Seeing you in us: An interview with TransArt program manager Aryah Lester

Activist Aryah Lester leads a vigil.

Aryah Lester is a force for change, breaking down the barriers to acceptance faced by transgender and gender nonconforming people. With her fierce dedication to art and advocacy, she is methodically melting away our society’s stifling and deadly obsession with conformity. Change isn’t easy, and neither is acceptance, but it’s possible and necessary.

In 2015, Lester was included on Trans 100 List, “an annual list of 100 trans Americans accomplished in the fields of advocacy and art.” As the current program manager for TransArt, a two-week festival of transgender talent, vision and possibilities co-produced by Unity Coalition and The Betsy-South Beach, Lester will demonstrate just how possible it is for art to advocate for change. TransArt also demonstrates the important role local institutions like The Betsy hotel, a Knight Arts grantee, and Unity Coalition play in making Miami a more just and safe place for all the people who call this city home.

TransArt represents a cultural opening-up to transgender people, including artists, writers, activists and everyday Americans who’ve worked, suffered, died and thrived on the periphery. The Betsy-South Beach and Unity Coalition have helped foster and create visibility for the TransArt Festival. How has their involvement furthered the festival’s mission?
Initially, I had envisioned [TransArt] as a one-day event showcasing local artists who happen to be transgender, to highlight our narratives outside of the negativity we face daily. At a meeting a couple of years ago, both Deborah Briggs of The Betsy-South Beach, and Herb Sosa of Unity Coalition, realized the idea aligned with their own visions. The Betsy hotel has a thriving philanthropic arm in the arts, and Unity Coalition focuses on the cultural arts of the LGBT communities. They pooled their resources, connections and networks to build events highlighting transgender talent from around the nation, as well as locally, to produce our TransArt series.

From a poem by Aryah Lester, poet, activist and program manager, TransArt 2015 and 2016, for TransArt, presented by The Betsy-South Beach and Unity Coalition.

The festival opened June 15 at Survivors’ Pathway in Coral Gables. Can you tell us about this space and why it was important to open the event there?
This year we strove to include as many participating partners in TransArt as possible. Many local organizations have transgender-specific programming in recent years, where historically there was close to none. We are also blessed to have expanded into Broward County this year, partnering with SunServe, the Pride Center, and the Stonewall Museum as additional venues to feature our artists. Generally, our trans population in South Florida is predominantly transgender Latina women, and we would be remiss not to include their talents into our series. Therefore, we talked to Survivors’ Pathway, where many trans Latina women go for services and community, and the community there decided upon a Divas Live opening event for the series. We wanted to give every opportunity to our local transgender people to have a part in celebrating their narratives in ways which aligned with their lives and talent.

There’s not enough representation of transgender artists in the contemporary art world. How will TransArt create more visibility for the community?
Gender nonconformity and art typically falls under “acting” and/or “drag” when it comes to mainstream culture or outside communities. Transgender people also suffer from widespread unemployment and discrimination in the workplace. TransArt looks to shift the perception of the general public by showcasing true artistry: extensions of our hard lives expressed through written word, performance and visual media. Transgender people are extremely talented, and our cathartic vision is sometimes revealed through our most personal artistic expressions. TransArt looks to give a venue for the transgender artist to show layers to our community and further educate the public about our innermost thoughts and lives–proving we are not unlike each other.

Why is TransArt important for the community?
I feel this is of utmost importance to our community: to show we are more than just a current fad in nonprofit funding, an HIV statistic, or entertainment at the expense of living a normal life. An artist is someone who acts as a catalyst for our emotions and dealings in society, coloring our cultures and experiences. Through TransArt, those often left by the wayside can find a foundation to be truly appreciated and foster a community of acceptance and understanding. We were truly awed by the response and applications sent in from around the United States–signifying transgender people saw TransArt as a medium to uplift themselves and their artistic careers.

What led you to art and TransArt?
I have always turned to art as a form of escapism and individuality from an early age. I found written word to be a perfect path to revealing my true self, and communicating my inner ego to those I cherished. Immersing oneself into the pen, brush or pencil became a type of non-traditional therapy. Art became my go-to for a touch of the spiritual, becoming closer to my core of self than any foray into organized religion. Spirituality and expression have a strong intersection with faith, which is why we chose to include a Day of Faith into our events this year. Addressing religion and faith is critical under the current environment, especially with religion being a major point in the political debates directly affecting the LGBT communities.

How will TransArt impact the landscape of transgender artists in our community?
It is in the way of reaching into the core of issues by touching people’s hearts. That’s how TransArt impacts the landscape of our community. Looking at or listening to the heartfelt authenticity of a transgender person may influence a rewrite of the general public’s perception of us. It is when one is able to view someone on a personal level, with experiences we can relate to, which can lead to true acceptance. The level of the art featured in our series touches your soul, and implores people to not box in talent. It pushes beyond the stereotype and makes you look twice and then think thrice whenever you encounter gender-nonconforming expression either online or in person. Instead of the negative portrayals of what people think a transgender person is, TransArt challenges you to see you in us, and embrace our differences for the sake of the best humanity has to give. Through art, the walls of hate and prejudice can finally be shattered.

TransArt is taking place in Miami, Miami Beach and Wilton Manors through June 26. The festival features local and national transgender artists in a series of events, performances and community workshops. View the entire TransArt schedule online, and learn more about Aryah Lester on her website.