Last month we kicked off our Voice To Voice conversation series with a collection of interviews between LGBT authors discussing queer topics and issues related to writing.
In February, in honor of Black History Month, we've asked some amazing individuals to join the Voice To Voice series in an effort to examine the issues, challenges, strengths and complexities that arise from the overlap of and intersection between the LGBT and black communities.
Our first pair is Laverne Cox and her twin brother, M. Lamar.
Cox is an actress/producer and transgender advocate. Her television credits include "Law and Order," "Law and Order: SVU," "Bored to Death" and "TRANSform Me." Her film credits include "Daughter of Arabia" and "The Kings of Brooklyn" as well as the forthcoming "Carl(a)," "The Exhibitionists," "Grand Street" and "36 Saints." Her latest film, “Musical Chairs,” is opening in New York and Miami March 23, 2012 and Los Angeles and Chicago March 30, 2012.
M. Lamar is an operatic counter tenor, songwriter, pianist, and multimedia performance artist. His solo performance work has been presented at Abrons Art Center, PS 122, Dixon Place, The Chocolate Factory, B.A.AD., and Joe's Pub, among others. His newest piece, "Speculum Orum: Shackled To The Dead, Requiem for Voice and Piano," premieres at Cathedral Church of Saint John The Divine February 16th at 8pm. This piece focuses on Africans lost during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. For tickets click here.
Here Cox and Lamar discuss identity, celebrating the black penis, collective trauma, and more.
Laverne Cox: When I tell people about my twin brother and his sexual orientation, I say, "Well, he doesn't like to be called gay. Queer is closer but not really. He's in a long term relationship with a man and open about it." How would you describe your sexual orientation or would you?
M. Lamar: Well I think the most important thing about me is that I am an artist! I have been writing a requiem for the last year and a half about the middle passage that I am doing at The Cathedral Church of Saint John The Divine. So for me it's all about what one does as opposed to what one might be oriented towards doing. So as far as your question is concerned, I find it a bit reductive. I guess I don't believe in sexual orientation. I believe in sexual practice. From my experience sexual practice varies from situation to situation, so to speak -- in your terms here it feels like lying. I just don't believe in sexual orientation. I realize that it's part of a political agenda with gays, LGBT's or whatever. And I realize you are a part of that political agenda, trying to push these various sorts of things. But I just want to speak to the truth of my experience. The truth I believe is outside orientation and it's about behavior and ultimately sexual freedom outside of a label and, of course, being a practicing artist -- living one's life as art.
Cox: Very good.
Lamar: I have obviously known you for our entire lives. We're twins and you were studying dance and ballet most of our time growing up. But I remember seeing you at Marymount Manhattan College in a performance do a dance and then a monologue afterwards and I thought, This is what you should be doing -- acting. You're a brilliant actor and that's why I thought you shouldn't do the reality show ["I Want To Work For Diddy"]. To be an actor with serious training for years, lots of theater, and lots of films even before the reality show, for a serious artist to then go and do a reality show to me just seemed like the worst idea in the world. You remember I said, “Don't do it.” But talk to me about why you decided to do it.
Cox: You're not the only one who told me not to do it. But my decision to do reality television wasn't about me as an actress. I watch a lot of television and consume lots of pop culture including reality television. I had always thought how would "The Real World," for example, look with a transgender person integrated into the cast? I have always believed that since trans folks are a part of American culture, we should be a part of the way that culture is represented in film and on television. So it was about a vision of transgender representation in the media more than it was about me. We, of course, still have a long way to go with that but there has been a little progress. Gosh, I feel like Obama trying to be re-elected with that statement but there has been progress. It's not as fast as we'd like but things could be worse. Obama 2012!
Lamar: Now you're not doing reality TV and you're doing more films. In terms of the way the industry receives you, do you think it's difficult to be taken as seriously? I mean you start out as a serious actress and then have this digression into reality TV. Now that you're back to serious acting, do you think there's been a difficulty with people realizing that you're a very well-rounded artist?
