In recent years, there has been more visibility for trans people with celebrities such as Laverne Cox, Elliot Page, Demi Lovato and shows like Pose getting more media attention. It has led to more diverse castings and opportunities for trans artists.
At the same time, there are still barriers faced by many of us in the arts sector, such as finding appropriate opportunities, mentors, casting agents, photographers and producers. This is not to mention the gender disparity that still exists in the arts.
Combining years of experience of attending various artist development programs and trans-led mentorships, here are some tips that I have gathered that helped me in the early stages of my career that may prove useful to you:
1. Collaborate with your peers
“Don’t reach up, reach across to your friends”
– Issa Rae
There is an idea that we have to look beyond our community for talent and the resources that we need. In reality, many projects were created by collaboration among friends. For example, Broad City was initially a YouTube series started by two friends Illana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson who met in a comedy class.
We can find producers, videographers, photographers, editors, illustrators, and grant writers, among our community. We can form “mutually beneficial long-term artist relationships”, as well as exchange skills & burrow equipment. Most of all, we can learn from each other and gain support. Trans and queer people have always been culture-makers with creative ideas, and it was easier to work with people who may understand the nuance of our art.
One way to meet other queer people is through community art programs, workshops and open mics.
2. Say “YES” to opportunities that build a portfolio & an audience
In early stages of an arts career, it is beneficial to seek out opportunities to build a portfolio. A mentor of mine, Vivek Shraya, once said that “even if you send a publisher with a perfect manuscript, it is unlikely that they would be interested unless you already have a few articles written and you have built an audience”. A way to build that audience is through smaller opportunities first.
For me, it was easier to get a paid writing gig after I had contributed 2-3 pieces to a volunteer blog and had built a portfolio. People also tend to sometimes write off open mics, but open mics are an excellent way to meet other musicians, get a monthly performance practice and experiment with new art and a different audience.
By the time you do a round of your local shows, or open mics, or galleries, you will have more connections and people who are invested in your art. Of course, it is important to know at which point to charge for our services and which opportunities we are simply taking for learning.
Some ways to gain experience:
Volunteering at conferences is a great way to network and attend panels for free
Acting in local student films
Contributing to blogs or saying yes to free blog features
Contributing your music to local shows, films, coffee shops and galleries
3. Don’t wait for others to promote you
“Don’t wait to be discovered, discover yourself”
– Steve O
I know that self-promotion often can feel tacky and disingenuous. It does help to reframe it as “a way to share your art with more people who can benefit from it”.
In reality, a lot of our favourite books, tv shows, albums have had some sort of promotion and thousands of dollars behind them before they were able to reach our eyes. In addition, it is hard for people to hire us if they don’t know what we do.
Nowadays a lot of commissions and gig opportunities come from online and people discovering our website and social media presence. It is important that we invest in promoting our art.
Often promotion by other media outlets starts after you have started to promote yourself. As a writer who features trans artists, I am actively looking for artists to feature and the first place I start is social media.
Ways to promote ourselves:
Have your social or websites updated with your art projects
Post snippets of what you do/your past work – it can be a work-in-progress
Take time in a week to look for submissions/callouts
Contribute your content on pages/events that share similar art and audience
4. Empower yourself
As trans artists, we may not always have the budget to afford huge creative teams. Sometimes we are forced to learn those skills on our own. That is not always a bad thing; learning to empower ourselves in areas such as financial literacy, project management and other skills also teaches us to be more self-sufficient and allows us to protect ourselves.
Don’t be afraid to learn new skills and empower yourself by learning video editing, legalities, marketing, project management and rate negotiation.
There are a lot of online resources and organizations to help you with that:
BIPOC FILM/TVis a grassroots nonprofit organization and collective of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour in Canada’s TV and film industry.
Blank Canvas Gallery Arts organization for marginalized groups offering workshops, panels and mentorship
Unity is a national charity that uses Hip Hop art forms to promote resilience and well-being among underserved youth, creating healthier communities. They provide programs in songwriting, beat-making, MCing, graffiti and spoken word.
5. Understand what makes you unique
It can be easy to get caught up in branding (which is also important), but we must remember that people gravitate towards stories and meaning. It is important to ask ourselves, “What perspectives can we offer that no one else can?”; “What problems in the world would our art, experience & expertise help to solve?”
