An Interview with Van Binfa Van: The affluent white cis gay men, were trying to push out
the queer youth of color that had started coming into Lakeview and accessing the resources that the Center on Halsted, or Howard Brown or Broadway Youth Center - all of these big, government-funded resources – they were starting to come and access it. And it really upset a lot of people. They were like, “Our neighborhood's going to hell. Let's take back Boystown.” Nia: Wow. I assumed, when you said, “Take back Boystown,” that you meant from the rich white gay cis men. Van: Oh, fuck no! It's expensive to live in Boystown. Like, you can have million-dollar apartments in Boystown. So, yeah, they were trying to take back their neighborhood, and it started a lot of community discussions about – Nia: Racism? [laughter] Van: Yeah! About racism, and oppression within queer communities. I mean, you can totally be a minority and still oppress another minority. Nia: Amen. [laughter] [musical interlude] Nia: Welcome to We Want the Airwaves. My name is Nia King. You may have noticed I have dropped down to a twice a month schedule rather than a once a week schedule of putting out the podcast in order to retain my sanity while I try to figure out how to make the podcast more financially sustainable. Donations are always welcome and appreciated. You can donate at artactivistnia.com if you click the podcast button, or at niapod.tumblr.com, there is a donate button where you can donate through PayPal there as well. This week on the podcast I was very excited to talk to Van Binfa, who is a cartoonist from Chicago as well as a co-founder of the Soy Quien Soy Trans Empowerment Collective. I first learned about Van because he was part of the Trans 100. I came across his name when I was scrolling through the list and was really excited to talk to another queer cartoonist of color. We became Facebook friends - he’s really hilarious on Facebook – and then when I was in Chicago for The Lady Drawers exhibition, we had the opportunity to meet up, and he was everything I had hoped he would be and so much more. So I hope you enjoy listening to our conversation. We talk about gentrification, we talk about fan fiction, we talk about gay racism, we talk about cancer, and homelessness, and working in a bookstore. He has a lot of interesting stories and a lot of interesting things to say, so without further ado, here’s Van. [musical interlude] Van: So, I had worked at a Latino LGBT nonprofit, and what I was realizing was, there wasn't a lot of either space, or organizations, or purposeful advocacy on the behalf of trans Latinos, so I really wanted to change that. I wanted to either provide a space, or some kind of support or network system for us to go to.
I was constantly – this was about three, two years ago – I was constantly searching for somebody like myself. I would go to trans groups, and they would be predominantly white. And then I would go to queer spaces and I would find other Latinos, but they were all cis. So, it was really hard for me to find that in-between ground. So my co-founder, Yvonne, and I decided that we were going to fix that, and at least do a little something for the community, so we've based ourselves in Pilsen, which was really really important because a lot of the trans resources and support is in the North Side, which is more accessible to white gay men, and we just wanted to branch out from there. So we started at Efebina's Cafe, and we started doing just, once a month, you know, just gathering together, having coffee, talking about, you know, doing things, so through SQS, we've done a couple of workshop-related activities. We've worked with Howard Brown, Center on Halsted, I mean, we've worked with pretty much anybody in the city that's involved with LGBT activism. We did Fiesta del Sol for two years, and, yeah. Nia: Can you explain what that is? Van: Yeah. Fiesta del Sol is the largest Midwest Latino festival, which happens in Pilsen. I think the stats are like 1.1 million Latinos go to the festival all weekend. Nia: Wow. Van: Yeah, it's a lot of people. It's insanely fun. There is just so much food, it's wonderful. [laughter] It's just really great. So we've done that, we've helped at the booth. We weren't able to do it this year but the past two years has been really interesting. So yeah we've worked with pretty much all the major LGBT organizations and a lot of the more grassroots organizations in the city. It's been wonderful; we've done anything from Trans 101, to self-defense workshops. We've been in newspapers, and things like that. Soy Quien Soy it is on hold for now, as I'm going through kind of more personal medical issues this whole year. I just haven't been able to get down to Pilsen, so we're on hold. I think we're going to be shifting into more of an online resource so that's where that's headed towards, but it's pretty much my baby. It's been fun. Nia: For those of us who might not be familiar with Chicago geography, could you talk a little bit about what Pilsen, and what it's like demographically and why it felt important to you that that's where your group met? Van: [laughter] Oh gosh! Sure. Pilsen is about, I want to say about, 10 minutes south of the Loop, so like downtown Chicago, you drive 10 minutes down, and there's Pilsen. It's a pretty big neighborhood. It's a pretty well-established neighborhood, and it's predominantly Latino right now. In Pilsen there's the National Museum of Mexican Art, which is free, so you can drop in at any time. Nia: That's awesome. Van: I know! They have this fabulous Day of the Dead exhibit. It's just beautiful. It is so well-run and the museum hosts Queer Prom.
