Yesterday, Razorcake released issue #86. All four feature interviews
are with trans punks: Kale Edmiston (Nervous Nelly Records, Nashville Transit zine), Mars Dixon (Aye
Nako), Sadie Smith (Peeple Watchin’, G.L.O.S.S.), and Shannon Thompson (Nervous
Nelly Records). It is currently only available only in print and can be ordered here.
Razorcake is encouraging this on-going conversation online. If you are a trans
punk and would like to submit a webcolumn, or if you, like Kayla Greet below,
want to conduct a high-caliber, insightful interview with a trans punk, please drop us a line and we’ll start
the process. Thank you.
–Todd Taylor, Razorcake
Name: L Henderson
Location: Seattle, WA
I’ve always looked at L Henderson as a kind of Renaissance friend. They draw
comics, write zines, play in bands, perform hip hop and stand-up comedy, and
are fantastic at accents. Musical ventures include Listen Lady, The
Pillowfights, and solo material under LH2020. Artistically, they put out zines
and comics under titles Thoughts As Long
As Cigarettes, Goth Mom, and Marginalized. This is the kind of person
you read about and wish you could have been a fly on the wall for their life.
Growing up mixed race (Filipino and black) in the Bay Area punk scene, L was
met with adversity every day. Between all the people who physically or verbally
assaulted them for being different, there were friends L found to help them get
through day-to-day life. On top of all these difficulties, L has also felt they
were born the wrong gender their whole life. Having just turned thirty years
old, they also were diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer, making it
impossible to physically transition due to health issues. L talks about what
it’s like to struggle with all of this, through both the help and hindrance of
Listen Lady - http://listenlady.bandcamp.com/releases
The Pillowfights - http://thepillowfights.bandcamp.com/
LH2020 - https://soundcloud.com/lh2020
Kayla: Can you talk a little about
how you became a creative person? How you found punk, and zines, and drawing
L: Well, I’ve been drawing and
escaping into drawing and music for as long as I can remember. But I didn’t get
into the punk and DIY area until middle school when my friend Jessica Lee—we
made each other mix tapes. I chose hip hop stuff and some ska stuff I really
liked, and she gave me a riot grrrl mix tape with some MxPx songs peppered in.
And I was like, this is my thing. This is exactly what I needed and we became
best friends in seventh grade because of that. So I’ve been kind of going in
that direction ever since. The first two bands that stood out to me were Tilt
Kayla: Nice! I love Tilt.
L: Yeah, those were the first punk
bands I got into. The first tape I bought was actually Fine Young Cannibals—“She
Drives Me Crazy.” I remember being in the Wherehouse in Milpitas, CA
buying that and seeing an E40 single and Beacon
Street Collection by No Doubt. Those were some of my first purchases.
Kayla: Oh yeah. Me, too. When I
finally got to see No Doubt, I was like “I just want you to play something fromBeacon Street.”
L: And they never did! [both laugh]
Kayla: When did you start your first
L: First band… There were a few,
concurrently. None that actually did anything, but in high school, when I was
fourteen, my friend John Dussel taught me bass so that he could play guitar.
That was the first band-ish thing, but people knew we did it, so they would ask
us to play every now and again. We’re like, “Okay… but we’re just gonna cover
the same fucking Weezer song, same fucking Blink 182 song…” But we never had
shows or recordings or anything like that. The first band I was in that
actually tried stuff like that was Per Capita back in 2005.
Kayla: That’s a good band name.
L: Yeah, we liked it because the
Latin translation is “equal to all individuals” in the literal sense. But that
was the first band that we made merch all on our own, booked shows and played
in different cities, wrote our own stuff. I’d been in bands before then, but it
was all cover bands, or bands through the music school that I worked for. This
was the first all original, bunch of friends getting together thing.
Kayla: So the music school that you
did—was that a sort of alternative school or was it after high school?
L: South Bay School of Music (SBSM) was after high
school. That school was really big in my hometown, Milpitas. A lot of my friends were in studio
bands at the school while I was in high school, but I didn’t get involved until
after I graduated. They had asked me to play bass in their pop punk cover band,
and I didn’t want to tell them that I didn’t know shit about how to read music
or keys or anything like that. But I ended up learning it by flying under the
Kayla: Fake it till you make it,
L: And by doing that I learned: how
to book shows, set up stage equipment, run sound and do recordings, learn how
to play music, teach music, and became one of the chaperones for one of the
kids programs, which was a lot of fun.
