November 20, 2014

NCLR reaches out to women of color

Cathy Sakimura, middle, family law director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, joined by NCLR Major Gifts Officer Ace Portis, left, and NCLR Executive Director Kate Kendell, right, at a recent event aimed at increasing visibility of women of color among the agency's donors. (Photo: Elliot Owen)

Cathy Sakimura, middle, family law director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, joined by NCLR Major Gifts Officer Ace Portis, left, and NCLR Executive Director Kate Kendell, right, at a recent event aimed at increasing visibility of women of color among the agency’s donors. (Photo: Elliot Owen)

By Elliot Owen
Bay Area Reporter

The National Center for Lesbian Rights, a well-known national nonprofit legal firm that protects LGBT people and families, kicked off a new project called the Ruth Ellis Women of Color Giving Circle this month at Show & Tell Concept Shop, a woman of color-owned retail and community space in Oakland.

The event, which took place on November 3, introduced the new program intended to elevate the voices of women of color within NCLR’s work through cultivating new and strengthening existing relationships with donors who are also women of color. Around 50 people, mostly women of color, attended.

The event introduced the new program that is intended to increase participation of women of color within NCLR’s work through cultivating new and strengthening existing relationships with donors who are also women of color. Around 50 people, mostly women of color, attended.

NCLR Major Gifts Officer Ace Portis (Photo: Elliot Owen)

NCLR Major Gifts Officer Ace Portis (Photo: Elliot Owen)

NCLR major gifts officer Ace Portis, the impetus behind the project, is adamant about ensuring that NCLR’s donor base reflects the communities the organization has historically served and continues to protect through its legal and advocacy work. Portis identifies as a blacklesbian, one word, stating her racial identity and sexual orientation are informed by each other. Intersectionally-identified, Portis is a staunch proponent of NCLR’s work.

“Since our beginning, we’ve operated through a feminist, racial justice lens,” Portis told the Bay Area Reporter. “As the LGBT movement evolves, we want people to know we’ve been doing this work for years and we’re going to continue doing it. This is about activating and elevating the voices of women of color and making sure people know we’re as intentional about this group of people as we are about anybody else.”

It was perfect then, Portis said, for Show & Tell Concept Shop to host the event. Located in the heart of downtown Oakland, historically a community of color, Show & Tell is a small retail business but also a community space largely used for events that cater to LGBTQ people of color.

“It was a huge honor for NCLR to host their event here,” Show & Tell owner Alyah Baker told the B.A.R. “It demonstrated that, even though they’re a national organization, NCLR is tuned-in to what’s happening on a local community level, and committed to incorporating underrepresented groups into their national agenda. As queer women of color, we often feel invisible. This recognition is extremely validating, and I’m glad that NCLR recognizes the QTPOC [queer, transgender, people of color] community as vital to their work.”

In addition to announcing the giving circle, the event was intended to introduce NCLR to communities with limited or no knowledge of the nonprofit’s multifaceted work. To acquaint attendees with the organization and newest project, NCLR Executive Director Kate Kendell was present to open the gathering.

“We’ve seen an enormous change in the place of LGBT people in this culture,” Kendell said, “but we know not everyone is feeling that. And the folks most likely not feeling that are women and men of color, those who live in rural areas, who live in really difficult, corrosive, homophobic, and racist states. Those are the folks we’re going to be there for.

“Our goal for this event is to raise the voice, visibility, and involvement of women of color as donors, those who support NCLR,” Kendell continued. “We have clients who are wildly diverse, we have a staff and board that’s diverse, that represents in a pretty muscular way the vibrancy and diversity of the LGBT community. But that’s not reflected in those who support the organization. [Contributions] are an investment, a way to tell us what we need to be thinking about, how you want to be heard.”

NCLR Executive Director Kate Kendell (Photo: Elliot Owen)

NCLR Executive Director Kate Kendell (Photo: Elliot Owen)

Following Kendell’s remarks, three women of color with close ties to NCLR spoke on behalf of the organization’s track record. NCLR family law director Cathy Sakimura detailed an NCLR program she started in 2006 to improve services to low-income families and families of color. Additionally, she said NCLR targets issues often overlooked by the rest of the LGBT movement and media.

NCLR board member Lisa Cisneros spoke about her 10-year commitment to the agency’s work. Years ago, she started at NCLR as a law clerk. After finishing law school, she joined California Rural Legal Assistance, a nonprofit legal services program that provides low-income rural Californians with legal assistance. Once there, Cisneros initiated a partnership between CRLA and NCLR aimed at making equality a reality for LGBT families in rural areas.

Ruth McFarlane, NCLR board member and director of programs at the San Francisco LGBT Community Center, was last to speak. McFarlane talked about the importance of participation for women of color.

“This is an opportunity for some of us who don’t always get heard to group together and do things our way,” McFarlane said. “We don’t necessarily do things the same way as everybody else, we do things with our crew. This is an opportunity to show up for NCLR with your crew, whoever they are no matter how much or little they may have, and engage in work that is not just for you, but about you, to have your voice be heard.”

Ellis, the giving circle’s namesake, is credited with being the oldest known living lesbian before her death in 2000 at the age of 101 in Detroit. Ellis, a working class African American, opened up her home to LGBT community members in need. She was also one of the first women in Michigan to own her own printing business, which she also operated out of her home.

To donate to the Ruth Ellis Women of Color Giving Circle, visit or contact Ace Portis at

November 20, 2014

Trans grad student wins CSU award

SFSU graduate student Shayle Matsuda. (Photo: Elliot Owen)

SFSU graduate student Shayle Matsuda. (Photo: Elliot Owen)

By Elliot Owen
Bay Area Reporter

A transgender graduate student has received an outstanding achievement award from the California State University Board of Trustees.

Shayle Matsuda, who attends San Francisco State University, was recently recognized with the award, which is bestowed annually to one student from each of the 23 CSU campuses across the state.

The award, a coveted accolade designated for those demonstrating exemplary academic performance, personal achievements, community service, and financial need, is the highest student distinction within the CSU system.

Matsuda is a graduate student in the biology department at SFSU and a student researcher at the California Academy of Sciences where he studies nudibranchs, the soft-bodied marine mollusks sometimes called sea slugs. Originally from a Chicago suburb, Matsuda is of Japanese and Russian Jewish decent, and a cancer survivor.

“The boundaries of my identities are complicated,” Matsuda told the Bay Area Reporter, “but I also want to throw ‘scientist’ in there. It’s a very big part of who I am, too.”

Matsuda’s commitment to diversifying the field of science through community engagement is largely behind him being named the Trustee Emeritus Murray L. Galinson Scholar, one of the many delineations of the CSU trustees’ award and given to those exemplifying extraordinary public service to their home, university, or global community. The winner receives a $6,000 scholarship.

A third year master’s student, Matsuda mentors marginalized high school students underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering, and math fields through a California Academy of Sciences program. He’s also the creator and host of Science, Neat, a monthly interactive event hosted at El Rio for local scientists to connect with each other.

