Queer Issue 2019
For members of the LGBTQ+ community, there are numerous reasons to be proud. What follows are a series of discussions with five very different, but equally dynamic members of our complex community.
PRONOUNS: she/her and they/them
I meet with activist Stephanie Duncker—a Black, vegan witch—at Townshend’s Tea on Mississippi. She arrives responsibly late in an elegant summer shawl. Stephanie is a practitioner of Black spiritualities Obeah and Myal, two schools of Jamaican hoodoo and root work based in African traditional religions.
MERCURY: How long have you been vegan?
STEPHANIE: A long time. Probably 10 years.
Was that decision based on politics, ethics, nutrition...?
All of the above. I’ve always been into environmentalism and the rights of workers. I got involved with workers’ rights and started learning about the food system. Everyone knows that immigrants have migrant farmworker jobs, but people don’t really realize the majority of people who work in these giant meat factories are also immigrants and Black folk. And they’re inhaling vaporized pig brains, causing neurological damage.
How long have you been an activist?
At 14, I went to my first protest. I’ve taken breaks on and off, because it’s just so draining. Especially as a Black person, because you do all this work and get no credit. The white figurehead, or even sometimes the Black figurehead, gets all the credit for all the movement work [when] it’s all these little minions doing things on the ground. I’ve always been one of the minions.
What sorts of activism are you involved with?
Farmer workers’ rights is a big thing for me, and workers in general. And now I’m the Operations Manager for Freedom to Thrive, which focuses on criminal justice and immigration. We work with colleges and universities to take their money away from building more prisons and putting it into social services and mental health. [I also] work in a business development organization for people of color. On one hand, it’s a capitalistic job, but on the other, it’s [about] self-determination. When capitalism falls, I want to be able to barter with Black businesses.
How long have you practiced witchcraft?
It’s hard to say. I’ll say I’ve identified as a witch for about three years and really stepped up my studies in the past two years.
What appealed to you about witchcraft?
Witchcraft is an ancestral practice, and you’re supposed to practice what’s been handed down to you and what your ancestors practiced.
What’s your family background?
[My parents] are from Jamaica and most Jamaicans are very Christian and religious. When I got into philosophy, I was a hardcore atheist. I was anti-spirituality of any type. Then over time I was like, “Oh! There’s this whole world of African spirituality that’s been intentionally stolen from us.” So, as I was doing this decolonizing work, I realized that a large part of that had to be digging into that ancestral spirituality.
What does decolonization mean for you personally?
There are systems in place to prevent my autonomous self-development, and those systems thrive and feed on anti-Blackness. So, when I think of decolonizing, I think of reestablishing connections to what’s been stripped from me through generations.
I meet with soft-spoken painter, DJ, and illustrator Peggy Sisouvong (AKA Emoji Heap) in the cozy living room of her shared home. She’s a graduate of Pacific Northwest College of Art and member of the all femme DJ collective No Control.
MERCURY: How long have you been a DJ?
PEGGY: I’ve been a DJ for three years. I originally studied painting and illustration, but I got burnt out from school, and all my friends were DJs. It was a good excuse to get out and party.
Do you still paint?
I’ve had trouble balancing them. Like, I burn myself, but I’ve been drawing more. I like to take mushrooms and draw. I like anything that bends my perceptions a bit. For most people, there’s that idea that it’s supposed to be trippy and fun, but I don’t think it’s supposed to be fun. It can be, and that’s great, but what people are afraid of with bad trips is what they need.
What is your preferred style of DJing?
I like breakbeats and anything fast, but I’ll play anything. I used to describe my music as anime girls on Adderall—like really cute and hyper—with references to technology, gender, ancestry, and spirituality.
What are your spiritual roots?
I grew up Buddhist in Utah—a Mormon state. It’s always been a part of my culture [and] heritage, but I’m finally able to appreciate the inheritance of culture my family passed down. I feel connected to my family; healing past trauma I’ve inherited and doing it for my family. I like getting sucked into my culture or some kind of magic that might exist behind my community and family. Spiritually, I think psychedelics were the catalyst. I got to get past a lot of confusion, finding sublime hope and complete beauty, and wanting to be that.
How do you incorporate gender into your art?
I think in the performative aspect. By being a visible trans person in a male-dominated DJ scene. I’ve made a lot of people uncomfortable with my presence because they don’t know many trans people. Overall, I’d say I’ve had a positive reception and made a lot of friends within the community. I think there needs to be more trans DJs in the scene.
Do you find the gender imbalance among DJs is discouraging or emboldening?
It’s hard to get through the doubt, but I think it emboldens me and helps in my daily life and with my dysphoria. I’m going to be who I am on stage anyway.
Does your identity create additional pressure to succeed?
Being successful is hard enough. I try not to be too hard on myself. Depression is shitty. A lot of my art lately has been about embracing depression and not being afraid of it. I’m trying my best and trying to feel as good as I can. I just don’t.
Galadriel and I agree to meet at Bison Coffeehouse. They are tall and dignified with a clean-shaven head and a presence that commands respect. Due to a spinal injury, they walk with a cane.
MERCURY: As an artist, what is your preferred medium?
GALADRIEL: I work in a lot of different mediums, but mostly I do watercolor paintings and children’s illustrations. I like to write children’s books for my family and friends and illustrate them. Hopefully, one day, I’ll get that published.
How long have you been writing children’s books?
I’ve been writing stories since I was a kid, but I have a niece and nephews who are grown now and have their own kids. They came along when I was 11, so I started making up stories to tell them. Then I started writing them down and illustrating them.
Are you originally from Portland?
I’m from the Mojave Desert. There was a migration of folk from LA, because they built low-income housing out there. It was very economically challenged. There weren’t a lot of opportunities. I was living in Bend before I moved here to help my sister, niece, and nephews, and then I was ready to be around more queers and Black folx.
