TransGenerational Theatre Project on autonomy, creating new scripts, and tra-la-la moments

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The TransGenerational Theatre Project interview participants include: Kai (she, 22), Christian (35, she/they), L (they, 37), Renée (she, 70) . It is impossible to capture in text the dynamicism and vibrance of this group interview, which included refrains of hoots, hollers, and “yaaaas”-es. Extra thanks to TGTP for being gracious and forgiving with the delay on publishing this piece. Throw them some cash to continue their beautiful & important work! 

Tell me about the work you’re doing.

Christian: The project started as a thesis project for the masters’ program I was in in applied theater. Applied Theater is a radical framework that uses theater as a tool for organizing and community building. We use the tool of playbuilding — a process of providing people with the tools to be able to create small pieces of theater and drawing specific ideas or themes from whatever they create. We use those themes as a foundation for creating more theatre. It builds from where the participants are at and what’s important to them.

Renee: Capitalism needs division to thrive. If there isn’t divide and conquer, capitalism cannot exist. This happens even in our community. We’re reflecting the question of — what would this world be like and how would people express themselves if we didn’t have to deal with all this shit? How many people have been driven insane by capitalism and by oppression? Who otherwise would be healthy, vibrant people, but because of oppression have been driven to the brink? I look at this as a revolutionary project. I’m 69 years old. What makes me most proud of working on this project is bridging the gaps between generations. We provoke people into thought. Our audience and our participants have been marginalized in this capitalist society by racism and/or gender oppression, and now they’ve been given tools to navigate a creativity that maybe they never knew they had. We’ve seen people blossom into their emerging realness.

Christian: A lot of it is based on Paulo Freire’s educational models from Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Every session we’ll do two games that development theater and improvisation skills. Then we give a prompt and we break into small groups and create a short piece of theatre. We only plan one session at a time because every session is planned based on the previous one — like, who’s in the room, what skills do they need, what themes are already coming up that we want to explore or even challenge. It’s a fluid process.

That sounds like a really adaptive approach.

Christian: It has to be in order to do it with intention and in a way that focuses on the needs and ideas of the participants. In the past two years we’ve created final pieces that have three scenes based on a theme, and interspersed those pieces with individual performances which has been really cool. There’s something special about giving trans people the opportunity to shine individually.

L: It’s such a unique and exciting place — I can’t think of any other space in this city that creates these opportunities for trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people. The mode of applied theatre provides an opportunity for us to explore how to change the world. By creating a piece of what the world looks like or can look like, trans people can re-envision a new world for ourselves. We’re all about challenging system norms like the gender binary and other fundamental ideas. That kind of challenging can de-stabilize systems that oppress us. What we’re doing has an opportunity for true social justice.

Kai: I was in the project as a member the first year, and was asked to come on as a facilitator for the second year. Now we’re in year three. I’m often the youngest person in the room, but I’m able to connect with people on a powerful level. I never thought I’d be able to have friends like Renee, who is older than me and shows me how to be fierce, you know? It’s nice. I get to learn from them while they’re learning from me.

Renee: That’s a great way to put it, Kai. I love that.

I’m appreciating how you’re all talking about the project being powerful being on an individual level, as well as the building up collectively, in and beyond your group.

Christian: I facilitated the creation of the Trans Day of Remembrance at SAGE, the organization we do this at. It was my first time being around trans older adults, and it had a profound impact on me because I didn’t realize that it was something I was missing and needed in my life. I was like, oh shit, all trans people need to experience this; this is important. A lot of other intergenerational separate people by age and try to define what they’re going to learn from each other. We try to break that down, inspired in part by the fact that we’re all in different stages of transition and gender exploration, and recognizing the fluidity of age in relation to the fluidity of gender.

Renee: Young and old is not always defined by a number. To violate every script that they want me to read, I’m gonna write my own fuckin’ script. That is liberating. Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera are some of the greatest revolutionaries of all time. You know what they had? A Masters and phD of the street. They were graduates of the university of the stoop, like me. That’s where I came up. I never graduated high school.

Kai: I barely graduated high school. I had so much gender dysphoria going on; by the end of my senior year I was not there. I had horrible anxiety. Every day by second period I’d want to throw up. Sometimes I’d walk out, go to the music room, and play piano.

