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Beyond definitions: Kai-Isaiah Jamal on Pride as protest

The poet, model and trans-visibility campaigner talks gender definitions, how being trans should be celebrated as a superpower and their latest poem, exclusively penned for COS.

Kai wears T-shirt by COS.

 ‘Though Pride is joyous, it also has to be a space of resistance and protest.’

‘Pride is where all the questions don’t need answer. where all the colours can blur into one.’ That’s the final line of Kai-Isaiah Jamal’s (they/them) poem, exclusively penned for COS. The performance poet, trans-visibility campaigner and model has created the antithesis of a slogan T-shirt, instead choosing to put down their intimate, nuanced thoughts ‘to bring light to the idea that Pride is such a personal celebration, that there's not one sort of way in which we can successfully celebrate it’. The small text was chosen to ‘encourage people to take a moment to actually read what's on the T-shirt and not to have a buzzword that doesn’t feel reflective of the community’.

Pride for many LGBTQIA+ people conjures up mixed feelings. Yes, it’s a time to celebrate, but it’s also an opportunity to reflect on the work that still needs to be done at home and abroad. ‘Though Pride is joyous, it also has to be a space of resistance and protest’, Jamal says. ‘I wanted to incorporate the idea of looking outside of the West, and to include a range of different narratives that come into this umbrella of queerness, such as people in spaces that they can't be out, or in countries where it's still illegal to be LGBTQIA+. And for people who may be questioning, because when we talk about Pride, we lose people who are still figuring out what exactly their sexuality means to them.’ 

We caught up with the Londoner to talk about the importance of UK Black Pride, how gender can feel ‘like a coat that’s too small’ and how being trans should be celebrated as a superpower. 

ON UK BLACK PRIDE
‘It's really important for us in these major cosmopolitan, liberal cities, like London or New York or Sydney where we are afforded so many privileges, to remember how many people are left out of Pride. And a lot of London Pride makes space for a certain demographic of the community. People have asked me, “Oh, so you're straight?" at Pride. And I'm like, "No, I'm not straight. I just pass in a masculine space.” So I often find Pride quite difficult, and usually spend my time at UK Black Pride, to celebrate that. The last London Pride that I did, I was a part of a collective and we threw a huge party in the Southbank Centre that was very much for us, by us. That's my favourite way to celebrate Pride: if it's an event that me or my friends, or my community have organised, which is counter to the usual procession and the usual feeling around Pride. I want to make sure that, for my liberation, there's nobody who's being left behind.’

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PRIDE 2022 CAPSULE
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PRIDE 2022 CAPSULE

ON THIS YEAR’S PRIDE FIGHT 
‘We are still in an epidemic of trans violence, whether that’s people losing their lives, whether that's people being stripped of gender markers, whether that's people still not being able to change deadnames, whether that's people not being hired, whether that's people not having access to housing. I guess it's the intersection that I fall into. We have to remember that Pride was very much started by trans women and the idea that they're not at the forefront is something that has to change. The US accepting an X as a gender marker is incredible. It's put even more of an urgency on the UK. That for me is something that I hope there's a lot of conversation around. And we need to look outside of the West. We look so much at the US and the UK and we forget that there are so many countries in which there's still death penalties and people being in complete unsafety. I don't believe that we can talk about freedom, liberation and queer revolution without everyone being on exactly the same side of the fence.’

ON GENDER DEFINITIONS AND EXPRESSION
‘So many people ask me, “Do you want to live in a genderless world?" And I say, "No, I don't want to live in a genderless world. I understand the importance of gender.” For me, there was also a point in my life when I was identifying very strictly binary. And that's when I had first come out, and I was on hormones. And I wanted to be he/him and I wanted to be referred to as a man. There was an assimilation that wanted me as close to cisness as possible. Removing gender itself doesn't actually solve the problem. In so many ways, I think it creates more of a problem. The biggest thing that people who live inside the binary are fearful of, is that you're getting rid of something that has existed and that has made sense to them for so many years. I think our labels and titles and acronyms are getting more inclusive, and all of these things are so important, but then I think about non-binary and, technically, why do you even have to give it a name? The whole point is to resist gender.

