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The School of UnLearning: Activism


In 2018 we featured a lovely model — JoJo Bluemel — on our homepage and all over our marketing. I was so excited to feature JoJo, who is trans, and “walk the walk” with our model diversity, but I was afraid that mentioning her transness would feel performative, tokenizing, or polarizing. The conversation also felt uncomfortable because while I thought of myself as supportive of trans rights, I hadn’t really done the work to understand what that meant. I justified my silence then, but I now see that I missed an opportunity to provide visibility, educate myself and others, and voice our unequivocal support for the trans community.

I recently interviewed JoJo for our Let Your Nature Thrive series to finally tell her story. Having this conversation and trying to find the right way to ask these questions was initially uncomfortable, as a cis woman with more than her fair share of blind spots. But not as uncomfortable as the guilt I felt for not saying anything. Building a truly equitable society requires that we ask questions and dig deeper when avoidance feels like the easier option. Our discomfort pales in comparison to the trauma and violence experienced by LGBTQI+ and underserved communities every day — and our silence perpetuates their oppression. 

Please read JoJo’s thoughtful, informative interview, check out her amazing recommendations and resources, and commit with us to taking regular, direct action to contribute to the justice, liberation, de-stigmatization, and celebration of LGBTQI+ communities.

Denise Cartwright

Denise: Tell us a little bit about you and your background.

JoJo: I was born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah. Born to a large Mormon family, things were quite tumultuous in our home. I adore my family, but as soon as I was old enough, I left home and the church and began to make my own way in the world. 

This city is really the only place I know, which feels daunting and stifling at times. I’ve had to work hard to carve out spaces where I feel seen and understood. I am deeply dedicated to building a strong, supportive community. This work started when I moved to my home in Poplar Grove during the summer of 2016, and began renting out rooms in the house. By the end of that year, I really started connecting with my peers in the community, and unraveling my repressed queerness. The people I met during this period of my life were incredibly influential to my growth and eventual coming out. 

This culminated in an opportunity to foster a home for queer, trans and allies to engage more intentionally with one another. It is messy work and can be quite stressful maintaining a safe queer space, but my house, Honey Home, has become a place of vulnerability, accountability, and growth. 

My home also served as an entry point into my career as a tradesperson. Prior to buying the house, I worked as a Project Manager at a fabrication shop. My role there allowed me to familiarize myself with Interior Design and finish work. The house needed a lot of work when I first arrived, but I was confident enough in my abilities to take on the project. I took a DIY approach then and there and immediately fell in love with the work. 

As soon as the most important components of the space were in order, I quit my day job and began working  as an independent contractor. My skill set is always expanding as I continue in this profession and take on new projects which continually challenge and teach me - I love it! My favorite trade to work in is tile installation although I’m very interested in metal work and learning how to weld as well. At the end of 2019, I began working as a Fabricator at E3 Fabrication where I found a lot of love and acceptance.

Denise: Happy Pride Month! I’d love to know more about your story and experience as a trans woman and member of the LGBTQI+ community. What struggles have you faced? What support have you received?

JoJo: Happy Pride! I want to honor and pay my respects to the incredible activists who came before me. Pride is special to me because at the root of it, I know that my existence as the strong, supported, informed woman that I am was made possible by powerful Black and Trans led activism. Marsha P. Johnson played a pivotal role in the events that unfolded in 1969 at the Stonewall Inn. She was at the forefront of the riots, and continued the work by organizing and lobbying for trans and gay rights, alongside her friend Sylvia Rivera, another trans woman of color. Together they formed STAR (Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries), and worked hard to counter transgender homelessness. I also want to mention Storme DeLarverie, another powerful force during and after Stonewall. She was a gun-toting, stone-butch, cross-dresser, singer and bouncer. Mostly inhabiting the lesbian scene, she wouldn’t tolerate anything or anyone who threatened her community.

Knowing this history and what Marsha, Silvia and their comrades accomplished, makes me so proud to be a member of the transgender community. My personal journey has been hugely impacted by the gay and trans rights movements. I would not have access to gender-affirming healthcare, nor would I even be able to walk down the street in a dress or skirt without being targeted and criminalized. With the abolishment of some discriminatory policies, 51 years later, my existence as a trans woman has become dramatically less stigmatized, giving my community much more freedom to move about.

I would also like to point out  that this freedom still varies greatly amongst different transgender identities and communities, especially communities of color.

Despite all of our progress, trans women are still targets of hate and violence. When I talk about my struggles as a trans woman, I know the hate and discrimination is intensely heightened at the intersection of race and gender. 

I have been harassed, mocked, and assaulted verbally and physically, even by my own family. Occasionally, I find myself in situations where I am not supported by the cisgender people around me.  In these moments of conflict, I am undermined and even silenced by cis individuals who fail to stand up for me. Perhaps, this is a result of cis privilege. As a trans woman, I have learned to speak out when I witness violence and microaggressions, and in doing so, I have gained strength and confidence in my voice.

