‘We’re a Mighty Force’: J Mase III Talks on Life as a Gay, Trans Person of Color

Written by Jordan Corey

As the first “University Hour” lecturer of the spring semester, Seattle-based poet J Mase III discussed his experience as a black, gay and transgender man during his talk at Eastern Connecticut State University on Jan. 31. Using a powerful combination of poetry and dialog, Mase called attention to setbacks faced daily by minority groups.

He has worked as an educator with thousands of members of the LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex and Asexual) community across the United States, England and Canada, in addition to founding “awQward,” the first talent agency for transgender and queer people of color. His career as a poet, he revealed, began because he was fired from his job — an event that inspired the haiku he opened his presentation with.

After reading a poem titled “Neighbor,” Mase, who grew up in a Christian-Muslim household, touched on what it was like coming out to his family. “I got two very different reactions,” he explained. While his Muslim relatives were considerably understanding, the Christian side practiced “passive faith” and was less than supportive at times.

Mase took such pushback and incorporated it into his writing, with thoughtful poems like “Josephine.” He emphasized the transformative, somewhat healing power behind feeling anger and being able to vocalize it. “If anything, this is free therapy for me,” he joked, before drawing attention to the symbolic “Ambiguous Power Guy.”

Mase asked attendees to articulate qualities somebody in a position of power typically has. Answers included able-bodied, neurotypical, white, straight, upper-class — the list goes on. He used this as an opportunity to address societal power disparities, specifically wealth distribution, pointing out that discrimination “looks a very particular type of way even if we don’t always identify it as that.”

Mase also shared a collection of quotes from people he has encountered in the career world. One was from when he worked at an LGBT youth organization, the only transgender person and one of few black people there. In the process of determining whether or not to hire a new applicant, who was also transgender, Mase recalled, his boss questioned him, “But are they ‘angry’ trans?”

Mase acknowledged that speaking out often comes with repercussions — losing his standing in the community, being seen as a “difficult” employee, getting looked over for future promotional opportunities. Another quote came after Mase approached an employer about his unequal position among his white coworkers, as he was actively aware of his disadvantages. “But if you get promoted, my title won’t mean much,” he was told in response, indicating the perception that supporting minority individuals comes with a cost.

Not only did the interaction bring up questions surrounding accessibility, but showcased the hidden hypocrisy behind some organizations. Not all that claim to be intersectional actually are, and subsequently contribute to the structure they are supposedly against. Part of the reason for this, Mase noted, is the lack of representation in power positions.

To stand in solidarity, he argued, we sometimes have to ask ourselves what we can give up in order to promote equality — to think critically of our own positionality. “There are living standards that are very different for trans people of color,” Mase said on the issue. Life expectancy of transgender women of color, for example, is only 35 years.

In his creative professional life, Mase has experienced pushback from schools and traditional workspaces, often getting treated like a token guest instead of a valuable asset. “People were treating me as a flavor of the month.” However, he highlighted that through his choices, he has gained a sense of voice and agency that not many in the community are afforded, and that being forced into the background of a mainstream company run by a mainstream group of people is like “disappearing into someone else’s dreams.”

Concluding with poems such as “Gender Buddy” and “#AllyFail,” which make humorous yet honest commentary that reflects his strong character, Mase encouraged the audience to continue to speak passionately in favor of social justice. “We’re a mighty force,” he stated confidently.