Panda on reinvention, drag as a tool of resistance, and learning to be a better friend to herself

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photo by Aaron Jay Young

What’s your name and how do you identify yourself in the world?

My name is Kyle Chu, or Panda Dulce. I am a fourth generation Chinese-American, born and raised in San Francisco, queer person, and drag queen. I use she/her/hers pronouns.

How are you doing?

I’m okay. I’m in an upswing after some ups and downs. 2017 has been a big year — a lot’s happened in the world and in my personal orbit. A friend recently passed who I’ve known from the punk scene since I was young, angry, and becoming. I also made some new friends and began reinventing.

I’m sorry to hear about your losses. What do you mean when you say you’ve been reinventing?

I was heavily involved in direct action and protests since the inauguration. I was very action-oriented, pursuing a lot of creative projects, and working to make my extended family who may have resigned themselves to be politically complacent more cognizant of the issues we’re facing. Given my context, coming out of direct practice social work, I totally burned out on this path. It was holistically consuming. I tried to funnel my energy into drag and looks that would coax action but I ended up self-isolating and retreating because I needed to heal myself, rest, and actually sleep. In the process of doing some high profile work I needed privacy and downtime to recharge.

There’s an expression that says you’ve been building a house your entire life and when you go through your Saturn Return you burn it all down. I just finished my Saturn Return in November. For so long I’ve been on a clear path of activism, social justice, creativity, and have felt intimately connected to the community we’re fortunate to have in the Bay Area. There was a shift that had to something to do with the onslaught of depressing as hell news, the toxicity of social media, and events that happened within our micro-communities in the Bay Area punk scene. A high-profile local scene celebrity was outed as someone who had sexually predated on a lot of women. There was a messy DIY accountability process; people were wheatpasting posters lambasting his character — and others’ in his cadre — all across town. I hated it, I thought it was necessary, and of course, I don’t have a perfect, let alone “better” resolution for this kind of thing. With anything we’re trying to build ourselves, it was new, unfamiliar and more or less Macgyvian.

I saw people get subdued, fall, and steward each others’ trauma in unsustainable ways. Which brought me here. I needed to reinvent myself and the way I process these issues. I’ve withdrawn from a lot of my activism and in its stead, I’ve taken to one-on-one drag mothering queers I meet. Even though drag can also be tiring — editing tracks, hours of makeup, cooking up concepts, looks, and adopting funky side hustles to fund them, it’s reinvigorating to teach someone a craft and watch them learn something new and aesthetically rebirth themselves to reflect their suppressed inner knowings. There’s also something to be said for creating your own makeshift chosen families in that way. I went from trying to impact a huge world that seemed insurmountable to meeting a queer 18-year-old who had experienced a lot of trauma and just wanted to look like a non-terrestrial ball of light.

It sounds like a mutually humanizing experience. Can you speak to the idea of drag as resistance?

I’m reading RuPaul’s autobiography right now just for funzies. One of the things she says is that drag as a queer art form is openly mocking all of the roles that we have internalized and so tightly cling to that we’re unable to see the performance of it anymore. The corners have disappeared. Her whole throughline is “don’t take anything too seriously.” This is not a directive to be problematically carefree, colorblind, and ignore patriarchy. It’s more so to say that drag as a vessel is teaching us to take life more lightly and to laugh in order not to cry. The reason why I enjoy drag is because any fantasy you imagine can be rendered real, palpable, and transmitted through social media. It’s futurist in that sense, like a continual practice of creating boundless “what if” scenarios. Like a lot of art, it’s being able to imagine beyond the scope of your immediate individual work and impact. It’s being able to visualize what you want and bring it to life through crappy CVS products. 

In terms of gender, I have spent a lot of time as a young person feeling very self conscious and having an adversarial relationship with my body, where certain physical aspects and wants have been at stark odds with expectations of me as a partner due to my race and perceived role and stature. I’ve felt that old pain and pull that I must drastically change myself in order to experience love by myself or others/or to participate in a love that is often communicated as solely eros-based, epically Hollywood, traditionally-attractive, able-bodied, hairy, and white. Drag has become a way for that to not be as destructive and as inwardly debilitating as your inner voice can sometimes make it. Drag can become a place to meditate and spend time with yourself. When you watch RuPaul’s Drag Race, the sequence of them putting on makeup and getting into face lasts five minutes, but when you’re just starting out, drag actually takes three to four hours to get into face and to get to your look. That’s you looking at a mirror at yourself for hours. It’s me sitting, being present, listening to SZA and spending time with myself, forcing myself to confront the reality of who I am, and convincing yourself that you can be as beautiful, as grotesque, as shocking, as whatever as any vision you commit your brush to. That in and of itself has been healing. It’s learning to find love for yourself again, and putting that on blast.

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Photo by Urvi Navgrani

When you’re in that meditative process of looking in the mirror and putting intention and imagination into your craft, what do you think is possible for yourself and for the people who witness you?

There’s the aspect of reinvention where you can put on a look that shifts the narrative, either onstage or just for yourself. I’ve always wanted to be a hot girl. It’s being able to revel in showing people everything you’ve held onto internally that you haven’t felt safe enough to manifest physically. Letting it explode. Drag wants a reaction from people. Everything is big. The earrings and hair are big, you make your eyes and lips bigger, you overdraw everything. It’s like yelling at someone to look at you, the inverse of how invisible I’ve felt for a long time. It’s kind of punk. The act of declaring yourself a wild tropical bird you have to look at is arresting in and of itself. It flips everything I’ve experienced in the gay community so far; it makes me feel powerful and big in a milieu that often makes me feel small, irrelevant, and ignored.