Kayla: Oh, awesome. And you stayed
in the Bay Area until you were in your mid-twenties or so?
L: I moved around here and there,
but I always came back to SBSM just because a lot of friends were involved and
my ex at the time was involved very deeply. The owner of the school is a really
good fried of mine too, Joe Santoro. He did a lot for all those kids and
definitely for me, so the only way I could give back—since I couldn’t afford to
attend the school—was this work tradeoff thing where I would help with all the
physical stuff like moving equipment and driving the van.
Kayla: I think that’s a sentiment
that’s heavy in punk culture anyways. Like if you can’t do this certain thing,
brainstorm how you can contribute in other ways. Find ways to support and get
into it. I feel like that’s one of the parts of that culture that’s really
helpful throughout our entire lives.
L: Oh yeah, and having it present
there in my personal life was awesome. It helped me kinda find the parts of the
music scene that I wanted and I wanted to be. And it later set the tone for how
I would approach creating a scene and building your own community. That music
school really helped show what that would look like.
Kayla: Kinda lets you fine tune it
and pick and choose the best parts for you. How was the scene in the South Bay?
Was it pretty open and friendly or was it a little rough to get involved in?
L: I was always one of the younger
people going to all the shows, ironically. And I didn’t really know a lot of
people in the scene but I would still go to a lot of shows anyway. I actually
ended up almost getting into a fight with some of the people who are my friends
now. People would pick on me because I was some sort of poseur. Even though I
went to the shows, I didn’t really fit the bill. I don’t know; it was still
very much a skinny white guys club and I was none of that and still am none of
Kayla: No, and you never will be.
L: Yeah, and that’s what it was
like, at least for the punk scene.
Kayla: Not a lot of girls involved
L: The thing is there were a lot of
us; there was just no place for us. So we would be peppered into all these
social scenes but were very much still isolated by that and would have to go as
far as tokenizing your identity in order to just survive in an environment like
Kayla: That never makes anyone feel
good about themselves.
L: And that’s why, over the years,
with Per Capita and then progressing into The Pillowfights, and a bunch of
bands afterwards, the mission always was—since there was no specific place for
that—just trying to build one and just being that safe space that people
needed. That’s what we wanted to be and intended to do when we tried to connect
different groups together, different social circles. It was really hard, it’s still really hard to navigate, but it’s
a little clearer now. I feel like a lot of those barriers have been broken down
over the years. Doing that was basically what set the path for the rest of my
life, which—it sounds big to say—but it really did define how I would end up
living, and I like that. I’m very grateful for that.
Kayla: Do you feel that when you’re
met with those aggressive, “You’re not one of us” attitudes, was it better to
walk away or to fight it?
L: In terms of survival, it was
easier to walk away. It’s never easy either way, but when you fight it and
you’re the one voice surrounded by many, or one voice surrounded by apathy,
it’s exhausting. And it gives you this futile feeling that makes you not want
to do it any more. I kind of get that a little bit here which is pretty sad,
considering it’s all places run by “friends,” I’m using quote fingers here.
But in the South Bay it’s changed a lot because people
are realizing they can make their scene what they need it to be and they can be
in charge of their space and their shows and their scene, and it’s fucking beautiful.
I love it. That’s my family. These are people who I grew up with and some of
these people I watched grow up. Just
these kids going to the shows we would throw and getting to know them, and
watching what they end up doing with their lives and their time, and how they
use their influence to build their thing too. Watching this whole South Bay
scene expand to what it is now—I’ve been around the country, I’ve seen a lot of
scenes—and I’ve never seen one like that, as cohesive and as honest and sincere
as I’ve seen San Jose be.
Kayla: It helps revitalize your
spirit too, when you have been doing this for so long and it gets a little old,
like your work is not appreciated, and then you have someone younger showing up
and picking up where you left off is fantastic.
L: Hell yeah. And that’s why I talk
a lot about it. You have people from my generation or maybe a little older just
shaming some of the younger crowd. It’s like, “You realize that’s how you kill
your scene, right?” It’s like, this thing you care about and you’re not
allowing for new growth.
Kayla: I’ve had many conversations
like that and it would always just kill me with people who were older punks
saying like, “You don’t get it, you weren’t there when I was.” It’s like, I
don’t have to be. I’m here now. And if you want this to continue on, you have
to accept new people into it.
