In general, I’ve felt relieved about how few times I, as a trans person, have been asked things I don’t want to answer. Variations on this scenario have come up twice in the past 2 months though. Blech!
#1: I’m taking part in an experimental study trial for a COVID-19 vaccine. At the end of May, I had a phone interview where they screened me to see if I was healthy enough to participate. Nothing came up about medications I’m on (other than specifics they were asking for), surgeries I’ve had, or anything else gender related. They assumed I’m male based on name and voice and didn’t ask about reproductive health. I did not disclose that I’m trans, and it didn’t come up. I really enjoyed that; it felt refreshing.
The in-person screening a few weeks later, was a totally different story. I was pretty prepared for that though, for having to explain that even though I have a uterus and ovaries and all that, I won’t be getting pregnant despite not using any birth control methods (that has more to do with who I have sex with, and less about being trans – I could be trans and still get pregnant…) I was prepared to do a urine test to screen for pregnancy, despite appearing male. I was prepared to talk about my hormone replacement therapy. I was not, however, prepared when the nurse followed these questions up with, “Have you had any surgeries?” because she asked it in a way that was totally different than how she would ask about any other category of surgery. It was in a sideways, sly, under-the-table kind of way that put me completely off. I replied, deadpan, “Is that information needed for the screening?” She replied, that, yes, they did need to note any major surgeries, to which I replied that I’ve had top surgery. She asked, “What is that?” and I replied, “A double mastectomy.” She wrote it down.
#2: My co-worker, after working together for 2 years, decided to pop the surgery question. She asked it completely out-of-the-blue, apropos of nothing. I guess, at least, she prefaced it with the ominous, “Can I ask you a personal question?” I replied that she could definitely ask, and I’ll decide if I wanna answer. Then I added that I probably would answer, because although I’m extremely private with stuff, at work, I am willing to open up if people are putting in the effort. When it was THAT question, however, I told her I wasn’t going to be answering it. I am glad she asked though, and told her as much, because it led to a long conversation in which I talked to her about a bunch of other things that have been long overdue for her to know about. Such as, I don’t actually identify as a man. She did not know this. She wanted to assert that she did know my identity and that it is a boy. I told her I don’t feel like I am either a man or a woman. Pretty sure that sank in for her. I also told her that my spouse is my “spouse” and not my “wife,” as she assumed, and that they use gender neutral pronouns. And that they also now look male, but don’t identify as such either.
We talked about what people assume based on appearance and a bunch of other stuff. She compared me to a temporary co-worker we had last summer, also trans, and how he was so open and friendly and he answered all her questions including her surgery questions. I bristled at this, but didn’t let it get to me. He and I have since become friends (although I didn’t say as much). He’s gonna be how he is, and I’m gonna be how I am. Although it was uncomfortable and difficult to steer her in the directions I wanted to go in, overall I feel like we got to a new place in our dynamic. I got to tell her that surgeries are actually not that important (or at least not important for others to know about) and other things are much more welcomed, in terms of questioning. Such as, how do you feel about ___________, and whatnot. She semi-argued about what was and was not important, and she also relayed information about her friend who is now named Susan. While talking in graphic detail about Susan’s body and how it is so much more stunningly vivacious than her body, she kept using male pronouns. I did not like where she was going with this at all. I just cut in to ask, “Wouldn’t Susan want you to be using “she” and “her” for her?” She replied that since she’s known Susan for forever, Susan doesn’t care. I’m really hoping it sank in, even just a little bit though.
I feel like I held my ground in both cases and stayed true to myself. Feels good to know these things can come up and not throw me way off, anymore.
Around this time, 20 years ago, I was experiencing suicidal ideation and debilitating depression, after being hospitalized for mania and psychosis. The #1 stressor in my life was my sexual orientation (I hadn’t yet gotten to the gender identity part). Two things saved me: therapy, and regularly attending the youth group at the Out Alliance (called the GAGV – Gay Alliance of Genesee Valley, at the time).