What do you see as your role and work in this political moment in your shift to focusing on intimate, emotional connections and work?

I’ve always been in a nurturing or coaching role. I have a twin brother with a disability and I have been coaching, teaching, and guiding him and others who come in contact with him for my entire life. Working with people with disabilities introduced me to working with people of other marginalized identities in social work. I’m fortunate through my art to have met a lot of young drag queens and punks from similar backgrounds who are coming up. The capacity I feel most comfortable with is bringing people up and trying to help them become their best selves. When people find what it is that invigorates them I like to be someone who can help them magnify that.

I appreciate you naming that as work. Many of us have internalized the emotional labor we and others do for granted, work that is often feminized labor and really crucial for building the world we want to live in. What is the world you want to live in?

You know that Lauryn Hill adage, “how are you gon’ win if you ain’t right within?” You need to start with yourself before you assume anything external. I’m addressing the queer male community in particular when I say this —  everyone is struggling to fit a limiting image — fit, white, masculine, and other valued attributes that causes immense splitting and only actually applies to a small hegemonic portion of the community. It’s suffocating, yet everyone is indoctrinated to want it. So the ones who embody this end up presiding over the rest in what ultimately resembles in-crowd go-go dancers looking down upon the rest of their stratified small town high school cafeteria. It’s kinda bleak. I feel like I’m operating in a parallel dimension where everyone I choose to hang with is compassionate, political, and sensitive to others. Those are the values I personally appreciate, and what I want to see arbitrate my community. We need to reimagine who we champion and what we see as beautiful and ideal. That starts with who we, as individuals, proclaim as ideal partners and community members.

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Reverse Genocide Oregon Trail Pilgim Barbie. Photo by Robin Chu.

Care and compassion are so important but I feel like those concepts get simplified into: love trumps hate, and that’s that. It’s harder to convey the depth and power that comes from true compassion and deeply honoring people’s identities and experiences, and standing together in collective struggle.

The ‘love trumps hate’ idea is very white liberalism. It’s also starkly at odds with how the gay male community is so focused on instant visible gratification. I’m still learning how to have meaningful relationships with gay men that aren’t transactional and based on exclusively sexual exchanges. I’ve worked with younger queer people who are just coming out and coming onto the scene and see my younger self in them so much in a way I hope changes. I see them coming into the club and using substances in a way where they have spent so much time isolated and it took them so much work and grit to get to this moment and what this is. For them to get here to be just as disillusioned with the shallowness of how we’re expected to relate to each other is really harrowing! There’s so many beautiful creative, brilliant young people with potential who I see fall prey to debilitating substances due to self-consciousness and unresolved feelings of belonging based on this physical fluid swap culture.

It’s sounds like you’re working on bringing softness, connection, and humanity to a scene where you haven’t experienced a lot of that. I imagine that takes some courage and grit to not succumb to old demons even though I’m sure intellectually you know that type of culture is bullshit.

It’s isolating. I haven’t done drag for very long. Before then I was in punk and hung out with a very intentional/action-driven crew. Most of my friends are women and queer and trans people who are very vocal of their antipathy towards cis men. I’m trying to unlearn that and relearn openness. It’s a tough pill. Recently I acknowledged that I definitely move through the world like a cis man even though it doesn’t entirely feel that way to me personally. A lot of people I am intimate with are cis men and I want to reconnect in a way where I’m not psychologically distorting and writing them all off as toxic.

One of the reasons I started drag is because it often takes place in the gay male sphere. A lot of the gay men I meet still subscribe to poisonous ideas about anyone who deviates from the standard I mentioned earlier. I am somewhat of a black sheep in vocalizing my opinion to say that’s actually kind of messed up. Trying to assert people’s humanity in this context can be exhausting. The whole point of drag is making fun of all of these roles that we’re firmly attached to- including racial caricatures that make me routinely cringe. I’m coming from this context where everyone is trying to be sensitive to these issues, trying to use the correct pronouns, and trying to not step on people’s toes when it comes to issues of race, etcetera; then in the drag sphere we’re encouraging each other to do Asian caricature for laughs, you know? It’s a very different approach to handle complex issues. It’s been a tough transition for me but I can also see its liberating potential.

I’d like to believe it’s not a binary, that you can have this irreverence and levity without making anyone feel really bad, right? That has to be possible. What do you come up against when you’re pushing drag culture to hold more anti-oppressive values?

I’m a special case because I joined the Rice Rockettes, an all Asian drag family. We have a monthly show and attract a primarily Asian crowd, so it feels like everyone’s in on the joke. That feels different than if I were to go on RuPaul’s Drag Race and perform exaggerated Asianness in line with a lineage of images that have historically drawn hilarity to a presumably majority-white crowd- certainly not mine. Taking the audience into account impacts my approach. It’s like code-switching. My drag sisters welcome irreverence and laugh everything off, which I am still learning to do. When I’m hanging out with my other friends, there’s a lot of reticence around that. You’re right. It’s certainly not a binary. It’s a spectrum where you balance the weight of systems with the levity of living. There’s gonna be tons of ways to approach that in between. It’s something I’m still figuring out, case-by-case.

Yeah of course. There’s also can be so much richness when you can find the strength and resources to bridge the gaps. I know what you mean when you talk about a culture of disposability, and feel like there’s a lot of power in being able to connect with people who might not be on the same page as you, but who see you and your humanity.