L: You kind of just lose your
footing if you just complain about people who are trying to maintain or even
improve or expand on something that you both share interest in. It’s unfair and
it’s stupid, and I talk a lot about it very openly and have got a lot of people
Kayla: They were already angry
L: That’s fine. And that’s why I
still stay in touch with all of my Baybies, just to watch that fire grow. If I
had something like that when I was growing up, I would have been a lot less
suicidal, and a lot less isolated and lonely and closeted about most things.
The way it is now is fucking amazing.
Kayla: You can walk into a place and
just feel like you’re okay with just being who you are and no one is judging
L: Like you don’t have to earn your
right to be there. That’s the biggest thing. The minute you stop having to earn the approval of
everyone around you is the minute that you get to grow as a person.
Kayla: And share yourself with other
people around you and vice versa. You're also heavily involved in making hip
hop music. I've always seen a parallel with hip hop and punk. Both genres are
made up of low income, marginalized, angry people who are fed up. How have your
experiences in that subculture been and is it a place you feel comfortable
L: I grew up with hip hop. Not doing
hip hop music, but being immersed in the culture. It was my reality for the
majority of my life. From the art, dancing, beats, and lyrics, but it wasn't
until after I came out about my identity and survived that I found the
confidence to start rapping myself. There was a certain level of "fuck
it" involved in starting out. I knew I wasn't going to be good right off
the bat. I knew I was going to be quiet and apologetic at first. In a way, it
was another form of coming out. Hip hop to me feels like home, whereas punk
always felt like a friend's house. I've always wanted to do hip hop. From
childhood actually. I just always felt too corny, too afraid, too disconnected.
The parallels between my connection to my black side and my connection to hip
hop exist in that I grew up knowing that these things were a part of who I am,
but I had to make the connections to them on my own terms. I never did well
being told that I'm supposed to be one way or another. Growing up in a Filipino
household, the definitions of blackness were thrust upon me by racists. I had
to learn what being black meant to me out there in the real world. Just like
hip hop. Hip hop was always being defined to me by people whose voices and
ideals didn't match mine. So as soon as I started to figure out what the music
meant to me, I decided to start refining my own voice. I make what feels right
to me, I don't care if it isn't up to the standards of today's hip hop because
what I do, what I create- there are only one set of standards in mind: mine. As
far as my identity compared to the hip hop community goes, it's just as
frustrating, transphobic, and soul crushing as any other medium I'm involved in
– it's just much more fun to dance to. I've dealt with more hate surrounding my
identity in punk, to be frank. Probably because I'm not too well known in the
hip hop world yet, but that stands to change. It's a storm I'm prepared for. So
yes, there's a level of discomfort surrounding presentation in hip hop for me,
but no more so than there is anywhere else. In fact, my voice in hip hop is far
more articulate and direct than it's ever been in any other form of music. I
call way more things out in hip hop than I do in punk... because I'm much more
honest when I'm at home than when I'm visiting a friend's house.
Kayla: So then you moved to Seattle from San
Jose. This is the second time you’ve moved here. What
brought you here in the first place?
L: Well, the only reason I moved
back to San Jose
the first time is I wasn’t really done with my ex at the time. Things weren’t
ideal here because I still had the hooks from home set in. And so I went home
and our relationship ran its course. She broke up with me and I was like, “Okay,
now I get to assess what the fuck it is I’m going to do with my time.” That’s
when I started being less apologetic about my identity and started presenting
female and started attending and lecturing and speaking at workshops for queer
youth. I started going in that direction but I couldn’t make it work out
financially—or have a stable enough footing to grow—so I ended up coming back
to Seattle because I remembered it was a lot easier to do it here. I moved up
here in December and have been doing well ever since.
Kayla: Hey, yeah, now you’ve put in
a year here. That’s great.
L: Yep, it’s been exactly one year
today. How suiting. I didn’t even think about that. Holy shit. That just blew
my mind that it snuck up on me like that.
Kayla: Congratulations. Look at all
you’ve done in the last year, too.
L: Yeah, I’ve been very active.
Kayla: I don’t want to assume, but
I’m sure almost all your life, if not all of it, you’ve identified as born into
the wrong gender, or kinda felt like you weren’t right in your own skin?