Understanding what makes us unique, and what value our art brings, make it easier for us to pitch ourselves to places that may benefit from our art. It also allows us to even create our own projects that previously did not exist, for example, Syrus Marcus Ware’s “Radical Love” portrait series that depict Black trans people portraits around the city, or T Time Tips with Moka Dawkins that offer tips and advice to trans women.
Take time to discover what unique perspective you offer
Learn to write a compelling bio or elevator pitch
Write grants or pitch projects you want to see in the world
6. Don’t be afraid to go DIY
Give yourself permission to not always have the best equipment. Trans people have a history of going DIY – from creating zines, blogs, YouTube channels and to be able to share transition tips and experiences with each other before mainstream media had these conversations.
Simple studio setups: microphones, ring light and a camera phone
Free video and sound editing apps on your phones – youcut (video editing), asr voice recorder (voice recording), N-track (audio editing and production)
7. Get mentors who understand your journey
Finding teachers/mentors – who create the type of art we want to create and understand the realities of trans experience – is crucial. They can help guide us along our career further because they either have the knowledge of alternative resources that can help us or have overcome the same barriers.
Nowadays we are not as limited to our geographic region & can seek programs and mentors (trans voice teachers, acting coaches and more) all over Canada and the US.
Queer Collective: organization uplifting local Queer artists and creating positive representation for the LGBTQ2S+ community. It provides masterclasses, Tiny Desk concerts and other opportunities.
Lil sis: a grassroots, youth-focused artist resource centre (for 29 and under), queer, not queer, racialized, living in Toronto and the Greater Toronto Area.
UNIT 2: is a QT2S/BIPOC (Queer/Trans, 2 Spirit and/or Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) and friends, radical arts and community space dedicated to building community and bridges.
SKETCH:is a community arts enterprise engaging diverse young people, ages 16-29, from across Canada, who live homeless or on the margins and navigate poverty.
TransTech is an international incubator for LGBTQ Talent with a focus on economically empowering the T, transgender people, in our community.
8. Take advantage of diverse income streams
Having different income streams is not only practical and helps us sustain our work, especially during hard times like Covid, but it also allows us to bring attention to our art whenever possible. One income stream can be used to bring attention to others.
If you are a contributor to a blog or a facilitator, you can always direct people to your website and page, where they can discover other art, such as your jewelry collection.
Sponsorships and product placements for businesses
Merchandize sales – chapbooks, stickers, etc.
Workshop facilitation, panels, conferences
And of course your day job! It can be thought of as a funder of your arts career
9. Seek opportunities to fail
This advice is overused, but trust me, success is directly proportional to the number of times we fail. It is crucial that we do things before we are ready, otherwise, we do not grow. If there is one piece of advice I would tell myself before putting my work out there, it is to fail as much as possible and embrace being uncomfortable.
We need to be constantly open to feedback from trusted people to improve our art. We have to apply for opportunities even if we get rejected, because often through those applications, we get referred to other projects. Sticking to your art and refining it through failure is bound to lead to results.
All in all, being an artist is a marathon and it is not a linear journey. We need to remember to create for our own healing and self-discovery first. When we should focus on our own self-expression, rather than external validation – and all will fall into place. Trust the process.
Robbie Ahmed (he/him) is a trans singer-songwriter, writer and arts educator. He writes & sings on intersections of self-love immigration, mental health, spirituality and trans representation in the media. His work has been featured in Pride Toronto, Sketch, Gaylaxy magazine, Elephant journal, These Pills Don’t Come in My Skin Tone, Rest4Resistence, Kros magazine, Nuance, the Living Hyphen, Naked Heart Festival (2019) and Toronto's Storyteller festival (2019). In 2018, he was a subject of 10x10 project depicting 100 LGBTQ Canadian artists shot by Yann Gracia and was the recipient of 2020's Buddies at Bad Times Emerging Artists Awards.
His past activism work includes being a spokesperson for Toronto4All campaign for racialized trans youth, as well as working as the Project Manager for the update of PRIMED: a 68 page sexual health resource for trans masculine &non-binary people. Robbie was also part of the TIP (Trans interweaving project) research team working on inclusion of trans people in HIV sector in Ontario. He has served 3 years on the Board of Directors of Across Boundaries, an ethnoracial mental health agency, working on their first QTBIPOC mental health services & on board of Creatress, an online platform for uplifting women and gender minorities in the arts.
Currently Robbie works as a musician, and a contributing writer for YOHOMO, Toronto's LGBTQ arts and culture publication & as well as an organizer with WAYF (Where are you from collective), an arts activism program for pan-Asian youth running the "Decolonizing Gender" project.