The poet's mindset as a tool against transphobia: An interview with US veteran and trans activist Drew Pham 

Drew Pham in Berlin, photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission.

Queer and transgender people have been officially accepted in the military only recently and in a small number of countries. Yet even in those cases, transphobia remains an issue. Global Voices talked to Drew Pham, a former US Afghan War veteran, who now acts as a poet, sex artist, educator and activist, sharing first-hand experience of life journeys that too often remain untold. 

The in-person interview took place in Berlin as part of the Disruption Network Lab conference on Transitioning.

In her art as well as activism, Pham, who identifies as a non-binary transgender woman, has developed the notion of “asymmetric guerilla tools” to challenge and resist the narratives of violence, be it military or transphobic. One of the tools she uses is poetry, which she also practices in performance under the name of Dahlia Damoiselle. As she explains:

The insurgent is a poem, [also the title of a poem featured in the video below, in four different versions] is what I keep saying. In America, we define poetry as a change, a breakage of grammar and convention in order to create new meaning. Poetry doesn’t need to follow rules, it doesn’t have to be bound. In fact, you can make your choice and create something beautiful. I see this in my transgender community, where we choose to create beautiful things just for us, in a way the outside world could not provide, given that so many of us have lost our families because of political or religious ideologies, because of homophobia. We have to take that poet’s mindset.

Here is a video of her performance that took place in Berlin in June 2022: 

Quoting James Baldwin, Pham believes transphobia is linked to the “emotional poverty” she experienced not just in the army, but in heteronormative American society as well: 

Being male in our society is a privilege, so I am asking, ‘Why does living life as a man hurt so much?’ I know that it is this projected image of the American dream that explains so much of the violence my father committed  against my family. At some point in my life, I was also seeking Americanness by joining the army and trying to be a real man; yet, as I would go to work every day in my uniform, my white neighbors in Louisiana would not talk to me. 

Clearly, to maintain that male power and privilege,  so many sacrifices have to be made. And this is why transitioning is seen as this huge betrayal, because why would you give up this power and become this thing that is vile, meaning becoming a woman? That is unnatural, it is sinful, as seen from the perspective of dominant men.

Coupled with the transphobic behavior and discourse, whether open or covert, is the issue of racism, something Pham — as an American of Vietnamese heritage — has been exposed to as well. It also caused confusion in Afghan perceptions, as she recalls: 

I had a classmate tell me that Vietnam is not a country, it is a war. I am being told who I am. While serving in Afghanistan, our chaplain showed us a documentary about the Vietnam war and asked me to share my thoughts in front of other soldiers. I know that during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, ethnic Russian military officials treated their non-Russian Soviet soldiers in similar racist ways. 

But sometimes my appearance also confused local Afghans, who would call me ‘tarjiman’ [translator], wrongly assuming I was an Afghan translator helping US soldiers. Those situations showed me the hypocrisy of the US military discourse stating that ‘we are there to win the minds and hearts,’ yet being interested only in finding Taliban. How can you build a country at the barrel of the gun, by taking people’s fathers away, shooting bullets over the heads of children throwing stones at us?

After leaving the US army as a captain, Pham decided to undergo a full transition. To her, it was a matter of life or death: 

When I transitioned, I felt if I didn’t do it, I would die. I used to think of the future as this black void I couldn't touch, a place I would drown in. I transitioned because I had to live outside the masculinity construct walls we build as weapons we armor ourselves with, but that don’t do us any good.

Pham also cautioned against the objectification of queer and trans cultures in mainstream heteronormative society:

It is not that queer people create culture and normative people get to consume it. We are trying to meet our needs: I try to illustrate because I won't find joy if I conform as a trans person to the expectations around family and love. I won't be able to date a cis-gendered person and have a nuclear family with a white picket fence house. I would feel trapped. This is why we have to break with normative society, and why it is necessary to rebel.

As the queer US-Vietnamese poet Ocean Vuong writes in his poem “Reasons for Staying,” from his latest collection “Time is a Mother”: “Because I stopped apologizing into visibility/Because this body is my last address.”

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