Nia: That's really awesome. Van: I know! So I think Pilsen is pretty much incredibly queer-friendly, and I think a lot of people don't know that because they think, “Oh my gosh, it's primarily Latinos, and they're Catholic, and super conservative!” but no, there's a thriving queer community in Pilsen, which is just wonderful to be part of. I didn't want to centralize ourselves where everybody else was, already. Any queer person of color that lived more towards the South Side would always have to travel north, so I didn't want to continue that trend. I just wanted to set ourselves apart, and start somewhere new. Nia: Yeah. So I went to a queer event last night in Chicago, and I was really interested to see the similarities and differences between queer events that I've been to in the Bay. In my experience, or my opinion, I feel like the Bay Area queer community is really segregated – perhaps even moreso by gender than by race. Like you kind of have the queer cis women hanging out together and the trans male community – there's some overlap because people are dating each other and overlapping friend circles or whatever. But then the gay male communities - cis male communities - feels totally separate. And I think the trans women community – I don't know if they have a separate community, or if they're just forced into the margins of the communities that already exist. Van: Right. Nia: But that's not something I felt like I saw – it feels different here, to me. But I've only been here a week, so I'm curious to hear what your thoughts are. Van: Yeah, I feel like there is that segregation to an extent because there's definitely – you understand that Lakeview/Boystown is white cis gay male territory. Nia: Makes them sound like a gang. [laughter] Van: Great. Yeah, the most fabulous gang ever – to kick out brown queers of color, because that's what happens. I don't know. There's just so much shit that goes on in Boystown; it's so problematic. There was this whole “Take back Boystown” – I don't want to say it was like a scandal – but everybody was talking about it because the affluent white cis gay men, part of that “gang,” were trying to push out the queer youth of color. Chicago is one of the most segregated, racially segregated, cities in the entire country. You have a clear divide between neighborhoods. You have a clear divide between North Siders and South Siders. But you have the same thing in the queer community. You know that Lakeview has the most resources, so if you want hormones, you got to go to Lakeview. That's starting to change, but still the most – just like the TransLife Center, which is a homeless shelter geared for transwomen of color – Nia: Oh wow. Van: Right. That just opened up, but still it's in the North Side. So that is an issue I feel like more organizations are tackling, but there's definitely – if you're a transman, and you only want to be surrounded by transmen, it's definitely possible. I mean, it's just so easy.
Nia: In the North Side, you mean? Van: Yeah, in the North Side. But I feel like if you go to Pilsen or Humboldt Park, or places like Cicero, which are all kind of satellites of the Loop, you can definitely find a better mix of people where you don't feel like you look like everybody else in the room. So it just depends. I feel like when you're in queer people of color communities, you find a much better mix of identities. Nia: Yeah. Can we talk about gentrification for a little bit? Van: Oh my God, yes! That's a huge issue, too! Nia: [laughter] Van: Pilsen is undergoing that, right now. Nia: I don't have something super prolific to say about this but I'm really interested in the relationship between gays and gentrification because I feel like gay people and queer people are often the first wave of gentrification, and then the people who actually have money come after. [laughter] Nia: It's often artists and gay people, and I don't know why that is, but I think it's really fascinating. Do you have any thoughts or theories on why gays are often at the forefront of gentrification? Is that a trend that you've noticed? Van: It is a trend that I've noticed, because it's kind of like the cool and hip to live in a neighborhood that nobody wants to live in and you have super cheap rent. I've noticed gay men talking about this: “Oh yeah, I live in Humboldt Park, or Logan Square, and it's super cheap, but my apartment is great!” and, you know, stuff like that. My mom – okay, my mom loves Bravo TV. I try not to hold it against her but, okay, so she watches this thing called, “Million Dollar Listings” or something. Nia: Okay. Van: It's just mostly like there's this one gay guy, gay white guy, who's like, a millionaire, and he sells apartments in Manhattan. And he makes millions of dollars in commission off of what he does. But when he's finding places to live, he likes to look for “up and coming” neighborhoods, which to me means – Nia: Brown? Van: Right, exactly! So, “How can I move into this neighborhood and make it fashionable?” And I can't really provide an explanation why, but it's definitely a trend that I see. So I see like, this guy and his mindset here in Chicago, into our neighborhoods and it's just, it's just... frustrating, to say the least. Nia: Yeah. It's interesting that you say your mom likes Bravo, because it's sounds like she's not a big fan of the gays...? Is that fair to say? Van: [laughter] My gosh, my mom is – my mom... so yeah, my mom is a complicated lady.
