This past week, gender queer artist Kris Grey visited campus to give a lecture, visit classes and talk personally with students and faculty. The visit, sponsored by the Sherman Fairchild Foundation, culminated in a performance on Friday titled “Ask a Tranny,” which Kris has performed in various cities throughout the past three years. The piece took place outside of Harris dining hall at noon; Kris held a sign which read “Ask a Tranny,” and invited anyone to ask any questions, which he would answer. Within the first fifteen minutes, a few students grew into a small crowd, and people asked a variety of questions, generating an interesting and insightful conversation with Kris.
Kris, who also goes by Kristin Grey and Justin Credible, is transmasculine and has no personal pronoun preference. Different people refer to Kris as “she,” “he” and even the singular “they,” which Kris says is on the rise right now. [In this article, I will refer to Kris as all three.] Kris, while gender queer, explained that he passes as male, mainly because of his beard and ties. By not picking one pronoun, Kris hopes to model a non-hierarchical pool.
Speaking on the use of the word “tranny,” Kris acknowledged that the word is pejorative, and is usually a term used against transfeminine people. As a transmasculine individual, Kris said that some people may think that the word is not Kris’s to use. She said that Project Runway contestant Christian Siriano should be credited for bringing the word into mainstream after using the phrase “hot tranny mess.”
“After that, everyone was slinging the word around, and it was going in an uncertain direction. SNL did a parody of it, and the character only said ‘hot tranny mess’ and ‘fierce.’ I thought it was brilliant,” Kris said. “Humor is an effective tool for talking about things that might be offensive.”
But, Kris added, the conversation around that terminology changed rapidly, and Kris uses the word in her performance piece to “ask questions about why we use things, why we don’t use things and how we act.”
He said that he has received pushback within the queer community. “I’m definitely a quiet instigator,” he said. He uses the sign and the piece to “talk about what interests [him] in the use of verbiage.”
Kris is also interested in the evolution of language. After showing a video at their lecture, Kris explained that the footage consists of performing “Ask a Tranny” in different cities over a three-year span.
“I cringe when I hear the way that I talked about myself two-and-a-half years ago. I can see the progression — that my language and my understanding of myself and my identity has evolved right along with my body,” Kris said.
According to Kris, the piece has been practice for talking about very complicated ideas of gender on a very base level. “My language and identity has evolved. In the beginning when someone would ask what trans* meant, I would say that I was born a girl and now take testosterone. Now, I say that I was assigned female at birth.”
To some people, these statements might sound like the same thing, but their meanings, while nuanced, highlight an important difference. Language matters.
Since a recent move to New York City has left Kris without studio space, he is limited in how he can make work, thought admits that he has had success in getting work produced at different festivals and events. “I’m able to move around to make my work, which is great,” Kris said. “The torso, which was part of my ‘Untitled’ piece, is currently in my car right now.” Even without studio space, Kris, who has a graduate degree in ceramics from Ohio University, hasn’t given up on objects and using them in performances.
“I’ve been challenged to make the best work possible in whatever medium possible,” Kris said. “I encourage students to grow and change and make choices that would best serve their work.”
This past September, Kris performed at the ANTI festival in Kuopio, Finland. One of their pieces involved working with a Finnish queer youth group; the piece, called “Gather,” involved the group standing in a circle in a public square and holding hands, inviting passers-by to join in.
“That piece was so special and so simple,” Kris said. “Thinking about that piece, it was really effective and beautiful.”
Kris referenced a quote from Belgian artist Francis Alÿs to describe the “Gather” piece: “Sometimes doing something poetic can become political and sometimes doing something political can become poetic.”
“I felt that the work did that,” Kris said. “The location and the action that we did…the piece became a poetic, political event. I’m excited about doing different workshops and using that working methodology in different places.”
As an activist, Kris mentioned that a lot of social justice issues are intersecting at the moment. “I’m very hopeful about many things changing in the near future. We need to be vigilant, positive and productive,” Kris said, also adding that it’s “kind of ageist” to assume that only older people are conservative.
At a recent lecture titled “Out of Bounds” at the Edgy Women’s Festival, Kris talked about sports and breaking the concept of the gender binary. “Science and nature will show us constantly that diversity is the truth,” Kris said. “If you want a truth or constant, it is never that there are two choices.”
Kris explained that all sporting bodies are judged against male bodies. Sex testing happens for female athletes to rule out the possibility that the woman is a man. “These are examples of how we socialize gender. If we have two options, one will always be dominant and one will be submissive,” adding, “It’s not that power is bad. It’s bad when it’s not shared.”
During Friday’s “Ask a Tranny” performance, Kris explained that she can never speak for anyone else, only herself.
“The visibility for gender queer people is zero, and when there is zero representation and only one or two things present, society assumes that those one or two things are true of all people [in that particular group].” So Kris left the crowd with a question: “What does one do to signify gender-queerness?”
Kris admitted that they had a great time on campus. “I’m so impressed with faculty and their dedication and creativity,” Kris said. “I’m also impressed with student body; the students are really engaged in doing socially relevant work. Everyone that I’ve talked to is involved in a lot of things on campus in really impressive way.”
Visiting Conn was also personally special for him. When she was an undergrad, one of her professors brought Art Professor Denise Pelletier to speak; since then, the two have kept in touch and have seen each other over the years. “It’s so cool and special to be a visiting artist at her college,” Kris said. “It makes me feel like I’m on the right path.”