Renee: I know people who have Masters degrees whose critical thinking compared to Kai is lost in the dust! Not to be anti-education, that’s not the point. When I came back from the war in Vietnam, I read any book I could get my hands on. I know a lot of brainwashed people. My intention is not to hurt them, but to shock them into rethinking their processes. I’ve spoken to a handful of cisgendered people who have seen our work who have said, you’ve caused me to rethink a lot of shit. What better sense of accomplishment? My ambition is to contribute to changing human nature, period.

I feel like something interesting about age and trans folks is, whether we were aware of it or not, the majority of us didn’t get to live our childhood and youth as we saw or experienced ourselves. I can imagine how theatre would allow for a lot of playfulness to re-explore being able to be however old you are.

Kai: You know how Oprah has her ‘aha’ moments? I think about the trans ‘aha’s’ in my life, and call them my tra-la-la’s. My first year at private school had this imagination station where you could go and pretend to be whatever we wanted. There was this red scarf. I would always use that scarf as my hair and really enjoy that. I was always like this. But I knew I had to act like a boy. There was this girl who came into class with short hair, shorts, and a t-shirt, and I was like, you’re a boy! Everyone was like, no, she’s a girl. I was like, I don’t understand — why does she get to be a girl and I don’t get to be a girl? Being with people while we have the chance to use theatre to reflect on those tra-la-la moments in our lives has been one of my favorite parts about this.

17191630_1808942979356692_2556745845006903962_o.jpgWhat is the world you all want to live in?

Kai: I want to live in a world where people treat each other how they want to be treated. I don’t want to be treated like shit so I’ll never treat another person like shit. I want to leave this world a better place than I found it. I want to live in a world where I don’t get harassed. People say New York is the best place to live if you’re trans but things happen here too. You never know who you’re going to run into. I want to live in a world where I can feel safe and content walking around just being who I am. I want to live in a world that’s constantly growing and moving forward as a society. I want to live in a healthy society. Our society isn’t healthy.

L: I want to live in a world where I don’t have to constantly remind people who I am even after I’ve told them. I want to live in a world where people can say who they are and have everyone including our government recognize that. Where we don’t need special paperwork or to prove ourselves. Just to be accepted exactly as we are for what they are and for children to be able to explore and figure out what that is. There isn’t one particular way that somebody is even throughout their lifetime.

Christian: I want to live in a world where everyone has agency and autonomy over their body and their gender.

Kai: What’s autonomy?

Christian: Autonomy means you own it for yourself. Your body belongs to you so people can’t necessarily pass laws or judgements over your body.

Kai: Wow.

Christian: Yeah. I want to live in a world where gender is considered a galaxy and everyone is their own star. I want to live in a world without capitalism, and with bridges instead of borders. An anarchist paradise would be lovely. A world in which we’re living in harmony with each other and with the earth, and uplifting the needs and desires of each person and allow people to explore their desire to create.

Kai: I want to live in a world where you can walk up to a stranger and ask them for a hug. Sometimes I just want a hug. I want to live in a world where a lot of things that aren’t socially acceptable, are, like to high five people on the street. I want to live in a world where going outside isn’t a scary thing because people are nice. I want people to feel warm.

Renee: I want to live in a world where racism is dead. I want to live in a world where members of my community are not living in a prison cell the size of their body. I want to live in a world where people talk to each other. People don’t talk to each other. Well, women in the women’s room always talk. My memories of men’s rooms is, everyone’s quiet as shit and stares at the wall. It’s like what the fuck! People always say, this is human nature. Fuck that! Change human nature! We’re gonna change it.

If nature can evolve, why not human nature?

Renee: Thank you!

Thank you! Y’all have such an affirming chorus, it’s so nice!

(Clapping, giggles, yaaas’es echo through the room.)

It’s cool doing a group interview with you all because on a micro-level, it seems like what’s in the room that you’re in is the world you want to live in.  What do you feel are the things in your lives and the culture surrounding you that are supportive to you helping to create this world and what are the things that feel like they make it harder for you to create this world?

Kai: Enthusiasm toward the project is really supportive. A barrier is people who choose ignorance. People decide that they’re just going to just not, you know? My mom had this moment where she was just like, you do whatever you want to do at this point, but do it on your own. Now she’s like, heyyyy Kai. We just had this conversation and she is starting to understand the pronoun ‘they’. When people don’t want to learn to change or grow or be corrected, that stubbornness is a hinderance. I’m stubborn, but only when I need to be, okay?

