Over the past five years I gradually began openly identifying as gender nonconforming (GNC), using the pronouns “they” and “them”, and preferring to be referred to by my name, ill. At first I was only comfortable doing this in the radical queer youth spaces in which I was working and organizing, and it was many of those radical youth of color who were using these pronouns that inspired me to start using “they/them” as well. Over time, I built up the courage to begin sharing my identity and pronouns with friends and chosen family, and eventually with my family of origin, social justice movement spaces, and the music and art communities of which I am a part.
The last category of music and art was especially challenging because not only did people have preconceived notions of my gender identity, pronouns, and name, but those perceptions and outdated conceptions were often repeated in public forums and creative spaces in which my creative work was being discussed and shared.
I am also confronted with these preconceptions and misperceptions out in the world. For example: being in an airport and watching a group of TSA agents have a meeting in front of me to debate my gender before patting me down; being physically attacked by a transphobic white cab driver in Amsterdam; and being violently pushed by an old white man at a Montreal airport. These are to name a few experiences that grew out of people’s frustration with their inability to pin down my gender and overall identity. All the while I knew these experiences were still privileged by my whiteness in ways that were intensified for Black, Native, and other people of color who identify as GNC.
Despite this hostility, I still didn't really feel comfortable being too outspoken in addressing these instances publicly. I wanted to avoid making people feel awkward, to not take up too much space, and to not come across as entitled or self-indulgent. While I worked to acknowledge my hurt around being misgendered and inaccurately identified was valid, the prospect of making it one of my main public battles was not one I wanted to engage in, because it felt like it might overshadow all the other movement work I wanted to uplift, and other injustices that I preferred to put my energy toward resisting and transforming.
Nonetheless I felt an intense isolation, and as a strategy for overcoming the isolation I chose to stop performing as the solo artist “Invincible”. (There are further reasons for ceasing to perform solo which I can expound on at another time). My choice was to commit to working only as part of collectives and collaborative projects (particularly Complex Movements) where there are so many other stories and focuses, with my misgendered identity less frequently the main topic at hand.
Speaking to my friend Kevin about the ongoing outgrowths of this decision to cease performing as a solo artist, he made a poignant point about the tension that comes up. The friction is between wanting to protect yourself by staying out of the spotlight and scrutiny and people’s ignorance of trans and gender nonconformity, while also wanting to claim dignity and space for your art and expression as a person with a complex trans and gender nonconforming identity. This is a nonlinear journey and there is no specific shore to land on in the process.
Last year, while having an especially challenging and isolating time navigating these dynamics, my chosen fam, long time creative partner, and Emergence Media co-founder, Wes Taylor, approached me about collaborating on a project to address these questions. His design concept was simple: a name tag styled image that reads “THEY”, representing gender nonconforming pronouns in an affirming and aesthetically bold way. Initially we just printed a one of a kind THEY hoodie as a test – for me to wear and feel out.
THEY has since evolved into a hybrid of a campaign, a healing journey, and a trans-local community story collecting project. We decided to print a few additional hoodies, which I would gift to brilliant GNC people who I admire and am inspired by. All of them primarily go by “they/them” as their pronouns, while also evolving complex intersectional ways they identify and move through the world.
The intention was simple, to break isolation. I did this by reaching out to each of these humble and creative geniuses, gifting them a THEY hoodie, and having a conversation. Each conversation took on its own shape, but the gist of it was exchanging stories of how we came into this pronoun, how it relates to the complexity of our identities, ways we have been harmed as a result of claiming a nonconforming identity, and ways we heal, resist, and build resilience. Whenever I wear my THEY hoodie I carry these conversations and stories with me as well.
Over the coming weeks, we will share a series of blog posts sharing the powerful perspectives and work from each of the individuals who took the THEY hoodie for a test run.
My aim is not normalizing or popularizing the pronouns “they/them”, but to affirm those who feel it fits them because it just makes sense for who we are. In the process I hope it also expands and complicates people's notion of gender nonconformity and all the ways it relates to our work as living breathing artists, organizers, and all around complex people trying to make it in this too cruel world.