Our Collective Strength and Resilience: On Being Trans and Muslim in Syracuse

A conversation with Maysam Seraji by Becca Shaw Glaser

From the July/August 2016 PNL #851

by Maysam Seraji and Becca Shaw Glaser

The Peace Newsletter is pleased to share this collaborative interview between Maysam Seraji, a 24-year-old Syracuse University student who identifies as an Iranian-American, transmasculine Muslim and Becca Shaw Glaser, a 38-year-old Jewish activist-gardener-artist-writer-teacher. They met while organizing an anti-Trump demonstration in Syracuse in early 2016. We’ve included a glossary to accompany some of the terms in the interview.

Becca Shaw Glaser: Can you comment on your process of becoming politicized?

Maysam Seraji: This is a tough question for me, because I believe, in a sense, that I was born politicized. I was brought up in a suburban, assimilatory household where we celebrated Christmas to better fit in with our white neighbors, and after 9/11 we started hanging up an American flag outside our door. Despite these things, I believe I was born into politicization, because that was my response to these suffocating impositions at the hands of white heteropatriarchy. I wasn’t allowed to tell people where my folks were from, but we spoke openly with each other about how the war on terrorism was a flawed concept, how the Bush administration should be tried for war crimes, etc. Even if I would fall back to conservatism out of desperation or self-hatred, as many do after receiving death threats or other forms of racial trauma, I believe what ultimately caused me to embrace radical politics was learning to love myself.

BSG: Are there any ways in which you connect your politicization to having grown up in the Syracuse area?

MS: I don’t know if I connect my politicization to being from here, but my being from here is certainly politicized I suppose. Being the child of Iranian immigrants, I always found myself in political conversations. I remember being very conscious of current events from as far back as I can remember.

BSG: What are some ways you’d like to see the Syracuse area become a better place for people in the LGBTQ community, especially people of color and people who are trans and/or gender-nonconforming?

MS: I’m not sure if I know exactly what can be done to make Syracuse better for queer and trans people of color. There are certainly a lot of problems. From LGBT homelessness to not having much beyond gay bars, Syracuse certainly isn’t a queertopia.
After attending the vigil for the victims of the Orlando shooting, I can unfortunately report that there wasn’t much inclusion of the voices of people of color at all. There was a heavy focus on white gay folk, who I felt were not hit the hardest by this incident. There was no mention of the shooting victims being entirely black and brown bodies. There was no mention that it was “Latin Night” at the club, or that Latinx undocumented folk were affected. We even sang “We Shall Overcome” with no homage to the roots of the song.
Unfortunately, I felt the vigil highlighted a lot of things that are wrong with the Syracuse queer community. One speaker said “Gay lives matter,” which is a clear, violent co-opting of “Black lives matter” and “Black trans lives matter.” Another speaker made some comment about how we need to be “diverse” even though it “makes us nervous.” Who is the “us” he was referring to? The names of the dead were also mispronounced, which I thought was deeply violent and disrespectful. I could go on, but I won’t. This was just one example of several problems the community here faces.

BSG: You were part of organizing the recent anti-Trump protest. What made you want to get involved?

MS: I am someone who was brought up in fear of stirring up any trouble with the establishment. I was taught that if I draw attention to myself through activism, I would get in trouble with the law and essentially thrown in Gitmo. But to make a life-long struggle short, I have come to terms with these fears, and learned that I need to face them, take a stand, and fight back. Because really, we all might end up in Gitmo someday if we sit back and don’t do anything. And also, Donald Trump sucks.

BSG: I would love to hear about your take on political/creative work. How, for you, do political and creative work overlap? And what brings you to poetry? Who inspires you creatively/politically?


MS: I think creativity and politics overlap in that we have to look at who can afford to be creative vs. who is forced to be creative, as far as resistance and how we use our voices. Sometimes I feel that both my native tongue Farsi and English fail to express how I’m feeling. Some pain just comes out sideways. So I write poetry as an informal, honest way I can let things out. It feels like a kind of relief I can’t get anywhere else, except maybe from singing. But singing is more removed as I don’t often write my own music – I’m singing other people’s stories and trying to make them my own. When I read poetry, I am reading by my own hand. And as far as creative/political inspirations...Malcolm X, Jennicet Gutiérrez, CeCe McDonald, Warsan Shire, and Nina Simone.

BSG: I sometimes hear people dismissing, or pitting “identity politics” against the so-called “real” struggles of social transformation/revolution. How do you relate to this kind of framing of social struggles?

MS: I think I’ve heard this before, but it often comes in the same vein that erasure and colorblindness do. “Identity politics” is a term I’ve only heard in a negative light; as if having an identity at all is somehow inherently wrong. I don’t agree. I do think there is useful work to be done around organizing and uniting together against oppression, but attacking each other for having identities is not something I think is productive to that goal.

BSG: I recently saw and loved your quote, “i aspire to infiltrate white space and disrupt it everywhere i go.” Can you talk some more about that? For instance, what does that look like in practice?