Learning, yesterday, that the Out Alliance was folding and laying off all its employees hit me hard, both in a community-forward kind of way, and on a personal level. We need the Out Alliance and the services it provides. The board stated, “We hope that this cessation in our services will be temporary and that, after reassessing and restructuring the organization, we will resume our vital mission, stronger than ever.” Let’s hope this happens sooner than later.
I went to the youth group for the first time on March 15, 2000. I was a painfully shy, sheltered, awkward, naive 18 year-old. I wrote about it immediately afterward, in my diary:
“I was really nervous about going, but felt like it was something I had to do. I got mom to drive me. While I was there, I badly wanted to leave, but in retrospect, it doesn’t seem so bad. We talked about dangers on the internet and stalkers. I had nothing to contribute. Dr. [Therapist] says that’s OK. It was my first time. Next Sunday might be better anyway. There’s going to be pizza and a guest speaker on relationships. Also, I noticed many bookshelves filled with books. Maybe next time all the kids are outside smoking, I’ll go check them out.”
And it did get better. I remained painfully shy and awkward. I never did connect with the other kids or make any friends, but I went every single week from then until I left for college at the end of August. At the time, the age limit was 19, but I asked if it could be extended to 22 because I still wanted to keep going. The age got changed in the “rules of the group,” and I was so thrilled I had been heard. I went sporadically when I could throughout my college years.
To back up, I started writing in a diary a year before attending the group, and my first entry starts out with a fantasy scenario in which I come out to a support group, 12-step style.
” ‘Hello. My name is Katie. And… I am a lesbian.’ ‘Hi Katie.’* I’ve gone through this scenario hundreds of times. I wish it were that easy. I’d just walk into a gay / lesbian support group and come out. I just can’t do it though; I haven’t told anyone.”
So actually attending and being around other LGBTQ+ people was HUGE for me, even if it was hard. Probably largely because it was so hard. Schools did not yet have Gay Straight Alliances. The internet was, well, you know, it was the internet of 2000. Which is to say I didn’t / couldn’t use it to find like-minded friends or look up information about sensitive subjects. I was too ashamed to take out any books about LGBTQ+ topics from the library for fear of the library clerk looking at them and deducing that I was gay. The information I would have found in those outdated books might have been more detrimental to my sense of self anyway. I was most certainly internally homophobic.
To know that there was an organization that was out and loud and proud was a revelation. I attended the Gay Pride Picnic that July, and was blown away by the number of people. Who knew?!
It took a while, but the sense of belonging and the normalization of the gay experience grew on me. I learned so much about safe sex and sex-positivity, LGBTQ+ portrayals in media, history, just a ton of feel-good stuff. We watched movies, we went on outings as a group, and yes we even got to eat pizza.
Huge shout-out to the facilitator at that time, Patty Hayes. She changed my life. I was so psyched to find that this 44 minute interview with her is out there on the internet! (Interview conducted for the documentary, Shoulders to Stand On. She has about 3 minutes of screen-time in the final product; here is the full interview):
The Out Alliance was there when I needed it, and I can honestly say it saved me from my own self-hatred, homophobia, and loneliness. Now that there are so many more options and ways to learn and connect, so what? It’s still very much needed. Every city needs something like this. It was a place to connect face-to-face and find role models and local resources. A place of hope for kids in surrounding rural areas who could drive in and find out they’re not alone. City and suburban kids too, of course. Older people just coming out. People who have been out for forever. SOFFAs and allies. It does, however, need to change with the times. There were times where I railed against it, for being too normative, too playing-it-safe, not diverse enough.
Hopefully their return will be swift, and well-thought out. The former staff have laid out some demands:
- Diversification of the board’s executive committee. They point out that the board is diverse but the executive committee members are all white and cisgender.
