Generally speaking, the Trans Day of Visibility is meant to celebrate trans folks, our contributions to society and also raise awareness of the discrimination we face. It's more than a celebration, although celebrating in trans joy is a radical act; it's a call to action. Visibility is a critical step, a critical first step towards liberation.
At Oregon Food Bank, we hold people experiencing hunger at the center of all that we do. And we know that food insecurity disproportionately affects trans and gender non-conforming communities — disparities that continue to be exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition to recognizing the unjust barriers to life’s basic necessities, we celebrate and lift up the voices of trans folks to honor their stories. In celebration of this year’s Trans Day of Visibility, we had the pleasure of talking with Ash, a Portland-based artist and Artistic Director of Transpose PDX. They shared some of their story and what this day means to them.
Oregon Food Bank: Hi, Ash! Thank you so much for being here today. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Ash: Yes, thank you for having me. My name is Ash. I use they and she pronouns. Some identities that I hold are trans, hard of hearing and Persian. I'm the artistic director for Transpose PDX which is a nonprofit choral arts organization serving the transgender, nonbinary, gender-nonconforming community here in Portland.
I also serve as the committee co-chair for the diversity, equity and inclusion committee for the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus. And lastly, I am a composer, arranger and songwriter. Creating music is a big part of my life, and I love it.
OFB: Tell us more about your work in music and Transpose PDX.
Ash: I got connected to Transpose PDX through my work in the choral arts world as a singer/producer/arranger in the community. I saw working with them as a really great opportunity to continue the work that I was already doing, but also to engage with a community that was new to me – the trans community. In working with them and getting to participate in their community, learning more of the language and developing tools for myself, I discovered my own gender identity and further deepened my understanding of my own gender and sexuality.
It was being a part of that family that created a sense of authenticity and discovery for myself where I was able to really grow as a person. I've become deeply invested in the work that we're doing and I’m really passionate about it.
Since trans folks are disproportionately impacted by barriers to access in all arenas, the work that Transpose PDX does in the choral musical setting is all about dismantling those barriers. Transpose PDX was founded in 2017 with the Transpose Community Choir and our a cappella group, Acchord. We center the trans non-binary gender nonconforming community in leadership, membership, and focus.
Our mission is to empower our community by creating a brave and accountable space to expand musical skills, develop a sense of identity and center our voices and song as trans and nonbinary folks. We often bear the burden of creating spaces for ourselves that are built for us, embrace us, support us and give us the opportunity to thrive. But trans people are brilliant, resilient and talented. So spaces like Transpose PDX are pretty rare and magical.
Our vision statement proclaims that “we are the ripple starters, the ambassadors of change, and the consciousness racers. We humanize trans folks through the most human of art forms –singing. As we become visible, may the people who encounter us no longer feel alone, gain the courage to be their authentic selves and be inspired to start their own ripples.”
We focus on what liberation means and reduce and eliminate barriers to access within the choral sphere. We prioritize selecting songs by trans people and POC artists. The whole choir participates in the process of song selection, from suggesting songs to voting on songs, to identifying or modifying problematic lyrics. This helps us uplift trans voices behind the scenes. We arrange all of our own music to fit the unique, individual and collective vocal ranges of trans folks.
This helps us avoid gendered language like soprano, alto, tenor, bass. We often have voice parts that can be sung in any octave so that singers have the freedom and flexibility to explore or affirm their voice. We encourage our singers to exercise flexibility and freedom and which voice parts they sing. We offer direction when requested, but they can switch their voice part from song to song, week to week and in the middle of a rehearsal.
In terms of performance, we encourage different choir members to introduce every song that we sing for our audiences so that they can express what the song means to them. And that fosters an incredible sense of connection and learning with our audiences and even with ourselves as a community.
Lastly, we don't enforce a dress code or specific concert attire. We say to our singers to “dress as your best self”, and this enables our singers to authentically express their own gender and themselves fully, creating comfort. It expresses a beautiful diversity and reduces barriers to participate. There's a quote that'll I'll borrow and modify, which is, “if you've met one trans person, you met one trans person.” So in the ability to express authentically who you are and show up as your best self, we are enabled to create that beautiful chaos of diversity and share that with each other and with our audiences.
