Saturday, 25 March 2017

Interview with Mya Byrne

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Mya Byrne, an award-winning songwriter, poet, actress, and trans/queer activist. She made her stage debut at NYC's Dixon Place in 2014. She’s played some of North America’s best music festivals, and her art has been featured in The Advocate, Time Out, Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, MSNBC, and many other media. Hello Mya!
Mya: Hey there Monika! Thanks for having me.
Monika: You can boast so many talents. Which vocation do you regard as most appropriate for you?
Mya: When it all comes down to it, I’m a rock-and-roll poet to my core. I mean, that encompasses everything I do.
Monika: Is there anything like transgender art? What does it mean to be a transgender artist?
Mya: I don’t think there is anything that can be compared to transgender art. So much great art has come from trans people, and it’s beautiful to witness this being recognized -- from the music of Wendy Carlos, Ahnoni, Lynn Breedlove, Star Amerasu, and Laura Jane Grace to the celebrated writing of so many here on your website, the brilliant films of the Wachowskis, actress Mya Taylor, and all of the people before our time who might have been considered trans today -- especially in the Black lesbian and blues music scene pre-World War 2, and of course the countless people who were living openly as gender-variant in Weimar Germany. Lili Elbe was an artist and a muse, too, openly celebrated in her time.
And then, of course, I think of all of the records that were destroyed by the Nazis -- how many stories did they hold of our ancestors? There are so many who toiled at various labors in stealth or out but hidden across media, some of whom we will never know their names or stories.
In one of the articles I wrote for The Advocate a few years back, I highlight folk genius Dave Carter, who died before coming out, in 2002. Her trans status was not revealed until much later. I’ll never know the name she would have chosen; and as Carter was huge in the music scene I came up in, I often wonder about how she might have affected my own transition had she been present while I was just starting out, which was right around the same time she passed.

But what’s interesting about her work is that it also represents something I think is a major problem with those who transition after having already established a career. Her songs are absolutely not classified as transgender art by many who listen to and are inspired by her. Just as The Matrix isn’t necessarily designated transgender art by its fans, despite the Wachowski sisters saying straight out that of course, it is!
In other words, some of the best art has come from trans people, whether we knew them as trans or not. It’s some of the hardest hitting and most cerebral, and the most remarkably rule-breaking and inventive, because of all this work we do to push through to our deeper selves. And we don’t get enough credit for our past work being trans-focused. Even if it is not explicitly about the transition in external content, it’s there, in its passion and imagery and the way we push ourselves. That carries over to tech, too, by the way. Some of the most brilliant technology has been developed by trans women!
What does it mean? Well, from my preceding rant, you can tell that I’m constantly searching for the answer to that question.
Monika: Your debut solo album post-transition, “As I Am,” was well received by the audience and media. How different is your solo music from the sounds you explored with your previous band, New York-based the Ramblers?
Mya: Well, I think for one, I’m much more comfortable with myself, and certainly, my voice has changed a little bit. In the past, it seemed that I was writing songs that had a hidden message that I could feel but not see. Having explored those songs now, I find that I was, in fact, writing so many messages of “Look! I’m here, waiting for you to find me!” So that part is no longer as big a presence in my writing.
For me now, my songs have gotten harder, more critical, more reflective of the love and the world, a hell of a lot more radical in thought and theory, instead of this pent-up transition that needed to happen. That said, I think there’s a definite continuum between the Ramblers and my solo stuff. But moreover, I think it’s less of me as a rugged, whisky-soaked Kris Kristofferson-type and more of me just being myself, which is much closer to Lucinda Williams and Chrissie Hynde.

Mya backstage at Great America Music
Hall, San Francisco.