L: Okay, I knew that something was
off from the beginning. Didn’t know exactly what because I came from an
immigrant family, super Catholic, super tough. Like, a bunch of actual
gangsters, ex-cons, or military. Those were the options for the male folk in my
life so I couldn’t entertain the idea of, “Well, maybe I don’t feel right being
a guy. Maybe I don’t like just dating girls.” You don’t get to entertain those
thoughts and survive in that environment. So for the longest time I didn’t let
myself think about it, but things would come up often and I would try to get
them out in other ways. Growing up I had this comic about my life called The Degrading Show, which is a loose
name that I’ve attached to a lot of stuff ever since because it’s a metaphor
for my life. But in The Degrading Showthe character that represented me was always drawn female. Or as a child
version of me wearing a cowboy hat.
Kayla: In your newest zine Thoughts As Long As Cigarettes there’s a
drawing of you looking into a mirror and seeing a reflection of a girl and a
little boy in a cowboy hat.
L: That drawing is an homage to the
Kayla: You look at the reflection
and say, “I’m all of you.” That’s beautiful.
L: See? Context. [laughs] The Degrading Show was the first comic
that I self published when I turned eighteen. It was my birthday gift to myself
when I lived in Richmond, CA. I always knew that I wanted to do
comics, but that was the most obvious way I got it out there. This was more of
who I am than how I was walking around; having this tough guy image, getting
Kayla:Richmond is not the nicest town.
L: Oh no, no, no.
Kayla: I went to a show at Burnt
Ramen there once and everyone I knew there was like, “Do not walk around by yourself here.”
L: I lived there for a while, so
Kayla: People knew you.
L: People knew me well enough; I
still got harassed a lot. But you couldn’t live in an environment like that
where you are expected to be certain things and people are comfortable with you
being these things and even on my block I got jumped twice, but after a while
people got used to me. If I had tried to introduce a female identity on top of
that and mention that sometimes I like guys, I wouldn’t survive.
But I had those ways of getting it out there. It wasn’t enough, obviously. It
never is. I still don’t feel like my current existence is enough. But those
little ways helped. And every time I played a video game and you get to pick
your character or make your character, I was always female. Why would there be
any other option? I always thought that was normal.
Kayla: Yeah, like you live your
whole life as one gender; why can’t you be another?
L: This is how I would rather exist.
This is what I’m going to keep doing. And so I didn’t think it was that weird
until I became an adult and was out on my own and made enough friends who
weren’t so rigid with definitions like that. So I was able to entertain those
It finally hit me, it was a dream actually. It was really weird. But it was a
dream where I was born in the right body, had long hair, everything. And I went
to this party with my friends and everyone was treating me normally, and I felt
just so fucking good. I’d never felt that good, even in my regular existence
and I thought, “Um, I think that means this is who I’m supposed to be.” Even my
subconscious is like, “Fucking start admitting it!” That was several years ago,
so I knew it explicitly for about six or seven years but I didn’t start talking
about it till about two years later to just a couple of friends. They would
come with me to try on wigs and stuff but it was all so hush-hush and secret.
My partner at the time—I felt afraid to tell her. I didn’t want to ruin what I
had there by doing that.
Kayla: I just saw Laura Jane Grace
lecture a few weeks ago at the University
of Washington, and she
talked about how she came out to her wife. She sat her down and said, “I have
something to tell you,” and explained she’d been living life as a lie and that,
“I’m actually a woman.” Her wife said, “I thought you were going to tell me
you’re cheating on me,” and Laura said, “Well I kinda am. This isn’t me.”
L: Funny that you bring up Laura
Jane. When I told my friends, those select three friends—Danny Bailey was one
of them—literally a week later Laura Jane comes out and I’m like, “See, now I
can’t do it!” People are gonna think I’m just jumping on the bandwagon.
Kayla: Oh no! It’s a weird blessing
and a curse to have a punk rock figurehead like that. While you are making a lot
of headway in really important ways, there are still people who don’t know how
to receive that information. When I talked to her, I said, “Thank you for
elevating the awareness of this issue. Punk rock encompasses so many different
people, like sometimes you get the knuckle-dragging ‘drink, fight, and fuck’
guys who just want to mosh in the pit and they’re not going to understand that,
so thank you.”
L: And she got a bunch of people
actually starting a dialogue about it which was so fucking needed. Especially
since I feel like punk rock is supposed to be a place where things are talked about, where people are put on blast. And yet every
experience I’ve had with these same knuckle draggers—I fucking love that
[laughs]—were always regressive. Kinda dick moshing through every perspective
because it didn’t match their straight white narrative. Okay, but, you see that
this isn’t what punk rock is supposed to be, right? Like, you’re turning it
into McDonald’s. We need to take it away from that. It’s not supposed to be
marketed like that.