Totally. When I say compassion, I’m referring to callout culture as well. I don’t have the perfect solution for addressing harm. But it’s come to a place where our micro-culture resembles a punitive church. If you’re not subscribing to this code of beliefs in this specific way and using this specific language, you are blanket problematic and that is grounds for total alienation. The problem that I have with the way that one accountability process happened is that the maligning of character painted this person as inherently fucked up, whereas we should be focusing on his actions and behavior. In clinical social work, you never focus on the person, you’re focusing on the behaviors so they can understand that the issue is not them as people; rather it’s something that they’re doing. Behaviors are perceived as more dynamic than total beings. Language has a way of pathologizing. Speaking of reinvention, we need to reinvent the ways we approach accountability and the language that we use around how somebody can improve themselves or reduce harm.

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Carmen Miranda homage. Photo by Gabriela Hasbun.

I really feel you on that. It’s painful to see all our traumas getting acted out on each other. It’s a conversation I’ve had a million times with friends that still leaves me at a loss sometimes. What do you feel are the things in your life that support you in playing the role you’re playing, and what are the things that feel like barriers to making the work sustainable?

I have a constant internal monologue with looping messages. Journaling and having the time to enact them on paper has been really supportive and is critical for revealing the patterns in how you think. There was a period of time in high school that I kept a journal every day. I recently unearthed a couple of them and realized how dude-centric my writing was — I was very concentrated on if this guy likes me which is arguably typical high school behavior, but it made me realize things about my attachment style and how I found value in myself from others. I see the ghost of it in my writing now, and think about how drag can also become an external validation model. It’s important to be aware of it and see when it’s happening so you can interrupt that cycle and be able to ask yourself more assertively what you’d like to see instead.

I’ve spent a lot of time drinking tea and taking baths and being kind of an old lady. I like going on pinterest and letting myself wander the creative playground of drag — just appreciating the craft of others and getting ideas for new looks. It’s humbling to remind yourself of how big the world is, and on the flip, how insignificant you are. I’m trying to find more international queens who bring something different. There’s this one queen in Thailand my sister introduced me to who finds ways to wear household objects and appliances. She’ll put a Dell computer on her shoulder, a keyboard over her crotch, and just type type types clackity clack clack as she walks an imaginary catwalk. Her stuff makes me happy. There’s also makeup prodigy in Hawaii, Bretman Rock, who is a flaming ball of comedic light. Just remembering to connect with comedy and very brightly burning creatures in the world is supportive.

In terms of obstacles, I don’t want to say finances because I feel like that’s such a San Francisco answer, but… finances! I chose a very expensive craft. Sometimes you can keep the tag on an outfit and return it, sometimes you can’t. I picked up a couple side jobs to support it.

I identify as a multipotentialite, which is based on this Ted Talk I saw once. It means I do a lot of different things. I do drag, writing, film, and music. A significant obstacle for me is being able to focus. This is a world of specialists. When you’re little people ask you, what do you want to be when I grow up? Nobody’s gonna say I want to be a freelance journalist, filmmaker, social worker, and a drag queen. I want to accept the fact that some of us just do a lot of things and there’s no one way to be successful or express yourself.

The last interview I did was with this rad activist/healer/organizer/witchy herbalist person who also brought up that Ted Talk, and talked about stepping into their power as someone who does a lot of different things. The pressure to specialize is a capitalistic idea to have one mastered offering for the world that makes you valuable. I think it’s great you’re interested in and engaged with a bunch of different things! Are there other artists and work you consider as inspiration and resource for your own art and craft?

I’m thinking this drag artist who is a total visionary; her name is Hungry. Her looks are like Rorschach ink blots — extremely surreal and imaginative, like a Kabuki wet dream. I think she’s Asian too which is part of what inspires me. It’s good to see my people getting it in the drag world. Her work is just unreal. She makes her nose disappear; she’ll make multiple eyes and elongate them with these sclera contacts that cover the entire eye. She’s been getting a lot of attention and with good reason. She recently collaborated with Bjork’s look on her new album. Andrew Thomas Huang is another artist who imagines looks or scenarios like dark witchy rituals and fantastical alien creatures playing the flute that bring to life a huge, expansive vision of what you can be. They make this amazing, totally unpredictable artwork. And then a lot of local artists and friends like the writer Nia King, Blue Scholars, FKA Twigs, and my friends Claudia Leung and Muriel Leung. Princess Nokia.

You told me a little bit about the world you want to live in and I’ve also heard you talk about the role you’re playing in helping to get us there. Flashing forward to this imagined world in progress, where there is more compassion and community care and an anti-disposability politic, what role would you play there?

Makeup artist (laughs). I see myself teaching and collaborating. Right now I’m working as a counselor at an arts college. I work with young artists to clarify their visions and to get granular about what they want to do in their field or how to build a bridge towards their broader visions. Being able to help people be their best selves really brings me my light. That’s definitely the intersection where I thrive: on creativity and justice and helping people hone their craft in service of their vision.

I would want to work with youth. Youth are amazing. While they can be extremely honest and cruel and playgrounds can be sites of a lot of pain, they also are so excited about the world. I miss that. I used to teach second grade. Kids that age are so impressionable. Everything they absorb has such a big impact and it feels like such important work.

You sometimes do Drag Queen Story Hour, reading to children and infants. What is it like for kids to witness and engage with your drag self?