[laughter] Van: I'm very happy and grateful for the support she provides me now, but it's definitely been a uphill battle. I came out as a lesbian when I was 14, 15 years old. So, things did not go well. It was not accepted, it was, you know, “How dare you do this to our family? How will you ever find a man to marry you? How?” I had a bunch of family members tell me, “You just need to sleep with a man.” Nia: [laughter] Because that always fixes everything. Van: Well, it does for me now! [laughter] Van: But back then! Back then, it was like, “How could you tell me this? Come on!” Ugh, I don't know, it's so complicated to say it. But it's like there's so many overlapping things that kind of explain how I was brought up and it really explained my parents. My parents were super into – what's the word I'm looking for – oh my gosh. My parents wanted to be American – what is the term? Nia: Assimilationist? Van: There we go! Yes, my parents were, at least they are, they consider themselves Americans. So they really pushed for that. They wanted to live in the suburbs. When my mother – they lived in the city until I was seven years old, and my mom told me they started to see the neighborhood go downhill. She said, “When the Italians moved, that's when I knew we had to move.” So that's been my parents' kind of, you know – Nia: And your mom is Chilean? Van: Yeah. Both my parents are Chilean, but they've both been citizens for quite a while. So anyway, my mom is a mix between this weird American culture, and then Chilean culture, so she accepts gay people to an extent, but when it's her own family – and I think a lot of people have this issue – Nia: Mhm. Van: When it's your own family, it's different. Nia: Yeah. Van: But I definitely see a hardcore conservative, Chilean upbringing in her views on queer people in general. So yeah, she's very accepting now, and she calls me her son, but I still – at home, my pronouns have not changed in Spanish. I'm “la Van,” I'm not “el Van.” I'm “he” and “him” in English, but definitely not in Spanish. And a lot of my extended family still doesn't know, so I'm still “Vanessa” or “she” pronouns even though I have scruff. Nia: So your family calls you, “The Van”? Van: Well, “la” is feminine.
Nia: Right. Van: Right, so I'm... Nia: But for “the”... right? Van: Okay, when like – Nia: Do I just not understand Spanish, is that the problem? [laughter] Van: It's hard to explain. Nia: Okay. Van: So when my mom is talking to somebody about me, she will – like when we're playing with our dogs, she'll throw a toy, and instead of saying, “Throw it to Van!” and then in Spanish when you say “to someone” you have to have the pronoun in front of it. Nia: Mhm. Okay. Van: Instead of, in English, you just say, “Thrown it to Van” and there's no gender associated with that, in Spanish it's, “Tiralo, a la Van!” Nia: Okay. Van: Okay? You don't always have to have the gender in front of it, but most often my mom will say, “la Van!” So it's still feminine in front of my name. Nia: This is very tangentially related, but it's sort of reminds me of this one time I was walking down the street, and these little kids shouted after me. I think it was like, “Hey, hey miss! Hey miss, are you a boy or a girl?” And it's like, “Well didn't you just kind of answer that question?” [laughter] Van: Exactly, right? I love when that happens at the place I work, now, because I'll just have so much fun with it, you know? At the beginning of my transition, I was terrified because I had no idea! I couldn't answer the kid! I was like, “I don't know if I'm a boy or a girl! I really don't! Can't you help me?” [laughter] Van: But now, like – Nia: All of a sudden the kid has a lot more responsibility than they bargained for! [laughter] Van: Right, exactly. [laughter] But now, I used to paint my nails at work, and I stopped because I just, I got so tired of my nails getting destroyed and being harassed about it. Nia: By customers, or by co-workers?
Van: By customers. My co-workers will defend me to death, which I love them for. But yeah, customers were giving me shit about it, and I got misgendered more often when I painted my nails, so as part of self-care, I just had to stop. But I had this little boy come up, and he – if you could be like “future queer,” [laughter] this little boy was it. I was so excited, but also kind of like, “Sweetheart, I hope you have an easier time than some of us.” So he comes up to the register where I'm at, and he points at my hair and is like, “Mommy, that boy has pink hair and paints his nails!” and I was just like, “Oh my God, you're adorable, be mine!” Nia: [laughter] Van: And, his mother was just awful, she was just like, “I know. Stop talking about it.” I was just like, “Let the kid talk! He's just commenting.” He wasn't saying anything bad; I didn't mind. And this little boy, he goes over to his mom and whispers, “Can I paint my nails?” Nia: Aww! [laughter] Van: And she took him and she was just like, “No!” and then they just left the store. I was just like, “Ugh!” Yeah, I think about that little kid a lot. I hope he's okay. Nia: Yeah. Do you see your artwork as being, as trying to create space for future queers, or as being political in some other way? Van: I definitely think the personal is political, so my comics are personal. I was asked to create pieces to hang in a queer cafe, right? So we were all doing kind of like a gallery-style thing, which I had never done before. I was like, “People want to see my stuff?” Like, I don't understand this! So when I was making pieces, I was just like, “So what do I do? Besides my comics and some vague anime things, what do I draw?” So I thought about it, and what my favorite piece that came out of that was this one where I'm – like my comic self – is at the center, “I love my trans body”. I didn't