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Imagine Otherwise: André Pérez on Transgender Oral History

Imagine Otherwise: André Pérez on Transgender Oral History

retro
November 2, 2016
André Pérez wearing a grey suit, blue button-down shirt, and purple bow tie against a purple paisley wall

How can trans people of color own their own stories? What’s the right balance between depicting the systemic violence a community faces and representing the joy, pleasure, hope, and love that community produces?

In episode 23 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach chats with guest André Pérez about his approach to multimedia projects, why he focuses on work that empowers marginalized communities, and how storytelling helps us imagine otherwise.

Listen on: Spotify | Apple Podcasts | RadioPublic | Google Podcasts

Guest: André Pérez

André Pérez is a mixed-race oral historian, educator, filmmaker, and community organizer whose work centers collaborative storytelling with marginalized communities.

He founded the Transgender Oral History Project in 2007, and created a traveling multimedia historical exhibit in 2009.

As the Director of I Live for Trans Education, André spearheaded development of a grassroots multimedia curriculum. Since 2013, André has recorded over 500 interviews as part of StoryCorps, broadcasting 50 segments on NPR and WBEZ.

In the Summer of 2016, André premiered Been T/Here, a docu-web series which features trans people of color talking about love and relationships on Open TV, the platform founded by Aymar Jean Christian, who we had on the podcast in episode 3.

André works at the Trans Lifeline as the director of communications and marketing.

André is currently Directing of America in Transition, a documentary web series and community engagement campaign looking at social justice from the perspective of trans people from marginalized communities.

André Pérez wearing a grey suit, blue button-down shirt, and purple bow tie against a purple paisley wall. Text reads: If we miss this opportunity, if we allow only white trans people to be speaking in this moment, we’re going to leave behind a lot of people: the very people who can change the systemic racism and transphobia in our community.

We chatted about

  • The importance of trans people of color owning their own stories (05:00)
  • Creating policies that are inclusive of race and class (08:30)
  • The responsible creation of culture (12:00)
  • Empowering marginalized communities (15:00)
  • Imagining otherwise (20:00)

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Takeaways

Popular media matters

Popular media shapes how people outside of our community see us, understand us, relate to us. That’s a huge amount of power, and in the trans community, it’s compounded by the fact that there are so few of us.

Who speaks matters

If we miss this opportunity, if we allow only white trans people to be speaking in this moment, that means we’re going to leave behind a lot of people: the people who need to benefit and have policies that really change the systemic racism and transphobia in our community.

Responsibly creating culture

My understanding of power shapes every aspect of how I see the world in general, and how I think about my work in particular. If we’re creating culture, whether it’s fictional or nonfictional, and we’re not challenging ourselves to be critical about power, then we’re just going to fall into tropes and stereotypes and archetypes.

Empowerment of marginalized communities

A lot of my work is trying to lift up the knowledge and experiences of people who are assumed to not have something valuable to say. I think those people in some ways have the most valuable things to say because they’ve had the least access to platforms in order to share.

Imagining otherwise

I want a world that is just for everyone. It makes me sad to see short-sighted activists who only care about their community and can’t have the space the emotional space the intellectual space to imagine a world where there are many different kinds of people who get to be free.

More from André Pérez

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise hosted by Cathy Hannabach and is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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    Transcript

    Cathy Hannabach (00:03):

    Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannahbach.

    Speaker 2 (00:22):

    Welcome to the Imagine Otherwise podcast, which is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive interdisciplinary scholars write awesome texts, enliven public conversations and create more just worlds.

    Speaker 2 (00:38):

    This episode is brought to you by our new publication Book Marketing for Academics, which teaches interdisciplinary authors how to identify and engage your book’s audience, harness your unique skills and expertise and help people use your book to make a change in the world. You can get your copy at ideasonfire.net.

    Cathy Hannabach (00:58):

    This is episode 23. Today my guest is Andre Perez. Andre is a mixed race oral historian, educator, filmmaker and community organizer whose work centers collaborative storytelling with marginalized communities. He founded the Transgender Oral History Project in 2007 and created a traveling multimedia historical exhibit in 2009.

    Cathy Hannabach (01:21):

    As the director of I Live For Trans Education, Andre spearheaded the development of a grassroots multimedia curriculum. Since 2013, Andre has recorded over 500 interviews, as part of StoryCorps, broadcasting 50 segments on NPR and WBEZ.

