This January, S-J Norman attended a First Nations led gathering of artists, presenters, curators and producers held across various locations in Lenapehoking //New York. Every January, New York becomes the place to be for any arts worker and artist (who can afford to be there). Besides two major performing arts gatherings – ISPA and APAP – many festivals, forums, talks and events run concurrently – American Realness, COIL, Live Artery/NYLA and Under the Radar, etc. This is an excerpt from SJ’s Facebook feed. Warning – coarse language! Timely truths!
Yesterday, after the conclusion of First Nations Dialogues, I raced my ass across town to catch the end of the first annual Trans Arts Professionals Forum at APAP (oh yeah bish, you fkn WATCH me bust them intersectional moves ?)!
I thought it was going to be super hardcore and headfucky, going from one space of intense strategy dialogues around one marginalised experience into another, but then I remembered that, errr, actually I’m already doing that work every fucking day, from the moment I open my eyes in the morning to the moment I close them, so honestly what the fuck ever?…
More than anything, it’s not the co-existence and enmeshment of these things, but the space of dislocation that is forced between them that causes me the most stress and pain, as both a person and as an artist/cultural worker. But then, as I traverse that space (in this case it was an actual sweaty slippery rundown 1st Avenue to board a heaving uptown train inhaling my liquid breakfast en route), I’m reminded that crossing spaces and connecting alternating currents is my lifeblood. It’s what I do.
I had a great conversation with a wonderful Lakota woman up at Bear Mountain the other day about this: she said that people who come from broken places, whose core selves are marked by fissures and fractures, stream-crossers and threshold dwellers, carry a special kind of medicine and in our own pre-colonial cultures, we were respected for that. Our knowledge was valued and sought out. That’s no news to me or many of us probably, but it’s nonetheless necessary for us to reaffirm it for each other. So these crossings, hard as they often are, make me feel purposeful, and that’s a good thing. Your wounds become your superpowers, etc. It’s a trope but it’s true.
I arrived at the trans forum and was welcomed into a very warm and energetic room. It was a conversation in the round, and as I was an hour late and didn’t want to cause a disruption, I lurked at the back until someone from the circle saw me, at which point they alerted their neighbours that someone new had arrived and space was immediately and generously made for me.
Thing is: in majority queer and trans space, I am almost always the only First Nations person in the room. In Aboriginal space, I am almost always the only Trans identified person in the room. That’s not to say this is broadly representative of either community, but it is my personal experience, more often than not. I can always expect some kind of erasure no matter where I stand. It hurts but I’m used to it. It’s endurable, largely because QTPOC/FNP are increasingly able to articulate our experiences and in that we feel, less alone. Isolation is a killer.
But then, when I step from one clear articulated space into another, I am reminded concretely of how deeply our struggles overlap, how many of the keywords are the same, and it just reinvigorates my drive to bring these conversations more and more into the same room/s.
A few notes/thoughts, reporting back from the trans forum, which I’m going to try and spit out while they are kind of fresh and mulchy in my head. There were a few very astute things being said which I want to echo here into digital space because I think they matter. Also because, on a deeper level, they overlap with decolonial dialogues in a very clear and important way.
A young transfeminine artist spoke to the group at one point and highlighted something which I myself have been trying to say, which I think many of us have been trying to say for a while now, re: this “cultural moment” that trans and GNC people and artists are having.
This artist highlighted there is an overwhelming focus on newness and youthfulness in the framing of these dialogues, often at the expense of honouring our lineage, and that this is hugely problematic for a number of reasons.
When we talk about trans presence and representation in the performing and visual arts, and across the cultural industries really, the current focus is almost invariably on this “new” upsurge of younger trans makers, who are elevated in a way which has the pernicious effect of divorcing them from their origins. This is a mistake.
Presenters, and the culture in general, are buzzing with talk of this exciting, young generation of trans identified culture makers and shakers as though they have burst forth, apparently from nowhere. This is so harmful and so dangerous for so many reasons: It folds into a bigger agenda which is, ultimately, not in our interests. It’s harmful to younger artists, to their longevity and to their holistic development as makers, and it’s harmful to the more senior artists whose whole lives and contributions are being/have been erased.
So many of us know this and are talking about it in private but there are still too few of us willing to articulate it in a public way. There are reasons for that. It’s fraught.
I’ll re-state: it was a very astute younger maker who identified and spoke this issue in the forum. Older artists have been doing it for a while and get written off as crotchety complainers. Some of them ARE crotchety complainers, to be fair. But the point is, the weakening of the transgenerational connective tissue in trans and queer arts communities and communities in general has been identified as an issue which is detrimental to everyone. It was also identified that far too many of us are willing to buy-in to this unbalanced co-option, and the longer-term consequences are already becoming apparent.
The thing is: marginalised communities exist to a certain extent as discreet ecosystems. We are symbiotic. We are bioregional. And, like any ecosystem, we are vulnerable to exploitation and degradation. What am I trying to say here? I guess, maybe: don’t trade your life in the forest to become a fucking pot-plant. Especially now that we have never been so tradeable. We have never been so identified as a commodity. It’s unprecedented. This has its advantages: we can make a fucking living, for one thing. Now that Trans Art comes in a young sexy zeitgeisty marketable package, cultural gatekeepers are suddenly very interested. And once again, the dominant media and cultural narrative is overwhelmingly one of newness and of youth. And, I’ll further add: predominantly middle-class youth. The kind that are afforded an institutional education in fine arts or theatre and then have the resources to build a career in an incredibly hostile economic environment.