Kayla: It’s a culture of misfits who
want to be around each other to learn and grow with each other. Educate and
like, make community gardens. There’s so much good you can do with it through
music and lyrics and safe spaces.
L: Hell. Yeah.
Kayla: But yeah, that’s what is so
despairing to me about punk rock sometimes. You go out to a show with your
friends, and like “The world sucks so let’s go have a beer.” And then you
realize that a lot of those people are just plain alcoholics with an interest
L: [laughs] Ha, yeah there’s a
Kayla: It’s like, bummer! I thought
we could do something here.
L: So I was really glad that Laura
Jane came out. It was just sucky ‘cause I don’t like it when icons are assigned
to me, in any sense. As much as I appreciate Laura Jane, my experiences will
never be like that. ‘Cause like I already have the “overweight, brown, queer
kid growing up in the punk scene” life. I didn’t have the beautiful white kid,
starting a band that gets noticed. I had the live in the outskirts, tokenizing
myself just to get by with these knuckle draggers and feel relevant.
Kayla: Seriously. And to feel like
you’re not gonna get beat up for being who you are.
L: Yeah, and I’ve gotten into so
many fights about it—physically and verbally. Even here in Seattle, since I’ve started presenting for
over a year, I still get into fights with people. They give me dirty looks,
talk a lot of shit, still call me “he” to my fucking face when I’m presenting.
Especially at a place “run by friends”—air quotes again. I get called “bro,” “man,”
and “dude” all the time. It’s like, “Yo, you think all of this shit that I
literally risk my life for—just to be me—you think it doesn’t matter to you
because you don’t feel comfortable calling me something because you can’t see
past my genitalia?”
Kayla: It just is really awful that
you finally feel okay about presenting yourself in the way you see yourself and
people get offended by that. You know, it’s like I’ve been offended my entire life by not being able to be this way.
“This two hours we’re sitting in a room together is really gonna kill you? Why
don’t you just shut the fuck up and deal?”
L: That was one of the arguments I
would get a lot from a couple of people. This is a fact that fucked me up a
couple weeks ago; I research this stuff a lot... Last year I did a workshop in San Jose, and I did some
research about the experience for trans women of color. The murder statistic back then was one out of every twelve
trans women are murdered. That’s how they die—which is a higher probability
than just your average American dying of heart disease. It’s more likely
to happen than that. But this is the thing that fucked me up: over the course of a year it’s
gone to one out of every eight.
Kayla: Holy shit.
L: That’s what hit me really hard.
As much as the world is progressing around us, my people are still being
targeted. And it’s okay. I found out a lot of this stuff during Pride week
here. People are constantly asking me what I’m doing, because, you know, I’m
queer so, obviously, I must have a full agenda of gay activities to do. But the
fucked up thing was that because it was queer week, there were more reports all
throughout that week of trans women of color being murdered and left in ditches
Kayla: They’re literally being
treated like they’re trash.
L: Yeah, like they’re nothing, like
they’re not people. And so people are just like, “Are you doing anything for
Pride?” and I’m like, “I don’t really feel like celebrating.” My people are
still being murdered and if we’re not being murdered, we’re being sent to jail,
where we’re being assaulted and abused and being murdered eventually. We’re
systematically the most fucked up historically in our nation. Which is fucked
up because—sorry I’m ranting again—Pride actually was started by a coalition of
people, including trans women. Their experiences were a large part of why that
started. But now as you can see, on TV, on the streets during Pride, it’s just
become this queer, gay man’s party.
Kayla: Yeah, very queer centric.
L: It’s this rich gay experience that
not a lot of us get to experience.
Kayla: It’s always a heavy cis gaze.
L: Yes, cis gay men particularly
because they belong to this oppressed group that they feel like they’re exempt
from being called out for being oppressors themselves.
Kayla: And that’s not true at all.
L: I’ve had experiences where cis
people who would still identify as bi, or pan or whatever would be verbally, if
not physically, assaulted by gay men during Pride parades. Like shoving
whistles in their mouths, things like that. It’s just really weird.
Kayla: They’re almost like the
knuckle draggers we talked about earlier. Like, “You don’t know how it was for
us in the past. We’ve been here longer and we deserve more.” But it’s like, you
don’t. If you want to help the issues, then help who’s around you.
L: And it’s odd to see that level of
cannibalism within a community. It’s like, don’t you realize? We’re all
oppressed. If you’re going to oppress us, you are joining the side of the
people who are oppressing you. You are fulfilling an abusive cycle. But it’s
hard to have that dialogue especially when it’s surrounding something like a
widely spread celebration like that.
