Family Portraits: bex*

At a mere 26 years of age, bex* has managed to rack up quite a résumé. A graphic artist, filmmaker, photographer and clothing designer, bex* moved from the Northwest to our fair city five years ago to attend Temple University, with a dual major in film and media arts and visual anthropology and an LGBT studies minor, primarily focusing on multi- and cross-cultural transgender and gender-variant populations and experiences. A 2009 Leeway grant recipient, bex*’s short film, “Meditation on Intelligibility,” will be screened as part of the Change in Motion film program March 17 at The Rotunda, moderated by yours truly. We took a moment to talk with the wunderkind, who says simply, “I like to study people and make movies about them.”

PGN: Let’s jump right in. Any siblings? B: No, I’m an only child.

PGN: Uh-oh, were you spoiled as a kid? B: [Laughs.] Not really. My mother had 12 brothers and sisters growing up, so that’s why there’s only one of me! I think I got a lot of her frugality and I grew up with a lot of the “we were so poor … ” stories. So no, I wasn’t spoiled.

PGN: That must have been a lot of aunts and uncles. B: Yeah, many, many, many aunts and uncles and lots of cousins.

PGN: What did you like to do as a kid? B: I liked to draw a lot. I wanted to be an illustrator or, even better, I wanted to work at Crayola as the person who named the colors of the crayons.

PGN: There’s still time: The Crayola Factory is only about 50 miles from here. B: Really? I had no idea. What if I found out after all these years there really was a job for someone just to name colors? That would be awesome!

PGN: Did you play with your cousins growing up? B: No, most of my mother’s family was in Minnesota and my father’s family was spread out around the country. My parents were super-religious. My mom went to Bible college and was a pastor for seven years. We were Pentecostal Christians, so we went to church all day every Sunday and to meetings throughout the week.

PGN: Do you still practice? B: I stopped going to church when I turned 18 and got out of the house. I knew I wanted to get out of Washington [state], so I looked up schools in California and went to the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles, where I got a degree in visual communications. School there started in the summer, so I graduated high school and, a week later, I was gone. Unfortunately, the cost of living in Southern California is ridiculous, so I moved back with my parents for a short period of time while I tried to figure out what to do with my life. I was a nanny and I painted children’s murals, and then decided that I wanted to make movies. I made up a list of top-10 small film schools and Temple was number one. The thing I like best about them is that they don’t claim your work. At the University of Southern California and New York University, if you make a student film, they own it.

PGN: Yikes! B: Yeah. At home, I took a class in anthropology at the community college so that I could stay on my parents’ health plan and I loved it. Then I found out that Temple started the discipline of visual anthropology in 1973 and that sealed the deal for me. And they had LGBT studies, which I took as a minor. It’s been great. I graduate in May.

PGN: What was the oddest thing that struck you about Philadelphia? B: Oh my God, the first time I saw someone litter I was shocked! I was outside watching a guy eat a pretzel and when he finished, he just threw the paper on the ground. He didn’t even try to pretend that he’d accidentally dropped it: He just was finished and threw his trash down on the ground. In Seattle, that just doesn’t happen. I thought, “This place is so dirty and these people are just so mean, it’s horrible.” But I’ve totally warmed up to Philly now.

PGN: Back to little bex*: Did you have a favorite teacher? B: Well, my favorite person at school wasn’t my teacher, she was actually the school technology specialist. She knew that I hated high school but liked film, so she helped me enter my first video competition and I won these really fancy computer speakers. I didn’t have a computer, but she let me borrow a computer from the school, which was totally under the table. She really took me under her wing. People would see me rolling out of the school for the summer with a computer hidden under a cart and just say, “Oh, I see you’re ‘helping’ Sue again.” We’re still friends and I still call her for technical advice. PGN: So tell me about growing up and coming out. B: Being so steeped in religion, our household was not very progressive or welcoming and my parents were pretty homophobic. I had gay friends I hung out with but I kept it hidden. My strategy was just to get out of there before I dealt with anything. In 2006, I got the Point Foundation scholarship, which is a really, really big scholarship. They pay for things like your tuition, rent, transpasses, a computer, tutoring — a whole bunch of stuff. When I got it, I decided to tell my mother. I had a friend come over and we filmed my coming out. The first time I tried to call her to come out, with the camera rolling, I got a busy signal! But I wanted to show the coming-out process in the context of coming from a very religious family. I originally came out as gay and, though I’ve never officially had a conversation with them coming out as trans, my mother will say things like, “I used to have a little girl, and now I have a boy.” So, she does recognize it to some extent, but she will address me as her daughter, which I understand. She’s my mom and I know she sees me in a certain way, so I’m not uncomfortable with it.

