At the end of a day-long conference on issues about gender, gender identity and gender expression, a drag king artist took the stage at Westminster College for an informative — and oftentimes humorous — discussion about his art, his stage performances and the women who identify as various aspects of butch who have inspired his work.
Lim, who is Canadian and of Chinese decent, was introduced by Bo(nnie) Owens, former Youth Programs coordinator at the Utah Pride Center, who jokingly referred to Lim as the catalyst that would change Utah.
“He is the moment, mark it, you’re here, it’s changing now,” said Owens, who identifies as genderqueer and prefers a mixture of male and female pronouns. “So hopefully when you’re enjoying cleaner air and military pacifism and cheap prescription drugs, you’ll remember to thank TransAction,” the youth-lead transgender advocacy program at the Center that was one of the main sponsors of the conference, which was called Engendering Community.
”I am going to talk today about engendering community,” said Lim after taking the stage. “I don’t think I was invited [to speak in Utah] because I’m an authority on any particular subject, but because I like telling stories.”
To begin, Lim shared stories of butches and transgender people he had known who helped him form his identity, from his “baby queer” roommate who taught him about the trans community by identifying with the pronoun “they,” to a black man angry at how the gay rights movement had frequently excluded people of color, to a transgender woman who angrily told him about how the feminist movement (and lesbian feminists in particular) frequently “threw transgender women away when they got their rights.”
“It was terrible. I felt attacked,” said Lim when recounting this story. “She was calling me ignorant and I couldn’t stand that.” But the fact that this friend could be angry with him, Lim continued, “showed me she valued me as part of a community that she wanted to keep.”
“When we talk about engendering community, we’re also talking about a failure of community,” he said. “We’re talking about new models and breaking old models because the old ones failed us. We’re building our own community because maybe the gay community failed us or the lesbian community. Or the cisgender [non-transgender] community. And maybe the fact is that communities aren’t really designed to be inclusive after all, they’re designed to be exclusive. When we’re talking about engendering community, maybe the best thing we can do is be honest. We can ask who is in our community and who is not, and why, and what does this say about our community? I don’t think it’s our job to encompass everybody, but it is our job to be truthful about that.”
While Lim said that diversity was important, he encouraged the audience to ask why that was so. In his opinion, he said, diversity benefits individuals.
“Fostering diversity serves me because there are too many people I’ve lost,” he said. “When someone’s afraid of me and my gender or avoids me because I’m different or tells me my whole race is homophobic, or claims my race makes their race unsafe, or denies me from talking about my racialized experience whatsoever, they deny the opportunity to share with me and experience my authentic self.”
Lim also pulled up slides from the pages of his graphic novel, 100 Butches. The book, he said, was inspired by people from several races, social/economic classes and gender identities who identified as butch or similar identities, and whom Lim had met on his travels around the world. A majority of them, like Lim, were people of color, and some of them rejected the label of “butch” because of its connotations to white, working-class identity.
In the stories, Lim pointed out that, for butches of color, passing as male or identifying as butch often came with “new kinds of racism.” In one story, a butch of Chinese descent wondered if white people saw his race before seeing his gender identity and, if so, how that affected their perception of him altogether.
“I changed from being a fetishized Chinese woman to an invisible Chinese man,” he said.
Lim closed by reading a letter that he had written to a friend before coming to Salt Lake City this summer for the Utah Pride Festival.
“I’ve been scared of coming to Salt Lake City,” he said. “I don’t want to show up and be Chinese. I want to be desired and recognized and beloved, but I don’t want to be Chinese. I’m proud of my race, but I know there are people who avoid me because of it, who ask for this permanent costume. … I wish when I walk into a queer bar that strangers would look at me with attraction, like they do when a handsome white butch walks in.”
In her closing remarks, Owens said he wasn’t entirely kidding in his opening remarks.
“We really do here in Salt Lake set the tone for the rest of the country, and the country does look to us for what we’re doing,” he said. I think we gave them something good to look at today.”
Engendering Community was the second conference on gender issues to be held during Transgender Awareness Month. This year’s conference covered several panels not only on the basics of gender identity and gender expression, but the oppression experienced by transgender, genderqueer and gender-variant people of color and the limited outreach several local lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender organizations have done into communities of color. Other topics included a panel on transgender health and general medical issues, as well as a workshop that encouraged participants to examine social and economic privileges like being white, wealthy or able-bodied.