Shawna plays guitar while Kortney takes photographsSo, do you two know each other?
Kortney and Shawna: Yes. We’ve met before.
K: I know of Shawna’s work with Trans Film Fest.
S: I know Kortney for making an incredible documentary.

Has your documentary shown at the Trans Film Festival, Kortney?
K: No I haven’t shown it yet. The festival is primarily for short films.
S: Yeah, because of funding. We’re hoping to get into a larger venue this fall and show longer features…people could buy popcorn. It’s always been a dream of ours.
K: It’s a dream of mine for you too.

Can you share with our readers about your work?
K: I love visual arts. Any media in which I can make tangible the way I see the world. But I really enjoy filmmaking. It’s a way to tell stories that language or words cannot tell. Film can travel to spaces I can’t and carry a message with it. People primarily know my work, Still Black. But, I’ve done a host of shorter, experimental films focused on gender and sexuality…and, work that is not confined to gender categories but the universality of humanity. I started a project a couple years ago focused on crying–who’s allowed to cry, why we cry, in what spaces we cry.….a piece of that is showing at Frameline Film Festival actually. Activism, though, has become and continues to be at the forefront of my life. Especially for trans people, art and film give us so much visibility.
S: I am a musician and songwriter primarily… It’s how I identify…artistically. I came out in the 1980’s as a transgender woman and I’ve been living for over 20 years, full time, as they say. I think for me, as an out trans woman musician, my artistic journey coincides with my personal journey. Even in SF when I first moved here and began performing, I was usually the only trans woman in the club. I never knew what the reaction would be to my natural, baritone singing range. I would sometimes hesitate to get on stage because of the bias I often faced. And, that bias informs my politics. And my politics informs my art. I’m just grateful I’m still here because I know lots of people who aren’t.

Will you talk a little about art as activism?
K: As an artist who happens to be transgender… it is an obligation in some ways to connect trans-ness with art. I think that for trans people, art spaces allow a different type of activism to take place and art allows healing to take place. When you say, Shawna, that there are so many who are no longer with us…I’m in awe of trans artists who are vocal and out. It’s a nice alternative to policy work…or writing legal briefs…or protesting…It’s important and healthy.
S: Yeah. There was this ongoing conversation in the ‘90s of artists mistrusting activists and everybody mistrusting academics. I think we need everybody. I feel it’s a blessing being transgender. It’s not always easy but I think it’s one of the best ways to go through life….questioning what we’re handed… questioning what reality should look like. The way Kortney makes art or the way my partner Sean makes art – they’re all questioning and taking risks. It shows the power of the individual to make change…as opposed to how the collective makes change. As artists, we travel alone. Whether its Woodie Guthrie or Ani DiFranco or Utah Phillips…they are political beings and they put their art first and because they’re competent artists their messages shine through.
K: I appreciate what you’re saying. Being an artist allows you to make change and keep your individuality.

How is art an especially important form of activism in our movement?
K: I think art has played an important role in our movement. In some ways, being trans…we’re allowed to use our gender in different ways. We’re not always thought of first as intellectuals or leaders. In some ways, we’re seen as performers. We can be subversive and use that in a powerful way. I do that. I’m always going to be seen as some kind of performance of gender so why not use that?
S: The idea of people seeing you as performing gender….when, in fact, we’re all performing gender –even if we’re not trans. There’s a way of working with that–if you think my gender’s an act…I can be a trickster and a provocateur… It gives me this legitimacy as a performer that other people might not have. What hit home for me 20 years ago…my experience as a white trans woman was very different than the experiences of my trans women of color friends. We’d be out shopping for clothes and there was this double layer of surveillance they were getting that I wasn’t. So, it’s not just about our work to make the dominant culture trans friendly – we have to remain vigilant and continue working on issues within our own community. All that in a two minute pop song. [Laughing…]

Shawna, as a founder, what was your vision for TLC?
S: I started doing police accountability work and organizing in the ‘90s. It was so frustrating that the larger gay and lesbian communities in SF didn’t understand or believe the extent of the police abuse happening against trans communities at the time. For me it was really important to shake people up–so they could get that and care about that. And I don’t think we were truly successful getting people outraged enough. I guess what I was hoping for: that we finally had the people on our side who could use the big words, write the policies, represent our community in court…I was hoping in addition to that, we’d have an organization that carried anti-oppression analysis and politics. A lot has happened since 2002….in such a short time. We had meeting after meeting just trying to decide what the logo would be…I guess that’s what people do in our queer world.

Kortney, what are your impressions of TLC today?
K: I’m grateful that I’ve gotten my chance to work with the organization. With the tremendous visibility our community is receiving lately, I value the presence of TLC and respect the work it does. Other organizations that have the T at the end aren’t always concerned with transgender advocacy. And…that I get to live in the state in which TLC exists…to see the benefits of the policy work that it does…I’m grateful. It seems like every major victory the trans community can celebrate, TLC had a hand in it.

What are your hopes for TLC and our community for the future?
K: I hope you get more money. I always hope that for organizations that I respect. There are populations that get overlooked or marginalized in social movements. I know that some things are determined by funding. Like I said, TLC’s precedent setting work is powerful, overwhelming, and encouraging.
S: A lot more money would be good. And, I have my wish list… I think it’s easy to put a lot of pressure on TLC. Like ENDA. Do I want it to pass? Of course. Wouldn’t be great if job creation accompanies ENDA? Of course. I would like to see a way to protect the rights of transgender prisoners and it would make sense to me for TLC to lead that effort. It goes hand in hand with advocating for the most marginalized members of our community and it speaks to TLC’s origins. But, it’s not fair to put all of that on TLC. TLC has been called upon and has done a remarkable job with the amount of work and breadth of community expectations.

Are you excited about SPARK!?
K: Yes. I’m excited. I had fun last year.
S: Yeah. I’m excited. Last year was crazy. Sean and I had just come back from Europe the day before. We were out of our minds with jet lag. But, we loved performing.

Any other thoughts for our readers?
S: Gosh. Yes. Tell your readers that I have survived economically by touring… and we are always
looking to make connections. And if the beautiful readers of this annual report have connections to performance venues, you should send ‘em our way.


This post is an excerpt from our Authentic Lives interactive magazine. Click here to download it! (.pdf)