In conversation: Sinéad Burke + Tanya Compas Transcription

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Sinéad Burke: “There is so much talk at the moment about activism, activists, allyship, performative allyship and really there are so many of us just looking to try to change the world, our world, but how do we do that? There’s often the perception that it must be through aggression, or through rebellion, or through anarchy, and they are all positive and powerful methods by which to create change. But the reason why I’m so excited for this conversation is because I finally get to talk to somebody who I have admired for such a long time, who creates change and revolution through joy, and I’m being entirely sincere. Tanya Compas is an activist who bridges the divide between the public and the private work in a way that seems seamless and effortless which of course means that it is neither. But Tanya, I will only do you a disservice if I try to introduce you, so how do you describe yourself personally and professionally?”

Tanya Compas: “I like the way you introduced me there, I was like, ‘Oh, this sounds really great!’ So yeah, my name is Tanya Compas, I am a youth worker first and foremost, and all of my work surrounds supporting, upholding, uplifting, and creating spaces for queer, Black young people. And, as somebody who has grown up not thinking that Black people could be queer and then realizing I was queer in my early 20s, I think I realized that there was a massive gap in terms of representation, in terms of visibility of queer Black people in my life growing up. And I feel like if I had that representation when I was younger, I would have really, really benefited to see the different ways in which I could have existed, or I wish I knew that I could have existed in different ways. And, yeah, so I kind of from doing that and from my experience work in the charity sector, I’ve been working the sector for about seven years now, always surrounded by young people. I’ve worked in Brazil, in Colombia, and I’ve worked in America, again each and every time with young people and then the UK for the past six years, and it’s always been… every experience I’ve learned something new about young people, I’ve learned more and more about myself through work with young people, and I think essentially the biggest thing that I’ve learned through my work is just the importance of creating spaces for joy and creating spaces for healing and for community and for chosen family. And I think that so often when we look at working with working with groups of people or, yeah, groups of people in communities who we know go through a lot of trauma and people often get stuck in this kind of like siphon hole of all you do is talk work around trauma and all you do is talk about your trauma, but I think that there’s so much power that comes from spaces for joy, for spaces for community, and for spaces to build real human connection between people, and I think that’s what I try and do with my work and I do so again through like face-to-face work, through one one-on-one mentoring with young people, through creating groups of young people, but equally through social media as well, a lot of queer people, the first time you may ever tell somebody that you’re queer is on social media and the first time you may even look and like whether it’s googling somebody, whether it’s going on a hashtag, that’s the first time I started exploring my identity was actually through Instagram by going on a hashtag, I think that typed in like queer Black London or something like that. And it’s having the balance of the two I’ve been able to do social media work and be visible online alongside doing work on the ground has been amazing and kind of reached this combination quite recently of creating a program called Exist Loudly which is now my new organization and it is again work with queer Black young people, centering practices of joy and community, and it’s been a whirlwind the past month, I’ve fundraised 111,000 pounds which is absolutely like phenomenal, huge amounts of money. And I managed to fundraise for myself, both so for Exist Loudly but then equally managed to – the rest of the money I split between five other organizations across the UK that work with queer Black and POC youth because I think part of the way that I like to work again is around communities so I don’t believe that any one person or one organization should get the monopoly on funding. I think we’re all working for the collective good of queer people, of queer Black people and Black communities wherever you may see it. And I think that it’s really important to ensure that yeah as much you’re talking to young people and say let’s foster community, how about as adults and as those of us who are working as groups, that we also foster a community within each other because it will mean that the work that we create for young people will be better, with more influence, will be more informed, and also means that if we need to refer a young person to another service, or if you know somebody else actually may be better-educated or may better relate to one of our young people, rather than saying oh email this random like “info@” email, I can be like “Hey, I know this person, they work here, this is the work they do there, I’ve worked with them beforehand.” And I think, yeah, I think now is really the start of what I hope will be a really fulfilling and sustainable period of just creating change and tangible change for queer Black young people who are often erased and, yeah, who are often erased from the narrative of what it mean to be Black and also equally from the narrative what it means to be queer because I think that we’re still so, there’s still so many restraints in terms of how we allow ourselves to look at certain communities so, yeah. It’s a very, very exciting time, a lot of stuff going on. It’s really hard to describe myself sometimes, but it’s a lot.”

