43 posts tagged mtf
43 posts tagged mtf
Cary Cronenwett and Flo McGarrell on the set of Kathy Goes to Haiti
Flo McGarrell and Cary (behind the camera)
Zackary Drucker and Papa on the set of Kathy Goes to Haiti
Zaka and Cary Cronenwett working on Kathy Goes to Haiti
(Berlin Reed credit JuLee Lebert, 2012)
Morty: So, lets start by discussing your book tour for your new book, The Ethical Butcher. How’s it been coming along?
Berlin: Tour was pretty good and full of the fun and wild travel experiences one would expect. This is my 4th year of touring but it was my first experience touring as an author with a book and having a publicist and more support in the logistics of travel like arranging flights, radio spots, bookstore events, etc. The highlights were getting to work with other underground chefs, chefs with vision and confidence and integrity. The same kind of work that I had done by myself before writing the book. I had a great experience with a dinner in Chicago. That was the highlight of the entire trip. Shout out to Brave New Art World and Tuesday Night Dinner!
Morty: Tell me more about the Chicago dinner.
Berlin: It was a bunch of young chefs doing 4 courses in a collective art/living space called No Sandbox. The Tuesday Night Dinner crew has been doing underground dinners about as long as I have, they’ve just kept their magic in Chicago. They invited me to do a “Cameo Course” and do a book signing, sort of a guest chef thing. I did the main course. They booked a really good local DJ who kept the energy flowing. There were installations by local artists. All local and good food with all kinds of people. The whole thing was 30 bux to attend! It was a lot like the brunches 718 Collective, a chef collective I co-founded, used to do in Brooklyn last year. It was just good times all around.
My course was a savory french toast thing I called pain perdu a la printemps. It was a duck egg french toast which I make by soaking bread in a savory custard for 8 hours before baking in lemon butter. It was topped with an oven jam made from ramps I foraged with my host chefs, and rode along with a fresh cherry tomato and purslane salad over a chive blossom buttermilk whipped cream. Oh, and the french toast was perched on a bundle of tea-braised ham hocks and salsify that I cooked in 3 stages over 2 days. The whole plate was maybe 5 bites. The other courses were equally beautiful and labor-intensive. People were stoked and I had such an inspiring time with the other chefs.
Morty: For those reading this interview that don’t know a lot about you, what would you say about who you are as a butcher/chef…the essence of it for you?
Berlin: Well basically, I started this food project in 2009 based around my becoming a butcher after 14 years of vegetarianism, which included a nice chunk of intense veganism. A few months after starting the blog, The Ethical Butcher, I started traveling around the country visiting farms and doing dinners with whole animals. Gradually, the events took on a life of their own, as a means for me to express my political views through art. Slowly, my attention shifted away from just meat and butchery to food culture and food justice in general. After a while, only talking about local foods and “sustainability” felt really one-dimensional. My events went from being whole animal farm dinners to community meals that focused on community engagement all the while challenging patriarchy and colonialism through food culture. I’m interested in turning the elitism of cuisine on its ass by creating these conceptual events and menus and charging 10-30 bux. I also bring all of my kitchen work and food thought together through writing. So, along the way, I got a book deal to write about The Ethical Butcher.
Morty: Sounds like it was a very organic process for you. Did the book deal come out of nowhere or were you looking to publish?
Berlin: I just set out on this journey and it came to me. An agent called me one day in early 2010 after she had read about me in some Brooklyn paper asked if I wanted to write a book. I figured, so many writers spend their lives trying to get an agent and I wasn’t even looking for one, I’d be an idiot to pass it by. So, I accepted her representation, and wrote a nonfiction proposal. My agent, Elizabeth Evans from Jean Naggar, a woman-owned and run agency in NYC, shopped it around, and in fall of 2011 I got a deal with Counterpoint Press.
Morty: How long did it take to write the book?
Berlin: Well, I never stopped touring, so it was really hard to work the writing in because I was in near constant motion. I had written a couple of chapters as part of the proposal and I started writing the rest last summer, while I was here in Montreal. I had been trying to settle back in NYC after the busy year of travel but was so busy with 718 Collective and the pace of NYC that I couldn’t write. I was coming up on my deadline, so I came up to Montreal to kick it on the cheap and focus on writing. Only, I didn’t focus on writing, I got really into the food culture. Eventually, I went to hid at a friend’s place in the mountains of Northern California to finish the book. The bulk of the writing happened over just a 2-month period last fall. City life was blocking me. Out there, I was able to be outdoors a lot and write all day.
Morty: So lets discuss the intersection of food justice, art and gender.
Berlin: Sure! My work and life intersect with those discussions quite a bit. I definitely work in a male-dominated patriarchal world that is traditionally based on strict hierarchy. Often the restaurant world and food culture are a crucial stage for classism, racism, sexism and misogyny. Early on, I knew I had to get out of the restaurant world if I wanted to be happy in the culinary field because I couldn’t get down with those parts of kitchen culture. I stay mindful and purposeful about how being read as male affects how my actions are interpreted by others. The kitchen is a stressful environment and the traditional hierarchy controls that stress in shitty ways. When I’m working in a crew, like, if I’m collaborating or working with volunteers, I try to keep it moving forward and posi as possible. I make sure to work with mostly queers and rad people because I really can’t get down with Boys’ Club bullshit. I love kitchens that don’t have a head chef. 718 Collective was started with 2 other chefs in Brooklyn last year. 1 person did everything front of house, and myself and the other chef, Jesse Gold, a super rad genderqueer musician who had been a sous chef in restaurants for years, ran the service together on equal footing. I have always had my friends, queers and artists, to collaborate with, and keep my outreach to word-of-mouth and social media. Thoughtful food and skilled technique are exciting, but fancy restaurants pretty much bum me out. I really don’t want to run a business, I’m here to have fun and make art that has a lot of politic behind it. I don’t ever want to establish the atmosphere that “fine dining” restaurants do, which is usually a whitewashed version of whatever food culture they claim to be representing, if not an outright performance of capitalist elitism and the classism and racism that ensure its existence. That’s not my game.
Morty: So, this is your ethos of your work, to be on equal footing and cultivate a positive atmosphere….
Berlin: To work as equals, bring good food to everyone, support local communities and to generally decolonize my lifestyle and share what I learn along the way in order to help others to do the same. In the work I do, I honestly have to say that what I encounter most is racism and classism. Also, to be an artist and to be a non-academic intellectual. No knocks to those who are working to change academia, but I am proud to be where I am today without a formal education. I don’t have a degree, I don’t have a long list of Michelin restaurants on my resume. Being a non-formally educated black dude makes “earning” respect in this world quite a difficult process, regardless of achievement or goals. This is especially true for someone like me who doesn’t want to cling to traditional (read: white) masculinity for power. So, it is most important to me to be myself, represent my work fully and be as unapologetic in my critique of food culture as I am talented in creating delicious food. All I can do is exist in the ways that feel right and keeping working for something better.
Morty: Please explore that a bit with me - are you talking about your clientele?
Berlin: It’s not just my clientele. It’s the world that colonialism and western imperialism has built. There’s racism in the comments I might get at an event. Or in the fact that any given “fine dining” restaurant will be full of white people, but everything will be prepared and served by brown people. It is see it in peoples surprise that I could write the book I did without a college degree. It is in the fact that I am hard-pressed to find leaders and heroes who include people like me in their analysis. It is in the fact that not ONE week goes by without the news that yet another young black man or trans*woman has been killed or beaten or imprisoned. It’s a big question that can’t get answered in this interview.
Morty: Can we discuss your thoughts on trans-related race issues a bit?
Berlin: Sure….everything really switched for me when I began to be read as male, far before I started T. Becoming a black man in America is a rough triumph. My connection to my queerness and queer community changed completely, as did my connection to the world at large. Even by other queers I am read as a black man before I am read as queer. I’ve had people question my presence at queer events, I’ve had queers I know fearfully cross the street when they didn’t recognize me, I’ve been called a nigger in a queer dance party. It became more and more clear to me that “queer space” really did not always mean space for me. My experience with transition was one of finding out who my real community is. 6 years later, my relationship to queerness, even trans* identity, is quite different than it was before I transitioned. Even looking through your blog, I was sad to see very few brown faces. It is tricky being a black masculine person, too, because while I am pushing for my own representation and inclusion, trans*women-of-color have even more to push against. The misogyny, racism, classism, transphobia and other bullshit present in the world is present in the queer community and I do wish there was some real movement on a lot of sticking points. So much racism and misogyny are tolerated, from femmephobia to exclusion of trans*women to body shaming and cultural appropriation.
Morty: I know you wrote for Original Plumbing for some time…can you tell me what you see in trans male culture?
Berlin: To be honest, these days I have a hard time separating transmale culture from masculine culture. Folks like myself who are read as cismales are afforded male privilege, and all masculine people benefit from misogyny and sexism. Just as all white people benefit from racism. Butch-women, studs, AGs- they can all perpetrate the same misogyny and I think queers give carte blanche to some people based on their identity. For instance, I’ve seen some butches pull the same antics that frat boys would, and other queers just laugh it off. Anyone and everyone who strives for normative masculinity is perpetuating the patriarchy.
It’s so boring!
I was read as male way before starting T. I’m really off and on…I’ve had two shots of .25 since last fall. It’s funny though, because I’ve never fully identified as male, I just know that’s the label I carry in this world. I don’t know. T itself… I wish I didn’t need it but I have a hard time with bleeding….physically, it has always been hard on me, so I’ve been thinking about getting back on.
(Berlin Reed by Texas Horatio-Valenzuela, 2013)
Morty: Where do you see normative masculinity and power connect?
Berlin: Yeah. Power. That’s what everyone is taught to push for. I see it more as the privilege of masculinity over the privilege of maleness. I know that my personal experience has been that. Nobody questions my birth gender, so I’m read as cis, all the time. Many trans guys are. They benefit from the same privileges as a cisguy. Similarly, a stud or butch lesbian will get a lot of the same privileges. Normative masculinity has been defined by colonization as power and strength, domination and will. People who espouse these traits are thought to have power. That kind of power is an empty virtue.
Morty: How can we work to be masculine while working to stay feminists?
Berlin: Ya know, that’s been one of my main questions for the last two years because I’m trying to not only be a good feminist, but also rescue my own masculinity from a culture which is determined to eradicate it. I have had to learn how to carry this weight of being a black man in America, seeing people like me killed by police daily, seeing my “queer allies” misuse and appropriate images and artistic expressions of people like me. I have to do this while figuring out how to wear this masculinity in a way that does not rely on dominance or power, and while defending myself in a world that fears what it sees. There’s no safe harbor for that work within the queer community. At least, not one that I’ve found. Not when there are drag queens in blackface and white queers using ballroom slang and big black booties on party flyers. Using language like “cunt”, “hunty”, “what’s the T” and forming “houses” while labeling black music and black culture as misogynist and violent. Not while well-intentioned radicals are getting schooled in how to break up black families through social work programs and queers are gentrifying black neighborhoods, or white feminists are talking about “safety” in the ways that regard black and brown men as heathens. I love queers and queerness with all my heart, but the ways that oppression has remained a part of queer culture is heartbreaking at times. Working through that heartache to be a good feminist is hard, but it is always always at the forefront of my mind.