“El Rio is an LGBTQ community-friendly bar,” Matsuda said. “By bringing scientists of all varieties into that space, I’m bringing two of my really important communities together. Last year, we did a neuroscience event the same night the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence were there. There’s a photograph of a sister wearing a purple glove and touching a real human brain. It’s one of my favorite moments.”

Aside from finding out in July about winning the trustees’ award, it’s been a significant year for Matsuda. While undergoing the award’s grueling application process this past spring, Matsuda was also experiencing the physical effects of being on testosterone for only three months.

“I was crashing and burning all the time,” he said, “and the application process required us to make a video about these things, get really personal. Trying to process something while you’re living it is really hard to do, but I actually think it helped me process what [physically transitioning] has meant to me.”

He also went to the Philippines in May to do fieldwork, attended the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference in June, and underwent top surgery in July after receiving word he’d won the trustees’ award. Then in August, he turned 33.

“It was really cool to wake up on my 33rd birthday, post-op, and on testosterone,” Matsuda said, “and feel like I was who I am for the very first time.”

Long road to affirmation

But the road leading to gender affirmation, a master’s degree, and institutional recognition has been a long one for Matsuda. It starts with the very first thing he remembers – having cancer.

“I was 3 years old,” Matsuda said. “I had childhood leukemia. They caught it early but I was in and out of the hospital for a year. It wasn’t necessarily that I was reacting to being a sick child, but to adults treating me like a sick child. Your alarm system goes off and suddenly you’re aware of not having all the time in the world.”

Matsuda attributes his generally ambitious passion about living to this early experience. For most of his life, if he wanted to do something it had to be done, as he describes it, “now, now, now.” There was never time to waste.

“I’ve had a very hard relationship with being able to see the future because all the time in the world was never something I felt like I had,” he said, “until now.”

For Matsuda, the ability to imagine a long life full of possibility is a recent thing. The shift, he said, is in large part due to his gender transition. All his life, he could never imagine growing into an old woman. Now, reimagining the aging process as a fuller and more authentic representation of himself is possible.

“I’ve always felt male, and I feel male now,” he said. “That’s where I fall and that’s how I identify. Suddenly, I can envision the future, imagine what it’ll be like to have a family. I feel comfortable and excited.”

As a child, Matsuda found solace in the sciences. He remembers wanting to be a marine biologist and spending hours at aquariums and museums. The concepts of “collections, history, and life” were fascinating to him. But Matsuda, still living as female, was deterred from studying science very early on, which, he said, is a very common occurrence. Convinced he wasn’t smart enough to study biology while completing his undergraduate degree at UC Santa Cruz, he decided instead to complete an environmental science degree emphasizing agroecology and water policy.

After graduating with honors in 2003, Matsuda worked as an outdoor educator for minority youth. Then, in 2007, he went traveling. In Thailand, he was presented with an opportunity to scuba dive and therein laid the experience that would define his life’s direction.

“I remember very explicitly the rush and feeling of descending under the water’s surface for the very first time,” Matsuda said. “Our body biologically wakes up when cold water is splashed on our face. It’s a natural reaction humans have. Experiencing that reaction while descending into the crystal clear water into a beautiful world was like nothing I’d ever seen on TV. I had this really strong feeling of arrival, and wanting more.”

After that, Matsuda volunteered for multiple coral reef monitoring missions in Southeast Asia then traveled to Mexico to study coral reef species with an organization called Global Visions. Returning to the Bay Area with fresh direction, Matsuda started volunteering at the California Academy of Sciences while taking classes at City College of San Francisco to fulfill all hard-science prerequisites required to apply to the SFSU graduate biology program. By 2012, he was enrolled.

Winning the trustees’ award has been about more than scholarship money for Matsuda, although he’s happy about that part, too. For him, being recognized and celebrated as a transgender person is arguably the best part.

“Having the CSU system support me as a transgender student is huge,” Matsuda said. “I didn’t realize how deeply I needed that, how much I’d been pushing against the world to accept me.”

Being publicly recognized has also provided Matsuda with the opportunity to be intentionally vocal about his identity. Being out, especially as a scientist, is something he feels is a social responsibility.

“If you Google ‘transgender scientists’ very few come up,” Matsuda said. “As long as I feel physically safe, I feel an obligation to be visible because it’s important to have conversations with people, make connections, and expand perceptions of what scientists can look like.”

Matsuda will complete his master’s degree next spring, then plans to pursue a doctorate in evolutionary and marine biology.

November 13, 2014

OutLoud merges with Youth Radio

Youth Radio deputy director Jabari Gray, left, and outgoing outLoud Executive Director and founder Noah Miller shared the stage at a late October relaunch event. (Photo: Elliot Owen)

Youth Radio deputy director Jabari Gray, left, and outgoing outLoud Executive Director and founder Noah Miller shared the stage at a late October relaunch event. (Photo: Elliot Owen)

By Elliot Owen
Bay Area Reporter

Well-known LGBTQ youth media production organization outLoud Radio recently made a major transition that will enable the 12-year-old San Francisco-based nonprofit’s content to reach more people when it was announced that it will merge with Oakland-based Youth Radio.

The acquisition of outLoud by Youth Radio was announced October 19, and was the result of conversations begun between the two organizations earlier this year.

The deal was celebrated at Youth Radio headquarters in downtown Oakland last month. Attended by about 80 current and former outLoud and Youth Radio participants, administration, and supporters, the event served as the official marker for the new partnership.

Outgoing Executive Director Noah Miller started outLoud when he was 23 as a way to get the stories of LGBTQ youth out on radio airwaves. As a longtime small independent media producer, outLoud’s regularly accessible first person radio broadcasts have been heard on media outlets like StoryCorps, the Public Radio Exchange, and KQED. And, Miller told the Bay Area Reporter, the possibilities for outLoud didn’t stop there.

“Recently, we started talking about ways that we could work with more youth,” Miller said. “When the opportunity came up to partner with Youth Radio, who we’ve always looked up to as a big player, it was very exciting because they have tremendous capacity, resources, and name recognition. They get their content out widely, have state-of-the-art facilities, and work with populations we’ve always wanted to reach. For all these reasons, it felt right.”

Youth Radio is excited about the relaunch, too. Founded in 1992, the well-established media production company with a $4 million annual budget trains youth from an array of backgrounds in digital media and technology. Known for creating youth-centered content often featured on media outlets like National Public Radio, Huffington Post, and the Public Broadcasting Service, Youth Radio’s lesser known internal programming fosters youth development through media and job skill classes, trainings, and programs.

Inclusivity is central to Youth Radio’s mission and, Youth Radio deputy director Jabari Gray told the B.A.R. that Youth Radio wants all young people, LGBTQ included, to receive the training to tell their stories.

“It started off as young people in general being a marginalized population within popular media,” Gray said. “Within that age demographic, there are so many ways to slice that community, so many different experiences that make that up. In order to serve youth as a whole, the idea is to be as broadly inclusive as possible. We’re about amplifying the voices of all young people, and moving into a more intentional space around amplifying the voices of LGBTQ youth feels like a natural thing. We want to be more ‘outloud’ about it, really.”

