Romeo Gatt X Cooper Lee BombardierIn Conversation
RRG: I ask my parents to get me a copy of The Drag King Book by Del LaGrace Volcano and Judith “Jack” Halberstam, as I did not yet own one, they get it from Gay’s the Word bookshop. This is where Brooke from Camp Books happens to work at, and we had just became virtual friends very recently. We have a couple of chats, and they introduce me to Cooper Lee Bombardier and his book Pass with Care, I rush online to purchase it and hope it doesn’t take forever to get to me, feeling irritated for not having known about it before now, but also excited as I was felt that I was about to discover something precious.
Soon after I add you as a friend on IG, we become friends (rush of excitement), you comment on the book cover I posted of The Drag King Book on my insta feed with “Me when I was just a boy”. One of the sexiest book covers I know of!
What was it like to be captured by Del LaGrace Volcano, and what’s it like to see yourself on the book cover now?
CLB: Hi Romeo!
You are so kind! You know, it was so many things to be photographed by Del. I really love Del and admire them as an artist and human being. It was fun to do the shoot. I’d just, on a whim, entered the 1997 San Francisco Drag King Contest, and though I threw together my “act” somehow I won. It was a bit of synchronicity, because Del was there photographing the event, and it was huge—it was a big benefit fundraiser for Leslie Feinberg, and the organizers, Jordy and Stafford, had pulled out all the stops, so there were celebrity judges, trapeze artists, djs, and more packed into this giant warehouse, the King Street Garage (aptly named, I guess). So tons of people were there. Del approached me after and asked to shoot me for a book on drag kings, and even though I was just starting to identify as trans, slowly, tentatively, I agreed. We did a bunch of photos—you can see many on my author IG feed @cooper_lee_bombardier –but I had no idea that the one from the top of Bernal Heights was going to be used for the cover.
It was a strange thing: the book appeared all over the place: the image was in an episode of Sex and the City, in the opening scene Sarah Jessica Parker talks about my package, and it was on an episode of a show called Strange Universe. It was on the cover of a British literary supplement—I can’t remember which paper, but I have a copy of it somewhere in storage. Being on the book cover lead to me being invited to come on the Maury Povich Show, which I turned down a couple times until I just really needed a break from San Francisco and so I finally accepted, though I refused to do a “make-over” to feminine clothing—something I knew they did because several SF drag kings had been on the show already.
The drag king episodes were supposedly some of their most-watched shows, and the culminated in a big “reveal,” to find out “what we really were.” There were trans people working on that show, too. It was wild. That’s a whole other story. But, the weird thing was, all of this happened at a time when I was busting my ass to make visual art and performing my writing, and suddenly it seemed all anyone wanted to talk to me about what drag king stuff—and I never identified as a drag king—I simply wanted to move about in the world, at night, feeling like myself, and some of the technologies by which I accomplish this were also used by drag kings: spirit gum, packers, and ace bandages, for example. When I was coming up as a young queer, the lines between the drag scene and some aspects of trans community were fairly porous.
But I do love the images that Del created with me, and for me they capture a slice of that rich time period of SF queer art. And, during the 1990s and early 2000s, before we had social media, the impact of photography books featuring queer and trans bodies by queer and trans photographers was massive. It was often the only media in which we could see aspects of our lives reflected back to us. I think about how important Loren Cameron’s book, Body Alchemy was for me and many other trans guys. During that time period I was photographed by Del, Chloe Sherman, Phyllis Christopher (who has a new retrospective book called Dark Room out now), Chloe Atkins, and others. We were each other subjects—I made paintings with my lovers and friends sometimes as models. We made art about ourselves and each other, for each other.
RRG: You mention lyrics from Turn the Page by Bob Seger, and that it would be "ten years before you knew firsthand the feeling of coming off the road Klieg-light glare of those eyes Bob Seger was talking about."
"Well, walk into a restaurant strung out from the road
And you feel the eyes upon you as you’re shaking off the cold
You pretend it doesn’t bother you, but you just want to
Most times you can’t hear ‘em talk, other times you can
All the same old clichés, is that a woman, or a man?
You always seem outnumbered, so you don’t dare make a
The way you write about childhood really resonates with me, I came out “officially” as a trans man and started medically transitioning last year at the age of 31, (lucky for me the universe gifts me your book at just the right time) in my work I find myself going back to my younger self, wanting to protect him tell him that things are gonna be ok, but I guess just want to do puberty "properly" with him again.