OFB: What a wonderful space you’ve all created! Are resources available for trans folks outside of the musical world?
Ash: Absolutely. Within our choirs, we recognize that our main focus is to address the barriers that persist within the rehearsal room, in performance and in the structure of the organization. But we also address the barriers to access to even getting there, which includes things like transportation. In the past, we've set up rideshare systems and accountability buddies for checking in around getting to and from rehearsal safely. We’ve created systems of choir mentorship so folks can feel supported within the room. And we’ve put systems in place for folks of different abilities so that they have a space that they can access physically and are able to engage and fully participate when they're in the room. That includes making sure all of our spaces are ADA accessible for wheelchair users and ensuring our deaf and blind singers have ways to meaningfully engage with the rehearsal and with fellow singers.
And outside of our spaces, we recognize all of the disproportionate barriers that our community faces, including food insecurity. When we were rehearsing in person pre-pandemic, we would have a break time where folks could bring leftovers or snacks, if they were able, to share during rehearsal. We've set up a mutual aid discord server, so that while we're in the pandemic, we can support each other across various streams of needs, whether that's housing support, food insecurity, transportation, things like that. We’re doing our best to try to see our singers and our community as whole people with full lives that have diverse needs.
OFB: Such great work you all are doing! Can we talk about the poster you have in your background? It says “the future is non-binary” and I’d love to know more. Does that relate to the Trans Day of Visibility?
Ash: Generally speaking, the Trans Day of Visibility is meant to celebrate trans folks, our contributions to society and also raise awareness of the discrimination we face. It's more than a celebration, although celebrating in trans joy is a radical act; it's a call to action. Visibility is a critical step, a critical first step towards liberation.
Visibility is about access. It's about access to resources, community, language, full freedom of expression. Trans folks are disproportionately affected by both new and deeply rooted barriers to access for things like housing, food, medical, employment, creative expression, and so much more.
Visibility is about raising that awareness, but it's also about transforming that awareness into action, activism and advocacy. I’m going to get a little abstract here for a moment, but to paint a picture, imagine the sun, which might shine a spotlight on a flower. But it also helps it grow, blossom, and expand. Visibility is that sunlight. While the world and the forces within it can make the lives of trans folks harder, it's also so important to celebrate trans joy, beauty, community resilience, authenticity, the list goes on. Being trans is a beautiful thing.
A big part of the collective and often personal trans experience is letting go of the gender binary – that there are only two rigid rules and ways of existing, which then frees us up to examine and reject so many other binaries, closets and oppressive systems. The consequence of this is a radical dream of living intentionally freely and in a self actualizing way. How much of this is a dream versus a reality depends a lot on the personal and systemic circumstances, which again is why visibility is so important because it helps us move towards that liberation.
So when we say the future is non-binary, what we're really saying is that the future is free from the oppressive forces that say we have to conform to a certain standard or role, and that truly we can self-actualize and live authentically and freely. So that's what that poster means.
OFB: And for folks who may find discomfort in that binary system going away, how do we share with them that this is not just a benefit to trans folks?
Ash: Yes, gender liberation serves everyone. It liberates everyone, right? Trans folks knowing who they are better also helps cis folks know who they are better. No one's trying to take anyone's gender away from them. Rather, we're saying “what works for you doesn't work for me.” No matter what binary we're talking about, no matter what cause we're talking about, no matter what oppressive force we're talking about, we must recognize that there is so much more and so much possible for everyone, and it’s not a zero-sum game.
OFB: What then are some calls to action for the Trans Day of Visibility? How do we make this a kick-off point for a lifetime of action?
Ash: That is both a great and awful question. Everyone has a personal part to play, and at the same time, it's so much about the systems around us that have to change. Our leaders have to change the system with us, for us, by us.