    Cathy Hannabach (01:39):

    In the summer of 2016, Andre premiered Been There, a docu web series, which features trans people of color talking about love and relationships on Open TV, the platform founded by Amargin Christian, who we had on the podcast in episode three.

    Cathy Hannabach (01:54):

    Andre works at the Trans Lifeline as the Director of Communications and Marketing. He’s also currently directing America in Transition, a documentary web series and community engagement campaign, looking at social justice from the perspective of trans people from marginalized communities.

    Cathy Hannabach (02:11):

    So thanks so much for being with us, Andre.

    André Pérez (02:13):

    Yeah, absolutely. Thank you for having me.

    Cathy Hannabach (02:15):

    So you’re the founder of the Trans Oral History Project and I’m curious what that organization does and how you and your co-directors manage to run it across several different cities.

    André Pérez (02:28):

    Yeah, absolutely. Well, it started about eight years ago and it was something that I started on my own. I was going through my process of kind of coming out or even like coming to terms with transness and I was curious what have other people been through? What have other people done who have went through life stages? You know, I was so young. I was 19 and I was like, what would it be like to get a degree or to get a job or to get married or to move, like there are so many things that I didn’t know about what it would be like to be trans.

    André Pérez (03:04):

    And so, I started interviewing elders in the community and then after doing an exhibit on my own, it was a really rewarding experience, but it was also a tremendous amount of work and I started researching, actually StoryCorps came up in my research, and I was like, Oh, this is a great idea. People have conversations with other people in their own community, and so I was like what would it be like to have a bunch of trans folks who were interviewing their elders and having this kind of experience for themselves.

    André Pérez (03:37):

    And so then we collectivized and we have had two different collectives, one in Philadelphia, one in Chicago, for a number of years. And you know, it really enables us to both be able to talk to lots of different kinds of people and also it enables us to be able to do more localized histories.

    André Pérez (03:59):

    And you know, a big shift that I’d say has happened in the last year or two is that we were the first and the original Oral History Project for the trans community, but now there’s a lot more interest in the trans community and so there are actually other trans history projects that have popped up that are kind of unaffiliated with us.

    André Pérez (04:20):

    And so, that’s kind of interesting to see how that’s evolving.

    Cathy Hannabach (04:23):

    One of the things that I really love about the organization and the kind of interviews and stories that you gather is this emphasis on people owning their own stories. Right? And so I’m curious if you can talk a little bit about why it’s so important for trans people and particularly trans people of color because you have a big push for getting more stories of by and about trans people of color. Why it’s so important for these folks to be able to tell their own stories, to tell their own histories?

    André Pérez (04:53):

    Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think when it comes to a historical standpoint, right, like I was researching LGBT histories and yet there were no T’s in the histories, there were no T’s and the lesbian herstory archives, there were, and when trans people were present, you know, they were sort of assumed to be gay. Like I found an interview with Sylvia Rivera, you know, who was listed as a gay Puerto Rican man. And I was like, you know, this is someone who is kind of iconically, a trans person who’s also very adamantly trans and kind of an opposition to the gay community at the time, and yet somehow her history got written in this way. You know, they really erased that.

    André Pérez (05:37):

    So, I mean, there’s so much power in how we tell histories from a community. And I think that, you know, like how are we supposed to find something to be, especially as young people, find a sense of pride and who we are and a sense of identity if we don’t know what came before us. So I think that’s a huge aspect of why histories are important to tell from the communities that are impacted by them.

    André Pérez (06:04):

    But also, I think people in marginalized communities are so used to having our experiences filtered through a white middle class lens. You know, when we turn on TVs or other kinds of popular media and that popular media shapes how people outside of our community see us, understand us, relate to us. That’s a huge amount of power.

    André Pérez (06:25):

    And in the trans community, it’s compounded by the fact that there are so few of us. So it’s like what the creators of Orange Is The New Black have to say about trans people can be so disproportionately powerful because so many people in the United States never met a trans person or think they’ve never met them because they weren’t outing themselves.

    Cathy Hannabach (06:48):

    So this kind of interest in storytelling and enabling people to tell their own stories, right? Not just telling stories of others, has led you to a new project called America in Transition. So could you tell our listeners a little bit about that project? Does it build on your Trans Oral History Project work? Is it separate and how does the turn to video in particular kind of shaped that work?