CLB: I didn’t start using hormones until I was 32. It was certainly a trip to experience changes in my body and mental landscape at that age—but I wouldn’t wish puberty on anyone twice. ☺
RRG: Haha I have been telling myself kind and positive things in regards to hitting puberty again, however I got to be honest the acne and hardcore horniness is not something I’m super psyched about.
CLB: Yes totally but it’s also important to enjoy the process of becoming, right? You’ll never be in this precise place again, so hang out with it if you can. ☺
RRG: How important is it to revisit that time for you (if it is of any importance)?
CLB: One thing I like to do is use a physical object to get at an idea or atmosphere or question in my writing. That boombox still haunted me, for how uncool it was and also for how generous it was as a gift—so many complicated feelings evoked by this one object for me. I always felt most like myself in nature, and this essay as a way of going back in time to examine how I inhabited my gender then with curiosity, rather than solely the memories of shame and beleaguerment I also remember feeling at that age.
RRG: The way you write about the BOOMBOX is very special and similarly to you. In my latest show ‘Mama’s Boy’ I did make use of objects from childhood. Objects trigger very clear flashbacks and for me they really bring back memories + feelings that can easily be put into words or visuals. Very different to when I dream and as soon as I try to explain it verbally all vanishes inside quick sand and nothing seems to no longer exist.
CLB: Romeo, I wish I could see your show! It sounds really cool.
RRG: I remember my grandparents listening to Elvis’s music and telling me that they had been to Graceland. My sister and I used to pretend dance the rock and roll but I never got really bothered to listen to or like Elvis’s tunes. Though recently I came across this text called Women Who "Do Elvis”: Authenticity, Masculinity, and Masquerade, that’s where I learnt about Elvis Herselvis, Enid Butler amongst others, and was this time round was bothered to check these Elvises out.
CLB: Leigh Crow is still around SF, performing and making music. What a legend! Also, she’s pictured in the Drag King Book, and I think in Phyllis Christopher’s book, too. Leigh is a legend! I think many of us queer Elvis. It wasn’t until I was much older that I came to understand how much he took from Black musicians, who were systemically shut out of the access to a broad audience that he had.
RRG: Was "Lips like Elvis" your first ever performance ? Do you still have the slides from the first time you showed it at IFGE? I am really curious about paintings and photographs that you mention.
CLB: No, “Lips Like Elvis” was not the first thing I ever performed. The first thing I performed was a poem called “Exhume,” at Red Dora’s Bearded Lady in SF.
I have the slides somewhere in storage! It’s so wild to think that the last time I toured—I guess that was in 2004—I was projecting images with a 35mm slide projector, that basically Len Plass and I had to beg someone to borrow. We really do have some things easier now. I can’t easily get to them because of immigration and the pandemic—many of my things have been in a storage locker near the US/Canadian border since I moved here a few years back.
RRG: What was “Exhume” about? Where your performances similar in their style? You projected slides also in “Lips like Elvis” right?
CLB: I was an untrained writer, and I wrote for spoken word, even though I was too nervous to memorize my stuff (I always read off of the page). I wrote for the sound of it—for it to be verbalized, shared with a live audience. A lot of it was like prose poetry and lyrical essay.
“Exhume” was about my girlfriend who died of AIDS in 1994.
RRG: That must have been very hard to perform.
One day when you’ll get access to these slides please do show me =)
Yay is the zine within reach? I wanna check it out and any of the other zines.
CLB: I will send pictures!
RRG: You self published an excerpt of "Lips Like Elvis” in your zine Ramblin’ Man. Do you still have copies of this?
I went searching for it on google and found a copy on Amazon. Wow the cover! It’s got a Cooper tire. I love cars - this detail won me over.
What’s inside ?
CLB: I do still have a copy of this zine. What’s inside are poems! I made a lot of zines back then—some have photos and drawings, too.
RRG: It was so cute to read that you were making tattoos at the age of 11. My grandma not the Elvis one but the other, told me that she had found a drawing of mine where I drew Jesus with a star tattoo on his hand that space between thumb and index finger. I was also obsessed with the transfer tattoos. Your arm would get all red and swollen trying to get off the last bits stuck to your baby hairs, but it was worth it especially for that bright blue / green dolphin
CLB: I totally have a tattoo like your Jesus drawing! It’s interesting how some of us are compelled to decorate our bodies from early on. For me, it was always a way of claiming my corporeal form as my own.