I really don’t know what’s to be done or where to start, and that can’t be my role. I think we all have to just do constant internal work to decolonize our minds and our lives, to constantly unpack our own baggage and check ourselves and surround ourselves with people who value that work. I think people need to reevaluate what being an ally means…because in a context of combating centuries of oppression being an ally mostly means sitting down and shutting up and listening. The way for us to be good feminists is to change masculinity and try our damnedest to be good dudes, even if we don’t identify as dudes. To be a good cis- ally is to change the way you think about gender. To be a good white person, you have to understand that the world is just totally fucked for other people and you’ll never get it but it’s still your job to work on your shit. We don’t get ribbons for not being racist or misogynist. We just have to work and keep trying to make things better for ourselves and our communities, whatever that means to each person.
Morty: Thank you for that. Part of doing these interviews is injecting this dialogue into the diaspora of trans art and literature. I personally do not think it is explicitly the role of a trans / gender variant artist to change all of these inequities but this is about knowing what we should be thinking about and what could happen in our communities if we work at it.
Berlin: For sure. I definitely think it is so important to expand the issues we talk about in the queer community and that really only happens through expanding the conversation to people from all sides of the community so, I thank you. I really often feel left out of the “queer dialogue”, even though my work is queer as fuck. People often don’t register food as art, or food justice as a queer issue.
Morty: Well, it is very obvious you have art and justice enmeshed into your work with food. Hopefully this interview can change some minds.
Berlin: It is validating to be included here and to discuss these topics. I used to say I wanted to create queer food culture… I now call it decolonial food culture.
Morty: Right, because even queer food culture is colonized. The question I always ask is if you call yourself a “trans/gv/gq artist”…do you put your gender identity front and center in a way where people are supposed to “see” it at all times?
Berlin: Nope. I sometimes use “queer” in reference to my work, and my work on Original Plumbing is very public but I almost never describe myself using trans/gv/gq unless I am speaking in a very specific context. For me, my trans identity is only one way of describing my gender and it is specifically a way of describing it that conforms to a western concept of sex and gender. It’s more of like a medical term to me. I live my masculinity in a way that most people read as feminine, so my queerness is front and center. Most people read me as a fag and I definitely identify as a princely sort, so that works for me with representing my work. It is much more important to me that my work is seen as radical and challenging. I’m inquisitive and creative and full of energy and pissed as fuck about the state of the world, and I want that to be communicated more than I need people to know about my gender identity. I kinda stopped trying to pinpoint my gender years ago, so I don’t really care to dwell on teaching others how to read me. It is equally important to me to represent the man that I want to be, never the man I am told I should be. If I wanted to become a talking head, I could. If i wanted to be a pedantic lecturer, I could. If I wanted to shoot to the top of the chef world, I could. And that is not cockiness, that is the road before me because I’m a guy in a man’s world. But I want to use any power I am given to change this world and bring up the hard conversations. I want to share any space that I find with others who are seeking space, too. It’s been funny, with more mainstream media, they think they are about to get this ex-vegan, punk butcher dude who is gonna tell them some gnarly stories. Then they interview me and I’m talking about patriarchy in the kitchen and prison abolition!
Morty: Again, thank you for being here with me, Berlin. Because I do believe it is important to talk directly to trans people of color on this blog I would like to end the interview by giving those readers some last words of advice about how to do what you love. Your thoughts on how to be an artist and stay true to your vision in all that you do.
Berlin: Aww man, I could write this answer forever! I guess, when it comes to living a life that is authentic to who you are, I think it is just about learning to love and trust yourself. I know thats mad cheesy, but it is true. To be fulfilled as an artist and human, for me, meant getting out of all normative structures. I traveled for 4 years straight, just following my dream and making it happen. That’s not to diminish the work, the sacrifice and tears that it took to make it through those years. But I wouldn’t trade all of the uncertainty and hungry nights for a steady paycheck or stable home. I was committed to existing in the world in the way that felt right to me, and I finally found it. All that is not to say that having more stability can’t be a part of someone else’s plan. I think it is all about being honest with yourself and doing what is right and what works best. I think especially for those of us with marginalized identities that is incredibly difficult because we exist in a world that tells us we can’t be who we are and be happy. We also have few examples of successful people to look at for inspiration. What I often talk about with my closest friends is the fact that we as brown queer people were once the shaman, healers, midwives and witches that brought blessings and were thought to hold a closer connection to nature. I think that when we, as queer people of color, embrace our genius, we are liberating ourselves and acting as a light for others. Personally, I learn everything about being the man I need to be by watching the brown femmes in my life. I can go on about femme worship forever, too!
Morty: Perhaps the next time we talk! Thank you for the interview, Berlin. I am looking forward to joining you at one of your meals, hopefully soon!
Berlin: Thank you.
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For more interviews from Bodies Of Work Magazine go here: http://bodiesofworkmag.com
(Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore by Gina Carducci)
Morty: Hello Mattilda, so happy to hear your voice.
Mattilda: Thank you. I’m excited to be here with you!
Morty: Okay. Let’s begin from the beginning. I first wanted to ask you about your beginnings with art and writing.
Mattilda: Okay. As a kid, I think the only person in my immediate family who inspired me was my grandmother, who was a visual artist. Going to her house and playing around in her studio was sort of the one opportunity I had to dream… you know, because I didn’t really have that in my life, unfortunately. I often felt trapped and annihilated growing up in an assimilated Jewish family where educational attainment and status were very important. And underneath the upward mobility of my parents was this other thing because I was sexually abused by my father and the abuse was always hidden. And the way I dealt with it as a kid was to retreat in my head and to imagine somewhere else. Going to my grandmothers studio to make art, the dream that she evoked was about living your creative life in the every day. I would later learn that she had the same vicious status obsession as the rest of them and that was sort of the genesis of it. But I didn’t see that when I was a little kid, I believed her kind of mythology. I started reading when I was really really young. Reading was a way to get away. I could just disappear into the world of the book and stay there. The first stories I wrote were probably in grade school. I wrote a lot of stereotypically girl stories. You know, I’d write about the fairy castle where like the walls were made of emeralds and the ceiling was made of diamonds! That kind of stuff. It was about escape and fantasy and building a world I could live in because the world I had was full of violence. So, yeah, that’s my beginning.
Morty: So how did you handle the message from your family about status and achievement?
Mattilda: Oh, I was an over achiever. It was ingrained in me that the most important thing was educational attainment and the second most important thing was class striving. I internalized that message entirely as a kid. As a third grader I would read these workbooks we had in school that went up to an 8th grade reading level, and I would just read them all and the teachers would not know what to do with me! I definitely thought I had to go to college and that I had to beat my parents on their terms. I thought I have to go to a more prestigious college than anyone had ever gone to in the family. I had to have the most prestigious job, make the most money, live in the suburbs, and I thought as long as I beat them then I was successful! (intense laughter) And I felt totally trapped because none of this fit with what I wanted. And I did end up going to a more prestigious college than anyone in my family had gone to. And I think initially, when I got there, I thought that the only way I could really get away was to go to college. So, in the beginning being in college I did feel a sort of liberation being away from my parents. In college I started to think okay well now I’m queer and I can be vegetarian and I can find other people like me. And I did learn a lot from being there but what I really learned most from was from activism against the administration for racial and class justice. And I think after year I started to realize that if I was going to beat my parents on their terms that I was actually just going to become them. So, I realized I had to get even further away to learn more and that’s when I moved to San Francisco. I was really looking for direct action activists and freaks and queers and anarchists and vegans and incest survivors and runaways and dropouts and that’s what I found! I really found a culture of outsider queers trying to build something in the ruins of our own lives. Trying to challenge the balance of the status quo and also trying to build something we could live with. Something we could cherish.. ways of taking care of one another that was not based on status quo normalcy of the mainstream world or the vapid consumerism of the gay mainstream world. That was really my formation with coming to San Francisco in the early 90s in a way..politically, culturally, socially, sexually, emotionally, ethically.
Morty: How old were you?
(Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore by Kevin Coleman)
Morty: So, you just packed all your bags and just left?
Mattilda: Well, I had gone with a friend to San Francisco. In our heads we said we were just moving for the summer. I think we both knew we were leaving permanently but we didn’t say that. And within a few months we were already different people. I knew that I really couldn’t go back. Actually, I did go back three years later to make sure I made the right decision! When I went back it was really fascinating because the people that I met as a first year were now seniors and getting ready to graduate and I can really see how it had changed them, you know. In the first year they were just quirky, traumatized weirdos trying to figure things out and they had all assimilated, no matter of class background, into this East Coast elite kind of talking and behaving. So, I was just there for a semester and then I never went back. And I think that was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life. I think leaving school and coming to San Francisco in particular really gave me my foundations and let me create myself based on my own terms and to find other people like me. San Francisco was outside of what I had ever known… it was where I could dream! Not that it wasn’t heartbreaking or difficult or traumatic but it was on my terms. I didn’t feel suffocated. I didn’t feel that I was living a lie to please my parents and beat them. I was rejecting their terms and really the terms of the larger world, of the upper middle-class status driven obsession, whether that be straight normalcy or academic attainment or even what it means to be smart or what it means to be successful or what it means to love or live with other people, take care of one another, you know, all of that. I was trying to create my own terms for all of these things.
Morty: You felt like you plugged into a community or communities in San Francisco pretty quick?
Mattilda: So, this was 1992 when I first got to San Francisco. When I first got there the first thing I found, for better or worse, was club culture. I had been going to clubs since I was 15 or 16 in DC and clubs had always been a kind of place to escape, a place to go and dance and get crazy. I found that world pretty easy and at the time finding a place to go dancing at 6am was really important to me! And then I started going to ACT UP pretty soon after I arrived. And I think, at that time in 1992, as a queer person coming into a queer world and trying to find others I could relate to it really felt like everyone was dying. Whether that be from AIDS or drug addiction or suicide it really just felt like it was surrounding me. So, going to ACT UP felt like a necessity. Finding a way to engage in direct action to challenge the AIDS crisis from a queer perspective. There were different politics with different chapters of ACT UP and I think the San Francisco chapter was really, at the time, centered around needle exchange, universal health care, women with HIV and AIDS and prisoners with HIV and AIDS. So, those were the four most important issues and that you couldn’t fight AIDS without fighting racism and classism and homophobia and misogyny. That those were all intrinsic in queer struggle and I think that was really formative for me. It was also really important for me to learn from the immediacy of engaging in common struggle. So, those two things I found really fast. I don’t know, it really felt like I very quickly was immersed into the Mission dyke, at that time, scene as well. I remember going to Junk after ACT UP meetings. It was a dyke club full of freaky outsider ragged styley punk dykes. It was one of the few clubs where the dancing and the politics and the socializing and the partying could happen together. At the time my ideals were the same as my practice so I thought I should be a slut.. so that means I should meet someone every week and go home and that’s what I did! I feel like there was a culture of people who were experimenting with sex and gender and politics. A lot of us of similar age who had fled from abusive families and most of us had dropped out of college or never went and we were actually kind of suspicious of the ones who had graduated! (laughter) And I think it was really messy. It was also heartbreaking to see how people could let each other down in the same ways that we were trying to get away from. But again, it really was the most formative time in my life. And in a way I was sort of living between worlds. The direct action activist world and then club culture and Mission dyke culture. And it felt really separate, with only a little overlap. For me, I always wanted the politics to come first and have everything sort of go through the politics. For most people it didn’t work like that. What would come first would be, you know, who they were loyal to or who had the best fashion or who was the best S/M top, you know whatever attracted you in that moment.
Morty: When did you start thinking about your first anthology, Tricks and Treats, and publishing?
