Interview by Michael Bullock
Photography by Lyndsy Welgos
Girls Like Us, 2014
Is it true that as a teenager you went to Walmart every day?
I spent a lot of time there. In my small town, Bryan-College Station, Texas, life revolved around football, church, food, and I actually think you could add Walmart. It's open twenty-four/seven so when you didn’t have anything to do you could always go. I acknowledge that it's a terrible fucked up multinational corporation. But it’s still one of my favorite places on earth. It’s where I would go when I wanted to hook up with guys. They couldn’t pick me up at my house without my mom being suspicious so I would tell her I was going running and meet them there.
As a teenager did you identify as gay?
My relationship to gender and sexuality is complicated because during puberty when boys got their Adam’s apple and their shoulders got wider and their chest got broader and their super horny and they start to love girls or they’re gay and super horny, or maybe their not comfortable with that yet but their still like, “I'm a boy! I'm living for it!” At that point I grew breasts and got hips. I found out later that I have Kleinfelter’s Syndrome. It's a condition that you have when you have an extra X chromosome. It’s a form of intersex. So you're born anatomically male and then there are certain female physical traits that develop during puberty. Sometimes it can be mild. For me it was very pronounced.
Were you freaked out?
At the time I didn't know what was happening so I wore a chest binder. Now, my breasts are only slightly bigger than what I had growing up. People called me all sorts of names. They’d tell me I had 'birthing hips”, or that my thighs were eating my shorts. They’d squeeze my boobs and flick them. I started to become repressed.
Did that stifle your sexual development?
In public I was forced to present myself as a boy. Obviously I never fit at all what that's supposed to mean. I was raised by a super Christian single mother and lived in a really conservative area where I could never publicly present my body in a sexual way to my peers because they were already making fun of me. So I turned to sex. I discovered this entire private world that I could explore. It’s how I discovered my sexuality and gender identity. My hometown was in the Bible Belt; all sexuality there occurs in private but once you get people one-on-one it's really open and people were very clear about things that they wanted to explore. Not that there's an underground kink scene or anything like that.
It sounds like the only place you felt accepted.
Right. In those moments I was completely myself and at one with my body. Most of the people I was hooking up with were not gay or gay identified. Hooking up with gay guys, made me feel even more repressed and uncomfortable because they were like, “What’s going on with your body? This isn't what I was expecting.” So I found comfort in hooking up with these basically just like bros. I was kind of a sex addict for a while because it became a way of validating my gender identity.
How was your public life in that period?
It was torture, actual torment. I hated myself. I was depressed. I felt isolated. I didn't fit in anywhere and people were terribly mean. At one point in high school a therapist recommended testosterone treatment and a chest reduction surgery.
I'm glad that didn't happen.
I'm ecstatic that that didn't happen.
Were you honest with anyone about your sexual life?
No. A few of my friends knew little bits and pieces but I was a very secretive person up until I moved to New York. I held so many secrets. The most intense sexual periods were when I graduated from high school and would come home from college for winter or summer breaks. One summer I fucked over thirty people.
Because you were empowered from being at Bard?
Well, Bard gave me a taste of self-expression but I was still not at all fully open there. I still wore a chest binder all through college.
I saw a picture you posted from then where you were presented as a boy and you looked a bit awkward.
I was still uncomfortable all through college.
It’s great that you're comfortable enough now to share a picture of it.
I have no shame about anything that I've gone through.
A lot of trans people make a clean cut with their former life.
I understand that impulse. Some people erase their pasts because they lived completely different lives before. It's easier for me because I never fully lived a different life. I was always half way doing this. Who I have become wouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. It's just what was public and what was private and negotiating that. What's changed now is that I no longer have to rely on receiving my validation from my sexual life because now I am able to just be myself. When I stopped wearing a chest binder that was a huge first step.
When was that?
Towards the end of college I would do it once in a while. I would take my chest binder off and wear a baggy shirt, and just hang out and see how it felt to have my boobs move around, nobody else would know. And even describing it to people, they didn’t understand what that meant for me. A lot of times people obsess over genitalia but genitalia is not always the primary marker of gender. That’s why a lot of trans men get chest surgery, because the chest is an essential place for gender identity. Luckily, I have Klinfelters.
