burger Button

Trans Pride Week – Insta-Live with Jonathan

24. June 2021

Jonathan combines nonbinary and trans activism with art. We spoke with him during our Trans Pride Week. The interview is a transcript and translation of our live talk on June 22, 2021. 

SMU: Hi everyone! I am Orlando, I am an intern at the Schwules Museum. This week, we celebrate Trans Pride Week, and today, we have a live talk with Jonathan. Please introduce yourself!

Jonathan: I am Jonathan, my pronouns are he or neutral formulations. I am nonbinary and trans, and I do a lot of online activism. Currently, I am mostly online, but at other times also in the streets or in committees around the topic gender and sexuality, or queer-inclusive feminism in general. My focus is on gender – nonbinary genders especially, because this affects me especially. And I connect all this with art. I am also a freelance artist and illustrator. It is a very colourful combination. Talking about “colourful”, I also dressed up for tonight. (He shows his eye make-up.) I was a bit nervous, if I should really do it or not. But I boxed my toxic masculinity. Now I have pink eyes and am looking forward to our talk!

I am also a bit pink, I am wearing the SMU’s official t-shirt. SMU is the abbreviation for Schwules Museum… Jonathan, why are you an activist?

I think, it evolved for me. There wasn’t any morning where I woke up and thought: “Okay, now I am going to be an activist!” Rather, it came to be that way. It began because I myself knew that I was queer for quite a while, and explored these topics. At the latest, at the point in time, when I said: “Yo, I am nonbinary, please try not to use any pronouns when referring to me,” because I did not know where I would end up, what works and doesn’t work for me. I started to realize how hard it is to be visible and represented – or, actually, not represented – as a nonbinary person, and what a difference it makes. That I heard about nonbinary genders for the first time in my early twenties shows that we need more representation of nonbinary realities. In my everyday life, I started getting angry, because I had difficulties establishing neutral language when referring to me or my new name. In general, there was hardly any knowledge on trans topics, at least in my social circles, and I had to educate people, if I wanted for them to treat me with respect. It all developed out of frustration. And because I always painted and made art, also sound art, it started to establish in my art as well. I painted more motives that had to do with gender diversity or living as your own, true self, queer and feminist topics, body images… everything trans* and nonbinary activism entails. At some point, I also did this on my Instagram channel and talked more about what it actually means to be nonbinary. In this way, it developed. Actually, activism found me.

You just mentioned art and Instagram. Are there other contexts where you do activism?

Yes, of course. I study at a university. This means that we also do university politics. In the city where am living, they also have local groups that fight for the demands of LGBTIQA+ people. These are places where I sometimes go and say: “Yo, I would like to participate, I would like to be involved.” Or: “I read your flyer for your latest event.” If they only use binary language, I let them know. I also bring that to university politics that they need to acknowledge the needs of trans and nonbinary people. I talked to teaching staff, diversity advisors, queer working groups… It slowly expanded that I finally also talked to local, communal politicians, in the context of pride parades. Additionally, I think that one  shouldn’t disregard private activism. Private activism, what does it mean? It starts in your own, personal environment that you raise people’s attention, come into contact with them, talk to them how it is to be queer, trans, nonbinary. There, it all starts – talking about it, standing up for it, for example that nonbinary pronouns get established, that people use neutral language. For my sake, this even starts in a family chat group, when a family member posts something and you need to react or add something important to represent nonbinary realities… or trans and queer realities. Actually, everything contains a tiny bit of activism, and, I think, every queer person is activist in some way or another. You don’t need to start a rebellion… well… yes, maybe!

You just painted a very broad picture! What does activism have to do with community?

