The first time I seriously considered being an artist as a profession was when I witnessed Alexandra Billings conduct a movement workshop at California State University, Long Beach. I was a high school senior and it was 2013, long before Alexandra was cast in the widely popular TV series “Transparent.” She was the first openly trans woman I had shared space with. As a Vietnamese American student who would later come to identify as a trans woman of color, I was deeply inspired by an unapologetic Black trans woman leading a room of young people with the kind of fierce rigor that I’d later witness from other trans women throughout my adult life. Under her direction we alternately sprinted and froze, screaming “Yes!” at the sky. I left the workshop sobbing with a classmate, not sure how to explain what part of me was now buzzing with magic.
Later that year, I moved from California to New York City. A year after that I began my gender transition. Now, as a trans woman of color and an artist myself, I look back on the brief moments I had with Alexandra Billings and see how art allowed me to transform.
Art has always been integral to movements for justice, but we have yet to witness a surge of trans artists entering mainstream popularity. As “transgender” as a word that enters households across the nation and trans celebrities grace magazine covers and television screens, trans artists are still confined in a slim margin. Even among trans communities, few of us can name trans artists beyond those who are a part of the groundbreaking TV show “Pose,” which has the largest trans cast and crew in history.
What this means is that trans artists have a calling. We have a duty to preserve the memory of those of us we’ve lost, to give voice to the immense pain that our people go through, especially on Trans Day of Remembrance — the annual day of commemoration of people we’ve lost. Within trans communities, Black trans women, trans migrants, those of us with disabilities, those of us living with HIV, and our young people become targets for violence every day.
But what’s even more important is that trans artists dream — and dream big. We have to imagine visions of limitless possibilities for our future together. We have to conjure new ways of relating to one another, new definitions for nurturing, health, love and family. And guess what? We’ve been doing that. Our communities have made whole worlds out of nothing. We’ve built the infrastructure for housing, employment, wellness and matriarchal families on our terms, even while the government denies us resources. We are imagining the world that will replace this one.
I am proud to be one of 10 trans artists of color who created artwork for this year’s Trans Day of Resilience art project by Forward Together, a national organization led by women of color, whose mission is to unite communities to win rights, recognition and resources for all families. The Trans Day of Resilience art project is an extension of the annual Trans Day of Remembrance. This art project calls on us to grieve our lost ones and to celebrate our resilience together. Below, we highlight these artists’ work. Five poets and visual artists were paired together to work on art that captures what trans resilience means to them.
“We Have Never Asked Permission”
Art by Glori Tuitt. Poetry by Benji Hart.
Listen to the Poem:
As artists — one of us a painter, the other a poet — our visions for trans liberation were united by our desire to center Blackness, and the challenge to imagine tangibly what a post-incarceration world might look, feel, taste like.
While Benji entered the project struck by and hoping to pay homage to the life of Layleen Cubilette-Polanco Xtravaganza — an Afro-Latina trans woman who died inside Rikers Island prison in June of 2019 — Glori was particularly interested in honoring Black, trans elders. She hoped to imagine aging-while-trans not as an anomaly but a right, and to capture the tension between Black trans intimacy and public defiance.
“I Am a New Spirit Born From a Change in Melody”
Art by Malachi Lily. Poetry by Mia S. Willis.
Listen to the Poem:
We are the divine. Our love of mythology, passion for poetry and imagery, and a desire to push the boundaries of what it means to exist as a resilient trans/nonbinary person made us want to craft new mythologies for the Black, trans experience. Rewrite our cosmic birth. We did this together through sharing resources, and then poetry, which I used to create the imagery for this project. Though we aspire to do more in-depth, narrative works in the future, what we created was deeply personal. We were influenced by the other, but also inspired by ourselves and our own tools of resilience through shapeshifting forms, manipulation of time, and collectivity in our voice.
We are boundless and floating. Like a newly emerged dragonfly, we delight in our existence, the gentleness of plants, and the glisten of our reflection in the water’s surface. My hope is that people see themselves in these pieces. Strength in our delicate tenderness. That’s the resilience I crave. One that allows us to be soft and supple and sprouting. May you see yourself and know your divinity. Know you are loved.
Art by Shea Coco. Poetry by xoài phạm.
Listen to the Poem:
Every day, trans femmes are told that we are unnatural. That we don’t belong in this world. Governments and people target us to tear down our bodies and spirits, to remove us from this world.
What we know is that trans femmes are nature itself. We have always been here, whether we’ve called ourselves trans or not. We’ve gone by many names and have played sacred roles in our communities across the world and throughout time. We are everyday heroes because we are still here. We are stewarding the movements that transform our world. Our resilience, imagination, love and compassion is that of the natural world. We are in the trees, the wind, the stars.
“Divine Love Is Our Birthright”
Art by féi hernandez. Poetry by SA Smythe.
Listen to the Poem:
Our calling to the divine, otherworldly and liminal spaces we live in informed how we embarked on our respective journeys for this project. How do we give a face, a name, a word to the multitudes that enhance our majestic power and beauty as trans Black, Indigenous and people of color around the world? We understood that in their unbordered livingness, our ancestors, animal guides, spirits, god(s) or source all carry various geographies, meaning and knowledge, gracefully loving us in our totality through whispers, light pushes and witnessing. This set a sparkling spiral of creative energy to flow between and through us. Our final works demonstrate our efforts to bridge the ancient, present and future across time and space to reflect what we think is needed to support our collective imagining of another, more just and tender world.
We offer a poem and an art piece to help provide a sanctuary, a place to sit, to recognize that we are loved by our ancestors, held by divinity and forevermore eternal. We hope that these bridges help us meet the long line of ancestors, the stars, the present living and future generations in one place full of enduring love, lasting protection and otherwise community.
Art by Kah Yangni. Poetry by Vita Cleveland.
Listen to the Poem:
It was so hard to imagine a world where we’ve won, given all the death we’ve come to know for his year. This art became less about how we’ve “won,” but more about how we’re winning, and honoring what it took to make it here. It became more about the adventure and freedom and creativity that is already a part of being trans. Our work has the feeling of “outside the box” dreaming that’s manifested itself in our present day, not forsaking the past as forgotten, but honoring it as tribute to the magick we’ve created.
These are just 10 trans artists among millions of us around the world. We have been transforming the world through our unique visions for liberation and it’s time you join in.