With headlines left and right that churn my stomach, it's rare to find good seeds in the madness of the world. Especially when you are born transgender. To me that word hardly describes who I am, or what I want to be. It is limiting in the sense that we are humans, capable of reaching the stars and back, not just the labels we wear. I think that resonates for many of us, and it's why I felt compelled to create this list in the first place. The people on this list are in no particular order, and this is in no way a competition or a comparison.
There are countless other names out there, simply too many to count. Thousands of trans and queer artists, singers, writers, poets and revolutionaries. With a slowly accepting and ever changing tone of perception in the media, many trans and queer people are on the rise to building stronger communities, while still fighting for their truth in the public eye. These trans trailblazers are setting the tone for 2015, and I got a chance to chat with them.
For Meriweather "Merris" Asterios, transman is one in many titles he carries on his pinstriped sleeve. Stepfather to three children, author, husband, and artist, Asterios shines primarily through a co-authored work alongside his wife, Lillian. Together they've created a fantasy book series, Books of Belshalara, selling over 5,000 copies within the first week of release. "Before I knew his real life gender or even what he looked like, I fell in love with his words," says Lillian, as she recalls meeting Merris online, where he was roleplaying as a man prior to his real life transition. "I found myself becoming curious about the person behind the pen, behind the screen. As our friendship progressed, he told me that he was female [he presented as such at the time] and was deeply worried... but it didn't matter. I was already smitten.". When most people transition, they look to magazines and media, but this was not the case for Merris. For him, he found solace in a character in his own book series, one that seemed to resonate with who he felt he was inside. "The character was my way of testing the waters, so-to-speak...as Belshalara grew, the character became more of a caricature of me."Asterios notes. "I didn't become the character, it was just me all along hiding inside a body that wasn't mine." The power duo are now on the third book of the Belshalara series, as well as several companion novels. You can purchase their books on Amazon for Kindle here.
If you look up the word "accomplished" in the dictionary, you'll probably find a photo of Tona Brown. Besides being a teacher, mentor, and role model, Brown has been a champion of the violin since age 9, when she was inspired by a local outreach to play. Last year, she left her first reflection in history as the first trans woman of color to ever perform at Carnegie Hall. While being openly accepted by NANM, she is also the first transgender woman to perform for a sitting president when she performed for President Barack Obama. "Music to me is music no matter what," says the Virginia native. When asked what she would say to the trans youth of tomorrow, "You have a voice that's meant to be heard. there's enough work out there for all of us." While focusing on the resurgence of LGBTQ people of color, Brown is also heavily focused on expressing her art through community. "This is who I am," says Brown unapologetically. With her spirit set on the collaborations and hope of tomorrow, she spends her free days giving music lessons. "It's great to encourage young people to succeed and follow their dreams. For me...it's imperative. I can't even imagine doing anything else."
From Glee to Laura Jane Grace's True Trans series on AOL, it's sure to be no time before Isley Reust becomes a household name. Playing music since age 10, Reust also takes photos, has a black belt in TaeKwonDo, as well as a glowing YouTube account. Although most of her musical roots began in drama, it wouldn't take long before she'd be drawing influence from women like Shirley Manson, Bjork, and Cat Power. All that will culminate in the spring with the release of "Blur," debut record from her up and coming Los Angeles based pop group, Spectacular Spectacular. "Art is all about individuality and expression through what you create as an artist." says Reust. "I honestly thought last year was going to be a hard year for me to beat since so many amazing things were beginning to happen. I started working on a film that I'm staring in, Laura Jane Grace invited me to be apart of her doc-series 'True Trans' on AolOriginals, I got to be on Glee...I recorded an album and had my gender reassignment surgery. So as for this year, it's already turning out to be more amazing than I could've even imagined."
