As Basil Soper was soaking in the silence of a ten-day meditation retreat a few years ago, he began forming the blueprint for Transilient, a traveling photo and interview-based project of which he is the founder and executive director.
Shortly after Soperwho describes himself as a man of transgender experience, writer, photographer and intersectional activistreturned from the retreat, the anti-trans "bathroom bill" HB2 passed the North Carolina ( his home state ) state legislature. That is the moment he decided to get the ball rolling on Transilient.
This is not Soper's first foray into documenting people's lives. When he was younger, he used journals, disposable cameras and a boom box to record interviews as well as write personal essays and op-eds, all before he went to college at the New School. He graduated with a creative writing degree.
"I was really tired of only seeing trans and non-binary people being represented as folks who led lives of pain and oppression," said Soper. "Transilient is my way of showcasing the many facets of our personalities and day-to-day lived realities. One of the project catalysts stemmed from being interviewed by North Carolina media outlets because I ran the local LGBT advocacy group Just Us For All. They would ask really invasive questions, only focusing on my pain and physical transition. I realized cisgender folks, no matter how good their intentions, do not know enough about us to be writing our narratives."
The Transilient team has interviewed more than 120 people during two tours across the country. Soper said the things that have moved and surprised him the most is the kindness of the people who provide them with housing and others they meet at gas stations along the way.
"I cannot believe how many cisgender people want to help us," said Soper. "We have also encountered the most transphobia in the Southwest, which shocked me. In New Mexico, a family called the cops on us because my assistant last year was wearing a dress. They called us pedophiles and tried to 'protect' the bathrooms at the rest stop."
Until this year, everyone involved with Transilient was doing it for free, including the web designer Cady Holmes, writer/researcher Sierra Debrow and 12 transcribers. Soper wanted to be able to pay everyone, so he applied for and received grants from LUSH cosmetics and Trans Justice Fund.
Recently, two young trans people have joined the teamdigital media producer James Heatherly from the Cincinnati area and Soper's assistant Beck Martens, who calls themself an anarchist and is a part of Pansy Collective, an Asheville, North Carolina-based DIY trans/queer artist group.
"I picked Beck and James because they are both from the south and really smart, motivated, kind and open-minded individuals," said Soper. "We interview people from all walks of life, even if they do not align with us spiritually, politically or emotionally. I need to work with people who can accept a trans Republican or cop as much as a radical genderqueer person who organizes for homeless folks."
"I saw Basil's posting for two folks to come on tour so I applied," said Heatherly. "I felt drawn to this project because it aligns with my goals and passion as a filmmaker, photographer and activist; to capture people's stories and give them a platform to speak. I am really excited to be a part of this tour and hope to bring people to the project through compelling designs and capturing real, candid moments with our interviewees and the team."
"James is currently running our healing social campaign, 'Sitting with Ourselves, Sitting with Each Other,' and will do a state by state one while on the road," said Soper. "He will also be updating our social media and filming video for us and the It Gets Better project, who have partnered financially with us for the fall tour."
Heatherly said Soper has taught him many things including campaign planning and organization skills. Spreading love and educating people, especially in this current political climate, is the message Heatherly wants to convey across the board.
"I have been following Transilient and Basil's work for a while," said Martens. "In Malta, I did journalism with queer and transgender folks and wanted to bring those skills back to the states. When I saw the posting, I was stoked, and now I get to bring my critical lens on visibility and creativity to the project. "
"Beck is my right-hand person," said Soper. "They keep me organized and are the contact person for the interviewees and people who provide us housing. Beck is also doing the interview master schedule and will help me 'take over' the It Gets better Project's social media outlets while on the road."
Martens said they have learned that positive change can happen outside traditional organizing structures and can be accomplished in many ways. They also explained that sharing one's pronouns and asking others what theirs are is a great way to level the playing field, as well as be a teachable moment for those who do not know why this question is so important.
Soper and his team will be embarking on a third tour Oct. 8 in Seattle that will end Nov. 19 in Memphis, Tennessee. They will be in Chicago Oct. 30-Nov. 2.
"I want all of our Chicago interviewees to dress up in their Halloween costumes," said Soper.
Soper's plans for the future include expanding Transilient; creating a coffee table book out of the stories he has recorded, donating a large portion of the proceeds to nonprofits he discovered while on the road; and opening a trans and non-binary artist residency home for low-income individuals of all ages in a rural area. He also wants to see more people invest in trans and non-binary led projects and businesses so the community can thrive, not just survive.
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