You’re also an Ongoing Service Case Manager. What’s that?
Basically, when people are determined to qualify for in-home or facility services, they get assigned a case manager for aging and disability services, and I’m that person. I carry a caseload of about 120 people. I keep up to date on their ongoing needs, help them find the resources they need, determine their continuing eligibility for the program, and how many service hours they’d get from a homecare worker. I feel really rewarded by it.
What led you to such an intense career?
I’ve been doing service work my whole life. It’s my calling. It gives me hope. The thing I like most is that I work in Northeast Portland, and work with a lot of Black elders in the community reducing the barriers they have. I get a lot from that.
Where do you find the energy?
I have a strong connection with my ancestors. I don’t practice a specific religion, but I talk to my ancestors, and they give me a lot of strength.
How long have you identified as nonbinary?
In the last two or three years, I’ve really come to realize that I can claim ownership of my identity. I have an unusual name, and I got to a place where people would say my name weird, and I’m not going to correct you, and I felt the same way about my gender. I didn’t have the energy for it. But in the last couple years I feel more capable and recognize that my voice has value.
TWITTER: @claraemem; @sheepcardgame
I meet graphic designer/illustrator Clara Emiliana, creator of the collaborative card game Sheepishly Yours, in the shared office space of Enthusiasm Collective, a diverse group of independent artists and activists. She has salt-and-nutmeg hair and is wearing a form-fitting T-shirt illustrated with cartoon mushrooms.
MERCURY: Having been born in the Dominican Republic, do you have any personal memories from your time there?
CLARA: I moved out here when I was really young, but I’ve visited a bunch. When I was in high school, I participated in elections. So I know a lot about the culture and what goes on in terms of that. Unfortunately, I haven’t spent too much time there.
Does the Dominican Republic feel like your first or second home?
It definitely feels like a second home. It’s the kind of thing where I definitely identify more with Dominicans than Americans, but I’ve been there for such little time, if I went over there, they would definitely see me as an American. So I have a lot of kinship with the place, but I don’t know if they’d feel the same way about me.
Have you found that to be the case among Dominicans in the United States?
I think so. I find if anything, I seem to have more kinship with other queer people. I try to make my home as queer-and-POC-friendly as possible. I feel these are the people most welcoming to me. When it comes to the identity of an American in general, I don’t have much of a connection to it. It seems like, if you speak Spanish, people will treat you some sort of way, but now I’m finding shared [QTPOC] community and valuing that more—the whole “chosen family” sort of thing.
Have you found community within the design world?
I find community with other queer artists, and artists of color.
Do you have a coming out story?
After college, I moved to Japan. My mom took it really hard, because she thought I was moving to Japan to get away from her, when really it was a dream of mine [to work in manga]. Then when I came out, I started transitioning in Japan, and so she was like, ‘Oh! That’s why you left.” And after that, she was like, “You don’t look like a woman, so it’s gonna be ‘he’ until you figure it out,” and now I feel like she’s my biggest supporter. My dad was more mourning the loss of his only son, so to speak.
You mentioned your dad also wanted you to work in the family sign-printing business. Is your current work an escape from or an extension of that dream?
I feel like it’s a little bit of both. While I’m like, “I don’t want to be like you,” I end up doing the [same] thing. The further I pull away, the closer I get.
Ruby Joy White
I immediately feel right at home with activist/educator Ruby Joy White, who arrived to our interview with classic hip-hop flair and swagger, complete with gold accessories. White is a content writer at Art for Ourselves, an online grassroots community publication for QTBIBPOC artists, activists, and cultural workers.
MERCURY: How do you identify within the LGBTQ+ umbrella?
RUBY: Right now, I’m settled on me. I like whoever I like, but I move through the world as a queer, cis, Black tomboy.
You work at Reed College?
I run the Multicultural Resource Center at Reed College. We do diversity and equity work. In addition, we focus on support, coordination, and identity development of students of color. We also provide support and coordination for the queer community. One thing I’ve noticed about [Reed students] is that they’re homed in on who they are as people. When they introduce themselves to me, they use their pronouns with such definition in their voices. That’s not what I experienced as a queer person in undergrad. They’re proud of who they are and things that would be traditionally stigmatized: mental health and issues within communities of color. But there are challenges. Reed is a historically white institution. In addition to that, it’s Portland. A place that’s been replacing its Black and brown bodies with Black Lives Matter signs. But that’s what I’m there for—to encourage and support [LGBTQ+ students and students of color] and acknowledge their heartaches. We’re all just trying to navigate it together. I’m there to impact change.
How did you enter your line of work?
My parents were very much into equity and racial justice work, so I grew up in cultural centers. It was a very pro-Black household. From day one, I was told Black is beautiful, and I was also taught about things that oppress us, as well as power structures. Over the years, I connected with so many people, and we found ways in which we were similar, while acknowledging our differences.
Was queerness discussed in your family?
That’s complicated as a Black person, because we think about [skin color] first, but we don’t include all the other identities that come with it. So queerness wasn’t talked about in my household. I wouldn’t say there was encouragement to explore my sexual orientation or gender expression. And then there’s the difference between gender expression and gender identity, and I don’t think we got into those nuanced conversations. But I didn’t struggle coming out to them because I never had a toxic environment where I would risk the love of my family. I never had that.
From what you’ve seen and experienced, do Black and brown families seem less likely to ostracize on grounds of sexuality?
Of course, there are those families that have cut people off, but for the most part, they have not. But they won’t respect the person’s identity [or] use the correct pronoun. So sometimes, I feel that might be worse, because you’re engaging with your family, but it feels like you’re auditioning to be a member.