpful to save up money to attend writer’s conferences where you can network, pitch your books in person, and learn about what other people are doing in the industry. By the way, I got 18 rejections before my new book found a publisher.
Morty: Last question: What can you say about trans writers and the trans writing genre in general?
Everett: I think we’re at the cusp of a great wave of transgender writers and artists, I really do. We’ve been around for a long time but I feel us reaching a tipping point. Red Durkin, Tom Leger, your work, Ivan Coyote, S. Bear Bergman, Amos Mac, there are so many others (I blame new dad brain for not listing more), they’re all doing incredible work and I’m honored to be a tiny part of it.
Morty: Thank you! I am looking forward to reading your book!
Everett: Thank you, Morty!
PART ONE OF A TWO PART INTERVIEW
Morty: I wanted to start by asking about the early moments in your life where you came to know how much you loved writing?
Ryka: My first inkling of this was in my childhood. I didnt have a great childhood, and I write about this a lot in my work. Writing became an escape and a place where…you know, there are no scars on the paper. It’s a fresh start, it’s beautiful. Where some people see the blank page as a question, or as a challenge I’ve always seen it as a haven, as a place where I can escape to. I’ve always had that. In college, I was pushed into the sciences, hence my bachelors degree in chemistry. My parents did not want me to be an English major one bit. I would be taking a chemistry class and on one side of the page was chemistry stuff and on the other side was poetry. But…something pushed me to apply to MFA programs, even though I knew I had absolutely no chance. Within three years of applying, I got in.
Morty: So, it was scary to move away from what your parents wanted for you?
Ryka: Oh my god, yeah. I mean, I was shaking, I had a bit of a breakdown. I worked a little bit as a lab rat but I hated it. There was this voice inside me that said, “Just keep going, you know who you are.” And eventually, if you’re lucky, you have the wherewithal to move…and I was very lucky.
Morty: Where did you get your MFA?
Ryka: At Cornell.
Morty: A very prestigious school…
Ryka: I know! The funny thing is, when I applied, I coasted into the Post Office with my 1983 Honda I paid 25 dollars for. The engine had just given out! And, as I was mailing it, I thought to myself, “Why am I here, I know I’m not getting in to Cornell”… but then I did! It was a lot of work but there was a lot of luck involved, too. Well, I always say you have to work really, really hard to get lucky because if you don’t then you bomb.
Ryka: At Cornell, I was still male. We didn’t even get to gender, I was the second Asian they had in the program! So, yeah, it was really wacky. It was also a very valuable experience and grounded me but was also a transition period. I still had a lot of work to do to become an honest to goodness writer in the real world. I mean an MFA doesnt give you that, it just gives you time. And some great connections, too.
Morty: So, what brought you from your MFA program to teaching?
Ryka: I’ve always loved to teach. And this might sound a little corny, but I truly believe this. When you’ve been a victim, you can do one of two things. You can either mimick the oppressor or you can turn around and say, “It stops here” and “I’m going to help others”. I suppose a part of it is..as a transwoman I’m never going to have a biological kid, and this kind of work feeds my maternal instinct but it goes beyond that. I know what its like not to have opportunities. I went to an ivy league college but I was the first one in my family to go to college! So, I’m going to go and get this information and share it with others. I don’t want to see anybody being left out. I don’t want anyone to feel that language isn’t their birthright. Also, when I’m teaching, I’m performing. I mean, think about it. I’ve got to be on stage for three hours entertaining 30 students and the material sucks because were covering subject verb agreement. So, if I can hold an audience for that long, I know that when I’m on the road performing my own work, I’ve got my chops up!
Morty: I also want to know, specifically, how you became a teacher. The process.
Ryka: Here is where Cornell and getting an MFA comes in. For once, the good ol’ boy network worked for a queer woman of color. Knowing people, and being fortunate and luck. Connections. But it wasnt easy. I looked for work for two years and actually had to go back to chemistry for a little while before landing a job. So, even with my connections, it wasn’t easy.
Morty: So, along with writing, you always had this desire to be a performer as well? You were already writing and performing before you transitioned…
Ryka: When I began transition and started the process I realized it was a very big job and I understood I needed to not turn away from the things in my life that gave me strength. And writing was where I have always felt the strongest. My first time out as Ryka was on stage. I was at a Forward Girls showcase and they had asked me to perform. Outside of going to one or two bars, I had really never presented publicly. So, I made my debut as Ryka on stage in front of a bunch of people. And that was the most comfortable place for me to do it. I couldn’t have done it without that. For me, my work gave me a moment to process. On stage I’m processing, on stage I’m creating. Even when I’m reading a poem that I’ve already recited a bunch of times, when I’m with that audience I’m processing. I’m there. I cannot do it in any other way.