It’s been amazing. When I was a teacher, there were a lot of homophobic taunts and insults being hurled around on the playground. It was one thing to be able to interrupt that as an adult authority figure. Teachers have differing philosophies about whether or not they should disclose if they are queer or bring queer content into the curricula. There’s significant stigma around queer educators and children. What’s cool about drag queen story hour is not only is it expanding the child’s imagination of what you can be and giving them different types of queer role models, but I also get to blur that line. I don’t have to sidestep an integral part of myself in order to connect, which is is something I felt was expected of me in the classroom. It’s great to be one of my authentic selves and not have to hold anything back. I think it’s important for them to see.

A lot of gay and safe spaces began at the bars, so a lot of the drag world is very nightlife-focused. It’s also cool to be able to not only be able to bring my authentic self into youth spaces, but also be able to engage with straight parents and queer parents and queer kids or any amalgamation of those. That never happens because of stigma and the historical underpinnings of safe gay spaces. It’s cool for me to be able to interact with kids instead of just drunk patrons. It’s so fun! Sometimes babies don’t really know how to compute. Some will look at me with utter delight and joy and others are terrified and screech.

That’s fair, it’s a lot to take in.

Yeah. I’m essentially a cartoon character to them.

Given that it’s January 1st, can you share any hopes or intentions for the coming year?

I hope 2018 is a harbinger of good things. I want to learn how to listen to what my body needs. Sounds basic, but so fundamental. I have a lot of ambitions and goals in very different fields that feel very distant, and in service of all of these goals, I neglect what I need in the current moment. I want to learn how to listen to and be a better friend to my needs — on the granular, get more sleep and drink more water.

You can learn more about Kyle’s work on her website (don’t miss her powerful political writings), and you will be very glad you followed her on Instagram! This interview is part of a series for The World We Want to Live in.

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Lexi and Devi on the lifesaving power of art & using comedy as a tool to build collective power

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Lexi & Devi at the Trans Life & Liberation art opening April 2017. Photo courtesy of CultureStrike and by Miki Vargas Photography.

What is Peacock Rebellion and who makes up the organization?

Lexi: Peacock Rebellion started out as a queer and trans people of color (QTPOC) arts organization Devi founded in collaboration with other artists/activists/healers. Devi was involved with organizations including Mangos with Chili and other QTPOC arts organizations we’re in community with. Devi used to talk about bringing Peacock Rebellion to a national level. Given the way the political climate has shifted, we’re rethinking our place and what strategies we employ and the ways we’re engaging with the wider world through our art.

Brouhaha is our big comedy show which has run for the past four years. Brouhaha’s stand-up comedy training program has prioritized trans women of color (TWOC) since 2015, with a new sketch comedy training we launched last year that’s open to a broader range of trans people of color. The main component to Brouhaha is forming a cohort of artists and teaching them the basics of comedy and how to utilize comedy as a tool for social justice.

Devi: We started Peacock in part because I was burning out on nonprofit-based community organizing and thought I was more effective with a microphone than a megaphone. With Peacock, our artists can crack jokes, shift cultural perspective, and disrupt the status quo through entertainment. A lot of people who wouldn’t necessarily be down to come to a march or a protest would be totally down to come to a comedy show.

Everybody in the artistic core has some kind of healing practice. Everyone is an activist, a community organizer, healer, cultural worker, and an artist. A friend of ours made a shirt for the last Brouhaha that said “Sass Heals.” That’s totally us. We do snarky, sassy, sexy, subversive work, and talk about white supremacy, christian hegemony, anti-Black racism, and structural oppression without jargon or talking down to people. We’re able to get 800 people to a show on a Tuesday because a lot of folks are willing to want to come be entertained, and we’re like, oh we’ll entertain you, and you’re gonna come here and learn some shit.

We use the art to get people into a room and then they will be invited to show up to do court support for trans women of color, they’ll get talking points around Thankstaking. Folks who are going to sit at a dinner table with their families who have different political perspectives, and we want to equip them with resources. We want to get our people practical tools. So we have a guide to low-cost mental health support services for queer and trans people of color and other rapid response guides. We do healing justice clinics for free. Lexi started a program along those lines last year.

Lexi: We got some funding to have a cohort of 20 people, primarily trans folks of color, go through four months of training workshops on empowering advocacy skills. We were able to pay them to participate. We oriented folks on the court processes for legal name and gender change documents; we had a self defense workshop, we talked about navigating the medical industrial complex, street safety, and intervening in street harassment. Now there’s 20 more folks out in the world who have those skills. After 45 got elected, there was a big surge in community clinics to get trans folks name change forms done. A number of participants in the program went on to help Transgender Law Center and St. James Infirmary organize some of those. It was great.

Devi: We just merged with one of our sibling organizations, a QTPOC makerspace oriented toward social justice. They’re now a program of Peacock. Now we run free maker days every month. QTPOC can come learn how to make zines, make videos, use 3D printers, all kinds of stuff, on social justice themes.

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From left: Devi Peacock, Brouhaha artists Elena Rose and The Lady Ms Vagina Jenkins, Lexi Adsit. Photo by Lance Yamamoto for the East Bay Express.

Did you always imagine that Peacock would have all these elements of different programs to support folks in navigating the world in legal and social spheres, or is this something that’s happened organically?

Lexi: With our artists, it wasn’t just about artistic development, but also showing up for everybody as holistic people. Most of our job is actually emotional labor — showing up for folks when they’re in crisis and making sure that we’re all alive next week. We feel if we’re able to acquire the resources to provide those extra services, we should. We’re getting back into thinking long-term and constantly referencing adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy book and concepts as our new compass.