"I started writing poems the moment I found out what a poem was, at about 8 years old. I have been doing performance poetry for the last 11 years," J Mase III starts out, his email full of heart and on his sleeve. He is the founder of awQward, the first ever talent agency ran by and for trans & queer people of color. In the world of J Mase, it's about more than just diversifying the industry with bold new talent. It's also very much about balancing the scales. While trans folks are slowly finding their place in the media, he wants the masses to know that his story, while dynamic and complex is not a new one. With joblessness, homelessness, and violence that impact trans people of color, the LGBTQ community at large is forced to ask ourselves, How do we fix this? To J Mase, the answer is simple. There needs to be a culture shift towards making space for trans people of color in leadership. "Social justice movements should be running to address the fire of the problem and not the smoke. You cannot fix these issues by not engaging and making space for the most marginalized to make decisions," he says. It's these kind of questions and conversations that are setting the pace of 2015, with dynamic minds like J Mase focusing on the structure of revolution. Changing the narrative is only on the beginning of his to-do list. "The legacy we at awQward want to leave is a continuation of the work done before us by our TQPOC elders and ancestors. We want to make space for folks like us to be recognized for the brilliance of their work without having to compromise their values or placate to a system not designed for them."
"Modeling was the natural next step for me", says Peche Di, Vogue Model, makeup artist, muse, and fashion debutant. Entering the hectic world of NYC just four years ago, Modeling seemed to be the obvious choice after winning strings of beauty pageants. "The interesting thing about transforming a dream into reality is that it takes you someplace very different than you originally imagined. " says Di, with a wise tone to her words. "This is perhaps my Salvador Dalí year. Dalí continually extended one form of art into another. He was a painter, sculptor, filmmaker, photographer...the common thread in these various forms of art is that they allowed him to unleash his individuality. For me, 2015 is the year where I would like to continue my progression." says Di. Peche was not only one of the glowing models on the cover of Candy Magazine alongside trailblazers Janet Mock and Laverne Cox, she was also involved with the Barney's Campaign last year, which featured exclusively trans models posing alongside their mentors and life inspirations. Before you can finish turning your head at her on the runway, you can find Peche sinking her teeth into a number of other expressions. "Like Dalí, I've been working behind the camera also. I'm becoming an accomplished videographer and photographer. I also try and keep my blog up-to-date at Pechenyc.com," she says. "Through determination and hard work you will not only realize your dreams, you can exceed them. The path of life is filled with dreaming, extending yourself... But the only way to go down that path is to start."
Novelist. Poet. Singer. Dancer. Actress. Playwright. Is there anything Lady Dane can't do? At 17, this star produced her first cabaret. From the musical in the works, to the multiple books, there is a sea of work that exemplifies the brilliant artist that Edidi is. Taking place in the present, her first novel, Yemaya's Daughters follows the story of a trans priestess from a province in Africa untouched by colonization. Beyond her fantastic writing, Edidi offers another compelling narrative with her up and coming musical, Roaring, told through the lens of a 1920's trans star in Harlem. The idea for the musical came to life in 2001 when Edidi realized there were no musicals with trans women in lead roles. "I was born into artistry, my aunt is a jazz singer and my mother and her other sisters sing at church," says Edidi. She also speaks of the issues of where we are as a society, and how it impacts women of her experience.
"Mainstream culture...a manifestation of structural oppression is often trying to erase and silence trans women of color," she further explains. "Roaring is an act of revolution." It was clear that fuel needed a fire, leading her to team up with awQward talent agency. Today, Edidi is the co-host of Inside Out Radio Program in DC, as well as one of the leaders of the TWOCC, where she works to honor the work of her trans ancestors. She plans to finish her CD, as well as a live concept disc for Roaring. When asked what she would tell trans youth: "You are enough, you are worthy, you are more than deserving. You are the keepers of a sacred legacy which is as old as the manifestation of civilization."