Morty: Your work facilitated the process and understanding of who you are, and were becoming…
Ryka: Yes, for sure. I knew that regardless of what I looked like on stage. How I presented, what my voice sounded like, how shaky I was… if the work was good the audience should receive it and should accept it and I knew how to control the work. You know, they could think I looked like a monster, like a man in a dress but they would have to see that I wrote a really fucking good poem. And that would get me up there. But it was fucking terrifying. I didn’t know what the hell was going to happen. But I did know that I put a huge amount of time in that poem and when I put the time into my work, good things happen.
Morty: What do you think about the trans arts? Does it feel too conforming to call yourself a “trans writer” or a “trans artist”?
Ryka: If I’m speaking as a trans artist, where I’m getting paid, it’s always a good thing. Where we can get stage time, get published and all those good things, we do it and hope that message gets through. That being said, I really cannot deny that I’m trans and I’m proud of what I’ve been through, but sometimes I would like to be called “a poet”. Because I don’t often say I’m a Japanese American writer, so I think there’s a balance that must occur. I think, also, the trans art scene is very important. Because the cis gendered community have a support system that is already in place. For the most part, their femininity or masculinity is not questioned and they can identify with each other. For trans people, we know how we identify, but we need to convince the world and, to a point, have to rid ourselves of internal transphobia. A lot of this hampers our self confidence. So, for trans artists to develop our self confidence we need our own models to point to how we want to be seen and that’s why its really important to be fostering our art scenes. It’s important, we need these spaces to grow. We cannot throw transitioning people out there and say “survive”. I mean, some of us can, those with exceptionally strong self images. And the best poets and their self images, they don’t always colate. Sometimes I see a trans person who needs a lot of help, a lot of support but when she finally ends up creating something, it’s beautiful. So, the trans art scene, to me, helps trans artists. But, more importantly, it is also making an investment in our voice by fostering this community. To go on with this: I don’t publish in too many Asian American anthologies but I am Asian. When I go to speak, for instance, at a reading for a basic literary magazine, my very prescence helps trans folks. There it is.
Morty: Would you introduce yourself as a trans artist to a group of, most likely, cis gendered, non queer, non trans crowd of individuals?
Ryka: In the writing world, many times I can’t tell them who I am. Much of the work being submitted is submitted blind. My name is the only identification.
Morty: Yes, but once you get selected. Now you’re on this stage…
Ryka: Oh, hell yeah! It’s always relevent to do so because they need to hear about you! So, if one person in the audience says “Hey, those trans people aren’t such freaks, I want to hear more, lets go see them!”, then it’s good. If who I am bugs you out then I have no interest in publishing with you. Sorry.
Ryka: You know how it is. When a woman comes up to me and says “Wow, I thought you were really hot, and then I found out you’re trans.” And I’m thinking to myself, ‘If you really feel that way then you’re a total idiot’. It’s the same with anthologies I’ve submitted to. You liked my work before you knew what was between my legs, now all of a sudden you don’t like it. Screw you.
Morty: I’m with you on being able to support and nuture other trans artists and be out there for other trans artists to see. To say “Hey, we’re here! And we’re doing work! Don’t be afraid to join us! Be who you are!” But, there are also moments where it can be tiring.
Ryka: The way I handle it is to not run away from the trans label, not to fight it, but to really explore it. I’m also a Judo instructor. And when there is an enemy that you cant move by pushing sometimes you have to pull and see what happens. So, it’s “okay, I’m trans.” but what does that mean? I don’t hate the trans label, I embrace and examine it. I find ways to defetishize the trans definition and go into the realm of human experience. As I come out that way, I’m hoping and trusting the audience that they see, I’m not talking about trans at all. I’m talking about how one person goes through this label that is forced upon her and uses it and works with it to create something artistic or, maybe even comes to some epiphany about the human experience. Then, at this moment, it is meaningful for anyone who is transforming: getting a new job, living in a new place, breaking up with someone. And they can take it as their own. Many people say to me “Why do you do this, you pass.” but it’s not like that for me. I’m never going to pass as a non-trans writer. I don’t want to. But I’m also not going to make it a badge of hate. I’m going to take your expectations of me, address them, fuck with them and, in the end, take you off balance and teach you something.
Morty: So, how do you write? How do you get there?