L: A stubbornness that doesn’t impose your values on other people.

Kai: Yes!

Renee: Or they on us. I don’t mean to be self-centered, but when we walk down the street in the present state of society, we’re a revolution. I tell people sincerely, I don’t do it for me, I do it for you. Because maybe me exhibiting my realness will inspire others to release their inner realness that they have been intimidated from presenting to the world. It’s a permanent revolution.

Christian: Something that supports me is thinking about who came before us, particularly some of our trans ancestors — our transcestors — who didn’t have the resources that I do. I keep that in mind and think about how much they would love to participate if they could. Well, I don’t know if Sylvia would have, but Marsha would have been up in here in a minute. That supports me. I think also seeing how people have been changed by the project both within it, and people who have witnessed it.

Something that makes doing this work difficult is having to survive in capitalism and having to spread my energy and time very thin because of that. We are a community of people under attack. We experience marginalization to an incredible degree, particularly the trans women of color in our community. This is very emotional work. It takes a lot out of you. After the first year, I was like, oh fuck I’m not doing this again. And I did it again. After the second year I was like, ugh fuck, I’m gonna have to do this again. And I fucking did it again because it’s so important. It’s really, really hard. But we get up and do it.

Renee: It is hard. It can be exhausting but it’s not fatiguing. Not like when I worked in a factory for eight dollars an hour right up the street. I could be as tired physically, but not emotionally. Emotionally it’s been invigorating for me. I’m also a disabled trans woman, which is not an issue that has been focused on as much as I’d like in our community, frankly. Let me just say this. In my view, the number one problem in America is racism. Racism is like a pillar that upholds patriarchy, oppression, women’s oppression, these are like pillars that hold up capitalism. The development of people’s own human nature and we’re violating that. We’re outlaws! 

Kai: I’m a rebel!

20031945_1867824903468499_5114679362619107098_n.pngRenee: That’s right! We used to have some t-shirts years ago that we were outlaws. When I was younger, people were worried about what would other people think about them if they think about us in a positive way. A lot of that has disintegrated from 30 years ago. I’m talking about the people who say listen, I’m not homophobic or transphobic, I just don’t want to be seen with you because I don’t want my friends to think I’m like you, or want to be like you. You don’t have to be like me or want to be like me to communicate and share thoughts. These are some of the greatest obstacles in human development. That’s why I say that transition is perpetual. It’s not like there’s *this* goal. We don’t even know what’s beyond that’s horizon. But it’s coming. It’s inevitable. The only thing that hasn’t changed are the violent psychotics, who as many people know, are mostly closet cases. When they see us, we remind them of something they feel inside about themselves that they hate, and they’re going to punish us for it.

Kai: Or try to.

Renee: Every year we have a litany of names of slaughtered trans people, just for being their true selves. You know what? As Malcolm X said, “by any means necessary.” We will defend ourselves. Thirty years ago, if you had 100 pennies in a sock in your purse, the cops couldn’t arrest you for it. And you know what? It worked. Mostly just as an intimidating factor.

Kai: Then they leave you alone.

L: When we’re talking about capitalism and social oppression, what directly impacts our work is financial support and lack thereof. Statistically our community does not have the same access to jobs, education, and housing, especially queer and trans people of color. We also see trans artists not having financial support. For a program of queer and trans artists it’s hard to get the support we need, especially since we’re not formalized with a 501c3 status. We rely on support from community members and friends to cover basic needs, like making sure people have the means to get here, and that we have food for people so that they can come here during the time they would usually eat. A lot comes out of the facilitators’ own pockets. We’ve been grateful for the support we’ve received, but in today’s climate of giving or lack thereof, it is that much harder to do get that really basic support that we need.

C: Thanks for reminding us L that we need fucking money!

Are you all familiar with Peacock Rebellion? They’re a QTPOC, transfemme-centered org that also does performance work who I interviewed for WWW. In our conversation, they were talking about the balance of doing “tapdancing” for funders in order to get financial support to make their work sustainable. [Devi] was saying how those kinds of funders want you to talk about your trauma and other things that fit the tragedy narrative of trans women. It seems like you all are much more focused on the empowering, the zap, the lightening of what you have, like Peacock Rebellion.

