Willbliss Kim Cass Lim is no stranger to hardship. Some of their earliest memories are walking around in Korea where they spent their early childhood, carrying a trusty water gun, and hearing people refer to them as a little girl.
"And I would just be like, 'Who's the little girl?' looking all round," Kim Cass Lim says. "I didn't know they were talking to me. Like, there's no little girl."
It wasn't gender dysphoria, exactly. Kim Cass Lim didn't feel trapped or uncomfortable in their own body—they just didn't identify strongly with a gender. When I call Kim Cass Lim to talk about an art piece they contributed to a local care package project, they talk openly—almost casually—about topics ranging from their childhood traumas to their 9 p.m. bedtime and their cat. Kim Cass Lim is pangender, pansexual, transracial, transnational and a single parent. But, as is the case with most humans, it's easier to understand Kim Cass Lim through stories rather than labels.
One of their daughters' birthdays was on Monday, so they've lit birthday candles, sung a song and made a wish together every day this week, making the joy and magic last as long as possible.
Kim Cass Lim was 4 years old when their biological father took his own life, and their mom "lost it." They and their two younger siblings were sent to an orphanage where they lived in Korea.
At 11, they reconnected with their biological mother and stepfather. At 12, they came out as bisexual. They remember overhearing arguments between their biological and adoptive parents about "whose fault it was that [they were] so messed up."
They lost their job earlier this year when the restaurant they were working at as a manager closed. They also went through a breakup right around when COVID-19 got bad in the United States.
Through all of this—from being 4 years old and caring for their little sisters through a crisis to being 39 years old and caring through their own children during a crisis—Kim Cass Lim has turned to art as an outlet. They were even featured in a virtual artist-in-residency program at the University of Arizona's Institute for LGBT Studies this summer.
"I always, always did art," they say. "It's actually one of the things that got me through the orphanage. I actually have my drawings from then. It's you know processing trauma through art is something that I find keeps me alive, sometimes."
'Like Little Mirrors'
Leaders at the Southern Arizona Gender Alliance, an organization dedicated to supporting, advocating and promoting justice for transgender, nonbinary and gender-creative people, decided to turn to art to uplift and connect the community during the pandemic.
"I think that even amongst a lot of trans people growing up, you don't really know another trans person, or at least know that you know one, so that can feel super isolating because you don't have anyone to talk to," says AJ Tiedeman, program manager at SAGA. "So, with space being taken away from us, that was really hard, and we had to figure out how we wanted to keep everyone in community other than online, because everyone's been bombarded with online things."
The group came up with a monthly trans care package subscription for trans and gender-nonconforming individuals in Arizona. The packages include trans affirming art and activities, community-building information, educational pieces about trans history and information on radical ways to take action. They've sent packages to about 70 people so far, and plan to send out new ones monthly for the rest of the year. They were even able to pay a few Arizona trans artists to provide art for the care packages—Kim Cass Lim and Aura Valdes.
Kim Cass Lim provided digital copies of a painting called "Transformation," in which two species of animal are fusing together beneath the primordial "drop of life." The background is based on a traditional woven Korean pattern, which they say was at once painstaking and Zen to paint. For Kim Cass Lim, it's deeply symbolic of what it meant to come into their gender identity.
Aura Valdes is primarily a spoken word and performance artist in Tucson, but they contributed a set of poetry collage cards to the project.
"I really wanted to think about my own experience as a queer person, as a trans person," they say. "I tried to pick out poetry and collage and artwork that I felt like would... I don't know how to describe it... connect with people that might, during this time, feel like they weren't seeing themselves or the world, or might be feeling kind of isolated."
One of the more difficult parts of the pandemic has been realizing just how important and valuable it feels to gather in a physical space together, Valdes added. There's something empowering about taking up a physical space, showing up in person, connecting with others, putting art out into the world. With that often unavailable during COVID-19, it can be difficult to feel seen.
That, Valdes explains, is why they wanted to participate "almost selfishly" in providing art for the care packages: to make sure people feel seen and not forgotten.