Ryka: You get there in small steps. I get there by treating my writing like a job. I sit at my kitchen table and I write in the morning. Other people might not wake up two hours before they need to be anywhere but that isn’t how I work. I’m a writer and that’s just what I do. I’m really efficient in the morning. Whatever comes out, comes out. And if it’s not finished I just keep going. I see writing as a form of worship, too. I spend a certain amount of my day writing and reading. Once the process is in place the work will take care of itself. Then, once I have found what I believe to be the best work, I begin making drafts. I like the serenity of knowing, no matter how bad the day gets, that one part of the day is going to be a blank paper and pen and a moment, and it’s going to be good. Writing is not my adversary, it is my oasis.
Morty: What inspires you to write?
Ryka: The inspiration, for me, has always been the world around me. People…just watching portraits of life. Some are so vivid to me that I’ve got to go home and write about them. Of course, I do have bad days with writing. Which is why magazines like this are so important and community around you is so important. You need places to go and see other like-minded people and share and commiserate with them. Also, we need to stop being so competitive. Because, you know what, your success is my success and vice versa. Because, really, if you’re doing good work, someone will publish you, or, better yet, you can publish yourself! What I’m saying is, what gets you through the hard times is community and it makes me feel good knowing some trans artist somewhere is kicking ass right now. I can, for one night, be tired or doubt my skills because some other trans artist is being fierce. Competition can be good, but it has to be the kind that puts a fire in ourselves to make our own art, instead of dragging us down.
Artists have always formed ad hoc groups, that’s the way many of them work, instead of being endorsed by a large organization. There also needs to be more investment into the community. It’s always great to go to a show and say, “Yes, this stuff really inspires me.” But then you should go and put up a blog and write about it, tweet about it, make an active community. Don’t wait for others to make that community for you.
Morty: Perhaps a lot of trans people feel so disenfranchised that they don’t feel they can, or that they feel they posses a strong voice. Many might think, well, I’ll put something out there but nobody is going to look or pay attention.
Ryka: Sure, how many times have people said, “Nobody is going to pay attention, so we might as well fuck.” or “We might as well take drugs, nobody is looking anyway?” How come these behaviors are things that we do? Very few of us say, “Nobody’s looking, so I’m going to make this amazing art.” Why can’t we do it with that kind of energy? Nobody is looking anyway, we might as well form our own community.
You know, many of us don’t know how great we are, and it takes a long time to figure it out. We are the golden age, we just don’t know it. Fifty years from now people are going to look back and say, “Those people were fucking fierce, what the hell, why can’t we be like them!” The reason we can’t see it is because we’re at the epicenter. We’re making culture right now. Right now is one the best, most amazing times to be a trans artist. We are in the process of a genesis, this community, right now. I firmly believe this. There is a great creative explosion happening right now. We don’t think about it because we don’t have the time to think about it! And we all need to know this, all of us in the community need to understand that, yes, we are doing the work and making things happen.
Part two of this interview will be up next week!
To order Ryka Aoki’s new book, Seasonal Velocities, please click on the link: http://trans-genre.net/content/seasonal-velocities/
Morty: Hi Tobi!
Morty: My first question is regarding your history as an artist. I know you’re a writer but did you make any video work before shooting sex positive porn?
Tobi: Ha! I took a film class in middle school. We recorded still images and used a pair of VCRs to essentially make a slide show to music. But not really. When I first started (making porn) I just surrounded myself with folks who already had experience. I let them be in charge of what they were doing, and learned as much as I could from them.
Morty: So, you began as a writer?
Tobi: Yeah, I started as a writer. I had an erotic fiction zine series that focused around issues in queer and trans community. Before that I was writing non-fiction
Morty: Is your erotic fiction zine still around for purchase?
Tobi: Yes, it can be purchased from handbasketproductions.biz, either as electronic downloads or as hard copies to be mailed out.
Morty: And each zine focuses on a particular story or character?
Tobi: Yes, each story focuses on a trans character. Each zine has at least one previously known character in the series, as well as new characters; so that by the time you get to the end of the series you have the story of the community, not just the individuals. And it brought in some issues around being queerspawn, dealing with transphobia in queer community, abuse, and other serious topics mixed in. Although, I only got about half way through writing the series before I started working on film and I’ve not been able to get another issue out since then, although a new one is half finished.
Morty: These zines feature only your written work, or others as well?
Tobi: Oh, well, that series is all my work, but there is “Pocket Porn Series 2 and 3” which are written by Fay Onyx, my partner. The website also features zines by Ronan, my other partner. The three of us run Handbasket Productions together.
Morty: When did Handbasket Productions start?
Tobi: It started with the first zine in the Pocket Porn series, which I believe was around 2006.