Were you on the debate team in high school or college?
Both. I did policy debate in both. Debate was a way for me to escape the shark pit of high school. And play with my brain, voice and creativity without having to be bound by what was going on around me; I was super successful at a time when my academics were suffering because of all that I was dealing with. I went from getting straight A's to failing classes, cussing out teachers, getting in fights and being suspended from school. My debate coach was super accepting. It became an alternate family. We read about race theory, the prison industrial complex, bio-power, ocean policy, and feminist literature. When I first read Catharine MacKinnon and she talked about dehumanization in porn and the relationship with women, animals, and violence it blew my mind. The information was so empowering because it became a way for me to understand what was going on around me.
It’s interesting that the two spaces where you could develop safely were your sexual life and the debate team.
Yeah, I could have ended up with no options but to be a sex worker, debate supplemented what otherwise might have been a sexual spiral. It was so empowering. I was like “you can make fun of my body but I'm smarter than you.” I literally found power through knowledge.
What did you go to Bard for?
I went to Bard just to go to Bard. I wanted to be in the opposite of my hometown and I had a vague inclination about what I wanted to do but I went there because I wanted to go to a super left, super open, creative-oriented, very liberal school and they had a debate team.
Did you always plan to become an artist?
That was always my goal growing up. And then in high school I learned to repress my creative impulses. And so after ninth grade I stopped writing and drawing and just focused on “career”. From a black middle class, upward mobility perspective there were specific ideas about what you should be doing with your life. What you did had to carry the weight of racial respectability. So, I studied econ, poly-sci, law.
But New York helped you to shatter those expectations. When did you move here?
July 8th of 2010. At first I was a legal assistant at the racial justice program at the ACLU but I left in May of 2013. I'm not cut out for nine to five life and I'm definitely not cut out for the nonprofit industrial complex.
Once in New York were finally able to dress how you wanted?
It was a gradual process. I started experimenting more with dress. There were some days where I felt like wearing things that were more masculine and some days where I would wear things that were more feminine. But generally it was in tune with my identity. A year after moving here I started taking T blockers and estrogen.
How did that make you feel?
T blockers stunt the effects that testosterone would have so it’s less of a positive change on your body than it is an inhibitive thing but taking estrogen your body goes through a lot of the same changes that happen to cis women when they go through puberty. Your breast tissue starts developing more, your fat distribution changes. Your cheekbones hollow out a little and underneath they fill in a little more. You have less body hair. Your muscle mass shifts slightly.
Are you finally comfortable?
Now I can walk down the street and ninety percent of the time I don’t have to deal with people misgendering me. Everyone’s identity is a combination of their biology, how they feel inside their head and how the world engages with them and navigating that with your sexuality. I no longer feel that my head and my body are at odds. I don't like the idea of the word "transition" because it's like you had a starting point that you're differentiating yourself from. I don't feel that way. I feel like I'm naturally pronouncing in a way that I feel more comfortable.
How did you start performing in New York?
I worked with Hood by Air on their show soundtrack. That was the first time I saw the potential to take my voice and manipulate it, using it as an instrument and not in the sense of singing, or reading. I worked with Tim Dewitt, who I have great respect for. I hate the term, spoken word; but he took my text and layered it, added music, distortion and crafted it.
How did you make the jump from that to an art context?
The first performance that really opened doors for me was at The White Columns annual. Pati Hertling asked me if I wanted to do it. At that point I had only done The Hood by Air show but she left it open and said it could be whatever I wanted to do. So again I put my writing to music, at the gallery I was mixing the music live and reading my text while my friend played the drums. When you perform live, There’s an immediacy, you see people becoming enwrapped in it. It’s sound and atmosphere and it’s more than just the words. It allows you to cast a spell on people. I get a rush when I do it.
How did your recent performance at Frieze Projects in London go over?
Really well. Nick Mauss orchestrated and staged an on site ballet. Kim Gordon and I were both commissioned by him to write text that we performed with music live in the space, while the ballerina’s danced around us. I wrote five small texts. I find that art fairs to be funny spaces, so I took the opportunity to comment on the dynamics of the atmosphere and what that might mean especially for someone like me.
How did you feel about being paired with Kim Gordon as an equal?