So I kept my mouth shut for the most part and I got driven to the point where
people kept pestering me about if I was doing anything or going anywhere for
it. And I’m like, “Dude, I cried on my lunch break because I just read about
how a seventeen-year-old kid got left behind a dumpster. That’s how I spent my
fucking day, and then I served rich allies [supporters of LBGT issues] buying
rainbow cookies from a coffee shop.” And then I had to go out and explain to
people why I didn’t feel like doing anything. It’s a weird experience to try
and teach intersectionality at the drop of a hat.
Kayla: Just a part of the human
L: Whether it be punk, whether it be
the queer experience, or hip hop. It’s everywhere, but it’s not everyone.
Kayla: No it’s not. You can’t speak
for an entire community that way. I read recently in a zine that LBGT got
amended to LBGTI so that intersex is included in that too. And they talked
about that a lot too, about how whenever these issues come up it’s usually
focused on gay and queer people and that trans people never have much of a
voice in that.
L: Don’t get me wrong; we have more
of a voice now than we’ve had over the last couple decades and that’s just
because there have been enough people calling other people out on shit. We have
Janet Mock doing her book tour and speaking very well on subjects like that and
actually getting a lot of good messages out there. We also have Laverne Cox
who’s a fantastic actress, undeniably really, really good, on this program that
people genuinely like. And then you have your outright beauty icons like Carmen
Carrera who’s just smokin’ hot all across the board. And we have our trans
woman punk icon, too. See, now that was never a thing. Until the last few years
we didn’t have icons. All the trans people making waves were all swept under
the rug and kept out of the fucking limelight which made it impossible for us
to feel like we had a place. Luckily for me, I’m that kind of nerd and I’m
trying to find like minds.
Kayla: ‘Cause you know they’re out
there. It can’t be all bad.
L: So I’ll research things and that’s
how I’ve always lived. I was one of those kids who independently researched
hate groups to know what to look out for. It blows my mind. This is the era
that I get to live in. I had no idea the mainstream would be on my side for
Kayla: Oh yeah, no. You’ve been
rejecting that mainstream culture your entire life.
L: I was trained to hate myself—and
they were a lot of why—and now
they’re kinda okay with it. There are still these parameters, like you have to
be a smoking hot babe. We still need to be able to objectify you. Just to see
the progress we’ve made—we’re not completely there obviously—but the dialogue
is there. I’m alive for this and I almost wasn’t with this cancer thing. It
sucks that it took years and years of constant murder and chaos on all of these
marginalized groups for people to finally start to take this seriously. The only people fighting back
are the people who benefit from having it this way and they all live in
this one country. They all
have a very specific demographic and everyone is tired of their shit. Not just
us angry black people. Not just those weird queers. Everyone is sick of it.
Kayla: Do you think that Occupy Wall
Street really helped this shift? I’m trying to think of a big defining point
and that definitely got these ideas out into the media.
L: Oh yeah. The Occupy Movement had
a huge impact on that because it was such a wide demographic of people who
understood these problems
all start with a separation of class and money. And that’s the overall
benefit of why people want to keep it the way it is. It always comes back to
money. So with everything happening right now, like Black Lives Matter and
trans marches that are happening, there is always going to be an element of
classism and intersectionality between every marginalized group. The things
that all of us have in common, the things that are keeping us oppressed, are
all man-made constructs and they all can be dismantled by us.
Kayla: You said you almost were not
alive for all this progress due to cancer. Do you want to talk about your
L: Sure, we can talk about anything
you like. ‘Cause I can go on forever about anything, if you haven’t noticed.
Kayla: One of the most powerful and
heartbreaking things I’ve heard you say is that you can’t die in the body you
want. It’s got to be incredibly hard.
L: It’s one of those things that I
still kinda wrestle with. When I got told that my body couldn’t sustain the
transition; that was like the light at the end of my tunnel collapsing. And
that was how I actually got the strength to go out and start presenting, do
events and host workshops, and convincing people it’s worth it. For me that’s
as good as it’s gonna get.
I don’t know how much longer I’m going to get to live but it’s not entirely
heartbreaking, only in that I was surprised by my own reaction to it. I didn’t
feel defeated because the life I had been living was so fucking prolific and
fulfilling. I’ve met so many people and I’ve done everything so sincerely—said
everything I wanted to say and called out so many things—and I’ve lived so much
since the diagnoses that I actually love me. Despite of the fact that I’ll
never physically be able to be me in that sense, it’s good that I’m at a place where I don’t outright hate
who I am. And that was the big “this sucks, but” moment for me.