- Selecting a person of color to serve as the next executive director, “to reflect the necessary changes the agency still needs to take.”
- Making all board meetings open to the public and the minutes from those meetings accessible to the public.
- Including dollar figures, not just percentages, in all future annual reports. The annual report for 2018 showed a dollar figure for contributions, but nothing else.
- Changing agency bylaws to give the board greater oversight over the executive director and “veto power” over major spending and investment decisions.
- Creating a mechanism for agency members and community members to weigh in on who sits on the board.
Sources: CITY News article by Jeremy Moule
Shoulders to Stand On, documentary film
*At the time, I thought my name was Katie and that I was a lesbian. Now I know it’s actually Kameron, and that I’m a queer person.
My spouse and I just attended the 27th annual LGBTQ+ film festival in our town, and we saw some pretty great films. Overall, we both preferred the documentaries over the fictional narratives, but we did like all the ones we ended up picking out. I’ve had a varied relationship with this festival over the years – when I was younger, I wasn’t sure I belonged, and it was just so thrilling to even be there at all. I volunteered one year, and formed some lasting relationships through doing that. Then I kind of shunned it for a few years, deciding I didn’t have time for it, and the ticket prices were too pricey. In the past 4 years, I changed my tune and realized we are lucky to have this festival in our hometown, and we should make the most of it. We pick out a handful of films each year now, and pre-pay (to get a slight discount). I’d have to say that at this point, the novelty of being there as a super-fan has started to wear off, but I do still look forward to it each year, regardless… here are the films we saw this time around (links are to film websites, trailers, or reviews):
Zen in the Ice Rift – This was a narrative drama from Italy about a transmasculine teenager who is really just at the beginning of their journey into who they really are. They’re on the boy’s hockey team (only because their town is so small and that’s the only option), are getting bullied, and are acting out a lot in response. It was pretty hard to watch, but definitely well done – themes of victimization and violence, definitely a trope at this point.
The Ground Beneath My Feet – This one was from Austria, about a workaholic woman who’s sister has suffered yet another psychotic break and is hospitalized. The woman starts to question her own sanity while trying to juggle all aspects of her super stressful life (a lesbian affair with her superior being only one small tendril of her falling-apart-life). Really well done, edgy, gloomy thriller-drama.
Label Me – From Germany, this one was about a refugee from Syria who begins an ongoing money-for-sex relationship with a man who seems very well off and very isolated at the same time. It gets interesting when the two men navigate that line between intimacy, sex, money, and everything else that falls in between.
Leave it to Levi – This was a documentary about a porn star who works exclusively with Cocky Boys. It was just totally fun, but there was depth too, when the film explored his relationship with his mother and his forays into dressing in drag and going totally against the norm of the Macho Porn Star.
Gay Chorus Deep South – This documentary was full of heart. The San Francisco Gay Men’s Choir toured 7 southern states in order to raise awareness of anti-LGBTQ+ laws that have been popping up in the wake of the 2016 election. Along the way, we see some amazing personal stories of some of the chorus members, specifically from people who were born in the south and made it to the (relatively) safe haven of SF.
Changing the Game – By far, this one was our favorite. So many strong emotions going on. Between this one and Gay Chorus, I did a lot of crying! This followed the trajectory of 4 transgender teens from 3 different states (which all have different laws about transgender people competing in sports) and how they navigated what they had to do to keep pursuing the sports they love. They all came up against so much hate, but also so much love and support, specifically from coaches and parents / guardians.
So I’ve been blogging for a while now, and I haven’t said a whole lot about my spouse, basically out of respect for their privacy. But they actually have a lot to say! Here’s just a little bit of what goes on behind the scenes:
Over the last 6 years that Kameron has been recording his gender transition journey, I have always appeared in his writing as the supportive spouse. That’s a role I have been happy to fill. Happy to be part of a couple t hat goes against the standard narrative of couples perceived as “same-sex” who split when one comes out as transmasculine/trans male. I never felt that Kameron’s transition challenged my sexual orientation—I am that rare non-binary unicorn who discovers their identity all at once, albeit belatedly. I never thought I was a lesbian, if anything other people read me as asexual. As I came into my own queer sexuality and genderqueer identity, I was falling for a pansexual gender non-conforming guy (I have no idea how he would define himself, this is how I experienced him). I embraced the po-mo complexity of my attraction to his particular queer blend of femininity and masculinity.
