Throughout Pride season the LGBTQ space becomes inundated with voices and experiences from every possible lived experience.
Amongst the madness of parties, panel discussions, rainbow sandwiches, fashion campaigns and events, there are individuals and organisations whose authenticity raises them above the noise. Travis Alabanza and Jamie Windust are two such individuals.
Travis Alabanza is a multi-disciplined poet, playwright and performer whose work combines their own real experiences with their uniquely urgent tone of voice to bring audiences into the day-to-day experiences of a non-binary person of colour. Their one-person show, Burgerz, is a captivating insight into the usualised violence that people of their identity face from the general public, with a direct call to action on how it should be stopped by the people who bear witness to such acts, rather than the victims themselves.
Jamie Windust is an editor, writer and public speaker who got fed up of not seeing their experiences reflected in media and created their own media platform – FruitCake. Their work looks at queerness in 2019 as a non-binary feminine person, and discusses the ways in which they and people like them can feel empowered to navigate the world authentically. They also launched a campaign to allow X passports in the UK with a petition that has already garnered over 20,000 signatures.
As the glitter is washed into the gutters and the rainbow flags are folded away for next year, we caught up with the iconic duo ahead of their Amplify cover shoot in London to discuss being objectified by the media for their identity, why they shouldn’t be asked to speak on behalf of the entire LGBTQ community, and why they’re fed up with fighting back against cisgender gay men.
I’ve obviously interviewed both of you separately before, but it’s amazing that you’re now coming together. So let’s briefly start with how the two of you met?
J: Way back when, in like 1615.
T: Wait, Really?
J: She’s got receipts!
So Jamie you’re basically an OG fangirl?
J: Thanks for really breaking that demure, Jack.
T: Hey, let’s not out each other here, this is a safe space.
J: We first met with FruitCake, wasn’t it? So the FruitCake shoot?
T: Yeah I did the cover. That was the second cover issue of FruitCake wasn’t it? I was just really excited at the time to see another person that was gender non-conforming, feminine, loud in their choices, their fashion, their statements and out in public in most choices and statements too. It was really re-energising to see this person be like ‘I’m here, I’m taking up space.’
Obviously Jamie I’ve just outed you as fan girl, so I guess you knew about Travis far in advance?
J: Yeah, so Travis was one of the first people that I kind of, not found, but really had a resonance with through social media when I was – not to make them sound old – but when I was at school. So that experience was really great just because again, similar to what Travis just said about me, it was someone who was living very loudly and noisily in an environment where so often we weren’t allowed. So yeah: fangirl, fanboy, fangirlboy.
Now that the two of you work together quite a bit, do you find that you’re getting asked along to a lot of the same events?
T: We have a running text to each other: ‘Are you doing this, are you doing that?’ I think for me it’s been a different kind of year. In the last year I’ve really learned to say no to lots of things. I really wanted to focus on making art and making theatre. I knew that in order for the theatre world to take me seriously, that unfortunately meant that I had to maybe not do as many of the other things that I’ve been doing, just because of the way the world was viewing me. And that’s meant that I’ve maybe not been as present in certain places and ways. To be honest, I feel like the opposite happens, they only need to invite one of us so that’s all they do.
That kind of brings me onto the next question. We’re in the middle of Pride season, so tokenism is reaching a critical mass. How do you make sure – both of you individually and I guess as you said as duo – that you’re not essentially being objectified for your identity?
J: I think it’s really difficult because recently, in the past six months or so, my modelling career has –
T: Oooh say it! Repeat it again for me!
J: [Laughs] No but when I was first signed, it was made very clear that this wasn’t my full-time job, whereas in the past six months, it actually has switched around and has become quite a large part of what I’m doing at the moment. So therefore, to avoid tokenism in that respect is quite difficult because it just happens. As a model sometimes you don’t necessarily have the autonomy to be able to fully take over a photoshoot. For example like today it’s about us, so we have that freedom, that autonomy. Whereas if I’m just booked on a job that is not centred around identity or queerness necessarily – even though it should be – it’s very difficult to avoid. I do always bring up with people that they’re booking me because, even though yes I’m loud, I am still white which makes me ‘palatable’. Even this Pride season or this year creatively, it’s still not moving forward in the ways that it needs to be. Although yes, we’re tokenised, I think it’s important that if you’re in spaces of privilege to call it out. Fuck the pay cheque, call it out!