Cox: Well, I never stopped acting and I am working on a new "reality" project but solely as a producer at the moment. Working as a black transsexual actress was difficult before reality television. It still is. Being a working actor is difficult for anyone. I think it's just a lot of the public doesn't know my acting work yet and doesn't know what you know about me as an actress because you've been there the whole time. I am so excited about people seeing my next film, "Musical Chairs." It's a film about wheelchair ballroom dancing, but it's also a beautiful story about love and family and about anything being possible. Dance has always been a huge part of my life and the story is told so beautifully through dance in this film. I play Chantelle who is a trans woman and is also paraplegic, but she is also sassy, sexy and wise. Learning to ballroom dance in a wheelchair was an intense and wonderful challenge for me. Working on this character and trying to embody truthfully the experience of being disabled, I developed such a sense of respect and admiration for the courage and strength that people with disabilities have, what it means to not only exist but to thrive with dignity in a world that is not really designed for you. I thought I knew this as a trans woman but it went so much deeper working on this film. Speaking of our work, can you talk about the recurring theme of lynching in yours?
Lamar: The requiem I have been working on focuses on the middle passage and The trans-Atlantic slave trade. But, yes, a lot of my work in the past has been focused on James Cone’s idea of "The Lynching Tree," not just being about the worst kind of violence and death but also as a site of possibility and hope in the way Christians view the cross. Well, of course, Professor Cone is a Christian and I am not, but I feel very connected to "The Lynching Tree" in a spiritual sense. I have also been obsessed with the castrations that happened during lynching. I have been trying to write music about this and it is very difficult because one doesn't want to re-traumatize black folks with scenes of pornographic murder like when we often see rape in films. Yet I feel a deep need to talk about these black penises with a deep consciousness of the ways blacks folks have been objectified and dehumanized. I think we need a mourning of the black penis.
Cox: What do you mean mourning the black penis?
Lamar: Well, maybe it's a celebration of the black penis in ways that are non-patriarchal and non-pornographic -- re-signifying it and loving it, which has to be about acknowledging the humanity of the persons connected to it.
Cox: Celebrating the black penis in a non-patriarchal, non-pornographic way? I like that. Is the penis always and only masculine though?
Lamar: It's complicated. I don't know what the people who have had sex with me are going through being that I am not the most masculine dude.
Cox: I ask because I know lots of men who have sex with trans women of various races, trans women who have not had bottom surgery. These men say they don’t experience the penises of these women as being masculine. I am reluctant to talk about genitalia as it relates to trans folks in general and particularly with trans women because we are so often objectified, exploited and reduced to the genitals we have or don't have. But since you brought it up, I think trans women who choose not to have bottom surgery give us the opportunity to think about the penis in ways that are not always masculine -- the feminine penis if you will.
Lamar: That's deep. That’s really deep, right, but that's your work not mine.
Cox: I wrote a piece several years ago called “Ain’t I A Woman” that talked about the historic devaluation of black womanhood and how in the bodies of African American trans women who have not had bottom surgery that that devaluation collides with the historic fascination with and fear of the black phallus. In the bodies of African American trans women there is sort of this collision of these culturally coded historical narratives, where in the patriarchal and transphobic imagination the African American trans woman represents the realization of the historical attempt through lynching etc. to emasculate the black man. I have wondered often about the black community’s seeming anxiety about trans women and perhaps gay men as well and wondered if it's linked at least in part subconsciously to the history of the emasculation of black men particularly during lynching and the historic devaluation of black womanhood and how this relates to this sort of collective trauma we haven't fully dealt with yet as a people.
Lamar: Maybe this is the juice of this whole discussion between us, the LGBT/queer question as regards to black people, collective trauma and how do we address it?
Cox: That's what your work seems to be about. Your piece “Negro AntiChrist” seems to be about finding spaces to mourn and recover from that trauma.