What support have I received in my struggles? I find support in anyone who is paying attention and is willing to exercise their voice to make mine and my community's voices heard. I find support in my local community, my queer family, women, other trans individuals, and my feminist allies. Also my mother, my sisters and the brothers who can still show me love in my transness, even after momentary lapses of that love. I find support in my fiercely loyal and loving clients, employers, co-workers and members of my household, even those who have come and gone.

Denise: How do you practice self care?

JoJo: For me, the practice of self-care feels very abstract. Admittedly, over the years it has not been something I am very capable of prioritizing. I even feel a tinge of shame when it comes up, because I have such  inconsistent habits of self-care. Often, the most impactful practices in caring for myself involves giving myself permission to fully feel my emotions and make efforts to understand where they come from.

Ultimately, I have to prioritize quieting my busy mind and address my heart before I can care for myself physically. Other times I find myself quietly congratulating myself when I finish a meal, or make time to brush out my hair. I practice self-care by offering myself patience in a world that frequently demands more of me than I can give.

Denise: What are you reading/watching right now?

JoJo: Honestly, I can’t pin this down to a simple list of books and documentaries. Our world is so dynamic right now. There are so many things to pay attention to. Since the Black Liberation Movement erupted in Minneapolis, the tools and resources for unpacking systemic issues have become available in a way I’ve never seen before. I’ve been able to access them by surrounding myself with individuals who are engaged in conversations of social issues. Salt Lake City has a small but strong activist and abolitionist presence. I follow these individuals and organizations on social media to keep up with what’s going on in the activist community. This has led me to a few online workshops and conferences, as well as Live Streams centering marginalized voices. I’ve even been invited to discussion groups, which I find incredibly productive and exciting. 

Here are a few things I recommend to folks interested in researching and understanding social issues: 

-I’ve been tuning into a webinar series, "What Does Abolition Look Like? Climate Justice Perspectives For A Free World," hosted by a group called Uplift Climate. This is informative and accessible. 

-Also if you haven’t seen “13th” on Netflix yet, try to watch it tonight. 

-Research/Google, Relearn U.S. History: 

Colonialism/Imperialism, Military Industrial Complex, Globalized Economy (racial perspective), Jim Crow Laws, Mass Incarceration, Stonewall Riots, Compton Cafeteria Riots, Environmental Racism, Reproductive Justice. 

-Black Revolutionaries: (just a few) Look them up, read their texts!

Angela Davis, Audre Lorde, Bell Hooks, Ibram X. Kendi, James Baldwin, Malcolm X 

-Instagram Accounts to Follow: just a few!

*If you have to, create a separate IG account so you can switch between a feed with information and your personal. This may help you stay involved, I see a lot of activists do this.

@alokvmenon @aaron__philip @indyamoore @joshuaobawole @chasinggarza @sonyareneetaylor @uplift_climate @criticalresistance @other_collective @iiycfamily @poconlineclassroom @decolonizethisplace @rosepark_brownberets @decarcerateutah @translawcenter

Denise: Is there anything you wish more cis people knew about the trans community?

JoJo: I want more people to know how beautiful and impactful we are! I think oftentimes people don’t connect with individuals from marginalized groups because they don’t see us beyond the issues we face. But there's so much more to transness than the struggle. If people could make an effort to understand us outside of what they have heard or seen projected onto us, we could really thrive. All of us.

I could answer this question in so many ways and find myself torn between wanting to prioritize talking about how to protect us, but also wanting to talk about how incredible it is to be a part of a community so overwhelmingly loving and vibrant! I am so grateful to be living and relating to the world in the ways that I do! I may face struggles, but many of them have nothing to do with my transness. In fact, I am empowered in my womanhood. I am at ease with myself in a distinctly profound way, which has made room for an incredibly honest and dynamic connection with my community and my environment.

Trans people may have a different experience with their assigned gender, but binary ideals about identity relating to gender can't really represent any of us well. That means trans and cis people. I believe transphobia is rooted in cis insecurity. This manifests as varying degrees of mistreatment and dehumanization. I think for many people it simply looks like disinterest or apathy, believing they are being tolerant or even quietly accepting. I think the idea of tolerance is violent though, and serves to further stigmatize transness.

Assumptions, based on norms, get in the way of true connection and understanding each other. We can't understand another person if we let our assumptions dictate the ways we relate.

We should all practice opening up in these ways and allow our assumptions to be dismissed. We should confront our biases, instead of denying them. That means noticing when we subconsciously avoid individuals who we do not understand. We must actively work to broaden our capacity of love and understanding.

Our community is always under attack. I think most people know that we aren't shown the love that we deserve, but they have no idea to what degree our community is harmed by societal norms. Trans women of color, especially Black trans women experience unfathomable violence, and that violence starts and ends with each one of us. The more help we get from our cis counterparts, the easier the work will be for us as trans people. This effort must be collective and mutually supportive, in order to affect the change we need.

JoJo Bluemel is on Instagram @jojobluemel.

1 comment

  • This interview was absolutely beautiful. Thank you both for taking the time to share and better inform us all. Our world/communities need it.
    Much Love,

    Natosha Washington

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