And you, Travis?
T: First, I want a moment of silence because I can’t believe Pride month is still happening, that we’re still in Pride season. I want to be slightly homophobic and say that i’m ready for it end [laughs].
Have you seen that meme, ‘Ex-homosexual?’ That’s literally me at this stage.
T: Yeah, literally! You know when I think about tokenism and what it means to be non binary and all these things, I remember that I came up through a community of organisers. When I first moved to London I was in a queer scene that had no interest in media and no relationship to media, and no understanding or want of a career in media. That was just not something that I knew. I was around people that were organising and mobilising, so that meant that when I come through these things those lessons are really still with me. I think that people always tell you that you represent a community, and I really have to aggressively fight back against that, and say that’s not possible. A community is too big, too diverse, and too nuanced for one person to ever fully represent it or even get close to representing it.
And do you find that you’re consistently getting asked questions, and being asked to respond on behalf of an entire group of people? Especially a group of people that you might not actually represent even at all?
T: Absolutely, I mean what does non binary actually mean? If you took 100 non binary people and put them in the same room, there would be more things that are not in unison than things that were. Our experiences are so different, and so for me my rule is I say ‘no’ more often than I say ‘yes’. I don’t just say a blank ‘no’, I give 20 other people that I think could do the job better than me. And thats been my practice for the last two years, because 1. I’m bored of my own voice, and 2. there’s also so many people that have experiences that are so much more interesting to hear. And I know for a fact that when you can go, ‘Name the non binary people in the UK whose work you know about’, and you can name 20 to 30 people there will be much less pressure and we’ll be allowed to show more versions of ourselves, because we won’t have to represent everything.
Jamie that’s actually how you came onto my radar, and Gay Times’ radar. Travis actually reached out to me and said ‘you need to get in touch with Jamie’.
J: It was after the gag, the drama when…
Which drama was it again?
J: It was the attack.
Of course – because you had been misrepresented in media. I’m not going to talk about that but basically…
T: No say it girl, I’ve had experience being misrepresented in the media too!
Well actually, tell me about that experience. You were misrepresented, and that’s when Travis reached out to me and said ‘this isn’t the full story’, so we asked you to write your own version of accounts. Has that misrepresentation happened since? Does it happen even within queer media?
J: Yeah I feel like, especially with queer or non binary people who present themselves in a way that is enjoyable, within media we’re so often described as flamboyant, camp, kitschy. And yeah, we are, but that paints a picture of us that’s only two-dimensional, and it can often negate the actual things that we’re talking about. It’s really frustrating because you’re then in a state where you’re not being listened to because people only want to know how long it takes you to do your make-up in the morning. And I’m over it.
T: When Topshop happened I felt really supported by my friends, but alone in the sense that I didn’t know who to talk to about what to do when that kind of vitriolic attack is happening. All I wished was that someone had gone, ‘Hey this what you could do, here’s another place to tell your story’. So I think when I saw that was happening with Jamie I remember just messaging them and being like: ‘Girl if you want a space to be able to talk about it, I trust Gay Times, I know Gay Times, let’s see if they can get your own story out’. With the media and what’s happening with this heightened trans visibility, what can sometimes be lost is the actual trans person at the centre telling their own story in their own words, and having their pen to their paper. The most powerful thing about that attack on that lesbian couple recently was that her response was penned by her, and that was badass because it was from her mouth, and it was not what people were expecting her to say. When these things are happening, I was like, ‘Jamie you’ve got to say your own shit from your own mouth’. That’s when the media can be the most powerful, by seeing themselves rather than as authors, but as enablers to other people using their voice.
With the attack on the lesbian couple, one of the painfully apparent things I realised was that it only got so much press because it was two cis white girls. That’s obviously not to diminish the attack, but the fact of the matter is that attacks far worse are happening to people far more marginalised. How would you recommend leveraging an event like that to bring it back to the daily reality of people that are even further oppressed?