Lamar: Looking at history is partly how I find out who I am. "Negro Antichrist" moves through the trans-Atlantic slave trade, plantation culture, and Jim Crow trying to find a subjectivity, a self, outside of the white supremacist imagination. I love Angela Davis's book "Blues Legacies and Black Feminism" and the way she talks about blues being a reaction to the forced Christianity of slave culture. It is a musical form that says, "Now that I am free I will not worship your god." There are epistemological maps that exist in regards to loss and in regards to death in this blues music. I'm not a musicologist. I'm just an artist and musician but when someone like John Lee Hooker is singing "Graveyard Blues" or "Burning Hell" there's an epistemology of death and of longing and of dying that one can trace back to the spirituals, but in the blues not in this Christian "I am gonna die and be with my Lord" stuff.
Cox: In a lot of the individual songs you write there is this stylistic fusion of the Negro spiritual and blues sung with this operatic voice. You have a lot of songs like "The Tree" and "Swinging Low" with these stylistic fusions and the content is about being lynched.
Lamar: Yes, and trying to find oneself in that. But it's not about doing the "Strange Fruit" thing. I mean there's something almost pornographic about "Strange Fruit." It's an amazing song, one of the most amazing songs in American history, in the lineage. But I think there's something in the imagery that's really pornographic. It sort of brings up all those notions of the black phallus.
Cox: You think the images in "Strange Fruit" evoke images of the black phallus. I think that's one reading. I don't think everyone reads the song that way.
Lamar: I remember this story about Billie Holiday refusing to sing the song after a white woman says to her "sing that sexy song about black bodies swinging" so I think it is there. I feel like that's one of those things people can't even begin to talk about, all the emasculation that happened. It's important to understand that these penises once removed were bought, sold, pickled, and photographed. My only point of bringing it up constantly is this thing of mourning as well as pointing to a kind of psychosexual dimension inside of white supremacist violence and the white psyche in general. As Americans we’re still grappling with this and its consciousness. There are all these subconscious things that we’re grappling with -- with black men's bodies and black bodies in general -- that I think need to come to the surface because, in the words of W.E.B. Dubois, it is about the souls of black folks but these souls have bodies, you know.
Cox: Gosh one of the things I just thought about when you were saying that is a white male acquaintance of mine who after I told I him I had seen “Porgy and Bess” on Broadway recently told me that he's not interested in black culture. This guy is a straight identified stock broker who regularly likes to have sex with multiple black men at once yet he is not interested in black culture -- speaking of the psychosexual dimension inside of white supremacist violence -- as you put it. But what you said also made me think about trans women’s bodies and pornography.
Lamar: And how do we have discussions about pornography that don’t sort of seep back into the pornographic? I think that's the difficulty with my song “White Pussy.”
Cox: This is something I've been struggling with for a while. I've been trying to find a way to write about men who date and have sex with trans women and their closeted sexual obsession with trans women who haven't had bottom surgery and how the majority of these men are absent by the sides of trans women in our struggles for equal rights. The women they sexually objectify, they don't publically claim. How do we talk about this sexual objectification of trans women's bodies in a complicated nuanced way, this objectification which supports an ever growing trans porn and sex work industry without re-objectifying trans women's bodies? I don't just mean sexually objectifying us but also that objectification which reduces us to our bodies, what parts we have and don't have and uses that to invalidate us as whom we are? The extent to which the internet has made porn very easily accessible, more than ever people are able to pornographically consume trans women's bodies yet we remain disenfranchised socio-politically.
Lamar: I have at least five straight male friends who've confessed to me that they enjoy watching trans porn.
Cox: And why did they confess this to you?
Lamar: We were talking about sex.
Cox: Of course, I know lots of straight-identified men who watch trans porn.
Lamar: Well, we know that those who identify as gay generally don't watch and enjoy transsexual porn -- that it is straight-identified men who are watching.
Cox: This is generally true but there are exceptions. Sometimes I wonder if all the straight-identified men who supported the trans porn industry as consumers would support gender expression and employment nondiscrimination laws for transgender people, would these laws pass more easily. What would the world look like for trans folks if the men who sexually objectify us would join in the fight for our liberation and equality?
Lamar: Yeah what would that look like?