    André Pérez (07:12):

    America in Transition is kind of taking the fundamental ideas, right? Trans people owning their own stories, showcasing the more marginalized aspects of our community and kind of just trying to take it to the next level by curating a set of stories that really showcases important issues that are being left out of our conversation.

    André Pérez (07:29):

    So you know, it’s something I really value about oral history is that it can be much more, it can be kind of fluid and you don’t really go in with a specific goal often. It’s kind of more exploratory.

    André Pérez (07:44):

    Whereas America in Transition is trying to be a little bit more pointed and sort of documentary style and it’s going to be much more edited. So the idea is that these 15 minute videos each showcase a different person in a different place and talk about a different issue. And so, we’re going to try to partner with news organizations in order to get a much broader audience than is our sort of traditional audience through the oral history project so that way we can really shape how people are talking about trans issues on a more like national level.

    André Pérez (08:17):

    And I think that’s so important to me in this moment because it is a moment that I think will define how we talk about trans issues, what issues we focus on, the kinds of policies sort of legislatively and also like in like institutions, cultural institutions, academic institutions. These policies will shape what life is like for trans people for generations.

    André Pérez (08:42):

    So if we miss this moment and this opportunity or if we allow only white trans people to be speaking in this moment and that means that we’re going to leave behind a lot of people, and the people who most need to sort of benefit and have policies that really change the systemic racism and transphobia in our communities. So that’s why it’s an important moment for me to be focusing on trans people of color and trans people in the South.

    Cathy Hannabach (09:11):

    I noticed that one recent event that you’ve been doing, as an example of that kind of collaboration, is you’ve been working with Open TV, right? Amargin Christian’s organization and screening some of the stories that you’ve been collecting through America in Transition, and he was actually a guest on one of the very early episodes of this podcast. So it’s great to see these kinds of networks stretching across the country, stretching across media forums, stretching across communities and how kind of coalitions can be really fruitful.

    André Pérez (09:43):

    Yeah, absolutely. And actually the series I did for Open TV is called Been There, and you should check it out. It’s online now and if you go to Been There TV on Open TV. But you know, I’m kind of experimenting in a way, like the Trans Oral History Project is like any kind of story.

    André Pérez (10:00):

    And then Been There was a collection that was more focused on like trans people of color in love, you know, trying to promote some positive imagery and sort of positive conversations, because I think that we can also often, like America in Transition focuses on social issues, but I think that’s going to make it a really heavy series. And I think that if we only focus on social issues relative to like particularly communities of color, I think it can like portray us in a way that’s like to be pitied or it can portray kind of only the negative aspects or like the struggles.

    André Pérez (10:36):

    And I really want to be able to create a wide range of stories because it’s not all about being discriminated against, right? Like our lives are also about like love and relationships and all of the important things in life.

    Cathy Hannabach (10:50):

    It seems like the documentary form or this emphasis on storytelling is a pretty consistent through line across all of your work. And I’m curious what drew you to those forums? I mean, as opposed to, you know, fictional media making or fictional stories. What is it about documentary and storytelling that you find particularly compelling?

    André Pérez (11:09):

    Part of it I guess is idiosyncratic, right. because it’s like I actually don’t really watch fictional media very much or read fictional books, like I’m much more excited about nonfiction. I mean, I’m just curious about the world around me. You know, I’m always asking questions. I’m like I want to meet people. I want to understand, like how do they see things? How have their experiences shaped them? You know, what of like when I talked to older folks, I’m like how have things changed? You know?

    André Pérez (11:35):

    And so part of it is like that just like inherent curiosity and wanting to have an excuse to go out and ask people really personal questions. You know, like I can get into like really intense moments and conversations with people through this work that and make these like really incredible connections that in some ways I can’t imagine another way of doing that.

    André Pérez (11:58):

    But really, you know, adding my understanding of power shapes every aspect of how I see the world in general and how I think about my work in particular. Like if we’re creating culture and whether it’s fictional or non-fictional and we’re not challenging ourselves to be thoughtful about power, then we’re just going to follow into tropes and stereotypes and archetypes and we’re just going to reinforce the dominant cultural expectations and assumptions about all communities.