RRG: Haha the famous star it was my first ever tattoo, though I got it on my wrist. First thing I did at 18. I hid it with a big watch until one day my dad discovered it and he was really upset couldn’t speak to me for three days. Both parents hate tats actually. Pity because we were on a trip together in Wales and up until the everything was going so smooth.
CLB: I misread this at first and thought it said that both of your parents have tattoos! Why do you think your father was upset about the tattoo? My mother similarly got very upset when she noticed my first tattoo and accused me of getting something “satanic” tattooed on my body. I think her reaction was from a place of having had very conservative working-class parents and the idea that I had autonomy over my body was a shock to her. And, also, tattoos were not part of her purview, really.
RRG: Can we talk about Ink and the oil paintings?
Do you still get inked? If so when we meet we can do a trade =)
CLB: I still get tattooed, though I have not since the pandemic. I am overdue for more work. I don’t do them, not officially or with any skill worth bragging about. Do you tattoo? I’d get one from you.
RRG: I guess both of my parents are quite conservative when it comes to ink and piercings, they would think I’d be judged / read differently, but also they just truly hate them. You are very welcome to tattoo me if you’re into it. I do tattoo, started doing hand poke first now I use machine too. I started on myself and since then been tattooing a couple of friends, I don’t think of myself as a tattoo artists though, I do it as a hobby. I truly love it.
CLB: I would not encourage anyone to get a tattoo from me, but it could be fun. ☺
RRG: As you mentioned in the previous email, you’re now more focused on writing however you say that visual practice is still very much a part of how you engage with the world.
I am not an accomplished writer however most of my visual work manifests from words, poems and short texts that I write.
Do you still make visual work, and does it inform your writing and vice versa or do you see them as separate?
CLB: Yes, though I haven’t been making much visual work in the last couple of years, visual art is still an important part of my creative life, and I don’t necessarily see the various creative forms I practice as intrinsically separate—I think these mediums or genres or practices, for me at least, inform each other and talk to each other. It is only when I am not actively making something that I feel a bit off. I’ve made and shown a few visual things here and there over the past ten years, but as you mentioned, I’ve been really focusing on writing during that time. But I did make some paintings, and I did a collaborative video installation a while back with my friends Julie Perini and Wayne Bund, and I still think through and make notes for future projects. I do miss working on drawings and paintings and printmaking, though, and it is likely that I will work in those forms again. There is a different kind of flow state for me in making visual art—it is a kind of flow I can lose myself in, whereas the writing uses different brainspace even if it is trying to respond to similar questions or concerns as the visual work.
RRG: Your writing for me is very visual somehow and It really excites me to know that you have plans to make visual work again! How can I not be?!
I feel very similar to what you mention in regards to your practice; where you don’t see the various creative forms you practice as intrinsically separate and how these mediums / genres of practices inform and talk to each other.
What was the video installation with Julie Perini and Wayne Bund about? Julie Perini’s manifesto “Relational Filmaking” is so good as well Wayne Bund’s pandemic-portraits project.
CLB: Julie is such an awesome artist and is an inspiration in her political work, artistic practice, and way of moving through the world. Wayne, too! He’s a visual artist and drag performer and an elementary school teacher. I think that both of these artists model that ability that we were talking about earlier of not being afraid of working in different forms and methodologies. The video installation was a tiny tent that you had to put your face right in to watch the film, which was of Wayne’s character, Feyonce, and my character, Apocalypse Tranny. We filmed it on the land in rural Oregon where Wayne grew up, and it follows these two characters in the wilderness as they figure out how to survive and thrive in their newfound conditions.
Tell me more about that! What mediums do you primarily work in? How does text figure into it for you?
RRG: I would say I am a multidisciplinary artist. I always felt that I couldn’t express always with the use of the same medium. So when I make shows there is painting, photography, sculpture, video, sound, performance and always surrounded by text. The titles of the artworks are as important as the work itself usually. I guess text for me is very important because again I came to it quite late in life. When I was younger I don’t even remember myself speaking much.
CLB: I love working in various mediums, too, though drawing and painting have been my primary mediums. It’s so cool that you give yourself permission to work in various mediums and forms. Sometimes I feel like there is pressure to silo our creativity rather than allow it to remain expansive.
