We spoke with Amber St. James the “African, bearded, death-dropping, cartwheeling, split queen known for her revolutionary activist work in and out of drag and her entertaining high energy performances. She is also the first ever San Diego Mx. Gay and the first ever Mx. International Pride. Amber is known for her amazing work building and sustaining the drag community at San Diego State University and many other colleges around Southern California.”
We wanted to hear more about Amber’s personal experiences, perspectives, and messages for the youth and families we serve at TFSS. Here’s our conversation…
Amber, thank you so much for joining us on the TFSS blog! Since our organization’s focus is on trans/GNC youth and families, we’d love to jump in and ask you about your own young experiences. Can you please share a bit about how you felt and navigated life as a trans/GNC youth, as well as a Black youth, yourself? What do you wish you knew then that you know now?
AMBER: As a young Black queer youth, I didn’t always understand my body or my thoughts and feelings, as I was always dreaming of a world where I could finally explore the femme within me. I would always catch myself daydreaming about what it would be like to have long hair like the girls in my class, or to have fashion options like them. What helped me to find solace in such a world that punished me for trying to be who I wanted (before I came to become the fierce Nonbinary Trans-Femme Icon I am) was finding places I could call home.
Home for me was the laughter of my best friends and their listening ears, home for me was the joy in their eyes in how they truly saw me, home for me were the moments where I could pretend that towel was a 40-inch wig. Home was always a nomadic place for me and was how I came to learn that home can be anywhere and anyone that felt like a safe place for me.
I wish back then that I could have known that there was never anything wrong with me. I was never the problem, it was the outside world and its narrow view of what it could mean to live free in my body and be who I wanted to, which had the problem. But I thank the queer ancestors for always protecting my little queer self and placing pivotal people in my life that saw me even way back then and that helped me to walk—no, STRUT—in my authenticity.
That is such a powerful message for all of our youth, thank you! It seems like college (at San Diego State University) was a space where you were really able to blossom in your self-expression and self-confidence. Can you talk a bit about that stage of life for you? What advice do you have for trans/GNC youth and their families when it comes to choosing and thriving at college?
AMBER: SDSU was truly such a pivotal moment in my life as it was a time of exploration and growth for me as a queer person. It provided me a new environment void of any past eyes of judgment that had become too familiar to my life. I was able to venture out of my hidden femmeness and explore my own presentation. It took courage and bravery to step out of my dorm everyday sporting that 6-inch heel I was once so known for.
It was from this bravery that my activism was born. My courage gave others the permission to be themselves and do it without apology. This is where I found community and chosen family. A tribe I could call my own of other brave souls daring to live authentically and unabashedly. I found them through my work at my campus’s Pride Center and being more and more ingrained into the on campus queer community. I did this through queer student organizations, attending queer events, and eventually curating and creating these organizations of self-discovery and spaces of community building and queer joy.
My advice to trans and GNC youth about thriving in college is to find your tribe and your community by engaging with the things on campus that bring you joy and that speak to you. And to never be afraid to be bold and brave and walk your own path as you never know who you could be inspiring along the way.
Community and chosen family is so important! On that note, you’ve said in interviews that you had some challenges being accepted by your family of origin. Is this something you’re willing to share more about? What would you like parents/guardians of trans/GNC youth to know (or do) when their kids express their gender questions and/or identities to their families?
AMBER: I have had a long and truly transformative experience with my continuing coming out journey with my family. My journey started with feeling unseen and unheard in my home when it came to my gender identity—and always feeling scared to ever truly be in my full non-binary finery, in fear of ridicule or rejection. However, I am now at a place of bliss with my family, where I can now look out into the audience of one of my drag shows and see them front row cheering me on and encouraging me to be my whole and full self.
I want parents to know that your kiddos are always watching and listening and that sometimes before they ever come out, they are testing you to see how receptive you are and how conditional your love is. Let them know through all your actions, and not just your words, that your love has no conditions and that you love every part of them and that you see them in their fullness.
It really helps our TFSS families to hear these kinds of stories of a family evolving in this way, as it happens in so many families. Your message to the grownups is so true and such an important reminder!
For our final question, Amber—your work delves into the intersections of trans/queer/Black activism and history. Can you talk about these intersections? What should TFSS youth and families know about the importance of these movements working together?
AMBER: To put it plainly, folks should always know that the history of queerness and Blackness and transness have always been intertwined, as those of us who live at this cross-section have been the ones who have always been asked to stand and fight for the many. So many of the liberties and freedoms we have today are on the backs of Black queer and trans folks.
It is in this that we find the strength in coalition-building between these and so many other marginalized communities—because we recognize the intertwined strength of intersecting liberation work.
That’s such an inspiring note to end on: all of us intertwining in our diversities and strengths to work together for everyone’s rights, dignity, and freedom. You are doing this work every day and we are so grateful to know you in the TFSS community.
Thank you, Amber…and keep on strutting!