The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2021

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MAY 2021 Issue
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Joss Barton. Courtesy the author.
Joss Barton. Courtesy the author.

Trans women and trans femmes have always faced the hard task of teaching ourselves how to talk to ourselves about survival.

Sometimes it comes through in raucous laughter, all night kiki sessions with our sisters floating high on ’mones or drugs and the razor sharp reads on the cis gaze.

Sometimes it comes through our bodies, our shared archives of silicone, fat grafts, facial feminizations, the surge fundraisers, the Reddit threads on dilators or how to screen clients for sex work.

Sometimes it arrives through your car speakers in November of 2020 as you listen to Courtney Love asking you via Hole’s 1998 ballad “Malibu,” “How’d you get so desperate?/ How’d you stay alive?”

And there is no answer, only tears as you reflect on everything you’ve lost, all the possibilities that were not afforded to you due to this displacement of life of gender of poverty of pain of religious abuse of racial trauma of feeling guilt for surviving when so many of our sisters have been taken from us.

Talking to myself about my own survival has been both healing and heart breaking. I’ve come to learn that my endurance has hinged on hiding away so much of the inherent joy of being a transgender little child. That by trying to protect that beautiful femme spirit, I spent so much time erasing her from the world. I understand why so many of us mourn our girlhoods, but for me I don’t hold that sadness. No, I mourn because my childhood was trans as fuck and I wasn’t allowed to name it for what it was.

As an artist, this pain and this journey into trans womanhood, and all the love this road has given me, has been the most precious gift of freedom I could have ever dreamed of.

I’ve written and performed work that for me feels like an honest testimony of my trans femme resilience and survival. Work that doesn’t shy from the mistakes or the messy moments or the disappointments.

I’ve felt the intoxication and the power of holding every atom of an audience’s imagination in my hands and molding it to my will. Bringing a packed gay bar on a Saturday night to pin drop silence or watching eyes well with tears or snatching handfuls of dollar bills as you spin in metallic silver thigh high boots or standing speechless as you look out on a crowd rising to standing ovations and everything stands still as you’ve conquered space and time if only for a moment.

Even artists have reptile brains. I crave being back on stage and awash in adulation and worship and applause.

Taking the necessary steps to isolate from each other as artists meant finding new ways to produce work and to grasp for that narcotic of the applause. There were the Zoom shows and the live stream readings, many of which doubled as grassroots digital crowd-sourcing fundraisers for Black trans liberation, police and prison abolition, and anti-fascist work grounded in helping our communities to survive the onslaught of white nationalist violence.

I found that not only was I surviving this pandemic, but my work was surviving as well. I wrote a long-form breakup poem that became a collage zine. I collaborated with visual and design artists in Saint Louis to produce a temporary public-arts text mural celebrating the resiliency and reverence hidden within trans femmes hearts and bonds. And I wrote commissioned poems for fellow artists and activists producing platforms to uplift trans femme narratives and voices.

I don’t have much of a recipe or a blueprint on how I was able to write, let alone produce new work while trying to survive this great global pandemic. To be honest, most of it was tied to my undying desires to be seen and to make a spectacle for the viewing public.

Case in point: I filmed a short visual poem during the end of summer 2020 with the help of some of my chosen family. We drove two hours outside of Saint Louis into rural Missouri and hauled a huge disco ball down to the river. We framed the shots of me reading a poem draped in white gauze against green woods.

At the end I performed a lip sync drag number of Labelle’s “Going Down Makes Me Shiver” as I baptized myself in the physical and metaphorical waters of disco and death and rebirth and revolution.

When asked how I was able to write, direct, and produce my first short film in the middle of a pandemic, all I could say was, “Because I was bored of all those quarantined video drags and I knew I could do it better.”

Trans femme endurance indeed.


Joss Barton

Joss Barton is a poet, writer, and journalist documenting transgender and queer love and life in Saint Louis, Missouri. Her spoken word poetry blends femme fever dreams over the soundtrack of american nightmares and queer and transgender liberation.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2021

All Issues