Mattilda: As a kid writing was a way to sort of process the world and place myself in it in some way. As a little kid I also wrote a lot of poetry and after a while my poetry became more and more spare. I was writing language poetry where you have 12 words on a page and it was really about the experience of the text not the actual text. I was really kind of obsessed about these really structural things. I wanted to change language. I wanted to put something on the page that expressed everything without actually telling the story. In the culture I was a part of in the Mission I met a lot of people who were whores or strippers or other kinds of sex workers. When I first started turning tricks I would tell these elaborate stories about the tricks and my friends would say oh my god you need to write that story down. I was skeptical because I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that kind of writing. I was worried that it was a story that had already been told. I was obsessed with this kind of idea of originality and shifting the parameters of the actual language. I identified as an experimental writer so I thought let me just try this. So, I started writing the stories down and then I thought oh, wait, these are good stories! So, a few years later I started sending my work off to publications and I was getting published in anthologies. I think what I learned from writing poetry is editing. Especially language poetry because you had to cut everything out and leave like 5 words on the page to mean everything. So, there are stories that hookers tell one another about a trick and the story would reveal all these layers of sex, love, intimacy, power, class, race, gender, you know, the interrelations of all these things but in an immediate way not in a necessarily super analytical way. So, my first anthology, Tricks and Treats: Sex Workers Write About Their Clients came about, well…while I was living in Seattle. At the time, so around 96’ and 97’, I was meeting other published writers and I met this wacky and critical and engaged writer, Steve Zeeland, and he suggested to do a book about male hustlers and pitch it to Haworth Press. And I thought, well, I’m not interested in a book about male hustlers but I am interested in a book that shifts the gaze in terms of sex work. So, instead of having televangelists and social workers and talk show hosts endlessly talking about these dark and depraved and desperate and dangerous people that should be pitied and examined and pathologized, I thought no, lets put tricks under the microscope. And I really wanted sex workers of all genders, sexualities, backgrounds and people engaged in all kinds of sex work. Phone sex operator, street worker or sperm donor in one case. So, I proposed that idea instead and they rejected it. But I had already put it together in my head so I thought, well, I’m just going to do this anyway. So, I put the whole book together and then like a year later the same publisher contacted me again and just said we decided to do it! Ha hah! I never figured out what changed their minds. And, actually, it was a few years later when it was published. It was published in 2000. My next book with them, Dangerous Families: Queer Writing on Surviving, happened in a similar way. I wanted to talk about survivors of childhood abuse, to tell their own story but queer survivors of all genders side by side. I think so often in these books, that are mostly recovery books, they are really gender segregated and to be more specific they are basically for women. That’s how they are presented… and they are mostly about female survivors recovering from abuse by male abusers or parents. Some were for male survivors but those were about how to recover your masculinity and I thought the last thing I want to do is recover my masculinity! That’s what I’m trying to get rid of! And I wanted queer survivors of all kinds of abuse: sexual, physical, emotional. And they rejected that one because they wanted it to be all male. I think a book about queer male survivors would not be a bad book it just wasn’t the book I was interested in doing. I felt, at that time, in terms of talking about abuse, the abuse is the commonality. Why does it have to rest on this basic idea… can’t it be across gender and across sexuality if we are going to discuss across different types of abuse? And with this book it was very similar. They rejected it but then came back to me and changed their mind and said yes. That one took a long time to come out because that came out after my first novel, Pulling Taffy, but Pulling Taffy was done later.
Morty: Were you consciously deciding that you really liked to publish work and wanted to continue?
Mattilda: I think what happened was, I grew up knowing I wanted to be a writer and was told that could never be possible. I was given the choices of being a doctor or a lawyer Hah! Right! It became clear to me I wasn’t going to be a doctor or a lawyer in high school because I knew I was…too edgy perhaps. So then it was well, maybe you should be a college professor! I think I always knew that my writing was good. I also knew that it was a very difficult way to support yourself but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do it. We’re taught that you can’t be creative because it’s not marketable. I knew that the best writers never get published and I was fine with that. I was writing really for myself. When I started to get published and do readings I thought oh, well, this is kinda fun. It didn’t make my writing more meaningful but it was another thing, another way to connect with people I might not know otherwise. And people could connect to my work who are not necessarily coming from the same place. And when I did the first two anthologies I started to see it as a kind of organizing. I can use my skills as an editor and as a political organizer to create a conversation and put it in the public domain that would not otherwise be taking place and that was exciting.
Morty: How would you describe your first novel, Pulling Taffy?
Mattilda: Pulling Taffy I originally wrote as short stories. I really started to get into the form of short stories after poetry. What was always the most important thing was voice, the voice of the narrator. Everything else I wanted to get rid of. So, I had this collection of short stories and I would send it to friends for feedback and one person said the narrator in most of these stories are very similar, I think you should think about making it a novel. And I was thinking I don’t want to make a fucking novel but I figured I’ll try it out. I changed some things and moved some things around and then I looked at it again and I thought actually, it’s much stronger. It’s a non-linear novel, so it doesn’t go from point A to point B and so on. Pulling Taffy is about searching for home and not necessarily finding it in a tangle of cities just before the millennium. And I kind of wrote it in those years too - from 95’ to 2000. It came out in 2003, so it took awhile. I had a hard time finding a publisher! Oh my, did I! You know, I remember in high school I would send some writing out to these literary journals and there is this mythology about literary journals, that, you know, they are looking to discover new writers, right? Like The Paris Review, they are really interested in that undiscovered writer that no one knows about! Hah! It’s such bullshit! They don’t look at any undiscovered writer unless it’s someone sent by Michael Cunningham who says I found an undiscovered writer at Columbia! It took me a long time to figure that out. That’s what I love about anthologies, they are accessible for writers who are not entrenched in, you know, someone that went to the Iowa Writers Project or something. With Pulling Taffy, you know, the publishing industry makes these decisions and one of them is that non linear experimental writing is not marketable. So, they don’t want it. I was always told that writing is supposed to speak to the center. And the center in publishing is always this straight, white, hyper-educated East Coast elite. Sometimes it’ll be the middle America caucasian market. So, if you are something else you have to explicate, you know, justify your existence. You have to say this is how I got to this deep, dark, depraved place. This is how I ended up here. And I am not interested in that. I don’t want to speak to that center. It’s pointless. As soon as you try to speak to that center you’ve given up, it’s trash. I think people are interested in more challenging work but the publishing mythology of what is marketable keeps existing. There is no reason why all kinds of people wouldn’t think oh, this is fascinating! For me, I’m writing on my terms, and I’m writing on the narrators terms and someone reading it would have to enter on the terms of the writing. Or not. And sometimes people hate it for that reason. Especially my books Pulling Taffy and So Many Ways to Sleep Badly. People will say to me, this doesn’t even have a plot! And I say, you’re right! For me, that’s the only way I really want to write, and the reader can either accept those terms or not. Pulling Taffy was published by Suspect Thoughts, which was a new publisher at the time. I think it was the 2nd or 3rd book they published. I was really important to them. I was helping establish their name as a publishing house. So, it was a good relationship in that sense. We were all learning at the same time! And now, they’re gone. I think a lot of small publishing houses went away, especially the ones publishing really challenging work. I think a lot of publishing houses, including a lot of really small publishing houses, are not any more accessible than the big ones. Just a niche that they are accessible to. It’s fascinating because there was a moment, especially with queer work, where anthologies were the thing to do. In the early 90’s there were tons of gay fiction anthologies and even erotica was on big commercial presses. And now that moment is over and anthologies are no longer marketable. The books I’m most known for are anthologies. Especially That’s Revolting and Nobody Passes and now, Why Are Faggots so Afraid of Faggots. There are still publishers who say, oh, your anthologies are not marketable. They need to be taking what they like and make it marketable! Take JT Leroy, this is a perfect example. Nobody would look at that and say it wasn’t marketable - it took writers like Dennis Cooper and Mary Gaitskill and their agents to say we like this, lets make this marketable. They should be doing this with all books that are interesting and challenging. But the one they do decide to market was a scam!
Morty: Even though it’s “not marketable” you still have love for the anthology. And so do I.
Mattilda: Yeah, I really believe in the anthology as a social, political, cultural and even emotional intervention. I think my skills as an editor really just get better and better! My most recent anthologies are really in conversation with each other. First there was That’s Revolting: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation, which was an intervention in the morass of gay culture and the dead end of the media frenzy about what it means to be queer. Is it just marriage and military, adoption and ordination into the priesthood or are there radical alternatives that want to reject all of those options and create something else… I wanted to reflect on the worlds that actually mean something to me, queer life on the fringe and direct activism. And I also wanted to question the framework for all of those things. Because what’s the point of doing something if you can’t question it. I mean, I don’t want to glamorize something or glorify something without also talking about the mistakes we make. So, I want talk about racism in radical queer culture or misogyny or transphobia. That’s Revolting is talking about violence and assimilation. There is actual, palpable violence when gay people assimilate into the status quo. It’s not imaginary. There is a violence in pushing out anyone who doesn’t fit in. Whether that be trans people or people of color or people with multiple partners or queer kids or anyone who isn’t drinking the newest liquor and doesn’t have the right dog etc. With Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity, I wanted to examine passing as a means through which assimilation takes place. I wanted to talk about passing across all kinds of lines like race, class, gender, sexuality, age, ability, body type or what it means to pass in cultures of resistance. Like what it means to pass as genderqueer. In my anthologies the things that really challenge me and surprise me… those are the ones I’m like bring it on, this is really exciting! And with Why Are Faggots so Afraid of Faggots, my most recent anthology…you know, I didn’t first think of them as a trilogy of sorts but now I think that they are! I think Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots is asking a specific question but I wanted to use the analysis of the previous books. What does it mean to bring a queer and trans analysis into the intimate spaces of gay male sexual social culture? These books all come from really personal places and I think with Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots I get inspiration from queer, trans, genderqueer, gender nonconforming, gender defiant culture that I’m a part of but I also exist, especially sexually, in the gay male sexual culture which glorifies and is reverent of everything that I despise. So, the intervention is, if these desires that we hold dear only lead to this product driven sexual marketplace, then how do we imagine something else! Maybe desire isn’t just holy and beautiful - maybe it is that, but it’s also this other thing. I think for me, gay male culture is this place where the grossest aspects of straight craving normalcy are around and not questioned. So whether it’s unquestioning masculinity or a relentless drive to police the borders to keep the people with the wrong bodies, the wrong genders, the wrong sexualities out. All of these things are unquestioned. It’s an assimilationist trajectory. If you look at things now compared to the early 90’s. The kind of analysis around gender and sexuality that we have now - it is just so far ahead of the early 90’s. I mean, there was gender transgression then but it was very binary. That’s really changed dramatically in certain cultures. But then we have this retrograde happy, patriotic, were-just-like-you, status crazed, clone kind of mentality that acts as if we are in the 1950’s! Not even the real 1950’s but the one shown on TV! That’s what gay people want! And even some queer freaks believe this! They swallow the whole package and say, “Oh, we should want marriage. It shouldn’t be the main focus but we should want it on some level”. No, we shouldn’t want it on any level. I mean just the idea of becoming part of the US military, being openly gay and dropping bombs. It’s abominable. I mean the cities in how ever many countries that the US dominates but, no, were talking about this wonderful progress that we can wear rainbow rings while we obliterate Pakistani villages. Oh, this incredible progress! It’s sad. And I think it’s even more sad when people know this is an atrocity and we need to be ending the US military and not becoming a part of it, when they say things like, “Well, it’s a starting point”. I mean really! It’s a starting point for a massacre! It’s a starting point for culture erasure.
Morty: Your books are now being read by students in universities. Do you think your books can intervene in these spaces as well as in radical queer spaces to further the possibilities of what queer culture is?