What is it like for you as people who are facing violence and oppression, and also holding a lot for the community in terms of offering support?

Lexi: We’ve been thinking a lot about the politics of recognition and visibility, and knowing that everybody who’s participating in the organization is a QTPOC dealing with some degree of mental health atypicality, whether that’s anxiety or depression or the revolving door of ideation.

Both Devi and I had intense instances of burnout within nonprofits which led us here. For me, something that counteracts the burnout like an anti-inflammatory is being able to create art. I get to do that at Peacock. Creating is part of my job. You don’t learn how to take care of yourself  in a staff position at a nonprofit. Everybody talks about a work-life balance, but there’s no tools or training on how to actually do that. Devi and I also have roles as emotional supports for people, which is not a completely draining thing, it’s something really special I get to offer for folks who I care about. At the same time, I know it means I have to take care of myself to be able to show up in the best way for this job and for other people I’m taking care of.

Devi: I work at Peacock 60 hours a week until busy season; then it ramps up. For four and a half of the past five years, I didn’t pay myself; I had paying gigs outside of Peacock. Starting in January of this year I started paying myself and having health, dental, and vision. The pay is terrible but it’s what we can afford right now.

The power of art is very real. We are working on keeping ourselves and each other alive. We’re trying to get people out of dangerous situations. I’m not great with boundaries around that. We’re starting to shift and incorporating the Emergent Strategy framework. Part of it was saying no to a whole bunch of bullshit. We moved from a broadly QTPOC arts organization into a lot more trans women of color and transfemme of color centered. Suddenly we became a shiny, sexy organization. We get hit up at least a couple times a week if anyone wants to find a token TWOC to throw into a show so they can check off a box on their grants. I’m getting better at saying no which is helping so that we can focus on building our collective power.

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Brouhaha 2017 producers Devi Peacock, Lexi Adsit, and Vanessa Rochelle Lewis

But we’re not a collective. We’re largely collectively-run, but there is a hierarchy; I am the boss. Like Lexi was saying, a lot of people come into the organization burned out and struggling after traumatic experiences at nonprofits. Some folks come here thinking it’s a magical utopia. But it isn’t perfect. We’re still a project of a non-profit, we still have some tap dancing we have to do for funders.

But I really, deeply believe in this dream. Part of my original intent was that we would focus on building collective power, not individual artistic careers. We’re hoping to use art to build cultures of collective liberation. To do that, we think it helps to weave art and cultural practice across our work, instead of disconnecting it from healing or from community organizing. It’s all connected.

We have a touring production in February in Austin with a new show called The Femmes of Your Dreams. We’re dreaming futures with femmes at the center. We’ll be using stand-up comedy to talk about mental health and sexual violence and all these things. We’re going to write ourselves into the future.

Lexi, you mentioned art as something that helps keeps you going as you’re facing whatever you’re facing and also holding so much for the community, and Devi, you mentioned it as being a core value of the work that Peacock is doing. Can you say more about the impact of art, both on folks in the cohort and people who get to experience Peacock’s work?

Lexi: Something we always say in the trainings is, comedy is tragedy plus time. I came into this organization with a lot of tragedy. It’s like therapy. People are listening to you and validating you. There’s something strangely intoxicating about being on a stage and talking about the shit you’ve gone through and being able to challenge systems of power through a smart approach. The shows have covered navigating the medical industrial complex and Kaiser support groups, dating and how problematic it can be…

Devi: Intimate partner violence, being physically attacked, surviving sexual violence, surviving a lot. But then there’s also been things around dreams. Like, what are people wanting for themselves and for each other?

Lexi: We’re able to collectively turn those traumas into a moment of laughter. Being able to address these topics helps heal not just our artists but also the audience. Mainstream comedy can be so problematic — racist, sexist, or whatever. In mainstream comedy, the purpose is often to get a cheap laugh, often through making fun of fat folks, trans folks, homeless folks, poor folks, and that’s not what we want to perpetuate or participate in. I’ve heard from so many people who’ve attended Brouhaha that it’s actually funny, because we’re not making fun of somebody who’s sitting in the room. Though occasionally we make fun of white folks.

Devi: But we’re very careful about it, right? We want to use it to actually challenge white supremacy. We’ll link our jokes to something that’s a structural issue. At the end of the day we are trying to come from a solidarity framework. Part of what Lexi’s talking about is the absence of the “punching down” stuff. We use the BDSM red light/yellow light/green light system in our training programs. Red light means you’re punching down and saying some shit that’s not getting on our stage. A yellow light is either punching across or it’s just not funny enough. We recognize that all the artists are trans women of color, but if the audience is not largely TWOC, we want to be conscious about who is the listener. We want nuance and strategy. Our goal is to have jokes and comedy sets that are all green lights. Green lights actively punch up at the system. We go hard. I want to live in a world where we’re tearing out patriarchy at its roots.

We also want to be able to poke fun at ourselves around these things. The Bay Area can be a little bit of a bubble, it’s like the island of misfit toys. A bunch of people including me came here to run away from trauma. We’ll make jokes about everything from callout culture to isolation or disposability. In a 90-minute show how can we get people to love each other a little bit better and then actually organize around it? That’s a guiding question for our work.

What is the world you wanna live in and what do you see as Peacock’s role in creating that?