For me, being genderqueer gave me permission to play with my gender presentation. I had fun thrifting to build a wardrobe that reflected the spectrum of my gender expression—t-shirts from the boys section, day-glo green femme sweaters, bright blue doc marten boots, mini-skirts, baggy pants and flannel shirts. I felt more confident taking up space, and attracting the attention of other gender non-conforming queer people. But once I found myself romantically involved with someone (before Kameron), my partner assumed that I was “the more feminine one.” I felt pressured to present more femininely to heighten their tenuous, new expression of masculinity.
Now when I look back at the past 13 years of my life, I question whether I presented femininely because I internalized that pressure and carried it forward into my relationship with Kameron. Was this shift an unconscious assimilation to ease moving through the world? Or did I truly want to grow my hair out, wear skirts/dresses, and feel included in feminist spaces?! What a mindfuck! Being genderfluid makes life hella complicated. I have identified as a genderqueer femme, but that feels too limiting now. My gender expression has shifted again in the last 3 years toward a more masculine presentation. I feel more comfortable with how others see me now but I am sure that I am still perceived as a queer woman. The pendulum has simply swayed from femme to butch.
While Kameron’s transition didn’t threaten my sexual orientation, I did find myself at times feeling like I was getting left behind. I started to have strange pangs of jealousy—I had a much larger chest and have felt dysphoric about it since it first developed, but I wasn’t the one getting top surgery. I was the one sitting in a waiting room and I was the one keeping track of how much blood was accumulating in his drains, taking time off to help him with early recovery. Where were these ugly resentments coming from? I was so dissociated from my feelings and my body that it took years of watching Kameron’s transition unfold for me to start exploring my gender identity more.
It’s funny that we didn’t talk much about our gender identities with each other, I cocooned myself a bit and started parsing out what felt good and what didn’t. “She” was icky, so I asked Kameron, some close friends & family members, and co-workers to start using “they/them/theirs” for me. Ah, a sigh of relief. Then more discomfort would surface, I couldn’t wear bras anymore, not even sports bras. I threw them all away and got advice from Kameron
on various binder options. Another sigh of relief. Then a sudden surge of agitation when a friend starting dating someone with my given name. I had already been obsessively browsing Celtic baby name websites but now I felt an urgency to rename myself. Overall, I feel more comfortable with my gender now, but it still doesn’t feel like enough. I have started low-dose testosterone (shout out to Planned Parenthood for using an informed consent model) and am scheduling a top surgery consult soon. I am hoping that these steps will help alleviate my dysphoria, as it feels ever present now that I have stopped compartmentalizing it. These flooding feelings has been difficult to manage, and I’m currently battling a flare up of past restrictive eating habits.
For the longest time I couldn’t bear the attention of physically and socially transitioning. And I didn’t feel trans enough. I questioned why I had to do the emotional labor of explicitly coming out to be seen as non-binary. This has been an ongoing test of my tolerance for vulnerability. I need to be my authentic self for me, but the acknowledgement of others is overwhelming. I am a private person, I don’t have a blog, I keep a written journal. I guard my inner world with ferociousness and have a hard time trusting others. So far most people have been supportive and reached out to let me know so, but others have quietly noted signifiers (like changing my name on social media accounts) without comment. While the attention is exhausting (mostly due to my anxiety in these interactions), the silence of others is more painful. These silences have spurred me to have more in-depth conversations with those who do reach out, to push shame away and invite friends in.