Christian: The only grants we applied to was the Trans Justice Fund. We just haven’t been interested in engaging with the foundational industrial complex and shit like that. I don’t think we ever will.

Who are some people who serve as guidance and inspiration for this work?

Renee: Trancestors of this community gave everything to us. They sacrificed everything to help develop emerging realness that people never knew they had. I think back to my milieu which basically is Paris is Burning. Not those fuckin’ intellectuals in their ivory tower with the fuckin’ asterisk next to trans who sit there and anoint themselves as the determiners of who is cis and who is trans. They oughta be ashamed of themselves. Where would those people be now without us street fighters? Sylvia, Miss Major, and many others of us were in the street in different capacities, as street fighters, street workers, and sex workers.

You constantly had a perimeter around you. How many people know that when we walk down the street we often deliberately walk against the flow of traffic, ‘cause nobody can chase you down if you’re walking against traffic, right? Little things like that. Scout out every street from midtown to Chelsea to the village, every alley way, every inlet, every possible escape route. We don’t do that like that was modus operandi every day. We were soldiers. Now, I’m almost shocked by the acceptance I get. I try to tell people, Marsha P. Johnson died for you. She did.  I try to make them understand what I mean by that obsessively. I am obsessed with it. I think about it every day.

Let me also say this. Trancestors, we owe our young people. A lot of them say, you’re an inspiration. I say, you don’t think you’re inspiring us to charge our batteries? This emerging realness has been the greatest therapy I could ever get. I can say this for other older trans women as well, it has even caused many older people to re-blossom. We may not have done that without Kai.

Kai: I don’t know why, I don’t know how, but I guess I did that! I’m inspired by Janet Mock and other people who grew up in the streets and frontlines and got to a place where they could reach such a wider audience, and who give back to people who don’t have that exposure, and educate others on trans experience. Also, as a younger person, I really look up to Renee. I learn from her every time I’m around her. It’s people like her who actively want people to know what our community has been through and where we are going and where we are now and where we have been. It’s great.

L: For me, the most influential trans folk who I’ve known have been the young people I’ve worked with. In doing development work with young people, one of them brought in a grid of different non-binary identities and I was like wow, there are all these other identities? I did some research and found one at the time that fit me. I was like oh my god, other people also feel this way. At the time it was demi-gender — people feeling like they have cis parts of themselves but also fluid or genderqueer parts to themselves. It was a tra-la-la for me. It was like a switch that was flipped. If I hadn’t been working with those young people I don’t know if that ever would have happened. LGBTQ youth have always challenged how I see the world and how I see myself, especially around the various points of identities. I’ll always be thankful for that.20106700_1867824910135165_790858535922830057_n.png

Do you want to share any other thoughts or feelings coming up in this conversation?

Christian: When I was in my masters program, one of the moments that clicked for me about this work was its capacity to envision the world that we want through theater. It has that capacity in a way that very few other mediums do. Afro-futurism and other queer futurism are really inspiring to me, and the foundations of a trans-futurism are in this work. Our first year, we did were the past, present, and future of the trans experience in three scenes. Young people are naturally amazing at imagination, but anyone is capable of playing and and exploring. That’s a part that I love that feeds me and challenges me to think more creatively and expansively about my own gender.

This is the first year I’ll be doing this project on hormones. I credit participating in the project and meeting more trans people for giving me more tools to think creatively about my gender, my body, and outside of the boring and limiting narratives the media gives trans people.

Renee: The Transgenerational Theatre Project did not save my life. But it saved the rest of my life.

The TransGenerational Theatre Project is a group of multigenerational trans and gender nonconforming people co-creating original theatre from our own ideas and experiences. Through our highly collaborative process we foster connections, TGNC community and joy. We stand for equity, social justice, and the dismantling of transphobia, transmisogyny, ageism, racism, and and all linked forms of systemic oppression. We center the voices and experiences of transgender and gender nonconforming elders, particularly people of color. Please support TGTP by contributing to their GoFundMe fundraiser!

Christian is a radical non-binary trans femme arts activist and performer. They co-founded The TransGenerational Theatre Project, a multigenerational devised theatre project for trans and gender non-conforming people, and they are proud to be facilitating the project for a third year in preparation for a performance in the Trans Theatre Festival. They are a graduate of the CUNY Masters in Applied Theatre program and work as the Women’s Program and Arts & Culture Program Coordinator at the Edie Windsor SAGE Center.  They also create solo performance that explores trans rage, grief, ritual, and futures.