Lexi: At the root of it I want to live in a world where we WANT to live in. I want to live in a world where we’re not being exploited and where we are able to create for everybody’s survival. I want to live in a world where everybody can dream, not just those of us with enough privilege and access to do so. I want to live in a world without targeted violence and poverty. I want my work to build collective community versus building my own career — reflecting those collective communal knowledges, herstories, and ancestors and trying to remember that these things are bigger than just me in this moment, and paying homage to that.

Devi: In the world I want to see, people are good to each other and there’s space for messiness. I believe that people are always gonna harm and hurt each other. So what are the ways that people can actually take accountability — individually and collectively? For me, I think of a village model, like, hey actually everybody raises the kids and everyone is accountable to each other and we are in circle together. I’m imagining a world where instead of such a hyperfocus on extracting resources we’re like, oh how do we actually listen to the earth? What does restoration of the earth look like? I’m curious about that. What can global indigeneity look like?

Everybody deserves free access to culturally competent care, love, and basic human needs. As for Peacock’s role, I want Peacock to exist for as long as we are useful and relevant to the people we need to serve. Peacock is here to serve. That is our work. Like the Allied Media Projects’ Network Principles, we begin by listening. I want a world where everyone begins by listening, and there’s a lot more empathy for each other, and there’s real frameworks — practiced, taught, and learned — across generations, around solidarity. Not the savior complex, not any of the other bullshit. I want a world where love is emergent strategy, for everyone.

Would you be willing to define Emergent Strategy for people reading who might not know what that means?

Devi: Yeah! I’m actually gonna pull it up from the prophet herself because I like her words. She writes that it was initially a way of describing ‘the adaptive and relational leadership model under the work of Black sci-fi writer Octavia Butler and others. It turned into plans of action and practices, collective organizing tools, and linked into biomimicry and permaculture.’ Emergent Strategy is a leadership model that prioritizes relationship. Relationships are actually what fuel radical structural change.

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Peacock Rebellion Aristic Core 2016-2017, clockwise from top left: Q Quintero, Lexi Adsit, Devi Peacock, Luna Merbruja, Vanessa Rochelle Lewis

At Peacock, one of the things we’re trying to shift around is productivity. We’re whole beings. How do we support each other? Last fall we essentially shut the organization down for a month because someone close to us was in crisis. That’s the scale we need to operate in: being flexible and adaptive and resilient is a fundamental of emergent strategy. We do pick and choose what are the relationships we want to cultivate and who do we want to build with.

We turned five two weeks ago. Within five years, we are part of a campaign that has bought a building and the land underneath. It is the last QTPOC block in Oakland and it’s the first time in U.S. history that QTPOC have been able to do a hybrid commercial-residential land trust. We’re a major part of that. We have the first TWOC show in U.S. history, and not only the artists are trans women of color, but also the trainers, the producers, and the majority of the production crew are trans people of color. We’ve been able to do the the things we’re able to do because of the relationships. We are not doing mass-based organizing. We get targeted by hate at least several times a year, sometimes several times a month. We would not be able to survive the PTSD from a skinhead coming to our door and holding sharp shit up to my neck if we did not have very strong, deep powerful networks of relationship. We build a lot deeper than we build wide, which is an important distinction. I want us to eventually become a national organization if that makes sense, but it cannot be led by a handful of people in Oakland. We have to listen to leadership of the people on the ground and if they want it, we can build something together.

I appreciate your shout out to adrienne maree brown. Are there other people or bodies of work who are inspirations you’d like to name?

Devi: Neither Lexi nor I are Black — I want to call into the space the collective brilliance of the Black queer and trans folks who have significantly shaped Peacock. The majority of our artists and trainers are Black folks, which was intentional in challenging anti-Black racism in QTPOC spaces. I want to lift up Micia Mosley and Nia King, who developed the first curriculum for Brouhaha in 2014. Nia also has the podcast We Want the Airwaves and books interviewing queer and trans artists of color. She’s a living historian of queer and trans artists of color. 

Lexi: There’s an advisory board of elders that oversees Devi and holds them accountable to community and the work that we’re doing. A number of those folks are just really amazing and involved with the organizations we were birthed out of. Most of what they do is emotional labor too.

Devi: I want to shout out Vanessa Rochelle Lewis. Luna Merbruja, who’s in our artistic core and who was our first trainer for our all-TWOC show. We’ve worked with around 65 artists over these five years. That’s a shit ton of people who’ve all led Peacock in different ways. We were birthed out of Mangos with Chili, Sins Invalid, QWOCMAP, and Poor Magazine all gave us a lot of support in thinking through what Peacock would eventually become.

If you enjoyed this interview, learn more about Peacock Rebellion and consider making a donation. You can also visit Lexi’s website to watch her standup and read her writings. This interview is part of a series for The World We Want to Live in.

Adrienne on trans superheroes, creating a rock opera, & the power of community

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Photo by Baruch Porras-Hernandez

What’s your name and how do you identify yourself in the world?

My name is Adrienne Price. I identify myself as a trans woman artist-activist.

How are you doing?

In this moment, I feel a sense of relaxation and joy, which is in a sea of anxiety, fear, and worry that a lot of us are dealing with right now.

What do you mean when you say a lot of us are dealing with that right now?

We’re living through a time that feels more unpredictable than a lot of us have experienced in our lifetimes, which is related to the current administration but is more complex than that. Because of technology and media we are so aware of so much going on in the world. That can lead to a sense of desire to change things but also a feeling of helplessness that we could never fix all the things that need to be fixed. That leads to this anxiety, this perpetual state of worry about the world and how we’re going to survive it.