Mattilda: It’s interesting because on my last book tour for Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots more than ever before after talks at universities I’ll have students who say they’ve discovered my books in college and it changed their life and it enabled them to think differently or helped them to find others like them. That’s beautiful and very inspiring. These books help to find ourselves, to find one another and to stand out from all the shit that’s all around us! When I go on tour I can actually see how my work impacts people and then to have conversations and see how I can be impacted by that. I want it to be a mutual dynamic. So, yes, radical challenges to the status quo can exist both in the radical outsiders world which rejects those institutions as well as inside those institutions. But, I think the broader cultural picture is more bleak than in the early 90’s when I started to engage with the world as an avowedly queer person. I guess it’s a contradictory place where there are tons of possibilities but they are constantly being smashed, annihilated. We can create our own culture, we can create our own meanings, we can create our own lives and I don’t believe in doing that unless we are also challenging the violence, so doing both of those things simultaneously is what my work is about. It is speaking from the margins and to the margins and I think in some ways that changes the center but not in the ways I can see…except in the way things become commercialized and like wow now it’s trendy to fill in the blank. So, were in this really contradictory place of incredible possibilities and incredible failure and incredible violence. So, it means for me to keep creating more challenging and vibrant things.
Morty: Lets talk about your newest book that isn’t out yet, The End of San Francisco. Please describe the book and what we can find in it.
Mattilda: Sure. My most recent book, The End of San Francisco, is part memoir, part social history and elegy and in a way its about my formation politically, socially, emotionally, ethically, culturally and then the undoing. The book circles back in all these different ways to San Francisco as a place where freaks and queers and outsiders and druggies and anarchists and hookers and deviants can find a place to find one another and cope. The disappearance of that possibility. That’s what the book is circling around but it’s more personal. I’m really talking about my own history and at times it has nothing to do with San Francisco. So, the book starts with visiting my father before he died of cancer. I had told him I was never going to see him again after I confronted him about sexually abusing me unless he could come to terms with it, but he never did… but I decided to visit him anyway before he died. So, the book starts there and then continues with trying to regain a sense of hope and wanting to go dancing to find a place of escape and intimacy and not being able to dance due to chronic pain. There are all these different endings, and part of it was the end of my hope in that idea of San Francisco that I was very heavily invested in. Even if I didn’t believe in it I was still trying to create it! And whether that be in the 90’s or the early 2000’s with the beginning of Gay Shame and my hopes in creating relationships through activism. Intimacy through engagement. The kind of relationships where you keep revealing everything. I felt a failure of that for me personally. The book is an investigation of where I keeping finding myself. I still believe in the same dreams. But…they keep letting me down. On a personal level. I don’t think it means that I have to let go of these dreams but it does mean…something. And the book examines this place of being stuck, of imagining all these possibilities and enacting them and finding them but then also places where it’s a terrible failure. Where the people you’ve always believed in are also the people that let you down the most. With writing the book it’s interesting because in 1994 there was this ending for me, but then again in 2000 believing in something else there I am again in San Francisco.. and let down again. Then, there is this third big ending, with the closest relationship I’ve had for 15 years. This relationship was so much a part of my ideals. Like accountability and mutuality and intimacy and negotiation and trust..he was the one who stayed through all the different cities we’ve lived in and then coming back to San Francisco again. It was a relationship where I thought if I have nothing else I’ll always have this. Well, I don’t want to ruin it all for you! I’ll just say that it became really dramatic. That was really the end for me because when he was gone I said, well I’ve got to get the fuck out of here. All these things that meant so much to me no longer meant anything. Being surrounded by the overwhelm of the annihilation of my dreams…and relationships, culture and things became gross and violent and vicious. It doesn’t mean the same possibilities may exist there, but they don’t exist for me. So, that’s why I had to leave, to find these possibilities. And that’s where I am now.
Morty: I wanted to ask you a bit about trans and queer lit right now. How would you describe trans lit?
Mattilda: Well, I would say anything written by trans people is trans lit. It’s a question very similar to what has been asked in the past about gay literature. Some people are ready to disavow and say well, I don’t want to write trans literature or gay literature I want to write literature!
Morty: What are your thoughts on what trans literature is at the moment?
Mattilda: I think trans lit is an emerging category and there are a lot of amazing people writing really interesting work… non fiction more than fiction. In terms of trans writers, I love Dean Spade’s work but, to me, it’s not literature. Another book that’s really interesting is Captive Genders edited by Eric Stanley and Nat Smith. I think anything about the trans experience that challenges the boundaries of what it means to be trans is important. I think, you know, there is this LGBT thing, right. And the T is supposedly this fixed identity that is attached to 3 other fixed identities. For me, the potential of a trans identity is challenging all those categories and building something else. Having fluidity and experimentation and transformation and negotiation at the center of lived experience of gender and politics and sexuality and everything, it’s all of it. I think Captive Genders is presenting a lot of different works about the trans experience and the prison industrial complex but it goes to, like, there is a piece on the gay bathhouse raids in Toronto in the 80’s and on the surface you wonder, this is about the policing of gay male sexual behavior, how does this relate to a trans experience? Making you ask that question is the kind of writing I’m looking for - writing that explodes the boundaries rather than accepting. I think one of the problems is the policing of the borders of identities and that has happened a lot in terms of my work. For example, with my anthology Nobody Passes, this book came about when an editor at Seal Press read an interview I did in Bitch Magazine and contacted me. Seal Press is a press with the tag line Books For Women by Women. I immediately thought oh, Nobody Passes, wouldn’t that be perfect..a book about challenging the parameters of passing on Seal Press edited by someone who is certainly not passing as a woman. I sent off a proposal to them and they were interested but the editorial board had some questions and the first question was how do you identify, what is your gender identity. I said, well I’m a genderqueer faggot and a queer on the trans continuum in the gender blurred gender bending section and I’m not particularly interested in conventional definitions of male or female I’m much more interested in identity that’s much more deviant and defiant. And they were like oh! That’s so interesting! Ha ha! They didn’t know exactly what to do with that, but they let it go further and they did accept the proposal… but then the whole time during the editorial process there were these dramatic arguments about what could be included. What literally was about “gender” in quotation marks, they were really fixated on this. So, something about racial profiling or anti-Arab hysteria they would ask me well, how was this related to gender. And it’s this interesting place - I think this is where there is potential for transgender as a category. The potential is not to have another fixed identity. Another narrative where people start in one place and all end up in another place. They’re all smiling and happy and have done the right things in their lives, right? No, it’s to end all of that! Also, with my novel, So Many Ways to Sleep Badly, the first review was in Publishers Weekly, which comes out way before anything else - and this was the first time Publishers Weekly had reviewed any of my books - and their review had a sentence I was totally fascinated by which was “the narrator may or may not be genetically female”..Ha haaah!! Keep in mind this is a book that starts in a gay cruising park with the narrator on her knees waiting to suck cock and moves to a bathroom in a Bikram yoga studio where some guy walks out with a dick like a bowling pin. I think the writer of the review wasn’t talking about the narrator but the author of the book. It was this sort of snide attempt to police, you know, like who is this Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore! She calls herself she but how do we know!! In publishing this kind of thing happens a lot. This also plays out in the niche marketing of books where people say, well, I don’t consider my work trans literature or gay literature. I think they are taking the wrong tact. They are reacting to a illegitimate publishing industry that can only market things based on a consumer niche. It feels like they are rejecting the transness or gayness of their own experience. Or the queerness. We need more trans and queer lit, not less! So, for what is published and defined as trans I would say the vast majority is memoir because that is what is considered marketable. And most of the memoirs fit into this, you know, I was born in the wrong body and then I figured it out and then I had this surgical transition and now I’m fine! Ha! You know. That is what the publishing industry wants. I don’t know if there is a body of work out there in terms of what is published and accessible that I would —well, there is political work and there is memoir and aside from these two things there really isn’t that much that I would see as trans lit. I mean, there is a lot of work about gender transgression, so that’s another question, do we include that work? If the writer themselves don’t identify as trans. I’m interested in having more work about gender transgression that sort of annihilates the categories and destroys the parameters and creates something else. I think for me I want to see something that destroys literature, period. That’s what I think trans lit can do! End literature and create something else!
Morty: I love the idea of getting rid of literature but we are still struggling with the idea of whether we can be canonized… like, for instance, how gay male lit has been. Many trans writers have told me how they are waiting for more trans books to be taught at universities…there is that desire to be seen at this level.
Mattilda: Yeah, I think for me, as long as the work can be experienced on its own terms, then thats fine. For instance, Nobody Passes is taught at a lot of colleges and I think that’s exciting and it makes it so that when I do events at college campuses I encounter people who have actually read my work. And that’s wonderful because it makes the conversation we have so much more nuanced. But it’s tricky because for me any canon is defined by what it excludes just as much as what it includes. I’m not really interested in that particular methodology as much as I am in challenging the boundaries of what matters. Creating more space so that a wider variety of more challenging work can be experienced. With my latest anthology Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots, I found a lot of reviews had a discomfort with the word faggot. So, they would describe me and sometimes say trans author but neglect to say that I was a faggot! It’s an interesting twist, you know. We need to be able to claim all the layers.
Morty: I’m curious what you think about the language surrounding trans identity…
Mattilda: I think in the trans, genderqueer, gender defiant and gender non-conforming world our language is shifting and emerging on a daily basis. If you look back even two years ago and the vocabulary that we used it’s totally different. And we have to have space for all of it. And there are these little things like trans woman being two words and not one - five years ago nobody would have written it with two words. Now using two words is considered the most acceptable thing. Okay. But what about the person who doesn’t want it to be two words? You know, I’m not a trans…woman. I am not a woman who just happens to be trans, I am a transwoman. I think while we are finding new ways of expressing ourselves we need to keep the full range. Sometimes people get really caught up in what is and isn’t appropriate. Now, the word tranny. I think it’s a beautiful word…and currently there is this real policing. If anyone uses the word tranny it is this horrible transphobic slur and I think the only way to take away the power of a slur is to take it on! Not to disavow the viscousness and violence of transphobia that continues in almost every realm of the world right now. But it’s not because of the word tranny someone gets murdered because they are trans. It doesn’t matter if the murderer politely addresses them as a trans woman..I think there is this media rush towards a political and even aesthetic kind of purity that is contrary to what a trans identity can offer. And we see that politically, socially, sexually, in the media and even within intimate conversations. I think I want to create more options, not fewer and that goes for literature, for politics, for fucking, for vocabulary, for all of it!! Here (in Seattle) there is a drag night called Hey Tranny Its Tranny and it was controversial and people wanted them to change the name to something else. I’ve never been to this drag night, so I can’t tell you what its like but I do know there are tons of drag nights that are incredibly and horrifyingly transphobic. As well as racist, misogynistic, fat phobic, body fascist, you know, on down the line but it has nothing to do with the word tranny. So, if they change nothing about it except the word then it’s still the same! Sometimes the words that are used against us become the most powerful for us to use ourselves.
Morty: My last question is a generic one but I would really like to hear your words of wisdom, as they say, on writing and making art in general to those who are genderqueer, gender defiant, trans, gender non-conforming etc….
