Phone interview with Tami Starlight: August 3, 2020

T: Hello there

N: Hi Tammy, it’s Naphtali

T: Hey!

N: How are you?

T: Fuckin’ tired (laughter) but I laugh because it’s a good tired.

N: I want to hear about the action that you all did last night and I’m wondering if you can first just start by introducing yourself.

T: Sure, is this working for you?

N: Yeah it’s working great.

T: Okay. I’m Tami Starlight, I’m Cree from Treaty 6 originally. I’m also Norwegian, my Dad’s from Burns Lake (fuck that guy). I don’t really acknowledge my Norwegian family – they were really never a part of my life. Definitely… not interested. I think for me, I came into the community as, I don’t know how to put it other than the fact that due to massive amounts of colonization and abuse – a lot of physical, mental, emotional, spiritual and addictions – it was kind of set up for me, you know it’s not like the education project as a colony was going to teach me that my family has been through so much trauma that I would end up a dope fiend in the downtown Eastside of Vancouver on unceded Coast Salish, so that’s kinda what happened for me. As a result of trying to come up through all that I started really investigating deeper narratives on this colony on the land, and really expressed my gender and my sexuality for the next following number of years to much great delight.

N: I’ll just add that people will be listening to this on PJD which is August 10th, and we’re talking on August 3rd, and you, with Coalition Against Trans Antagonism, organized an event last night. I was wondering if you want to talk about it, and we’re going to have links and what have you in the show notes for the recording, if you wanted to say a little bit about what that collective is up to that would also be super welcome if you have the energy to do that as well.

T: So last night we had a social-distanced – I don’t know if it’s summer or if it’s just me in denial of what we’ve all been through in the last four months in this global pandemic, because it seems really surreal at this point, however, with that said – we had a socially-distanced film night. We screened Paris is Burning which is a very famous ball scene documentary from the Bronx I believe in New York City, from the mid- to late-eighties. Definitely not lost on me that era because that’s definitely around when I was also becoming very aware of a lot of things. So we filmed it and also before the film we screened a short rebuttal from the community of the film – I don’t know about a rebuttal… a critique, a response. Part of our thing is not to settle the status quos within CATA but we want to have conversations about political narratives of social and cultural events that we have locally. So we screened a critique and a rebuttal from the community the film is about and then we showed the film. The way to show there’s multiple narratives happening in the background of this film. Probably the biggest one is that the people feel they weren’t properly compensated because of the success of the film, and they felt exploited a lot of them. So it was quite interesting. I find it quite fascinating because a lot of corporate pride in my experience is very corporate, very cis, white, gay centered – massively. There’s a lot of stuff to talk about for me, politically. I don’t want CATA to be about me, however I’m quite an influence because I’ve been around the community for over two decades now and attempting to get involved somewhat regularly. I don’t believe in these personality shows that we have in our community where it becomes all about individuals. I really dislike individualism from what I’ve been witnessing so far. I have yet to find anybody whose glowing personality I relate to. I really feel like getting rid of that kind of crap and working as a unified voice is just way more important than my personal, single opinion. It’s not like my single opinion is not worthy due to the fact of my lived experience for sure, but I believe that my voice is a drop of water in a sea of voices that need to be heard and are dying to be heard these days. It’s getting harder and harder to do so because of the corporate control of the world, really. So the movie was a success, we didn’t platform anybody, we just thanked everybody for coming and thanked everybody for helping and there were a lot of people in the community that came out to help. A lot of people were very responsive to the film. We got a number of donations. We’re going to rebroadcast the donations to help a local Black trans woman who’s street-involved at this moment, that’s a really good thing to be able to do. I believe that’s one of many parts of community that are really inspiring and forward looking in terms of attempting to address the needs of our community. Because it’s not easy. This I feel is quite rewarding and it’s very necessary for us to stay engaged with our community, as hard as it is. There has been a time eight years ago when I literally stopped doing stuff in the community because I’ve been shredded so much out here. That was the other thing I wanted to talk about. I will mention this part and then move on to what CATA is, or was, or how it came to be even. 

