With my PhD in English Literature at Edinburgh University about to begin, I will be reading lots of stuff this year. Do not expect weekly reviews, I do not read quickly. But I will share with you anything interesting I do read, whether it’s a novel that’s in vogue, or something from my course that I think is worth knowing that broadened my horizon. I’ll be reading a lot of things about transgender discourse, but hopefully, a lot of things which aren’t, as well.
Queer and Trans Artists of Color: interviews with Nia King
As a collection featuring approximately ten transgender artists, as well as several other LGB artists of colour, these interviews provide a trove of valuable insight into the experience of trans and queer people outside the American mainstream. Conducted originally via podcast, they represent queer artist Nia King's bid to raise awareness of those trans and queer voices ignored by a white-focused mainstream. Mostly, these are artists operating in the Oakland area outside San Francisco, California. As such, they may represent the tip of the iceberg, of trans and queer people of colour, marginalized and yet who are brilliant.
Two-Spirit artist Fabian Romero epitomizes the kind of narrative you're unlikely to see in typical mainstream trans narratives. Romero for one provides a positive take on what seems like an onerous upbringing, working since the age of nine, including periods of labor work – which Romero views as an act of creativity. Romero also reflects on how they've recently benefitted, publicity-wise, from the superficiality of 'cute privilege' and its ensuing benefits of 'social capital.' But Romero, as a poet and filmmaker of indigenous, Purepecha culture, is hardly complacent, and talks with sensitivity about issues of privilege and how – even among other, oppressed, minorities – attitudes of hostility against African Americans also exist.
Certain themes recur in the interviews. Money is one: of these artists being asked to perform their art for free, while struggling to pay for rent and food. Trans man Van Binfa talks about having two jobs, at Walmart and Starbucks, while being homeless. Binfa's exchange with King brings up familiar issues to my UK ears of life in the ever-expanding low-paid, barely-regulated gig economy:
Binfa: I mean, who would run to Walmart? I did because [my previous job] was just that awful! I never got paid on time. My time and my personal life were never respected. I never felt like I was listened to. I felt like trans issues really weren't seen as important.
King: I run a podcast. I do this web comic – I have a lot of skills – but I still can't find a job, or if I can, it's as somebody's assistant.
To the challenges of just getting by, simultaneously, the diversity of their experience often grabs you. Trans playwright Nick Mwaluko, raised in Kenya before moving to the US, similarly talks of homelessness as a result of coming out, but also of the awkwardness of the LGBT scene in the West, particularly the way a white-focused LGBT movement has the luxury to separate its cause from intersecting influences of race and class: 'I don't think the Western model – that single-issue model – is ever going to work for people of color.'
The socio-economic reality of being a person of colour in the West appears intrinsically a part of being queer for these artists. Arguably, this is why their voices are ignored: they fail to represent the heart-warming American Dream, where if you have talent and work hard enough, you'll succeed and become rich. Yet the personal angle is never far away. Trans writer Lovemme Corazon, for one, talks about her battle with mental health, and the support network of friends and community that help her through dark times. Burlesque artist Magnoliah Black talks of the catharsis of S&M sex, allowing her to re-connect with her own body, after a lifetime of apparent body-shame.These fragments represent just a few of the highlights. Taken together, Nia King's transcription of her interviews is that rare thing, in giving exposure both to marginalized voices that impress and illuminate while reminding us of the socio-economic inequality that continues to grow, in the US and beyond. As artists, these interviewees fascinate, but they also remind us of how life as an artist, and as a person of colour in the West, can remain an economically marginalized one, regardless of talent or endeavor.