At 13 years old, most children are reading comic books, playing outside, and soaking up the summer. That was only partially true for Koko Jones. She was touring as a percussionist for her first gig band, seeing the sights as her talent continued to flourish within. To this day Jones has played for Whitney Houston, The Isley Brothers, and shakes listeners with her own eclectic blends of World Jazz, R&B and Soul. "This time around I wanted touch a little on my experiences backing up those world renowned R&B/Soul and Pop icons that I performed with earlier in my career. Those experiences had a huge affect on my music and the person that I became. One of the producers of the record, Babatunde Lea and I started formulating the idea to add some covers, one of which was the Isley Brothers hit, Who's That Lady. The title not only encompasses a homage to them but it also spells out a theme of visibility. I want folks to know who I am. I want folks to know who trans women are. I want to bring light to the many talents that trans women have. And most of all I wanted to smash the stereotypes that people have of trans women," says Jones when being asked about her newest album, Who's That Lady. "Music is both personal and public. This album is kind of a personal journey but my hope is that it will shine like a beacon of hope for many...most of the songs are about uplifting our own narratives, building our resilience and providing hope for those in need of it." Currently Jones is teaching in the Bronx and working on booking a tour for her band, Soul Spirit, which she also hopes can reach college campuses to further educate the youth of tomorrow.
In the mist of poor trans representation in the media, Katrina Goodlett rises above the banter with her online radio program, The Kitty Bella Show. With an English Degree and a background in Journalism, radio seemed the route to best embody and amplify the voice of her ambition. With an astonishingly high rate of deaths in the bracket for trans women of color(Roughly one per week since the beginning of 2015), a lack of mainstream media coverage inspired her to stand up alongside her community to uplift the voices of trans people. "I hope and want for other TPOC to see The Kitty Bella Show as a safe space. In a society that continues to deny our very existence, it is so vital we have safe, affirming, loving spaces to share and grow," says Goodlett. Moving forward, the show is currently in the works for a live audience. Focused on the narrative of love and healing, it is Goodlett's hope to bring her show and shift the conversation towards the lived experiences of communities across the country. Along side all of her exciting work, Goodlett currently serves on the leadership for TWOCC. When asked what advice she would offer to the trans youth of tomorrow: "Love yourself. Take it easy on yourself...Don't beat yourself up for not being as [sic] "passable" as you may want. Realize you come from a history of Kings and Queens, and don't ever think of yourself as less. Your Life Matters."
Image via Chambers Facebook Page
Aeris Houlihan has music engraved in the beds of her fingernails. Calling music her "life-safer", Houlihan started UK based rock duo Chambers with her friend Ellie. Riff based rock is what beckons Houlihan's story, with her music focusing on personal subjects like her transition. "Me and Ellie are very passionate women. Not just with our music, it's just engraved into us. We often talk about subjects and end up getting carried away," says Houlihan, who saw the outfit as a chance to step outside the norm and do something different. The band released their debut track earlier this year. Houlihan hopes that trans youth who are drawn to music will not shy from their talents if they make the choice to transition. "Music will help you in so many ways."
The bells of truth have always rang loud for Lourdes Ashley Hunter. Founder of the Trans Women of Color Collective, which is now a national organization, Hunter has a background in revolution. "I grew up in a Detroit household with a single mother [that] raised me and my 3 brothers, while throwing steel at Chrysler during the day and attending college classes at night. The time in between, we were in church or in services to the community. My mom was active the U.A.W. so from an early age I was marching against oppressive systems," says Hunter. A call to action became clear to her in September of 2013 with the brutal and unjust murder of Islan Nettles, where she formed the first branch of the TWOCC in New York City. The collective also recently celebrated it's partnership with Casa Ruby LGBT Multi-cultural Center last month in our Nation's Capitol, as well as a new Trans Life Center and a new space for their headquarters. "I don't consider myself a leader at heart as much as I would say that I stand for what I believe in and that is liberation for all oppressed peoples," says Hunter when asked about her new role as National Director. "We have held healing circles, leadership retreats, town halls, marches and rallies at college campuses and community centers all over the country. Our work uplifts the narratives, lived experiences and leadership of trans and gender non-conforming people of color in social justice movement building." In a time where inspirations are tough to find, Hunter says she's found her deepest inspirations from her mother, but also Casa Ruby and the organizations that offer her hope. When asked what advice she would offer to Trans Youth, she had this to say: "Every breath a trans person takes in an act of revolution. Everyday, you will wake up a world designed to destroy you, invalidate you and tell you that you don't belong and that you have to assimilate to be accepted. Everyday you will also wake up with great purpose to dismantle that shit. Ashé"