Welcome back to Style Dossier, Gabrielle Royal’s column that profiles stylish queers across the country. This special [email protected] American History Month edition, Gabrielle is featuring Kay Ulanday Barrett, a poet, performer, and educator navigating life as a Disabled Pilipinx-Amerikan Transgender Queer in the U.S. with struggle, resistance, and laughter. K. has been featured on colleges and stages globally. Their contributions are found in PBS News Hour Poetry, Poor Magazine, Trans Bodies/Trans Selves, Windy City Queer: Dispatches from the Third Coast, Make/Shift, Third Woman Press, The Advocate, and Bitch. Their first book When The Chant Comes is published by Topside Press.
Gabrielle: Can you tell us a bit about your style? What is your favorite outfit?
K.: My favorite outfit has been playing with youthful and warm with reflective and formal. Usually longline shirts or dipped necks with a blazer or cowl neck cable knit sweater, some slacks or harem tweed pants. Collared shirts accented with quirky touches — bold jewelry, like metallic collar tips, earthly wooden beads, crystals and leather, a brazenly bright silk pocket square from my homeland. I’m down for whimsical and styled AF, somewhere in the crossroads of pajama and princessx. Anything that plays with texture, pattern, and floral is the way any season. My budgets are limited so I am a believer in the bargain and sale, I mix and match same pieces with bold accessories. I cannot afford to have a new ensemble every photo shoot or performance for hat matter. ASOS/Topman sales, and thrift stores like Buffalo Exchange, buying husky sizes in JC Penney and so on.
Gabrielle: Who is your biggest fashion icon and why?
K.: I can’t say I have any fashion icons. People that inspire me are more chunky and fat queer and masc people, like POCs on Chubster and Marquimode.com. Those bodies are closer to mine—round belly, big hips, etc. I want any fashion that defies or embraces gender complications and non-conformity. I love models and fashion where your gut response as a witness is, “Is that a girl, boy? Does it matter?” Sources like these help me vision fashion where aesthetic is usually dominated by skinny and fit people. There’s little public fashion outlets for transgender and gender non-conforming disabled people, so I think my thoughts in fashion are in constant flux. I wear what works, what is affordable, what has been passed down to me. My body is a living archive and being in close proximity to NYC, fashion is like breathing. Unintentionally, I get to watch people pay homage and re-invent style just sitting at a random park or on a stoop.
Gabrielle: How much of your personal style is influenced by your identity?
K:. I often discuss how I don’t fit in an able-bodied, amerikan, and white existence. This is my everyday reality as soon as I get dressed. In whatever I wear, I remember the styles that my family – pilipinx, poor, working class, queer, and transgender have shown me. More and more I realize I am dressing like two people: my lolo/grandpa who wore collar shirts and fedora with a pocket square primly tucked into whatever he was wearing AND my outrageous tita/aunty who would dress up in bold tropical pattern combos with big glasses and chunky jewelry. Everything she and my ma wore were statements. I think they dressed with what people try to commodify not as “flare.” I think like with their food recipes, they wore what best reminded them of their homeland. What was once embarrassingly read as “poor” and un-American – aka how I grew up – now is what so many people appropriate. Additionally, I’m driven by the daily ritual of dressing up/down. There are days that my chronic pain means nothing but pajamas and comfort. With that in mind, I am in a constant self-dialogue about my self-love and what feels good as well as what looks good. What ways can I be practical and fly? What is easy to wear and exemplifies my spirit for that day? I also have to consider safety. I am frequently at odds with the medical industrial complex and how my depictions of my gender/race are at siege with my care. The level of respectability that weighs in on those interactions implicate my style, sever it, and in moments of reprieve remind me of the joy to be my genuine self.
Gabrielle: Why is queer visibility important and how does fashion help create space for members of our community?
