Home » “Isn’t It Cute?”: An Intimate Conversation on Black Trans and Queer Futurities

“Isn’t It Cute?”: An Intimate Conversation on Black Trans and Queer Futurities

by Shamari Reid, Gia Love, and Jonovia Chase

Dear reader,

In what follows, we share an unedited transcript from an intimate conversation in which we speak about Black trans and queer futurities from our positionalities as two Black trans women and one Black cisgender gay man. We made the intentional decision not to edit our transcript nor frame or analyze it for you and other readers. We are inviting and encouraging you, as Toni Morrison so often did, to read (Greenfield-Sanders, 2019). We accept and expect that all who engage with our words below will do so from within their positionalities accompanied by their own lived materialities, values, and beliefs (Morrison, 2019). Unlike what might be expected from academic publications in which we guide the reader through our conversation, making connections and drawing conclusions, we share our conversation with you in hopes that you will join us to make meaning (Lyiscott et al., 2021). We said what we said. And now we release our words…to you.

Although we are not offering any kind of limitations or rules with regard to how you take up our conversation, we would like to share that we came together to converse with deep and thoughtful intention. We intended to take up space in the academic discourse around queer and trans futures, especially given how often Black trans and queer voices are left out of these conversations (Brockenbrough, 2015; Cohen, 2005). Furthermore, in recognizing how little value is often placed on voices and opinions that emerge from outside the academy, we were intentional about making sure our trio included folks who did not identify as traditional academics or scholars. Nonetheless, we are all scholars, and this, indeed, is scholarship.

Shamari: As we’re thinking about queer and trans futures, I want to set the tone with this. When was the last time you sat and thought about your future? And what did you envision when you thought about your own futures?

Gia: I feel like when I think about the future it changes a lot for me, especially given that I have been struggling with mental health. So, what my future looks like definitely is affected by how I feel. But the last time I thought about my future was yesterday. I thought about the prospects of having a really successful modeling career, and really having the reach to create effective change within the conversations on Black trans plus-size models. But also having that spill over into other intersections and identities and inspiring others to stay in the fight.

Shamari: Yeah.

Jonovia: For me, it’s challenging because in ways I compartmentalize parts of my future. Like I think about the future, yes. But I think more wholistically and in community. The last moment that I really thought about the future in a way that feels more intimate to me was this past weekend in Chicago. I think during that time, I was able to really consider myself being more balanced. And I’ve been on this journey for a while of thinking of my future and what balance looks like for me, and about considering the future as a way for me to fulfill things that I perhaps have not gotten to achieve. Or as a way to finally accomplish some type of harmony in my life. Years ago, I thought of the future and I said by the time I hit 30, I want to have these particular things and pathways already starting or aligning. And I feel like in that sense I accomplished that goal to at least begin pathways of stability for myself individually. Because oftentimes my passions take priority over me or my personal self.

Shamari: Something I’ve been thinking about a lot is this idea of future dreaming as a privilege. I think the older I get, the more I think about my future. But as a younger person I don’t think I ever saw myself having a future. It was really a day-by-day thing. And people would ask, ‘what do you see? Where do you see yourself in whatever years?’ I didn’t see anything for a very long time. And the older I get, I think I’m starting to accept that we even have a future or that we will exist in the future (Kelley, 2002). And in that future, we can have love, and peace and joy.

Gia: Well, so I want to just piggyback off that. I actually have the opposite experience. I feel like I thought more about the future when I was younger. I thought about what my possibilities were, what I was going to be, how my life was going to be. But as I get older, I feel more limited in what a future would be. Because when I was younger I felt like I had more time and now it’s like, you’re getting older so you don’t have more time. And now when I think about the future, I’m thinking about it with respect to others in younger generations, youth who may have access to things that I did not have access to, and how their stories will be different. So, I don’t know. I just have a different outlook on that. That piece is different for me.