do it so much for myself because at that point I had already kind of accepted myself and things like that, which I still struggle with, but it wasn't really for me, but it was for somebody else walking through that cafe going through the same thing that I'd been going through at the beginning of my transition. It was for whoever needed to read that. Nia: Just to know that it is possible to love one's trans body? Van: Right. Yeah. There's a website called “We Happy Trans” and that's all about being focused on the positive aspects of your transition, and I'm a big believer in that. I'm a big believer in challenging the traditional trans narrative, which includes “In order to be trans, you have to hate yourself. You have to go through a period of neither self-harm or harm from society, and you have to completely cut off any association your former self.” I put a lot of my “former self,” as I call it, as I call her, into my comic. You will definitely see myself right now and myself five years ago interacting with each other. Because I find it fascinating – what would I have responded in this situation five years ago? So I'm all about being more positive about being trans, and spreading that out there, that you can totally love your trans body, or you can overcome things, without having to focus on what we've been told. Nia: Do you ever feel like there's a pressure to be positive that makes it difficult to talk about the hard
stuff? Van: Yes. I've encountered that. I did undergo a couple periods of homelessness. I do feel pressure to stay away from those periods, because I feel like, “Man, I really don't want to depress people.” or I really don't want people to feel sorry for me, because that's totally not how I view it. I view it as something that I went through, just like any other experience, and it's something that's made me more resilient in the end. I tell people sometimes that I am ready for anything and anytime. I'm a very resourceful person, so I think that really challenged my adaptability, but I definitely feel that pressure. Nia: Sorry, homelessness did, or something else? Van: Homelessness. Nia: Okay. Van: I mean, you have to adapt. I never really knew for a long period of time where I'm going to stay next, and how am I going to pay for this, and how am I going to fill out forms for that when I'm technically not living at that place? Nia: Yeah. And you were working more than full-time the entire time that you were without housing. Van: Yeah. Nia: Which I thought was a really interesting part of your story because we like to think that if you work full-time – Van: [laughter] Nia: – you can afford to live somewhere, but clearly that's not always the case. Van: God, no. No. I was fortunate that my parents let me keep the car, so I was able to get to and from wherever I was staying to work, but no, I could never – I think I was making like $9.50 an hour, which – Nia: Working sixty hours a week? Van: Back then... no okay, the first time, I was working at least thirty. My hours were never steady, so I was working thirty to thirty-five hours a week, depending. Some weeks were awful, and I would be working eighteen hours. So, because there's all these clauses that, “Oh, now you're full-time and have to have this certain amount of hours unless, you know, we have to cut back, and then we can't cut your hours more than four weeks at a time.” Well, for four of those weeks I'm still working on eighteen hours of pay. Nia: Yeah. Van: So anyway, I was working, and I think a typical apartment in Schaumburg, which is the suburb that I live in, is about $800-$1,000? Nia: Wow. Is it cheaper to live in the city? Or was that just not an option because of work?
Van: I could not live in the city. It was not an option 'cause I couldn't afford the gas. And I also didn't know that many people in the city the first time that I had homelessness happen to me, so I stayed in as many friends' houses as I could who lived in the suburbs near work, and tried to save money up but I also had bills to pay, just you know, and I had to feed myself, and I was just very fortunate that I had friends who were able to host me. Nia: I'm sorry if this is a stupid question, but if you're not paying rent and not paying utilities, what bills are you paying? Van: I had credit card debt. Nia: Mm. Van: Yeah. I was in a, let's say, a very difficult relationship, where I was flying out my ex-girlfriend from Arizona three times a year, which got expensive fast. Nia: While you were homeless? Van: No, before. Nia: Okay. Van: Oh, no. Nia: Because I was about to say, that's pretty impressive. [laughter] On $9.50 an hour. Van: No, no, no. A lot of that I paid on my credit card, because I thought that's what dedication to your relationship meant – was paying for everything. Nia: Mm. Van: Yeah, by the time we broke up, I was thousands of dollars in debt and she'd never paid me back. Nia: Did you ever ask her for the money? Van: Oh yeah, I did. I think I saw about three hundred bucks, which I'm still paying off today. So when I was not paying for all of my credit cards and just trying to stay above water with that, I was paying for school, I was paying for gas, I was paying for clothes, for food, and by the time there was anything left over, it wasn't anything enough to make rent with. Nia: Mm. Van: So I would give whoever I was staying with, you know, a couple hundred dollars, but I could never afford to live on my – I still can't afford to live on my own in the suburbs with what I'm making now, which I think is a huge problem. We were just talking about this at work the other day. I have great benefits, but I have shit pay. And I don't know how anybody survives on that kind of pay. Unless you're really lucky enough to find someplace. Even a studio is about seven hundred bucks in the suburbs.