Sinéad Burke: “Well, that was an incredible introduction and possibly the best answer that I’ve ever heard that question. But I just wanted to go back just a little bit because I’m conscious that the people who may be listening or watching this conversation will be coming to it at different levels of their own education and awareness. And whilst I completely understand and take the point that it is not your responsibility to educate the masses on both your lived experience and your work, but it’s a conversation that came about at my dining room table recently which is why I raise it. It was around the language of queerness and queer. And my dad made the comment who grew up in the UK in the 60s and 70s, and he said that isn’t and wasn’t terminology that we could use. And I was trying to explain the differences and the nuances between the noun and the adjective in terms of the community ownership, and I wondered if you could speak or if it was something you were interested in speaking on in terms of the lexicon and who has the responsibility or the ability to use that lexicon and when it might be appropriate.”

Tanya Compas: “Of course. I think that’s a really, really great question. I think you posed that again really, really well. I think that the term queer is definitely something that I learned about, so I came out as bisexual and then I found out about the term queer through one of my friends and I realized actually this term feels a lot more fitting for me, but then I think when I started, you know, started using the term queer it did the same way, it became a discussion around my dinner table with my family, it just became a thing where you have those who, you know, as you were saying with your father, like those who brought up around the 60s, 70s and before then, queer was used as a term – queer was used as – queer was used, it’s a very violent way. It was used in a term that would inflict violence and sometimes physical, oftentimes verbal, violence to queer people, to LGBTQ+ people. And I think therefore a lot of the older communities do still hold a lot of pain and do still find it really hard to reclaim the word, whereas I think the younger communities, we’ve kind of reclaimed the word. I think queer is more political. Queer means something different to everybody. Queer for me is fluid and queer for me is encompassing of the different kind of, the different multitude of identities that people exist in and coexist with whilst also being LGBTQ+, because I think that if you was to Google ‘LGBT’ for example, the majority of pictures that come up are all of, like, cis white gay men or lesbian women, or again you have the fetishized images but tend to always be very whitewashed images. Whereas if you type in queer, queer again because of political nature of it, it means that, you know, it includes those of us who are Black, who are brown, who are otherwise able, those who are immigrants, asylum seekers, etcetera. So, it’s just a lot more political and I think it also provides a space in which people that have to kind of solely define themselves to one way, I guess one way of living. I think that queer for me just gives me space to exist and to change how I will exist without having to consistently rename and relabel myself. And other people, again everyone, other people may use different language, some people may interchange between saying, some call themselves lesbians and some call themselves queer. And most of the time people will refer to the queer community as a whole as opposed to LGBTQ+ community, especially those of us who, you know, from my friend group we will refer to it as a queer community. But again I think that language is consistently changing and I think especially those of us in the community are consistently finding new language that makes us feel at home within ourselves, at home within the community, and some labels or words that we may use may have fit with us at one point and we may outgrow them. Some words that we may hear we may say hey, the same way when I heard queer, I was like, I think I prefer that word for myself. And but others are very don’t, I think it’s never the choice as to who uses the word, I think it does depend upon the intention. I think that if, you know, if I’ve got my straight friends, my cis straight friends that are saying, ‘Hey, that queer night you’re going to,’ because I know they’re not saying in a way that is, they’re not trying to offend me, they’re not trying to demonize me or my or who I am, my community, they’re just classifying as how I would say it. Whereas on the flip side, if they if they were to point out someone and be like, ‘Oh, those queers over there,’ that is not, you know, you don’t need to say that. I think it’s very much the intention behind it. I think it’s also being aware that if you were to use that word, especially if you’re not from the community, to also be open to being critiqued by that person who’s on the receiving end of that word, because you may have somebody say, you know, actually I don’t actually like that word, and rather than you to be like, ‘Well I know that there’s all these people that use it,’ which is fair, but equally it’s sometimes just being like, you know what, it’s that person to kind of decision as to who and who’s receiving it as to how, whether they want to use it, whether they don’t, whether they are comfortable with using it in conversations. But I’ve sat on panels, predominantly Black panels, and being an audience like, with an audience of predominantly white cis gay men, and when I say queer, you can see, like, it makes them visibly agitated. But that’s also again because that’s a word that has been used against them, so I do definitely understand it. And again it’s just I think, yeah, language is such a beautiful thing and I think the queer community, we have so many different words and languages and things, like a lot of people are also reclaiming the word ‘dyke,’ so you’ll have a lot of lesbians, some lesbian women that use ‘dyke’ and even prefer to use the term ‘dyke,’ and that’s also a word that has been used negatively and has negative connotations but again it’s a reclamation of it and the power that comes from that, and comes from words that have usually been used against you. So, it’s yeah, it means –“

