What racial, disability and LGBTQ justice have in common

Poet Kay Ulanday Barrett. Photo by Karen Campos

Poet Kay Ulanday Barrett’s first book of poetry, “When The Chant Comes,” is due out later this year. Photo by Karen Campos

For Kay Ulanday Barrett, poetry is a testimony to survival.

Ulanday Barrett, who uses the pronouns “he,” “they” and “K.,” testifies to living at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities: “transgender, disabled, a person of color [and] from a rough economic background,” he said. “It’s been my struggle and my commitment to elaborate on these experiences that overlap.”

Growing up in Chicago, Ulanday Barrett found community among poets and performance artists, both groups that welcomed them as a gender non-conforming, working-class youth experiencing homelessness.

Poetry is particularly important in giving visibility and voice to people who are disabled and LGBTQ — people who are too often silenced, or told that only one part of their identity is valid, he said.

“Queer and trans people and people who are disabled are told, ‘You are something to be ashamed [of]. You are something to be fixed. It’s okay if you are isolated. Fit this mold or you will be left behind,’” he said. “As a trans person, policy and government do not reflect my livelihood or the lives of my friends or family. So we have to harvest and cultivate our own stories, not just to feel valid, but to feel rejoiced.”

Storytelling is also a vital tool to bridge the gaps between people in marginalized communities, they said. “If you can sit down and just ask somebody about their day and support them to share a story about how they’re surviving … If I can tap into somebody’s pulse, and somebody can tap into mine, then [oppressive] systems are just a little bit weaker,” they said.

Ulanday Barrett, who is based in Jersey City, is on tour this fall facilitating workshops and speaking at schools across the country and plans to publish a collection this winter. He said he hopes to “shift what a keynote looks like [and] what a model looks like.”

Ulanday Barrett’s spoken word poem “Homebois don’t write enough” challenges the narrative of traditional masculinity, which they said does not leave room for people of color, queer people or disabled people. “‘Masculinity’ is super straight, American, husband-y, and typically able-bodied,” they said. “Masculine people aren’t supposed to be vulnerable. What happens to gender when we defy the expectations?”

The piece is both a call to action for audience members to question what masculinity means to them, and to bond with each other and the speaker, he said. “Spoken word, specifically performance poetry, enables that junction of literary craft [and] theater craft, and of the intimate. We are directly kindred when I am on that stage,” he said. “The purpose is to disrupt the [idea] that we are alone.”

Listen to Ulanday Barrett perform “Homebois don’t write enough” or read the poem below.

Homebois don’t write enough

homebois we don’t write enough love poems.
we re-name ourselves izzie from Isabella,
casey from Cassandra, kay from Kathleen.

we run out of ink for our stories cuz we’ve been
running through doors of male and female, never satisfied.

we stunnin’ baggy jeans and bright colors over the sirens,
we stop cars and walk with stride that makes the concrete self-conscious
about it’s own stability.

hitting pavement at the tip-toes of summer,
there you go talkin’ about how you
“need a woman pregnant and barefoot.”

as I shutter asking,
are you gonna find a stiletto ready to stab you
if the knight sticks don’t come get you first?

asking- are you gonna be that bullet that is a mouth?
asking- are you gonna be that missile that blasts your woman until she misses you,
even when you will both be in the same bed?

if we make ourselves harder than bone,
make us a legacy that is beyond all this.

cuz I’ve been running through doors of male and female,
never satisfied.

that makes you nervous doesn’t it?
are you worried, your palms sweaty

because I am NOT that kind of a man


and that might make you obsolete, that means this whole system
needs a revision. that means, we have to ask ourselves daily

are you are doing your homework?

homebois, we don’t write enough love poems to
ourselves. spell out our soft syllables unapologetically, letting
the ferocity in us extend us a strength beyond stiff jaw and cold silence,
the stuff of abandoned buildings.

let us unfold the photos with us dipped in lace and dresses and laugh.
let the most tender cipher surround us not be our mother’s tears for the loss
of a daughter.

let us hold our breaths for the sakia gunns and the fong lee’s, as it
could easily be our sweat on this sidewalk.
let us adore the swiftness of kisses in moonlight rather than the
pummeling cusses of strangers scared of difference.
let the tensile ace bandage be a testament across this chest, waving like prophets
of a gender war.

let every poor black brown and yellow butch see her way into
a paintbrush, a camera, an uprock, a computer, and not into the hips of
hand grenades chucked on someone else’s homeland.
to every person who squirms in the bathrooms, classrooms, and on stages
next to me, let them know that this moment is a clue of your queerness.
let them know my titas are at casinos burning this American dream away too

let them know my kuyas christen their kid’s foreheads and give me daps with the same hands.
let them know that each time they make fun of us, they could be in a feather boa,
singing prince, showing their wives some force that will drive them toward and not away.
let their children run up and down the city as the confident queer kids, who get
scholarships to college for a GSA or for promoting safety at school,
you being the backward parent they divulge to teachers they are ashamed of.

let me not reveal my monster each time I hear “I’ll *** you straight.”
let me walk away without harm, let my fingers not be readied trigger,
disbanding my razor-edge that could cut their lifelines, slice steel
song into their temples, shear off their pride as soon as they start to unzip their pants.

let us know we can do this and make it clear: we choose not to.
let us know we can do this and make it clear: we choose not to.

if we make ourselves harder than bone,
make us a legacy that is beyond all this.

Kay Ulanday Barrett is a poet, performer, and educator, navigating life as a disabled pin@y-amerikan transgender queer in the U.S. K. has been a Campus Pride Hot List artist, 2013 Trans Justice Funding Project Panelist, Trans 100 Honoree, finalist for The Gwendolyn Brooks Open-Mic Award and winner of the Windy City Times Pride Literary Poetry Prize. K. has contributed to the upcoming anthologies “Outside the XY: Queer Black & Brown Masculinity” (Magnus Books) and “Writing the Walls Down: A Convergence of LGBTQ Voices” (Trans-genre Press). K.’s ideas have been featured in Huffington Post, The Advocate, Fusion.net, and Bitch Magazine. Ulanday Barrett’s first book of poetry, “When The Chant Comes,” is due out from Topside Press in fall/winter 2015.