LOS ANGELES — There was a calm, joyous atmosphere as organizers and activists waited for the Black Asian Trans Solidarity Rally to begin. A skateboarder grinded on Pershing Square’s concrete benches. A booth gave away LGBTQ+ and transgender pride flags, binders, hygiene kits, and face masks. A DJ bobbed their head to “Is This Love” by Bob Marley and the Wailers. You’d never guess that the attendees at this casual queer party were also fighting for their lives.
Approximately 50 people gathered for the rally and the city’s first-ever Blasian March this Saturday, May 21, an event founded by Rohan Zhou-Lee to build solidarity between Black and Asian communities. Both Black and Asian people have been increasingly targeted in hate crimes recently, with the Black community reporting a 45% increase in incidents in 2020 and the Asian community reporting a shocking 339% increase in 2021.
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Zhou-Lee’s organization was joined by members of GYOPO and Stop DiscriminAsian, two groups led by artists and cultural workers, as well as QueerX and Invisible Men. They hope this is just the beginning of connecting the large but disparate Black, Asian, Blasian, and transgender communities in Los Angeles.
“We have all been taught to be afraid of each other, especially in these times with so much hate and hostility,” Zhou-Lee told the crowd, draped in a bright red robe with gold embroidery worn to celebrate their Chinese heritage. “We’re taught to be afraid of the people around us, to be afraid of tomorrow, but I believe that fear of tomorrow is the perfect reason to be brave right now.”
Other speeches called out the 200-plus anti-LGBTQ+ pieces of legislation currently being considered around the country. At least 23 of the active bills specifically discriminate against transgender people.
Community organizer YK Hong addressed this directly. “The reason why politicians want to control our bodies, control our choices — whether that be access to abortion hormones, expression, or gender affirming surgery — why they want to control our joy, our coalition building, our critical race [theory], is because our power is so magnificent. They are trembling. They are terrified because our full potential is infinitely powerful.”
A glimpse of that power could be seen through jubilant performances during the rally. Trans singer New Diamond paid a tribute to the genderqueer 1970s and ’80s disco legend Sylvester. Drag performers Phillip Hurt and Mr. Skipps McGee lip-synced for their lives. Genderqueer dancer and performance artist Xodiac vogued through the crowd and death dropped on stage. It’s exactly the atmosphere the rally sought to achieve.
“Dysphoria is something that we experience when we feel life has cut away at us,” Lee Painter-Kim, the rally’s lead organizer, told Hyperallergic. “But euphoria is when we find moments of joy and excitement, when we feel seen in our gender and whatever complexity and fluidity we feel in that moment.”
Invisible Men, an organization that centers transmasculine people, gave out free binders with resources to help transmasculine people ease dysphoria. Founder Luckie Alexander, who also sits on the Los Angeles County Transgender Advisory Counsel, is a Black, transmasculine person raised in Compton. They explained how important their service is. “I know what it looks like to not have access to funding that we can spend on binders. At $36 or $40 a pop that’s expensive, so I’d rather make sure our community has what they need,” he said.
Zhou-Lee said that the event was all about giving people permission to be themselves.
That goal resonated with Phillip Hurt, who attended the event in full drag. Hurt, a non-binary, transfemme person who affectionately describes their drag style as “John Waters on food stamps,” wore a pink lace dress that matched their towering pink hair. They wrapped themselves in a voluminous boa, handmade the night before using tulle and shoelaces.
“I believe in success in the form of allowing ourselves to take up space unapologetically,” Hurt told Hyperallergic. “I can find strength in knowing that if I’m taking up space, I’m creating a pathway for anyone else who wants to enter the world.”
Though the rally was marked by a sense of safety and mutual support, safety concerns still underlay the event. The health nonprofit APLA Health (formerly known as the AIDS Project Los Angeles) handed out free self-defense kits, which can be crucial to survival. “In the first two years of my transition, I was beaten up on a regular basis,” Alexander explained. “Walking out of my front door was nearly suicide every day, until I fought back. And that bought my respect.”
Early on in the gathering, an American flag slipped out of a window that overlooked Pershing Square, a silent counter-protest. “That flag has come out every single time I’ve been out here,” Xodiac said. “The American flag is supposed to be a symbol of unity, but to pull it out as a symbol of, ‘Hey, I see you and I don’t like you, I’m an American’ at a Black, trans, Asian rally really speaks volumes of the masses.”
In response to anti-transgender aggression, Xodiac has developed a practice of voguing in peaceful protest. They are inspired by queer activists from the 1980s and ’90s, who would dance inches away from police, doubling as a human barrier that protected other protesters.
After the rally concluded, about 20 to 30 people took to the streets for a solidarity march. In each crosswalk, Xodiac would drop to the asphalt, voguing to hold up traffic and give the group enough time to safely cross the street.
Zhou-Lee led the crowd through Downtown LA, chanting “Black Power! Asian Power! Trans Power!” as activists echoed the words in harmony. Drivers honked their horns in solidarity. Pedestrians held up a fist and cheered. Support for queer and transgender lives steadily poured in from diverse passersby along the 1.2-mile journey: glammed up high schoolers attending prom, patrons at a mochi donut shop, and rowdy sports fans mingling around LA Live.
“Today is about generating joy,” Painter-Kim told Hyperallergic. “We are uplifting one another and sharing space with one another.”