Jonovia: No, definitely.  And even to connect to that, I think that’s so interesting. Because even what I said about me sometimes prioritizing more things that I’m passionate about over myself. Sometimes we’re so careless for ourselves. Me and Gia used to have moments and we still have moments where we reflect upon what would happen if one of us were to go [die] first. That’s really something I think that fits in our subconscious, just as Black trans women. Yes, there is a future for me but I don’t envision myself to be 80-years-old. I think my hope is not in the sense numerical or age-specific, it’s just more about impact. And I think that’s why I’ve prioritized other things, people, and impact over myself.

Gia: Right. And I think that when you talk about the life of a Black trans woman, oftentimes it’s in conversation with this endpoint that is very premature (Belle Antoine et al., 2015). So even though I’m experiencing amazing things and I truly believe that I have more access and privilege than people who came before me, I still think about that premature endpoint. Because even though we’ve made a lot of progress, the fucking residue of the trauma of our ancestors, of people who came before us, that trauma, that residue from that trauma still exists. And like Jonovia said, the impact but also the healing. It’s like if I die tomorrow, but I had the experience of healing or feeling good about myself wholistically within conversation with the world and how I show up, that will mean a lot to me rather than living here until I’m 80. I think it’s experiential and healing centered for me about what my future looks like.

Shamari: Yeah. So, in thinking about all these connections, I am drawn to the work of the late scholar José Esteban Muñoz who we lost in I think 2013. Muñoz (2009) wrote about queerness as like a longing that moves us forward. And he wrote about queerness as a commitment to enacting new worlds or new ways of being. And I remember in an interview between the two of you, Jonovia spoke specifically about your love for your sisters and just how indebted you feel to them. And you said that you are the keys to this new world. I wonder if you all could say a little bit more about that as I’m thinking through this idea of queerness and/or transness as something that can move us forward to a new world. And then you saying you all are the keys to the new world.

Jonovia: Well, I think when I said that it really came from a place of being in the moment. When COVID-19 and the quarantine happened, it really gave us a chance to stop and reflect but also to dive in a bit deeper. It gave us a chance to reveal some of the most amazing parts of ourselves. And there was no greater moment, I think, in my life where I felt drive or passion or such clarity in terms of where I needed to go next or where I wanted to go, or the type of people I was around, and the type of work that was being cultivated, and the conversations that were being had. It just felt like such a renaissance, and such a political shift, and such a moment! And the people that were directly in my circle, I was like, wow, these are some of the most profound people that I perhaps have ever met. These women are moving and shaking a complete community right now in the midst of a global pandemic, and giving clarity to not only our community, but to the world in many ways in this larger conversation around Black Lives Matter. For me, it’s like trans people in that moment were still in every single crevice, in every single conversation, as others perhaps were more siloed and not necessarily a part of our conversation. And that to me was telling, very telling. And revealed that we were the keys to the new world.

Shamari: So, a follow up to that question, what do you think that Black transwomen might know about this new world we all deserve?

Gia: I just hope that what liberation will look like for Black trans women is that our stories and our experiences are not in conversation with others in other communities and in other stories. And that we kind of separate our movement from other movements. And that we find joy and happiness in our liberation without being in conversation with others. Because like Jonovia just said, there were a lot of conversations that were happening and we were a part of those conversations, but a lot of people were not a part of our conversation [conversation on the violence against Black trans women]. And I think that we had this reckoning and it made people have a different conversation about race in this country. They forgot about a lot of things that people within our community, particularly the Black community, deal with on a daily basis. And it inspired us, it inspired a group of Black trans women to really take the onus of being really fierce leaders, really fierce movers and shakers (Reid, 2022b). And the overall health of the trans community blossomed during that time; in terms of the work that people were doing, what people were putting out there, and the love I feel like the community just had for itself. To be able to prosper, to be able to thrive, and to be able to have that conversation about our movement outside of, and without being in conversation to other movements. So that’s one of my hopes for the future. You know what I mean? Because sometimes it troubles me that we’re always expected to have to show up for all these folx. But we could be literally on our last breath and we… it feels like at least, that there’s no support out there for us.

Jonovia: Shamari also followed up with a question of what do we think Black trans women might know about the world we all deserve. I just wanted to say that we just have a particular willingness that no other group has in all of that. There’s more trans people I know in my life that truly understand equity more than any other person that I know.

