Arts·Point of View

Transgender Day of Visibility in the era of COVID-19: Four artists in conversation with Rae Spoon

"Part of staying optimistic is devoting my time to try to get resources and platforms for amazing artists that don't have an easy path built into the system."

'Part of staying optimistic is devoting my time to artists that don't have an easy path built into the system'

LGBT activists and their supporters rally in support of transgender people on the steps of New York City Hall in New York City. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

It's close to 20 years since I came out as transgender and eight since I came out as non-binary. It's been a long road, but I try not to be discouraged. The amount of proper pronouns and gendering I receive daily hasn't changed much in two decades. I face barriers in every official system I interact with and that's as a working-class settler raised on Treaty 7 territory who can do a pretty good middle-class drag if I need to. I can't work in the arts industry without facing discrimination or a lack of understanding of how to hold space for gender variant people.

Yet, I love people and I love music. The connections I make with others are what keeps me coming back to play shows, collaborate, run my record label, learn from other artists, mentor up-and-coming creatives, and share my experiences. I can't connect with people if I don't keep my heart open. There are barriers for so many artists in this industry evidenced by who is most showcased at festivals, in theatres and at art galleries. Part of staying optimistic is devoting my time to try to get resources and platforms for amazing artists that don't have an easy path built into the system.

March 31 is International Transgender Day of Visibility. It's a day intended to celebrate transgender people and their contributions to society and raise awareness about discrimination we face. The term is contentious with many transgender people because of the use of the word "international" and the lack of voice allowed to people from certain locations, races and classes; others have difficulty with the idea of visibility because many trans people are not visible in their everyday lives and may not feel safe becoming so. Regardless, I'm proud of who gender variant people are and believe that every celebration is well deserved. I don't agree with "come out" culture, capitalist pride, or LGBTQ nationalism.

Rae Spoon. (Dave Todon)

In 2019, Merriam-Webster Dictionary chose the non-binary pronoun "they" as the word of the year. It's the pronoun that I use. Anytime I hear of a new milestone or recognition of gender variant people's rights, I have mixed feelings. I wonder how long true change will take. Bill C-16 — added gender identity to the Human Rights Act in Canada — was a monumental achievement for the activists that fought tirelessly for it. But there still aren't rights being enacted for many groups of transgender people, including sex workers and undocumented folks. And now, of course, we have been met with a sudden crisis of unprecedented magnitude. I can't quantify the impact the COVID-19 pandemic on trans, non-binary, and two-spirit artists right now. Marginalized people are going to lose during any crisis that involves triage, quarantines, and emergency law.

For answers on all of the things that I'm concerned about, I always try to look to people I respect for guidance — so I interviewed four non-binary people who inspire me with their arts practices about the latest developments for transgender and/or non-binary folks and the ongoing pandemic.

respectfulchild 敬兒. (Lindsey Rewuski)

In 2019 Miriam Webster chose the non-binary pronoun "they" as the word of the year. Some people started calling 2019 the year of "they." What was your reaction to that? 

respectfulchild 敬兒: To be honest, I didn't really pay attention to it...I think it felt like getting validating approval from the mainstream and I don't really care for that kind of momentary recognition. What about next year? Will we be forgotten once "they" is no longer trending? The comfort, safety, and space I have to explore and express my identity is due to the work of all the gender revolutionaries that came before me. Recognition and visibility are nice, but seeing allies celebrate these sort of milestones feels kind of shallow when what we need as a community is more education, empathy, safety, and supports. If we don't have those things in place, then visibility can just make us a target for more danger. 

G.R. Gritt: I remember in 2017, the AP Stylebook — a reference book for writers, journalists, editors, and the like — added the use of singular "they" as an acceptable gender-neutral pronoun. With the announcement of this news, hundreds if not thousands of closeted grammar police finally had the courage to reveal themselves, expressing their deep and longtime passion of studying proper grammar and maintaining the purity of the English language. In turn, I spent countless hours of my life defending my pronouns and my existence to friends and strangers alike. I learned that these passionate language preservists were more than happy to add "internet" and "googled" to their vocabularies in their lifetimes, but could not in good conscience add the singular "they" to their repertoire — a word that had already been in existence and in use for over 600 years. These arguments were as hurtful as they were boring. If I had a nickel for every time someone posited that I was inconveniencing the entire world for asking for my pronouns to be respected (this is verbatim, folks!), or that I was a snowflake, at least I'd have $500 in my pocket for all the baloney I endured. So that's something.

I feel like declaring "they" as the word of the year is a double-edged sword for non-binary and trans people who use that pronoun. It's great to be acknowledged, but it often comes laced with violence in the form of debate and hypothetical theorems. Maybe four years of reflection and growth has meant that the use of singular they is fine now.