Morty: What got you from the written word to video?
Tobi: Well, I have to give major credit to the MTF_Undressed (which still exists but isn’t very active, due to photo stealing) online community, that provided a safe space for trans women to post naked pictures ourselves. And for years my friends and I had been trying to find out if there were any trans women in queer/feminist porn out there. Then, when I needed some money, I ended up doing some mainstream porn and that was when it kinda solidified for me; that there needed to be something more out there for us. I approached porn like an organizing project. Even when I didn’t have camera or editing skills, I’d find other folks who liked the idea to help out and paid what little I could.
(Doing It Ourselves DVD cover)
Morty: When you say organizing project it brings up the context, which seems very personal and political for you. Am I wrong on this?
Tobi: Yes, it is very personal and political. I find myself inspired to focus on issues that come up for me and my community. After dealing with two abusive relationships, I wrote a story about an abusive relationship and included a couple pages at the end of trans-friendly support resources around abuse, which had taken me forever to find (trans specific domestic abuse informationcan be found at the end of this interview).
Another example is the video I created last summer, which is nominated for a Feminist Porn Award, titled Trans Women and Strap-Ons. It’s only a short film on queerporntube. The short is mostly me talking about different styles of harnesses and techniques for holding them on a trans female body (plus a short explicit example of their use). But it’s this kind of information that is not readily available. When I asked folks for information, I’d hear a lot of “Oh, I don’t think trans women would want to do that,” rather than helpful advice. Also, my zine, Trans Sexuality: A Sex Ed Guide for Trans People and Our Partners, is another example of trying to get information out there that isn’t readily available. Overall, I really am aiming to create empowering representation and provide information that otherwise isn’t out there. That’s really the main focus of my work.
Morty: Being someone who has made trans porn, it can be somewhat daunting to put this type of work out there. Did you ever feel a bit of concern about doing it?
Tobi: Certainly. I think I got a good chance to get my nervousness out through MTF_Undressed, and after doing mainstream porn I got over most of it. I mean, if I was going to bare my body for folks I didn’t know and probably wouldn’t like, why not do it for my own community? Still, there are issues that come up now and then. The strap on video was the first time I had my genitals visible in an online video you don’t have to pay for. Sure enough, some anti-trans activists found it and posted a link for everyone to point and laugh. There’s an anti-trans blog that’s scrounging the internet for independent/queer/feminist porn featuring trans women so they can re-post it (without permission of course) as proof that we are not really women. Ironically, if I had only ever done mainstream porn, I doubt I would have been in their crosshairs.
Morty:That’s very disheartening to hear. As most know, there is still this enormous body of videos from the mainstream porn world exploiting transfeminine bodies. Yet, I hear about your work and the work of many other transwomen in porn, and it makes me think things are changing. Are they?
Tobi: There’s currently a significant push from trans women in mainstream porn to be given more respect and control within the industry at large. A lot of them are setting up their own websites instead of just working for the major production companies. That puts them in an interesting position of still catering to the same audiences, but having more control over what they do and how they represent themselves. I think it’s a move that needs to be supported. The more mainstream trans porn consumers can see those representations the better. I think a lot of consumers are purely ignorant and assume that what terms the industry uses and how the industry presents porn to them is close to how trans women see ourselves. Disrupting that and providing some education will help.
But ultimately, it’s hard to imagine these problems ever going away completely. I mean, look at all the awesome feminist/queer and dyke-made porn being made, some of it making it’s way into the mainstream. Yet, “girl-on-girl” porn, that is designed to meet straight male fantasies rather than to represent how queer women actually have sex, is still way more popular and profitable.
Morty: So, lets discuss how to make hot, sex positive trans porn. Can you give readers a peak into how you produced your movies?
Tobi: Well, one of the hardest things to work out was pay. I couldn’t afford to pay even the comparatively low rates standard in queer/feminist porn. I had some folks offering to work for the experience with no pay, but I felt strongly that I didn’t want to depress wages or take away paying work from an already underpaid industry. I paid what I could, but that definitely slowed me down. Since becoming well known, I have a lot more people offering to perform for me than I can afford to pay. So, I’ve recently come to a new model of working on things where I will still pay standard rates for any budgeted project, but I’ll also do additional scenes that are set up on a “I’ll pay you when/if I use the scene in something.” I’m hoping this will allow me to shoot a lot more, and then have a library of unused footage that I can put together for projects as money comes in.
Of course, I also cut corners a lot of ways with donated space, friends helping out for small things that needed to be done, shooting in houses, borrowing a camera, and things such as that. When there’s a community of folks who want to see a project come to fruition it can be incredibly powerful. It’s still really up in the air, but I’m looking into doing a crowdfunding campaign in July for my next film.