A lot! Especially when I  began to talk more about queer realities, I also sought out other people who are queer, have similar situations as me, like finding your gender identity, for example. It is a sometimes lengthy process where you have to dismantle a lot. What part of me makes up what I conceive as my gender? What is gender performance – how do I want to dress and use make-up? How do I want to present myself, and what does it have to do with everything? What do I tell aunt Irmgard at the family meeting? Personally, it was very important for me to have many people I could engage with who made similar experiences, or also completely different ones – and we could talk. And develop strategies together, how we could handle certain situations. Sooner or later, I think, every queer or in other way “othered” person reaches the point where they say: “I am fed up with activism, now I need to take care of myself.” I have difficulties with the balance between standing up for rights and standing up for your own mental health. It is good for me to engage with others about this. We’re having a livestream on Instagram right now, and social media is a huge digital space for queer people to build networks. If tomorrow I publish a column on safe spaces, for example, I take my thoughts, turn them into a format and put them out there. If the community or people who read it react to it and say what they feel, where they find dissonances, where they had different experiences – that’s the beautiful part for me. This exchange is so valuable. Because I meet other people – either on the street or on social media – I become more aware of the needs and perspectives of others. Through this, I widen my horizon and also my activism, because I notice: This works. Or: With that, people have problems, for example gendered language. It is a big topic in mainstream society, where there is not really much to discuss anymore in queer and feminist bubbles, if it is important or not. But when you jump into other bubbles on social media, you notice that there is still a lot to talk about. To interact together, to meet people, to see: Where does the crow sit crooked? (laughs) This process of learning is very dear to me. And because we all take part in this big process of learning, it is an important tool, this community platform, where people are who are trans or nonbinary, but also disabled, neurodiverse, Bi_PoC, people who bring other perspectives to the table, other experiences, other forms of discrimination, where situations dissolve very differently and are tied to different problems. It is very fascinating – also sometimes shocking – but also very beautiful for me to learn and gain awareness for my way to interact with people, deal with activist things, and create spaces, which are more accessible, where people can meet and engage safely. Now I talked a lot… anyways, community is very important for activism, in my opinion. Especially for exchange and dealing with criticism.

Thank you for the summary! Because you just mentioned language, I would like to connect that to a question that we received. We posted a question box in our story beforehand and one person asked about nonbinary and genderneutral pronouns. Perhaps you would like to talk from your own perspective or tell us something else?

I think, it depends on your circumstances. The German-speaking part of the world has the big problem that a well-established neutral pronoun doesn’t exist. In English, they/them is almost completely approved. That’s very cool, even though it is also sometimes not regarded as a “real” pronoun. In German-speaking areas, there mainly exist neopronouns. Neopronouns are like new pronouns; pronouns which were specifically invented or introduced from other languages to create a neutral form of adress. Somebody just wrote in the chat: “In German, there is xier.” This is one of these neopronouns. There is also hen, which is originally Swedish. Nin is another neutral pronoun that is quite widely used. I sometimes see someone use eos. It is actually an abbreviation of “er oder sie”. I think it’s cute because it is still connected to the German language. For me personally, it would not be adequate, because “er oder sie” is binary again, which is divided into parts. But everyone needs to decide this on their own. It depends on your environment if it’s easier or harder to establish such a pronoun for yourself. When I am in a queer, feminist, colourful community, where everyone is a bit familiar with the topic, it is easier – although not always totally easy – to establish your pronouns, for example nin or hen. Sometimes it works, at least among your closer friends. Then, there is also the structure of a conservative mainstream society, where you experience more resistance and sadly also hostility.

Is this a reason for you why you don’t use neopronouns?

Yes, also. At the very beginning of my journey, I tried to establish that people don’t use pronouns referring to me, only neutral language. I called myself Jona, not Jonathan. Jona is actually a genderneutral name. But it did not really work. I was misgendered almost everytime, mostly adressed with my old pronouns. The name was not such a huge problem, but the pronouns were, because they had nothing to fall back on. Yes, this is definitely a reason why I don’t use neopronouns. I am also in the very privileged situation within the nonbinary community that I am fine with the binary pronouns he/his. Especially in conservative circles, it is very hard for a trans person in general, and I at least can fall back on the “old-fashioned” he/his, and even feel fine with it. That’s the point – that I feel fine and seen and like to be referred to as such. That’s why I use these pronouns right now. Perhaps it will change at some point, I will let you know!

Okay! At this point, I want to let all our spectators know that we will also answer your questions. If you have any questions for Jonathan, write them in the chat. If not, I also have loads of questions for Jonathan. Maybe I will ask my next question while you all can think about it. You talked a lot about nonbinary activism or nonbinary trans activism. Did you also do activism in binary or maybe not explicitly nonbinary trans activist spaces?

Yes and no. I think this is a bit blurry. Especially in social media, you don’t find closed-off spaces with “nonbinary activism” or “binary activism” painted on the door. Let’s look at the comment section, and there is a post about the winner of Germany’s Next Topmodel who was a trans woman this year. Which was really cool, on the one side… that’s a different topic! You have this long comment section where lots of different people meet. There are comments where I unpack my backpack with arguments of nonbinary activism, and then there are arguments where I have to start somewhere else entirely, and unpack my binary trans activism. Then, it’s mostly about: “The gender that was assigned to you at birth, has to be your gender”, to dismantle such positions. I think that both activism communites needed to use similar chains of argumentation because it’s all about gender and freedom and expression. Additionally, with regard to nonbinary activism, the genders are in general not so well established in society, because they were eradicated by colonialism and so on. But I would still not say that binary trans activism is easier. Not at all! But there are different points that you should connect in comparison to nonbinary activism. Actually, with regard to nonbinary activism, there are many more small points that need to be considered when you talk to people who don’t understand it or do trans-exclusive feminism. There is a huge difference. Sometimes, I don’t explicitely state that I am nonbinary, just to be less of a target in certain circles. Then it is more binary trans activism. But it’s blurry! I will never turn my nonbinary activism off. If a person comes and says: “There are only two genders,” I still say, even when I am in my binary-trans-activism-mode: “Nope.” It’s all blurry. I am very happy to have a big community where many people support each other.