RRG: Football was my saviour and drawing too. However I was drawing quite “weirdly” didn’t know how to draw realistically and really never was bothered to do so. But had many mean teachers who ended up making me really shy to draw and was quite scared of it for a long time until adulthood. On the other hand football was I think one of the only things I really knew how to do well. At three years old I was already doing kick ups. I played with the women’s national team until 19 years of age. I believe that it was a temporary solution to help me with all the confusion I felt with my sexuality and gender, but it gave me pleasure until I became tired of it, it was inducing a lot of pressure on me. I would never regret my football years after all they helped a lot with my coming out and accepting my sexuality somehow. However I still felt alone, as football was the only thing in common I had with most of my football mates. I managed to get into art school in London and that is when I started being able to express myself without shame, I started finding words, my tutors found my drawing really interesting and were encouraging me… This is when I remember myself for the first time acknowledging that I am a sexual being and a person who feels.
It’s strange that I was doing this in the English language. But I could not write this way in my mother tongue.
CLB: So interesting. Do you speak other languages besides Maltese and English? What does English bring to the work for you?
RRG: Unfortunately not, but if I was a good student I would be able to speak Italian and French too. Most Maltese people understand and speak Italian well, as back in the days you would only find Italian and Maltese channels on TV. English is the language that allowed me to open up and explore myself in ways that I was not able to do in Maltese.
CLB: Well, football (soccer here) is pretty much the sport of the world, yeah? And probably the best team sport there is. It’s cool that playing on a team allowed you to understand your sexuality and gender—do you miss the discipline of playing on a team? (maybe you still do play—I have no idea). Did you feel like you had to choose between being an athlete or an artist?
RRG: I do miss it yes, and often tell myself I should try play 5-a-side just for fun. But I feel so unfit now that I give up before I even try. It’s a lot of discipline playing on a team, and I think it’s thought me a lot about respect and being on time =). Playing with a team for a long time means that you become like a family somehow. I think it felt like I had to chose between an athlete or an artists at the very beginning when I still wasn’t ready to quit football, but after a while it became clear that I wanted to pursue my art practice and that I was done with football.
…So throughout my practice what I mostly do is write “poems”, but sometimes also longer texts. These end up in tunes, or video works, or performances, phrases and words inside paintings and sculptures. That is how I kind of work. It was quite late in my practise that I started performing live, and I feel it’s now one of the most important aspects within my work. I feel that this is what brings me closer to the people experiencing the work. I also think about football and being on the pitch, and how many people see football or sports quite far away from art, but I cannot avoid linking them together and also my need to perform I believe is coming from when I was playing on the pitch, after all it is an other way of performing.
CLB: Yes I could really see that—in a game you are being witnessed and the energy of the crowd responds to what is happening on the pitch. You get that automatic feedback loop, right? It is a conversation happening corporeally, in real time.
RRG: Season 3 Episode 4: Boy, Girl, Boy, Girl
“Seriously, that's a woman?
It was the latest installation from photographer Baird Johnson entitled "Drag Kings - "The collision of illusion and reality".
Yep, that's a woman.
Look at that bulge, it's shocking.
Hurry up and look before Giuliani shuts it down.
- What do you guys think? - It's amazing. Congratulations.
Women dressing like men are very popular right now.
I thought it was "Pokemon".
I don’t know. Wasn’t it easy? All it takes is stick-on sideburns and a sock in your pants.
That's some sock.
I've always had a thing for cowboys.
Reminder, John Wayne is a Jane.
My God. I'm attracted to her. Maybe I'm a lesbian.”
Damn! I found the whole script. It gets worse. Still it was on Sex and the City and that Drag Kings were a part of this award winning show, I guess so many people would have got to know about drag kings for the first time. I attempted to watch the new show…couldn’t finish it off.
CLB: Yeah it was pretty weird…I had no idea that was going to happen. A friend called my land line (LOL) and left a message on my voicemail to tell me that I was gonna be on the next episode of SITC, and I didn’t really watch television during that time. But in 2001 I was in London to meet my father’s mother’s sister and cousin, and my brother and I made a trip to visit Del, who lived in a sweet basement flat but who had all of these massive, mounted prints of their photos stacked floor to ceiling. I think Del eventually sold them off.
