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Black, Bold And Non Binary

OUTSPOKEN: Travis Alabanza

IN THE lead up to the European referendum, award-winning artist Scottee travelled across England to interview LGBTQI people angered by mainstream politics. The result was Putting Words in Your Mouth – a bold production that explores notions of belonging, identity and the legacy of Thatcherism, challenging what it means to be British and queer in 2016.

Opening at London’s Roundhouse from November 22, Putting Words in Your Mouth features the talents of performance artists Jamal Gerald, Lasana Shabazz and Travis Alabanza.

Described as a black, transfemme performance artist, London-based Alabanza uses live performance, with a combination of poetry, soundscape, projection and theatrics, to examine the experience of being black and trans.
One such example was the artist’s production, Stories of a Queer Brown Muddy Kid, which, as Alabanza explains, dissected “how black bodies are treated in a white gay LGBT+ scene.” Inspired by Alabanza’s personal experiences, the show toured the UK and Europe earlier this year.

Rejecting the pronouns ‘him’ or ‘he’, Alabanza identifies as non-binary, explaining, “I do not ascribe to male or female gender.” Here, the performance artist talks to Life & Style about race, gender identity and the danger of stereotyping the black community as homophobic.

How do you describe Putting Words in Your Mouth?

In short, it’s a production that is political, bold, brave, harsh, real and timely. It is queer, it is British, it is not British, it is examining ‘British’ – all at the same time!

What are your hopes for the production?

I hope that it will challenge the dominant narrative and force audiences to think. I hope that people use it as a piece of theatre to challenge themselves, their friends, their families and that it starts conversation.

What was the inspiration for your show, Stories of a Queer Brown Muddy Kid?

The inspiration was my experiences within the gay scene between the ages of 16-18. It was a cathartic therapy session, dissecting how black bodies are treated in a white gay LGBT+ scene. It unapologetically and boldly called out the racism within the LGBT+ scene, whilst showing diary entries of a young, confused, queer black kid. Stories of a Queer Brown Muddy Kid was about creating a story that I never got to see, and then putting it on stage!

At what stage did you begin to question your gender identity and how do you describe your gender now?

I think I “questioned” my gender from the moment I was conscious of myself. I don’t think I questioned it typically in a verbal way, but in my actions. From a young age, I would play with different items of clothing, nail varnish, trying on heels and voices and characters. I think that was me testing and playing with the limits that gender places on us. I always knew I was not the “man” the world was trying to make me, but didn’t know or have the language for alternatives. I describe my gender now as extremely fluid, yet also certainly not male, and identify as non-binary – meaning I do not ascribe to male or female gender.

Do you make a point of correcting anyone who uses the terms ‘him’ or ‘he’ when describing you?

Yes, of course, when it is safe to do so. And I encourage folks to correct people around me, so I don’t have to. I am not a ‘him' or a ‘he’ so I make the point to correct people, it’s just plain respect!

In an interview you did with Beyond the Binary last year, you said: “... often my blackness is very much in- tersecting and influencing my gender identity and expression.” Could you expand on that? How does your race influence your gender identity?

I do not see my gender identity and expression as separate to my race, but instead a part of it. The way I experience transphobia and queerphobia is very different to how white trans and queer people experience it, so it cannot be separated. The rate of homelessness among trans youth doubles when we look at trans people of colour, as does the harassment and murders trans women face when they are also black. The world does not see us in separate boxes – so neither do I.

But on a more positive note, I see my gender identity and expression as an act of decolonisation. It is colonisation and rigid Western notions of gender that places boxes of ‘male’ and ‘female’ into such tight squeezes and I see my journey escaping those boxes as one that is also decolonising my idea of gender, and therefore myself. I see the way I walk and express my femininity as so similar to my grandmother and our culture, that the blackness within it is so distinct.

Much has been written/debated about homophobia in the black community. Have you experienced such prejudice?

I think it’s really difficult and also dangerous to label one community as “more homophobic” than the other, when the homophobia, queerphobia, and transphobia I’ve experienced most violently in public or private, has not been from the black community. Of course I have experienced prejudice from the black community, but I have experienced prejudice in every community. Just a few weeks ago, someone called me a ‘tr*nny’ on the tube – the same day that someone tried to follow me home and ask if I was “a boy or a girl.” Unfortunately, the world is not safe for trans people of colour. But I will say, it is within my community of black queer and trans folk, that I have found the most safety and love for my whole self.

Travis Alabanza performs in Putting Words In Your Mouth at the Round- house, London NW1, from November 22 – December 3. For more information, visit Follow Travis on Twitter: @travisalabanza

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