Five Trans & Non-Binary Artists You Should Know About
By Thomas Giblin (he/him) @thegreengiblin
culture & lifestyle writer
In 2018, Counting Ourselves published a distressing study on trans and non-binary health in Aotearoa, informed by Kaupapa Māori. Dr Jaimie Veale, the study's principal investigator, states that "trans and non-binary people experienced levels of sexual violence more than four times higher than in the general population." Veale also highlights how "trans and non-binary people were nine times more likely to report high or very high psychological distress compared to the general population." These statistics are a reminder of the inequity the community faces both domestically and internationally.
For Debate's gender issue, we're celebrating five remarkable trans and non-binary artists from across the world. Despite what old man Winston Peters and American lawmakers are saying, these artists aren't going anywhere; they're ready to be heard louder than ever.
With her critically acclaimed third feature film Lingua Franca, Isabel Sandoval became the first out trans woman of colour to compete at the prestigious Venice Film Festival. She wrote, directed, produced and starred in the story of Olivia, an undocumented Filipina immigrant who works as a caregiver in New York. After the man she's secretly paying for a green card backs out, she becomes involved with a factory worker. He doesn't know that Olivia is a trans woman.
In exploring the nuanced dichotomy of gender identity in Trump's USA, Sandoval has emerged as "one of the most exciting and multi-talented filmmakers on the indie scene with a bold approach to cinematic style," according to the Criterion Collection. Her muted, yet sensual aesthetic evokes the works of directors Rainer Fassbinder, Ira Sachs and Claire Denis. Sandoval's favourite films include Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love, Alain Resnais's Hiroshima mon amour, and Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.
Her next feature, Tropical Gothic, is an allegory on Western colonialism, set in 16th-century Philippines. Hollywood news site Deadline states that it will focus on a "Native priestess who convinces her Spanish master that she is possessed by the spirit of his dead bride, in order to manipulate him into returning the farmland that the Spaniards seized from the native community.” I can't wait.
DJ Sprinkles is the persona of Terre Thaemlitz, who started her career spinning decks in 1980s New York. Unafraid to confront issues of gender, sexuality, race and class, her intoxicating meditative tracks aren't just deep house club bangers: the 1995 album Soil, for example, layers an account of domestic abuse over an electroacoustic soundtrack, and the 2012 epic 'Soulnessless' features the deeply arresting "Meditation On Wage Labor And The Death Of The Album (Sprinkles' Unpaid Overtime)" amongst nearly 30-hours of music.
DJ Sprinkles points out that the electronic music boom, which has seen the likes of Calvin Harris and David Guetta become household names, ignores the genre's roots in queer club culture. The events and spaces associated with such acts have become breeding grounds for heteronormativity. This discourse is at the core of DJ Sprinkles' musical practices, which is why this renegade genius deserves to be on your playlist over a bedroom disc jockey.
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, Schoenbrun's first narrative feature film, harrowingly captures the trappings of an adolescent growing up online. When we’re young, we often form and find digital spaces away from our parents as we seek individualism and kinship. Often, these spaces are misunderstood or misrepresented, but in this lo-fi digital coming-of-age horror, Schoenbrun gets being 'online' right. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair captures what it's really like to explore the deep, dark recesses of the web -- isolated and anxious. The internet can be horrifying; creepy men lurk, and beheading videos are circulated, moulding us into the adults we are today. It then makes sense that Schoenbrun, who grew up on the internet, uses horror to explore the mythology of adolescence.
Schoenbrun says they wrote the film in a difficult place in their lives before they physically transitioned, stating in an interview that the internet was a "lifeline as a young queer kid, trying to figure themselves out online". The internet Schoenbrun grew up on was monumentally different to the one I know, but their earnest depiction of life online is an exhilarating experience that flags them as one of our most exciting contemporary filmmakers. As a teenager who was chronically online, it's exciting to see a filmmaker attempt to wrangle with what it is like to be bound to something as invisible as YouTube or Reddit. Their upcoming film I Saw the TV Glow, which A24 will distribute, is set to be released in the new year, so keep an eye out.
The Instagram bio of Ellie Kim, aka SuperKnova, reads, "Trans girl making guitar-driven, electronic pop music." Despite heady queer pop hits such as 'Islands' and 'Goals', the Asian American artist studied medicine and graduated with an MD in 2019. It was during her time at university that SuperKnova was born, as a way to process her emotions and to help her come out. Music was "a safe space to explore my identity," she says, and eventually, with the encouragement of her friend, SuperKnova found the courage to post her songs on Bandcamp. Her second album, American Queers, is on the list of all-time best sellers by trans artists on Bandcamp, and features my favourite track of hers: 'Power'.
A supernova is the biggest explosion humans have ever seen, so it's no surprise the artist embraces a bold and bright aesthetic. SuperKnova has said that "life is short -- you should do whatever the fuck you want". If that isn't how we should all aspire to live our lives, then I don't know what is.
You're likely familiar with Saleh if you're a fan of Netflix's hit sex comedy Sex Education. The show, known for its raunchy and progressive discussion of gender, body dysmorphia, queer sex and orgasms, introduces Saleh as Cal Bowman, Sex Education's first non-binary character, in its third season. Many may be surprised to hear that this is Saleh's first acting role - when they aren't trapped at a fictional English school, Saleh is a critically acclaimed multidisciplinary performing artist and musician. Their EPs Nūr and Rosetta, are welcome additions to a steadily growing canon of music that challenges the cis-heteropatriarchy. They sing in English and Arabic (Saleh is Sudanese American), further subverting the paradigm of western music culture. In not defining themselves as an artist bound to one language, one genre of music or one medium, Saleh is set to become a star.