RRG: OMG. I couldn’t believe myself reading the part about Maury Povich. So in Malta most people used to have Maltese and Italian TV programmes only. I think it was around the end of the 90s when my parents decided to get us cable TV That’s one reason why I’m shit at Italian, because once cable entered the house I only watched Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, Trouble and MTV. I knew of Jerry Springer before Maury Povich as it used to be on at my grandma’s house sometimes. My parents were more into British Tv than American Tv so they weren’t so amused when my twin sister and I introduced a lot of American slang and phrases into our vocabulary.
I have a very clear image of myself in my parents bedroom watching TV on my own. I was watching a Maury Povich show, one which I have for a long time been trying to find footage of but failed up to this day. The episode I am referring to is season 4 episode 20, air date November 15 2002. I was 13 years old. It was called MY DAUGHTER IS TOO BEAUTIFUL TO LOOK LIKE A BOY!
“ The mothers on today's show admit they could have worse problems—but they are still troubled by the way their daughters dress and act. They tell MAURY that their once sweet and sensitive girls have turned into rough and tough tomboys. These young teen girls walk, talk and dress like boys and they say they don't want to change—not even for their weepy mothers. But their moms have managed to convince them to get a MAURY makeover—even if it is just for one day! When the transformed tomboys see how fantastic they look—will they be tempted to keep their new styles for longer than a day?”
I still have glimpses of the voices, the clothing, the gestures of these teenagers. They were portrayed as problematic, rude, troublemakers, ugly somehow.
CLB: Yes—the way in which transgression of gender norms is demonized and made into evidence of other possible transgressions is proof of how entrenched these ideas are, and how dangerous they are to the status quo, even still. I remember my parents realizing I wasn’t going to grow out of my “tomboy phase” once I hit puberty and the interventions to pressure me to become a “normal girl” were so intense: the pressure to conform that came at me was emotional and physical, but also religious, social, medical, and deeply echoed by the environment at school.
RRG: I can picture myself whilst watching it, quite clearly, a very worried face look, I felt fear and joy at the same time. I saw myself in these kids somehow, I loved how they looked, their clothing, their hair, their voices.
CLB: Oh yes—this desire! Did you feel like you saw yourself in those kids, or who you wanted to be? I used to get this feeling long before I had language to articulate it, a sense of desire that was more about wanting to be that person than wanting to be with that person. I felt this especially with many of my male friends and boyfriends when I was a teenager.
RRG: On that day my dad came into the room and saw me watching it before I could switch over to another channel. I really didn’t want any of my parents to watch it but somehow I also did?!. He wasn’t so impressed, but I don’t think it was because they looked like boys as such, cos I was looking like a boy for a while already, and he had no problem with that.
CLB: That’s pretty cool, that he didn’t try to control your gender expression!
RRG: It’s more likely that he didn’t like the attitude and the “machoness" that these teenagers where performing. He was quite different to most men I knew, he had a touch of feminity and not necessarily bothered to prescribe to the tough Maltese dude kind of look; flowers over cars.
CLB: Do you remember how people around you responded to your father’s “feminine” aspects? Was he accepted or did folks give him a hard time?
RRG: Don’t think he ever really got a hard time. He still has a lot of masculine traits in him, and I think other men tend to see just this side of him. I think the feminine aspects come out only when one is sensitive enough to notice them maybe?
I mean the sensationalist footage edited alongside the talkshow, giving us a glimpse into the back story of these teens, some are pictured spitting, holding their crotch, kicking stuff , and looking quite intimidating in general. I am sure most of them were harmless. They were somehow replicating hegemonic masculinity or that they were used to seeing. The exaggeration was there in order to be accepted as who they wanted to be seen as I guess. Well on that day I felt that I might have been questioned a bit by my dad . This topic was close to heart before I even knew I had the words for it. I hated the idea that my dad saw a problem with these teenagers. I felt a stab in my heart and all I remember is a sad feeling. However the truest sad feeling was when they turned them into “girls” the make over for me was a heartbreak.
CLB: The “make-overs” are where hegemonic gender can come back in and reclaim its rightful place, much to the relief of viewers at home and in the live audience. The norms can be righted, the bratty, rebellious teens can be put back in their place with the idea that their gender expressions are problems to be fixed firmly cemented in the minds of the public. The teens’ “real selves” can be revealed through the make-overs and everyone can pat themselves on the back that they solved gender for another day. And, as a teen yourself, I wonder what message this sent to you watching it?
I can’t believe you were on Maury Povich! I never watched the Drag King episode, I don’t think.
Apparently their drag king episodes were some of their “most watched.”