Kayla: It helps to get to a point of
acceptance and being able to move on with your life.
L: When I found out, I still did get
really upset and cry about it because it still hurts. At the same time I can still
do everything that I wanna do and I can still affect the things I want to affect
and still make the impact that I want to. I just won’t be able to do it in the
body that I’ve been looking forward to occupying. And when I found out my body couldn’t sustain the
transition it felt like news that a really dear friend had passed away.
Kayla: Yeah, that’s really, really
L: It was hard to explain that to
people. It’s someone who had been really important to me for most of my life,
who I looked forward to being a part of and getting to dip in and out of every
once in a while… finding out that this person will never be is like finding out
a person I love is dead and I will never meet them. So that was the hardest
part to articulate and it took me a while to find the words for it. Transitioning is not something
that you just do passively, not something you do just ‘cause you felt like it.
It’s something you do because it’s a fucking need. Like a survival for
Kayla: When did you get diagnosed?
Did you find out as you were beginning transition?
L: No, I got diagnosed because I
started feeling physically ill and started missing work. I couldn’t be on my
feet for too long and was always tired and weak. It had started to affect my
mentality, and I was getting angry. I went to the doctor and they couldn’t find
anything at first, but when they weighed me I saw how much I weighed. I had
lost forty-eight pounds and didn’t even realize. It made sense because I had to
make holes in my belt but I didn’t really try for that, it wasn’t a goal.
So no one took me seriously for a while and some people actually congratulated
me. It was like that for months. Then I had a really bad day at work where I
left early and went straight to the ER, and they said my blood counts were
really concerning. That’s when I started going to Swedish Medical Center, and they couldn’t
figure it out. They thought it was some gastrointestinal issue, and I thought
it was too because it was mostly in my abdomen. But I got all these tests and
nothing was coming up, and it was frustrating because my doctor just kept
telling me I needed to lose weight. It’s like I already lost forty-eight pounds
unaccounted for and she tried to act like that was the first she had heard of
it. She was like, “Well what do you want me to do?” And I’m just like, “Find some answers.”
After even more tests they sent me to a hematologist and an oncologist because
there were only a few things it was pointing to. My current doctor told me that
if they had kept me on that route of chasing my tail that I probably wouldn’t
have seen the end of December (2014). My blood counts were so irrationally high
and my spleen was enlarged dramatically. So it took about two months for them
to take me seriously but my current doctor was set on figuring this out. And it
was hell week for me. They broke into my bone and took marrow, tested my blood,
and it was all just physically draining, but it did get an answer.
Kayla: That’s kind of relieving at
that point. Even though you’re going through excruciating and extremely
draining experiences, you know what it is you’re fighting.
L: Getting those answers was huge.
Then people constantly ask, “What does that mean and how much time do you have?”
But I don’t really have an answer for that.
Kayla: What is the name of the
disease you have? It’s a blood cancer, right?
L: Polycythemia Vera which is an MPM
(Malignant Pleural Mesothelioma) blood disorder and I’m now fighting off
myelofibrosis, which is a form of chronic leukemia.
L: And I am on two forms of chemo to
do that. But yesterday was the first time that the illness actually beat me and
I had to cancel a show. I’m still playing music and I started doing stand-up
comedy. I’ve been doing a lot more art and I’ve been living hard. I just know
that there is no cure for the Polycythemia Vera but if I can beat the leukemia
or at least stop it from progressing, then I can actually have time to enjoy
whatever the fuck I want to enjoy. It occurs to me sometimes that I don’t even
know what I’m going to do if I do beat it and I have a few years or something.
I’m always just focused on getting all this shit out while I can, sometimes to
the point where I put too much pressure on myself. I can’t ride my bike, or
skateboard or do martial arts, but if I could get it down to one form of chemo
maybe I can.
Kayla: But you started the comedy
routine after getting sick. Is that not the best way to deal with something as
daunting as this? You’re like, I’ve got a terminal illness and I’m gonna to
start being funny in front of people. That’s awesome. [Both laugh]
L: For me, the life I’ve had has
been tough. A lot of fights, a lot of abuse, a lot of negative things. But one
thing that most people who live a life like that realize is sometimes the only
way to get through that is to be able to laugh about it.