So out west here on unceded Coast Salish, I’ve been here, I ran away from home when I was fifteen and I came out west I lived on the street and I’ve been here pretty much ever since. So that’s a pretty long time. I’ve lived in half the SROs in the downtown Eastside, shot up drugs, done sex work, been to prison. My story is fairly well-known in our community I would say. When we started CATA it was originally to address the TERFs and SWERFs that had been around, the Trans Exclusionary so-called Radical Feminists, and the Sex Work Exclusionary Radical Feminists who were totally not only infiltrating but toxifying our community, and sowing division, and promoting their bullshit, white, feminist, patriarchy, supremacy ideology in our community. So many groups that are so dis-functional and don’t want to talk about trans lives, don’t want to talk about sex work, and on and on, but they’ll talk about the drug war sometimes. None of them talk about trans issues or sex-work issues, and just like swimming in this garbage over here, and everybody’s okay with it, and I really feel that CATA has just split the fuckin’ scene right down the middle. There’s so much work to be done there, but then again, I’ve been in a place lately where I’m thinking why do we fuckin’ want to change anything? Are we going to just improve the cops or are we going to get rid of the god damn jerks? Are we going to improve labour or are we going to fucking get rid of it and replace it with something better? Reform, right? I know it’s all pretty complicated and it’s just like political nuances everywhere. You know I remember 2005 I was at a board meeting with Egal Canada and we’re doing the National Equality Breakfast and equal marriage was passing at the time and so were the hate crime provisions federally. It’s just this funny trap about getting legal protections. Legal protections for who? (10:00)

N: Can you say a little more about the relationship between anti-trans, anti-sex-work and anti-Indigenous self determination?

T: Nice. I find it fascinating that you would ask me that question because I was thinking about it yesterday after the film night. Because I was thinking in the past two days but more-so it just came to a head last night after we got back and I was totally exhausted. You know, people really don’t want to talk about this narrative. As much as people think that trans people are accepted or somehow colonial Vancouver is some kind of trans mecca – No. That’s not what’s happening over here. There is shit tons of anti-trans, anti-sex-work, anti-poor, pro-drug-war, pro-cop garbage over here, more than you can possible throw a stick at. I believe that groups like Vancouver Rape Relief and Chinatown Action Group (which we help fold into oblivion because of their bullshit)… I believe the word white supremacy is only a part of the picture. In fact what we need to discuss is the cis, hetero, patriarchy supremacy, that it’s all of those things and it’s all the same people. As a matter of fact a lot of them don’t even know each other exists even though they’re practically related. 

N: We know that there’s a gazillion and one people to be angry at, what about what trans-liberation feels like for you? I know that there’s got to be – even though we’re in this struggle – there has to be moment of – I don’t want to go as far as to say “hope,” I think that’s a concept that can be trashed on a lot of levels – but what about just the type of community care, the type of trans world-building that you want to be a part of?

T: Sure, I think that diversity of gender is paramount. That really affirms the diversity of living experience of trans, non-binary people living around the world right now, in this very fucking moment. That I care, that other people care, that we’re here, that we’re fucking weird and we’re fucking amazing. We’re getting shit done, we’re taking names, so stick around. We’ll get this shit done. You know we’ve got a lot of shit to work out to. A lot of us come from familial trauma, some of us have been in jail, some of us have been hardcore addicted to shit and on and on – have been through a lot. We should be mindful of that when we are in our spaces. Because I don’t really want to talk about other spaces, that’s kind of what I’ve been doing for the past while is talking about all the other shit that’s fucking us up. But I know there’s a lot of beautiful people in our community. And I do know that there’s a lot of amazing, inspiring and important work that a lot of people have done already and that you don’t need to do the work but you can keep it moving forward. You can hold the line so we can make another push soon. That’s the way I feel. Things like alternative media, alternative communities, growing your own food, getting your own land from the Indigenous people in a proper, equitable, wholistic way – it’s not really something I talk too much about because it’s such a capitalist idea in general. But I feel there’s got to be ways to have these conversations about how can we … because I feel the solution in a really big way is not so much recreate but how do we create community that is better than the one that we’re currently experiencing right now. So that’s part of the key, because if you think that if people didn’t like the society that they live in they would fucking do something about it. Not to say that all these Karens of the world give a shit about anything but themselves, because that’s part of how they’ve also been tricked into believing that there’s a centre of the universe and that everything matters to them and only them. That’s a trick. That’s a colonial, capitalist, white person trick. They cannot be reasoned with, they’re going to be our enemies, because they’re set up to be so. They don’t understand that they are. That’s why it’s a long game, lots of work, lots of conversations, patience. I don’t know about tolerance, I think that’s fuckin’ bullshit. There’s so many other ways to live life, especially being queer, trans, two-spirited, being an artist, being a community organizer, being an anarchist, being a communist, being a socialist, all these things.