It’s that time of year again! Yep, I know I’m way behind schedule with the pride festivities: I mention this every year, but yea, this really is when my mid-sized city celebrates pride, far behind the rest!
I ended up having a blast. Generally, during the days and weeks leading up to pride, I tend to think, dang, not again! What am I gonna wear? What am I gonna do? Maybe it’d be better all around if we were on vacation, and absent all together. So, yea, there’s some angst there. But as soon as I get into it, I’m IN IT!!
As far as the parade, we did something new and different – we marched with a group called “Positive Force,” which is a queer gym Caitlin (my spouse) has been training at. We didn’t know who would be there or what the group would be doing exactly, so we planned our outfits independently, on our own. I decided to go shirtless!
OK, so this is kinda a big deal. At the time I got top surgery, 3 years ago, I was known to say, “I’d never go shirtless in public though.” I’m sure if I looked through my archives, I could find multiple times where I wrote, specifically, that. BUT! Since then, I’ve changed my mind and gone shirtless a handful of times. Not right away. It took over a year; the first couple of times were when I was abroad,, visiting my brother in Turkey. I did it first in the Black Sea while my brother was preoccupied with getting a locksmith to help us with the waterlogged electronic key to the rental car, deciding that I was so far from home and the people I know so well and it’s exciting, and here I go! I did it again, on that trip, when my brother brought us to a Turkish bath, segregated by genders. I was nervous, but it all turned out fine.
I did it again a year later, at a state park all by myself with no one in sight. But also at another state park filled with people, and it was pretty thrilling. And then again this summer, at a hotel pool in Massachusetts.
Which is all to say that deciding to go without a shirt (although I did have suspenders on, to somewhat cover my nipples, because I’m not quite comfortable with them and still plan to get revisions eventually), seemed like a challenge I wanted to try. When we got down there, I was pleased to see 3 trans-masculine acquaintances already ready to go without shirts on. And a bunch of other acquaintances too; it seems like we picked the right group! It was us plus a yoga studio, and we handed out flyers and candy and chanted, on-and-off, “All bodies, hott bodies.”
Saw a bunch of people that we knew, including my mom and her best childhood friend. Another friend was camped out at the protesters’ corner, holding a sign that said, “My boyfriend is cute when he’s grumpy,” with an arrow pointing right at a protester. We got a good laugh out of that.
Then we just relaxed for the rest of the day. Watched Tales of the City (the new one, and now we’re making our way through the old one.)
The next day, Caitlin and I co-hosted an LGBTQIA+ themed electronic music show. That was a lot of fun. And then I stayed for another hour for the next radio show, in which the host and I read the piece I have published in an anthology, plus just goofed around.
Hey, I have an essay in this anthology, Nonbinary: Memoirs of Gender and Identity, which is finally being released by Columbia University Press, officially on April 9th, but you can go ahead and order your copies now! This has been roughly 5 years in the making, and through that time, I went through lots of different edits and re-writes with Micah Rajunov (genderqueer.me), one of the two editors. Both he and Scott Duane did tons of behind-the-scenes work to make this happen. I just sat around, for the most part, and waited to see what was going to become of it!
The time-frame was so long that I pretty much forgot what I wrote. And I was a little apprehensive to revisit it. When I first heard news of the release date, I had a mixture of emotions: excitement and pride, to be sure. But also a little bit of hesitation, like, would I still identify with whatever the hell I had written?! Would I be cool with everyone, friends and family, reading it? I decided not to overthink it; when I got my copy in the mail, I posted this pic to my social media, and just let what was gonna happen, happen. However, I still hadn’t read it! I was stalling. My spouse went ahead for me, and reported back, which helped me get used to the idea. When I first tried, I couldn’t read it linearly – I just skipped around and tried to get the gist, get a sense before finding out all the details. Then I went back and started with the anthology from the first contributor, and when I got to mine, I finally did read it all the way through. Phew. I’m almost done with the whole book now. Lots of really amazing, diverse stories.