Nia: Yeah. Alright, a friend was telling me yesterday how much cheaper it is to live here than in Oakland, and now I'm salivating thinking about moving to Chicago. [laughter] But it sounds like the rent in the suburbs are a lot higher. Van: Oh yeah. No, no, no. Stay away from the suburbs, because then you have to have a car. There's no – there is public transportation, but it's not reliable, and you just never know when it's going to come, or if it'll come on time, or if the buses are running at all. Nia: Yeah. Van: So if you can stay in the city and be close to any of the, a bus or train, which is not hard, if you live in the right neighborhood, you know you can definitely afford the rent, or even better if you have a roommate. That's totally possible. But it all depends on what your situation is. *** Nia: Right. I thought that you had mentioned earlier at one point you were working sixty hours a week while you were homeless. Did I misremember that? Van: I've been homeless multiple times. Nia: Okay. Van: So that has definitely happened where I was homeless and I was working at Walmart and Starbucks simultaneously. And yeah, I was doing – Nia: And also in school? Van: Was I in school? No, I was not – well, half the time, I was, actually. I went back to community college, to start a psychology degree. So yes, at one point I had the two jobs plus school, and I was still running – was I running? – yeah, I was running Soy Quien Soy, and I was still doing activist work. So it was a crazy time. [laughter] And then I kind of crashed and I started to have health problems, so I had to quit Walmart, I pulled back with activist gigs that I was doing, and that was last year. So I finished up school and I just didn't go back. Yeah, there was that one point in my life, where it was definitely – I think Christmas Day was my one day off from everything, and I slept twelve hours straight. That was definitely hard. Nia: Yeah. Do you feel like during that time where you're working so hard that the activist work was something that nourished you, or was it something else that drained you? Because activism can definitely do either. [laughter] Van: I think at the time I thought it was something that refreshed me, that took me out of that – Walmart was soul-sucking. Nia: [laughter] Surprise! Van: Right? Surprise, but it's been one of the highest paying retail jobs that I've ever had. So they started me off at $9.45, where at other places I'd get started at like, minimum wage, or something. Nia: What is minimum wage here?
Van: It's $8.50. Or no, $8.25. Nia: Okay. Van: So they started me at almost ten dollars an hour! And that was pretty great. At Macy's it took me three years to get ten dollars. So that was great about Walmart, but it was just soul-sucking. Same thing with Starbucks even though I enjoyed the work a little bit more, because I worked produce at Walmart. Starbucks was still – I was making minimum wage, plus tips, which wasn't, it wasn't really that much – I was paying my bills with what I made out of Walmart, and then I survived on what I made at Starbucks. At the time I saw activist work as fun work, but later on I started having health issues. It definitely was something that was just more work. I think I really learned that in the past year, to pace myself. There's been a lot of great events in the queer community here in Chicago this year that I just haven't been able to go to, and it's just something that I have to accept. It's a forty-five minute drive from my house to the city. The drive itself gets really tiring, especially with the traffic, then it's a two hour drive to where I'm going. So it just became more work and I try not to view it that way anymore. Nia: Well, thanks for driving out here in the traffic for this interview! [laughter] Do you want to tell the story about how you had a brief stint in the nonprofit sector and then went rushing back to retail? Van: Oh my God. [laughter] Yes. Nia: [laughter] Van: So, this has been like – I tell this story to my co-workers, and then to like, other people I work with in the city. I kind of feel like I have two lives. I have my retail life in the suburbs, and I have my activist life in the city, so I'm always kind of back and forth between the two. So when customers yell at me at work, I'm like, “I'm a nationally recognized activist. Shut the fuck up.” Nia: [laughter] You should get a pin that says that, or something! Van: [laughter] I really should. Or get a shirt or something. Or like, again, this dude yelled at me because I paid him two dollars for Fifty Shades of Grey, and he didn't think that that was a fair offer, and I'm like, “It's Fifty Shades of Grey!” He yelled at me, and I'm just thinking in my head, “I was on the front page of a newspaper, you asshole!” This doesn't matter; I don't care what you think! [laughter] Anyway, sometimes when I'm telling my retail life people what happens in the activist life in Chicago, they can't believe it. I think a lot of people, and I certainly did, place this ideal in nonprofits, that when you work at a nonprofit, everybody works together, it's all harmony, everybody's there for the same purpose, and it's totally not true! I'm sure it's more true at some organizations, but I didn't get that privilege. [laughter] I was not that lucky. I met Yvonne, who's my co-founder at SQS, through that organization, and we are activist soulmates. We just click on every level. Her strengths are my weakness, and vice versa. I'm forever blessed to have Yvonne's support. She's always the one yelling at me to take it easy, to focus on my health, and fuck everyone else. That's been really, really like a source of comfort for this year.