N: This show is going to be about prisoner experience as well. Do you see any parallels between that – for sure there’s parallels but I’m curious to hear your thoughts specifically – in terms of how that plays out in terms of prisoners’ rights and movements for prison abolition and how we need to be bringing transness and racialized gender into that conversation in a big way.

T: I’ve done years in prison, not as one stretch. So I’ve never been a federal inmate. The prison population in Canada is approximately 70% Indigenous, it’s fucking ridiculous, it’s just the new reservation system. The only reason I believe in prisoners’ rights is because I also believe in harm reduction. Because I really don’t believe prisons should exist at all. So I believe that notion is a form of harm reduction, that prisons should be abolished, they should be dismantled and have all the materials – possibly, if anyone even wants that material – to be reconstructed into actual social housing at low barrier. With that said, I’ve been to Fort Saskatchewan provincial jail, where they actually had a working gallows back then. Literally that was probably just a few years before they closed it and turned it into a god damn museum. It was quite a sight to be in that place. That was approximately ’81 I believe, maybe 1980, late 80… I feel it’s somewhat wrought though, because a lot of people who should be in abolition movements are not there, it’s been a problem. I’m not quite sure, other than the obvious parts like the John Howard Society, the Elizabeth Fry Society, there’s all those Christian fucking bullshit fucking reformist crap, working with the cops. Sure there’s some nice people that work there but you know, I don’t like them. But yeah, the prison system in Canada is just another extension of the cis, hetero, white, patriarchy, supremacy, and it’s a way to lock up Indigenous people, but like I said, the Fort Saskatchewan jail outside of Edmonton, north of East Edmonton, had a working gallows in it, and they hung Indigenous people on the regular in this fucking country, and I don’t want people to forget about all that, because you know what? Some of your fucking land that some of you fucking assholes sit on right now, you stole and murdered the person who lived there, so tell me all about it. (19:38)

N: Say more about the relationship between the prison system and colonialism. I think it’s really important to talk about that.

T: The carceral prison system is more than alive and well. I believe they’re still building more. There’s ongoing activity to shut down construction of one in Laval right now. But I feel that for me, I don’t want to talk too much about the history of it but I want to talk about the now and the possible future. I really feel that the lack of intersectionality in the prison abolition movement is a really big problem. It’s what’s actually taking place out here. Power abhors a vacuum. People with more social agency really have a real hard time not running into spaces without checking with anybody. We have a real big tendency to do that in our communities. With that said, I believe that if and when the movement continues to grow and we can really meaningfully address how the carceral colonial justice system is warped and wrong and upsidedown and backwards and insideout from the Indigenous perspective, that it basically exists solely to benefit scheming, rich, white dudes, basically. Those who think that Canada is a multi-cultural melting pot, you’re pretty delusional, because part of why they’re bringing in and promoting the corporate colony called Canada as multi-cultural is to sell it to other people to come push the levers and the buttons to make this shit-show work. Because all the cis, hetero, white dudes own everything now. So you’re just going come in on top of that. They’re not worried about losing their space. They’re confirmed in their space. And they can go fuck themselves in that space. That’s why the cops exist, that’s why the carceral system exists, just to protect their property and power. 

People need to know this thing too. Do you seriously think Robert Fucking Picton is the only person who murdered the sex workers in the downtown Eastside? So it’s rhetorical and I’ll answer it for you: No fucking way! There’s a whole fucking family and they all go way back. So we can just follow Picton all the way back up to the Highway of Tears and know that there’s judges and lawyers and mayors who are cis, hetero, white, fucking dude shitholes, who are all looking out for each other’s backs to ensure that none of them go down for murdering Indigenous women along that Highway of Tears. That’s how that’s working. A lot of them are generational land owners who stole that land from the Indigenous people.