Morty: I think that’s a great idea.
Tobi: It’s tricky because Kickstarter won’t do anything involving sex. Indiegogo will allow it, but you can’t use Paypal because they don’t allow you to use their service for sex related projects. Also, one of the largest costs is DVD production. But as everyone is moving to more of an online distribution model, it’s possible that will go away. Right now, DVD production is at least half of the budget for my projects.
Morty: Yeah, I personally see DVD’s being phased out in the next 5-10 years but not anytime soon. Why do you think there is a dearth of porn showing transwomen as sexy, beautiful people you’d wanna mess around with, in a sex positive way? In my opinion, there are still so few transwomen in sex positive indie porn.
Tobi: When I talk with other directors about it their response is kinda “I cast who is around in my community.” The reality is that trans women are not as present, and often not as welcome, in sex positive queer community. Also, when trans women are included, there are a lot of queer folks in the audience who don’t like it. Courtney Trouble has told me of screenings where members of the audience complained that trans women were present. There are a number of reasons for that, and we’re beginning to have some good conversations about it, but it’s probably too much to get into right now.
Morty: Sure, I understand. But that irritates the heck out of me to hear. Which transwoman do you believe is one of the biggest and best in the industry?
Tobi: I’d undoubtedly point to Drew Deveaux. Her first work in porn was in Doing it Ourselves: The Trans Women Porn Project. She’s managed to be in a dozen or more films since then, won the 2011 Feminist Porn Award for Heartthrob of the Year, and has also worked in more mainstream productions.
Morty: Yes, I’m very familiar with Drew. For me, she is one of the best performers I’ve ever seen, trans or not.
Tobi: She was also the first trans woman actor for Girlfriends Films, and they even put out a press release about it.
Morty: When was that?
Tobi: Not too long ago, sometime in the past 6 months I believe.
Morty: Tell me about linking up with Courtney Trouble - is this just for distribution?
Tobi: Well, as of now, all of my films are being distributed through her TROUBLEFilms. We’ve gotten more and more opportunities to talk and strategize together. It started with technical advice to each other. There’s a huge amount of information to pick up in this industry and directors need to have a cursory knowledge of it all, so we consult each other a lot. We’ve talked about doing a scene together or trading performances in each others films. And we’re both willing to lend each other a hand when it’s needed. So things are up in the air, but I’m sure we’ll be collaborating more in the future.
Tobi: Well, I’m currently working on a project that will be an animated version of my first Pocket Porn story. I’ll be taking still photography and giving it motion, with a little bit of film mixed in, along with narration and voice-overs from the story. And I’ve been kicking around ideas for a Doing it Ourselves sequel in the next year or two.
Morty: Please keep me updated with your animated short. And, suffice to say, I’d be the first to send you some funds for a sequel to Doing it Ourselves, should you decide to make it. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Tobi: One thing that’s really exciting right now is that I no longer feel like I’m the only one doing this. Not only has Drew’s work taken off, but more and more trans women are stepping up to make their own vision of porn. And that’s been really inspiring. The one thing I’ll close with is a reminder to anyone starting up their own porn production: I’m always available to give advice (it just might take a while for me to get back to you).
Morty: Yes! What is the best way to reach you?
Tobi: Tobi@handbasketproductions.com works great.
Morty: Perfect, thank you so much for the interview!
Links to Tobi Hill-Meyer’s work:
New animation project, Escaping the Gender Police
Transgender specific domestic abuse information:
The Network / La Red
English/Spanish bilingual, displays queer, trans, and kink
symbols on their webpage.
Communities United Against Violence (CUAV) – CA
Hotline 415-333-HELP (4357)
CUAV is a multicultural, anti-oppression organization working to end
violence against and within our diverse lesbian, gay, bisexual,
transgender, queer, and questioning (LGBTQQ) communities.
We believe that in order to end homophobia and heterosexism,
we must confront all forms of oppression, including racism,
sexism, ageism, classism, and ableism.
INVISIBLE by Xavier
Artist Statement: “The short film, Invisible, is a collection of my own thoughts and experiences as a person in the transgender community. I felt like it was something that needed to be expressed, because I find some of the social issues in regards to transitioning to be frustrating. In one sense, there is a push for a person to assimilate. To be “normal” and not call attention to oneself. At the very same time, they almost want us to walk around with signs on our heads so that they can either target, fetishsize or avoid us. I also made a few comments about the enforcing of gender roles and norms, how these things affect me and why I deny it.”