Do you have a copy of this episode ? I am glad you refused to do the “make-over”. 💪🏼
CLB: Romeo, I do have a copy, somewhere, on a VHS tape in a box in storage in the US. And I am glad another SF performer gave me the head’s up about the makeover so I could be prepared to refuse it.
This makes so much sense about why you seem to have an affinity for American pop culture. In contrast, I know hardly anything about Maltese culture, but I hope I can come to visit at some point. What is it like to live in a place that has such ancient history, and is along the crossroads of Europe, Africa, and the Middle East? What is it like to live there as trans?
RRG: I have a feeling you will. I wrote to Brooke that we will all meet on a beach after our first FTM conference here in Malta. Yeah we do have a really long history!!
Malta is a weird place geographically as well everything else really. Wouldn’t even know where to start with it. And wouldn’t want to put you off from coming over, because I know that we can have a good time and there are good parts to it. However politically it angers me a lot (racism, corruption, ignorance…)
I will try to keep this short…
Malta is a predominately Catholic country that only began allowing divorce in 2011. Abortion of any kind is still considered to be a criminal offence. Yet Malta is ranked no.1 in the ILGA-Europe ranking of all 49 countries when it comes respecting human rights and equality.
And this is something that I often think about specifically within the context of Malta. We might rank no.1 in terms of LGBT rights however; 1. we are failing to protect our women as well as trans men by stripping them off some of their basic human rights (still having a complete abortion ban) 2. We are creating a very hostile environment to those who have to flee their own countries because of life threatening situations.
Transgender and intersex rights in Malta are of the highest standard in the world under the Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics act.
It is for this reason that I decided to start my transitioning here. Getting appointments with the gender clinic, getting my hormones for free with ease each month, changing my name and gender marker legally… being a trans person here was not as difficult or as ugly in comparison to being a trans or non-binary person in the UK and America.
Mind you there are still flaws when it comes to the gender clinic and with the way it operates, and so many things need to be improved. Some of my friends making use of the service are often quite upset, frustrated and angry with how the whole thing is functioning. There was a time when I questioned their complaining, because I thought “we have it so much better than other places, why the need for all of this complaining?” but now I understand that the frustration and anger felt is all very valid. Just because in other places it is fucked up / way worse doesn’t mean we should settle for whatever. We should challenge this service and be critical (in a constructive way) of it. We should take every opportunity there is to voice our concerns, and hope that we are heard.
We have come a long way and there are brilliant organisations and individuals working so hard and with so much passion to educate as well as better the lives of queer people. However I truly believe that as much as it is important for our community to be protected by the law, the law on it’s own won’t necessarily protect us or make our day to day lives easier or equal to those who fit comfortably within the confines of gender norms.
We need to educate people young and old from schools to work places about inclusivity and acceptance.
Oh, and many people in Malta still love the British and the Queen despite being colonised by them until 1964.
We have very good weather and quite beautiful seas.
CLB: “But I do love the images that Del created with me, and for me they capture a slice of that rich time period of SF queer art”
RRG: Yeah the images from Del are wonderful and you look great!
Moving on from this I must say that I feel quite in awe as well as (good)jealous that you ended up being part of such a strong prolific queer art scene. I only really ever experienced queer art and culture through a foreign lens. It didn’t ever exist here in Malta. The closest I got to drag and being a cowboy was in carnival or halloween, and I really loved dressing up, because no one had to question me so much into why I wasn’t dressing like my sister and why I wanted to shop in the boys section. Luckily for me my mum was super cool with this most times.
CLB: The cowboy thing was something of a certain queer time and place that I likely would not be so keen to take up now. For me it was certainly about exploring a kind of masculinity that both echoed elements of the working-class masculinity that I grew up around and also a kind of masculinity that I loved the aesthetics of but that was, in essence, foreign to me as someone who grew up in a small town south of Boston. There was something about affecting this kind of masculinity that I believed in real life would have wanted me dead that felt rebellious and powerful to me at the time. I think now we have different conversations and critiques about representations of whiteness, and while a cowboy hat and a Levi’s jacket are not racist, there are probably critiques of those representations of white masculinity that could be made through the lenses of our present day cultural and political analyses.
RRG: I always fantasised of having lived during this period you’re mentioning – SF queer art scene seemed so amazing.