People started ordering their own copies. My grandpa and my aunt have already read it and connected with me about it! I ordered a dozen to give to friends, my therapist, my local Out Alliance’s library, etc. It’s starting to feel real, and the excitement is growing, now that I can kinda wrap my head around it.
In addition to the PTWC and Gender Odyssey, The TIC is a well established, long-time running, trans- and gender specific conference that happens every year at the University of Vermont in Burlington. I went once prior, in 2005, but I can’t remember a whole lot – really just attending a workshop led by DRED, drag king, actress, etc. about gender expression and clothing as play.
This year, my spouse and I decided to check it out and make a trip of it. In addition to the conference (which is packed into one day, this year, November 3rd), we, walked around Burlington a lot, and we also took a ferry across Lake Champlain into Plattsburgh, where we met with some friends.
Here’s a rundown of what I got out of the conference!
We eased into the day by going to Fluid Identities Within the Classroom and the Workplace: A Dialogue Toward Trans Liberation in Binary Spaces. It was an interactive structure where we spend time talking with the people around us and then reporting back to the whole group, and also writing our own thoughts on post-it notes that were then displayed out in the hall for the rest of the day. It was pretty basic, information-wise; what felt worthwhile was hearing about others’ experiences.
I then went to Q&A: Queens and Activism. This was a presentation led by two local, politically active drag queens, in character, which was pretty entertaining. It was framed as, “Here’s us and what we’re doing and all about us,” which could have been limiting, but they’ve been involved in so much that although it was Vermont specific, it was a great way to show both the people behind the queens, and the range of avenues to help LGBTQ people and causes, making it fun along the way. Such as Drag Queen Story Hour.
Next up was lunch, which was provided at a subsidized cost, within the same building as all the workshops. That was totally awesome!
Next I went to Take Your Top Off: A Top Surgery Information Session and Show and Tell. This was just like the show and tells I’ve been to at the PTWC, but on a much smaller scale, and with more general information provided up front. I decided pretty much on the spot that I was going to participate, which is a huge deal for me because I’ve only been topless in front of other people (excluding my spouse!) on 2 other occasions. I mostly decided I felt comfortable because is was such a smaller and more intimate group of people and because I thought I might likely be the only one up there who could show an example of the periareolar procedure. And I was right on both counts – there were about 12 people up there taking their shirts off, as opposed to upwards of 40-50, at the PTWC. And I was the only one who hadn’t had DI (double incision). Each person took a turn on the microphone, talking about their surgeon, their experience, nerve sensation, cost, and overall satisfaction. Then people could come up to talk to us individually. One person came up to me to say, “I have a consultation with Dr. Rumer [my surgeon] next week. I already paid and everything. Should I just scrap that and cut my losses?” This was based on me not having all that much positive to say about Dr. Rumer. I think I did a pretty good job talking it through with this person, trying to open them up to as many possibilities as I could, something I never really was able to do for myself. I feel like I have a lot more to say about this, but it could easily take up way too much space, so I’m going to stop here for now. Maybe a separate future blog post!
I went to Trans in the Workplace Panel. I always like to go to at least one panel – it’s a good way to just sit back and hear personal experiences from a good cross-section of different perspectives. This one featured an agender person who works in bars and also is self-employed as a sex educator, a trans-woman who is an EMT and also works in an urgent care facility, a trans-man who works for the state as an advocate for those who are incarcerated, and a non-binary trans-person who is a gym teacher and also makes and sells bow ties.
Finally I went to Transmasculine Caucus, a safe space set up in a circle, with a mod, to talk about whatever anyone wanted to bring up. I was one of the few people older than 22, it seemed, which made it tougher to feel motivated to speak up, but I did manage to talk on 2 occasions. Topics ranged from name change and being carded before a gender marker change, to always appearing much younger, sexual orientation shifts after hormones, and much much more.