Now operating within Youth Radio’s organizational structure, outLoud’s LGBTQ programming is currently being redesigned and on track for implementation between now and early next year. Integral to outLoud’s relaunch at Youth Radio is Elena Botkin-Levy, the only paid employee that’s transferred from outLoud to Youth Radio. A former outLoud program coordinator, Botkin-Levy is now a Youth Radio media education coordinator and journalism instructor.

“Elena’s had a foot in both organizations,” Miller said. “She’s run a number of programs at outLoud over the years, our intergenerational storytelling project, our podcast, and now she works at Youth Radio and is completely ready to carry this on.”

Acting as the bridge between the two entities, Botkin-Levy is committed to ensuring the transition is smooth in implementation and comprehensive in approach. Having worked at outLoud since 2008, she’s also excited about Youth Radio’s intent to absorb the mission and work of outLoud into its existing structure.

“For the past 12 years,” Botkin-Levy said, “outLoud has become a strong space for queer young folks to be with each other, learn to produce media, and exercise voice. In this moment of transition, it seems so natural for outLoud and Youth Radio to link. Youth Radio gets to take on the expertise that outLoud has developed in working with queer youth media production and affirmative space, and build that into what Youth Radio already does really well, which is work with diverse young folks in the Bay Area. We’re going to be really thoughtful and intentional about developing outLoud within Youth Radio, to absorb all the beauty that outLoud is into the multifaceted work Youth Radio does.”

Aside from programmatic changes and developments within Youth Radio on account of outLoud’s acquisition, the terms of which were not disclosed, Youth Radio’s physical space and office culture will be realigned to more intentionally support LGBTQ youth. According to Miller, Youth Radio is discussing the installation of gender-neutral bathrooms, and integrating gender-neutral pronouns into programming.

“They’re talking about introducing gender-neutral pronouns into more common understanding and usage,” Miller said, “and creating an advisory committee to talk about best practices around how to be an exemplary supporter of LGBTQ youth.”

While the relaunch of outLoud means a number of changes for the entity’s programming, its mission remains the same – to help develop the agency and skills of LGBTQ youth who want to be in charge of their own stories. Formerly under the fiscal sponsorship of LYRIC, outLoud is now accepting donations through Youth Radio.

To donate to outLoud, visit

October 15, 2014

Queer poet to share creative expression during SF visit

Poet Andrea Gibson makes two appearances in San Francisco this week. (Photo: Maria Del Naja)

Poet Andrea Gibson makes two appearances in San Francisco this week. (Photo: Maria Del Naja)

By Elliot Owen
Bay Area Reporter

Award-winning poet Andrea Gibson is in San Francisco this week for two appearances, both of which are expected to be well-attended. Gibson, who identifies as queer/genderqueer and uses gender-neutral pronouns, will make their first stop at the San Francisco LGBT Community Center Thursday, October 16 at 7 p.m. for a conversation about creativity facilitated by Ahmunet Jessica Jordan.

Gibson’s second stop is Nourse Theater for a California Institute of Integral Studies-sponsored event on Friday, October 17 at 8 p.m. As part of CIIS’ commitment to hosting conversations that address race, class, and gender, Gibson’s performance feature is expected to touch on issues of war, class, gender, bullying, white privilege, sexuality, love, and spirituality – all subjects, Gibson told the Bay Area Reporter, that inspire flurries of creative expression within them “the most quickly and the most often.”

Karim Baer, director of public programs at CIIS, told the B.A.R. why it’s important for the institute to provide a platform for artists and activists like Gibson.

“Our mission is to inspire personal and social transformation,” Baer said, “and Andrea Gibson’s work embodies not only deep sentiments of love and reverence, but also provokes critical thought on race, class, privilege, war and so many other injustices in our society. I can’t think of a better poet to feature as we work to use the arts as a catalyst for social change.”

And, Gibson said, they also intend to integrate “lots of love, lots of feminism, lots of crying, and lots of laughter” during the event, which costs between $27-$65 to attend.

Gibson, 39, was born into a working class Baptist family in Calais, Maine, a rural community with a current population of just over 3,000. In 1999, they moved to Colorado where they discovered spoken word as an art form, and ran with it. Gibson currently lives in Boulder, Colorado.

“I love the energy of spoken word,” Gibson said, “the vulnerability and uncensored emotion. I love how much presence it asks of an audience, and how the audience in many ways pulls the poem out of the poet. Additionally, the spoken word movement is essentially a social justice movement and I discovered it during the same time I was getting really passionate about looking for ways to be of service in the world. Combine all of that with a ferocious terror of public speaking, and this is what I find myself doing.”

Gibson’s accomplishments include being a four-time Denver Grand Slam champion, a fourth place finish out of 350 poets at the 2004 National Poetry Slam, a third place finish at the 2006 and 2007 Individual World Poetry Slams, and a first place finish at the inaugural Women of the World Poetry Slam in 2008.

With five full-length albums and two books under their belt, Gibson’s works have been featured on the BBC, Air America, Free Speech TV and in 2010, was read aloud in place of a morning prayer at the Utah State Legislature, according to Gibson’s website.

Gibson creates art to make people feel, to provoke and elicit change that first starts in the heart. After the heart is touched, Gibson said, the mind eventually catches up, a one-two punch that’s impact cannot be unstated. Shifting normalized ideas grounded in bigotry and ignorance, after all, is central to Gibson’s work – and Gibson uses their own experience to do that.

“I think it’s incredibly healing to speak your truth,” Gibson said, “and to speak it out loud to a room full of open-hearted people. That is truly medicine to me, to my nervous system, to my spirit, to my sense of safety in the world. And to be part of a movement that’s rooted in speaking what’s true, and is also invested in speaking that truth in a way that is beautiful; it all feels like necessary goodness, necessary inspiration, and it honestly rallies me to feel and live in a way I’m not certain I would have learned how to live otherwise.”

It’s no doubt that Gibson is a reference point, an inspiration, a touchstone for many within the LGBTQ community, especially queer youth. And like every LGBTQ person, Gibson was once a fledgling version of themselves undergoing the often arduous process of settling into a self-determined identity. The three things, Gibson said, they would tell their younger self would be:

“One, feel into the scary feelings. They are worse the more you try to avoid them. Two, let yourself be awkward. In fact, let yourself be the most awkward. Three, remember, it will always be livable, even when it’s not.”

And for the queer artists seeking parity between creative output and financial security, Gibson offered this, inspirational knowledge they will build upon at both appearances this week:

“Keep constant faith in art and community,” Gibson said. “Register success by how open your heart feels. Listen more often than you speak. Remember the queer artists who came before you, who kept you alive when you were young and becoming and growing into your own light. Work hard at whatever it is you love.”

For Gibson’s October 16 event, tickets are $20 in advance or $25 at the door. To purchase tickets to either event, click here. The LGBT center is located at 1800 Market Street. The Nourse Theater is at 201-299 Hayes Street.