N: One thing that you mentioned earlier as well, and in another one of the interviews that we did for PJD it came up as well, is the tension – but maybe it doesn’t have to be a tension it just shows up a lot of times as a tension – between abolition and harm reduction. There’s a lot of practices and ideas about how to tell when something is harm reduction or when it’s reform, in terms of the actual experience of people who are in prisons and jails and people who are street-involved. Do you have any thoughts at all on that distinction? (23:38) On the complexity of needing to push harm reduction at the same time as abolition?

T: I think that harm reduction without the end-goal of abolition is fucking garbage and it should shut the fuck up. Let’s go straighten some fuckers out over there. That’s my understanding. Isn’t that literally what harm-reduction is? –one of the many-staged goal of abolition? Of the drug war? Because don’t we want to just get rid of it? Period? And decriminalize all drugs? Don’t legalize it, decriminalize it. We don’t want the state to start producing more drugs, you know what I’m saying?

N: Exactly, exactly.

T: Because we’re doing pretty good making our own, go fuck yourselves, pops. In terms of out here though I think that’s part of the key too. I think a lot of people don’t seem to realize that a lot of people – like I’ve been saying earlier, power abhors a vacuum – and people don’t seem to understand the tyranny of structurelessness. That people with more social agency will automatically feel compelled to move into space that exists. Like if you see a space that exists you just move toward it. That’s the society we live in today. People are literally uptight with space that doesn’t have somebody in it. I feel that the non-profit industrial complex are a bunch of fucking losers and should be beaten senseless with a fucking feather. I was going to say something else, but…

N: (laughter) but you kept it light…

T: Well, because they’re all the fucking managers, we need some more fucking managers, are you listening to me you fucks? We don’t need no fucking managers. Get in the back, where you belong, and help out properly, pay attention. Holy fuck, all I need is another white person telling me what to do. Fuck me.

N: That’s pointing out how the prison and jail system is obviously not limited to those walls and those buildings, and it’s actually part of this much bigger system called “Canada” the nation state. Indeed.

T: Or you can call it the architecture of fascism. That’s a bigger tent, includes you in more people, more ideas. So out here you have lots of people who manage everything, just like Greenpeace likes to be the big manager of the ENGO industrial complex. We don’t need no more fucking managers. How about all you white fucks and all you so-called allies get to the back of the fucking bus! Why do we keep seeing you? Why are you so god damn visible? Get the fuck back there! There’s another epiphany I recently came out of, how much shit I have to put up with just to fucking say that, just now. Holy fuck are you kidding, excruciating pain, to put up with all these fucking assholes stepping out. [high voice] “look at me look at me I’m an ally.” What are you Ellen Fucking Degeneres? Because that’s how ridiculous that shit is. The ally industrial complex is here. They’re all fucking jumping in front of each other. Black Lives Matter doesn’t mean you’re your own group of white people. If you keep this shit up we’re going to have to banish you back to whitey junior where you fucking belong. 

N: (chuckling) “whitey junior” (laughter)

T: I know, I said that at YukYuks and there were four people there and they were all drunk. I’m just kidding, I’d never go to that white supremacist fucking establishment really. 

N: (Laughing.) This has been amazing, Tami, I feel like you’ve covered so much ground. You’ve also got some really good rants in there which is always important. 

T: You know that saying I heard years ago, that the best comedians in the world are the ones who have not only been around but have been through so much shit. Because you develop that sarcastic fucking wit from lived experience like a mother fucker, I’m telling you. I totally get it now (laughs).

N: (laughs.) The only other thing that I can think of that we didn’t really touch on but we don’t at all have to is – well you have a particular experience of this in the city where you are – of how the cops are criminalizing sex-work and how we know that sex-work is a place where a lot more trans people are making an economy, specifically trans women and femme identified people. I think on one level that’s something that for sure the relationship between sex-work, transness, policing is also all part of everything that you’ve been talking about, and I don’t know if you have any thoughts about that, any observations about that, anything that you’d like to share. (29:24)