Shamari: Do you think there’s something around not having a loyalty to any of these systems that allows you to have this insight or commitment to equity? You know what I’m saying? I’m trying to better understand that commitment and willingness because I agree and I feel it too from Black trans women. In my own life, I am so close to Black trans women, and I know that you all possess a knowledge about how we might actually get to a better world. I believe that. I don’t know where it comes from. I don’t know why. But the commitment to equity the girls have, it just knows no limitations. You know what I mean? It’s like, I see the girls sacrifice their literal bodies for people who will not do the same for them. They know that, and then they show up anyway. So that kind of radical love, where does that come from? Because sometimes it works to your own demise.

Gia: I’m just going to talk about myself and how I show up in the world. I think that, to a fault it’s like kind of like this. I knew from a very young age that I was completely different from anybody. There were other people in my community that were like me that were also very different, but we were few and far in between. And even though I was so bold in my difference, and even though forces were literally trying to stomp and crush my difference, I still blossomed through that. But there was always a yearning to be a part of the larger community because I was told I was a part of the community, but I didn’t feel that way because I was treated very differently.

People just need to be real. I feel that, and this is very controversial, but I feel that a lot of times people… I know I’m Black and I know I have a racialized experience, but I don’t feel that the community shows up for me in the same way. Because of the ways in which we have succumbed to conversations about gender and sexuality, and succumbed to those violent ways in which we view these concepts. I experience the world as Black trans woman. So, I know what it’s like to be Black, of course, and I live in community with Black people. So, I don’t really experience necessarily racism in these communities. I’m experiencing transphobia. And I see every day the kind of intricacies of how those things play out when I see people in the Black community talk about self-determination, and community; and talk about loving thy brother and thy sister and thy sibling. But then, I see people accept others and they don’t accept me because of my sexuality and my perceived gender or whatever. So, I want the Black trans community to have our self-determination because we are different, our experience is very different. And I just don’t feel like in my future I should be forced to have to carry that burden of feeling like I want to be accepted by a community that generally does not show up for me. We have countless stories of Black queer folks and Black trans people experiencing sanctioned violence at the hands of the police (Mahowald, Gruberg, & Haplin, 2020). And the people who move and shake and make a big thing about police abolition don’t say nothing about it because we’re Black and we’re trans, or because we’re gay. You know what I mean?

We don’t experience the same type of advocacy as a [cisgender heterosexual] Black person from the community generally and it’s unfortunate. I think that the Black community needs to do some healing and education around race. Because it oftentimes confuses me when Black scholars, and the Black leaders that we look to for guidance hold these harmful homophobic and transphobic beliefs. You know what I mean? It’s like, how can I really be a part of something that I’m really not a part of? And I think that I want to be more honest about that in my future. And not that I want to divorce myself from anybody or any group of people, but I want to have the self-determination to know that I can stand in my struggle, but also stand in my liberation. And it is not in conversation with people just like me, because we share the same race. Because I feel like for a long time, we were kind of framing conversations solely around race in this world (Reed, 2016; Snorton, 2017). I mean a black or white type of thing. And now that we’re more open about how we define these things and there’re more identities that are being visible and like people are speaking about them. We are definitely… I lost my train of thought.

Shamari: Yeah. I think you were saying the conversations are often reduced down to race and then we miss those nuances. And then we miss how, even within a certain community, we are inflicting violence and causing damage toward each other. But also, not talking about how we, in many ways perpetuate harm to each other. And that happens…

Gia: Right. Because you know what? Honestly, these people need to make space for us. Yeah, we make space for them. We show up. You know what I mean? But I feel like they have an obligation to make space for us. But at this point, I’m getting more radical and I’m like, I don’t need them to do that. You know what I mean? I don’t even need to be a part of that story, that experience. I don’t need to be a part of that. I need to be really determined and really whole in how I show up for myself.

Jonovia:  I concur.

Shamari: What if they don’t make space? I think about world making and I think about what it might look like to create our own spaces. Is that never going to be enough? How much participation and buy-in do we need from people who don’t identify in similar ways as we do?