MS: There isn’t a real way this looks in practice aside from me just existing as a pale person of color. By that I mean when I feel safe, and sometimes even when I don’t, I will disrupt oppression where I see it. Often that looks different in different situations, but by and large, white people, especially white cis men, think they get a pass with me. They think they can say something around me they wouldn’t say in front of someone who they read as black or a woman. And when I call them out, it often takes them by surprise. I’m still working on this though, I think I could be better about sticking my neck out more often.

BSG: In some of my first engagements with feminist communities, in the mid-late 90s, there were struggles between exclusionary feminists who wanted women-only spaces (we didn’t use the term cis then), and the trans and intersex communities. A lot of the GLB community also excluded trans, gender-nonconforming and intersex people. The clashes are still going on, but I’ve felt some changes in terms of the better centering of trans, gender-nonconforming and intersex people within feminist and other activist struggles. What is your take on this?

MS: I think there is still a great deal of exclusion. Of course I cannot speak to it directly as I am not a trans woman or trans femme, but I know they get excluded the most. I see it experienced by people close to me. Maybe it has gotten better, I’m not sure of that either. But there are plenty of folks who want to strip us all of our humanity, and unfortunately, trans women get it pretty badly. My friend Sam Escobar, who identifies as genderqueer, recently asked me some questions for a piece on women-only spaces being more trans inclusive (see femsplain.com/on-being-non-binary-in-female-spaces-12d5980e7f0c#.2jbnsi2n7).

BSG: What were some of the things that excited/nourished you at the recent LGBT Muslim Retreat?

MS: Oh man! There was so much. We did a lot of beautiful, moving workshops together, prayed together, ate together, and in general just cried, healed, and had fun together. I think what excited me the most was that I could be in a space with people I just met and feel so at home and such love for them. It rejuvenated my connection to Islam and how really beautiful that can be as a queer and trans person. And it was nourishing in the same way – that so much love, healing, and validation could happen for all the parts of myself that didn’t have a community before.

BSG:  How has your political consciousness grown? What inspires you?

MS: Throughout my life, I have made a lot of mistakes. I have held beliefs that were not ok and tried very hard to assimilate. I even thought I was white for a long time, because Iranians are often told they are white, and many tell themselves that as well. I think I knew in my heart things weren’t lining up when I was calling myself a white woman. I’m much happier now as a brown butch. I get a lot of inspiration from other QPOC, or queer people of color. Our collective strength and resilience inspires me to move forward.

BSG: Do you think about the work of personal/political healing/trauma?

MS: I think depoliticization of the personal is not possible. Healing and trauma are very connected to politics for me. We don’t always quantify racial trauma, or our experiences outside of the typical narrative of trauma. Not to diminish the trauma of war, but there are more ways to be hurt and traumatized than just that.

BSG: Where do you take strength and nourishment from?

MS: I get strength and nourishment from other qtpoc [queer and trans people of color], particularly women. I just find women to be stronger than me, and when I find strength in myself it comes from validation in my selves* as a person radically existing in a society that wants me dead.

BSG: This is so sad to have to reference this, but would you want to say something in response to the murders at Pulse in Orlando?

MS: It is a sad, sad time. I think we are all feeling sad. It was a terrible thing that happened, but I think it is important that we, as a global community, remember who the victims were, and address this as a systemic problem with our capitalist culture.
Our culture produces these violent, homophobic, transphobic, misogynist/transmisogynist, and racist actions. There is a lot of media attention on the shooter, but we need to remember the victims. This attack was on Latin night at the club, and it left behind many Latinx and black people dead. Many were undocumented. Many were trans. What we need from mainstream culture as far as solidarity is true solidarity; stop the ICE raids on Latinx queer/trans and nonqueer/cis folks. Stop coming to honor black and brown people only when they are dead. Stop condemning an entire community of Muslim folks for the actions of a shooter which were not related to his faith. Stop calling this a terrorist attack; it was a hate crime. I am seeing a lot of media coverage of Muslim LGBT+ folk right now, and it is such an unfortunate circumstance that we are being highlighted over the bodies of our slain fellow qtpoc.



Cis AKA Cisgender:  An individual who has a match between the gender they were assigned at birth and the roles and behaviors considered by society to be appropriate to their particular sex.
Colorblindness:  The ideology that erases people’s experiences based on race and/or ethnicity.
Erasure:  The removal of something (in this context, of one’s experience).
Genderqueer:  A term used by some individuals who identify as neither entirely male nor entirely female.
Gender non-conforming:  Individuals whose gender expression is different from societal expectations related to gender.
Heteropatriarchy:  Society as fundamentally based on male dominance—a dominance inherently built on a gender binary system that presumes heterosexuality as a social norm.
Intersex:  People who are born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy and/or chromosome pattern that does not seem to fit typical definitions of male or female. Intersex conditions are also known as differences of sex development (DSD).
Latinx:  A gender inclusive term which replaces gendered terms such as Latino/a/@.