My hope is that we start looking at gender as something that's a lot more expansive. I used to do this workshop with kids. We would get them to talk about gender without talking about their body, which is something that I think needs to go further than just the generation below us. We don't know how to talk about gender or sexuality without talking about physicality. We got the kids to talk about gender as a colour, or as a location, or as a song, or as a shape. Kids were saying, “Well, it feels like a coat that's too small, and it's uncomfortable”. And for me, I think that's a more important way for us to understand someone's gender presentation, than them saying, “I'm non-binary" or "I'm genderqueer" or “I'm trans”. Them saying, “Actually, gender's something that feels like an ill-fitting coat”. OK, so how do we find a way to make that comfortable?’

‘I don't want to live in a genderless world. I understand the importance of gender.’

ON GENDER PLAY
‘My hope for the future is to be able to encourage people to look at gender as very much a playground, and something to have fun with. It took me a long time to arrive there. I used to be so caught up with another label making sense. I still get misgendered quite a lot. It's funny – I don't know how, but mainly due to ignorance and laziness. Now, I put less of an importance on my pronouns. I don't really know if my pronouns are for me – I think my pronouns are actually just for other people to understand, and for me to make my gender small enough or palatable enough or digestible enough for somebody else to comprehend. And actually, when I think, “Do they feel reflective of me?” I don't know. The moment I started sliding up and down the scale of gender presentation, is when I realised, “Actually this feels most me. This feels most powerful, and this feels most like freedom.”

I wake up some mornings and I'm like, “Nope, I want top surgery again”. And then I wake up the next morning and I'm like, “No, no, no. Take some time.” It’s this continual journey. I hope people can start to realise we need to move through the world with love. So often we talk about transness in relation to transphobia. People talk to me about the hardships of transness, and I'm like, “Yeah, but being trans is not always the hard part – sometimes it's just the society around it. That's the hard part. Actually, being trans is almost like a superpower, in so many ways.” We have a duty to the generation that comes below us, for them not to walk into it, thinking this is going to be a death sentence or the worst thing in their life. There's so much curiosity around transness, that it could be something that's revolutionary and important in allowing people to understand humans outside of a confined space of gender. If the fear wasn't there, it would be so different.’

ON TRANS VISIBILITY & HISTORY
‘Visibility is so important. It's not always about what you're saying – sometimes it's just about being in a room, and making people realise that this thing is not an idea or a concept. It's not a Gen-Z buzzword. It’s an identity. And it’s an identity that has so much history. You have Yoruba culture, where there are third genders in Nigeria. We don't say “transness”. And you look at Asian spirituality practices, where for years, historically, there's been trans women. Or even girls that dance in India, a lot of them are trans girls. The more language evolves and the more culture evolves, the more we probably will see things being questioned. I really love that uncertainty, because so much of transness is uncertainty, and so much is just figuring it out. We don't have the blueprint. That's what people don't realise: when you remove people's history, it means that they don't have a blueprint, or they don't have a reference to look back on. We’re very much learning on the job.’ 

QUICKFIRE Q&A

What’s your summer soundtrack?
‘I was listening to it yesterday, it's Cleo Sol. She has a song called, Know That You Are Loved. And it's so perfect. She just repeats those lyrics, over and over again. And it's just gorgeous.’

Where would your perfect holiday be?
‘I released a song recently called Fantasy Island with my friend, Tom Rasmussen, also known as Tom Glitter. It's basically a voice note of me saying, “True liberation for me is me arriving on an island with all queer people. And no straight people allowed.” And it was just about us being in this space and being free. I guess my perfect holiday would be in this non-existent fantasy island in my head.’

What’s your summer holiday read?
‘Right now, I'm reading bell hooks’ All About Love, and that is changing my life. That and Jasmine Mans, one of my favourite poets. She has a book called Black Girl, Call Home. And that touches upon race, gender, sexuality, being a lesbian in a Black household.’

What’s your favourite summer festival moment? 
‘This year I'm really looking forward to Notting Hill Carnival. And I've actually found a queer float that I'm going to go with. That's ticking all of the boxes.’

Words by Stuart Brumfitt
Photography by Collier Schorr 
Styling by Esther Matilla 

WATCH THE VIDEO
COS Presents "And that's okay" a poem by Kai-Isaiah Jamal, penned exclusively for the Pride collection.


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