Sinéad Burke: “I think it’s about listening.

Tanya Compas: “Yes, entirely. It’s about listening –“

Sinéad Burke: “I think it’s about listening, and I think it’s about asking questions.”

Tanya Compas: “Yeah, a hundred percent.”

Sinéad Burke: “Because my dad’s whole kind of point at the dining room table was then, ‘Well, how do I know what to say? Like, what do I call the person, what do I use?’ And it’s interesting because my dad is disabled like me. He, too, is a little person. And in terms of that reclamation of language or understanding the personal political of language, you know, we are so particular, my dad and I, about the terminology that we prefer. We prefer to be called ‘little people.’ I have friends who prefer ‘dwarf.’ And, you know, it’s that connection between minorities or between communities and realizing that actually that’s the value of taking an intersectional lens and approach to things. That, if you ask people the language that they prefer the same way that you may ask the pronouns that they prefer, are most comfortable with, it provides agency for people to tell their own stories in their own way. And I think it’s something that communities like ours, not to say that they are similar but they have a shared history in some aspects, we have never been given the space to tell our own stories and it’s interesting coming back to kind of your first point in terms of the role models for you growing up. You know, who were the people in culture that you knew were queer, were aware of? Were there Black queer people in public spaces that you were aware of?”

Tanya Compas: “No, at all actually, none at all. I think the first, I think when I was looking because I get asked this question quite frequently in terms of like, who were your, you know, your queer role models and stuff, I didn’t have any. I think the first representation I saw of even some, like, a person, I think she’s a mixed race girl that was kissing somebody, was on a Channel Four program called Sugar Rush that came out years ago like when I was in secondary school and I remember watching that and, again, I didn’t come out, I didn’t understand my sexuality until I was 23. And I say that in terms of the fact that it wasn’t – I think often people assume that if you come out later in your life, it’s because you’ve been hiding in the closet, this quote-unquote closet, and you’ve been trying to hide your identity for all these years but it’s like, I never knew that even being queer was a possibility, but looking back and looking back and reflecting on how I received certain programming, I realized that there’s certain things that grasped my attention more than others. There was a series on Channel Four that was, it’s a mini-series, I think it was called – oh, I wish I could remember the name of it, but they showed Black British lesbians and queer women going to Atlanta – I think it was called, I can’t remember what it was called… I’ll try, if I remember I’ll send you I’ll send you the name – but they, I remember watching it at night, late at like 11 o’clock at night on my old TV when everyone was asleep, and I think that and, but it was also, it was only shown at those times, but every time it was shown I made sure I watched it and I think that was the first time I really saw or had an insight into representation of queer Black people but I think at the same time that was I saw that once and I don’t think I ever saw anything like that again until I joined the community itself and I saw it in person. So, I think it’s really… there’s not at all, there is now, there’s much more representation now. Not enough by no means but again I think because of social media it means that we are able to seek out and also become that representation that we want and where I think beforehand a lot of the representation a lot of the ownership in terms of who is seen and who is shown is often in the hands of cis white straight men who don’t want to or don’t care to show or don’t understand and the complexities of what it means to be queer and Black and why that’s important to show on screen. So, there’s, yeah, there’s not but I also think that the level, because we have Section 28 that was in schools which meant that by law you weren’t able to educate surrounding LGBTQ+ community or issues or anything like that. And that was in place whilst I was at school, and I didn’t know that even existed until, again, I sat in a panel talk and somebody spoke about it and I had no idea, and I have no doubt that that equally informed a lot of the education I got, or rather the lack of education I got around and being queer and what it meant, you know, the intersections of being queer and Black and stuff like that, like I didn’t know that was a possibility. None of my friends and now like six of my friends who are in my close friends’ groups, we’re all now part of the community, part of the LGBTQ+ community. So, it’s, yeah, there was not any representation unfortunately so I don’t – I can’t list any of my queer role models from when I was younger. I didn’t have any.”