Mattilda: Haaaa! I would say bring it on! In all of its glorious complications and messiness and intimacy and… vulnerability is so important. I spent a lot of my childhood trying to appear invulnerable and I think that is how we survive when we are taught that we are evil and our desires are polluted and corrupt and twisted. And I think there is a place for invulnerability but I think most of the best work in whatever it is: art, film, writing, sex, activism, make up, runway, walking down the street - most of the best come from vulnerability. Also, just to not try and fit yourself into categories that don’t actually express the complications of your life. Forget about trying to explain to the supposed world around us that doesn’t understand anything - we don’t need to explain to them. They don’t need to get it. We need to express our lives and they can get it if they want to. It shouldn’t be about them, it should be about us. I think a lot of work really loses its potential when it’s about explicating. It should be just: Here. Take it. Take it or leave it but I’m going to make it! I’m gonna make it, I’m gonna break it and I’m going to make it again and bring something into the world that expresses my own realities. And no, not just vulnerability, but also invincibility, transformation and feeling trapped, unfulfilled, fulfilled, sadness, happiness, longing, disastrous, vibrant and expressive - all of it! We don’t need to get caught in one thing. And don’t get caught up in being a model trans person. You know, we didn’t have that 20 years ago because there was no such thing! Now I think there is! And sometimes that means a really strict gender identity and sometimes that means a particular gender performance or a specific narrative. I think, lets just get rid of all that. That’s what ruined our lives in the first place. We don’t need to create a new prison to inhabit. So, I say: flaunt it!
Find out more about Mattilda here: http://www.mattildabernsteinsycamore.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.
(Photo of Shawna Virago by Lydia Daniller)
(Big thank you to Zack Marshall who helped with transcription.)
Morty: Alright, great! Good to be here with you!
Shawna: Great to see you, Morty.
Morty: Alright, I like to start at the beginning, or close to it. When you were a kid, were you very artistic?
Shawna: Yes. I did artsy stuff. As a child, I was into drawing. And from a very early age I wanted to be a musician, because I loved listening to music.
M: How young were you?
S: Like, maybe 5.
M: Were you surrounded by music?
S: My parents were not into music. My father left us and so my mother ended up moving in with my grandmother. And I had my uncles and my aunt who were all teenagers…they were between, like, 12 and 15.
M: So, how old was your mother?
S: Yeah, my mother was young. She had me when she was quite young.
M: Where were you born and raised?
S: I was born in Los Angeles. I grew up in several places throughout the country. It’s a long story, but I lived in the South, I lived throughout southern California. I lived in North Carolina, Atlanta, I lived in Honolulu for awhile, Indiana. Yeah. I was fortunate that I was suddenly surrounded by these teenagers who were listening to all this great music like The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan. And then I got exposed to some pop country like Glenn Campbell stuff. Because of being there, I got turned on by music and it was all-encompassing for me.
M: When did you actually start saying, I need an instrument…
S: Well, I bought my first guitar when I was 15. So, I’ve been playing that for quite awhile. I bought a used guitar. I wanted to be a songwriter. So, here I am. It’s what I do.
M: It is what you do. You do this professionally, for a living?
S: It’s one of the things that I do for my living. I have to work in other ways, but it’s one of the ways I’ve survived.
M: When did you move to San Francisco?
S: 20 years ago.
M: And you’re 51?
S: I’m 50.
M: You’re 50. Sorry. Tell me about moving to San Francisco…
S: I moved here when I was 30, from LA. I had been visiting here throughout the 1980’s. I just really loved it. I love the city and I knew I didn’t need a car, which I thought was great. And the music was… at that time there was kind of a more vibrant music scene, in San Francisco from the 1980’s to the 1990’s, I think. More clubs. But it was very straight. In the 1990’s it was more of, kind of the Riot Grrl world. Which, you know, both of those worlds were, um, what they shared in common is that they were basically transphobic.
M: Can you tell me a little bit about how Riot Grrl was transphobic?
S: I think the Riot Grrl was a place where you could find allies, and people who were questioning and people who were coming out, but there really was, I think, a lot of strong feelings, overtly… overt transphobic feelings, over trans women who might be showing up at shows or trying to be in bands. There weren’t that many trans women.
M: Let’s do a little bit of a timeline here, so I can get this down properly. So, the Riot Grrl stuff started in the early 1990’s. You were already here. But I just want to back up a little bit. So, where were you mostly between ages 15 to 30? Were you writing music?
S: Yes, I was writing music. I was in a series of bands, like, classic garage bands. I was very serious about my music, so that was, like, my life. I was in Los Angeles. So, I played with a lot of the same guys in one form or another from about the age of 18 to like maybe 27. More or less. And we practiced as a band 3-4 days a week at our rehearsal studio. We were serious about our music. We were good. So, like, we kept getting more of a following and we played some pretty big clubs like The Roxy. But…it was never a perfect situation because I knew I was trans. And so at some point in there I actually came out to some of my band mates who were very…they were not happy. It was like an instant kind of block. The respect they had for me went down several points on the scale. So, that wasn’t necessarily very comforting, you know.
M: So you outed yourself to them…were you actively starting to transition at that point?
S: I wasn’t starting to actively transition until I got into my late 20’s. And here (in San Francisco) is where I got to bring it all together. So, but prior to here, I was already on my path. One of the things about playing music for me, was, I always feel a little bit, that I was, as a trans person, kind of at the end of this 20-25 year approach to what it meant to be trans, like, a trans woman. So, you would transition, and then you would…
M: Could you describe what that means?
S: So, the traditional roadmap was, after you convinced your therapist that you were trans, they could write you a note and you could go to the endocrinologist, that you were supposed to kind of blend in, and disappear. I had to think about that because of being a musician and a singer. I’m like, I don’t really see how… I can’t really blend in. The second I start singing it’s not going to really work for me. So that was kind of good because it kept me from going down the real kind of gender-normative path. I couldn’t have it both ways. Being a musician meant I had to keep going down more of a queer path, I guess you’d call it.
M: Did you have any connection at that point to queer community, at all?
R: In my 20’s it was kind of like living… in some ways, a dual life. I had several gay male friends and it’s interesting because I actually tried to make it work off and on in gay male communities. Like, it seemed that being a trans person… and this was like 1985… and transitioning seemed so overwhelming to me, that, “where can I fit in in the world?”. I didn’t see any other trans people. Occasionally…
M: Well, you were in LA, so… there were no trans clubs?
S: Yeah, there was a place called Queen Mary, somewhere in LA. And that felt more, like, kind of a cross-dresser environment. I think, a lot of those places that were that way, these spaces also transitioned to people living full-time and transitioning. For example, Transgender San Francisco, when I moved here, was called ETVC, “Educational Transvestite Channel”. Somebody said, you should go to one of their meetings, so I went and, you know, I had on some form of what I’m wearing now probably, and it was obvious to them and to me, oh, we’re very different. And I think it’s, one of the things…that the idea of queer, queer zones and queer community, is so different than hetero zones of any kind, or gender normative zones. Over here, the queer zone, you know, it’s so different. Whatever you want to call it. And for me it’s more liberating. For me it’s more nurturing. It’s more open.
M: You never really felt attracted to the heteronormative scene. You were saying as a musician you couldn’t but you weren’t trying to force yourself into that world anyhow…
S: I had been… in some ways my thoughts had been greatly revolutionized in the late 1970’s by British punk rock. And bands that intersected with British punk rock. Like Sex Pistols or The Clash or the Buzzcocks, The Damned, The Jam, you know? I was crazy for that music. What I loved about that music, not only the music and the attitude and the consciousness, but also the fashion was really interesting. And if you appropriated any of their look, you were really instantly outside the margins. So, that always, I think, helped me later as a trans woman. It’s like I’m already used to people staring at me. Big deal. It’s not going to ruin my day.
Photo of Shawna Virago by Lydia Daniller
M: Yeah, right on. When you moved here (to San Francisco) what was there any kind of trans art scene?
S: Yes, when I first moved here I was… probably for the first two, two and a half years I lived here, I was going out to clubs five to six nights a week. I was going out all the time and I was smoking Export A Ultra Light cigarettes and drinking vodka, mixed vodka drinks, and doing the drugs of the day…
M: What were the drugs of the day?
S: Crystal methedrine, or ecstasy, I would say. Lots of pot, and I… I hooked up, yeah, with little pockets of queer people. They were people who were gay male identified or a few dyke-identified friends. I was normally the only, at that time, transsexual person. That was the language. Transgender came later. I think transgender was getting solidified then as a spectrum term. And a smart one, too. Unite communities for political organizing. I identified a lot of times as a transsexual. So, I had little pockets of friends. We went out to clubs. You could really go days and days without seeing out trans people then. You’d have to go somewhere like the Mother Load to really have any kind of critical mass of trans people. And I would go to some events, like, there were a couple of events called Merkinfest. I believe that was…
M: It was called Merkinfest?
S: So, Mirkin, in Shakespearean plays is the genital covering…yeah, it was called that. Who knows why. It was largely a drag queen event.
M: Oh, okay. That makes sense.
S: But it was interesting because…I remember being in cabs…taking cabs to clubs. And cab drivers would start talking to me as, like, these straight cab drivers hitting on me…Then they realized I was trans, mostly they would have this reaction of, like, they couldn’t believe it, that I was a transsexual. Then their comments were, “You know I’m a straight guy”, or “I’m not really into that sort of thing”. It was very weird. It was so different 20 years ago, just here in San Francisco.There just wasn’t a critical mass of trans people, especially trans queer people, or queer community. At the time I was playing at open mikes, I was putting some bands together, and I would play wherever I could. I would play North Beach clubs, or I played in The Haight, and I would play at dyke places. Sometimes I would get shows at The Coco club, or there’d be dyke parties and I’d get invited.
M: You were an out trans musician. What was it like getting gigs?
S: I think a lot of music scenes, typically, tend to be more open-minded. So, what would be the scary part was being on stage and…Because, again, there wasn’t a critical mass. Quite often I would be, as far as I know, the only trans person in the club.
M: What was that like?
S: Well, first of all, my band was very loud.
M: You were in a band. It wasn’t just you.
S: Yeah, sometimes I played my own acoustic shows. And then I had my band, which was really loud. So people couldn’t really hear me singing. And sometimes I appreciated that because it was easier for dealing with people in the club. Like, if I was playing the Coco Club, the sound there was horrible, and the acoustics, but as I played there more, of course, people knew.
M: But that was a dyke bar.
S: Yeah, so it wasn’t like I was going to get killed. But there were times when I’d be afraid on stage…especially playing as somebody read as female in front of a group of straight guys in the audience. I think the tradition of women who play rock music on stage is one of what we call the male gaze. The leering is super-strong. What’s interesting is, if you look at the history of rock and roll, you have Debbie Harry happening at the same time Patti Smith is happening. And while I like both of those women, Patti Smith is really it… Madonna got so much praise for being this super-empowered woman that was somehow taking the idea of objectifying the female body and using it consciously. But I always found Patti Smith, in the scheme of things, much more interesting. And saying that, look I don’t shave my armpits. I’m not wearing any make-up. I’m going to wear a ripped up t-shirt on stage, and, work it out. I wasn’t fulfilling any of the male fantasies that Debbie Harry and Madonna were, really.
M: And you’re a completely different kind of musician.
S: Absolutely. Madonna isn’t much of a poet, yeah. And then the acoustic shows would be scary. I’d go to a lot of open mike clubs and perform… you could see the visible pain on the straight men in the crowd at these open mike events. Because prior to performing, they would just treat me in their usual short of limiting and condescending, sexist way. And then when I’d start to perform they were like, realizing, oh, I might have just been flirting with this human, this person, what does that mean for me. And I could see them, like, their body language, grimacing and closing up and stuff. So, that happened a lot. The need to play music was greater than giving in to the kind of fear and insecurity I may have had performing in front of a hostile audience.
M: Was there any kind of trans music scene?
S: There were little pockets of a few trans women that I know of who fronted bands. There were a couple of those. There was a band called Glamazon. We did some shows together. That was always good. We’d play these clubs…who knows… I don’t even know the names of these clubs any more. It could have been the C&W Saloon, Coco Club. I’d play at this collective or co-op house down between Valencia and Mission. You know that little street between Community Thrift and Good Vibes, there’s murals on the walls there…
M: Clarion Alley?
