“I think faggots can be trans, can be men, can be not sure, can be any gender they wish — it is just kinda, opening the conversation up for more. It is realising that we do not always meet people at the gender that they wish they could be. It’s opening the conversation up from ‘kill all men’ to — ‘maybe not everyone who says they are a man is one.’”
Travis Alabanza is a “a performance artist, theatre maker, poet and writer that works and survives in London, via Bristol. Their multidisciplinary practice uses a combination of poetry, theatre, soundscapes, projection, and body-focussed performance art to scream about their survival as a Black, trans, gender-non-conforming person in the UK.” Last July, they released their first chapbook, Before I Step Outside [You Love Me]. In it, they talk gender, race, intersectionality, friendship, self-love, community care, navigating public space and transportation as a feminine, non-binary black person, and much more.
Self-care and reader-writer intimacy
The chapbook opens with a direct address to the reader, who is asked to fill in the blanks with their name, in order to receive Travis’ praise and validation:
“______, you deserve more than the violence you experience.
______, you do not deserve the violence you experience.
______, you are not defined by the violence you experience.
______, you deserve more than the violence you experience,
______, you are not the violence you experience.”
Self-care discourse tends toward an exaltation of the individual, the self-made person. When it does so, self-care discourse may lose its potential to solve the loneliness that causes our ills in the first place. Seeing self-care as a practice exclusively done alone prevents us from creating community and practicing community-care. Travis doesn’t fall into this trap. Rather, they directly engage the reader in a mutual caring system: Travis’ self-care recital is shared by both themself and the reader as we read their words. As the reader’s voice blends with Travis’ voice, we practice self-care together, disrupting the loneliness we, as trans and racialized people, experience as people of intersecting identities.
Travis’ chapbook is something akin to a diary. It is constructed as a conversation you might have with a close friend. They reveal stories of their day-to-day life, heavy with political consequence, but also intimately connecting the reader to them in shared hardships. One of the poems they share “was written in 3 minutes after someone threw a chicken burger at [them] in broad daylight. [They] have not re-edited it. It remains the same.” This poem transcribes the violence that gender non-conforming people experience on a day-to-day basis by direct aggressors and the heavier violence of silent bystanders. The simplicity of its creation creates a profoundly intimate connection with Travis — you could’ve been the friend they texted in the three minutes after it happened.
As the reader’s voice blends with Travis’ voice, we practice self-care together, disrupting the loneliness we, as trans and racialized people, experience as people of intersecting identities
At the core of the chapbook is Travis’ experience of non binarity. Their poem “THE SEA” draws out this experience:
“Cis people ask me what my gender feels like and that never allows me to say what my gender really is.
My gender feels like something stopped halfway through.
A badly formatted tape to CD conversion, missing full potential.
The second character on a video game, without levels, no up or down.
It feels like an unfinished
A body of water, potential to do so much, yet eventually bottled.
Sometimes I stand by the edge of where the ocean meets the beach, and look out into the sea, that looks out over my gender, that pours over my body, and makes me feel like nothing.”
Travis expresses a feeling I believe is well-known to non-binary people. Performing and knowing one’s own gender(s) as non-binary feels infinite, but this incredible choice comes with a certain loneliness, unfinishedness, to having so much space to create one’s own gender and so few models to replicate and claim authenticity from.
“It is realising that we do not always meet people at the gender that they wish they could be. It’s opening the conversation up from ‘kill all men’ to — ‘maybe not everyone who says they are a man is one.’” — Travis Alabanza
Sketching trans-feminine futures
Travis’ often explores their experiences with transfeminity and follows with discussion of the associated systemic violence imposed on trans feminine people. They draw out of their experience to sketch a radically tangible trans future beyond the binary, and beyond punitive, exclusionary, and categorizing systems. “MOONLIT BROTHERS” is one of the poems where they describe an experience of transphobic violence, and go beyond the scene to point the reader to the source of transphobia. They write “You say faggot and I hear that I love you.” What if transphobes actually wanted to be trans? Regretted that they couldn’t be trans? Desired trans people? What if, as they say in the diary entry “ON FAGGOTRY,” “not everyone who says they are a man is one?”
Indeed, throughout their chapbook, Travis sketches the violence they experience as their aggressor’s projected gender anxieties and desires: if people weren’t so uneasy with their assigned gender, why would they bother with people who are? Seeing someone embodying a reality, presenting in a way that you desire but are too scared to embody yourself is triggering. Indeed, it reminds you of the fear of realising that something you desire intimately is possible. So Travis says that when they hear slurs, they also hear “I love you” — their aggressors are too scared to break away from the gender they were assigned, although they wish for nothing but to do so. Although this should not obscure the violence that the initial slur conveys, Travis proposes that what they are experiencing is not just violence; it is also their aggressor’s discomfort with their own gender and sexual desire for Travis.
This is crucial to understanding why the politics of this chapbook are so important. Gay liberation movements have in part pushed for hate crime legislation, as a way of controlling and allegedly deterring homophobes. Travis proposes a more holistic project for trans liberation: what if we saw the aggressors as people in pain? What if we found, without disregarding the victim’s primary claim to oppression, a response not of criminalisation and exclusion, but rather a socially transformative process of breaking away from the gender binary? They write, “I am hoping for a world that does not just tolerate me, but actively loves me, uplifts me, protects me, and celebrates me. It is not enough to just be tolerated, I want to feel loved.”
“You say faggot and I hear that I love you.” — Travis Alabanza
Works like Travis Alabanza’s chapbook have contributed to my greater understanding and realization of my non-binary identity from across oceans. In sharing this open political project, Travis Alabanza offers legitimacy to everyone’s identity beyond the binary, beyond seas, across borders, and sketches futures where genders are never boxed, instead, they fluctuate and blossom freely.
Their chapbook can be ordered online at alabanza.bigcartel.com for only £7 plus shipping costs at travisalabanza.bigcartel.com. “Do not just consume us, support us!”