The final event was the keynote, with CeCe McDonald, a transgender prison reform activist who had been sentenced to 41 months for manslaughter. (Laverne Cox of “Orange is the New Black has said she plays her character as an homage to CeCe, and she is producing a documentary about her story.) It was very off-the-cuff, informal, and full of energy.
Compared to the PTWC, this conference was much smaller, which came with a lot of benefits! People seemed much more friendly, just striking up conversations with those around them; it just had a more intimate vibe overall – I felt more comfortable speaking up, participating, and just people-watching / feeling a part of things. I’d definitely go again!
My spouse and I had a lot of fun going to a bunch of fims during this year’s local annual LGBTQ+ film festival! I liked all the films we picked out this time around. Here’s a little more about them (some of the links are to trailers while others’ are for the films’ websites:
Pulse – This Australian film was part of the “ImageOut There!” series, it definitely took some interesting twists and turns. What if people could surgically switch bodies, like for example go from a disabled teenaged male body to a “picture perfect” teenaged female body? This is what Olly chooses to do, with his/her reasonings unfolding slowly throughout the movie. A different and unique perspective leaning a little too heavily on the fantasy of what it means to be a woman: not much insight but plenty of pitfalls.
Man Made – This may be my all time favorite movie I’ve seen at the festival over the years. I cried a lot (and that’s saying something because lately tears are super hard to come by!) It’s a documentary that follows the journeys of 4 transgender men as they prepare for the only all-trans bodybuilding competition, in Atlanta, GA. Their stories are heartwarming, heartbreaking, and they hit on a bunch of emotional points in between.
Cola de Mono – This Chilean film was also part of the “ImageOut There!” series. It’s a feature length that focuses on one family on Christmas eve, 1986. The men in the family have been “cursed” by homosexuality, and the next iteration is now playing itself out. It’s super melodramatic, definitely campy, but not in a fun way. They undertones are full of hypersexuality, perversion, ritual, and horror. The film takes its name from a traditional drink similar to egg nog, which translates into “monkey’s tail.”
Studio 54 – I didn’t really know anything about the behind-the-scenes, so I learned a lot! The documentary featured a lot of interview time of the more “silent” partner, Ian Schrager (the more public partner, Steve Rubell, passed away from AIDS / hepatitis in 1989.) My spouse pointed out that it was a smart idea not to rely on a bunch of famous people being interviewed about it – that seemed like the easy choice, but this way the film spoke for itself a lot more.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post – My spouse was super psyched this was part of the festival, because they had heard of it and had just finished reading the novel that the film is based on. It takes place in Montana in 1993; when Cameron is caught in the backseat of a car with her girlfriend, she’s sent to a conversion therapy camp called God’s Promise. It was awesome to see this with a theater full of people because there were so many sound bites that got big laughs (although the writer and director didn’t seem to account for those interruptions, there wasn’t a beat for us to catch up, meaning we ended up missing dialogue because we were laughing so much. At one point, the audience burst out with a round of applause!) This was thoroughly entertaining and also disturbing – a more dramatic partner piece to “But I’m a Cheerleader.”
A friend of mine living in Albuquerque posted about an art project s/he recently completed, and I messaged hir to find out more about it. What follows is an interview with the artist, Harley Kirschner, in which we touch on toxic masculinity, safety, artistic processes, and a whole lot more!
Kam: How did you get involved in it? Did you propose the idea?
Harley: I work at Winnings coffee shop again, after a few years in plumbing and pipefitting , unemployment, self employment and other jobs. We have artists do murals in our bathrooms and it was time for a new one.The need was expressed and I jumped on the opportunity. I got free reign over what I wanted to do and as a trans artist who is getting into what I like to think of as oversized zines, naturally I created a zine installation about using public restrooms as trans in a public restroom.
Kam: Is it related to your plumbing career, your art career, or both? Can you elaborate on that?