September 26, 2014

Trans women pen essays that explore transition

Letters for My Sisters contributors Gina White, left, and Mazikeen Wagner relax at the LGBT Community Center, where they will read from the book this Saturday. Photo: Elliot Owen

Letters for My Sisters contributors Gina White, left, and Mazikeen Wagner relax at the LGBT Community Center, where they will read from the book this Saturday. (Photo: Elliot Owen)

By Elliot Owen
Bay Area Reporter

In celebration of this year’s release of Letters for My Sisters: Transitional Wisdom in Retrospect, a book featuring the writing of 35 trans women from across the globe, the San Francisco LGBT Community Center will be holding a reading this weekend.

The publication’s co-editors, well-known media producer and writer Andrea James and Deanne Thornton, will be speaking along with two of the book’s Bay Area-based contributors, Gina White and Mazikeen Wagner. Published by Transgress Press, a publishing house centered around transgender and gender variant writing, Letters for My Sisters was released in July. It follows its notable predecessor, Letters For My Brothers: Transitional Wisdom in Retrospect, a compilation of essays by trans men reflecting on their experiences through various stages of their transitions, which was a Lambda Literary Award finalist in 2012.

The seed for Letters for My Sisters, Thornton told the Bay Area Reporter, was planted when she approached the co-editor of Letters for My Brothers, Zander Keig, in 2012.

“I’d met Zander and found him interesting because he was open to discussing his experiences around transitioning from female-to-male,” Thornton, who identifies as a woman of trans experience, said. “Zander shared Letters for My Brothers with me and then I started talking to him about doing something similar for trans women. And that’s when I contacted Andrea, who’s someone I’ve known in the community for years.”

Almost immediately the project took off. Leveraging a similar theme to Letters for My Brothers, Thornton and James narrowed down their book’s concept to a single premise and put out a call for submissions. They sought essays from trans women who answered or interpreted this question – if you could write a 1,000 word letter to your younger, pre/early-transition self, what would you say?

“We didn’t want writers to so much tell their stories,” Thornton said, “but to tell what their stories taught them, to give us the wisdom without the justification. Everybody did a phenomenal job distilling down their experiences to fit that limitation, so what’s really talked about is the stuff that’s really important.”

James and Thornton took submissions for a year and a half, which included some from outside the U.S., two of which were selected for the book; one from Canada, one from Australia.

When White came across the call for submissions, unlike many who wrote new pieces for the prompt, she’d already had something on hand.

“I’d written this piece a long time ago and I didn’t have any plans for it,” said White, who identifies first as queer, then female, then transgender. “I’d literally written it to myself as a draft email and stuffed it away. It was before I knew I was transitioning, I found myself crying a lot, which was not something I’d do before. I spent a lot of time disassociating prior to transition as a way to keep my sanity. When I started transitioning, I was able to give that up and started to feel these emotions. At first I thought it was something that had to be fixed, then I realized I liked these feelings. That’s what my piece is about.”

When Wagner, a self-identified trans polyamorous asexual woman who is feminist, theoretically panromantic, agender, kinky, and a self-described slut, encountered the call for submissions, she knew she would submit, too. It was something, she said, she had wished she had for herself at a younger age.

“Through the writing process,” she said, “I was able to hone in on what I regretted about my coming out processes. During some of those times, I didn’t have enough faith in myself to stand up for who I was. A lot of what happens when you’re first coming out is you get so much blowback you start doubting yourself and trying to make it easier on other people, and other people often interpret that as ambivalence or insincerity of your gender identity. I was trying to be kind to other people not realizing I was compromising important parts of myself. That’s what this book addresses most of all, the advice from us to the next generation.”

And, Thornton said, Letters for My Sisters isn’t just a book for younger trans women, it’s a useful resource for trans women in all stages of their lives.

“There are lots of things in the stories I’ve read that help me and I’m way down the line,” Thornton said. “Sometimes other people had insights that really resonated with me, especially when talking about things like finding hope and gratitude, both things we all struggle with. This writing can really make your life fuller.”

The reading takes place Saturday, September 27 at 2 p.m. at the San Francisco LGBT Community Center, 1800 Market Street. To read the B.A.R.’s previous coverage of Letters for My Brothers and Manning Up: Transsexual Men on Finding Brotherhood, Family, and Themselves, click here.

September 18, 2014

From online to print: Book showcases queer podcasts

Nia King reads from her new book Queer & Trans Artists of Color: Some Stories of Our Lives, based off her podcast interview series, "We Want the Airwaves." (Photo: Elliot Owen)

Nia King reads from her new book Queer & Trans Artists of Color: Some Stories of Our Lives, based off her podcast interview series, “We Want the Airwaves.” (Photo: Elliot Owen)

By Elliot Owen
Bay Area Reporter

Google the phrase “queer and trans artists of color” and the first three search results turn up Nia King’s acclaimed podcast, “We Want the Airwaves,” a monthly series that features the stories of queer and trans artists of color who have found the sweet spot between making art and making a living.

It would be fitting, then, if King compiled those valuable interviews into one publication and titled it Queer & Trans Artists of Color: Some Stories of Our Lives – and that’s exactly what she’s done. The book, which King and co-editors Jessica Glennon-Zukoff and Terra Mikalson say is the first of its kind, will be available starting Friday, September 26 at 7 p.m. at the official book launch party hosted at downtown Oakland’s Show and Tell Concept Shop, a queer-owned retail business located at 1427 Broadway.

“All the energy spent on this has been worthwhile,” King, 27, a self-identified mixed-race queer woman of color, told the Bay Area Reporter. “Knowing the community believes in this is incredibly validating. One thing I hear a lot is that there are no books like this in the world. That’s part of why it’s so important.”

The book features King’s interviews with a broad array of differently-identified artists of color whose platforms and mediums are just as diverse. They span the globe in terms of hometowns, homelands, and home bases, and range in exposure from locally known to globally celebrated.

Readers can expect everything from juicy anecdotes to invaluable survival strategies from Janet Mock, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Virgie Tovar, Magnoliah Black, Ryka Aoki, Julio Salgado, Yosimar Reyes, Nick Mwaluko, Lovemme Corazón, Kiam Marcelo Junio, Fabian Romero, Van Binfa, Micia Mosely, Kortney Ryan Ziegler, Miss Persia, and Daddie$ Pla$tik.

“It was important for me to get a diverse group of artists both in terms of gender, race, and ethnicity,” King said. “And I have a broad definition of what art is and who’s an artist. It includes stand-up comedians, cartoonists, and people working in forms that are often devalued. If people don’t care about brown or queer people before they read this, I hope they do afterward. They’re really good stories.”

Co-editors Glennon-Zukoff and Mikalson agree. After combing through each interview countless times, they both find the stories just as engaging as upon first reading.

