To judge by popular culture, it might appear that transgender people are finally gaining acceptance in mainstream society. Laverne Cox, known for her role in the Netflix drama “Orange is the New Black,” recently made the cover of Time magazine, next to the headline “the transgender tipping point.”

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  1. Listen MN trans community battles barriers to survival

    Sept. 18, 2014

Janet Mock made the New York Times bestseller list with her book “Redefining Realness,” a memoir of growing up a trans girl.

But according to local transgender activists, the current reality for most is far from that experienced by celebrities like Cox and Mock. For anyone whose gender doesn’t conform to the traditional image of male or female, the barriers to success — even to basic survival — are everywhere. That’s why the city of Minneapolis is convening a “Transgender Equity Summit” on Sept. 25.

Many trans youth face rejection from their families, forcing them out onto the street to fend for themselves. Their situation is complicated by their photo IDs. A transgender woman with a driver’s license that identifies her as a man faces huge barriers to both employment and housing.

“I had to take a young woman to the Greyhound recently because she’d lost her housing,” said Roxanne Anderson, who worked for years with homeless trans youth as the director of TYSN — the Trans Youth Support Network. “She moved in with somebody she thought was her friend, and was there less than a month when her friend said, ‘we’ve been evicted.’”

Anderson said that’s a common story, but unfortunately most trans youth don’t have someone who can bail them out.

“They couch hop, and then that gets old and then they just don’t have any place to go,” Anderson said. “It happens over and over and it’s not just young folk — it happens a lot in the trans community. It’s an issue we don’t talk about a lot and it’s kind of an unseen number in the count. We count homeless people in Minnesota and often trans folks get left out of that count because they’re invisible.”

Many transgender youth find going to school particularly painful. Garrett Hoffman, who is working on his doctorate at the University of Minnesota, said while he is thriving in the academic environment, he’s the exception, not the rule.

“When I work with trans students, there are a lot of compounding issues that might limit students access to higher education, particularly financial, and particularly if the student is looking to medically transition because that costs a lot of money,” Hoffman explained.

Hoffman said he sees students who have been disowned by their parents and have to apply for financial independence from their parents to quality for appropriate student loans.

“I’m also working with students who are needing to drop out to transition because they can’t keep up with their course work when they’re going to work and their professor is calling them by a different name than the one they had explicitly told them they wanted to be called by,” he said.

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In addition to the barriers in education, housing and employment, transgender people are often isolated from their community. Until only recently their stories were rarely told in mainstream media. Many see that invisibility as one of the barriers to improving their rights and their lives. It also has an enormous psychological impact.

“One of the biggest killers in our community is isolation,” said Katie Burgess, a performance artist, juggler and outspoken community activist. “The only place I saw trans folks growing up was on Jerry Springer. I was 18 the first time I met another trans woman, and that changed my life.”

While Burgess is critical of pop culture and mainstream media, she still recognizes the powerful impact of trans celebrities like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock, and how their fame is channeling attention to trans issues.

Andrea Jenkins, who has been “out” as a trans woman for more than 20 years, works as a policy aide for Minneapolis City Council Member Elizabeth Glidden. Jenkins said she was deeply moved by seeing Laverne Cox on the cover of Time, not just because Cox is transgender, but because she is a woman of color.

“But what I’m not hearing are the stories of people who died from complications of AIDS, and the struggles that transgender women — particularly women of color  — face, in terms of isolation, stigma, the dual realities of racism and trans phobia,” Jenkins said. “Those are the stories we need to hear more about, in all forms of media. There’s some powerful determination and resilience in those stories and they have a universality that transcends just the sensationalism of being transgender.”

While the transgender community is working to break down stereotypes and raise awareness around issues like housing, education and health care, it is still plagued by internal battles. Some are disappointed over how transgender people are treated by the gay and lesbian community, even at events such as the annual Pride parade.

Performance artist Jaime Carrera said such disappointment is not new. Even something as simple as language has can divide trans people along generational lines, he said, noting that words such as “tranny” and “faggot” are triggers for some, but for others part of their community’s history.

Carrera points to the popular show “Ru Paul’s Drag Race,” which has recently taken flack for its language.

“I love the word tranny; I don’t think it’s offensive,” Carrera said.. “I use those words to empower myself. So I feel like [this language debate is] kind of a waste of time, and it’s taking attention away from things that are far more important. We need to make sure people don’t murder us, and that people actually go to jail for that. Fighting over a drag queen saying ‘tranny’ to me is the stupidest thing.”

Kelly Brazil, a sculptor and  case manager with the GLBT host home program, said pop culture has an all-too-powerful influence on people, and it’s important to stay focused on issues that matter.

“I spend less time encouraging homeless youth to pick up Time magazine or watch TV than to actually sit and have a conversation about what they really need,” Brazil said. “Often it’s going to the government center with them to get their ID changed, or going to HCMC to go to a doctor for the first time. It’s about struggling with the systems and the bullshit every day. And really attempting to help them the gain the confidence to do what they want to do. Because often times they can’t get a job because they don’t have an education. They don’t have an ID. They don’t have supportive adults that will help them get up in the morning — so what’s the point really?”

For all the hardships that trans youth experience as they look for acceptance and stability, some say they think things have improved over the years for the trans community. Carrera said he has faith things will continue to get better.

“I’m envious of the youth of today. I’m not saying all our problems are gone — I don’t think they’ll ever be gone,” he said. “People don’t like to hear this, but racism is always going to exist, trans phobia is always going to exist, homophobia is always going to exist, sexism is always going to exist. We’ve just got to find a way to make our society function a lot better with those things, knowing that they’re going to be a constant. It’s human nature. We can’t make people love us, but we can make them know that we have a lot of power, just like they do.”

