Trans Sistas of Color Project Detroit’s Co-founder on Art and Identity

Multidisciplinary artist and Kresge fellow Ahya Simone talks the burdens and the blessings of being transgender
Ahya Simone - Trans Sistas of Color Project
Ahya Simone photograph courtesy of Kai Dowridge

In 2015, transgender multidisciplinary artist and Kresge fellow Ahya Simone co-founded the Trans Sistas of Color Project Detroit. The organization helps local transgender women of color gain access to hormones and assists them with making name and gender marker changes on official documents, such as passports and drivers licenses. It also provides financial assistance to combat the economic hardships many trans women of color encounter. 

But the organization isn’t only about the struggles of transness; it also has an artistic pillar that celebrates the joy and beauty in the diverse experiences of transgender women of color. At the forefront of this effort is a project driven by Simone — Femme Queen Chronicles, a comedic web series launched in 2018 that follows the lives of four trans women in Detroit. The critically acclaimed first episode was screened at more than 12 festivals. 

But Simone wants to be known for more than just her gender identity. She’s also an accomplished harpist and vocalist. At the moment, she’s working on an EP that takes the instrument beyond classical music, drawing on influences from R&B, soul, and jazz. She plans to continue performing internationally and helping black and transgender women thrive creatively. We chatted with her about gender, anti-LGBTQ violence, and the importance of positivity.

Hour Detroit: Why was Trans Sistas of Color Project Detroit founded?

Ahya Simon: It was a response to the inundation of physical violence against trans women of color, and specifically, the 2015 murder of [local LGBTQ activist] Amber Monroe. We wanted to provide more services for the girls in Detroit.

What inspired you to create the Femme Queen Chronicles?

At one TSOCP board meeting, we were talking about the violence, but after, we went to go get some food. We were talking about our lives and found a diverse set of experiences that were also somehow similar. And it was super funny on top of that. It was born out of talking about that heavy stuff, but also sharing and finding joy in our experiences despite all that. 

The prevailing narrative about the transgender experience is mostly negative. Why did you make Femme Queen Chronicles so positive?

Seeing a lighthearted portrayal of other black trans women can affect the way we think about ourselves and what’s possible for our lives. I wanted to disrupt the narrative of black tragedy without sanitizing the very real tragedies that happen to us. I wanted to disrupt the idea that everything related to transness has to be sad. Black trans people aren’t a monolith. They can be funny, quirky, complex people. I wanted to create something that would address those issues but also be of a reprieve from all the tragedy.

What impact do you hope the series will have?

One huge ethos of Femme Queen Chronicles was to have trans women in front of and behind the scenes. So, for our impact plan, we hired trans women interns and paired them with crew members or had them do makeup or hair. We wanted to work with girls in the city of Detroit who have interests in acting or film work, to inspire them and give them opportunities to flex their creative muscles. Plus, I just hoped to create something the girls would enjoy, and to have an impact on other girls in other places.

What are the biggest challenges facing the transgender community today?

The heightened levels of violence we face and the fact that we’re still struggling to live in this world from a very material standpoint — housing, food, employment — especially black trans women.

It’s true — the homicide rate for transgender women of color is seven times that for the general population. Why is that?

The foundation of our society is based in white supremacy and patriarchy. The hatred of black women and the hatred of trans people combined make a very poisonous cocktail. When you embody all the things our country is founded to hold back and destroy, it’s a breeding ground for violence.

How does your identity as a trans woman fit into your larger identity as a woman?

It’s inseparable; my transness influences my womanhood. I identify as a femme queen because I’m a woman, and I’m a trans woman, but I’m beyond that. Gender can be a very defining box, and womanhood can be as confining or as liberating as you let it.

You don’t like use word “transition” in reference to your journey as a trans person. Why not?

Transition holds an assumption of moving from point A to point B. No human life is point A to point B. I’m existing, making choices that feel right to me. My ultimate goal isn’t to be a woman. I’ve always been me.

What do you want to tell young trans girls?

One, you don’t have to be perfect to be valuable. Two, there are multiple ways to be a woman that don’t necessarily involve medically transitioning. And three, because you are alive, you have a voice, and you deserve to use it.