So personally, the things that are important are exposure, education and engagement. Do you know trans people in your personal life? Do you follow trans folks on social media? Do you watch media by or featuring trans folks? Again, if you've met one trans person you've only met one trans person, and we're a deeply diverse community of stories, experiences, heartaches and joys. Getting to know us directly or indirectly is foundational to our liberation.
So visibility is step one, truly, of a long path, of perhaps a never-ending path because the world continues to change and evolve. The experience of being trans today in many ways is very different from the experience of being trans five years ago, 10 years ago, 20 years ago. There are so many forces at play, like globalization. The internet made rapid changes and expansions in language, and so much changes so quickly today. By no means do I think that we have everything figured out for everything right now in this moment. And to some extent that's almost an impossible task because the world's gonna continue to change and develop. So what do we do?
We engage, we listen, we connect, we advocate. And we really put pressure on the leaders in our local community, in our nations to create safety and liberation for folks. As we speak, there are 12 anti-trans bills in Arizona right now, and there are so many more across the nation. This shows the urgent need to fight against oppressive forces and we can't fight without meaningful connection and engagement with our communities.
That goes across the board, whether we're talking about trans folks, houseless folks, people of color – whatever community we're talking about and whatever forces are at play in their lives that stripped them of their humanity, we need to engage with those folks while we work for those folks at the same time.
OFB: How do we move past the harmful legislative actions that many states are taking across the country?
Ash: I think a big part of that is exposure. What I mean by that is to look at how we got to gay marriage. There were propositions and bills, state by state, and slowly we were getting gay marriage rights until it was recognized federally. Personally, I think that a huge part of the shift in the attitude of the country as a whole and what enabled us to get to federally recognized marriage equality for all was seeing gay people in the media. More people were coming out, and more people knew gay people. So it's about humanizing folks who are different from you so you’re able to say, “Oh yeah, I know a bunch of gay people. Why wouldn't I want them to be able to get married?” Instead of this distant, scary unknown, we are able to connect to and humanize groups of people who we differ from. In doing so, it feels more possible to care.
I think we’re on the same trajectory with trans folks. It’s going to require creating more and more diverse representation of ourselves in media. And part of that is liberating ourselves from classic and limiting narratives, like “born in the wrong body” and things like that. And as people see a fuller and deeper expression of what it means to be trans, they can start to connect to it in different ways and understand it more wholly. It also requires introspection on that person's part and it requires some amount of desire to learn, grow and care.
And not everybody has that. I struggle a bit with some of my family members who love me unconditionally. We come from very different worlds and hold many different identities. We are miles apart in where we come from, in terms of our values. And we're working actively together to bridge that distance. It's a lot of hard work and it's exhausting, so I reserve that bridge-building for certain folks in my life so I can also care for myself in the process.
OFB: We cannot pour from an empty cup, right? Before we close, I’m curious if you have hope for the future?
Ash: I do. Hope is hard, but hope is necessary. Do I have hope that we will soon or ever arrive at a world that sees and affirms and values everybody? Probably not, but do I have hope that we will continue to fight for that until whichever apocalypse comes and gets us? Yes. And I think that there is value in that.
I don't think that the goal, as great as it would be, is to build a world without harm. I think that, hopefully, what we can do is build a world that addresses the harm in a way that values and affirms people. A world that has resources for folks, a world where some people do compassionately care for others, and a world where there is a way to address injustice.
I don't know that it's possible to build a world without injustice, however, because we're humans; we're fallible, we're imperfect, we cause harm intentionally, unintentionally. I do think there can be peace along the way as we work towards that world, though. We can know peace, and justice, and care while we are fighting injustices, and wars, and apathy. And that’s what I’m holding on to.
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In the spirit of this year’s Trans Day of Visibility, we invite you to visit some of the resources below that Ash shared with us.
Alok V Menon: @alokvmenon
Pink News: @pinknews
Wes Chernin: @wes_chernin
Fox Fisher: @thefoxfisher
LGBTQ Portland: @LGBTQPortland
And finally, a great performance from Transpose PDX: "You Matter to Me"