“There are still moments from different pieces that come back to me,” said Glennon-Zukoff, 23, a self-identified queer white working-class cisgender (identifying as the gender you’re born with) femme, “especially the ones with concrete advice. I’m thinking mainly of Virgie Tovar’s interview where she talks about surviving academia as a multiply marginalized person, what resources she sought out, the logistics of getting published, and shifting paradigms by paying artists for their work.”

In addition to concrete advice, the book is sprinkled with candid humor, dynamic storytelling, and inspiring resilience. A few teasers include Salgado’s recap of a date with a gay Republican Latino, Reyes’s rundown of having almost been deported on his way to perform for Carlos Santana and Harry Belafonte, Aoki’s memory of working as a forensic scientist and studying the flashpoints of human body oil, and Black’s reflection on learning to love her body through kink.

Black, 33, a self-identified Southern black queer femme, has been performing dance and spoken word in the Bay Area for almost six years. Black was honored when King asked her for a podcast interview and subsequent inclusion in the book. Visibility, Black said, is crucial for queer and trans people of color.

“Through visibility, we can find normalization, and move away from being tolerated to being accepted and celebrated,” Black said. “It feels great to get my voice recorded, my words written down in a permanent way. I’m being able to tell my own side of my story, and that’s empowering. For multiply marginalized people, those who live at the intersections, I hope this serves as a lighthouse. You are not alone. We’re strong and connected and we’re going to survive and further, thrive.”

King started the podcast in March 2013 and five months later discovered a demand for her interview content in non-audio form. After transcribing interviews, King approached Glennon-Zukoff and Mikalson about embarking on a book project together. Just over a year later, the book is done and King has big plans for it.

“I hope this book gives young queer and trans people of color the opportunity to see some aspect of their experiences reflected,” King said. “My other hope is to get it into the academy, that teachers will teach this book and it will reach people that way. I want to see this flourish as a field of study. When people learn about art history or the history of social movements, I want them to know it’s not all about white people or straight people, but that queer folks of color have been a force and their contributions are often overlooked or erased.”

Mikalson, 24, a self-identified white Jewish queer non-binary person, agrees and also mentioned the importance of the book circulating in non-queer and non-person of color artist spaces.

“I hope it reaches queer and trans people of color especially,” Mikalson said, “but I hope it enters other circles, too. My older sister is an artist in New York and I recommended the podcast to her even though she’s a white ally. Even though she shares some of the same artists’ struggles, others she’s not going through at all, and I wanted her to be aware of that fact. There are some things she doesn’t have to deal with.”

Aoki, Tovar, and Black, all artists featured in the book, will be performing at the book launch party. The entrance fee is $10-$20 (no one turned away for lack of funds) and includes vegan Palestinian food and brownies. Copies of the book are $10-$20 sliding scale. The location is wheelchair accessible and attendees are encouraged to arrive fragrance-free.

To purchase a copy of Queer & Trans Artists of Color: Some Stories of Our Lives online, visit

September 4, 2014

New exhibit imagines a future from queer perspective

Amaryllis DeJesus Moleski, left, and Carrie Y. T. Kholi, are co-creators of AMEN: A Collaborative Meditation for Survival , opening Friday, September 5 at Oakland's Betti Ono Gallery. (Photo: Elliot Owen)

Amaryllis DeJesus Moleski, left, and Carrie Y. T. Kholi, are co-creators of AMEN: A Collaborative Meditation for Survival , opening Friday, September 5 at Oakland’s Betti Ono Gallery. (Photo: Elliot Owen)

By Elliot Owen
Bay Area Reporter

Amidst the changing cityscape of downtown Oakland, Betti Ono Gallery has become a steadfast reference point for unharnessed creativity since its establishment in 2010. To celebrate four years of art, culture, and community, the gallery is hosting an anniversary art party on Friday, September 5, which doubles as the highly anticipated exhibition opening of AMEN: A Collaborative Meditation for Survival.

Co-created by visual artist Amaryllis DeJesus Moleski and writer Carrie Y. T. Kholi, AMEN will prove nothing short of its description – “a supraliminal experimentation” that integrates history, myth, and magic to re-imagine a future grounded in the “affirmation and history of all people, and intentionally inclusive of marginalized queer people of color.”

DeJesus Moleski, 28, a Puerto Rican, Afro-Latina, queer, femme, unabashed art geek, and Kholi, 29, a self-identified goal-digger, dream-catcher, and black lesbian, have taken their combined prayers, visions, and spiritual emissions, and translated them into meditations for survival. The body of work is dream-like: some pictorial, some textual, all emanate a visual rhythm meant to invoke feelings of self-affirmation, curiosity, and resolve.

Gallery owner Anyka Barber, an Oakland native, is known for curating provocative and inspirational art shows – the kind grounded in experimentation, independent thinking, social justice commentary, and spirit. DeJesus Moleski and Kholi, friends for three years, had individually worked with Barber before and, on account of Betti Ono’s principles, Barber thought the two would be perfect for a collaboration show.

“Betti Ono is about presenting shows that unlock the gates to art and culture,” Barber said. “It’s about shifting the perception around who can participate. It’s about validating marginalized voices, othered identities, and showcasing work in an accessible way. Amaryllis’s work is about imagining the brown femme body as an ancient powerful figure, and Kholi is interested in how writers shape and push culture forward. Betti Ono is named for women who were futurists: Yoko Ono and Betty Davis. They’re also female archetypes. Both Amaryllis and Kholi understand what it means to be an archetype, and are interested in understanding how archetypes shape and give them power.”

DeJesus Moleski and Kholi started having conversations about the show’s concept in June. It quickly grew into something grounded in a shared experience they felt thematically symbolizes how marginalized people are forced to engage with the world, by means of survival.

“It started with surviving academia,” DeJesus Moleski said. “I’d just graduated from California College of the Arts and Kholi is in the process of getting her Ph.D. in English literature. We were having conversations about being working class queer women of color in academia, and what it means to survive an institution that was built to keep us out. Then it evolved into this larger idea of cultural, mythological, and spiritual survival.”

“Particularly in this moment,” Kholi said, “in being aware of what’s happening nationally and internationally, it feels necessary to present work that not only says the rest of the world gets to exist, we get to exist, too. The world we live in will, literally, kill us. There’ve been acts of survival that have gotten us here, and we want to make sure we’re contributing to tomorrow. I want to make sure we have a future.”

AMEN explores how marginalized people, particularly queer femme women of color, have been expunged from mainstream historical myths and imaginations of humankind’s future. In identifying the omissions, both artists reassert visibility in powerful, integral forms through time and space.

“I’m a huge sci-fi fantasy nerd,” DeJesus Moleski said. “One of the reasons I love the genre is because people are working out difficult things: themes of survival, apocalypse, cultural anxieties. Right now, I see a lot of apocalypse stories, but they’re filled with white, straight, middle-to-upper class people. In these futuristic stories we have the opportunity to create something new, but the same systems of oppression are being reinforced. I don’t think that’s by mistake. We’ve been written out of the past already. People of color have experienced cultural genocide. And now future stories are being created and we’re not there either. For me it feels urgent to contribute, to play around with future myths. We existed yesterday and we exist tomorrow. We’re integral to the integrity of our planet.”