T: I think the urgency and the immediacy and the downright diabolicalness of the cops, the carceral industrial complex (holy fuck). I must made up a word, thank you, you’re welcome. I’m taking donations I don’t have Venmo. I really believe, because they’re so diabolical and so full of shit it speaks to one of the many reasons why they need to be abolished (the cops, the carceral justice system that we’re currently experiencing. It’s because it’s a growth industry, once again because it’s just a capitalist, garbage gong-show. They’re constantly looking to write shit down, constantly looking to interview people and pointing their finger out at wherever. They’re constantly looking to engage with the clueless fucking public so they can continue rack up their stats so that they’re needed. And whatever that is! You can literally be swearing at somebody and they’re going to walk up and start writing shit down. If you’re clueless enough you’re going tell them stuff and actually give them your name and all that stuff because that’s there but also because they’ve been fucking indoctrinated to fuck you up. Cops are diabolical lying sacks of shit. Let’s be clear. There’s nothing good about any of them. Don’t be fooled. They’re there to bump their stats up so they can hire more people. Period. Whatever it is: drug war, somebody yelling, violence on the street, whatever it is. People who don’t seem to understand [high voice] “oh what are you going to do if you can’t call the cops oh who are you going to call?” they’re a bunch of fucking goofs. Why do you fucking people like that even exist? Holy fuck. You know, getting a political clue in the age of internet isn’t that hard. Not to be ableist but we all have technologies and you know god damn it we need to make technologies available to disabled people so they can be fucking more informed on whatever they feel they need to be informed on god damn it. At the end of the day though there’s just so many people punching down at this point because of that fuckhead Trump. They’re all like [high voice] “oh I feel involved and I have a voice too,” no you fucking don’t shut the fuck down! Where do you think the white allyship industrial complex came from? It’s the same kind of goose they’re all like “oh I have a voice too! Yah yah I feel empowered, yaaaaaaaaahhhhh!” I’m like, shut the fuck down get back there! They can’t help themselves, they need to be the centre of attention constantly, which is a thing I keep talking about, your personal agency complex. People who’ve been around, who’ve done investigations about learning about political structures and community organizing, what’s communism what’s socialism what’s this what’s that… You finally figure out stuff like decentralized power, you finally figure stuff out like not using money, you figure stuff like that out: mutual aid and getting to know your community members and rooting out fascists and white supremacist and anti-trans fucking bigots. You all need to do that fucking work, right? And we all need to make our community safer and better. It’s literally everybody’s duty on this goddam planet. That’s one of the weird side effects of capitalism, we’re all just so busy relaxing. Sure, radical self-care, sure! But literally capitalism is all about exploiting the living shit out of everybody and everything so you can go relax somewhere. Like I’m not guilty of that shit (laughs) fuck, it’s all about balance you know, like get enough health, then you go out there and fix your community. You are renting an Earth suit, stick around it gets weirder. America’s elected some fucking carnival clown and we’re all in it for the ride. We’re going to ride this shit out, we’re going to stick around, we’re going to keep making a difference, we’re going to keep growing and changing and being better people than we were yesterday. It’s possible. The fucking shit I’ve been through, are you fucking kidding me? Oh my God I’ve been positive since 1995, you know what I mean? I remember that dope I cranked in my arm that fucking made me seroconvert, so you know, not my first pandemic. So if you can have a glimmer of hope like you mentioned earlier… I think for me, my go to, I don’t talk much about it, all those other things, but on a personal level there’s something inside of me that always says that it can’t get any worse, you have to press forward it can’t get any worse. Just when you think it’s really bad for you, look beside you there might be somebody who’s even worse of that you are, and it’s your duty to go fucking help them.

I was thinking that it’s such a growth industry that the cops are somewhat on the run right now and they’re definitely – at least a couple weeks ago – my intuition is that they’re still feeling, and reeling, from all the abolish cops protest, especially in the US, and in Canada for that matter, both these fucked up colonies, but they’re attempting to double down now with the help of the media and you can see it happening, all these pro-cop stories and stuff. I’ll bet you, you know the police industry they’re fucking unionized, it’s ridiculous, they have a valid interest in the status quos currently, and part of that is the drug war, and they make so much fucking money off the drug war … Abolition has to come with the ending of the drug war at the same time. Or, they’re very similar, because they can’t let go of all that money and the power that they get from the drug war. All those seizures that they get? They steal everybody’s property, they steal everybody’s drugs, they steal everybody’s money, millions and millions and millions and billions.

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