Caleb Miller, frontwoman of dimber, recently chatted with me over the interwebs. She was extremely honest and gracious with her responses, and the resulting conversation is a must read as we navigate the latest front of the civil liberties fight in this country: transgender rights. Please note: this conversation took place before the repugnant events in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Chain Letter: Let’s jump right in, because the story of the day (as it almost always seems to be lately) is Trump and his potty fingers. As a transgender woman, what was your reaction to Trump's tweet banning trans people in the military?
Caleb Miller: I woke up that day, already kind of soaked and drowning in depression, and then read the news... totally the best thing to do when you're feeling swallowed up by depression is to read the news... and I fell apart. Broken and in tears and lost in it. Not because of the shock of it. I wasn't surprised to see such a decree from the current US President. The rainbows were stripped from the White House website on day one.
I'm constantly sickened to see a world leader operating in such a manner as he does and I felt the reverberations of his hate speech... and also the ramifications of the policy, should the ban take affect.
I felt broken for every trans kid in every town where they already don't feel safe or accepted... seeing and hearing the figurehead of their country degrade their existence and have to feel that much more afraid to step outside their front doors into a world that does not accept them. And the precedent set forth, consistently with every bigoted word that comes out of this administration’s mouth and slimes over a twitter feed, emboldens those hateful ideas and actions in others. It stokes the fires of the racists. It encourages disgusting jokes made at the expense of the physically disabled. It incites violence against Muslims and the queer community.
And historically speaking, minority groups were first given advancement in rights through the military and then it spread over into general society. When we see the reverse, I fear for the reverse. This could prove an indicator, a move to evaluate public opinion with a plan for future legislation which gradually strips away more and more rights from already disenfranchised minority groups. That scares me quite a bit.
In fall out of this Trump statement I also heard and read a few statements from people along the lines of "Well I don't support the US government and its military force so fuck the military... I wouldn't serve anyway and these trans people should be happy they don't have to anymore..." as if being excluded from the military is some sort of grace or gift - Which is such a gross grandstanding POV from a clear position of privilege that neglects so many facets, because serving in the military supplies people with a whole mess of benefits, like all of the things pertaining to the GI Bill and getting assisted funding for higher education. Its one of the major avenues in which all people with a lower income, transgender people obviously included, can get access to higher education, decent unemployment benefits, health care, and generally improve their overall living situation.
And also as a transgender woman I don't appreciate being called a burden. Even by a pig person.
CL: With sexuality being a personal spectrum, can tell us a little about your journey? Did you ID first as gay and then trans or were you always aware you were trans? I'm curious, because as a young adult I was unaware of what transgender meant, like, in my ignorance, I didn't even know that option existed. What was it like you for you?
CM: It's complicated. But yeah... I first started identifying as queer in high school. I wasn't out of the closet then but I was pining after Sarah Michelle Gellar and scoring lingerie to seduce the boys I liked at school. I figured out the spectrum aspect of sexuality pretty early and feel super grateful for that but definitely considered myself queer at a pretty early age. I didn't come out until my early 20s, I think, though. And then it hasn't been until recent years that I came out as being a trans girl. Part of that is definitely how the dialog has progressed in our culture in conjunction with my understanding of myself.
The conversation on gender and sexuality has developed so much since I was a child. Those times are where I place my earliest concrete memories of being seen and recognized as a female and feeling validated by those feelings. But for the longest time, because I wasn't actively seeking genital reassignment surgery, I felt invalidated as a trans woman. That somehow that was the sole factor in allowing for me to be transgender. I have gender dysphoria, and there are the days where I feel totally destroyed and suffocated by my own body, but I have a lot of thoughts and feelings that keep me away from certain surgery. And I'm trying to learn to love myself as I am with only slight permanent modifications, which conform to the western standards of female beauty. I'm getting laser hair removal on my face and body among other things. But the advancement in notions of fluidity and placing things on a limitless spectrum, eliminating the binary mindset, has definitely helped me quite a bit. And these are ideas I didn't have access to even just ten years ago. All gender is performance, “gender is a drag” as Queen Ru would say, but that's an ongoing conversation that we are only now starting to scratch at the surface of.
I'm so thankful to see where it has gone is just my lifetime. I think a lot about life as a queer person or a transgender person in the decades past and the additional challenges they faced. Perspective is important and can assist with thoughts of gratitude. Especially on my bad days.
CL: We hear so often about heart breaking examples of extreme bigotry towards trans people. In no way am I trying to discount these stories, because they are valuable in the way they help change public opinion, as well as to help us relate to the humanness of this struggle, but do you have any positive stories you could share about your transition, or is it as bad as it seems?
CM: Indisputable fact: the quality of life for a vast majority of trans people is extremely poor. Alienation and discrimination. 40% rates of attempted suicide because the world around you invalidates you at every stage and relegates you to the gutter. And to the grave. No access to employment opportunities and daily fear of violence against your body. All of these particularly heightened for trans people of color.
I have my fair share of these experiences and feelings.
That said... i consider myself incredibly privileged and lucky. Mostly I'm grateful for the community I've found here. I have an adopted friend family of queerdos and allies that gives me vast amounts of support and love. They are a large reason why I can walk proudly down the street and feel confident in being my truest self. They're everything to me and I cannot thank them enough for their gifts in my life. I have safe, fulfilling employment that isn't sex work (as a lot of transgender people with little or no other options are forced into the sex industry out of necessity for survival) and employers that embrace, protect, and value me. But a lot of this comes from the privilege of living in a city like Los Angeles that contains a lot of magical humans and progressive minds. A vast majority of the world can't afford to live in cities like this and don't have access to such a likeminded community. Access and placement in the social geographical spectrum are things we all need to think about. Where we all fit in....and take an assessment of how your actions have an affect on the world around you. I'm a white girl in Southern California... so I'm part of a very small, very privileged demographic.