Kholi said that she’s studied the works of several writers.

“I’ve studied writers like Amiri Baraka, Toni Cade Bambara, and Alice Walker,” Kholi explained. “Even in the academic world we don’t talk about these writers because they’re ‘crazy’ or ‘different.’ It’s actually because they’re people of color taking very seriously their future, magic, and talents. We get to have a future. We have a voice of authority. Not superiority, but authority, which is different. And our exhibition is also celebrating Betti Ono’s anniversary. That’s really important because for four years Betti Ono has been in the middle of downtown, a place not controlled by black women. That right there is survival. The work really locates where we are, where we’ve been, and how we get to tomorrow.”

And, Kholi and DeJesus Moleski emphasize, AMEN is for everyone. Both agree that the exhibit is a public conversation to be witnessed and experienced by viewers from wherever they exist.

Betti Ono Gallery is located at 1427 Broadway. The opening of AMEN, from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday, September 5, coincides with Oakland Art Murmur’s First Friday event, a free monthly art walk in downtown Oakland.

August 29, 2014

LGBT groups respond to Ferguson

Protesters gathered in front of the Phillip Burton Federal Building and United States Courthouse in San Francisco Tuesday, August 26 to demand justice for Michael Brown and others killed by police. The rally was organized by  (Photo: Elliot Owen)

Protesters gathered in front of the Phillip Burton Federal Building and United States Courthouse in San Francisco Tuesday, August 26 to demand justice for Michael Brown and others killed by police. The rally was organized by
(Photo: Elliot Owen)

By Elliot Owen
Bay Area Reporter

The shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri has prompted LGBT organizations across the country to join others in raising questions around the circumstances of his death in the almost three weeks since the incident.

Brown, 18, was fatally shot by police Officer Darren Wilson around midday August 9. His bleeding body was left lying face-down, uncovered for a time, in the street for four hours while neighborhood residents, including children and Brown’s family members, looked on, horrified. According to news reports, at least six different bullets caused over a dozen different wounds including two through his head.

Police officials said Brown assaulted Wilson and a struggle for the officer’s gun ensued ending with Brown fatally shot. According to the Los Angeles Times, a handful of witnesses, including Dorian Johnson, who was walking alongside Brown when the incident began, negate Brown as the antagonizer and place Wilson as the aggressor, ultimately shooting and killing Brown while he was either surrendering or running from Wilson’s first shots.

In the subsequent days, protests to the shooting erupted in Ferguson, a working-class predominantly African American suburb of St. Louis. Fueled by the nature of the shooting, the treatment of Brown’s body, and the police department preserving Wilson’s anonymity until nine days after the shooting, Ferguson residents called attention back to one of America’s largest problems – racism.

During the first week, demonstrators were met with police in riot gear, armored vehicles, K-9 units, assault rifles, smoke grenades, stun grenades, tear gas, and rubber bullets. Scattered reports of looting and property damage surfaced, as did accounts of press censorship and police brutality.

Communities respond

But Ferguson hasn’t been alone. Expressions of solidarity have ranged far and wide. On August 15, Palestinian groups and individuals signed a letter expressing solidarity with Brown’s family and the people of Ferguson. The same day, the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda publicly called for justice and extended condolences to Brown’s family. On August 19, OCA-Asian Pacific American Advocates released a statement naming racial profiling as central to Brown’s death and denounced the state’s treatment of Ferguson demonstrators. The same week, the National Domestic Workers Alliance extended support to Brown’s family, condemned racialized state-sanctioned violence responsible for his death, and demanded justice.

On August 12, three days after Brown’s death, a letter signed by 17 social justice and LGBT organizations was released stating the “[LGBT] community cannot be silent at this moment … because all movements of equality are connected.” The letter called Brown’s death one of countless “racialized killings that have marred this nation since the beginning of its history.” The letter’s signatories has grown to 68, the San Francisco LGBT Community Center among the most recent.

The National Center for Lesbian Rights was among the first to sign the letter. And, as Executive Director Kate Kendell said, after signing, it still felt important for NCLR to draft an individual statement. But the words didn’t come from Kendell herself; her 18-year-old African American son, Julian Holmes, and mentor to both Holmes and Kendell, African American civil rights lawyer Eva Paterson, wrote them.

“Rather than me write something decrying the events in Ferguson,” Kendell said, “I thought the real power might come from an intergenerational piece by a longtime civil rights lawyer and my son who is coming-of-age in a country that still has deep, deep racism and racial tension.”

In his statement, Holmes reflects on the devaluation of black lives:

“It is obvious that the justice system is not set up to protect people that look like Michael and me,” he wrote. “There has been something rooted into the system, something rooted into our minds as human beings that makes this acceptable. Something that tells police officers with guns that they can fire them off at will just because they have a badge … They are perfectly fine with having another black boy’s blood on their hands … This story of Michael Brown’s death is tragic. Not only does it make me angry, it makes me sad. Because with every story like this I see my body lying in the street where Michael’s was.”

Growing up with same-sex parents, Holmes told the Bay Area Reporter that he “has one foot in the LGBT community and one foot in the black community,” and it’s especially important for marginalized communities to support each other.

“When people decide not to speak up about an issue, that’s how things get worse,” Holmes said. “Complacency is just as bad as supporting racism. If you assume we live in a colorblind society because it’s 2014, that’s when things get swept under the rug.”

Last weekend, Gay-Straight Alliance Network released a statement drawing the connection between systematic racism and the criminalization of young people like Brown, and called for GSAs across the country to commit to addressing the criminalization of young people in their communities.

The Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project has been the only explicitly local LGBT organization to release a public statement. On August 22, the organization expressed solidarity with the Brown family and the people of Ferguson in the face of “unspeakable human rights abuses at the hands of law enforcement.” While no other local LGBT organizations have released their own public statements, Norio Umezu of Community United Against Violence said the organization’s internal discussion about whether or not to do so was ongoing.

Rebecca Rolfe, executive director of the San Francisco LGBT Community Center, said the center did not release its own letter citing public statements as “not a strategy we’ve had the resources to pursue on a regular basis.” Similarly, the executive director of the Pacific Center in Berkeley, Leslie Ewing, cited “lack of organizational bandwidth and capacity” as reason for the same. Brown Boi Project was also contacted but could not be reached for comment.

The weekend of August 16, San Francisco hosted the annual American Sociological Association meeting. A group of sociologists, many from San Francisco State University, drafted a statement titled: “Sociologists Issue Statement on Ferguson: 400 Sociologists Demand Justice and Change in Policing Communities of Color.” To date, over 1,400 sociologists have now signed the letter.

SFSU sociology Professor Andreana Clay, a self-identified queer woman of color and black feminist, was central to the statement’s making. Her participation, she said, was rooted in her work as a sociologist and her upbringing – Clay grew up in Missouri and spent her summers in St. Louis near Ferguson.

The statement addresses police brutality, racialized policing, institutional racism, and anti-blackness as an epidemic in this country and central to Brown’s death. It is timely, Clay emphasized, for allies to speak out, which should include the LGBT community.