And again, I've met so many great people through my first job in nonprofit [work], but it was horrible! I mean, who would run to Walmart? I did, because it was just that awful! I never got paid on time. My time and my personal life was never respected. I never felt like I was listened to. I felt like trans issues really weren't important. Nia: And this was at a GLBT organization? Van: Yeah. Nia: Or was it lesbian-specific? Van: It was lesbian specific, but they definitely had interactions with LGBT folks. Nia: Mhm. Van: Or, you know, broader organizations. So I was very thankful for what I learned in a positive aspect, and also I'm still thankful for – I can recognize the signs of an organization that I really don't want to work with. I really pride myself with Soy Quien Soy, or with my freelance public speaking. I'm working with people who have similar goals. Like, we don't always have to be in agreement to everything, but I really like to work with people who I click with. That really taught me a lot about what to look for, about who not to work with, because I think a lot of baby activists have that problem. Where they want to work with everybody! Because everyone's great! Nia: Do you want to warn baby activists what they should be looking out for? What some of the red flags are? Van: Jesus. [laughter] Help me, brown Jesus. Let's see. Nia: [laughter] Van: Let's see. God. Nia: You don't have to name any names. Van: No, no, no. But if they don't have an office, run. [laughter] Nia: So if it's out of somebody's living room, or bedroom? Van: Right. Or if their files are in someone's basement. That's a for sure sign that they don't have their shit together. Or if like Nia: I can already hear the angry letters being written. Van: Right? [laughter]
Van: Oh, yes. Write angry letters, that's fine. Nia: [laughter] They're probably going to come to me. Van: Well, you have to have the same mindset as I do when I have my customers at work! [laughter] I don't... I was on the front page of a newspaper! Whatever. Nia: Well, I think one of the interesting things about activism, and also being an artist, is that being on the front page of a newspaper doesn't pay your rent. Like, no, you still have to go back to work the next day. Van: Exactly, yeah. That's why, again, my double lives kind of clash because a lot of people in the nonprofit sector will be like, “Why are you working retail for hourly pay when you could be doing a salary full-time?” and they just don't understand why I choose to work retail. And I'm just like, “Dude, retail has some pretty sweet benefits.” – which, a lot of nonprofit jobs will pay pretty well, but they won't give you benefits! You don't get health insurance, or paid time off, or things like that. And then it's the flip side with retail. A lot of my co-workers, they don't understand why anybody would go into nonprofit [work], because they don't get benefits. How can you live without benefits? But then the pay is shit, so. [laughter] Nia: Yeah. Van: But yeah, again, being in the nonprofit world, being as a paid staffer, now as just a volunteer, and then having my own organization, I definitely know that if this person doesn't seem like – if this person, or this person of an organization, or the organization itself doesn't reply to your e-mails, they don't speak to each other. The board members, the staff members, never speak to each other, or they don't work together, or they never see each other, or they don't have regular meetings. That's a big red flag. Communication is hugely important. In retail, we have staff meetings at least once a month. And if you don't see that in an organization, I'm not saying that nonprofits have to run like retail, but that's definitely a strength of retail – is the communication involved, is that teamwork aspect. So if you don't see that in a nonprofit, then I would probably stay away. Nia: Yeah. Another thing I think is interesting is – being a nationally-recognized activist I feel like doesn't necessarily make you more employable? But it doesn't necessarily help you find jobs! Maybe this isn't your experience, and granted, I'm not a nationally-recognized activist, but I think about it, I'm like, I've been self-publishing for years, I run a podcast, I do this webcomic, like I have a lot of skills, but I still can't find a job or if I can, it's as somebody's receptionist. [laughter] Van: Right, right, right. I agree to an extent. It definitely – when I started being, you know, little baby activist, I wanted to be everywhere, no matter – even if I had to pay to take the train, or pay for the gas, it didn't matter, 'cause I was dedicated to the cause. Being in this for years now, I can tell you that unless you're willing to pay me to speak at your event, I probably won't be there. If you want my opinion, written down, you need to pay me for that. Because that's important. How can you be all for advocating for minorities when you don't support them? Financially? Nia: It's such a huge hypocrisy. Van: Right!
Nia: That organizations that are all about empowering low-income communities and communities of color often don't pay their people shit, and expect a lot for free. Van: Oh yeah, definitely. I had this event where I told the person, “I can't afford your entry fee for the event, but I would love to attend.” They told me that if I volunteered for a couple of hours and paid half the entry fee, then I can come. I was like, “So I'm paying you to work?” Nia: [laughter] Van: I don't – I didn't understand the logic. Nia: Did they want you to speak there? How – did they ask you to come? Van: They just wanted me to come for community solidarity! But I literally can't afford community solidarity. Nia: Yeah. [laughter] Van: Plus like, I'm a cancer survivor this year. I had a major operation in January. So for me to drive half an hour, to take a forty-five minute train, to do a twenty minute transfer, to walk four blocks, and then volunteer at your event, plus I would have had to work that day? Nia: And to have to pay to get into the event still. Van: And to have to pay to get into your event. Yeah, that's a lot for me. Nia: Yeah, even without cancer, that's still a lot! [laughter] Van: Right? I'm still six months post-op, and I'm still – like today, I think I spent all day sleeping. I have exactly enough – the right amount – of energy to make it through my workweek, to have a little fun, and that's it. It's been really hard for me as an activist to come to terms with that. To really know your limitation. Again, I'm so grateful for Yvonne, because I want to be everywhere, all the time. This event is happening, I need to be there, it'd be great if I could be at this event, but Yvonne reminds me, “Ain't no one paying your ass to be there. They want you there so badly, then they can pay you to be there so badly.” I think she's really made me value myself, and I hope that – I really wish that – everybody had someone as great as Yvonne to tell them that. That what you have to say is important. And it's not only important in a societal way, but it's important in a financial way. Again, it sucks that we need to be paid to do this, because we really shouldn't. This should just be the nature of the world, but how else am I going to survive? I mean, you're not even going to provide me with a meal once I get there, so that's another ten bucks that I'd have to spend somewhere. So I definitely think that's an oversight of queer communities right now, is that a lot of us are doing all these skills, again yeah, like you said, being a nationally recognized activist, what does that do for me? I'm still working the retail counter, I'm still being yelled at by some dude trying to sell me Fifty Shades of Grey at the end of it. But yeah, I do have a lot of really useful skills, and I've been offered a couple jobs, and know a lot of people, I can network very well. If I wanted a full-time job at a nonprofit organization, I could probably do it.
