These Two Poets Of Color Reveal The Resilience, Joy And Messiness Of Being Trans
For Chrysanthemum Tran, a 23-year-old trans woman of color, living in the present means making sure she takes her medication in the morning. It means surrounding herself with community. Some days, it means not watching the news.
“So often trans people are only considered in the past tense,” said Tran, a Vietnamese poet and educator on a recent morning. “They only make headlines based on the violence that occurred to them.”
When simply existing feels like rebellion, getting out of bed every day can be considered a sacred ritual.
To thrive in a nation where, year after year, there’s an increasingly high number of transgender women of color who are violently murdered is to wage a personal and daily war against erasure. A 2018 Human Rights Campaign Report found that since 2013, more than 128 transgender, non-binary or gender-expansive people have been killed in the U.S. The report states that the "epidemic disproportionately impacts trans women of color, who comprise 80% of all anti-transgender homicides."
But day-to-day there exists a place beyond all that brutality and pain, Tran said.
These moments of rare joy and celebrations of survival are part of the premise of “Anthem,” which debuts Friday and Saturday at the Oberon in Cambridge. Rhode Island-based poets Tran and Justice Ameer, 24, also a trans woman of color and activist, are the evening’s headliners. The name of the show is described as an unapologetic battle cry: “...In the shadow of a world that wants us dead, we will not go down without a fight. We will survive.”
“We’re making sure we’re showing trans women as complete individuals,” Ameer said. “It’s about humanizing trans women in the arts and in totality rather than only seeing us one way.”
Both Ameer and Tran have already established themselves as two of the most recognized trans poets of color on the local and national poetry scene. Ameer is a community organizer, 2017 FEM Slam Champion, two-time Providence Grand Slam Champion, and she ran for office in the fall against Seth Yurdin, the incumbent city councilor of Ward 1.
Ameer uses the pronouns she, her, hers, and xe, xem, xyr. Tran made history in 2016 when she became the first trans woman finalist of the Women of the World Poetry Slam. She is the 2016 Rustbelt Poetry Slam Champion, 2017 FEMS Poetry Slam Champion, and serves as a teaching artist for the Providence Poetry Slam. Tran uses the pronouns she, her, hers.
Each poet had been invited to open for Kit Yan, an award-winning, Asian-American trans poet, at Oberon. Those performances coupled with their bodies of work convinced artistic producer Mark Lunsford these poets could carry a show.
“I think one of the things about Oberon that we have been excited by and inspired by are that queer and trans folks, in particular queer and trans folks of color [who] find it as a space where they feel safe and feel they can tell whatever aspect of whatever story they want to tell,” Lunsford said. “It’s not just a place where artists feel they have to confess their pain, but that they can tell the stories of celebration, the stories of happiness.”
The debut, two-women show centers on anthems, from war cries to dancing epics.
Tran and Ameer have taken the opportunity a step further, inviting other artists, nearly all who identify as trans, queer, or non-binary, to join them over those two evenings. They said they wanted “Anthem,” to uplift trans artistry and to give back to the LGBTQ community, weaving in stories, songs and music.
“We have access to this stage. Let’s show more than just us,” Tran said. “We don’t speak for all trans women of color and we don’t speak for all trans people.”
The performance grew to an 11-person cast. They want the audience to experience their lives on that stage for an hour and to imagine a future where trans people's survival is a guarantee.
“Maybe I’m not promised tomorrow,” Tran said. “Maybe I’m not promised another year, but I do have today. I do have what’s happened before to guide me. I do have a whole history of trans people trying to survive in a world that thinks we shouldn’t.”
Lunsford said as Oberon features more and more spoken word, he remembers the words of his theater professors. They told him that theater is often the last art form to get with the times, while poetry can clap back even as new ideas emerge into the public consciousness.
“They would always say the poetry is on the front end of [the times],” Lunsford said. “That poets are always sort of pushing us, addressing issues as they come and exploring new stories through their work ahead of music or theater or even visual arts.”
In "Anthem," the poets show a community that is self-sustaining. They listen and inspire each other in spite of challenges, of being disparaged or misgendered or hurt. Ameer said her joy is tied to her friends, loved ones, and chosen family, those who accept and love her as she is.
“I don’t want people to leave discouraged like, ‘Things for trans people are so hard,’ ” Ameer said. “That is often the only narrative about trans people. What we’re saying is we are not always going to be strong. We are messy. We make mistakes like everyone else.”
Ameer lives in the present by singing loudly in the shower, by writing poetry about beauty in her everyday life, by sharing her joys and her pains with her trans sisters and trans siblings.
“It’s OK if the world doesn’t love us,” Tran said. “Because at least we have each other.”