“It’s a real opportunity for LGBT organizations to address the violence that continues to happen on marginalized bodies,” Clay said, “and link, not equate, but link the violence targeted upon black bodies to the violence targeted toward queer bodies, specifically trans women of color. It’s an opportunity to talk about how violence is used to surveil queer and racialized bodies; often times those are the same bodies. Just because the ongoing targeting of black bodies, both male and female, in society is what we see at this moment, the mainstream gay community is never far behind.”

The letter also endorses Black Lives Matter, a nonprofit initiative committed to using social engagement to end state sanctioned violence against black people. Currently, 16 states have Black Lives Matter contingents organizing rides to Ferguson to sustain ground-level action. Made up of various professionals, specialists, and organizers, the Bay Area has its own Black Life Matters Ride scheduled to depart August 28.

To donate to the Black Life Matters Bay Area contingent, visit The campaign ends September 5.

June 26, 2014

Life of activism shaped transwoman’s compassion

Miss Major Griffin-Gracy at her Oakland home with her dog, Moose. (Photo: Elliot Owen)

Miss Major Griffin-Gracy at her Oakland home with her dog, Moose. (Photo: Elliot Owen)

By Elliot Owen
Bay Area Reporter

Shifts in social climates require decades of contextual movement work, and there’s no better testament to that than Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, a self-identified formerly incarcerated black transwoman whose lifelong activism has remained consistently central to the progression of trans rights and visibility.

In commemoration of her life’s work, the San Francisco LGBT Pride Celebration Committee Board of Directors named Griffin-Gracy, widely known simply as Miss Major, one of this year’s Pride parade community grand marshals alongside other selections that communicate staunch support for the transgender community. Griffin-Gracy is currently the longtime executive director of the Transgender GenderVariant Intersex Justice Project, an organization that works to end human rights abuses committed against incarcerated transgender, gender variant/genderqueer and intersex people.

In company with Griffin-Gracy, 74, is celebrity grand marshal and bestselling author Janet Mock, who underlines Griffin-Gracy’s impact on her own life. Mock described Griffin-Gracy to the Bay Area Reporter as “brilliantly resourceful, resilient, and legendary,” and didn’t stop there.

“The mere fact that she chooses to be visible and vocal about the multilayered facets of her existence created a groundwork and foundation onto which I could move past survival and actually thrive as a young trans woman writer of color,” Mock told the B.A.R. “Without Miss Major’s contributions and work, I would not exist.”

Also being honored with Griffin-Gracy is 16-year-old community grand marshal Jewlyes Gutierrez, a transgender Hercules Middle/High School student who faced a misdemeanor battery charge last year after a fight related to long-term bullying broke out. (She participated in a restorative justice program and the charge was later dropped.) Griffin-Gracy, Gutierrez told the B.A.R., “is a pillar in the community,” a predecessor she’s “honored and blessed” to be celebrated with.

Trans March is the organizational grand marshal, and Chelsea Manning, a transgender soldier convicted last year of leaking classified content exposing American military follies, is an honorary grand marshal. Like never before, the transgender community is taking center stage at this year’s celebration, a precedent that, according to Pride board President Gary Virginia, runs parallel to larger cultural trends.

“The many nominations and votes related to the transgender community happened organically amid an increase in visibility on the national and local level,” Virginia said. “Transgender people are the most discriminated group within our LGBT civil rights movement. We work to make sure our annual celebration reflects the most pressing issues facing our LGBT family.”

While Griffin-Gracy is quick to redirect attention from her public accolades to community issues at hand, the honor, she said, brings her full-circle. But, it’s less about personal acknowledgement and more about witnessing the large-scale appreciation of transwomen, particularly transwomen of color.

“We’re finally getting some recognition,” she said. “I’m proud it finally happened and I’m alive to see it because a lot of my girlfriends haven’t made it this far. I’m trying to get as many girls as possible together at the parade so people can see we’re a force to be reckoned with; we’re not going anywhere.”

Griffin-Gracy has always been a “force.” She’s lived her life on the frontlines – not the frontlines of marches, parades, or lobbying initiatives – the frontlines of the 1969 Stonewall riots, the 1971 Attica State Prison uprising, the early AIDS epidemic, and every other survival front occupied by trans women of color to stay alive.


After being born and raised in Chicago, Griffin-Gracy moved to New York City where she established a supportive community that helped her grow into her identity. At the time, bars and clubs were the primary avenue through which LGBT people met each other. The Stonewall Inn, a working-class LGBT bar in Greenwich Village, was a particular favorite of Griffin-Gracy’s.

“Stonewall provided us transwomen with a nice place for social connection,” Griffin-Gracy said. “Then, only some gay bars let us in, others would chase us out. We could go to Stonewall and everything would be fine, we didn’t have to explain ourselves.”

During that period, anti-LGBT sentiment was supported by law; police raids on LGBT bars and clubs were commonplace. Griffin-Gracy was a regular patron of Stonewall, and was there “perking up with a girlfriend” the night of the police raid that subsequently triggered three days of riots in June 1969.

“The boys [police] were always targeting those with social stigma around them – gay men, lesbians, but not as much as us,” Griffin-Gracy said. “This one night, though, everybody decided this time we weren’t going to leave the bar. And shit just hit the fan.”

Widely credited as the catalyst for the modern LGBT civil rights movement, the Stonewall riots, like many movement initiatives, didn’t function without their own internal hierarchies. Griffin-Gracy distinctly remembers transwomen of color being excluded from the protests, a dynamic still perpetuated today.

“After the raid happened, I remember Sylvia Rivera and I going to a gay rally in Central Park,” Griffin-Gracy said, referring to the late trans activist who died in 2002. “Sylvia went up to speak and they booed her offstage. We were so heartbroken; I cried for days. There was this sea of white people and they had the audacity to do that. The thing is, this disconnect is still happening. I saw a movie last year about Stonewall and didn’t see one transwoman of color in the whole film.”

For Griffin-Gracy, it took participating in another act of resistance to truly claim her politicized self. In September 1971, a four-day uprising in New York’s Attica State Prison claimed the lives of 10 hostages and 29 inmates. Incarcerated there at the time for two felony convictions, Griffin-Gracy experienced the upheaval firsthand, as well as the inhumane living conditions and discriminatory treatment that served as precursors to the uprising.

“It was an awakening,” Griffin-Gracy said. “Trans or not, being considered a black male affected my relationship with everyone I met. And some of the atrocities I saw happen to my trans sisters were devastating. [The guards] would tell us they could take us off property, bury us, and no one would know. I got out and got my act together, started thinking about what I could do to help the girls so they don’t have to go through that.”

Since then, Griffin-Gracy’s intent has only been strengthened by the challenges she’s faced. She remembers a particularly painful event that solidified for her, as a sex worker at the time, the importance of support between transwomen engaged in the trade.

