November 20 marks Trans Day of Remembrance, a day to honor the many who have been killed by violence aimed at transgender people. Let’s Talk commemorates this day with art created by Micah Bazant for Trans Day of Remembrance 2014, as well as an interview with the artist.
Let’s Talk: How did you decide to do this poster?
Micah Bazant: There’s a political group run by and for trans people of color called TransJustice, that’s part of the Audre Lorde Project in NYC. We had talked about collaborating and they contacted me looking for art for their Trans Day of Remembrance event. We agreed to sell the posters as a benefit for Audre Lorde Project (you can buy them online here!) and to share the art with other organizations. Strong Families – a national network of reproductive justice groups – has been growing their trans justice work, and doing a lot of work with trans and queer youth of color. They were incredibly supportive, and shared the art with all their partners and supporters.
Trans women and trans feminine people of color were the mothers of the LGBTQ liberation movement. As a trans person, I owe my life to people like Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, and so many other elders and ancestors who took so much shit and were on the frontlines of the struggle for decades. But even though trans women of color helped win so many victories for other LGBTQ folks, today they are still facing an epidemic of violence, and their leadership usually goes unrecognized.
It’s important to me to create art through relationships, to try and make sure I represent people in ways they feel awesome about, and then to offer and leverage the art to support organizing, and to materially contribute by donating from sales of the work.
LT: You also released a Trans Day of Remembrance poster last year. Can you tell us about that?
MB: Last year I did a portrait of Cece McDonald, a young Black trans woman in Minneapolis who fought off a racist, transphobic attack – she stabbed her attacker and he died. Although it was a clear case of self-defense, CeCe was sentenced to 41 months in a men’s prison. Throughout her ordeal, she was very clear that prisons and police do not serve or protect trans people, and will never create more safety for us.
The poster showed CeCe in prison, with her hand on the visiting room window glass. I feel especially emotional about the image right now because the art was based on an actual photo of CeCe and Leslie Feinberg – another trans revolutionary – touching hands and supporting each other. We actually just lost Leslie this week – hir early death was at least partly due to anti-trans bigotry and inaccessible health care.
It’s interesting to reflect on how much has changed since last year and how much hasn’t. CeCe is out of prison now and is a movement leader and a public speaker. But, like a lot of our leaders, she is still struggling to cover her basic needs. And other trans people, like Eisha Love in Chicago, are serving prison time for self-defense, but their cases haven’t received any attention.
At the same time, celebrities like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock are changing the media landscape. And I see more movements and cultural work actively including trans people of color, like #BlackLivesMatter and CultureStrike. There is so much organizing led by trans people of color that is doing incredible work with practically no resources – groups like the Trans Women of Color Collective, El/La Para Translatinas, Casa Ruby, Black Trans Media, Breakout, and so many more. But the average life expectancy for trans women of color is still 23 years and criminalization and discrimination are still daily events.
LT: How do you describe your gender?
MB: I identify as trans and also as timtum, which is one of six traditional Jewish gender categories. It’s a non-binary, fluid category that refers to someone whose gender is not a man or a woman and is not immediately identifiable.
About 15 years ago, when I came out as trans, there was radically less trans awareness in general and also very few models of non-binary trans existence. I was cut off from my family of origin and really having a spiritual crisis, so I began reconnecting with my Jewish culture and learning Yiddish, which was my mom’s first language. I came across the word timtum in a Yiddish dictionary one day and it was defined as an insult. I became obsessed with learning about this and found that like most traditional cultures, ancient Judaism had more than two genders.
I think a big part of trans liberation is decolonizing ourselves from the enforced gender binary, which I see as a fundamental tool of colonialism and white supremacy. Part of my work is reclaiming and reimagining my own culture as anti-racist, anti-zionist, and trans-fabulous.
I’m excited that gender non-conforming people are creating more space and language to describe ourselves, especially in culturally specific ways. The U.S.-dominated narrative of “trans” as a “new” phenomenon can also become a vehicle for cultural imperialism. Just like we are facing a global crisis of extinction around different languages, seeds and species, and we need that biodiversity to survive, I believe we need a cosmos of different understandings and stories about gender.
LT: What are you hoping to communicate in this poster?
MB: TransJustice and I decided we wanted to create an image that centered trans feminine people of color and that showed trans people loving each other across differences in age and gender expressions. We also wanted to keep shifting the narrative around Trans Day of Remembrance, since so many observances of the event had become really problematic. Often you’d have a bunch of mostly white trans masculine people or white cisgender people reading off the names of trans people who’d been murdered. The list of people murdered would be all Black and Latina trans women of color. It was like the one time of year that trans women of color were acknowledged and then only as victims. We do need to honor the dead, but we also need to fight side-by-side with the living.
Janet Mock wrote a great piece on this:
We can’t only celebrate trans women of color in memoriam. We must begin uplifting trans women of color, speaking their names and praises, in their lives. We do this by making their work more visible, by investing resources into their daily organizing, by hiring them in organizations that fight for gender justice, by ensuring that we not only speak the names of the fallen, but of the active.
We want to remember trans power and push people to take action for trans lives all year round.
LT: How do you think about the role of art in social change?
MB: I think artists have always played a crucial role in social justice movements, and I see many artists and organizers trying to figure out more powerful ways to work together. I love that movement artists are building our own networks and ways of sharing our work, that don’t rely on elite art world institutions, and can have a much broader reach than those institutions.
At the same time, a lot of organizers are unsure about how to work with artists or about the impact that art can have on their work. As an artist I used to feel like it wasn’t my place to suggest that. But after seeing how some of my art was shared by thousands of people and had a big impact on grassroots campaigns, I’ve started being more pro-active, with really great results.
If you are an artist and want to contribute to any social justice struggle, I really encourage you to reach out to people working on that issue and suggest your ideas. As artists we want our work to have a life in the world, to have passionate relationships with people beyond our sketchbooks. Organizations can help make that happen, and our work as artists can help make social change look irresistible.