Harley: My plumbing career collapsed which I now see as a blessing. However, in that collapse, after living stealth 24/7 I really collapsed emotionally. Everything about my art and my loud trans non-binary self is because I failed at fitting the mold of what a plumber or pipefitter or man is supposed to be. Trying to be someone that I’m not almost killed me as I was terrified and disassociated all the time. I do share my experience with how bathrooms were such a huge part of that in this installation. However, although I would usually put my name on my story, due to the location being my place of employment and coming to embrace myself as non-binary and using mixed pronouns when I feel safe, I felt too vulnerable. I thought about censoring my story but felt the content was important so I chose to leave off my name.
I found empowerment in taking a bathroom and making it my own and a safe place for trans people after my experience in the plumbing industry which has rules (which are laws under the guise of safety… Most are.), about gendered bathrooms. That was one issue that I always had issues with myself. My experience in the plumbing and pipe fitting industries was heavy industrial for the most part so I did very little in bathrooms and actually very little with water. Mostly, I piped refrigerant and coal. I still use some of my skills in doing irrigation.
When my plumbing career fell apart and I started talking about it in zines and about how toxic masculinity makes me want to kill myself, I started getting recognized for my art and it was very clear to me that where my art had been lacking in the work that I had been showing wasn’t in the technical sense but rather in the voice. I knew that if I wanted to achieve what I wanted with my art, to make trans people feel beautiful, I had to use my own voice and make it loud. I had been very scared to do that. Partly because it was incredibly unsafe in my plumbing career and partly because I didn’t want to pigeonhole myself. When I had nothing to lose career wise and my sanity and breath depended on taking up queer and trans space I knew that taking the steps to enhance my literary voice would give my fine art real value.
Kam: What are your goals with the project? What would you like people to get out of it?
Harley: To make Winning Coffee Company the most queer and trans friendly coffee shop in Albuquerque. To take back bathrooms after they made me feel so unsafe. To embrace the diversity within my community by feeling the love and support of not only trans people but of all the people who love my work. I feel that it is very new to me to feel the amount of love and support around being trans from cis people that I do and I would like to offer that same safe feeling in a public place in Albuquerque for all trans people. I am very lucky to have such great supportive coworkers that helped make this happen, including making the bathrooms gender neutral (a few years ago) and helped me paint the walls.
Kam: Do you see ways to expand on this? Other places or other ideas?
Harley: I would like it to be an ongoing conversation. As the installation deteriorates and get tagged (unfortunately a given with the Winning’s bathroom-nothing offensive just disrespectful in general) I would like to replace the paper with different stories. People are encouraged to contribute any stories they have about using the bathroom as a trans person. I have thought about doing this bathroom in other spaces but am too busy artistically to take on another project right now.
Kam: What did your artistic process look like for this?
Harley: I used matte black paint on all the walls but chose to keep the ceiling white and paint the door white so it didn’t create a feeling of being trapped. There was a metal frame that used to have an advertisement poster in it. The advertising company closed but the frame was still there. It reminds me a lot of the welding that I was working with at the job that I reference in my story so I chose to keep it and decoupage the plexiglass that it holds. It works very well with the symbolist element of my work. I wallpapered large photocopies of stories and photocopied collages of images related to being trans and using bathrooms. I incorporated images from my time in the union, including an image of my shadow where I look like I’m holding a gun and I’m going to shoot, an image of a sign that says “ouch”, and images from one of my textbooks. My favorite part is the dictionary words “restricted” followed by “restroom”, nothing could have been more appropriate. In my photocopied collages I incorporate transfers to overlay images. There is a grainy quality in oversized prints that I find particularly appealing.
Kam: Anything else you wanted to add that I didn’t ask about?
Harley: Thank you very much for asking me to talk about my work on your blog. Your writing has always inspired me and I hope that my voice will be as touching to others as yours has been to me.