Trans Man of Color with a Disability, Kay Ulanday Barrett, Breaks It Down Poetically, Politically & Personally [PART 1]
KHN: I’m so excited to finally interview you. I read your work and listen to some of your poetry and it makes me warm inside knowing that you are doing your work and art. Kay Ulanday Barrett: Aw, thanks KHN. You’re work has laid the groundwork for artists like me and it’s dope to know that my words can resonate with multiple audiences who do some fresh and thought provoking artistic impact. I have your cd and it is on my laptop soundin’ on-point. Also, the fact that I can bring the warm and fuzzies is a big compliment for me.
KHN: In a rad magazine, Make/shift you explain your injustice with the workplace and worker’s comp. Can you share some highlights, what is new today and how that experience influence your activism today?
Kay Ulanday Barrett: I contributed to The Azolla Project edited by Stacey Milbern, Mia Mingus, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha and it was one of the largescale public ways where I came out as someone receiving public assistance as well as where I explored the multiple affects of transphobia, queerphobia, racism, fatphobia, and ableism. I’m now more akin to realizing how all of my identities are pitted against one another. It seems that I received little support medically from my former job and I’d wager from the Worker’s Comp System (WCS), because I read hella queer and genderqueer. You can’t miss it. I’m gender non-conforming, kinda butch, hmmmm what is that? to people who have mainstream understandings of gender. The evaluators feel naturally inclined to misgender me and use “she” pronouns when that isn’t how I identify myself. The doctors shame me by talking about how my body is fat or how I might not be healing or hire-able due to my physical attributes of short hair, no make up. I realize that so many of their interactions are based in heterosexism and a “fix it” mentality, that I must be an absolute puzzle to them. Once in an evaluation, a doctor laughed in my face after looking at my I.D. where I presented as femme and actually said, “Is that really you?! What happened?!” Often, this is how I start my all evaluations, already shamed for being who I am. The system quantifies and divvies up your body by assigning you a ratio that affects your compensation. Depending on how kind or thoughtful or say, queerphobic an evaluator might be, that impacts my financial sustenance. One aspect of my identity is used to shame me and reinforce ableism.
KHN: As a trans man of color with a disability, what do you see in your community, in the activist’s/art’s arena and how do you use your activism/cultural work to create that mirror that many of us strive for?
Kay Ulanday Barrett: I wasn’t born disabled and in chronic pain, so I was (and still am in current ways) privileged as having a predominantly able-bodied existence. In an ableist supremacist world, I was attacked and suddenly, my body became a stranger. We had to unlearn all of our assumptions from function to flirting. All my coping mechanisms, the simplest forms of socializing and act of loving had to be re-negotiated. My masculinity and viability as a trans guy were implicitly in question for some reason. So much of American binary masculinity relies heavily on ableist tropes and limited understandings of physical prowess. Friends who had limited experience with interdependence responded with harmful reactions from saviorism, pity, to the infamous “buck up,” method. I became everyone’s teacher when I was faced with a lonely experience being de-sexualized, emasculated, and an onslaught of unwelcomed paternalism from people in my own community. The general response was that I will “get better,” and so many people couldn’t stay present with me as I faced pain, limited mobility, and surgery. I don’t think activist circles that are predominantly able-bodied are accountable to their privilege. I think they are trying and in many ways, allyship is a hard road yet to be traveled on the east coast. I’m speaking for the anti-racist, progressive, and queer people of color community I have experience in. Often, I feel that there’s little discussion on interdependence as people no matter how collective organizations are, they have not addressed competition and individualist behaviors that are fueled by ableism. Living in New York City is inaccessible. It encourages an impersonal, shrewd, fast-paced climate for those faster, stronger, and other boring unimaginative elitist definitions of accomplishment. I think everyone just wanted my disability to just go away. There’s a fear of the paused and the slow, here. Wrongfully, I feel a general approach has been one of “if you ignore disability and sickness enough, someone will heal up magically.” My disability hasn’t gone away. It continues to lead to others’ ablebodied discomfort and I hope that incites awareness. There are moments where I challenge myself to be patient with interactions like these, as I try to remember that I was able-bodied and had such a tremendous room for learning too. What being disabled has done is enhance my love networks and my politics. Just like when I came out as politically queer or trans, I’ve had to choose to let go f loved ones who just couldn’t understand my politically crip/krip existence and how systematic oppression inform my life as a newly disabled API mixed race queer person.