T: Yeah, you’re so right. Obviously it was complicated, and I think another reason why that got so much attention is also the image itself. We have a desire to reproduce traumatic images online. We have a weird connection to when we see something shareable from someone else’s experience of violence. But I do think there’s something about two women in love that is still dangerous, and that shouldn’t be erased. I’m really resisting the urge to say, ‘Well, statistically we experience more violence’ etc etc etc because actually right now there are so many different types of people who are afraid of going outside. What I would do is say, ‘When we recognise other people’s pain, how do we also bring the attention to the people that have been saying it forever?’ If there was a news article every time one of my gender non-conforming friends got beat up or harassed we would have no space for this fucking shoot. Fuck it, I don’t even want us to go ‘how can we support this person etc’, we need a whole overhaul on how we act outside as people. I think we have to decide as a community to invest in bystander training, invest in what it means to be outside because it’s only going up. We just saw that hate crimes have gone up by 144%. What’s wild is that at the moment even the gay boys that I thought were safe are getting harassed, thats when you know shit is coming. I’m like, ‘Wait bitch, these masc, dude for dude bros are getting harassed, so what the fuck is going to happen to the girls?!’
J: I get asked to comment on things that are specifically about harassment or hate crimes fairly often. First of all, I shouldn’t have to share that if I don’t need to. And it’s also just my instance, that is not going to speak for the instances that everybody faces individually. I think it’s also important that media institutions don’t rely on the people who are being harassed to ask for empathy. It’s not how it works, we shouldn’t have to almost beg or plead for allyship or empathy in that respect, that’s not how it works. I think like Travis said having an overhaul, more importantly I want to see it from within the community first. So much of the time within the whole community we’re asking people from outside to be supportive, when the people inside are not trans allies at all.
Well that brings me on to my next question actually. The gender nonconforming, non-binary identity is one of the most misunderstood and equally one of the most varied experiences within the queer community. So do you find it exhausting when you’re having to constantly defend and explain yourself to people who are members of the LGBTQ initialism ?
J: Yeah. I’m going to be borderline homophobic now, because I just don’t like the amount…
T: Say it to Gay Times, perfect audience [laughs]
Yeah, give me that soundbite!
J: I just don’t like the fact that gay, privileged, white, cis men: they’re still as entitled as their straight counterparts in the respect that if they see something that they don’t understand they will ask someone until they get the information. And in terms of, for example gender non-conforming people, if they literally just don’t understand something visually in front of them. Which is hilarious. Just grow the fuck up. Why do you need to interrogate people in that respect? It’s not going to better you in any way.
Why don’t they Google? I mean for anything else you don’t understand, you’d just Google it, right?
T: What i’ve started reminding myself is that sometimes because the language is evolving, it can make people think that [gender nonconformity] is really new. Then people get really afraid and are like ‘I don’t understand these things!’. The truth is gender non-conforming people have been such a central part of this community for fucking ages. Any archived footage you look at of queer moments, queer history or queer film have been about gender non-conforming people. I think we’re creating an environment at the moment where everyone is finding lots of power in labels, and what that can sometimes do is people become too afraid to say the label so they distance themselves from it – ‘I’m afraid of this new thing – non-binary – so I’m going to go as far from it as possible’. When actually gay men and gender nonconformity have always had a really close conversation. There’s always been a really complicated relationship between gay men and their gender, and everyone always says sexuality is separate from gender… I think that’s kind of wild. I think sexuality is constantly informing our gender and how we feel about our gender. I think disgust and desire – very thin lines. I think what’s actually happening is that people are afraid of how close they are to gender nonconformity because deep down, maybe they just want to be us for the weekend. I honestly think that we need to start realising that transness is a lot closer to our homes, and is always in our homes, and therefore we must protect it as we would protect our homes. Rather than seeing it as a separate house, to carry on the shit analogy. That for me is far more healthier. Am I exhausted by it? Sometimes, but I also think that I’m surrounded by such a mix of people that I don’t get the chance to be exhausted. And then I remember that I don’t want separatism. I’ve really realised that in the last year, I respect people that do [want separatism] and I understand where that mindset comes from but I really want a strong unified community.
To be blunt, do you think that’s within the realms of the near future? That we’ll all be dancing together under one glittery rainbow?