CLB: I think we have to be careful about nostalgia—I say this to myself as much as to anyone else—because it can override the challenges and flaws of the past and keep us from being aware of the communities and culture we are building in the present. A lot of what made that time and place in SF’s 90’s queer scene so special were not completely clear to me until I was able to look back in hindsight. But, I will say that while I have grown, healed, and changed so much since that time, what I miss most is the sense of a participatory, vibrant, queer creative community where collaboration and generosity were the watchword.
RRG: You are totally right. However still on the topic of nostalgia, just want to quickly mention the beautiful word you discover and write about in your book “Pass with Care” saudade ([saw’dadzi] or Soh-dah-zgche) “a word that also has no direct corollary in English. It evokes a deep emotional state of nostalgia or profound, melancholic longing for an absent object of one’s love–an object of love that doesn’t necessarily need to be romantic or even a person.”
CLB: “And, during the 1990s and early 2000s, before we had social media, the impact of photography books featuring queer and trans bodies by queer and trans photographers was massive. It was often the only media in which we could see aspects of our lives reflected back to us. I think about how important Loren Cameron’s book, Body Alchemy was for me and many other trans guys.”
RRG: I am in love with the few photographs I was able to see of Loren Cameron, sadly I never got the chance to check out the book but I’d love to get inside it =) I am a true believer of the idea about “making art about ourselves and each other, for each other”. What I have been trying to create at Rosa Kwir is exactly that. I wanted the archive to be created by us and for us.
CLB: I love that you are doing this archival project. It is important to find our mentors, elders, inspirations, and to record them for the present and the future—in a way it is a vital way to push back against the constant erasure of our queer and trans lives. I inadvertently think I kept a small personal archive of my life since the late 1980s because I didn’t want my life and stories to be erased.
RRG: I really wish I had all these role models and inspiration when growing up. Moving to London at the age of 20 was a breath of fresh air though, and it helped me discover and learn about things that were somehow alien and very far away from me. I guess being there helped me to start discovering more who I was as a person and so I believe that that helped me stumble upon the things that I’ve always been so interested in and new existed, but wasn’t so easy to find or access.
CLB: Who are your role models and possibility models now? I think it’s never too late to find them. When I was younger, I always had so much shame about not having everything figured out, and I also was rebelling against the weight of all I’d been told was wrong with me since childhood. So, it was hard for me to seek counsel or help or advice and looking back I wish I’d figured out how to have the insight to seek trusted mentors. At the same time, many of my peers from that time were role models for me, especially about making your art and getting it out there, and about making the spaces you want to exist happen if they are not already in place.
RRG: Now I look at this term in quite a different way. In a sense that throughout my life I have come across different kinds of people some closer than others some who I know from a distance (but appreciate who they are and what they do), who continue to inspire and teach me a lot. I see these people as role models.
Something from your book which stuck in my mind and I want it to be stuck there like a magnet on the fridge is this:
“I was among my forefathers and foremothers, artists who’d been carving out a space for years so that people like me could imagine existing. It was, and sometimes still is, so easy to think that all of these struggles, conversations, and experiences are completely new and to be borne by each of us alone, as individuals. This is white supremacist neoliberal capitalism doing its job; the more we think we are alone and striking out on our own, the first or only of our kind, the more vulnerable we are to the idea that we have not always existed and been part of the fabric of humanity.”
How easy it is sometimes to think that way and how counterproductive it can be. Maybe the easiest thing that comes to us is to think this way, however with just a tiny bit of effort one can soon discover that there are many people who have thought in a similar way, and this makes me think of how crucial spaces (whether online or offline) for us to get away from this way of thinking.
CLB: Right! And this is where projects such as Rosa Kwir are so important, right? Giving queer and trans people the opportunity to see themselves in others is huge.
Cooper Lee Bombardier is a queer, trans American writer and visual artist living in Canada. He is the author of the memoir-in-essays Pass With Care, a finalist for the 2021 Firecracker Award in Nonfiction. His writing appears in The Kenyon Review, The Malahat Review, Ninth Letter, CutBank, Nailed Magazine, Longreads, Narratively, BOMB, and The Rumpus; and in 19 anthologies, including the Lambda Literary Award-winning anthology, The Remedy–Essays on Queer Health Issues, and the Lambda-nominated anthology, Meanwhile, Elsewhere: Speculative Fiction From Transgender Writers, which won a 2018 American Library Association Stonewall Book Award. He teaches in the MFA in Creative Nonfiction program at University of King’s College and in women, gender, and sexuality studies at Saint Mary’s University.