There is another question in the chat. A person asked: “Is there political infighting (German: Grabenkämpfe) around the acceptance of nonbinary within the trans community?” You just mentioned it, but would you describe it as infighting?

Infighting… What is infighting and what is a fight for the right to exist? Infighting is a term that, on the one hand, should be taken seriously, on the other hand… As if it is something that’s not so important? Or where the community destroys itself? Of course, there is a discrepancy within the trans community around binary trans people who, for example, don’t acknowledge the existence of nonbinary genders, which I find very sad. I makes me angry, but mostly sad. That what unites us, is, that our gender is denied by others. When we say: “I am this or that gender.” And the person opposite says: “No, I will continue to use your old name, your old pronouns etc.” Just because not all nonbinary genders are well-established – for reasons – we are tilting against a whole other set of windmills, sadly also within the trans community. But I also know many binary trans people who are really cool allies. And that, on the other hand, is very beautiful.

A good end for the question! I just saw that you have a dinosaur in your hand.

It’s my little ankylosaurus, I think. It is actually not an ankylosaurus, because those have small horns, but I just forgot the name. I always have to have something in my hand to play around with. This way, my ADHD brain has something to do, it’s good to concentrate.

My next question is fitting for the context of the museum: Which role does art play in your activism?

Firstly: a big one. I think, I would rather say: What role does activism play in my art? Art is for me a lot of expression. It spans from illustrations, which are also visible on Instagram, via sound, theater, tests, poetry, everything that can be subsumed under art… Performance… it is also influenced by my being. And my being is very queer – queer reality and queer life. I also use these things to express things that I cannot express with language and texts. How does nonbinary gender feel? I often come across this when I am talking to people. I never know how to answer, because I think that it cannot really be put into words, at least not for me. And art helps me to express things that I wasn’t even aware of before. Through colours, lines, certain tringling sounds, small creatures and characters that come to light from my subconscious. In many cases, all this connects well to queer representation. When I meet a new person who inspires me, no matter if I meet them personally or as an author, I am inspired to express myself visually and artistically. Or specific battles… especially gender expression, make-up in my case… To put it into practice, artistically, I find very imporant – again, it transports new messages. The same goes for sound! You can express everything with sound that doesn’t work visually. It is a very cool tool to break the boundaries of activism. Every word is scrutinized by the community and closely analyzed. Art has much more freedom, I can express things faster, clearer, more brachial, colourful and intensive way that touches my soul, not only my brains.

I love that you just used the word “brachial”. It shows how passionate you are about all this. One person just wrote: “Nonbinary finally feels complete for me.” That’s wonderful!

I can only share this sentiment. Beautifully said.

Would you say that queer or trans and nonbinary art in general should also be activist?

I believe there is a question behind this: What is activism? Where does it start, where does it end? I think, I can be activist without being aware of it. It also depends on the environment. I don’t think that art needs to fulfill any standards other than the standards of the person who does art. A painting, for example, can be activist in one way or another, in a certain context. Let’s say a person makes a portrait of themself – this person is nonbinary, for example – and does this with a certain intention. But at the moment when this portrait is visible, where it is obvious that it depicts a nonbinary person, because certain topics are negotiated, because it is shown in a certain exhibition, at a certain place, and so on, then it is a kind of activism. At the moment when this painting is visible, where something is made visible that is usually invisible, like nonbinary people, it would fulfill a certain aspect of activism for me. I would also describe it as a kind of activism, when I walk past a shelf in the supermarket and paint an asterisk between the masculin and feminine form with a marker… what I would never do! (laughs) This is a kind of activism for me, and why shouldn’t it be art?

Someone just wrote in the chat: “Isn’t queer art always activism in a world that is hostile towards queer people?”