KHN: In your cultural work what are your main goals for your audience and do you collaborate with others that share your identities on the stage and page?
Kay Ulanday Barrett: My art and cultural work have fine-tuned their worth in the recent years. I like to hope that my audience and I work in a kinship to dare. Dare new dynamics of social change, dare new dynamics that re-assesses and re-imagine what beautiful and handsome are. Dare to take a fucking break when everyone else says go go go! Due to physical limitations and needs, I cannot just do things on a whim. I cannot travel or book performances in quick advance or sleep just anywhere. I’ve had to learn to be more intentional and collaborate with people who are more intentional, more accessible, willing to negotiate new models of political art and aesthetic. I I’m down with cultural work and collaborators who bend conventional aspirations of body and the way we question innovation. I cannot afford to align in social justice and change that’s selectively plucks out the sick ones, the broken, the crips, the awkward, the queer, the disabled. I encourage everyone to feel this loss, mourn it, it’s something visceral to feel it in the pulse and practice dedicated to freedom. We've been doing the work. This erasure of our ancestors, of my family, is not liberation. Come on now, let us call it what it is: a systematic tool of alienation and subordination that purposely leaves so many of us behind.
KHN: Like me, you are on the college lecture/cultural scene what do you see in that scene that is creative and on the other end might be cultural theft from academia? And what do you think about when cultural expression gets into academia like Hip-Hop and others?
Kay Ulanday Barrett: That is a necessary and fly question, if I may say. Academia like other realms of elite and privilege is an arena where I am the most skeptical guy. But I find that disabled people and those of multiple communities in struggle have had to utilize academia for one way or another. I think in the community and culture of hip-hop, many of us as former spoken word poets, emcees, djs, B-people, and graf artists have aged into academic thresholds as a means to maintain a collective archive. How many of us POCS, poor people, queer, immigrant and children of immigrants, and/or physically disabled people have had to be the token at the fancy wine and cheese event? We code-switch, sharpen or bite our tongues based on our access to resources and it is a wary exhausting dance. The trick is to find those like you to help you center and buoy the relevance of your work, the larger work you want to be a part of.
KHN: You are aware of Krip-Hop Nation. As a trans man of color with a disability what do you see in Hip-Hop and if you had a magic wand what will you change in that arena mainstream and underground?
Kay Ulanday Barrett: Underground hip-hop helped raise me as a little brown amerikan queer kinda guy. It helped lend a voice to survive poverty and racism in a very segregated Chicago. Somewhere in me is a secret emcee and an even more bashful beatboxer. Later, as a prominent force in theater and spoken word, hip-hop enlightened so much of my work even though it's pretty heteronormative. Brown political hip-hop still is shady to queer folks, women, disabled folks. Even during the late 90's and early 2000's with the ascendence of homo-hop and gifted women of color like Queen GodIs and DJ Kuttin' Kandi who hype up the stage, there was a gap of understanding ableism and specific forms of body policing. Learning about Krip-Hop Nation has helped me interrogate how hip-hop as a medium glorifies able-bodied hustle. KHN responds to the call of a hip-hop that involves care, involves various bodies and braveries that I think really resonate with hip-hop at its core. Hip-hop is an organizing force for low-income, poor, people of color and people on the margins to reinvent the world with interdisciplinary finesse. Disabled people are in every facet of this conversation. Based on this, interdependence and Krip/crip empowerment is inevitable with hip-hop, I think. We have to show ourselves and people using art as tools for movement building that our bodies, our rights, our sustenance cannot submit to racist, queerphobic, ableist and american greed and competitive models that work to divide and minimize our communities.