Jonovia: Well, a part of it is that we see what happens when space is not made. So if they don’t make space for us within our shared community, it’s detrimental to our survival. We are the minority. It’s less of us than them. So if we are to have any progress, they have to make space. A lot of it too is like really coming to the understanding that we [Black LGBTQ+ people] do not need to always carry that weight or that burden all the time. However, it doesn’t make it comfortable for us to not carry it because we can never not think about it. I mean we can never not be impacted by it. There is almost no escape from it no matter what. I think that’s some of the tensions that I’m even having in my life right now. It’s like how much do I give. When can I say, you’ve done enough on this front? Do something for yourself on this front this time around? And so now I get some sense of ease knowing that the work that I’m involved in is going to be centering people and valuing people in the way that I feel the world could be better valuing Black trans women.

Shamari: Yeah. In thinking about world making and how alternate worlds may look. I remember going to my first ball in Brooklyn and witnessing for the first time what might be possible when we [Black LGBTQ+ people] feel safe (for more on ballroom see Reid, 2022a). First of all, I had never seen a group of Black queer and trans folks in any space. I didn’t grow up in a place where we could congregate. We weren’t allowed to really do that. And when I saw it at the ball, and I saw people being creative and imaginative, I started thinking oh, wow, this is something else for me. So, when I think of ballroom specifically, I think of it as like some alternate world. And I think there’s a lot we can learn from it. What has ballroom taught you about world making, dreaming, and creating different kinds of futures?

Gia: It’s taught me the self-determination that I talk about. It doesn’t come easy, but it is possible. You can create a space for yourself where you thrive, where you’re able to be yourself, where you’re able to be creative, and where you’re able to be more involved in the world. And intentional and impactful, putting yourself first. But at the same time, working through the difficult parts of life and the difficult stuff that we go through because the world is never going to be perfect and we all have to exist in it together. But growth is something that we should be committed to. And I feel like ballroom is committed to making itself better, but also creating a space. They had to take space that was not given to them, and create a feeling and a vibe that we needed in order to thrive in this world, and look where we are today. It took some time, but we are definitely in a good position.

Jonovia: I agree with that. I think that was beautifully said. I wouldn’t say that I discovered freedom in ballroom, but I would say that I discovered that there is no limitation to liberation. And I just feel like, as Gia just mentioned, it’s constantly changing, it’s constantly growing, and always exploring how it can grow. And it gives you a bit more understanding of who you are as an individual and how special you are in the world and that contributing to something larger is important.

Shamari: Which is making me think of something you all mentioned earlier. Around this being bigger than those of us who are here now, but really thinking about the future and thinking about young people. Gia, you were talking about this idea of how people who come after us will have more access than we have. That’s why I think I focus on school so much. I think about the babies because I’m always thinking of them as the future. If I think about any kind of future, I would like to see other folks like me thriving and happy and not having to heal from the same shit I’m still trying to heal from. In thinking about schools a little bit, as I’m trying to make this connection around queer and trans futurity in schools, how do you think your schooling experience would’ve been different if schools took their cues from not only ballroom, but other Black trans and queer spaces that we’ve created?

Jonovia: Well, I think that it would’ve allowed me to be more certain in my pathway forward to my future. I think that a difficulty of going through school was actually just having to reduce yourself to feel safer and just get through and just get by as opposed to truly thrive, and truly be focused, and truly be much more intentional (Reid, 2022a). I would’ve avoided so many distractions because I would’ve actually been able to be present in the moment and not necessarily be concerned about the what ifs.

Shamari: Yeah, I feel that.

Gia: I feel like for a lot of kids, they’re traumatized by their schooling experience (Pritchard, 2013). And I think that for me, I definitely had some interesting moments, but I always connected with the teachers that really took care of me and really gave me the space that I did not have at home, or in the world. But I would have it a little bit in school. I connected with a few teachers that really loved me and gave me space and used their privilege and gave me opportunity. We had Ms. Munich, she was very strict, but I felt like there was a level of care that we had in her class. I felt like I could be myself. I never experienced a class like that in my all my years of schooling and it was just like… I don’t know, I cherished those moments in school.

