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Allied Arts & Media

The Power of Love—and Trans (National) Collaboration

AVI & WARREN: TORONTO–“I haven’t had a severe panic attack in over a year since I got Warren. I used to get multiple attacks per day.”–Avi                               Photo: Jack Jackson

It’s not everyday that you find yourself at a party in a startup gourmet pet food store with 80 people and ten dogs. But in this case, at the launch of a new movement to elevate trans awareness, it made perfect sense.

Toronto-based and Canadian newcomer trans-preneur Jack Jackson and New York-based Deb Klein are both professional photographers and multi-skilled entrepreneurs with a passion for dogs and gender justice. They came together to create Don’t You Want Me (DYWM), a globally sourced photography project that showcases stories about trans and queer people whose lives have been transformed by the acceptance and unconditional love they experience from their rescue dogs. The startup photo-plus-stories project will leave you wondering, who rescued who?

The launch was held in Toronto, Canada at Tom & Sawyer, a socially progressive pet food store with an onsite production facility, doggy bakery, plus comfy couches and Wi-Fi. The exhibit opened on March 31st, International Transgender Day of Visibility, a global initiative founded by Human Rights Campaign, a 3M+ membership-based LGBTQ civil rights organization based in the United States.

Reuben and Luna in Brighton, UK

I do think that a part of me was trying to heal myself by taking care of someone else that was broken and forgotten, our new skinny, sick, terrified Lunie-bear.”           – Reuben

“I work 70 hours a week in my current venture but wanted to work on developing this project as well because frankly, I’m furious,” said project co-founder Jackson. “Why? Because discrimination causes so much harm. Let’s take Charlie over there, 22, who volunteered here tonight. His family has actually disowned him. Things are still really, really hard for [trans] people. No one is doing anything about it.” Recent research shows that 16-24-year-old trans kids who have supportive parents are far less likely to suffer from depression or attempt suicide.

Charlie and launch party participants

Jackson adds: “I think these kinds of stories need to be told. Because people still don’t get it. They think oh, you’re trans, and they think that is the issue, but being trans is not the issue, discrimination—society’s perception of trans people, is the real issue. Trans people have something really important to say. Something that doesn’t just affect trans people, but also women, effeminate men, basically anyone that doesn’t fit the heteronormative norm.”

At present, there is little data on the total number of trans people in Canada, or their experiences. However, qualitative research is clear that there are significant barriers to social and economic inclusion. TransPulse, an Ontario-based community research hub estimate in 2014 that “as many as 1 in 200 adults may be trans (transgender, transsexual, or transitioned).” And while Canada has recognized trans discrimination as a hate crime and illegal in its charter of rights and freedoms, trans people continue to face physical abuse, unemployment at three times the national rate, and high rates of mental health issues.

The pain experienced as a result of social exclusion and brutal discrimination, especially from those who at one point, loved you, were part of many stories shared at the launch event. T Thomason is a UK-born 23-year-old who was raised in Halifax. The “trans-guy” indie pop star was recently signed by Taylor Swift’s record label and performed an acoustic version of his latest singles, “Bliss” and “Hope”, the latter of which he says taught him a lot about being a trans person.

T. Thomason playing an acoustic version of his song “Bliss”

I just walk, and the farther I go

I am stepping with a changing shadow

I just walk and I hope I am getting close

Catching up with all the ghosts I would like to get to know

Past all your fears, you will find bliss

Hold onto this, move past your fears, you will find bliss.

— T. Thomason, Bliss Lyrics

Statistics show that over 43% of trans people eventually attempt suicide, yet Jackson is hopeful about the future. “Deb [Klein] and I were talking about trans people going swimming. In Brighton [U.K.] that is a real issue. For me, in Toronto, I was scared shitless about the first time I went swimming, just in shorts. And absolutely no one gave a shit — that was awesome.”