K.: I think that queer visibility and exposure are important, and I want us to be careful with the acceptance of just being seen. I want more than being a token or even acknowledgement, but I want a shift in culture and practice as far as how Queer, especially Transgender, Gender Non-conforming Queer people are being treated on a systemic level. It’s one thing to be able to express ourselves via fashion and another to feel safer in our skins no matter our apparel. I think visibility is an important move and I don’t want us to be like, “Yay! We’re here and they publish/style/interview us… once in awhile.” More so, I want us to have an expansion of exposure to get to our real needs and dreams. Fashion has the promising reality of self-expression and so much of fashion stems from Black, POC, Poor, Queer, and Migrant cultures. We can unduly express ourselves whole with fashion. My interest is when fashion is packaged and commodified, when we seek beyond visibility, what ways are we innovating culture to shift in the not only the acceptance of Queer lives, but realization that we are creators and actually at the fore?
Gabrielle: What challenges do you face in your profession, if any, as an LGBTQ person?
K.: I feel like because I am trans/queer for pay as a cultural worker/strategist and poet, my job is to question and prod the relevance in fashion and pop culture. In this, I try to unpack the importance of being perceived as being youthful in addition to unrealistic notions of being productive. I believe that there is an obsession with productivity in labor, to be as good as – insert systemic dominant culture here -. For instance, I don’t want to write poetry or perform as good as anyone who’s white or straight or able-bodied. That’s not my experience and I have no interest in recycling those limited depictions. What I do try to do is pay homage to those who came before me, who struggled for me to be here, and be deliberate in my embodied experiences/communities.
Gabrielle: Tell us about your biggest fashion and/or shopping fail!
K.: I don’t think it’s essentially about failure, but that there aren’t enough brands and resources that dress round and fat gender non-conforming people and people with disabilities. In essence, I would say that fashion industry fails us and with those of the intersections are constantly wearing shit and making it stunning and being as resourceful as we can given the limited options and restraints of normalcy. With that said, I can often oversize myself and get baggier clothes as I tend to be in between sizes and have trouble finding pieces that fit my body just right.
Gabrielle: What advice would you give our readership? What advice can you offer to people who fit outside of society’s understanding of traditionally masculine and feminine styles?
K.: I think it is hard to be you and be yourself when so many forces are at work to destroy or harm you, your people. I think what I try to communicate to myself that what you wear isn’t all that you are and what you wear can be exactly who you want to be. I have inherited so many skills by being low-income and working class that I can appreciate an amazing deal and find a bargain, which again, is a skill to be celebrated. Your body should be celebrated however you like and however you embody despite whatever trend is out there or any per-conceived notions of style. Dress as you need and remember that someone made what you drape on your body; honor that fact. What are traditional masculine and feminine, anyway? That context shifts depending on the nation of origin, the class background, ability, religion, etc. Use whatever you have to adorn yourself in ways you can because no one is going to be able to honor your style or spirit as best as you can. Lastly, believe in layers and accessories.
Gabrielle: Could you tell us more about your book and what our readership can expect?
K.: When The Chant Comes was released by Topside Press last Fall and I am eternally grateful for my mentors and collaborators that brought this book out with me. It’s my first collection of poems that spans my earlier writing career til the present. So get ready for awkward emo poetry about gender non-conforming and homelessness as a youth to grappling with ableism on a bus or in hospital gown. Be on watch for unpacking the U.S. Empire in poetic form. I involve many themes that I don’t see addressed in the literary canon enough, even in the realm of LGBTQ poetry publications. Mechanically, I hope to generate voice in a way that is both pleasing and heartbreaking to the audience’s spirit. There are poems about food and dogs plus poems about grief, dealing with death and loss as a queer person. The book’s namesake stems from a conversation with one of my bestie’s about feeling invalidated and hopeless and how “there has to be a chant for this.” I don’t think my book is a manual much less a dilapidated stained map of sorts, but it’s my honor to gift this to the world and as my acknowledgements read, it is “for every sick, disabled, brown, queer, boi, chunky, poor, outcast. Every single one.” It can be purchased online at Amazon.
Gabrielle: How did you hear about dapperQ? Why were you interested in a feature?
K.: I have witnessed dapperQ grow and shift and modeled for the dapperQ for He said/We Said in 2012 as well as the (un)Heeled Show in 2014 with Saint Harridan. I appreciate being featured because I am constantly seeking more disabled genderqueer and gender non-conforming POCs in media. I am excited to be connected to any moves toward that!
Gabrielle: How can our readers find and connect with you online?