That’s well put. Because I know you and you’re my friend, I know you do a lot of creative and interesting pursuits, even when you’re dealing with anxiety and fear. Can you share about what you’re doing right now in response to some of those feelings?

The big project I’m working on right now is The Red Shades, a rock opera about trans superheroes. It comes from a deep part of me — a need for healing and for connection to histories of resistance. It’s set in the sixties and draws on histories of resistance in trans communities in New York and San Francisco. It shows the ways our ancestors resisted and pushed back against transphobia, homophobia, and misogyny in moments where that felt almost impossible. The odds were stacked against them, yet they managed not only to survive but to prevail and create social change that ripples out to the present day. I’m so inspired by getting to learn about those stories. It takes very little exaggeration to turns trans history into a superhero story.

Red Shades Black Revised.jpgThat sounds like an amazing project. How did you choose that format and what was your process for getting started?

It came about accidentally. I started unwittingly working on it when I had to commute a lot for a job I didn’t particularly like. I passed the time by writing songs and recording them on my phone. At some point they started to take on a narrative. I started to realize I was trying to tell a story and then I started to shape it.

At first I was trying to tell stories inspired by my experiences. What grew was a desire to project outward and to imagine different possibilities for rebellion and justice. The first act is a fictionalized connection to my own experiences, coming from a place of reckoning with my past. The second and third act are based on the history of resistance and communities that came together. That’s a dream for me — how I wish things could be and in some ways how they are since I’ve come out and claimed my identity. The Red Shades is a long process that’s still coming together. The seeds of it are looking at my personal story, connecting it to history, and then imagining a triumphant movement or triumphant building of power.

Thats a lot to encompass. Where are you in the process now?

I’ve written the first act and I’m working on the second. I’ve written 14 or 15 songs and am getting a band together. Instead of having a traditional reading like a play often has, we’re gonna have a concert so people can hear the music and give feedback. That’s the next step. I’m applying to a residency this summer to develop the project more and stage it out and see what happens. There’s a lot of pieces up in the air but it feels good that there’s a lot of excitement generated around it.

Could you share something you’ve learned about queer and trans histories of resistance that stands out to you as particularly important?

Miss Major Griffin Lacy is a person who is endlessly inspiring and incredible. She is a Black transwoman who participated in the Stonewall Riots, then was imprisoned essentially for being trans. She served time at Attica State Prison, where she was radicalized and was part of the Attica State uprising. Then she did activism during the AIDS era of the late 80’s and 90’s. Miss Major continues to be an activist and outspoken advocate for the community. I saw the documentary about her, Major!, that came out a year ago or so. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing her speak a couple times and once I got to perform stand up comedy in front of her at a queer open mic which was one of the greatest nights of my life, no exaggeration.

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Adrienne & Miss Major

Was she laughing?

She was laughing, she liked it! I went up to her after the show and got a picture and thanked her for everything that she’s done. It was so incredible to get that connection to a living legend. I was drawn to learning about those histories even before I knew I was writing about them. To learn her story and then to meet her and see she’s a real person who’s lived the most incredible life, a life where just to have survived everything that she’s survived is extraordinary, let alone to be a leader and change what we think of as trans rights or trans liberation movement, would never have existed without her. I’m endlessly amazed by Miss Major.

It’s so wonderful you were able to meet someone who is not just a hero to you and so many in your community, and that it helped to inspire your work. Once the rock opera comes to fruition, what do you hope people get from it?

The primary audience is trans folks and queer folks, and queer and trans folks of color. What I hope that they get out of it is a sense of what is possible through the power of community. Not in a corny way but in the reality that change occurs because of people coming together and getting fed up and saying hell no, we aren’t gonna keep living like this. If you get enough people together, there’s so much that you can do. That story seems really important right now in a time where people are feeling really stuck and demoralized — to be reminded that there have been times in our history where people have felt stuck and demoralized and that’s when the most change has happened.

What do you think is the possibility of the power of community today?

There’s so much potential for people to come together and say, hell no, we’re not gonna live like this, and we can do better than this. Capitalism has been able to sustain itself partly because it controls people’s imaginations of what’s possible. People think this is the best we can do, so we might as well make do with what we have. But once you cut that cord and allow yourself to imagine what could be better than this… so many things could be better than this! You can start to talk to other people who feel that way and dream up new possibilities for every aspect of our existence. From the food we eat to the way we communicate to the way that we resolve conflict to the way that we create our environment. Every single aspect of our world can be changed and be made better. We’ve just gotta pick something and find other people who care about that. I believe that’s when the change can come.

What do you see as your role or work in helping be a part of that change?

I see myself doing a lot of the imagination work, to help people realize what change is possible. That’s one thing that art can do particularly well. I think I’m also humble in the sense that there’s so many things that I want to change and so many things I want to be involved with, but I’m still learning and growing and figuring out the best ways for me to plug in. I keep thinking about this activist group of queer artists in the 90’s called Gran FuryTheir motto was “art is not enough.” I want to balance the importance of the imagination work and artwork with recognizing I have to push in other ways for justice. I’m figuring out what those ways are.

What in your life supports the work that you’re doing and where does it feel like your needs aren’t getting met in terms of support?

Thinking about the rock opera in particular, there’s a lot of people who want to help out and want to see it come to fruition. Part of the growing pains for me is learning how to coordinate and harness people’s’ energy in a way that’s productive. I’m really grateful that people care about the work I’m doing. But I want to make sure that I’m getting help organizing things in a way that allow the process to be truly collaborative and not just plugging people in in a way that just replicates capitalism.