Kimmortal: I didn't really have any reaction to they being the word of the year in 2019. I'm glad that people are becoming more aware of gender identity and non-binary-ness, though!

Evelyn Charlotte Joe: [The word] "they" is funny because only my good friends use it with me, and it's interesting to see who sees me as what, based on where I am, how I'm dressed, or how the other person experiences me. Gender is actually horrible. Everyone wants to know if you have a penis or not. It's like you can't escape penis. Can we just get rid of it already? I wanna take a nap.

Kimmortal. (Iris Chia Photography)

What do you wish people knew about respecting you in arts environments?

Kimmortal: Transparent and open communication with needs of a show, financial limitations, and a respect for the time and labour that an artist brings to a performance. In the last show I did, I created a multimedia piece that ended up costing the crew I was working with more than we were paid in the artist fee.

respectfulchild 敬兒: Recently I've been thinking a lot about tokenism. And I feel it the most lately when people seek me out but have no familiarity with the art I make. When I'm asked to create something or perform somewhere that really doesn't fit, it definitely makes me feel like my identity just checks your diversity box and my art is actually irrelevant to you. It makes that organizer look like they're doing good work, when actually they haven't even put in the minimal effort to at least read my bio or listen to a song. It's frustrating and dehumanizing. 

G.R. Gritt: I wish people knew how many times trans and non-binary folks are misgendered every day. Every time someone assumes my pronouns, I feel that I am being erased. By the time I arrive at a venue to perform, I feel as good as invisible. Presenters, their staff, and technicians are sent a safety rider, ensuring they are briefed about pronouns, and included are resources on how to keep transgender and non-binary folks safe. So when I read the program for the show, and I see that my bio has been modified with incorrect pronouns without permission, or when the stage managers and technicians are trying to indoctrinate me into their boys club, or the MC decides to go off script and misgenders me for the seventh time under three minutes to the entire audience...well, you can see how it would be extra difficult to walk onstage feeling seen and respected. Within a 15 to 45 minute set, it now becomes my responsibility to educate the presenter, technicians, MC, and audience about who I am, why my existence matters, and my pronouns, all while being kind and graceful so that I can be invited to return to perform in the future. I don't want your apologies and promises to do better later. I want you to be proactive and preventative. I want you to take the safety and comfort of your artists seriously. Honestly, it's exhausting doing this work, and it's usually done for free and without acknowledgement.

Evelyn Charlotte Joe: I see a lot of disrespect in the arts environments, but we haven't been socialized to know how to truly show respect: to the land, our elders, the youth, and to ourselves. A lot of our role models suck, especially those of us socialized into whiteness, but it feels like we're learning. It's a big weight to be the ones who will model a new way to the next generation, but every day it feels more and more like we can do it and be fab about it. I hate being billed or talked about as a non-binary musician. I wanna be critical about where these distinctions, privileges, and marginalizations actually come from, so we can get rid of the systems that create them and disarm those who enforce them.

G.R. Gritt. (Jen Squires)

What do kind of support do marginalized artists — you and people you know — need during the COVID-19 pandemic?

respectfulchild 敬兒: Probably the best thing to come out of this pandemic is how much it's exposing the failings of capitalism. Things so many people have been yelling about for so many years: housing, health care, accessibility, a living wage, how the government is more interested in propping up the rich than taking care of the people, etc. I've been thinking a lot about how we organize to demand changes to our currently unhealthy society even after this moment in time comes to a close. How do we organize to protect ourselves against shock capitalism taking advantage of this chaos, like how CGL is funnelling their pipeline onto the Wet'suwet'en territory now that the public's attention is occupied somewhere else?

I think there has been a lot of beautiful community groundswell to take care of one another during this really difficult time, and I want us all to be able to continue to live well and care for each other after this pandemic ends. I think if we let things "return back to normal" then we're just going to see this same pattern happen again in the future because this pandemic is caused by capitalism, not by a virus. So I guess what I'm saying is we need more socialism.

G.R. Gritt: It would be great if presenters paid their marginalized artists, regardless of whether or not the show happens. Marginalized artists are often underpaid, asked to perform more during festival weekends, and used to secure a lot of funding without prior notice. It's time to pay them back for their work. It would be great if Spotify paid artists the same as radio, or better. They are robbing us of a living wage. Everyone at home is consuming art to pass the time, and many artists are struggling to afford to create it. We need Universal Basic Income right now. We need secure access to nutritious foods right now. We need to freeze all rent and mortgage payments right now. We need to wipe out credit card and student debt right now. We need Housing First to happen right now. We don't need any more studies — we know that taking care of people is the right thing to do. Having all of our needs met is our birthright, not a perk of a collective agreement or salary bonus.