I don't know, there's just that weird divide between what we value as real work, and a lot of what we do – again, I write fanfic. No one pays me for that! Nia: We haven't talked about that yet! Van: I'm pretty sure you're going to ask! Nia: [laughter] Actually wasn't. I feel like I got all my questions. [laughter] But we can talk about that. Van: Yeah, the stuff that you do for free – how is it really helping you? You said, with your podcast, and me with my comics, nobody pays me for that. But again, a lot of the things that I do are half for myself, because I need to do it, and half for other people, because I feel there's a need for it out there. Nia: Is the fanfic something that is wholly for yourself? Or... from Facebook, it sounds like you have a bunch of very demanding fans of your fanfic. [laughter] Van: I love my fans. Oh my gosh, I can't believe that I have fans, like, for fanfic. Nia: [laughter] Do they know that you're a nationally-recognized activist? Is that a separate thing? Van: No. Oh dear God, no, no. Even today, I had two people post on my Facebook that they wanted to read my stuff, and I'm just like, “No!” Nia: [laughter] Van: Nobody that I know in real life will ever know that this is me. Nia: Do you want to explain real quick what it is that you write? Van: Yeah. Oh my gosh, it's so much more embarrassing when I say it out loud. Nia: [laughter] Van: [laughter] Which, all the best things are. So, I'm totally into this television show, and it's godawful, but I love it. It's called Supernatural, and [laughter] I can hear my co-workers groaning and rolling their eyes – Nia: [laughter] Van: – because Godforbid somebody talked to Van at work about Supernatural, because you'll be trapped for like, ten minutes. Nia: [laughter] Van: Hearing about the latest episode, and how much you loved it, how cute the boys are. [laughter] Anyway, so it's this show about Sam and Dean, and they're brothers, and they hunt monsters across the country, and they have a tragic backstory, and they're friends with this angel, Castiel, and the end of the world almost happens once, stuff like that. [laughter] There I am, every week, trying to request
Wednesday nights off so I can go home and watch it, and I think my manager was just like, “I know you don't want to close Wednesdays, but I really needed you this week!” And there I am, at the register, at eight o'clock, posting Facebook statuses passive-aggressively, “Wish I could be there, but I'm at work!” So my fanfic is centered around the show, and it's dystopian alternate universe, and I think I'm at almost sixty thousand words right now. And it's gotten a lot of attention. Even people who aren't into Supernatural have been hearing about it, coming over, reading it, giving me really positive reviews, which I think is a pretty big compliment for fanfiction! Like, you're not even into the show and here you are, taking the time – how long does it take for you to read 60k? That's some serious commitment. Then, on top of that, you leave me a nice comment, that's another extension of, wow, serious commitment from people. Nia: So this is posted on a blog, and comments are the main way you get feedback from your audience? Van: Yeah, it's called Archive of Our Own, and you can go there for any kind of fandom, and find fics based on – I mean, you can search by title and stuff, but you can search by tags. So if you have a specific universe or thing that you're looking for, you can find all of that. There's this one aspect that I love to write and read, which is like domestic fluff, so like you move into a house and you become little house partners, and it's all centered around that. It's really happy cutesy stuff, which really makes my day. Nia: So for those who may not know, because this is embarrassing but I honestly am not totally sure, how do you define fandom? Like what does that mean exactly? Van: [laughter] Fandom – okay, fandom is where I can go, like – okay, there's like a particular scene in Supernatural that will happen, and I will either just start posting online that I'm sobbing, and fandom is like, “I know; I'm sobbing too!” Nia: [laughter] So, it's like solidarity? Van: [laughter] Yeah, it's solidarity with feels. Like, “I have so many feels!” and then it's like, there's some Supernatural episodes that'll be like, “It hurts so good!” and fandom is like, “I know, bro! I know!” Nia: [laughter] Van: So fandom is like, you're just a fan and you understand that this more than a TV show, these are feelings and emotions, you are tied to these characters' situations and when you read fanfic, you're looking for more. More than what the show already offers you, and I think a lot of that is on tumblr. Or Twitter, too. Nia: Is it? Van: Yeah! There's some big Twitters out there for Supernatural fandom that post links back and forth, and then the stars of the show are on there, some of the actors are on there, and they'll take pictures of the sets, which we all go crazy for, 'cause now season nine is coming out in October, which I'm totally psyched for. [laughter] I keep re-requesting – there's a Supernatural convention at the end of October –