Sinéad Burke: “I think it’s interesting the way just for a second when you talked about role models there, and how there are a greater number of role models now, not enough but a greater number, but how actually there is space for people to become role models. And I just wondered if, for a second you know, I think you are that role model for so many, whether that was a conscious choice or unconscious. But as somebody who is part of a community where there is, you know, one in every 15,000 births are little people, I have some tangible connection to the idea of what it’s like to be you, and only able to speak for you in your experience but there is an external perspective that your identity or your lived experience is the universal one. And I just wondered how you manage that duality of being you, of being Tanya, and then being a representation or a role model for an experience that is broader than your own.”

Tanya Compas:  “Yeah, I think that’s a really good question. I think that in terms of managing the duality of it, and then because my social media and who I am on social media is very much who I am generally, I think it makes it really, really easy because I’m literally just sharing pieces of my life, it’s not particularly… Like, in terms of the content that I create or what I make is not necessarily curated or anything like that to keep a specific theme or whatever it may be, it’s really just me sharing myself, my life, my fashion, the way that I’ve personally changed and conversations that I’m having with like my chosen family, with my housemates and stuff. Kind of giving people an insight into it and I think it’s… I think that it’s really nice because I’m literally just being myself and I think I never start… I never imagined I’d be in the position I am now. I think that I’ve always, again, I’ve been working with young people before when I was straight and I’ve been working young people since I was 18, and I’ve always just had young people drawn to me but I do think the reason being is just because I’m quite… I’m a very, very open person in terms of, I’m very open to giving space for people to share their experiences and I think that in itself and enabling people to be vulnerable, enabling people to… yeah, enabling people to be vulnerable by showing my own vulnerability. I think means that creates space for people to be like, ‘Okay, this is safe for me to share,’ or ‘This is a safe space for me to explore things,’ and I think that’s what my social media does and that’s what my presence does. And I think the same way what I think sometimes, you know, you see me on social media and it’s very, you know, it’s upbeat it’s like very like, I’m very like positive and stuff, and I think then the mix of me actually working with queer young people in the ground, when they still get that same Tanya which makes them feel comfortable, but at the same time because of my experiences, in terms of my lived experiences but equally my professional experience in the charity sector, means I can actually formally support them into, you know, transition out of hostile home environments, help them articulate what they’re going through right now, even something just giving like a listening ear where I can understand the nuanced kind of experience of being queer and Black, of having to navigate family, of, you know, how to navigate school life, etcetera. So, I think it’s, I personally don’t struggle with it because it’s become very… it’s part of myself. I’m not, I don’t, I think that it’s just being me and I don’t think I’ve ever necessarily tried to become or try and fit into a mold of what, you know, the perfect LGBT influencer would look like, because I don’t think I am that nor would I be that. I think I’ve been lucky because so many of the people in our community, like, especially in London, everyone kind of, you know, everyone kind of knows each other, everyone is very present with each other, and it means that I think, you know, you’ve got people around you that I’ve got really, really close friends who are called family who will hold me accountable, who will be like, ‘Tanya, this is not you,’ or ‘What are you doing?’ and will call me out, and I think that would be really, really important to have those people around me that will equally hold me accountable to make sure that I am being my most authentic and genuine self, so I’m not trying to stray away to fit into these other boxes or confines of what, you know, of this representation that people want or brands or companies want, because I think often they want a perfect, the perfect queer influencer or the perfect person to essentially sell a market. But I think that, yeah, I’ve always –”

Sinéad Burke: “Challenge the system but don’t upset us.”