There’s a stand-up comedian named Monique Marvez who said something that really
stood out to me which was, “Laughter is a sound that keeps reality from
scarring.” I’m just like, yes, that is exactly it. That’s why the funniest
people you know have seen some of the worst shit in life. So I’ve always wanted
to do stand-up comedy. I’ve written sketch comedy for years and called that The Degrading Show, just like my comic.
But I would get told things like, “You’re more ‘on paper’ funny than with stand-up
or anything like that.” I saw a friend of mine perform at the Comedy Womb, and
it was such an environment that I knew I would kill in this room, so I signed
up. The Comedy Womb is a collective of people who do hate-free material and are
very feminist-centric. And the first performance I did, I ended up getting
booked to do a show opening for Cameron Esposito. After my first time, like, “Maybe
I’m good at this.”
Kayla: Right, maybe you’re not just “on
L: So I’ve just been doing it every
week since then and a couple other special events here and there, like
fundraisers for Black Lives Matter and for Ferguson in general. It’s been this huge eye-opening
experience for me where it’s like—as much art and music and all the stuff I do
to express myself—comedy has been the most straightforward and direct. I can
just outright talk about something, I don’t have to bury it in prose or try to
find the right key for it. And it also helps me process a lot of shit that I
can’t handle. I’m still trying to find a way to work in cancer stuff. I tried
some material that was kind of there but it was still uncomfortable and people
were noticeably bothered by it. So I’m trying to navigate how to talk about it
without so much fear and desperation from the audience or from myself.
Kayla: Do you present when you go out for your routine?
L: Sometimes. It’s just like in my
regular life. I don’t always feel up to it. But it’s just the kind of community
where they get it. And that’s how I want it to be. I don’t want it to be a big
thing if I want to dress up. Some days I only want to do a little bit and some
days I go all out, and anyone should be allowed to do that. They have
normalized it so much and made me feel really good about it. That’s why even though
I’m sick, I still make a point to get there every week.
Kayla: Have you lost some friends
through this whole experience? Anyone just decided they can’t handle it and cut
L: I’ve lost a lot of people and
that really hurt. When I came out publicly.
Kayla: And that was on Transgender
Day of Remembrance right?
L: Yeah. Immediately after I came
out publicly, I felt like, “Fuck it, do your worst. I fucking dare you.” I’m
better now knowing that I can be me and not be swept under the rug, that I can
still be two hundred feet tall when I want to. So I came out and lo and behold,
arguments left and right, people dividing, people defending me, which I wasn’t
expecting. Or people messaging me that I might not know very well just saying, “Thank
you for being you.”
Kayla: You’re just a big inspiration
to a lot of people who stuck around.
L: And that’s been a thing that I’ve
been dealing with—people talking to me about being inspirational, having to be
a strong person. Like, I don’t always feel like that, and I feel like I’m
really not handling things well—when I rage cry because I still feel so fucking
cheated by life.
Kayla: But like you wrote in your
zine, there was a conversation with you and your doctor about whether you
wanted to keep your birth name Leo. Your doctor told you not to change it
because it means stone lion and you are a natural leader, whether you chose to
be or not. And that is so prevalent in everything you do.
L: It does make sense, and that’s
why even though I was out, I didn’t start going by L until Transgender Day of
Kayla: Do you still to this day have
people calling you by your old name?
L: Yeah, a lot.
Kayla: That’s just crazy. It’s been
nearly two years.
L: I even got my doctors to start
calling me by gender neutral pronouns. It took a while, but they understand it.
And yet there are people who are friends…
Kayla: Air quotes again. [Both
L: “Friends” in Seattle, who I’ve
known for a long time that still call me “he” or “bro” and it’s fucking gross.
Kayla: Yeah, you just kinda cringe
every time it happens.
L: It’s like, I know you’ve been
around. You’ve seen everything I’ve gone through. Every time I’ve gotten
harassed or followed. I’ve lost family members.
Kayla: And they’re still being
disrespectful to your face.
L: Right, just because it makes them
Kayla: It’s still ingrained in a lot
of people. It’s really sad that even some of the people in our scene aren’t
there to support you like they should.
L: My main goal in life is to be
more than that. Instead of having to appease people, I’m just going to do music
and try to live a life above that. I’ve been doing that and it’s been pretty
good in spite of every shitty thing that’s been going on. I just wish I had
started living like this a lot sooner and it didn’t take a life-threatening
illness to really get me there.