21687433_614856168684640_2274018330630126536_nWhat about on a personal level? You mentioned being in a space of some fear and anxiety. How does that play into what you are or aren’t able to take on in a given moment?

I am always in a constant state of flux. In my emotional world, I have moments of high energy, excitement, creativity, and production, followed by periods of static, withdrawal, stepping back, and taking care of myself. It’s a constant balancing act. It’s why I’m drawn to doing as much work as possible on my own so that I can allow myself to go through those natural rhythms rather than having someone hovering over me expecting me to produce a certain amount and follow a timetable that doesn’t make sense for me.

One of the biggest things for me right now is learning to be gentle with myself — take breaks when I need to, focus on healing when I need to. Make decisions based on what’s best for me rather than on some sense of obligation. That’s what I try to do as much as possible. My friends are important to me. Being surrounded by queer and trans community is important to me which is why I live in Oakland. I have therapy which is supportive. Meditation and spirituality can be supportive.

What does spirituality look like for you?

Spirituality is something that weaves through my life in a way that is not really possible to separate it out from anything I do. Mindfulness and meditation have been important ways of trying to connect with the present moment and connect with what’s going on personally with me. Spiritual community can be valuable. I have been a part of the East Bay Meditation Center since I moved to Oakland a couple of years ago. I’m also involved in Jewish community with the Kehillah synagogue. I’m still trying to put together the pieces of my whole belief system but mostly it revolves around how I make sense of the world and how I survive day to day — the spiritual forces I can call upon to help me.

Since you see yourself as part of the imagination of building a better world, I’d love to hear a picture of what you imagine for the world you want to live in.

One of the things that breaks my heart most about capitalism and neoliberalism is our alienation and estrangement from one another. It makes me sad moving through the world feeling like I’m surrounded by people I have no connection to. I want to live in a world where I care and know about the people I live with and around, and that we have relationships where we can support each other and work together to build community. I would like for us to live in harmony with the natural environment and see ourselves as a part of it rather than as a distinct outlier that rules over everything. I imagine a world full of joy and laughter and fun, the pleasure of being present and being together, where people can truly heal from oppression. I want the elimination of social class hierarchies, just seeing that we’re all just people. It’s corny but there’s no need for hierarchies when we care about the people around us. It’s heartbreaking the way our world creates false divisions and pits us against each other.

In this dreamy world where we’ve ended oppression and we are connected, what do you imagine could be your role in community?

I would want to be doing a lot of the same things I’m doing now in terms of using art as a form of healing. I imagine there’ll be a lot of different work to be done. I’m open to learning about how I can best fulfill the needs of the community.

What are the other forms of art you do?

I am a stand up comic, I play music, I have just started puppetry. I’ve written screenplays and have worked on films before — a lot of theater, storytelling, and work in the music genre.

Why do you think storytelling and these different forms of art are important?

Because people tell me that they are. I’ve definitely done plenty of projects that didn’t move people, so I tried to move away from those kinds of works. Different art works in different ways. Comedy is a funny slippery creature. It can be healing for people to let themselves revel in the absurdity of the world we live in and find the frictions and false realities that we all inhabit. What I do with comedy make a mockery of what seems to be solid, objective truth, but which is really just a bunch of bullshit.

Do you have any favorite jokes you’re telling recently?

When I moved to the Bay Area I discovered this phenomenon of white women apologizing for doing yoga. It’s usually cis white women who feel conflicted about being appropriative by doing yoga or doing something very bourgeois, but feeling a need to integrate it into their self care. Part of comedy is getting people to chill out about things which seem very weighted and intense but really are kind of ridiculous. To not take anything so seriously, both the big scary things, and oneself.

What art inspires you? What are you into these days in that realm?

There’s this amazing thing through SF Moma where you can text a word or a phrase and they’ll text you back an image from their collection that captures what you’re talking about. One day I texted ‘queer rage’ to that number and they texted back work by Jerome Caja, an early 90’s queercore performance and visual artist, a fuckin’ badass who dealt a lot with the hypocrisy of religion and how their Catholic upbringing had been oppressive and absurd. It was exciting to learn more about that artist.

As I’m researching more about rock operas I’ve come across some exciting gems. There’s a concept album considered a rock opera called “SF Sorrow” by The Pretty Things, which predated and helped pave the way for Tommy. There’s a hip hop opera concept album called “Tricks of the Shade” by the band the Goats, which is brilliant, politically insightful and super sharp. Those have both been sources of inspiration even though they are lesser known works that didn’t get their due.

I’m always trying to keep my eyes open to local shows and theater. I recently saw a series of short plays at Z Space Theater. One of them took place in the bathroom of the theater; we were all in there together. It was about a gay meeting in a Russian public toilet and interweaved the histories of homophobic state oppression in Russia. It made me realize how much can be done in small confined spaces with few resources. I just happened to be there the one day it was performed. There’s little exciting things happening all over the place.

Are there other things in having this conversation you feel like sharing?

I am at such a fluid stage in my life. I’m still exploring and so whatever we have talked about today may be completely different from the way I feel in a week from now. Not completely but I might have different priorities or things I care about. I guess that’s part of being human.

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Adrienne invites you to attend the first musical showcase for The Red Shades, her trans superhero rock opera on December 6th at El Rio in San Francisco. This interview is part of a series for The World We Want to Live in