“One of my dear friends, a trans woman of color, was murdered in her apartment,” she said. “She had two dogs, neither of which would’ve let a stranger near her. After talking with the other girls we figured out someone she knew had done it. We told the police but they didn’t care. We decided that whenever one of us got into a car, another girl either saw the driver or the license plate. No one was going to help us but us.”

Coming to California

In 1978, Griffin-Gracy moved to San Diego where she began a decade of ground-level community building work. What began as working at a food bank grew into providing direct care services; supporting transwomen through incarceration, addiction, and homelessness. And then the AIDS epidemic hit. Attending two funerals per week was status quo, she said, and ensuring her sick friends were comfortable via proper home health care became a priority.

By the time Griffin-Gracy moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in the early 1990s, she’d worked with numerous HIV/AIDS organizations. Continuing along the direct care track, she worked with San Jose’s AIDS Project, San Francisco’s City of Refuge, Glide, and the now-defunct Tenderloin AIDS Resource Center where she created “drop-in” services that enabled more community members access to lifesaving resources. Then, in 2003, she found TGIJP.

“TGI is the one place that is my heart,” Griffin-Gracy said. “I work with TGI so incarcerated girls know someone cares about them, wants them to do better, and will do whatever it takes to help.”

In nearly every position she’s held, Griffin-Gracy is credited with spearheading direct service initiatives that emphasize interpersonal care and connection. Intersectional and complex, her story is currently being made into a documentary titled Major!, and slated for late summer release. Produced by Annalise Ophelian and StormMiguel Florez, the film also highlights LGBT elder care. Health challenges, medical costs, and budget cuts to TGIJP have recently left Griffin-Gracy without sustainable income. A donation circle has been created to facilitate her care through intergenerational support.

There’s a long way to go in the battle for LGBT equality, but Griffin-Gracy remains optimistic. The expanding freedoms she’s witnessed in her lifetime, particularly for trans women of color, keep her energized.

“When I see younger girls out shopping in the daytime in their attire,” she said, “it fills my heart with so much pride. Our increased visibility is marvelous. Who knew it would turn out like this?”

To donate to Griffin-Gracy’s monthly giving circle, visit

June 18, 2014

Dunye film explores transman’s identity

Black is Blue star Kingston Farady. (Photo: Elliot Owen)

Black is Blue star Kingston Farady. (Photo: Elliot Owen)

By Elliot Owen
Bay Area Reporter

It’s a well-known fact that the world’s best queer cinema is screened at the annual San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival, a 38-year-old event produced by LGBT media arts nonprofit Frameline. That said, having a film selected from nearly 800 international submissions and receiving a coveted slot in the festival’s line-up is no small feat.

Award-winning black, queer masculine-of-center filmmaker Cheryl Dunye has done it over a half-dozen times, her well-known pieces beingThe Watermelon Woman in 1996, a “mockumentary” starring Dunye as herself; Stranger Inside in 2001, a story about an incarcerated black lesbian; The Owls in 2010, a film about the accidental murder of a young queer woman; and Mommy Is Coming in 2012, a risque lesbian rom-com.

This year, Black Is Blue is making a highly anticipated debut. Dunye’s short chronicles the complex identity-related feelings of Black, a black transman working as a security guard in Oakland, after he runs into an ex-lover. In just 21-minutes, Dunye is able to leverage one character study to explore experiences that many transmen of color regularly undergo.

“As prestigious and popular trans dialogues are emerging,” Dunye said, “there’s a message coming across – which rings true for every marginalized community – it’s not just about what we’re lacking or how we’re physically different, it’s about emotional experiences. This film represents the shift in that conversation. We’re not talking about Black’s physical transition, but more about his emotional landscape. It’s about how multiple identities function, being black, trans, and masculine, and what’s running through your head as you have your inside and outside to deal with as well as memories from past identities.”

Starring noteworthy actor Kingston Farady, 31, a queer black transman, defense-side investigator, and trans advocate, Black Is Blue premieres Friday, June 20 at 7 p.m. at the Roxie Theatre (3117 16th St., San Francisco) as part of “Realness and Revelations,” an 85-minute collection of shorts featuring queer and trans people of color, and again on Thursday, June 26 (7 p.m.), also at the Roxie as part of “In The City of Shy Hunters,” an 82-minute collection of shorts centered on the stories of transmen.

Black Is Blue is the first narrative of its kind. The film’s debut comes at a particularly poignant time, adding to the burgeoning wave of trans visibility led by Orange Is The New Black actress Laverne Cox and New York Times bestselling author Janet Mock, powerhouses that have quickly become queer community sweethearts, and the general public’s reference point for language around transgender identity.

But up until now, Farady pointed out, representations of transmen within popular culture have received significantly less limelight and been limited to white and Asian-Pacific Islander-identified transmen – never black.

“I’m excited to see transwomen of color receive the attention they deserve because it does trickle down to all trans people,” Farady said. “Due to patriarchy and the constant attack on femininity, there’s an urgency there that doesn’t necessarily exist for transmen. Not to erase attacks on transmen, but transwomen are murdered at a higher rate than any other person in the country. They need to be in front leading the movement. Then there’s the flipside of wanting to see my brothers at the table at some point, too. People still believe someone like me or Black doesn’t exist. Black Is Blue is about building a consciousness around black transmen, filling the void and stepping into that space.”

As Dunye detailed it, the seed of Black Is Blue was planted a year ago as she was meeting more queer and trans-identified people of color in Oakland. She wrote the script leaving room for Black’s character development, an intentional decision meant to provide collaboration space for her and whoever would eventually step into the role.

“When I put the call out to find a lead I was given Kingston’s information,” Dunye said. “I knew when we first sat down the character would be shaped by his experiences. I talked to a few other people about the role but Kingston came along and that was it. He exudes a sense of dimension, a sort of a royalty; it’s wonderful.”

Initially, Farady had reservations about joining the project which, he said, had nothing to do with Dunye, and everything to do with his own awareness around the misrepresentation and exploitation of trans people. But he wanted to hear from Dunye first before making a decision.

“I knew her prior pieces of work,” Farady said. “I love the way she holds complexity and creates pieces that allow the audience to be curious. A story centered around a black transman in Oakland was compelling to me. Also, Cheryl wanted to focus not on the physical aspects of transition, but the ways someone emotionally and socially transitions. After three or four full conversations, I knew the film was something I could do with her.”

There’s also something to be said, Farady added, about Dunye’s intentional decision to cast a black transman to play a black transman.

“When I see characters with certain identities,” Farady said, “whether it’s race, gender, or even sexual orientation, played by people that aren’t that identity, it feels like a parody to me. Without even saying it, Cheryl’s choice to cast a black transman to play a black transman expresses that she knows black transmen are worthy. Not only is this film about non-erasure, Cheryl is backing that up by filling the lead role with someone from the community.”

Shot exclusively in Oakland, festivalgoers can expect to experience the film’s provocative storyline set afront skillful cinematography that captures Oakland’s charming familiarity, urban grit, juxtaposing socioeconomic environments, and natural landscapes.

To purchase tickets, visit


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