To be free of the veil of masculinity meant -- and I didn’t know this until after transition -- that my music became more about my feminine power, the energy that is so often dismissed by misogynists. It’s fucking powerful to play on stage now, and I breathe utter confidence. People have told me that what I do onstage now -- well, I couldn’t have done that ten years ago. Part of that is maturing as an artist but more of it is just owning myself, my identity, and getting out on stage like I own the damn world.
Monika: You also write poems.
Mya: And short stories! I’m proud to have my work included in an upcoming anthology of trans women’s writing published by Lambda Literary Award-winning publisher EAOGH, who published the groundbreaking “Troubling the Line” anthology a few years ago, and a short story of mine featured in The James Franco Review late last year.
Monika: And you have done some acting before.
Mya: I was blessed to emerge into a world of trans authors and artists who embraced me, in New York. The work I have done has been incredibly fulfilling. It’s all been trans-focused.
Monika: In your extensive artistic career, I have also found songs for transgender children. For example, you were featured on the “Rainbow Train” children’s album, which encourages children to explore and accept differing identities.
Mya: My songwriting friend Chana Rothman approached me the very day I came out publicly, telling me that she was writing a sort of updated version of the classic Free to Be inspired by her gender-nonconforming child, and asked me to participate on that album. We talked on the phone and we got the idea to write a song about how one should have the autonomy to choose their own name, and it was so amazing to think about how to approach that in language a child could understand.
As a fan of Sesame Street and Free to Be, I thought about what I would have wanted to know as a young person. I mean, the truth is, everyone has the ability to choose their own name, no matter what age you are! From the bible to Hollywood, culture is full of stories like that. So why can’t gender-nonconforming people change their names? In that song, there’s no mention of gender at all -- just identity and what you want to be called.
My hope with that album is that it will empower people of all ages to truly ask what makes them comfortable in their lives, to know they have the autonomy to own it! If it’s at age five or fifteen or fifty, we need to support people. If in ten years a teenager comes up to me and tells me that song helped them accept themselves or someone else, I will probably burst into tears of joy.
Monika: At what age did you transition yourself? Was it a difficult process for a rabbi’s daughter?
Mya: Oh my, I fought with my own self-awareness for years. I began identifying as genderqueer around 2007 while still retaining my former name and pronouns, and in 2012, I realized I needed to transition, but pushed it back down for a year. So generically speaking, in my early to mid-thirties.

It was so difficult to transition, as someone raised very much in Jewish traditions. There are a lot of expectations put upon Jewish children in general, especially those assumed to be male, and there’s a lot about body-as-covenant, which was part of what held me back. 
My transition ripped some of my closest relationships apart. They are mending some now, but to be honest, my father’s influence --- he always pushed me to explore my life on the deepest philosophical and spiritual levels -- was a part of my being able to accept myself, even if he doesn’t necessarily accept me, still. I don’t know. We’ve only just started talking again.
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Mya: I think it was the day Chelsea Manning came out that I started looking at her and others as true role models. But honestly, it was finding the now-defunct Tumblr page Mtf Butches that I finally saw, well... people who looked like me, or rather how I felt I wanted to present, for the first time. Turns out a lot of those folks were right here in San Francisco!
Laura Jane Grace and Red Durkin were two other big influences, as were Laverne Cox, Kate Bornstein, Morgan Sea, Tom Leger, Stephen Ira, Zinnia Jones, and a whole mess of folks on Tumblr and Facebook I will never be able to thank enough for encouraging me to live my truth.
And especially Jenny Boylan, who answered a random email from me when I was a very scared person who didn’t know anyone who was trans. She gave me so much courage to go on. And also to Tobi Hill-Meyer and Mina Caputo, who both took time out from their busy lives to help me figure out how to come out publicly when it was time to do so.
Monika: Are there are any transgender ladies that you admire and respect now?
Mya: There are so many! Monica Roberts, CeCe MacDonald, our living elders -- Stonewall veteran Miss Major, and Felicia Elizondo, who was part of the Compton’s Cafeteria riot in 1966 -- then there’s Julia Serano, Persephone Smith, Michelle Bonner, Villainette, Imogen Binnie, Jen Richards, Angelica Ross, Ryka Aoki, Mx. Justin Vivian Bond, Riley Silverman, Avery Edison, Trace Peterson, Cat Fitzpatrick, and some other people I know personally whom I don’t feel comfortable naming in a public interview out of respect for their privacy. There are a bunch of amazing non-binary people and trans men who also have influenced me greatly, but I know we’re focusing specifically on trans women here.

Mya live at Doc's Lab, San Francisco.Photo by KC Turner.

Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Mya: Getting over the fear, and dealing with the fallout from certain family and friends.
Monika: The transgender cause is usually manifested together with the other LGBTQ communities. Often treated as the last letter in this abbreviation, is the transgender community able to promote its own cause within the LGBTQ group?
Mya: I think the queer community, or more specifically the homonormative monogamous cis gay and lesbian segment of that, has a lot of work to do in general in understanding and embracing trans people, rather than giving them lip service. The “respectable” gay people have run this show for a long time and I’m sick of it. From Sylvia Rivera being kicked out of the movement in the ‘70s, trans women have been denied their due in the greater movement.
It is changing. My biggest advocates when beginning to come out were cis gay people. But that said, I’m a dyke -- and it is a historical fact that trans people who are also gay have been dismissed and erased by institutions and individuals, even though we are always on the front lines of major change. I do not wish to assimilate into heteropatriarchal norms of beauty or relationships; my goal is to be as out as I possibly can, queer as hell, and unwilling to accept that heterosexist values define the future of trans acceptance.
I don’t want to be “tolerated”, I want equal rights, no matter my presentation or how many people I’m in love with. I think a lot of folks share that, plus those of us who do sex work are not as respected or protected, and often simply dismissed. Mainstream gay activism needs to examine its exclusionary past and unpack that, seriously. I don’t want to play nice. And I don’t want to abolish gender. I want a gender revolution. Our common oppression is toxic misogyny and white supremacy. That should be bringing us together, not ripping us apart. 
Monika: What do you think in general about transgender news stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers, or books so far?
Mya: Well, they’re getting better. As we speak out more and more of us work openly in media, the stories will get out and will increase in their quantity. But it is very difficult to be trans and see the same old tropes repeated, and the same old fights being fought, when basic humanity and protections are what’s needed more than anything. There are too many of us on edge afraid of what monsters we’ll be accused of being next, and the media is culpable for the awful negativity that surrounds us. I’m just hoping cis men portraying trans women in Hollywood will end for once and for all.
Monika: Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Mya: I don’t participate in lobbying, but I get out and hit the streets and also am often engaged as a public speaker. On March 8 I spoke at the San Francisco Gender Strike, in solidarity with International Women’s Day. And yes, I do think we are making a huge difference. We are speaking, and speaking loudly. Feminism that doesn’t include trans people is simply not feminism! And I feel the attitude shifting in many older cis feminists, after so much work, thank stars. I am proud of people like Gloria Steinem who have made sincere apologies for past dismissal of trans women and sought reconciliation. We are all in this together, and it must be a unified movement.

Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colors, or trends?
Mya: I love fashion! I’m not exactly a reader of Vogue, but I do my own thing, inspired by what I find on the rack or what my friends make for me. I basically dress like a goth Audrey Hepburn meets a classic flannel-and-cowboy boots dyke. I favor black leather for most of my garments when possible, and when I can afford it, I buy beautiful handmade leather items from Mr. S in San Francisco. I like hot pink bras and slinky cowl-neck shirts. I wear a lot of Banana Republic, H&M, Michael Kors, stockings and stuff from Target, knee socks, and vintage Levi’s, and I go thrifting a lot. I follow the tall girl ethic of “If it fits, buy two of them!” My usual stage outfit is an A-line high-waisted flared skirt, ripped stockings, calf-high boots, and a leather vest over a low-cut camisole.
Monika: What do you think about transgender beauty pageants?
Mya: I honestly don’t think about them a lot. I would never disparage anyone who takes part in one -- they can be very empowering -- but they’re not really my thing. I’m more into body positive all-gender fashion shows.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Mya: I am poly and queer, and surrounded by amazing people. Their love -- and I am in love with multiple people -- sustains me and helps validate a whole hell of a lot of my choices in life.
Monika: Many trans women have written their memoirs. Do you intend to do the same? 
Mya: Give me a few more years and a book deal...
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Mya: I’m working on a visual media project including my music, my music was just featured in a prominent play, and I have some other secret stuff in the works. And more to the point of the last question, I'm working on a series of short stories loosely based on my life in San Francisco.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Mya: Find a mentor, find a friend, believe in yourself, get on testosterone blockers as soon as possible...if you’re in an abusive, unsupportive house, get the hell out and go to New York or San Francisco, or Berlin, or London... Find your local queer safe house. Find the queer punks. They will take care of you. Believe in yourself -- you are real, and there is a family out there for you. Don't let anyone define who you are except you! And write to your heroes. They will often write back, and it can be life-changing.

Mya playing bass with the Homobiles
at Rickshaw Stop, San Francisco. 

Monika: My pen friend Gina Grahame wrote to me once that we should not limit our potential because of how we were born or by what we see other transsexuals and transgender people doing. Our dreams should not end on an operating table; that’s where they begin. Do you agree with this?
Mya: Well, I don’t think that the surgical narrative works for many trans people. Nor do I think it’s where dreams end or begin for me, personally. I think surgery is one of many roads one can travel on this voyage if one chooses to do so.
But that said, surgery can help so many, and free access should be available to all. Gender-affirming surgical procedures are a medical necessity for some, and when they get them, there is often a grand sense of relief and elation, of alignment. That certainly is my physical and metaphysical goal for my body changes. I like the modifications I’ve made to my body, and they have certainly been affirming and good for my soul. And I am certain that as I continue into what is the fifth year of my transition and my fourth year of truly being out, I will continue dreaming, and doing.
More to the point -- yes, I think when one transitions -- whatever that means to them personally -- so many dreams open up, things you never thought possible erupt like magic. It is a hard road, but one worth all of it.
Monika: Mya, thank you for the interview!
Mya: You are very welcome! 

The main photo: Mya at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, photo by Laura Foord.
All the photos: courtesy of Mya Byrne.
© 2017 - Monika Kowalska

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