This interview is part of a series for The World We Want to Live in.

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Amina on collectivizing, rethinking roles, and balancing community accessibility with personal sustainability

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Photo by Eva Wô

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

My name’s Amina. If I’m doing music or art or running my mouth about politics, I identify myself as Amina Shareef Ali. If I’m putting on a professional hat in my work as a therapist, I identify myself with a different name.

How are you doing?

Right in the moment, I feel good. In life in general, I’m good. I love my relationships, my kid, my clients, the people I get to share my music with, and the people I’m in community with. It’s that middle level that’s trickiest — between the right this second and the bigger picture. Depression has been wafting in and out over the last several weeks. It’s hard to get to the bottom of. Sometimes it helps to be a therapist to conceptualize your own mental stuff, and sometimes it really doesn’t. Sometimes I think depression can be productive, to use a loaded word — it’s doing something. I’m depressed because my psyche is working through something.

How are you moving through depression at the moment?

I try to keep a handle on different places where it could adversely impact things. I have not yet been in a space where I couldn’t fully show up for clients. I take that seriously. I’ve been heartened to discover that often if I’m struggling, doing therapy work with someone else often helps me. I can put myself aside and show up for them in a way that feels good. I can feel my strength. I want to be thankful for that and not exploit it by overbooking myself, and not let any structure exploit it. Extra reserves of energy should be honored as a gift from your deeper self.

I feel like that’s the feminized labor of one’s psyche. What do you make of that experience — that being in pain is where you find strength to show up for others?

I lived through my twenties as a boy and transitioned almost a year ago. Something I distinctly remember from before my transition was that women, femme, or AFAB (assigned female at birth) people in my life would be the ones expressing distress. I would move into this role of being the rock, the stabilizing force. I want to be able to describe this without judgement, because there were situations where that was valuable and appreciated. As a boy, there was a way of shoring up my feelings of self control and masculine composure. Now, I’m femme, I’m more emotionally competent than ever before in my life, and I also cry and break down more than I ever did in my life. How do we understand that? I think about this position where I’m vulnerable and have a lot of feelings I can’t control, and then I pull it together and hold space for someone else, a role that I previously would have conceptualized as masculine. I’m in both of these roles. This first one gets devalued and isn’t seen as work. But it is. It’s work that my psyche is doing. Maybe it makes the other one possible.

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Amina and her partner Claire. Photo by Eva Wô.

Dang, I’m not ready for this today… Thank you for sharing that. What do you see as your role and work in creating the world you want to live in?

I want to track some of my evolution as a radical. I got my first liberal arts college canned social justice framework in the early 2000s. It blew my mind at the time, but it didn’t dig deeper or ask, where did this come from, what was there before, and how is it made and re-made every day? How can we fight it and how can’t we? I became a radical around 2011 when Occupy popped off. In the Oakland radical scene there were lots of smashy anarchists. My dear friend Brian Belknap, my favorite songwriter in the Bay and an old Leninist, became my de facto mentor for a while. I felt pulled between those sides. You see the hammer and sickle on my arm. I feel somewhat aligned with a Marxist tradition and materialism; I also saw the intellectual and moral poverty of existing socialist groupings. It’s like, this is the theory I align with so these should be my people. But I look at how y’all act in response to difference, and I’m like, no, you’re not my team. I also felt critical of certain strains of anarchism that seemed self-satisfied to work on these projects that seemed really isolated. I didn’t feel like I could join a team and I really wanted to. Then three and a half years ago, my kid Hazel was born. I haven’t engaged in anything that would be recognized as political. I’m not going to no meetings; I’m not going to many actions in the streets. It’s caused me to rethink.

I read in one of your posts that many people have mentioned Emergent Strategy. My partner Hannah was captivated by it and motivated to put together a reading group. Hannah came into my life four months after Hazel was born, after I already had a full life of parenting, music, trying to do politics, and having another partner. Shortly after that I would go back to school to become a therapist. I felt instinctively it was important to be a part of this group, not because of the book itself but because what I and we need to be doing is building theoretical knowledge with people we’re already in relationship with — rather than having a canned theory and being like, that’s your team, go over there. How you’re in relationship and how you show up and how your lives are weaved together is what matters. The group has met a handful of times, and catalyzed a lot of churning around of my process.

