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 punk culture.
Kayla: Can you talk a little about how you became a creative person? How you found punk, and zines, and drawing comics.
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 and Blatz.
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 band?
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 radar.
Kayla: Fake it till you make it, right?
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 that.
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 either?
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 that.
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 angry.
Kayla: They were already angry though. [laughter]
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 you.
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 presenting?
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. [laughs]
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 old comic.
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 into fights…
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 like…
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 ideas.
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 in music.
L: [laughs] Ha, yeah there’s a difference!
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 or dumpsters.
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 experience, huh?
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 anything, ever.
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 illness?
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 heavy.
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 yourself.
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 paper” funny.
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 you off?
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 Remembrance 2013.
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 laugh]
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 feel weird.
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.