S: Clarion Alley. There was a place over there that would have shows, so I would play there. I was usually more afraid of playing in front of dykes than straight guys.
S: Physically I wasn’t afraid. But like, emotionally, because they could come up and talk to me…and want to talk to me about my gender, which I didn’t really want to talk about. Or just letting me know, “Well, this is a women’s club”. “This is a women’s club. What are you doing here?”. That happened sometimes.
M: So, you did get some kind of backlash.
S: Definitely. I think my experience isn’t as bad as some people’s. I think partly because I was putting myself out there. Also, I was trying to have a feminist analysis of gender. That was important to me. You know, I had been poisoned by the book, The Transsexual Empire, when I was eighteen. And I thought, “Oh my god, I’m going to set feminism back if I go ahead with this”. It was painful to read that book.
M: I’ve never read it.
S: It’s crazy. And I’m like, did she fall in love with somebody that was trans, and they jilted her, or…? But at the same time I realize that when I’d hang out with my dyke friends…what’s interesting is that the gay guys that I was hanging out with, they could care less about my gender expression, you know. It was always more… it was just party time with them. It was going to bars, drinking, doing drugs.
M: But you were entering gay male spaces, as a woman, so what was that like back then?
S: I remember going into The Edge bar in the Castro to have a drink with some friend. I was waiting in line for the restroom and some gay boy said, “This is a man’s bar”. I would think, “great – you’re affirming my gender identity!” So it was like nice. It’s like, one time Sean and I were walking down Castro Street and some older gay fellow said to Sean, “Loose the fish, honey!”, and we were like, instantly offended by him and, you know, also thought how nice that our gender identities have now both been affirmed by this asshole. It’s like holding multiple experiences. But I think trans people have so many stories like this. Like when I first moved here, I basically was fag-bashed by this guy in this bar in the Lower Haight. And then six months later I’m walking down the street with a woman friend and somebody drove by in a car and said “You fucking dykes, get out of San Francisco!”, something like that. And I thought, that’s the same person, you know?
M: It was the same person?
S: No, in my mind. I thought, that’s the same person. They just can’t get over it. You know? They’re just surrounded by queers. But it was like going through that, again…The short is that it was always an adventure as a performer – go on stage and perform, because there was, again, there was not a critical mass of trans… other trans people in the audience, or performers, or trans allies.
M: Now we’re kind of reaching into the mid 1990’s?
S: Yeah. 1994, 1993-1995 maybe. I think people had a really hard time with what I would call – in dyke communities – with the idea of gender socialization. So, if you went through male socialization many decided they got to ask you a lot of questions about your gender, or your sexual orientation. And what steps are you going to take to, you know, work on your residual male privilege and things like this. So, again, with my gay male friends, it was like, I would go hang out with them in the Castro. It was fine. I’m with, you know, we’re all young and we’re drinking and partying – or maybe some of them actually lived in the Castro – and I’d be hanging out with an apartment full of gay boys or radical fairies, and just hanging out and just talking. Then I would have sex with some people, and it was always confusing to me. Like, what does this mean for me? What does it mean for them? I had to always… I was constantly trying to work it out. And then over here (in the Mission district), same period of time, I have dyke friends. And the conversations were, you know, like, in a place like this, a coffee house, or maybe somebody’s house for Sunday brunch. And it would be these serious conversations about, you know, gender, and what does it mean for an MTF to be in women’s space, like, is this a women’s space. These were philosophical discussions that were mostly very boring. And, people would slip on the pronouns sometimes, so I would just say, “Call me ‘it’. Please call me ‘it’”. And, usually, that would be the last time they would do that, that was all it took. You know? But there weren’t a lot of trans women, out trans women, that were artists, performers, that were intersecting with these various worlds. Also, there were very few of us. And I think that… this idea of kind of being a loner, of being isolated, not having a big, big community, was my experience. I was a tag-along to different communities. So, for example, in 1994 at eight-4-eight community space, on Divisidero, which the artist Keith Hennessey co-founded, they did all kinds of radical performances there. Like, stuff around body fluids and all kinds of stuff. And there was a show where Susan Stryker was going to read, Jamison Green was going to read. Loren Cameron was going to show his photographs. There was a line down the block to go to that show.
S: It was amazing. Because there were so few things like that. And it was a really mixed crowd, of radical queerness, of a spectrum of sexual orientations and gender. And that show was, I think, very important. I know for me it was important because, um, I hadn’t… there was never, as far as I know, anything like that in San Francisco. And so, here was this show that was just packed, in this little room.
M: You said it was in 1994?
S: It was definitely 1994. Yeah. And there I was around these queers, and watching Susan read a poem…
M: It really had an impact on you.
S: Yeah. And it was not very much, content-wise. Again, I think Susan read a poem. Jamison Green read a poem. Photos on the wall. Wine and cheese, you know? That was the show. But that was, um, that was a real coming together, I think, of people that were different kinds of artists or performers or sex-positive activists. So that was a big deal.
M: So, when did you start to feel a shift, an emerging scene of trans artists. Did that take a long time to bubble up?
S: Um, I think looking back now on those early 1990’s, there were things like Trans Sisters, the Journal of Transsexual Woman Feminism – I think is what it was called. I have a few issues here and there. And then there was Magazine Mondo 2000. That was short lived. But Kate Bornstein would be in there sometimes, or people doing kind of radical essays, philosophy essays, and they would talk about – they would equate cyborgs and science fiction with the transgender experience. And looking back on this stuff now, I am sure it would seem super-quaint in a sense. Both radical, and also the language would be a few generations old, the analysis of the transgender experience. I saw Kate Bornstein at Josie’s Juice Joint in San Francisco. She had a one-woman show. And she… I don’t remember exactly when I saw this show. She thinks it was 1992 or 1993. And, you know, it was just amazing to see Kate Bornstein on stage. She was like a hero. This radical thinker and performer. I think she’s a very important figure in transgender history.
As a musician, I equate things to music history and pop music history. So, it would be kind of something like the breakthroughs of the early rock and roll pioneers. That, you kind of have this boring America, really straight-laced America, and then where did Little Richard and Elvis Presley come from? My god. Like, overnight. There was a before and after with these crazy guys doing this crazy rock and roll music.
M: So you equate Kate to…
S: Early rock and rollers in the sense of her instant impact. For example, I know, since I’ve talked about seeing her, and I went up and talked to her afterwards, that there were a few of us there, in the crowd, like…
M: Trans women.
S: Trans women. And it’s kind of, like, the Ramones.. it’s kind of like when the Ramones… they go to England and in 1975 they tour England, right? The next year it’s the Sex Pistols and The Clash. It’s just like, instant impact. People thought, I can get a leather jacket and learn three chords and be in a band. And they did.
M: You think Kate had that kind of impact with those few trans women that were there to see her perform?
S: Absolutely! I do think so. I would say that we were all doing our own thing already. It’s just like now. The show Fully Functional Cabaret that I was recently in with Annie Danger and other trans artists, I would say that if you were to look at a demographic of who went to the show, probably people that we would identify, or who would self-identify as trans women, would probably be one of the smaller demographics at the show. Because, it’s definitely, it’s also a queer consciousness, the show. And, I would have loved more trans women to come out. But I think those of us in the show were already perceived as radical, and the people that are going to support our art are probably more radical. I don’t know what other word to use. So, there’s going to be a lot of people that don’t see themselves over here. So, it’s kind of like, those of us who saw Kate were already going down these paths. It was a reaffirmation to see somebody on stage like that. And I do think she was very generous with her time, and still is.
M: She certainly still is.
S: Very generous. So. Yeah, that show – I joke, but it was like eight of us and we all went on to, you know, do crazy things.
M: What others were there that I should know?
S: Well, like, you know, even people who weren’t trans women, but trans people. I’m sure Susan Stryker was there, or Jordy Jones was there. I feel like that’s my generation of trans people, which doesn’t have to just be biological age. We don’t have to all be the same age, but we all came out within a year or two or three within each other, I would say. So, yeah, it was awesome to see Kate Bornstein. And Gender Outlaws was just incredible… to read that book. Because there had been a few autobiographies put out up to that point, but it was the same book. “I always knew I was a lady”. “I was climbing Mount Everest and I realized, I’m a lady.”
S: You know? And it’s like, the next thing they’re buying tea cosies and shopping in Harrods for tweed skirts. I’m like, what happened to you? Is it really so simple?
M: So, Bornstein is one of the grandmothers of radical trans feminism… of sorts? Again, to say, it’s hard to use the word feminism. It means very different things to many different people.
S: Yeah. Because you also have your political radical people, which probably Leslie Feinberg or Sylvia Rivera, over here on leftist political organizing. I’ve spent time in that world as well. But then over here with performance, I think…
M: So, when did it start to feel like a movement? Did it ever? Maybe it never did.
S: Right. Um, I don’t know. It’s so…
M: Maybe movement isn’t the right word. When did it start to feel like there was a more cohesive community of trans artists?
S: I think, um, I think really, for me, about 10 years ago. I started to notice a real difference in my lived experience. So, there were clubs that people were putting on, organized by trans people, where I would get invited to perform. And there would be young trans people in the audience that I didn’t know. Trans men and trans women. I remember… so, yeah, 10 years ago, my friend Christopher Lee and I were both nominated to be Pride Grand Marshals.
M: What year were you nominated to be the Pride Grand Marshalls?
M: When did you start working on the SF trans film festival?
S: So, the film festival’s first year was 1997. And I was a volunteer. I then became a presenter. I was representing… I was invited to just talk, some little speech, I forget what. So, I was there at the beginning. And I would do things every once in awhile like that. I would volunteer…
M: Who was the first director of the festival?
S: It was Al Austin and Christopher Lee. They were co-directors. And then they brought me in to be a co-director, um, in, maybe 2002, 2003. Something like that. Another interesting thing was when I moved to San Francisco, I also met through people this little click of these hipster straight artists. I would go hang out with them sometimes and they had parties… it was almost like a salon. They were really educated on the history of performance art, or the history of radical art in the United States. So they loved Joseph Cornell. And they loved his boxes with various brick-a-brack, and they had different themes. And they thought that I should definitely make sure that I’m journaling about my experience and I’m doing things like, maybe, clipping my hair to be a signifier of my own journey, my own physical journey, or… They were giving me all of this advice on what I was doing, because to them just being trans was considered so radical.
And, you know, probably just like now. People would talk all the time about things. I knew someone who… they were Buddhist and they thought, all is an illusion, desire is suffering, and why even bother if this is all not happening anyways. So there’s so many types of questions that we get asked to answer. I mean it’s amazing, the breadth of knowledge most trans people end up having, in the sense of having to justify and defend yourself. You learn about Joseph Cornell. You learn about Buddhism. You learn about Marx. And you learn about the history of gayness and queerness as a bourgeois construct. And, you know, you have to have an answer for it all, literally. It’s crazy.
M: What was your answer?
S: I’m so surly. I don’t remember. I just… yeah. I think, also, I’m probably a person that really doesn’t get messed with all too often, really. Face-to-face. If there was a movie and they needed to cast the transgender assassin, they’d probably cast me. You know, I wouldn’t play the housewife or… like Annie Danger in the show we did, she’s like, “You are the drill sargeant!” I’m like, really? Okay. Who else could do it? Probably nobody, in that cast. Because you have to just scream at this human being for eight minutes straight. And that’s all I think of now when I think of Bryn (Kelly) – in my mind it’s like, you stupid little bitch, every time. I’m sure she’d love that, because that’s my final words to her in the show.
M: Let’s talk about the festival… you joined Christopher and Al in 2002, 2003?