T: No. I think some sections of the community might, though. I tried to do Pride this year. I tried to do the Pride thing, and if anything just white people’s music taste is going to stop me, that’s the main thing that’s going to get in the way. I really think everyone’s talking about, ‘How can white people better support queer and trans people of colour?’ I just want to say, ‘Get on beat and hand over that aux cable!’ Until that happens, no I do not see that time coming. As long as we’ve got another white drag queen coming out as a DJ, we are doomed! Put that in the fucking sound bite! [Laughs]
J: Over the past year I’ve realised that I am just not happy with being angry. I think sometimes there is power in anger, but the response from within the community is making me angry. So therefore when people are overly optimistic about the community I’m like, ‘Are you not seeing what we’re seeing? Are you not living what we’re all living with?’ Obviously the truth of that is, no, they’re not. So therefore when people say ‘love is love!’ I’m like, ‘Yeah it is, anything else?’ But they can’t expand past that. It is frustrating because it feels very insular in that respect.
So how do you start having a conversation with cis white gays about intersectionality that’s not going to end with both of you just being angry?
T: It’s interesting, because I didn’t realise that I was in a community with white people honestly until I started becoming more visible in the LGBTQ community. Because for me community has always been where I lived. My defining factors of community, as a black person growing up on a council estate that was predominantly black and brown, was that community never meant this thing where everyone was the same, it was grouped together by circumstances you couldn’t change. And the way you dealt with conflict in community, when things go wrong, is just so different. I think what we have to do is be less afraid of being wrong. I think I learnt that so much of this comes from white men and white fragility: they’re afraid of being wrong. And more so being afraid of accepting that they’ve caused violence. I think there has to be an urgency, I actually want to have less conversations with white people about ‘intersectionality’ or my race, I want to have less of those. I want to spend that time keeping hydrated, staying together with my friends. I want other white people to be doing it, that’s where I want the work to be done. I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but why aren’t white people getting together in groups and talking? Well, we’ve seen what happens when they do! We don’t need any more of that. But seriously, white people need to be invested in talking to each other about anti-racist work. I think also for me it’s about not separating off where this plays into housing problems, or how this plays into things like deportation. It’s getting our heads out of the rainbow flag a bit and realising if we’re talking about queer issues, we should also be supporting migrants, we have to also be supporting Sisters Uncut. We have to see these issues as all connected. To me those are all queer issues. When gay white men can realise that the biggest issue facing queer people isn’t the closure of XXL, then maybe we can move forward. [Laughs]
What do you think, Jamie? I’ve seen you speak at a few events and you do quite a good job of echoing what Travis has just said, of actually leading a conversation and reminding people in the spaces that you come into of the privilege not only they have, but that you have. And I think that’s quite a refreshingly self-aware thing for a queer ‘influencer’, lets say, to be aware of their privilege.
J: Burn that word!
Well obviously in this sector sometimes it seems that the people who are invited to speak at events have this baseline understanding of the LGBTQ community and the issues they face. Like what you just said about ‘love is love!’ and ‘rainbows!’, that kind of thing. I feel like you both represent this insurgence of people who are coming up who are actually educated on the issues and on the experiences. How do we foster an environment for more people like yourself to come out and spread the good word?
J: In terms of talking about your position in your community, it’s about making sure that for example as a white queer non-binary person you have to go through and just self-analyse. Also what people struggle with is when they approach things that make them feel uncomfortable, for example racism or deportation, or when they see things that they’ve not experienced themselves but they know are uncomfortable – a lot of people get to that point and then they stop. It’s important that you continue kind of self-analysing it and self-realising exactly why these things are making you uncomfortable and then taking action to make sure you don’t reciprocate that outwardly. I still don’t really believe that I am doing what I’m doing. Travis sometimes texts me and says ‘You’re doing it, stop thinking about it, you’re doing it’. I think that’s really important because it means that I need to put all my insecurities aside and realise that the position that I’m in, I have a responsibility to not ‘speak for everyone’, but to de-centre myself from the conversation, which I try and do. But I’ve also recently realised – this might be a tangent but I really want to say it – that I’m also allowed to not have to die by the sword all the time. I’m trying to have fun with what I’m doing now, and I think that is also important…
T: Fun and queerness?! What?!