Jonovia: Absolutely. I agree. And I think that those experiences were beautiful. Those were some beautiful people and great caretakers in those ways. I’m thinking about not presenting as who I wanted to present as in high school. Not going to prom. Unfortunately, I had a terrible experience after I graduated high school. I ran across one of my teachers that I thought was one of my favorite teachers. But I had the most horrible experience and exchange with her. That day when I ran into her after I had graduated, she gave me this disgusting look… she was disgusted by me. I was like, excuse me, you (t00)?

Gia: Right. You’re right. It was hard enough being who I was at that time. I would’ve been fighting every day if I was Gia going to high school (Reid, 2022a). But when I think about my high school experience, I like to push the positive to the forefront and I totally forget about the negative. Because now that Jonovia has reminded me of things, I was traumatized in my experience. Because the goodness and the good people were few and far in between. But there were really good people. I feel that goodness stays with me and maybe the trauma speaks in the back of my head. But I like to hold onto those really, really good, sweet memories.

Shamari: Is that a strategy you think, Gia, that you developed to navigate such a violent place? Where you sort of hold onto those positive memories and moments and experiences and people? Is there something about that, that keeps you going as opposed to if you only focused on the terrible?

Gia: Well, I would say like at that time and even today, Black trans women experiencing radical acts of kindness is not typical from people that are not trans. Do you understand what I’m saying? Other trans people have been extremely kind to me. And when [cisgender] people are really kind to me it makes me emotional because I don’t feel like I experience kindness from them a lot. So, I just think that I hold onto the sweet moments because those more traumatizing moments are the norm.  It is normal to be unkind to a trans person or a queer person.  I think that, yeah, it’s just a way of framing things. What do I choose to put my energy in? I guess it is a strategy. I never thought about it that way.

Jonovia: But that’s the thing that’s also interesting. Because that’s also perhaps something that has come from growth.  And thinking about kids in school, is anyone giving them that mentorship or that guidance to help them navigate school with a different perhaps mindset or different ideas on how they can find a safety net or feel more comfortable to navigate those spaces? Thank you for that, Gia.

Shamari: Yeah. So, I know we have to go. As we wrap up, I do have one question that kind of ties into what you just said around the young people having access to a mentor or strategies. What would the both of you say about the future to Black trans and queer youth who might find this conversation when it goes public?

Gia: Is it cute?

Shamari: Huh?

Gia: Is it cute?

Gia: Is it cute? How does it feel? Because I know the future will be better. That was a rhetorical question, right? And like it probably wasn’t the most like scholarly, but it definitely speaks to the future of Black trans/queer experience. Is it cute? Are you enjoying yourself? Because I do know that my present, if I speak to some of my ancestors, I’m pretty sure, if I tell them some of my stories, they’ll be like, wow, I didn’t even know that was possible. You know what I mean? I didn’t know you could think like that about yourself.  But I know that when the future comes, these young people are going to have just such a brighter experience. And like I said, I feel that we’re doing it now, but I think it’ll be done even more, like more self-determination of our community, more love within our community. Just the things you see today that are visible and are possible. Other trans people loving on other trans people in romantic, intimate, even platonic ways. Those are the things that before I think were not encouraged. You were supposed to be the only one, you were supposed to like pass as cis[gender], be in community with cis[gender] people, not be in community with trans people because the trans community was “a bad thing”. But now, not only are trans people like loving on each other romantically, platonically, we are doing work together. We are creating things for the future together. So I just think the future looks bright for trans people. And it will be cute.

Shamari: And so, Gia, what part do you think our existence plays in that? This idea that it looks brighter, how do you know that? Yes, it has gotten better. But also, what part do you play in that?

