I have had the joy of knowing and working with J Mase III for over five years. We have collaborated through the years as workshop facilitators at the Philly Trans Health Conference and most recently in NYC at the Climate Convergence where we both performed and led a workshop: A Queer Response to Climate Change.
J Mase III operates in the world and on the stage with a hearty blend of gravitas, humor, artistic skill, and curiosity about the world. Recently we sat down to chat about art, activism, privilege, climate change, and environmental justice.
You have spent much of your life living in Philadelphia. What would you say Philly has given you and what have you given to Philly?
Answer: Philly is where I came into myself as an adult, as a trans person, as an artist…Philly, and my family there (blood and chosen), empowered me to be a leader. I would like to believe I have given Philly my heart. Starting life in NJ, living in NYC, when folks ask me where I am from, I tell them, my home, my heart is always Philly.
You contain and express many identities. I imagine at times when walking into a specific space–religious, queer, white– you felt pressures or tempted to “check” something at the door or play up one identity over another. What has helped you in integrating the many parts of yourself?
Answer: I think all of these parts of myself have been integrated for most of my life, they just merely seemed messy to others. I’m at a place where I am often asked to help spaces become better at being intersectional, better at being more inclusive, better at being more diverse. Often times, this comes from a framework of thinking that expects when we make things more inclusive they can look and sound the same with just some different people sitting around the living room together- notice I didn’t say sitting around that table. Most folks seeking to diversify are so deeply invested in their own white supremacy, their own transmisogyny, their own ableism they can’t imagine, and certainly don’t intend to relinquish any of the power needed to make these spaces less oppressive.
While I am willing to work with spaces and organizations invested in structural change, I am no longer punishing myself by joining in movements that would rather let me go extinct than have some of my community members in leadership roles. I refuse to participate in colonialist thinking that dictates I must join these spaces because they have merely “been around”. My hope, is that many of these organizations and systems in power that refuse (because if it is 2014 and you are not already being intersectional, know that it is a refusal) to be intersectional will go extinct, so that more people of color organizations, more non-Christian based organizations, more non-ableist organizations, more trans organizations will be recognized for their leadership.
At one point, I stood before the room of people and told folks that we can’t grapple with the effects plaguing people in regards to climate change if we can’t make more space in our LGBt (one day LGBT) and environmental orgs for people of color, trans people and women to take leadership. One person, someone who could be perceived as a white cis-male made sure I knew that he disagreed with me. That just having the leadership of these aforementioned identities did not mean there would be a more intersectional lens applied to the way we deal with problems. He ended by saying “we could agree to disagree”. What I said to him, what I am sharing with you, is that I don’t need everyone to believe in the need to include voices that sound like mine or those that I care about. But we as people of color, as trans folks, as broke folks, as differently abled folks, undocumented folks, as marginalized folks we must recognize this need, because those glossing over our experiences can never be truly invested in our survival. Many organizations that we have held onto as sacred, believing they would hear us because we are queer people, have not thought about us in our totality.
What I took away from that particular moment, is that even as we share our pain, people may refuse to hear it- and that is not new. Furthermore, when it comes to making room, we must make that space for ourselves. To LGBt and environmental orgs that claim to fight on our behalf without us being present, know that we see you. And we don’t have to take your erasure; nor can we afford to.