    André Pérez (12:29):

    So as artists or visionaries or people who want to make culture, I think that we really need to be inviting people into our worlds and helping them understand some of the unique insights that we have access to, as opposed to just recreating the same things over and over. And I’m excited about Amargin Christian’s work and these black and sexy TV and these other kinds of decentralized platforms because I’m excited about what happens when you engage people in a production process that have been left out for so long, because I think it’s a community building process. It becomes one where we share experiences with one another and ultimately, I think the outcome is going to be very different, right? Because the old way of doing things is like having a handful of old white men who sit around a table and they dictate what everyone in the country is going to look at.

    André Pérez (13:23):

    And the new way of doing it, is that we have all these different hubs of culture and different people kind of deciding what’s important and what makes sense and what’s needed and I think that there’s just so much more opportunity than there ever has been for marginalized people to shape culture and to connect with other people who are looking for the kinds of things we want to make.

    Cathy Hannabach (13:49):

    And it seems like one of the things that your work is really good about is helping people learn how to use those new tools and new platforms. Right? Because they’re new for everyone. We all have to kind of learn how to use the media making tools, the distribution tools, especially for communities that have previously been denied access to that. And you do a lot of teaching in your work, in the form of community workshops, training, budding filmmakers and oral historians and helping community members figure out the best way that they want to tell their story in a medium that that makes sense to them. That’s true to them. That can adequately reflect their life. Do you see your kind of teaching work as an extension of your artistic and activist work or vice versa maybe?

    André Pérez (14:38):

    Yeah. You know, I often joke, you know, I’m mixed race and I’m also kind of gender queer and I often joke that I’m like I’m not in any category ever. Right? I think a lot of the work that I want to do very interdisciplinary and it’s like if these folks are excited about what I’m doing over here, like these historians, then great. If these media people are excited, then great. I think that the most fruitful and I think like insightful things come from a merger of a lot of different kinds of experiences and so I think I carry that with me in my work.

    André Pérez (15:20):

    And it’s funny, you know, like I think an oral history project kind of makes people think of academia. But when I started it, I feel like I was kind of very anti academic. I was a first generation college student and I found academia very alienating and I felt like the kind of people that I came from, the family I came from, like they were looked down on, you know, I came from the South, people thought that I had an accent and people assumed I was stupid because I had a Southern accent.

    André Pérez (15:51):

    And so, I think a lot of my work is really trying to like lift up the knowledge and experiences of people who are assumed to not have something valuable to say. And I’m like, I think those people in some ways have the most valuable things to say, because they’ve had the least access to platforms in order to share.

    André Pérez (16:09):

    And so, that’s why there’s a huge emphasis in my work of also not just wanting to be a gatekeeper, right? Like as I’m more successful and have more access to more spaces where people like me have not been allowed, I think it’s so important to share that access as much as I can and share skills and encourage people to sort of be out there doing it themselves and trying it out. So that’s something that’s really important to me.

    André Pérez (16:38):

    And we’re actually doing a tour for America in Transition. You know, a big part of the project is to be, it’s online focused and then I’m going to be doing a community engagement tour. So we’re heading to the South in November where we have six stops at colleges and universities. And so we’re going to be connecting with like student groups, we’re going to be screening, we’re going to be hosting workshops and trainings. Everything from like trans 101 to sort of talking about, I’m on tour with Tiami Luckett, who is the star of the first episode, and she’s this amazing trans activist who focuses on HIV efforts.

    André Pérez (17:17):

    And so we’re going to be talking about growing up in the South, from each of our perspectives, which is very different. And so, you know, I’m just really enthusiastic about having a moment to go where I think a lot of the work is happening and where a lot of people … there’s a lot of the work needs to happen, right? Like I’m excited about connecting with the everyday people at like churches and PFLAG chapters, because I think if we only focus on people who are getting degrees in women and gender studies or if we only focus on the liberal media like NPR and stuff like we are going to be missing, I think certain people who can be most profoundly impacted by sharing our experiences.

    Cathy Hannabach (18:02):

    Yeah, that’s a really kind of fantastic model of teaching too, right? It’s kind of integrated in the various spaces from which the media is made, right? Rather than using media as a kind of teaching tool from above to “educate” people from above. Right? It’s a very different model.

    André Pérez (18:21):

    You know, and I’ll say one of the things you said was like, I guess the idea of people being shut out of like technology. And I would say that in some ways that’s true, like the digital divide is real, but I also would argue that I think that people in marginalized communities are the most well-suited in a lot of ways to new kinds of technology because we use them in our daily lives.

