I don’t believe in heaven. I believe that heaven and hell are found right here on this beautiful and terrifying planet. And I believe that we all have the chance to find and fight for our own freedom if we can break down the walls the world uses to entrap our consciousness into paradigms of oppression and isolation. Writing is how I break down the walls built around me as a child growing up in a rural, deeply conservative Christian community. Writing has also been how I’ve coped with six months of intense grief and death. It has been the key to the most somber of houses that has kept me believing that hope may still exist in an incredibly violent world.
My mourning began at dawn in January when I discovered Bryn Kelly had committed suicide. I met Bryn at an LGBTQ writer’s workshop in the summer of 2013 and from that moment we began a friendship grounded in our identities as artists, writers, and as transgender women. Her death was soul shattering because we were again losing a transgender woman to suicide and to the constant psychological and physical violence trans women endure in America where 14 trans women, almost all trans women of color, have already been murdered in the first six months of 2016. Her passing also cut deep because she was a brilliant writer who wrote brutally honest pieces that spoke truth on the pain of living as a poor, HIV+ trans woman, and still found gorgeous love and biting dark humor in all of it. The morning we learned she was gone, I touched base with friends, I sobbed, I read a poem on grief, and I wrote. I cried as I wrote EULOGY, my dedication to Bryn, and although it was intended to honor her memory, much of it was a way for me to process the grief of losing her. I wasn’t alone. Dedication after dedication flowed across my news feed in the first weeks and months after her death from her community and queer family across the country, all of us grappling in the dark house of grief, looking for the light in each other’s words. I contributed again with a much more focused literary analysis of Bryn’s work with THE WORLD IS A VIRUS as a declaration that Bryn’s writing is some of the most essential work on contemporary trans and queer literature. I wrote because the legacies of our queer and trans creatives and artists must be preserved for future generations.
I found myself back inside grief at the end of May as my grandmother entered hospice and slowly began dying from cancer. My grandma always painted. She was the first artist I ever knew, the first I ever loved, and as I watched my mother and my aunt stand vigil over her bed, wetting their mother’s lips with tiny pink spongers and feeding her morphine with syringes, her body slowly starving itself, I thought of how a woman is a tree, and how a tree is a ladder that reaches to the things the world tells us we can’t have. My heart was breaking once again as death made itself at home, and as I held her hand through the night, her unconscious breathing growing deeper and heavier, I watched as a spider crawled across the wall like an omen spinning above her head. I sobbed and screamed and wailed but none of that would end up healing her body or bringing her peace. My aunt set up her tablet in grandma’s room to play a bluegrass gospel radio station as I stroked my grandmother’s arm. A gospel spiritual I recognized from childhood began to play: IT’S SHOUTING TIME IN HEAVEN / A SINNER ONCE LOST IS FOUND / IT’S SHOUTING TIME IN HEAVEN. I grabbed a notepad and a green ink pen and took a moment to walk outside. I sat by my grandmother’s pond and wrote brief memory sketches of her slicing strawberries and cantaloupes, us listening to the sound of locusts during summer evenings at her house, her red hummingbird feeders. She died four days later. I began to tie those green sketches into a memorial poem A TREE IS A LADDER I read while standing in front of my family at her funeral. I still can’t stop hearing the last words she spoke to me: I have such good babies.
A week after the funeral, I gather with 200 of my queer and transgender family for a weekend of camping and floating on the Niangua River outside Lebanon, Missouri. We drink, and dance, and revel with drugs in the woods in a campsite devoted to queer pride and identity. The days and nights blur together until Sunday morning as we board dusty yellow buses packed with coolers and water guns for a day on the water. I sit hung over and tired when I hear the words: GAY BAR, BIGGEST MASS SHOOTING EVER, 50 DEAD. We all look at each other in stunned, numb silence. I try to hold on to the power of the queer love around me for the rest of the day, but the despair begins to grow louder with every minute that passes. I return to Saint Louis to a flood of memes, vigil photos, think pieces, and cable news tickers all detailing the horror of the Pulse Slaughter. I look into queer Latinx and Black faces and I know that once again our black and brown bodies are being slaughtered. The grief is even more overwhelming as it settles into an even deeper well of sadness and despair within me. It begins to feel pointless, trying to survive against a world that constantly wants us erased. I wonder if hoarding two months worth of Ambien would be enough to kill myself. I cry in the middle of the night and tell my grandma how much I miss her. By mid week, the depression locks me in my bed, it now occupies every corner of my body and mind, I try to write but nothing but white space comes through my hands.
By the end of the first week post-Pulse, I have nothing inside me but a deep, seething rage. I go to a local punk show and my body begins to wake with each crashing, pulsating, screaming noise. It sounds like anger and chaos and I recognize it within my bones. I attend a grief-processing event for LGBTQIA folks to talk about Orlando. The despair, the tears, and the rage begin to make sense as the strangers in the room one by one mirror my own pain. We are exhausted by the constant erasure of queer and trans people of color by GAY WHITE INC. We are pissed off that our cisgender and heterosexual allies deflect and distance themselves from our daily suffering. We don’t give a fuck about gun control in a nation where our collective deaths have been called for again and again by Christian theocrats. A beautiful, queer Latinx friend in the room calls bullshit on the white fags holding candles at vigils but keep no Fats, no Femmes, no Latinos, no Asians, no Blacks in their Grindr profiles. I speak Bryn’s name and tell the room that no one seems to give a fuck about us as we slowly die every day from poverty, addiction, and suicide, or when my trans sisters are brutalized and mutilated in the streets. Some of us cry for the loss of yet another sanctuary for queer people of color in a whitewashed gentrified world. Others rail against the violence of assimilation. I read a poem. We snap our fingers, clap our hands, and laugh.
It all begins to sound like a shouting in heaven, glorious and defiant, righteous and subversive, holy and healing.
Joss Barton is a writer, photographer, journalist, and artist documenting queer and trans* life and love in St. Louis. She was a 2013 Fiction Fellow at the Lambda Literary Foundation’s Emerging LGBT Writers Retreat and was an exhibition artist for St. Louis Nine Network’s 2015 Public Media Commons Artist Showcase. She is also an alumni of the St. Louis Regional Arts Commission’s Community Arts Training Institute and this summer she will be a fellow with Topside Press’ Writing Workshop for Trans Women Writers. Her work has been published by Ethica Press, Vice Magazine, HIV Here & Now, An Anthology of Fiction by Trans Women of Color, LOCUSTS: A Post-Queer Nation Zine, and Vetch Poetry: A Transgender Poetry Journal. She blogs at New Amurican Gospels and HIV Here & Now.