Klein, a New Yorker, scout for the “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” production company, bass player, and foster mom to rescue dogs, found Jackson on Instagram. She loved his idea and his photography, and quickly signed on to partner on Don’t You Want Me. Klein and Jackson plan to grow the project into a global movement. “This launch is just the beginning. We hope to see a thousand more photos and stories like this submitted to our project from around the world,” says Klein.

The DYWM “minimal viable project” exhibit will stay in east Toronto’s Leslieville neighbourhood at Tom & Sawyer until April 6th, and will then be moved to Black Lab Brewing for rest of the month. Tom & Sawyer co-founder, Kristen Mathews, a former forensic accountant whose love of animals led to starting her doggy bakery and pet food company three years ago, didn’t hesitate to host the exhibit. “T & S is very welcoming to the community. A lot of LGBTQ community members have dogs and cats who they consider part of the family.”

For those who can’t make it to the exhibit, don’t worry. LiisBeth has prepared a two-minute slide show of the event, including some of the featured photos. We hope you take a moment to watch and share, in support of equality and visibility for trans people in your community and everywhere. Enjoy.


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Queer to their Boots

Kacy says the queer fashion scene is begging for new entrepreneurs to enter the market. But forget about mainstream start up ecosystem support.

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Activism & Action Featured

Queer to their Boots

Toronto’s Kensington Market has long been the landing site of many of the migrant groups that help make the city one of the world’s most vibrantly multicultural. On a Sunday in May, the funky market threw out the welcome mat to pioneers of a different kind—six innovative fashion companies producing lines that defy gender stereotypes.

Women belonging to the LGBTQ community as well as fans of gender-neutral attire eagerly flocked into a pop-up retail store in the Supermarket restaurant to browse a rack of masculine-cut dress shirts from Kirrin Finch. A queer teen accompanied by her mom cracked a wide smile as she tried on a pair of NiK Kacy’s agender desert boots. It’s clear that both she and her mom are delighted to finally find footwear suited to the daughter’s taste.

“It shouldn’t matter if you’re identifying as a man or a woman, cis or trans,” says 41-year-old NiK Kacy, founder of the self-named shoe line that puts an androgynizing twist on men’s wingtip shoes and is made for feet ranging from a petite 3.5 in women’s to size 14 in men’s. “If you want to dress up and you want to wear a high heel, you should be able to. If you want to wear a wingtip, you should be able to,” says Kacy.

Kacy, a transman who identifies as masculine of centre/gender fluid and uses the pronoun they, flew in from Los Angeles to participate in the two-day Superbutch event, which included a fashion show the night before, pop-up retail shop and a panel discussion on what it means to identify—or not—as butch. Organized by musician/model Dinah Thorpe, production manager Heather Blom, academic Zoe Newman, and fashion designer Jack Jackson, Superbutch threw a spotlight on a growing number of local and international clothing lines catering to a vastly underserved market of LGBTQ people looking for designers who understand their identities and body types. As shown in a recent street fashion spread in The New York Times in which men donned hot pink blazers adorned in flowers and paired with shorts, people beyond the LGBQT community appear to be looking for fashion that messes with the gender binary.

“When I got here, I was running a few minutes late and there were already customers waiting to see my shoes, so that was awesome,” says Kacy, who sported blue jeans, a button-down grey and white pinstripe with sleeves rolled to the elbows, a two-tone grey scarf, and a pair of their own wingtips to match.

 

Ideas Born of Frustration

Kacy, who previously worked as a senior interactive producer/project manager for an in-house creative agency at Google, had zero fashion experience when they started their line. Their idea was born from the frustration of never being able to find masculine-looking shoes that fit properly. In mid-2014, after quitting Google and recovering from surgery to transition, Kacy travelled throughout Europe, visiting factories and attending international shoe fairs seeking a manufacturer. People didn’t want to give them “the time of day” though.

Kacy’s lack of fashion experience was only half the battle. “The way I present myself is masculine presenting, trans, gender queer, and they don’t know what to do with me,” Kacy says. “The shoe industry is very traditional, very archaic. They’re mostly older, European men who have been in the industry for generations.” They simply didn’t understand Kacy’s vision. “No I don’t want a man’s shoe in a woman’s size,” Kacy would think. “I want to get rid of that whole mentality.”