Gia: I observe a lot. I just see things that let me know that we are experiencing the world. I see people taking trips and enjoying themselves. And I see people going to parties that probably never used to go to parties. I see people just making career moves and owning things that didn’t own things before. And I see people bringing other people with them, you know what I mean? Not just doing it on their own and leaving the scene and leaving the community, I see it as like the community moving forward. And as we talked about earlier, like we understand equity more than anyone. Because there were times where we didn’t have anything and we had to struggle together. And the way we play a role in that is we are doing our thing. I’m putting one foot in front of the other. And I’m doing the work that needs to be done. I’m putting myself out there, being visible, confronting every demon that comes my way. And that’s the way I am contributing to that, by just literally being myself. I think about my role in the community all the time. And I’ve come to accept and understand that the reason I’m so powerful is because I am myself. Who I am and the way I move through the world, I just need to remember that. My being and my essence of who I am, it is very powerful and that is what’s going to change the world.

Jonovia: Yeah, absolutely. I think that like ties back into what I was saying earlier. That’s something ballroom has definitely helped to make clear for me. And I think that the reality is that for people that may be seeing this, it’s like the future is a result of the past. So it’s really about leaving your imprint in the sand and contributing to imagining what the future can be for yourself and for others. And so, for me, I’m like hoping that this conversation was igniting, and relevant enough to help the young people who find this conversation make the next steps in their life. Or feel at least inspired to imagine what could be a better life for themselves and to value themselves. I think that we spoke a lot about that. I think it’s hard sometimes to have self-value when the world around you is crumbling and you’re trying to put out every single fire. But you have to get yourself out the house first. When you get on a plane, they say you first. Take care of yourself first. And so, I hope that is something that a lot start considering because we’re still struggling with that. And we’re trying to get to a more harmonic place and continue leaving imprints in the sand, but also sustain ourselves at the same time.

Shamari: Yeah. So no, that’s it. There’s so much I could follow up on, but we don’t have time. I have so many different thoughts just around community and around so much stuff that came up. But I think we’ll leave it there. I think that’s a beautiful place to sort of pause it. I will just add an invitation to look at the power within community. I think that’s one thing I would share with young people who might be feeling like I felt.  Because I was taught that we didn’t have anything to contribute as Black trans and queer people. I actually thought that we didn’t have community. I thought I was going to be alone. And when I found out we had community it countered the messages I had received about there being nothing of value within us as a community. And after being in community, I’m like, oh, that was so wrong. Look at how powerful our community is. And I’m not saying like it has to be thousands of people. It could be a community of two people. It could be community of three people. How powerful that is to love on each other and share space with each other. Let me pause. Let me stop the recording.

Notes on Contributors

Dr. Shamari Reid (he/him/his) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning at New York University. As a scholar, Dr. Reid’s work explores how Black trans and queer youth and their communities sustain themselves amidst oppression, as well as how we can collaborate with these communities to better transform schools into sites of equitable opportunities for Black LGBTQ+ youth.  In addition to working with Black LGBTQ+ communities to reimagine schools, Dr. Reid’s work examines radical love as a moral imperative in social justice education, and as a path toward culturally sustaining school communities.

Gia Love (she/her) is a Black trans woman from New York City. She is a model/actress/activist who centers her work around putting big-bodied, Black trans women at the forefront of every conversation. Gia is the star of the Teddy Award-winning documentary Kiki; a coming-of-age story about youth in the ballroom scene, and her work in the ballroom scene includes community activism, HIV/STI prevention services for youth, and research. Gia is a consultant at Trans Equity Consultants where she provides capacity building support aimed at making the world more inclusive of trans and LGBAI+ folks. Gia is the creator of the Celebration of Black Trans Women Cookout which celebrates the resilience of Black trans women.

Jonovia Chase is a producer and organizer currently based in New York City. As a leader within the House-Ballroom and LGBTQ communities, Ms. Chase leads and collaborates with several organizations and community stakeholders on events and initiatives committed to intersectional social justice and activism. In 2015, Ms. Chase co-founded House Lives Matter (HLM), an organization which implements initiatives aimed at the holistic well-being of the House-Ballroom community. In addition to HLM, Ms. Chase has worked on other community-led initiatives such as Ballroom Freedom SchoolTGNC Advisory Group for New York State, Keeping Ballroom Community Alive Network, and NYC’s Kiki Coalition.

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