    André Pérez (18:49):

    You know, like young people like young urban people are using cell phones, like we’re using cell phones to accomplish a lot of basic needs before the middle-class suburbanites where, right? Like I worked with homeless LGBT youth and you know, they had like two shirts, two pairs of pants and a cell phone that could let them figure out where they could get their next meal, which social services organization, like housing and not, you know, things like that.

    André Pérez (19:20):

    Actually, I think a lot of times the sort of early adopters if you will, are people who are like younger and who are kind of more exploratory. So I think that, you know, are like, when I think about the audience of T-Mobile, right? That’s a lot of people who aren’t necessarily very wealthy but who loved their data plans because they’re doing all kinds of amazing stuff online and they’re doing it on the go and they’re doing it wherever they are.

    André Pérez (19:48):

    And so I think that, yeah, there’s a lot of people that we can access when we sort of are in this online space, who we can’t access through traditional means, because maybe they don’t even own a television much less, they’re not turning on PBS to watch a two hour long documentary.

    Cathy Hannabach (20:05):

    So this brings me to my favorite question that I get to ask guests. And as you know, this podcast is called Imagine Otherwise, and one of the things that I feel very fortunate to be able to talk with amazing people, including yourself about is that world that they’re working towards, that world that they’re trying to build when they teach their classes or create their media or publish their books or do whatever it is that they do in the world. So I’ll ask you, what’s the world that you’re working towards? What is the world that you want?

    André Pérez (20:35):

    Yeah, I love this question. I mean, what is the world that I want? I mean, I want a world that is just. You know, I can be very cynical in my activism in that sometimes I don’t, like I don’t know if I believe that we will achieve that world, but I think that we can progress in that direction.

    André Pérez (20:55):

    You know, and I want it to be just for everyone, right? Like, it makes me sad to see sometimes short-sided activists who are like, you know, I care about my community and can’t have the space, the emotional space, the intellectual space to imagine a world where there are many different kinds of people who get to be more free, where we can be less constrained by other people’s expectations, where we can be less constrained by capitalism and these sort of market forces that often make us subservient to other people who don’t have our interests in mind.

    André Pérez (21:33):

    You know, I aspire to having a lot of different kinds of rights protected. I don’t know. If I could, I mean, if I could have anything, I aspire to the abolition of prisons and, but you know, and between here and there I aspire to just cultivating more resiliency within our communities, more infrastructure to support one another, whether that’s financially, emotionally, skills wise.

    André Pérez (22:02):

    And I think that this democratization that comes with a lot of this technology to hopefully be able to preserve that and not have it just sort of bought out by companies that then become in control of how we relate to one another.

    André Pérez (22:22):

    So I just think there’s so many great spaces right now for community building within very specific communities that never has existed before. You know, like trans people are 0.3% of the population. Before, if there was a trans person in a thousand person town in rural Ohio and they probably would never meet a trans person their entire life. But now, you know, people can gather and convene and interact online and I think it really can help us be much more like thoughtful and strategic in how we address power, but also just, it can be like deeply personally fulfilling.

    André Pérez (23:03):

    So those are some of the things that I aspire to. And I aspire that this project is a platform to help people make these connections. You know, ultimately the idea is to have an interactive online platform where people can be sort of sharing their experiences and reporting out from wherever they are and that it can help us understand one another within the trans community despite the deep class and race and cultural divides, but that it can also kind of be a platform for people who want to relate to trans folks or uncertain to kind of learn and there can be educational materials. So those are some of my dreams.

    Cathy Hannabach (23:47):

    Those are great dreams and it sounds like your work is doing a really good job of helping bring that world into being.

    André Pérez (23:53):

    Speaking of connections, I am definitely, we’re going to be on tour, Tiami and I, and so if anyone wants to connect to host a screening or a workshop, you can go to americaintransition.org and you can see some of the places where we’ll be or you can contact us in order to invite us. We love getting invited and meeting new people.

    Cathy Hannabach (24:19):

    great and I’ll put that, those links, in the show notes so folks can can track you down.

    André Pérez (24:25):

    Yeah, absolutely.

    Cathy Hannabach (24:26):

    Cool. Well, thanks so much for being with us and helping us imagine otherwise.

    André Pérez (24:30):

    Yeah. Thank you so much for having me.

    Cathy Hannabach (24:35):

    Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Be sure to check out our website at imagineotherwise.com to listen to full episodes, read show notes, and see links to the people, books and projects discussed on the show. You can also subscribe to us on iTunes.

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