Poet, educator and self-described thought leader, J. Mase III will be speaking at the opening ceremony for LGBTQ Week at Oakland University on March 12. Mase will be speaking about faith and the criminalization of the black trans body through poetry and a discussion. As a trans man, Mase said he was a unique insight into the issue.
“What brought me into doing this intentionally was working at an LGBTQ youth center in Philly where much of my job was outreach and education work with providers of youth services,” Mase explained. “The questions I was getting from medical providers, teachers, social workers … many were not unclear about the physical pieces of taking care of trans youth, but rather were asking specific questions about whether or not they would be sending a child to hell by affirming this truth about them.”
Mase said that what “clicked” while doing that outreach was that as a member of the black, transgender community, often his life, and the lives others within that group, is dictated by not only his own religious practice, but by that of others.
“Which impacts our ability to access work, housing, medical care and physical safety,” he said.
Though he has a bachelor’s degree in multicultural relationships, Mase said it’s not his institutional experience that qualifies him to do this educational work.
“This is work that I’ve learned just by doing,” he said. “A lot of people have to get credentials but my credentials come from life. From helping communities like mine, that’s where I gained my expertise.”
Recently, Mase has been speaking out about a new Human Rights Campaign report released in November. Titled “A National Epidemic: Fatal Anti-Transgender Violence in America in 2018,” the report includes many sobering statistics. For instance, more than 22 trans women have been killed since the beginning of 2018. Of those, 82 percent have been women of color and 64 percent were under the age of 35.
“Thinking about Kelly Stough, who was murdered [in Detroit] by a pastor recently; thinking about the rising numbers of anti-trans violence that physically targets black trans women and femmes; thinking about the legislative antagonism we are facing, which also has some roots in the ways that large LGBTQ organizations intentionally divested from protecting trans people in the ’90s and beyond; thinking about the harassment we get on the street,” Mase said. “That can sound a lot like the pastor in the pulpit.
“Much of the things we are facing stems from a view of religion that allows trans people, and especially black trans people, to be dehumanized,” Mase continued. “It is one thing for someone not to like you. It is another for them to say that not even their God likes you. From that place, many learn the language and practice of viewing trans people as something other than worthy of care and protection.”
And when not traveling the college circuit, Mase is working on a new project called the “Black Trans Prayer Book” that he is co-editing along with collaborator Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi. The project is an interfaith resource dedicated to healing members of the black transgender community and allies to them.
“It is part history that links transphobia to roots in colonization and white supremacy, it is part poems, part spells and part prayers,” Mase said. “No other resource exists like it and it will be the first of its kind.”
Mase is currently accepting donations to help with this project. But perhaps Mase’s biggest project to date has been the #TransphobiaIsASin campaign.
“The campaign came out of the work we had already been doing to lay the groundwork for the ‘Black Trans Prayer Book,’” Mase said. “Back in January, we had participants from at least six countries on three continents share photos with one of four phrases: ‘Transphobia Is a Sin,’ ‘Transphobia Is Harem,’ ‘Trans People Are Divine’ or ‘Trans People Exist Because Our Ancestors Existed.’ We wanted to get people both in and out of religious communities to talk about religious-based violence. The campaign itself is still ongoing and folks are welcome to add photos to the hashtag #TransphobiaIsASin on all social media.”
The fact that the campaign is word and message-focused is not a mistake, either. At the heart of all Mase does is his love of words, for he is a poet first and foremost.
“I have wanted to be a poet since I was 8 years old and learned what poems are,” Mase said. “Yet, I didn’t become a full-time poet and educator until I, like a vast portion of black trans people, got pushed out of 9 to 5 work. Being an artist is often one of the few accessible work forms for black trans people in which we get to have our own autonomy and demand a living wage while preserving a legacy of black trans culture and resistance.”
Mase said he enjoys his work even if life is a little rougher on the road in this new MAGA era.
“When it comes to traveling these days as a black trans person who is queer and reads as trans or queer often, I have noticed an uptick in people being antagonistic when I am on the road,” he said. “White folks, cisgender folks, straight folks are definitely feeling way more entitled to harass people, including me. It is definitely more stressful being on the road these days to me, than say, even five years ago. That also reminds me how necessary the work myself and Dane do is.”
J. Mase III will be at speaking at Oakland University at noon on March 12 at Oakland Center, Suite 151, Gold Rooms A&B, 312 Meadow Brook Road in Rochester. For more information on Mase, visit jmaseiii.com.