As if it needed restating, but: there is not a whole new generation of trans artists coming up now because this generation are somehow inherently more radical when it comes to gender. It is happening because it has been made possible for them to do so by the labour of those who have preceded them. There aren’t *more* trans artists now. There are just more artists able to identify themselves as trans without fear of it ending their career.
The opposite is increasingly the case. It’s perverse how quickly things can pivot, really. The words and identity structures we use to self-describe have also evolved, so many senior artists simply don’t ID on the same terms as their successors. That is not even to speak of or for people and artists who occupy specifically cultural gender identities for whom Trans is also not the right word. This is not even to speak for artists who transition mid- or later-career after having already established themselves, and risk their livelihoods as a result. And believe me, this is still the case no matter how smug people currently are about the visibility of trans work dealing with trans artists as people rather than product is still a long way off. I’m navigating that terrain myself as we speak. I mean, just the other day I was quizzed on my birth gender-assignation and surgical status right to my face by a very well-known and respected experimental art presenter who would be widely considered queer and trans literate.
What I’ve been witnessing for a while, and something else that was identified in the forum, is that many of the younger makers who are being elevated in this particular way have not yet learned how to disinvest in their own hype and are unfortunately, very ready to accelerate their own share in a competitive and inflated market where our lives and identities are the currency. I don’t blame them for that – it’s like an IV injection of pure ego juice into a body which has zero level tolerance to its effects – but it is *really dangerous and harmful*. I really feel like a lot of our emerging artists are being baited into early burn-out and chewed through for easy content. It’s a different strategy to the erasure that was suffered by their older peers but it’s still a strategy. It gives me the creeps because the endgame is the same.
Without wanting to sound like a patronising shit; controlled usage of actual, good-quality Class A drugs is ultimately going to be way more helpful to you as an artist, and less harmful to you as a person, than the concentrated plastic high of media and industry approbation. I get that there are pressures on younger artists now that probably weren’t on me at the same age. I get that they are navigating different terrain, and hustling in a different economy- I know because I’m hustling in the same economy. FFS I’m 34- ie, not that much fucking older, really. And I see a lot of my younger peers obsessively feeding their Tamagotchi egos instead of their Genius. And an I mean Genius in the original sense of the word – your creative spirit, the little creature that hangs out with you and speaks through you. That creature doesn’t live on Likes, or interviews in fucking Vice. That’s not its food. That creature wants to drop acid in the park.
After the forum, an ally presenter, also from Melbourne, who knew me, came up to intro themselves and have a yarn. I got the impression they were somewhat surprised to see me in that space in which I was very clearly revealed to be situated within a trans identity and community, because like many of my industry peers in Australia, they were possibly unaware of my trans identification or of my transition. There’s reasons for that too: for one, there are still a lot of people very invested in me being a Female Artist, no matter how many times I state publicly that I’m not, no matter how many times I push for my correct pronouns to be used on a press release or program copy, no matter how big and bold the block letters on my biography that clearly stare I am a trans identified person and artist.
She was very nice and smart – I’m not bagging her out, not at all. Nor am I suggesting that this conversation is representative of her position in its totality or complexity, but I’m going to call on it as an example of what I mean, nonetheless.
She was genuinely interested in supporting trans and GNC artists. She said how good it would be to get a similar platform up in Melbourne considering “how many amazing young trans artists there suddenly are”. I agreed that it would be great, so long as there was a priority placed on cultivating inter-generational dialogues and a centering our Elders, even if that means literally digging them out of the graves that you threw them in in the first place. *Especially* if it involves that. Because the really sad fact is that a lot of these amazing young trans and GNC artists you mentioned cannot even name a single local peer who is so much as ten years older than them. That reality leaves us bereft. It leaves us deeply disempowered, for all the hype and drama that is the “trans moment”. To trade a movement for a moment is a fucking mistake.
As far as allies and the broader cultural structures go: You don’t get to joyride on the zeitgeist without addressing the violence of your immediate past. You don’t get to hype on what is “young” and fancy without redressing the damage done to the older artists who you fucking shat on, ignored, diminished, humiliated and hounded out of the industry and into bitter obscurity.
Speaking to my queer and trans artistic peers, lemme say this, as an Aboriginal person: without your Elders and your Ancestors, you have less than nothing. You will not survive. Without grounding in those relationships, which exist in a state of continual renewal in deep, non-linear time, you will ultimately find yourself lost. I strongly suggest learning from First Nations people on this one. I can state clearly that my own commitment to the larger effort of knowledge transfer across that intersection is absolute.
Without those knowledges, you will also get fucked in the end because shit can and does and will go backwards. People of colour and Indigenous people know this. Working class people know this. Migrants know this. We all know that whatever you have, you can lose. That’s one of the many reasons you need to centre our voices, in case you needed reminding.
Still mulling on it, but:
Commitment to cultivating transgenerational space is vital. An organism without roots is doomed to cannibalise itself.
Sitting in the discomfort that sometimes produces, and learning to navigate conflict, is vital. This especially goes for white people. Learn how to take a ripping when it’s coming to you, sit with it and learn from it. Then come back to the table. Blakfullas have to do this all the time.
Actively disrupting and resisting the co-option of our lives, narratives and creative output into the mechanisms of capital is vital. Actively identifying and problematising class allegiance and vested interests is vital!
Please just burn ID magazine omg.
Actively critiquing and moving against the one-track of historical positivism and into a broader, decentred temporality, a move from linear time into ancestral time, is central to both a de-colonial and queer feminist praxis.
If your practice ain’t de-colonial, feminist and anti-capitalist, then wtf are you even doing here calling yourself a queer?
We can work on this. We gotta.