"It's like little mirrors we're shooting off into the community for each other," they say. "The trans community has to see each other in this time, because if we don't see each other, it's easier to get lost."
'Cold, Hard Cash'
While art has the power to connect and uplift members of a community who are facing isolation, there are a lot of powers it doesn't have. Tiedeman, who is queer, gender queer and trans, is acutely aware of this. When they joined several calls with other LGBTQ+ organizations during the beginning of the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders and concerns, the group started brainstorming what the community might need. There were some good ideas, but Tiedeman felt it was important to mention perhaps what was most obvious: cash.
"People really just need autonomy over themselves," they say. "And, unfortunately, in the capitalist society we live in, that means having money.... Not a lot of nonprofits get down to the root of the problem. They don't get into the root problems of classism and racism affecting people in these material ways of having no house, having no food on the table."
Tiedeman, who is Asian American, joined SAGA earlier this year as part of a structural transition for the organization: It is now staffed wholly of trans folks and parents and trans youth, and is majority Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC). They've made some shifts in how they operate and are now racial-justice oriented, trans-young-people empowered and more nonbinary aware. This includes initiatives like starting a new trans BIPOC support group.
Because most state and federal agencies aren't gathering data about whether COVID-19 patients are LGBTQ+, it's fuzzy exactly how much more at-risk this community is. The broader picture, however, is easy enough to piece together. Transgender people face higher rates of unemployment—they're about 11 percentage points less likely to be working
than cisgender people, according to a study published in the scientific journal the ILR Review earlier this year. According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, transgender people are more than twice as likely to live in poverty compared with the overall U.S. population (29 percent vs 14 percent). Trans BIPOCs are up to three times as likely (43 percent of Latinx, 41 percent of American Indian and 38 percent of Black respondents).
"Folks are just constantly slipping through the cracks, and most of them are Black and Indigenous and transfemme," Kim Cass Lim says. "That's not a coincidence."
Tiedeman wanted SAGA's position to be explicit.
"We are totally behind Black Lives Matter with defunding, and eventually abolishing the police," they say. "Because we can't have full trans liberation without other liberations, without Black liberation, and Black liberation necessitates the abolition of awful structures in our society, including the policing system."
'Whatever it is They Need'
Almost everyone is struggling in 2020, and, for many, it's facilitated an increased awareness of the importance of intersectionality. If we are all struggling with feelings of anxiety and isolation during The Year of the Pandemic and the Protests and the Hurricanes and the Fires and the Relentless Political Shitstorm, how much worse must it be for people who are already marginalized for their race, their gender identity, their sexual orientation?
The term "mutual aid" has become vastly more popular this year (just look at Google trends), and, while the organization theory has a multifaceted definition rooted in anarchist philosophy, at its heart, it's simple: People looking out for other people. And, because people from marginalized backgrounds know what it's like to need help, they often know the importance of offering it when they can. In Southern Arizona, this has taken many forms: trans folks helping poor folks helping BIPOC folks helping immigrants and so forth, without a thought to whether the help is deserved or, in the case of financial donations, will be used appropriately.
Just one more example: Sophia Diaz Martinez, a transgender woman living in Tucson, started the Earline Smith Abuse Center named for her late grandmother, in April. The organization's stated mission is to help people across Arizona recover from their addiction, but Martinez and a team of nearly two dozen volunteers work primarily to help Tucson's homeless community.
"It helps people, regardless of the fact that they are alcoholics or homeless or whatever they may be, we get them into shelters, we get them housing," Diaz Martinez explains. "Whatever it is they need, we try our best to do."
For more information on how to contribute to the SAGA COVID-19 relief fund or care packages, or to join one of the organization's support groups, visit sagatucson.org.
To donate to the Earline Smith Abuse Center, visit the organization's Facebook page.
To learn more about Aura Valdes and their art, visit auravaldes.wordpress.com
To learn more about Willbliss Kim Cass Lim and their art, visit @willblissart on Instagram.