Toward that end, the Transgender Equity Summit on Sept. 25 aims to help the transgender community claim some of that power.

Ananya Dance Theatre has built its reputation on illuminating social and environmental injustices through dance.

It’s marking its 10th season with a shift to more-positive themes.

Ananya Dance Theatre
(Photo by V. Paul Virtucio)

Thursday through Saturday, Ananya Dance Theatre presents “Neel: Blutopias of Radical Dreaming”at the Cowles Center for Dance in Minneapolis.

Artistic Director Ananya Chatterjea says the concert is the first in a five part-series examining women’s work.

Chatterjea, a native of India, says the word “neel” means “blue” in her native tongue, Bangla. The term “Blutopia,” first coined by Duke Ellington, is meant to suggest a world dreamt from a place of pain and loss.

“This is not sleep dreaming,” explained Chatterjea, “but ‘dreaming’ as in invoking a future in which we can be whole and have access to happiness. This often means that we are cut down at the prime of our lives. [Pakistani activist] Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head, but she also transformed our lives. We die again and again, but our dreams change the world; it shifts something in our universe.”

Future performances will examine love for the land, healing, speaking out, and “world-making.”

Alexandra Eady performs in Ananya Dance Theatre’s “Neel: Blutopias of Radical Dreaming”
(Photo by V. Paul Virtucio)

Ananya Dance Theatre has its own distinct style of dance which blends contemporary Indian dance, yoga and martial arts.

The performance does not shy away from examining the source of the “blues,” but unlike previous ADT shows, it spends more time conjuring a world in which women are liberated from systemic violence.

It also presents a world in which women are free to openly love one another.

“In a patriarchal system we are not able to love each other. There’s a necessity to be catty and mean to each other, and it’s all for men’s approval, Chatterjea said. “That’s how patriarchy survives, by pitting women against each other. Finding the self that we can love is very important because that in turn enables us to love others.”

“Neel” includes a guest performance by Shá Cage and vocalizations by Chastity Brown, Mankwe Ndosi and Pooja Goswami. Greg Schutte created the soundscape for the dances.

Renée Copeland in
“Neel: Blutopias of Radical Dreaming”
(Photo by V. Paul Virtucio)

Chatterjea said while the new series deals with some similar topics from the company’s previous work, the tone is more urgent.

“Probably because I’m older, I feel more impatient. So this whole series for me is about an oncoming revolution – I’m inviting it,” she said. “I really feel there is a war on women, and it doesn’t get told. Sexual violence, rape, the erosion of rights, the erosion of women as intellectual partners –they’re all a part of this.”

Performances of “Neel: Blutopias of Radical Dreaming” run Sept. 18-20 at the Cowles Center for Dance in Minneapolis.

An exhibition of new work by Andrea Stanislav combines nature and technology, love and hate, the sacred and the profane all in one glittering, shiny show.


“Someday Never Comes” by Andrea Stanislav
(Photo courtesy of the artist)

“Phase Velocity”  opens tonight at Burnet Gallery in Minneapolis with a reception at 6 p.m.; it runs through Oct. 12.

The show features both sculpture and collages. But as Stanislav points out, the collages are so thick with layers that they, too, are essentially sculpture.

Stanislav is known for her use of glitter and more recently refractive film (commonly used in creating holograms) to create bold pieces that are both beautiful and disturbing. When lit, her works burst with color and change at every angle.

“I’m interested in making art that is experiential in a very physical way. I’m working with that play of light, with the viewer’s experience in mind,” Stanislav said. “I want to give the viewer almost too much to look at, and maybe create a sense of confusion, which is my experience with modern technology and being bombarded by too much information.”

Stanislav’s sculptures juxtapose shiny mirrors and crystals with taxidermy of coyotes, rabbits and birds. The animal spirit world has been mounted and stuffed, presented in a way that reminds one just how far removed the modern world is from nature.

“Broken Column” by Andrea Stanislav
(Photo courtesy of the artist)

Stanislav describes herself as an “obsessive collager” but usually she reserves that process for the studio, when planning projects. For this exhibition the collages play a central role, bringing together everything from decaying Russian sculpture to headless women in lingerie. Compared with past exhibitions, the mood is darker, more foreboding.

“I grew up on a lot of bad Italian horror films,” Stanislav said with a chuckle. “That Gothic nature informs my work. It’s important to have the beauty and the color, but also the dark — the poison and the magic — to create tension in the work.”

Stanislav likes to work from an uncomfortable place, and to push herself.

“I like to set myself on the edge. Glitter and rhinestones, for example. I hated them, so I decided to work with them as this challenge,” Stanislav said. “It’s a cheesy material – can I confront it and bring it to a point where I have to embrace it? Where I can engage with it conceptually?”

“Dispersion / Sympathy for the Devil” by Andrea Stanislav
(Photo courtesy of the artist)

This is the first time Stanislav has incorporated women’s bodies in her work. Typically her work is focused on men and masculinity, and comes across as cold and angular. At the beginning of her career, she sid, many people assumed her work was made by a man.

“In the 80s we were anti-feminists, we didm’t want to be labeled ‘female artists,”‘she  explained. “And at first I thought of it as a badge of honor. I’m completely comfortable with being a female artist now, and I think culturally we’ve moved past that too. And perhaps that’s why the women are showing up in my work now.”

Stanislav said  some viewers might enjoy trying to find the many art history references she’s layered into her collages and sculpture.

“I’m mashing up a lot of ‘isms’ with my work… minimalism, modernism, Dadaism,” she said.. “My work even goes back to the Baroque; I think about Breugel, and other painters who have engaged the viewer, really activated the eye on the plane with lots of activity.”