“To be trans, black, and femme is to be a constant obstacle course / it is to be in continuous movement dictated from the track / it is learning how to simultaneously apply your lipstick whilst jumping away from incoming traffic / to dodge bullets whilst ensuring your heel doesn’t sink into cracks of sidewalks.”
Travis Alabanza, a transfemme gender non-conforming performance artist, wrote this piece just three minutes after someone threw, in broad daylight, a chicken burger at their head. All of the words that make up Travis’ new chapbook, Before I Step Outside [You Love Me], were written in public – on public transport, while walking, after being harassed, while being stared at. Every poem, diary entry and essay reflects on their experience of being a trans person navigating the hostile and violent nature of public spaces. In "Obstacle", in particular, the constant duel between living your identity proudly and looking over your shoulder for the next potential danger is palpable. “Unfortunately, as a trans person, particularly a trans person of colour, we birth these skills of survival. We all know the tricks, the areas we can’t walk through at night, we talk to each other about the tactics to use to stay alive,” Travis tells me. “It’s the reality of what it means to be trans feminine in the UK.”
Travis is a performance artist, poet and theatre-maker from Bristol, living in London. Having toured their work across the country at queer venues, universities and spaces like the V&A, Tate and Roundhouse, they’re one of the most exciting and important queer artists right now. “I grew up on the outskirts of a council estate, and as my mum was a single parent, we didn’t have time or money to go to the theatre. I always knew I loved to perform, I just didn’t know a job existed where you could do it. I started doing open mic poetry, before realising I wanted my performances to be the whole package, so I started experimenting and found my space within the queer cabaret scene.” Travis’ chapbook reflects that experimentation, too, with an amalgamation of poetry, prose, essays and statements interacting with photographs of the artist.
Before I Step Outside [You Love Me] was designed by Jessie Denny-Kaulbach, Travis’ friend of 15 years: “I needed someone that didn’t follow a brief, but just knew who I was and had experienced my harassment – I needed someone that had gone through this process with me.”
While the design plays a key part in bringing the words to life, another interaction is that between the artist and the reader. On the first page of the chapbook, Travis encourages people living similar lives to write in their own name to "remind yourself that you are deserving of love and care."
"I wanted a page that said, ‘I am really thankful for you buying this book, investing in this physical thing, I want you to imprint on it – I didn't want a passive reader, I wanted an active reader,” Travis explains. "But I also wanted to show people that it’s not just trans people who fear being outside: other gay men and women obviously know what it feels like to be harassed and frightened. Sometimes language separates us and while that’s useful sometimes, we all have this common experience of going outside and feeling scared.”
Indeed, I could relate to some sentiments in the book, knowing all too well the creeping fear of post-sunset streets, the keys clutched between knuckles, the letting loved ones know your route home. But I’ll be passing this book onto my trans friends, which is what Travis also had in mind: “I imagined what it would mean to be given this as a gift. For me, this book has been a coping mechanism. If this book could be like that for someone on public transport, then that would be really lovely.” A portable lifeline, of sorts, telling you you’re not alone.
While the work is clearly so important for those who identify with Travis’ personal experience, there are vital lessons to be learned for cis het people. “I didn't want this to be a book that just pits men against women. The complexity of being transfeminine is that actually you're receiving assault and abuse from all corners: children harass you, women harass you, men people.”
A piece entitled "Womb-en Only" is a heartbreaking and necessary reminder that ‘women-only’ spaces are both trans-exclusionary (side-eyeing you, Germaine Greer) and dehumanising. "They said the room was women only. I heard womb only. I heard them measure up who was women enough to be in their room."
The poem shines a light on the lack of intersectionality and inclusion in a lot of feminist circles. “There's only an acceptance of certain types of trans people in wider feminism. I've been to meetings where they've said trans women are welcome, but I don’t identify as a woman and I’ve experienced trans-misogyny. Surely we should be bonded by our experience of misogyny, rather than our gender identity.” The poem ends with a gut-punch of uncomfortable truths: "I heard us both say that what we are wearing does not make it our fault. I heard only one of us nod at the other."
The whole chapbook is a privileged, if difficult, look into Travis’ world, one that requires our action and love – but do they think, in 2017, that societal progress is being made? In the introduction, a beautifully poetic line reads "I take a selfie before I go outside to remind myself how I looked in that moment. To remind myself that it is not me who is the problem, more the world that cannot hold me."
“In terms of visibility, there’s obviously been huge strides,” they say, nodding to the success of Laverne Cox and publications like The Guardian featuring Travis and their peers, “but I also question if it’s the right type of liberation. Visibility isn't going to save me; Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover doesn’t stop you from getting punched. We’re still not thinking about trans healthcare, about prison abolishment, about the bigger structural issues that affect trans people. But I think it’s way deeper than that. What I mean when I say ‘the world cannot hold me’, is that we are so obsessed with the binary, that we would really have to shift the whole world in order for people like me to be accepted. We would have to unlearn thousands and thousands of years of a structure.”
I tell Travis that I actually read the line to mean that their identity is a transcendental and unconstrained thing, sitting outside the limits of a world stuck in the past. “I really like that reading. Sometimes, when I’m walking and being harassed, it helps to have this bubble around me: ‘You know what, you just haven’t caught up yet’. A lot of my male friends now play around with gender in ways that they didn't before knowing me. I think about what that means – trans people are such a positive part of society, because we remind people that gender doesn't have to be rigid.”
The chapbook is a glorious, educational, emotional and insightful read. Both an ode to their peers ("I want you to know, before you step outside, that you are a warrior"), and a plea for more humanity (“This all boils down to me needing someone to just love me outside, to imagine what it would look like if everyone cared about me when I walked outside”), right now, everyone needs to read Travis’ words. So how can we be better allies?
“It comes down to being active. If you see someone being harassed, say ‘No, that's not okay’. Actively go out of your way to listen. If you don't have trans people in your lives, find trans people online, buy our books and learn about what’s happening to us. There are practical ways too; if people are financially able, donate to trans organisations, to our surgery funds. But, really, this book was trying to strip away all of the language that we hear in feminist circles about allyship. Once, when I was harassed, I saw someone holding a Judith Butler book – they did nothing. When that chicken burger was thrown at me, there were about 350 people that saw it, and no one did anything. It was outside King's College University, and I’m sure all of them have had a gender lesson or two. This book is saying: forget all these rules, it’s clearly not working; we just need to care about each other. And if we start from caring with each other then everything else should follow.”