S: Yeah, after I had kind of been in the orbit, earlier than that….
M: Were you making films?
S: I made a film, um, around maybe 2000, or 2001.
M: What was that film?
S: It’s called Almost Human. It’s a short film.
M: How could somebody find that work?
S: Um, they can’t. I have maybe one VHS copy of it, that I have. Yeah. It will be the great missing film of my life. [laughter] Who knows.
M: Does it have to be your missing film? We could dub it and you could give me a copy and I would put it in my archive.
S: Did you ask for a movie awhile back, and I never got it to you? I can’t keep track.
M: Yes, I am trying to build a film archive along with these oral histories…
S: That’s so good. It’s awesome. Eventually we’ll have a transgender art history museum, won’t we?
M: Well, hopefully. We’re a ways off, I think, from a transgender art museum.
S: What’s interesting - and I’ll just go there a little bit – is having now been around for 20 years, is personally, um, I never would have believed there would be so much trans stuff at one time. I never would have believed there would be all these trans people, or trans people making art for each other, or people caring about us, people finding us attractive. All of it. I never would have believed it…
M: Yeah, it is pretty amazing. It’s a great moment to be trans or gender variant right now.
S: It is.
M: A lot of trans and gender variant artists I interview say so.
S: It is good. And I was going to say, back to being Grand Marshal, we got nominated, and I got a call from Christopher, he called me up, and he said, we’re going to win. And I told him, you’re crazy. We’ll never win. Who would vote for us. And so, what we did, we started to… San Francisco Pride had voting areas and voting days and the very first voting day where you would select the nominees, and there were like ten or fifteen of us, was at 18th and Castro. And we were standing out there and we couldn’t get anybody’s attention. They were all voting for whoever the popular gay men were, who were also out there with us. And there was us, you know, the little trannys, with our little “vote for us” badge. And Leslie Mah drove by from Tribe 8, who was our pal, and she was like the one vote we got that day. She drove up on her bike and she was like, “Hey, Shawna and Christopher, what are you doing here?” and we told her, you know, we’re trying to become Grand Marshal’s, would you vote for us. Sure. And that was the first vote that we got, was her. And we ended up winning, you know.
M: You’re saying how hard it was to find votes, then you won. So what did you do?
S: Yeah, we realized we need to go away from where Pride is saying you can vote – it’s like all the gay bars in the Castro, or the Gay Men’s Chorus headquarters – wherever you could go. So, we started to go wherever we hung out. So, for example, our friend Jordy Jones organized a big party at the community centre – it was a transgender party. So we’re like hey, vote for us. Suddenly we had people in there voting for us. Or we went to queer women performing events, like Sini Anderson or Michelle Tea and their circle – “Hey, vote for us”. So, we just… we ended up actually going to queer community and we threw some parties. We threw a couple parties at the Lexington. We threw a party at Café du Nord. So we also made it fun. And we were on a mission. We were on a mission to show that this system, the voting system, was obsolete and inadequate for trans people to get elected. We’re going to show them by going to our people, and we ended up winning that year.
M: I love that story!
S: Yeah, we were the first, in the history of San Francisco Pride. We were the first elected Pride Grand Marshal’s. Yeah, it was cool. We took it very seriously. This opportunity to sort of broadcast trans issues. So Pride puts on events like pancake breakfasts and meeting the mayor and stuff, and we always had messages about, you know, trans political issues. We put it out in the room, like, around police abuse, or homelessness, or gender rights. We always did that, every time we were invited somewhere we put our words out there.
M: Where’s Christopher Lee now?
S: Christopher’s just, he’s doing his own thing. He lives in the Bay area.
M: You did a lot of activism as part of your work as an artist.
S: Absolutely. We took is seriously, but we also, we had fun doing it. We had parties. We dressed up, we dressed fabulously. I think there were people who had not paid attention ever to Pride or had given up on Pride for being too vanilla or too mainstream that had a little burst of interest. Yeah. So that also corresponded with these other clubs popping up. Just kind of this flowering, I think, of transgenderness in San Francisco. It was something that was going on. I don’t really understand it, but something had happened.
M: What was the film festival like at that point?
S: You know, it was not much different than now. It would be over a weekend. I would say the thing that’s true is you just see there’s more and more people making movies. And that’s continued to be true. We have just made the decision to show short films, like 20 minutes or less, now for several years, because there are so many trans film makers, and we want to show as many movies as we can. That’s what we’re trying to do. It’s tricky because we don’t have the budget, we don’t have the financial resources…
M: Would you show movies that weren’t directed by a trans person, but had a trans person on screen?
S: Um, that has happened. But the real focus has always been work made by trans and queer people, definitely.
M: So right now, are you the only director?
M: And how long have you been the only director?
S: For maybe like eight years or something.
M: And so it’s just you? Or do you have a crew of people that work with you?
S: I have people that help. This year I’m trying to get some new people to be on a screening committee to help me watch movies.
M: Great. Let’s get back to your own work. You’ve toured a lot, yes?
S: I’ve toured a fair amount.
M: I mean, you’ve toured with Fresh Meat, and with the Tranny Road Show and on your own. Did you ever feel a palpable difference with each tour in the way people responded to you?
S: Yeah. Absolutely. Without question. Absolutely. Like, especially, um, at universities, where it… it’s pretty unbelievable. There’s all these students who come out for trans stuff who are really passionate about transgender issues. They’re trans themselves, or queer themselves, or they’re attached to trans communities in some way, they’re pretty supportive.
M: When did you start to really feel support from universities?
S: I would say, um, I mean for me personally, maybe around 2004, 2005. So, a friend of mine, a trans guy, we were invited to give a Trans 101 at San Francisco State. It was like, 1997. And it was this huge human sexuality class, in this huge room. There were around 200 people there. And we were on stage, and there was like some baseball players or some jocks that were there. They started to think they were funny and made some transphobic comments. And, I just went with it. I think I was throwing the microphone around over my head and just entertaining the crowd. But my friend took it really personally and got really angry on stage, which, I understood where he was coming from with his emotions, but I felt, you know, don’t let them see you that way. It’s like 5 assholes. And people came up afterwards and were really apologetic to us. And I think about something like that to what it’s like now…it’s not a deal breaker being trans. In fact, people are curious about it. And people think it’s kind of… it’s good and bad. What’s good is people are going to come out and see you and support you as a performer. What’s bad is you can get complacent because it’s sometimes not about what you’re doing or your art, but being trans in their mind is cool. It’s, you know, you’re oppressed, therefore you have some kind of credibility that non-oppressed people have. And I think it’s important to, as a performer, to be aware of that, and to keep engaging people with compelling art that might even push their buttons a little bit. But, if you’d asked me 15 or 20 years ago that I’d even have this conversation, or that there would be places throughout the country that would want you to come and perform for them, I never would have believed it.
M: This is the question I ask in every interview, do you call yourself/consider yourself a “trans artist”?
S: Um… [pause] it’s an interesting question because whether I consider myself a trans artist or not I’m perceived to be a trans artist. It’s like the playwright, Tony Kushner, who has said, I’m many things, I’m many labels to myself, I’m not just a gay playwright, but of course, you know, probably if we would look at his Wikipedia entry, the first thing that it would say is he’s a gay playwright. So, I think, on the one hand, we can identify however we want to, but we’re still going to have to make sense of how people perceive us and identify ourselves. I go back and forth all the time on how I identify as an artist or as a person, even in my own gender expression, so… um… I don’t really know if I identify as a trans artist, because the people I listen to, most of the music I listen to, or the artists that I’m interested in, they’re not trans people. And not all of my lyrics are about being trans. I’m well aware that, as a performer, I’m perceived as a trans performer. That’s just almost a given wherever I go. Am I a trans femme performer? Am I a trans Americana performer? Am I a trans folk performer? But the trans is always first…I believe strongly that we have a history of trans people trying to get to a place where they no longer have to be out about being trans. Success by our culture is to be a trans person not readily perceived to be trans, that means you’re a successful trans person. And I think, I’m like, trans is enough. I’m glad I’m trans. I’m proud that I’m trans. It’s good to be a trans person. It’s probably the best thing you can be, right now in our culture.
I think the most interesting stuff is going on now, you know? Interesting art. Interesting political work. Interesting battles are being fought. Things like, to change the American Psychiatric Association’s definition of us. People changing or challenging law enforcement agencies. People whose art is doing all kinds of… like my amazing partner, in the modern dance world. You know? Sean (Dorsey) is very brave. And he’s brilliant and beautiful, but his art is astounding. And, he, there’s no one like him, really, in this world. And I think that’s just true for all of us, that we’re carving a unique space, and I think, who knows where it will go. Success doesn’t mean assimilation. Success will be to keep opening up and shifting our culture, and we need all of us to do that.
M: In what ways do you feel being a “trans artist” is limiting?
S: If that’s all people are interested in. And that was one of my concerns when I got into the Fully Functional Cabaret with Annie, was to make sure we were in charge of how we were perceived, because I told her, I said, you know, we could honestly sit around for the next month and read comic books and go into cafes and have coffee and then the day before the show decide we’re going to put on some interesting costumes and put sparklers over our ass, and guess what? People are going to like that show. And we could travel all across the country and people would love that show, just because it’s… right now, the trans piece, people find interesting. That is interesting in mainstream America. That is interesting in university settings. Just that alone. But as artists, we have to do more than that. We can’t… it might be fun to put sparklers up our ass, and who doesn’t want to do that once in awhile, but it’s not enough.
M: Are we doing a good job in supporting trans artists and writers?
S: I think we need to be supporting all of our artists more as a culture. We don’t create the conditions to be a sustainable living in the United States, whether you are an artist or not. Universal health care education opportunities, employment opportunities. Yes let’s pass ENDA – let’s sign it into law, but that’s not going to create even one job. There is no money for education or economic empowerment, so I don’t think we support any of our artists enough. I don’t pay attention to mainstream music and those who get selected by multinational corporations… I don’t care who the latest rockstar is because they are just a corporate creation. What is so good now is there is so much more going on, even if we’re all struggling more economically.
M: The interview is winding down but I wanted to ask a little bit more about your music. You write about a lot of different feelings, people etc. in your music. Where do you usually find inspiration to write a song?
S: I would say my music and my songs are very noncommercial, so…I’m definitely into the folk realm now and I have been for several years. For really long time I was trying to figure out whether or not I would work with a band. Being an alternative folk artist seems to be the best for my music and the best thing that I should do. Without a band. Lyric based songs. That’s what I am interested in continuing to do. And, you know, there is a whole great tradition of people doing that. It’s another from of writing, taken just as seriously as a writer would be about writing a book. Sometimes I’ll want to write about something specific like police brutality, which I’ve done. I think writing about my relationship is important to me now but doing it in a way that makes it an interesting song. I think in the last few years I’ve started to write about some of the places I’ve lived and trying to make sense of some of my upbringing. I grew up around a lot of Christianity, so I’m writing about making sense of that as a trans person. One of my personal beliefs is that Christianity is one of the foundational problems in the United States with how it’s practiced around gender expression. I think we are a Christian culture, whether we want to be or not. And the gender binary is being strongly adhered to in the US according to the old and new testament - it’s one thing that, if we could shift that, then there would be less bullying. And less teen suicides. And I think we are afraid to call it out and say Christianity and the way it is practiced in the United States will necessarily lead to violence against people perceived as different. So, it’s important to me.
M: Your album came out 2 years ago, yes?