Tanya Compas: “Yeah, it is, it is that. It’s like, challenge it but do so nicely, or challenge it but don’t be so angry about it and stuff like that, or challenge it but maybe only talk about queer issues and don’t talk about the Blacks, you know, being Black and queer. And it’s like, because I think adding Blackness for some people makes it too political, and it’s like, you know, I can’t separate these two identities, but they’re two things that coexist at the same time. I can never choose one and choose the other and live as one one day and live as the other. I’ll always exist as both. And I think that especially given this, you know, the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and with everything happening, it’s hopefully now has ignited this change within brands and companies who do work with queer people to do work with people and from the community to actually understand that the work that they create can be so much more powerful if they allow space for people to put the politics back in Pride, and which I think they’ve kind of tried to strip the politics away from Pride so frequently, but in allowing people to still be as political, to still be, you know, angry, have rage, have whatever it may be, whilst also in the elements of celebrating and you know finding space for joy and happiness, because we do exist as rageful and angry beings whilst also want to celebrate and be happy and find joy. And I think that, again, my social media and what the work that I do is a combination of that because at the end of the day my work wouldn’t need to exist if queer Black young people or queer people in general were just able to exist and be free. I hope one day that I get to the point where my work is void and that’s the aim, but unfortunately because it’s not I still have, you know, all the anger, the rage and everything for systems to change. But also I want to be happy and I want to find joy, and I think that, yeah, my socials provide a space to reflect all of that and I think it’s really, really nice to not feel like I have to stick to one way of being to make other people feel more uncomfortable because I think, at the end of the day, we don’t grow from being comfortable, we grow from being really, really uncomfortable sometimes and having uncomfortable conversations. And I think that’s what hopefully, yeah, I’m able to do on my social media.”

Sinéad Burke: “Well, I think you do it so effectively and I think it’s about realizing, and everybody kind of taking this note on board that progress is not palatable. That, you know, whether we’re looking at Pride which started at a riot at Stonewall, or we’re looking at all of the horrific instances that have happened to Black men and Black trans women in recent weeks in relation to trying to build a revolution and trying to redesign a world where everybody feels safe and confident and comfortable just to exist as themselves in public and private spaces, and that is the limit of what it is that we’re requesting. We are just asking for rights to be upheld in terms of people being able to identify and exist as to whom they are. I wanted to ask you, you know, there is so much talk at present about what individuals can do, and the people who will be watching this may be teenagers who, for their whole lives, wanted to be part of the fashion industry in some way or design or art and never felt included, or industry leaders who are less diverse than you might imagine but yet have the greatest intentions of doing good with the power in which they occupy. But then there’s also people who may have no interest in fashion and I think, not to put a responsibility on you to ask you how you think they should do the work, but I think we need to all do the work. I think we cannot be relying on Black voices in particular to educate us on the systemic racism that exists in all of our countries that, you know, so much of our geography has been constructed upon, but what are the first steps for people who have been uncomfortable in the midst of this conversation?”