J: Yeah, exactly. I want to explore fashion more, and dip into a more genuinely creative sphere of work that isn’t specifically to do with ‘fighting the good fight’. It’s important to realise that, the people that we are, we are multifaceted, we’re not always out here screaming and shouting. I think we need to be depedestalled. Someone said to me the other day ‘How do you deal when people say you’re their inspiration?’ I’m like a) cheers, but b) not to sound like a knob to myself but you have to depedestal the people that you aspire to be because you can’t emulate your whole life on someone else’s journey when you don’t know them.
T: So true babes. I think at the moment we’re at this weird place in capitalism, where they’ve caught on to activism as a means of making money. And so what’s happened is there’s a real pressure to individualise ourselves and to make ourselves exceptional, and make ourselves the first, and the only one that’s ever done something. Depedestal is a really great phrase because it’s about saying queerness is about community, it’s about being together, and doesn’t exist within individualism. So I am always reminded of all the incredible groups and people that are doing the actual work, and are together outside the individual. If I was just online talking about everything that was pissing me off all the time, I wouldn’t have made it to work today. The fact that I get to perform and make art, that’s my job and that’s what makes me happy. Queerness and joy is the best liberation tactic. Anger is real, but there’s nothing more powerful than queer people enjoying themselves in public. I talk shit about Pride, but there was a moment on the Southbank Centre Pride stage where the Glory were doing their thing, and these straight guys went and asked these queer people for a lighter. I was just overlooking it, and they weren’t rude, but the straight guys were coming up quite like aggressively and the group of queers were so busy dancing that they couldn’t hear the person asking for a lighter and the guy was like ‘Excuse me, I’m asking you for a lighter.’ And this queer person just handed it to them and carried on dancing without even looking at them. For me that was more powerful than any sponsored Instagram post i’ve seen in the past six months. [Laughs]
Onto visibility, it can sometimes seem like it’s a double edged sword. With heightened visibility there’s a heightened access for people to learn. But also you’re completely walking into a firing line.
J: It’s a situation where we might turn a look, and we’re going to give you want you want and you’re going to gag. But you also need to make sure that there are safeguarding practices within what you’re doing so that these groups don’t come at us, or don’t attack us for just most of the time having fun. And it will just be a casual shoot, or just a fun look or having a laugh, and then suddenly you’re reminded that you’re not allowed, and you’re just policed in that way. Which is just really frustrating.
Have you ever just snapped or lost your cool?
T: Always snapping back. The snap is so real, and I think it builds into this idea that trans feminine people – actually fuck trans and cis – just feminine people in general being seen as hysterical, being seen as too much. And responding to that moment there’s always the image of a hysterical woman losing her shit but actually no one ever talks about the things behind the scenes making that person lose their shit. And it’s always the little things that send you over the edge, I remember I had been harassed all week and it was a Thursday and someone just called me a fag on the bridge, and because something had already happened on that bridge – I mean I made a whole fucking show about it…
Is this a segue into a Burgerz plug?!
T: Burgerz, Burgerz, Burgerz! Because it was on that specific bridge or something like that, I lost my fucking shit and I was with my friend, and I went ‘What the fuck did you call me?! You cant call people fags!’ and I started crying and was like, ‘You’re what’s wrong with the world!’ And the guy was just like ‘wow’ and I just lost my shit. But the thing about TERFs specifically is that they are really well organised.
Well it’s because they’re just at home with their kids all day.
T: Literally, we have to start treating the TERFs as a serious mode of organisation that, although disgusting, is well oiled. And we need something as well oiled back.
Travis Alabanza is currently in Edinburgh at Traverse Theatre all of August with their critically acclaimed show Burgerz, following this the show will be touring the UK with its final dates at Southbank Centre. You can get your tickets here.
Jamie Windust is in the midst of writing their debut book to be released next year, and also features on Scarlett Curtis’ new book ‘It’s Not Ok to Feel Blue (and Other Lies)’. You can sign Jamie’s petition to allow X Passports here.
Photography Hidhir Badaruddin
Words Jack Pengelly
Fashion Umar Sarwar
Makeup (Travis) Umber Ghauri
Makeup (Jamie) Jessica Edwards
Fashion Assistant Miranda Mikkola
Photography Assistant Delali Ayivi
The post Travis Alabanza and Jamie Windust won’t be just your non-binary checkbox appeared first on Gay Times.
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Author: Jack Pengelly