S: Yeah. And I’m starting to record a new album, little by little. It’s going to be an acoustic record. I have to be okay with that because it’s going to be so stark and vulnerable - I think that is what the new songs need. Objectified, my last record, was very folk-punk. There was a very small drum set, my acoustic guitar, an acoustic piano…I had a couple of people I was working with on that album. The new album will be just me. The thing about my music is not many people who interview me want to know about it. For me, music is a nonverbal form, so the people who do music criticism are really focused on the performer or the lyrics and they don’t have the language to talk about the music itself. It’s very hard to talk about music… music is fascinating within the melody and sound and I am always trying to find a compelling melody, or a compelling guitar part. I really care about craft, it matters to me.
M: Okay, last few questions. Where do you think trans/gender variant art is headed?
S: Oh, I have no idea. I do see that we are now in a moment where people are coming out as trans in many different stages of their lives, not just young people. So, that will surely change things. We seem to be having more trans academics, so that will be interesting as they publish and broadcast ideas - it may be good ideas or it may not…who knows. We may have transgender movie stars at some point which would be great!
M: What is next for you?
S: More music. Getting my album made is a priority. It’s been piece meal - Probably between now and the Spring of 2013 it’ll get finished. The film festival is coming up - the call for submissions is out there.
M: It was such a pleasure to talk with you, Shawna!
S: It was a lot of fun. Thanks, Morty.
Please check out some of Shawna’s work in the links below:
Her website: http://www.shawnavirago.com
Clips of Shawna playing music:
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.
Joy Ladin, Gottesman Professor of English at Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University, is the first openly transgender employee of an Orthodox Jewish institution. Her poems and essays have been widely published, and she is the author of a recently published memoir, Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders (U. of Wisconsin P) and six books of poetry: newly published The Definition of Joy; Forward Fives Award winner Coming to Life; Lambda Literary Award finalist Transmigration;Psalms; The Book of Anna; and Alternatives to History. She is the recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship, and has taught writing and literature at Sarah Lawrence College, Princeton University, Tel Aviv University, Reed College and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Morty: Hello Carter!
Morty: My first question has to do with something you said in an interview. You mention how you do not prefer to be called a trans/queer writer - correct?
Carter: I don’t have a problem with being called a trans writer, and I identify as trans, but yes, for the most part, I don’t describe myself as a “trans writer.” I think that labels can get complicated, and I really want the work to speak for itself. And, I do identify as trans, but I also identify as a gay male. And as queer. All of these different aspects are parts of my identity. And, there is the issue of getting pigeon-holed. I’d like to reach a diverse audience that’s made up of the queer community, the literary community, and people who love to read. Having said that, I think I’m privledged to be in this position, and that many trans-writers before me helped pave the way.
Morty: Yes. Thank you for the clarification. I think a lot of writers I have interviewed come to the conclusion being trans/genderqueer is going to come up a lot when marketing the book.
Carter: It actually didn’t come up at all for me in terms of the media bringing it up until I did an interview with a queer paper, which is interesting.
Morty: I’m curious how you handled or are handling that. Your publisher doesn’t care if you talk about being trans but the queer media does! Do you feel a line between not wanting to talk about being and the queer media wanting you to?
Carter: Yeah, that’s a good question. I guess I feel more open to talking to the queer media about trans and queer issues. The book doesn’t have a trans character, so there isn’t a whole lot of reason for the mainstream media to bring it up. My publishers, Bloomsbury, were very supportive of how I wanted to “market” myself. For me, I really just wanted to get the book out there and to be 100% recognized as a male author.
Morty: Have things been so far so good on that front? even in the queer media?
Carter: So far, so good! The queer media’s been great.
Morty: Good to hear! Now, regarding your new book…is the protagonist Cole the bigger focus of the book or are the time and place just as important as he is?
Carter: Cole is definitely the protagonist of the novel — it is his particular story, and about his experiences. But the setting, which is in West Virginia, is important — the novel couldn’t take place anywhere else. Cole grew up there, and it’s a part of who he is, it has shaped him.
Morty: Did you ever live in West Virginia?
Carter: No, I made several visits. But I had lived, a long time ago, in southeast Ohio and I think there are a lot of similarities, culturally and socially.
Morty: What drew you to the area to want to write about it?
Carter: I knew I wanted to write something about Appalachia — a lot of my family is from southeast Ohio. Then I found out about mountaintop removal coal mining, which is this terrible form of coal mining that annihilates the mountains. It’s devastating. And I went down to West Virginia to do some research; I met with this grass-roots environmental group, Coal River Mountain Watch, and they showed me what was going on, how the land and homes were being destroyed. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and it became a big part of the book.
Morty: And Cole…how did he become a character you knew you needed to flesh out in a novel?
Carter: Cole came to me before I knew about the mountaintop removal coal mining. I remember reading this article about this guy in a small town who was buying prescription pills from the elderly people in town and then reselling them to the community, and he stuck with me for a long time. I think his character was born out of that article — that was the planted seed.
Morty: How long did the book take to write?
Carter: Probably about 6 years.
Carter: Haha. Yeah, I mean that’s with a lot of revisions and drafts.
Morty: That kind of time is so daunting…how do you stick with it? How do you stay focused and inspired to finish?
Carter: I had written another novel before that, which never got published. And I’m happy about that — it was my practice novel. I don’t know how I stuck with it, except that I really believed in the story. The characters spoke to me, the story compelled me. I also tried to be disciplined, tried to write at least 5 days a week. I also had the benefit of going on a few writing residencies, and those are always great. They give you a quiet space to write, and long stretches of uninterrupted time.
Morty: While writing, do you do things to beef up your creative imagination? A glass of wine perhaps….
Carter: Ha. I usually write in the mornings, so coffee is necessary. When I do write at night, a glass of wine is always helpful. I did a lot of research while I was writing, and that helped keep me going — I watched a lot of documentaries, read books and articles. I took a lot of photos when I was in West Virginia and hung them by my desk.
Morty: How do you know when you’re “on the right track” with a story? Do you outline before you start or let things flow as they may?
Carter: I don’t outline. At some point, maybe a year or so into it, I remember making a sort of map of the novel’s arc — looking at the different chapters and the events. Early on, I thought I was going to go into the perspectives of different characters, and then probably a year into it, I realized it was Cole’s story and I threw out those pages. That helped put me on the right track, or at least, a better track. I think as a writer you have be ruthless when you’re revising and just let go of all the stuff that’s not working.
Morty: Are you ever thinking about your audience?
Carter: No, I don’t think of the audience in the writing process; I’m thinking of the characters, the words on the page.
Morty: Do you think of yourself as a genre writer / what genre would this book be?
Carter: No, I’m not a genre writer. I think this book falls under the label of “literary fiction,” which means it’s not going to sell a lot of copies. Just kidding. Well, no, that’s pretty accurate actually.
Morty: Literary fiction with something special I would presume, Bloomsbury doesn’t pick up any old book! What does it mean for you to be on a very well-known and well respected publisher?
Carter: Thanks! I was thrilled to be picked up by Bloomsbury. The novel was rejected by a string of publishers, and I wasn’t sure what my next move would be. Bloomsbury is a press that gets a lot of respect, so I think that’s helped in terms of landing reviews and getting a little recognition. I feel lucky to be with them.
Morty: I assume that means you have an agent, yes?
Carter: Yes, my agent is PJ Mark at Jankow & Nesbit. He’s great. I’m extremely fortunate to have such a supportive agent.
Morty: Can you tell me how you went about getting an agent?
Carter: Yeah, I met PJ at Breadloaf Writers’ Conference. Conferences can be a good way for writers to meet with agents.
Morty: So, you just said “Hello, here is my manuscript”?
Carter: It kind of did actually happen like that. Well, so, someone introduced me to him, and we talked, and he told me he would read it. So I sent him the manuscript — but he didn’t accept it right away. But, I also I was at Bread Loaf on a scholarship, so I had access to him. To get an agent, some previous publication helps. An MFA might help, I don’t know. And, if you have any connections, use them. This took me years to get to this place though, where I could meet with an agent. Before Bread Loaf, I received many, many rejections — from agents, publishers, literary journals.
Morty: Meanwhile, you were getting stories published and working on your MFA?
Carter: I got my MFA back in ‘98 from Penn State. So, yeah, there were a lot of years of applying for things and getting rejected. Getting into writing residencies also helped my career. … I published a few stories in small journals, but I didn’t really have a strong publication record.
Morty: You’ve done a lot of writing residencies - is that just a matter of applying or is there some anecdote you can share on how to get a residency?
Carter: Probably start small, if you don’t have a lot of publications. My first residency was at Jentel in Wyoming, and although now it has grown into a competitive residency, back then it was just a year or 2 old. So, my chances of getting in there were much higher than a place like MacDowell Colony, which has been around for like a 100 years or something. Then, it’s just like with publishing stories: you get in one residency, and that will probably open the door to another, or at least increase the chances of getting in.
Morty: A lot of writers I have interviewed have gone to school to study how to write…do you feel this is a necessary step?
Carter: No, I don’t think it’s necessary. The expected route is to get an MFA, which is what I did, but there are successful writers out there who don’t have MFAs. I think more than teaching you how to write, writing programs give you this extended time where you’re expected to write, and maybe during that time you’ll start finding your voice, or at least become more disciplined as a writer. They give you the chance to develop friendships with other writers, and to get feedback on your work.
Morty: You and writer Cooper Lee Bombardier have a writing program coming up, which I am really excited about. Can you tell me how that came about?
Carter: Yeah, I was talking to Cooper back in the winter, and told him I’d be been thinking of trying to do a workshop for the queer community in Portland. I wanted him to co-teach with me. So, we came up with this class that will be starting on June 19th. It’s called Trans/Scribe, and it’s a writing workshop for trans/genderqueer identified writers. It will be geared toward all writing levels. It’s essentially creating a safe space where trans people can feel comfortable in a writing workshop, and where, if they want to, they can write about their trans experiences. The craft of writing will also be a big focus. We’re really excited about it.
Morty: I am also very excited about this class, and would have loved to join you. Perhaps another time. Do you teach as well?
Carter: I taught at UNC as a TA when I was going to grad school. Now I teach online writing classes at Gotham Writers Workshop. I also teach an online class for the Independent Publishing Resource Center in Portland.
Morty: I personally want to know what happens emotionally to a writer who has spent so much time preparing and practicing — when do you start to feel like you’ve accomplished something big. What have been some big milestones in your career?
Carter: Getting my novel published was something I’d been dreaming about and working toward forever, it seems like, so when I found out the novel would be published, I was definitely walking on air. It was an incredible feeling, difficult to describe and one that I don’t think I’ll ever experience again. And, I had earlier important moments for my career — the residency at Jentel and then at MacDowell. Also getting scholarships to Breadloaf and Sewanee conferences were important steps… I still feel excited and thrilled about my novel being published, but it’s at a different intensity now. Now I’m thinking about what is next, while also trying to get people to read the book. I’m always thinking about my career and trying to take the next step. The euphoria wears off; then you’re still plugging away, writing, staring at the blank screen, filling out applications for grants or residencies, getting rejections, trying to pay the rent, etc.
Morty: What are the three things you would say to a new writer who doesn’t feel they are absolutely ready to call themselves a writer but desperately wants to write a book?
Carter: 1. Start writing! Seriously, being a writer means that you’re writing that book — it doesn’t really matter what you call yourself. That means finding a writing routine and sticking to it.
2. Read. Read widely, read everything. Pay attention to words.
3. Listen to yourself and the story you want to tell. Don’t get distracted by all the people telling you you can’t write a book.
Morty: Wonderful, thank you so much for your time, Carter.
Carter: It’s been really good talking with you! Thanks so much!
Please go take a look at Carter’s website: http://www.cartersickels.com/