Yes… (pauses and thinks) Yes and no. I see a big yes in my head when hearing this question. If you consider that you are trying to signify something that is met with hostility from the outside, then every representation of queerness is activist. Then every person who has a certain unexpected gender expression is also activist. Yes, I would say, it depends on the context. Even if you say: “I paint this self-portrait for myself and place it in the drawer,” then it’s still activist, because I empower myself. Myself as a queer person. Yes, maybe it’s true. Queer art is always activist. Even if it’s not always intentional. If someone else has something to add, write it in the chat, because I am a bit alone with this question and live from debates!

You can also ask questions about other topics. I just had a spontaneous, interesting thought. Activism is often regarded as voluntary work, in the sense of: It’s work, but definitely for free, especially when it is activism for self-empowerment. At the same time, art is also precarious, but maybe you would like to earn an income from art. Isn’t it dangerous, when I do queer, activist art, that people say: “Well, it’s activism, therefore you don’t need recompensation or recognition in the art world.”

Hoolah! Big question. I wouldn’t say that I am big in the art business. The art business, as in “the art business” that exists. That’s why I cannot really say from my perspective how the art business would respond to my illustrations. But to pick up your question from the beginning, if activism is always unpaid: Activism is very often voluntary work, because you don’t receive financial recompensation for what you do. Unless this activism takes place in an organization that has certain funds for people doing specific things. Then you maybe get one euro. But I think that’s a stupid principle. (laughs) It is loads of work! And when I look at how much time, energy – and joy – but also energy and ressources I put into my activism, only to prepare my posts for Instagram… If I would get paid, even with minimum wage, I wouldn’t have to worry about my rent. But I do need to worry about my rent because I don’t get paid. I think that’s stupid because it is a kind of work that has a lot of impact and helps society advance. Not only someone baking bread should be paid because they help advance society, but also a person who is politically active. That’s why queer art should be reimbursed and acknowledged as art. Only because I am expressing something from a marginalized community that falls under the aspect activism, doesn’t mean that it is not art that should be reimbursed. There are also feminist artists who sold their works even though it is a kind of iteration to present bodies differently or present “female pleasure”. I think, the situation we are in is stupid. Because it is a lot of work. The aspects, what’s paid work and what isn’t, are arbitrary and very fuzzy. And not nice for everyone who works artistically.

Well said, yes. We are slowly coming to an end. Here is my last call to engage in the chat. The livetalk will also be uploaded on our page. Another question: How is queer art perceived outside of the community? 

I think you cannot generalize. I think, it depends on what “outside of the community” means. There are many exhibitions, especially in the context of pride, that take place in public spaces – especially art, queer art, that appears in the public space. In this way, it is noticed. At the same time, mainstream society doesn’t focus on queer liberation, but on artists who are well-established or artists that deal with other issues at the moment. But there is still a chance to be noticed. Especially through allies, like feminist collectives, which are perhaps not specifically queer-inclusive feminists, but are allies at that moment and show queer art. Or cooperations with museums together with people who teach where you do presentations at schools: “Queerness and art”. Where students learn that there are whole areas of the art business that are not represented in the mainstream image of art. This would be great for the general visibility of the queer community.

Now I will pose my last question: If time, money, and space would be irrelevant, which artistic and activist project would you realize?

I think I would do a multi-media, city-wide installation. It even works low-budget! Actually, I would print stickers and so on, and send a few queer people into the city. Or people who are discriminated against for numerous reasons who are also queer, actually all types of discrimination who then would have stickers that they could put on objects in the public space. For example on a certain poster: “That’s sexist!” Or: “This space is very trans-exclusive!” For example on statements in a brochure or on a poster or certain statements in museums… not necessarily in the Schwules Museum. But when it’s about famous poets whose queerness is always ignored, you could stick it on the wall. To make this world’s queerness visible, also for people to whom it is still invisible. All this knowledge that we collect through our queer community or that is partly shown in the Schwules Museum – that should be visible where all the people are. And it says: “We are here! We exist! This doesn’t work, that doesn’t work. We bo,bard you with everything we have to deal with on a daily basis.” I think that would be a big statement. It would be a lot of fun for me and, I think, for many people to cover cities in stickers. And I think, many people would simply be surprised how big hostility towards queer people still is, also towards intersex or ace/aro people. This is also a topic that is hardly rendered visible. What a cool opportunity to do just that. If we had the time and space… I would actually do it anywhere. Now is the time. Now you need to cover the city in stickers with me!

If your project develops, let us know! I will close by quoting you: “Render this world’s queerness visible where it is still invisible.” This is your mission, kind of. I can see that we have some allies in the chat. Thank you so, so much, Jonathan, that you took the time today even though it began with some technical challenges!

Thank you very much for the invitation! It was a pleasure to answer your questions. Thank you to everyone who watched. And thank you to the Schwules Museum Berlin. See you!