I was starstruck. It was inspiring to be around her. Seeing the way she navigated the experience helped me navigate it. She got nervous before each performance but it never translated at all, she created this memorizing space around her. The energy she brought inspired me to try things I would have never normally tried. It was really cool working with her. I was honored to be on the same bill.
Now what are your next projects? You currently have a residency at The New Museum?
They commissioned me to make work for a show and gave me space to produce the work. They have been so supportive. I’m making self-portraits and a sound piece sort of along the lines of what we were talking about before. As much as I love live performance, I’m also into making work where I’m not physically present. I don’t want that to be the only way that I express myself so the sound piece will go with the portraits.
Throughout history trans women have been muses to artists, you have also acted in that role––modeling for photographs for a body of work for Stewart Uoo and being body scanned for a forthcoming, life-size, bronze sculpture by Frank Benson.
It’s one of those things that’s unnecessarily gendered. You could ask what’s the difference between influence, inspiration, and reference points? There’s so many situations where people use the word muse where you could easily interchange those words. If it was a guy I don’t think that you would say muse. A male musician or writer that creates things in their own respect but has a personality, influence and following, if another artist were to create something with them you wouldn’t call him a muse. You would say inspiring them. That idea is specific to females throughout history. It happens when women operate on the periphery of what society sees as proper but have the agency to create themselves. The term muse, can reduce women to aspects that are only visual, it can rob them of their own creativity, so that a “real artist” can be inspired to make “intelligent work”. Trans women are especially seen as muses because there is an idea that they embody an inherent tragedy. In many regards trans women deal with a lot more, and so they struggle a lot more.
Trans women are fascinating to artists because they are a mystery, they have an otherworldly quality, they have glamour, and they understand both sides of male and female sexuality in ways that most people can’t. I was friends with trans artist and activist Chloe Dzubilio and at the end of her life she talked a lot about how unfair it was that so many artists had capitalized on her image and in the end she was broke. Look at Warhol and Candy Darling. The established artist is part of proper society and the trans muse is seen as fringe. So the artist can translate their muses energy into something culturally valid and commodifiable, but the trans person’s own work was regarded as fringe. We are finally moving past that configuration and I think that the way you handle yourself as a creator makes you one of the artists on the forefront of that change.
It’s because of all the trans people before me that went through what they went through that made it possible for me to do this. There have always been trans people who are creators, writers, directors, whatever their success used to be dependent on them being hush hush about it. So, the ones that have been visible end up being the cliché: beautiful women, who all these brilliant people were obsessed with and their common narrative is that they end up dying broke or as drug addicts or whatever the tragedy ends up being. Now there is enough of a wealth of voice where that is not the case anymore.
That’s important, it’s an exciting change. To conclude, I’m interested in how you feel about the current discussion between cis women and trans women?
For a long time a lot cis women didn't know what to do with trans women. The most exaggerated form of that is the debate that happens between certain factions of radical feminists and radical trans women. The argument among a self-identified sect of radical feminists is that trans women are not actually women because being a woman is tied to your body, and the oppression of women is universally rooted in reproductive labor. They think including trans women in the struggle for women's liberation undermines the basis of what they see as women's oppression which is reproductive and about the regulation of reproductive freedom. I understand that perspective, it's just …
Bigger than that?
I think it's a lot bigger than that. If you look at race and class, if you look at women who are born sterile, there's a lot of different ways that women exist in the world that defies that categorization. The aforementioned view doesn't take that into account. Then there's the other extreme, which is trans women that feel that there is no difference between them and cis women. That's absurd. There’s a difference between me and a cis woman. I will never have a period. I will never wonder if I'm pregnant or not. Those things structure your world and how you feel. There's space for acknowledging that difference but I don't think that acknowledging it is the same thing as suggesting that I'm not a woman. That's equally untrue.
Is this debate uncomfortable for trans women?
I'm inspired by these debates. I'm glad there's an understanding of what's going on and we can acknowledge those differences. I think it's productive to make my politics known and the women around me have been really responsive to that. All women should do that but especially trans women because there are still so many questions. How do you feel about women's rights? How do you feel about reproductive freedom? And not taking the opinion that women's freedom is only viewed through one lens. Cause that would be just as ignorant. I've always had really positive experiences with women and I’m really inspired by the women that I'm around.