I see the overall landscape as pretty fucking bleak. I see decades of the Left disintegrating and getting less organized and less rigorous. You have people scrambling trying to recruit and build big organizations quickly. But y’all have no history together. You don’t have any real bonds except for what you believe and some lil’ roster. It’s relatively easy to build an organization that has some espoused beliefs, is good at recruiting people, and in the end, is gonna tell people to hold their nose and vote for a Democrat. It’s harder to build something with versatility to be like yo, can we join this fight to stop this person from being evicted? Can we raise children together? Can we support this person in crisis? That flexibility has to happen on a small scale with the people you already have relationships and trust with.

There’s tension between, how do we apply our ideals around autonomy and collectivity, and see how they play out in relationship and in community; versus knowing that capitalism and all these other systems are always going to undermine us so we can’t actually build a utopia in a little bubble, and that there has to be a fight for revolution and abolition of all these structures. In my mind, the former is more anarchist-aligned and the latter is more communist or socialist aligned. And I’ve been guilty of undervaluing that first strategy; I felt it was important and participated in it, but I also undervalued it. The conception I have now is, it’s necessary but not sufficient. My internalized anarchist makes the error of knowing that it’s necessary, but forgetting it’s not sufficient; my internalized communist makes the error of knowing it’s not sufficient, but forgetting that it’s still necessary.

For one, I am giving myself permission to not feel guilty about not plugging in to overtly political work. There are good fights happening all the time that need support. I know that I don’t have capacity to bottomline something. I’m open to being called on to give to this person’s bail fund, or show up to swell the crowd, but I’m not trying to seek out something to give myself to. I think that’s really okay for where I am in life. My life is very full trying to keep my relationships strong, parent my child, do my therapy work, and have enough left to do things that bring me joy. I want to understand those things as being enough — I feel implicitly that they are.

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Amina and her partner Hannah. Photo by Eva Wô.

It’s so funny the way that we’re talking about certain kinds of labor being devalued and erased. In the course of this conversation I find myself in a dance between trying to not do that and then still doing it, for all those things i just described. Like, the labor of being a therapist is really valorized. Hannah checked me on this and I’m super grateful for that. I believe what I do is valuable, but there’s a way in which we find ourselves conceding to a more conservative logic if we’re not careful. Recently I was feeling devalued by someone and I responded like, ‘Fuck that, I’m doing good work as a therapist and I’m supporting a lot of queers who’ve been through a lot of trauma and I’m helping them heal and that’s valuable.’ Hannah has done paid work as a peer counselor and a direct care provider and now works in landscaping, and shows up for people whether they’re in crisis or just need a hand. They actively seeks out trainings to work on their shit and lend support, and they watch Hazel one day a week. And they told me, ‘I don’t do anything that is ever gonna be valorized as therapy is and I probably never will. But what I do isn’t less valuable.’ I realized they were right and I’d been tripping. I don’t want to devalue other people or myself in that way.  

My therapy work and parenting are both held up and valorized in a particular way.  But there’s also just showing up in my relationships. A couple years ago I thought I was pretty good at being in relationships but these last years have really turned my head around. I’ve learned about really nurturing them. Creating chosen family isn’t as simple as just flipping a switch. There’s a material base for nuclear formations and for people to revert back to that. How do we materially try to undo that without getting assimilated into heteropatriarchy? How do webecome more collective? Our family structure has been a chain of five or six partners over the past few years, with no one along the way dating each other. We’re all bound together one-to-one-to-one, so making decisions like who lives with who, how we spend time, who’s responsible for finding childcare, etcetera reverts to couples. How do we collectivize and facilitate everyone being able to talk to everyone else, not just through their partners? Our lives are linked together already, but if we don’t want to just disintegrate into individual couples, that’s something that needs to happen.

Why is it important to collectivize and materialize ideals that aren’t the heteropatriarchy?

Our heritage as humans is collectivity. What ties our family together is we’re all involved in Hazel’s life to some extent. We’re all seeing and spending time with Hazel at least once a week. Parenting can be really isolating, even if you’re on a more upwardly mobile professional track. One of the ways in which people are recouped into bourgeois and heteropatriarchal structures is by professionalizing as much as possible so you can buy back the community support that doesn’t exist because of historical development. I’m not trying to get relief from parenting by paying someone else to replace me in that role. I’m not trying to perform a more valuable kind of labor and pay someone for their less valuable labor. Collectivity is the way to get relief that doesn’t involve assimilating in that way.