PGN: She sounds like she’s adjusted pretty well, considering … B: Yes; when I first told her I was dating, she said, “You know how I feel about it, but you’re going to do what you’re going to do.” Now, she loves my partner, which I think has been a big conflict for her. She comes home for Christmas and in the summer with me. If I leave for something, my mom will call her to say, “I know how it feels to miss somebody.” It’s really cute. She came to the realization that if she wanted to have a relationship with me, it was something she was going to have to accept. She knows she doesn’t have to believe it’s right to accept me as I am and love me as her kid. My father seemed to have the attitude that I’d always been a good kid and never gotten into any trouble, so he trusted me to do what was right for me.

PGN: I think most gay people have a minute when they come out where they declare they are bi, maybe to ease the transition, before fully coming out — B: [Laughs.] I totally had that moment at 16!

PGN: Was there a second transition to understand yourself as a trans person? B: Yes. I identify myself as queer because I think that’s an open label. My partner also identifies as queer, and it has a lot of political meaning for us.

PGN: How so? B: It’s a label that doesn’t specify gender. It covers all couplings without being specific about “this is a bi couple, male and female, or a lesbian couple, two women together;” it encompasses all partnerships and gender identities. I think it’s becoming more popular than LGBT, which is funny in itself, because the “T” to a lot of people is not really a sexuality.

PGN: Can you enlighten me? B: I don’t feel this way, but some transgender people are only attracted to other trans people, so they consider it to also be their sexual orientation or identity as well as a gender identity.

PGN: What do you think the LGB community could be doing better? B: I think just getting educated and being more inclusive of trans people. A lot of times the “T” just gets tacked onto the end, but it is not actually represented. People will say that they’re having an LGBT event, when it is actually an LGB event or sometimes just a gay event. We become invisible. We get invited to the ball but not asked to be a part of it. And it’s important for us to be included in the organizing if you want trans people to feel comfortable at an event. For example, there are events where the organizers don’t think about the bathroom situation and trans people have been harassed over going into the bathrooms — at an LGBT event! If there were just one trans person on the planning committee, I can assure you that the bathroom issue would have been taken care of ahead of time. That’s how things change with including people at all levels.

PGN: Tell me about your films. B: I did a film called “Nicetown,” which is the name of the section of the city where I live. It’s about what it’s like to be an outsider within it. I tried to do a film about FTM pregnancies, but had some problems. A lot of people don’t realize there have been FTM pregnancies for years: Thomas Beatie was not the first transgender man to give birth, only the first “legal” man to do it. Most recently, I’ve been doing some animation, which is awesome but takes forever! I did a piece that won Best Animation at Temple’s Diamond Screen Festival, but it took months to do two-and-a-half minutes! I’ve also been doing some quilting. I was in India recently and picked up some magnificent fabrics I want to work with.

PGN: What were you doing in India? B: I went in 2006 to do a film project about the Hedras, who are the third-gender people of the Hindu religion. More recently, I went back with my partner for some R&R and to refresh my creativity. I’d had a bad experience with a film and needed to get away for a bit. We stayed for two months. You can live so cheaply there, you don’t have to worry about rent or bills, you can just sit and think all day if you want. One day, I just spent hours making a collage about the kite festival.

PGN: Something special about India? B: Things are so much easier and freer there in many ways. I have diabetes and, if I need medicine there, I can just go to a chemist and tell them what I need. I got five months’ worth of medicine for less than our co-pay for one prescription here. The stress of not having to worry about medical care freed me up to be more creative. And creatively, anything is possible there. If I want something embroidered, I can draw a pattern and take it to a tailor who will bring it to life.