Kimmortal: Discounted or free counselling resources to calm my worry at this time. I'm hoping for rent relief as I had to cancel a tour I was relying on for money, and a few shows and a festival just rescinded their offers to me. I was lucky to receive some rent help from community mutual aid circulating but I'm still figuring out how I'm gonna make rent for the next however many months. A community member is helping me organize an online concert soon. Now is the time to really support artists by giving them opportunities to work from home, buying their albums, or sending them support or letters of love/laughter and check-ins. I'm hoping musicians can collectively join together online via weekly group chats to stay motivated and lifted.

Things people I know need: an awareness that people with disabilities and chronic illness are among the most vulnerable at this time. Many of my friends don't have job security as activists or artists; some are caretakers to their families who are working class or have health concerns. I'm worried for a friend who is looking for stable housing at this time. Art is really lifting me up these days, and I'm grateful for the work of artists at such weird times.

These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity. Watch Rae Spoon in virtual concert this Thursday, April 2nd on Facebook Live.

Evelyn Charlotte Joe. (Ariel Bader-Shamai)

respectfulchild 敬兒 is a solo violin project based out of Saskatoon, SK on Treaty 6 Territory. They build experimental ambient soundscapes through slow progressions of meticulous improvisation, bringing quiet to even the noisiest of rooms. Their debut album 在找::searching:: was released in the summer of 2017 on Coax Records and they have toured across Canada and Europe with artists such as Rae Spoon, A Tribe Called Red, and Jeremy Dutcher.

G.R. Gritt is a Juno Award-winning, two-spirit, transgender, Francophone, Anishinaabe/Metis artist. After living many years in Yellowknife and forming the band Quantum Tangle, they have recently moved back to Sudbury/Robinson Huron Treaty territory where they grew up. This homecoming coincides with a journey through transition to a body that they feel better represents them. With these changes has come a new voice both physically and in the growing magnetism of their songwriting. G.R. Gritt pulls effortlessly from the past to create soulful futurisms with their new sound that elegantly weaves the melodies using vocals, guitar and new electronic elements. They create both intimate and anthemic music that would fit in a folk club, a dance club and anywhere in between.

Kimmortal is a soul-rap emcee and singer-songwriter of Filipinix descent. Born in Vancouver and raised in Surrey, Kimmortal is known as a powerful performer spitting lyrics that come from the heart. Their debut album Sincerity (2014) reflects Kimmortal's indie rock, and soul influences. Kimmortal has exhibited their talent at various festivals including Canadian Music Week (Toronto), Kultura Filipino Arts Festival (Toronto), New West Pride Festival, and Queer Women of Colour Film Festival (San Francisco). They have shared stages with Gabriel Teodros, Khingz, Lal, JB the First Lady, and Juno-nominated rapper Shad K. Kimmortal's second album X marks the Swirl was nominated for a Polaris Prize in 2019.

Evelyn Charlotte Joe is a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and educator active in the territories under the Dish with One Spoon treaty in Hamilton, Ontario. They have just released an ep titled stuff sux with their solo project heaby medal. They have worked as an accompanying musician with bands like Wax Mannequin, Sarah Good & the Bads, YlangYlang, Shanika Maria, Joyful Joyful, Zoon, Ferrari Garden, amongst many others.

CBC Arts understands that this is an incredibly difficult time for artists and arts organizations across this country. We will do our best to provide valuable information, share inspiring stories of communities rising up and make us all feel as (virtually) connected as possible as we get through this together. If there's something you think we should be talking about, let us know by emailing us at cbcarts@cbc.ca. See more of our COVID-related coverage here.

About the Author

Rae Spoon is a non-binary musician, producer and author based on Lekwungen Territory (Victoria). Rae has published two books with Arsenal Pulp Press and a humorous booklet called How to (Hide) Be(hind) Your Songs. Their first book, First Spring Grass Fire, was nominated for a Lambda Literary award and the co-write Gender Failure has been translated into German and is on a fifth pressing. In spring 2014, Rae was awarded an Honour Of Distinction by the Dayne Ogilvie Prize, presented by the Writers' Trust Of Canada. They have released ten solo albums ranging from country, folk and bluegrass to indie rock, pop and electronic. Rae has toured internationally over the past twenty years and they have been nominated for two Polaris Prizes and a Western Canada Music award. In 2015, Rae founded Coax Records in the hopes of using their experience as a marginalized artist to create more space in the music industry.

now