What is the world you want to live in?

I’ve done a lot of thinking about utopia — like what will life look like after the rev. After people don’t have to live in urban centers — where all the jobs are concentrated in places the workers can’t afford the rents — what will it look like when 10 years or 50 years or 100 years after? Without highways and sprawl? When there are cars built over 100 years ago are still being maintained but you don’t need very many of them, and these roads are just gardens or homes or wild space. What will gender look like? What will our families and relationships look like? I can fantasize that far-off, dream thing. There’s value in that.

But I’ve abandoned any strategy of how to get there. Like I said, the picture in the immediate term is pretty fucking bleak. I’m positioned where me and at least one of my partners are entering the petty bourgeoisie and will have professionalized careers where we’ll have hopefully some stability. I’ve chosen a path that banks on that. The question for me is: how do I want to live right now that can give myself, my loved ones, and my homies the best chances for joy, prosperity, and thriving — even in the hellscape — while not letting myself be assimilated? The pressure to be “respectable” is going to be really intense for the rest of my life. As a therapist I believe in providing free or low-cost mental health care to poor queers and queers of color. The LGBTQ counseling center where I work is jacking up their fees — our minimum fee is now 45 fuckin’ dollars. As if that’s not enough, it comes with a shit ton of ideological justification, like — this is why this is okay, this is why actually people can afford it. I’m expected to swallow that. If I call bullshit too loudly I put myself in danger. How do I speak up when it’s right, keep my head down when there’s not much to be gained, and not fucking drink the Kool Aid? I entered the field for a number of reasons, but one of them was certainly wanting to be more stable than being a broke musician kid. But when I enter private practice and it’s up to me to set the fees, what am I gonna charge? What do I hope to make?  What do I see as being my purpose of doing this work? How am I gonna square those? The sliding scale will always be at odds with my own individual prosperity. Most people just say fuck it. I’m gonna have to resist that my whole career if I want to actually still be able to help the people who wouldn’t be able to access it any other way.

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Claire, Amina, Hazel, and Hannah. Photo by Eva Wô

What are the barriers and the supports in making the work that you’re doing sustainable?

I don’t know if there’s another field besides therapy that has more of a gulf between its self-concept as a progressive force and the actuality of it. I’m an outsider in the professional psychology environments I’ve been in, but there are some homies, and I need to link up with them. We need to hold each other in community, support each other, and hold each other accountable. That’s one of the biggest projects of what I want to take on in this field. That will be both work and a support for me once I can get it going — once we can get it going. The alternatives are either assimilate or be completely fucking isolated and burned out.

Your vision of collectivizing in relationship to your therapy work feels connected to what we were talking about in your personal relationships — creating microcosms of the world you want to live in. Are there people, books, or works of art you want to shout out as things that guide your heart and mind on your path?

Not really. I feel like for any given radical person who may read this, you’ve got a sense of what your values are. You probably feel like, here are some things I know and feel good about, and here are some people who are babies and don’t know as much as me, and here are some people who’ve been at it way longer and know way more than me. Even if that’s true and there’s different quantities of knowledge and experience, we can hold that without judgement. Of course there are people who have been here longer than you because you’ve been around exactly how long you’ve been around. Wherever you’re hoping to go, you don’t need to go experience the things that the people you feel know more than you have experienced or read the things that they’ve read. It doesn’t really matter what you read. You should find something you’re interested in that people around you are interested in and go in on it together. If there’s difference, find a way to share it. The process of doing that is going to be the most valuable thing.

It’s less about the what and more about the how.

Yeah, because these are people you already have relationships with. You already eat meals together, work on a project together, work in the same workplace, share a household. It’s like okay, so we have some sense of how to work together and we’re linked up on a material level. So let’s build our knowledge together from that. And build relationships that’s based on building that together, and bring other people in.

Amina Shareef Ali is, in any order, a folksinger jerk, a therapist in training, a partner and parent, an enemy of capital and the state, and a flagrant mixed race queer transgirl. She hails from St. Louis and lives in Oakland. This interview is part of a series for The World We Want to Live in.

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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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