I keep re-requesting those days off, because I get paranoid that my manager won't notice, and she just went up, “You don't have to keep re-requesting them! I know, Van! I know! You will cut me if I don't give you these days off.” Nia: [laughter] That's really awesome, that the manager of your work is really supportive of your, like – Van: Well, [laughter] I have vacation time. I just need to know that my vacation time will be there. Like, you won't mess up and get the wrong weekend, because I will be screaming. [laughter] We're all really close, so we all know what we're really into. If my co-worker starts talking about his time at Best Buy, you will be there for fifteen minutes listening to his story. Nia: He's a... he's a fan of Best Buy? [laughter] Van: We all have our things that we could talk about forever. Nia: Okay. Van: For me it's Supernatural, for him it's his time at Best Buy. For another co-worker, it's classic rock. So we all have those things. And I think we all mutually put up with each other when we do that, so it's pretty great. [laughter] Nia: That's kind of adorable. [laughter] Van: [laughter] We get a phone call. This girl was looking for a Supernatural animated series, and my co-worker was like, “Hold on, where's Van?” And I get on the phone, “Oh you're looking for it?” and then, “No, it's actually really hard to find, because not a lot of people sell it back, so your best bet is probably to buy it on Amazon.” Nia: Wait, this was on the phone? So you were at home? Van: No, no I was at work. But they pulled me from whatever I was doing to answer the phone call, because they know that anything Supernatural-related, I will know. So they'll pull me out – I'll be shelving, and cooking, and they'll be like, “There's someone on the phone asking about Supernatural paperbacks, and if we have any,” and if we did, I already bought it. Nia: [laughter] Van: “So, sucks to be you.” Nia: [laughter] Van: Actually, I didn't bring this up, but there is paid Supernatural fanfiction. Nia: Oh! Van: Where the writers of the show will give permission to a certain writer, and there's paperbacks released. Just mass-market paperbacks for about eight bucks a pop. They're about two hundred pages long, just little guys. And yeah, those are paid, that's approved by the creator of the series and the
writing team. Nia: So writing fanfic can actually turn into a paid gig. Van: It can. Nia: If the writers of the show like you. Van: Exactly! If you have the right connections, these authors are pretty well-established within multiple fandoms. I think Keith DeCandido actually writes for like nine different fandoms. So if you are a good enough writer, you have the right connections, and you have the right tie to the show, if you take the characters – you obviously can't ship any characters, so you can't – Nia: What is shipping? Van: [laughter] I was going to explain. This is going to – so you take two characters, and you ship them. You put them in a relationship with each other. Nia: Okay. Van: So you obviously can't do that, but if your writing takes the tone of the show, the right way, and it doesn't have any spoilers for the actual show itself, stuff like that, you can actually probably publish that. Nia: So they find you a publisher, or they publish it themselves? Van: I have no idea. I have no idea how that whole process works, but that is one of the ways I know you can get paid for doing fanfiction. Also Amazon saw such response from – I can't remember the fandom, Pretty Little Liars? Nia: Mhm. Van: Right? Nia: My boyfriend really likes that show. Van: That's a thing? Yeah, I think that's a thing. Nia: Yep. Van: That's another fandom! Where I see things, like people have feels about that show. Like, intense feels and connections to characters. So Amazon started seeing so much fanfiction, that they were paying certain writers to publish e-books about it. Nia: Hm. Van: So they have the copyrights and things in order from the show, but yeah they were paying like $1.99 and you actually got to keep some of those royalties, so that's another avenue where people are starting to pay for fanfiction. Fifty Shades of Grey – at work last year, we couldn't keep it on the
shelves. Every suburban mom wanted that book. Nia: And that started out as fanfiction for Twilight, right? Van: Exactly! And that was Edward and Bella, and later on she edited it just to change their names. Nia: Hm. Van: So that's another way you could – if your fanfiction is popular enough, it could totally become the next [laughter] Fifty Shades of Grey writer! Nia: It seems it's sort of a by-chance thing, though. Like you can't take your fanfic to a publisher and pitch it, they kind of have to find you? Van: I think it could work both ways. I think, if you had enough support, eventually your manuscript, or your fic, would land on the desk of somebody whose opinion would count for that. But I think sometimes, if your fanfiction is original enough that it could stand on its own, without any ties to the fandom, that I think you could get the attention of somebody. Somebody, especially if you're doing slash, which is male-male relationships, you could potentially find a smaller press, geared toward the queer community or gay men. Nia: Mhm. Van: So I think that's definitely possible. Nia: Awesome, I learned something new! [musical interlude]