PGN: People still actually make things there … B: Yes! There are real crafts people still making things. And they are happy to teach you or let you watch them create. It’s an amazing experience. Things are so easy, you have to really keep yourself in check and not exploit your Western privilege and take advantage of things because people are working for peanuts.

PGN: Healthcare is so important to you; talk about your challenges. B: I have type-one diabetes and thyroid problems. Since healthcare is not universal here, I have to stay in school perpetually so I can stay on my parents’ healthcare policy. Once I graduate, it’s going to affect what I do because the professions I want to pursue don’t come with healthcare benefits: documentary filmmaker, anthropologist, artist, etc. So after all this education, I have to take a job that I don’t want just to stay alive.

PGN: On a different note, did you have a blankie or stuffed animal growing up? B: Yes, I did: I had a blankie. It was a quilt that my aunt made me with a bathtub, a high chair, a stroller and something else. It came with a doll that you could put into the tub, etc. All the women on my dad’s side were quilters. My mother did a little knitting and sewing, but she’s a sign-language interpreter, so she was afraid to do anything that might jeopardize her hands.

PGN: Is that where you got your artistic bent? B: Well, my mom says it’s genetic, but I’m adopted, so I’m not so sure!

PGN: I heard you talk a little about not knowing what race you are … B: Yeah, my friends call me racially ambiguous. It’s interesting: It wasn’t until I got to Temple and somebody handed me a flier inviting me to an event for people of color that I said, “Holy shit, I’m a person of color!” People think it’s funny — they’re like, “What, you didn’t own a mirror until you got to college?” But it’s not something I really thought about at home. It was when I got here that I had the realization that I could say, “I occupy this space as a person of color.” It was mind blowing. People always wanted me to claim something — black, Indian, Asian — but I never felt obligated to pick a race just to make other people comfortable.

PGN: When did you learn that you were adopted? B: I always knew: My parents felt it was important to be upfront about it. My mom always told me, “We wanted a baby and you came into our lives and we loved you so very much … ” They were so conscientious about explaining it that at one point when I was a kid, I finally said, “Mom, I’m not adopted any more!” She realized that I got it already.

PGN: And speaking of ambiguous, I notice that you use gender-neutral pronouns. The bio on you for your Point Foundation grant refers to you as “them.” Is that hard for people to absorb? B: [Smiles.] It works for me! I think it suits my identity and I think it makes people think a little bit. I like the ambiguity, but it can get confusing. For instance, this week, I was buying a monthly pass at SEPTA and the person guiding the line said, “Sir, can you step up to the window?” and then the person in the window put a female sticker on my ironically named transpass. I thought, “Ya know, this is my life!”

PGN: Random question: Food you’d eat if you couldn’t get fat? B: I really love Outback Steakhouse ribs. And I just found out that those things are the worst things you could put in your body! I was so sad to hear that.

PGN: A favorite TV show? B: God, there are so many. Right now, I like “Big Love” and “Weeds.”

PGN: Tell me about your partner. B: She’s a women’s-studies major and I’m a women’s-studies minor. We met at a women’s-studies event and made a date. We went to Bump and, for the first time ever, they carded me. Of course it was the one time I didn’t bring my ID, so we went to Tavern on Camac, where they knew me, and we’ve been going there ever since. It’s our favorite place.

PGN: Any phobias? B: Oh yes. Ticks! Any kind of parasites just make me cringe. Ugh! And I’m afraid of stingrays and cat bites. I had a friend who almost had to have her hand amputated because she got bitten by a cat. They’re always cleaning themselves so their mouths are dirty. And stingrays are just plain creepy.

PGN: Something most people don’t know about you? B: I knit baby hats and I give them away. And I have a 4-pound Chihuahua named Gia, after the model, and a 15-pound cat named Gabby. She came with the girl and, so far, she hasn’t bitten me.

PGN: Favorite word of the moment? B: Shifty. We started using it in India.

PGN: What’s your master plan? B: Bex* wants to change the world. Or at least get a Wikipedia entry.

To suggest a community member for “Family Portraits,” write to: Family Portraits, 505 S. Fourth St., Philadelphia, PA 19147 or [email protected].