Tanya Compas: “I think the first steps is to educate yourself. I think that, again, we’re living in a time in which self-education is actually really, really easy and it’s really tangible. Easy in a sense that it’s accessible and, you know, you can Google, you can go… as I said, the first time I started learning about the queer Black community in the UK and in London was through Instagram, was through search and hashtags. Or I’d find, you know, people, I would find a group and I’d literally go through who they’re following and follow everyone that they’re following because I’m thinking if this person was following them then I must as well. And I think that it’s been really, really… I think if you want to help, I think the first thing, step is to take it upon yourself to educate yourself and that is equally for those of you from the queer community as well. Education doesn’t start and stop with those who want to be allies, it’s also important for ourselves to continuously educate ourselves, and it’s something that I’ve been doing quite recently and that I’ve bought myself a ton of new books to continue educating myself around trans identities and educating myself around transformative justice and what that may look like for our communities. Educating myself around the history of queer Black people because I think that there’s people that have come before me that have allowed me to exist as I am today and what I don’t want people to think is that the movement starts with me or starts with people from my generation because it’s not, it’s been happening beforehand. And I think so many people and so many voices have been erased along the way which is why for myself, I know I have to educate myself forever to do everyone justice, to do myself justice, to community justice and to do others justice. I think that for allies and particularly white allies, for straight allies, I think it’s really imperative as well to look at… reflect upon your privileges that you have, and we all have privileges. Everyone from every community has some form of privilege over somebody else in the same community or in different communities, we all have privileges reflecting upon that… we know what privileges you’re afforded based upon who you are and how and what resources you actually have available to you based upon those privileges, and then looking at what can I do and how can I use these privileges to help said communities. So, I think that my Exist Loudly crowdfund was actually a really, really great reflection of allies and of community coming together to raise. Originally, I only wanted to fundraise 10,000 pounds and then we ended up fundraising over 100,000 pounds. And I think that I recognized whilst the money… like, I got almost 50 grand in 24 hours, and I recognized my privilege in that because I have a social media platform, and I know that because I work in community platform, it meant that more people were likely to see what I’m doing, more people… it’s easier for people to be like, ‘Oh, I know Tanya’ or ‘I’ve seen this,’ or people want to share and help me because I’ve got a platform. But in doing so, again, it would have been wrong of me to continue this fundraise… I could have kept a 100,000 pounds to myself but as soon as I hit 50, I knew at that point I’ve got enough and I knew from that point, I said I’d be doing everyone else in the community an injustice if I hoarded it all for myself to boost my own platform or to make me seem like, to make sure that I’ve got all this money and it’s like, I don’t need that. I wanted to and I chose to share the resources with five of our amazing groups who are doing work with queer, Black and POC youth across the UK, because they’re not afforded the same platform that I have. And for them it’s a, it’s a much… like, there’s one of them, one of the groups that are involved, they’ve been trying to fundraise 10,000 pounds for the past year and they’ve only set on 6,000. I managed to fundraise that and, again, in less than 24 hours and that goes to show the difference in that’s one way… even like, donating to fundraisers is a massive way. When you see fundraisers that come up for trans people or trans youth who are trying to medically transition or trying to get top surgery or, you know, facial feminization and stuff like that, these things all cost money and these things are so inaccessible, particularly for trans people and for queer youth who have higher rates of mental health issues, who have high rates of experiencing homelessness, and also find it really hard to navigate certain workplaces because these workplaces themselves can be queerphobic or transphobic or homophobic or still emulate often very hostile environments that they may face at home. And so, it’s really, really important to look at the different ways you can, you know, share your wealth, share your resources. I’ve had people reach out to Exist Loudly offering to help me do graphic design, helping me to do… helping provide spaces for me to hold events in for my young people, so things like that. It doesn’t necessarily mean that if you don’t have the money yourself which many people, you know, some people do, some people don’t, you may know somebody on network that may have access to things like a space may have access to things like gifting you know gifting things to groups and providing a free meal there’s so many different ways…

Sinéad Burke: “I think exactly as you said…”

Tanya Compas: “Sorry, Sinéad, what were you going to say?”

Sinéad Burke: “I think not even looking at just privilege but looking at resources, there are so many different ways in which you can a) educate yourself, and b) support the initiatives and the projects that are already being undertaken particularly by queer, Black and minority voices. That it’s not about white people centering themselves within this experience but actually taking a back seat, ensuring that you can do the most to amplify the experience and the needs that are required. And I think we just need to be more cognizant and ask ourselves the litany of questions to ensure that we are, making sure that we are adding value and contributing and supporting and guiding and educating in a way that we are not trying to benefit from. Tanya, I cannot thank you enough from this discussion. I have been looking forward to our conversation all day and it blew me away, so I can only imagine what the people who are watching this and listening to this are thinking. And I am excited to hear about the projects that they’re going to ruminate on next after this. Tanya, I can only wish you the very best of luck, but I do not think that you need any luck but resources and supports for your continuing advocacy. And the way in which you are shaping and changing the world and encouraging young people to live joyously whilst also challenging the system is brave and important and inspiring and most of all so needed. So, thank you so much and I really hope we get to have more conversations again soon.”

Tanya Compas: “I definitely hope so. Thank you so much. Honestly, I really, really enjoyed the conversation. It’s been wonderful.”

On-screen text:
editor at large @PaoloLavezzari
art direction @LucaStoppiniStudio
production Studio Effe Milano
production director Marco Fattorusso

Graphic / on-screen text:
Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana

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