Eventually Kacy found a shoe factory in Portugal to make prototypes. They then launched a Kickstarter campaign in March 2015 to raise money for production. The effort attracted 267 backers from around the world who pledged $47,542—160 per cent of the original goal. The first collection featured what Kacy calls “masculine-of-centre” wingtip shoes and derby boots. The second collection will feature “feminine-of-centre” high heels.

 

Opportunities Ripe For Picking

Kacy says the queer fashion scene is begging for new entrepreneurs to enter the market. In the last few years, a number of apparel lines have taken advantage of the void to launch and, recently, another gender-neutral footwear company called Matriarch used Kickstarter to raise startup funds. While that competition would be cause for concern for some, Kacy feels differently. “I’m just excited that we’re having more options. Competition is healthy because it inspires us to do better and it inspires more people to do more things like this. We’re so underrepresented.”

Like-minded entrepreneurs such as Laura Moffat and Kelly Sanders Moffat are helping to build a welcoming, close-knit community. Last February, the Brooklyn-based couple ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to launch the debut collection of Kirrin Finch, a menswear-inspired line designed for women and genderqueers who want to sport a dapper look.

“I don’t feel like there’s this secretive, competitive nature,” says Laura of the LGBTQ fashion community. “NiK [Kacy] has been an amazing supporter for us and now we try to be supportive to new businesses that are joining. If we can be better together, then it can only benefit everybody as opposed to being petty and scrambling for opportunity.”

Neither of the Moffats have a fashion background—Laura used to work in marketing, Kelly as a teacher. Like Kacy, they launched their business out of frustration. Both were drawn to menswear, but were never able to get the right fit buying off the rack. Their own line of eco-conscious fashion (button-ups and T-shirts made from recycled plastics) are designed to accommodate a woman’s bust, hip, height, and arm length. The pieces range in price from US$45 to $145.

Queer Fashion Show2

Toronto Superbutch Fashion Show

A Need For Mentors

To gain mentorship from seasoned fashion-industry professionals, the Moffats joined the Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator. Living in one of the leading fashion cities of the world provides daily inspiration and is what Laura calls “super energizing.” Sourcing buttons and fabrics is often just a subway ride away and they can get their shirts manufactured locally.

What’s lacking, though, is queer-specific resources. “There [are] no queer-based incubators or accelerators that I know of, or any associations that, from a financial perspective, support us,” Laura says.

It’s a gap that the organizers of the Superbutch fashion event and retail pop-up says needs to be filled. Jack Jackson, who identifies as non-binary trans and uses the pronoun they, launched the Toronto-based bowtie line alljackedup in 2014, but has yet to find a mentor to guide the venture into its next stage of growth. While Jackson did tap into events like a three-day entrepreneur/startup hackathon to soak up knowledge from “brilliant” minds, something was always missing. “These events don’t cater to what we’re trying to do,” Jackson says. “It’s difficult to promote yourself at the best of times, but when you’re trying to speak to someone who doesn’t have an understanding of our community like we do, it makes it really difficult.”

The wider fashion community appears to be catching on to androgynous wear, which is starting to appear on runways and in major retail outlets like Zara. Jackson says this is “amazing” for breaking down the gender binary, but it needs to be recognized as more than a passing trend. Permanent options must be made available for people like Jackson, who “just don’t fit into mainstream stuff.”

Laura agrees. “It’s not really about trends. We would have worn these clothes five years ago, and we’ll probably wear the same clothes five years from now.”

Jackson encourages consumers to pay attention to the smaller startups that the big designer brands and retailers are borrowing inspiration from. “I think more support needs to be given to the designers who are from that world, who understand what the community needs, rather than to major corporations.”

Kacy wants to see businesses like NiK Kacy, Kirrin Finch, and alljackedup become a viable part of the mainstream fashion industry. “I would love for one day, it to be no longer a queer business,” Kacy says. “One day, hopefully, it’s just going to be a business.”