CL: The fight for gender equality rages on, as a culture of sexism and misogyny still dominates corporate America, as well as in most theocracies around the world. How does being trans inform your views on this battle.
CM: I feel a responsibility to be visible and vocal as a woman, partly because I'm of a group of people largely relegated to the sidelines. Mainstream culture would have transgender people rendered invisible unless we are white, trans FEMALE supermodels, fetishized porn material or serial killers on TV. I speak up for my fellow women and for all collections of oppressed humans because it’s the only way I feel OK existing in our fractured and corrupt human society. I feel an added responsibility pertaining to my access and social placement... because I live in a place which affords me the opportunity to be loud without fear of immediate violent reprisal, to be as flagrant with my words and image as possible, in hopes that somehow it makes it easier for others more alienated to strike out with pride and cultivate a safer, better life as those who are denied the right to exist as themselves - in health and moderate happiness.
CL: Let’s talk dimber for a bit. As the primary songwriter of the band, how do you balance message with music, because I think dimber does a fantastic job of it. Do you consciously juxtapose the sound/feel of the song with the subject matter? Does the band discuss the issues you sing about before hand? Also, tell us about the zine you'll be including with the damber 7"
CM: Well I should clarify that I am in no means the primary songwriter for the band. We all contribute fairly equally to the writing process and all bring songs to the table. From our inception as a band, though, we all agreed that we wanted to tackle topics of substance whether it’s politicized material or an aching expression of some personal value. Sometimes we talk about a specific issue we'd like to cover in advance but mostly we all retreat to our private spaces and come back with words and ideas. This band is very special in that everything coalesced without much contrivance. We all love and support each other and we all sort of fell onto the same page without too much design. It just all lined up. Everything about it.
I think in general with dimber, if I'm working on lyrics for a song and if the melody is particularly poppy I'll try to cover a challenging, darker topic that feels especially upsetting to me, like the religious persecution of women by branding them as witches and burning them alive, or the insidious nature of homophobia in mainstream media. And if the melody is a little more melancholy then maybe I'll make it more of a personal exploration. I also try to write songs that hopefully serve to inspire and cultivate strength. We have a lot to fight for and it’s good to remind people of that. I write a lot of songs about the power of friendship and triumph over intolerance.
We're working on a little accompanying zine with the new EP. It has lyrics and art but also a section of resources for queer and transgender life assistance as well as recommended reading material and a few activities pages. Fun and educational! Hopefully fun. Hopefully educational.
CL: Switching gears, tell us a little about Pony Sweat and how you got involved.
CM: Pony Sweat is a fiercely non-competitive dance aerobics class for feminists, created for all bodies and levels of fitness. To distill it into a bite sized, tag line... it’s like if Richard Simmons listened to Bikini Kill. And it literally has saved my life. It was created by Emilia Richeson, one of the most powerful and magically gifted people I've ever met. She is a constant force of inspiration for me every single day and a miraculous friend.
Pony Sweat is her creation. Her child. And it involves engaging on socio-political issues and exploring notions of radical self acceptance which rally against social programming and challenge the existing social model - a model (as we've discussed at length in this interview) steeped in sexism, racism, abelism, xenophobia, transphobia, and homophobia - and we do this while dancing to bands like the Cure, Killing Joke, Romeo Void, and Santigold. It has had such a profound influence on my life in terms of teaching me to love my own body and understand why I was hating it in the first place - which has helped in turn with my coming out as a transgender woman to such an immense degree. I was coming out before Pony Sweat but with it I gained a new confidence and resilience. I also gained additional control of movement which again, as someone who has felt awkward in her body for most of her life, this is an incredible gift. Before Pony Sweat I never felt comfortable moving in my own skin or even really looking at myself in a mirror. These sound like hyperbolic statements but I attest to the their truth. You could ask a great many of the other Ponies (as we refer to our collective) and they will share similar stories. Its a huge part of this supremely inclusive and loving queer community I've found here in Los Angeles and something I will cherish forever. Pony Sweat and Emilia have pulled me up from the depths of despair more' times than I can count.
I have to thank my dear friend Lauren for bringing me into the Pony Sweat fold. She'd been going for a while and she thought it was something I should do - so she encouraged me to come to class with her. Lauren knows me well. And she was certainly right in this case. I've told her before but ill say it here again... THANK YOU LAUREN. I love you.
So I started going with fervent regularity and after a time Emilia approached me about becoming her second instructor. I accepted with joyful tears but it's been a scary undertaking, mostly because its something that is so precious to me and to so many others and I wanted to make completely sure I was handling it in a way that would represent the ideals of the class. Preserving it for all its treasures and taking care of all the Ponies... in the same way they've taken care of me. And now I'm an aerobics instructor for Pony Sweat! And every time I say that I'm exploding inside with pride! It makes my heart smile.
CL: What advice would you give to someone still struggling with their sexual orientation or gender identity?
CM: Take care of yourself. Give yourself love. If you are questioning whether or not you are queer... you're queer. Love yourself for it. And find a community where you can talk about it and express your self. It may be a long bus ride or a train ride away but find a place where you can feel safe and accepted - even if it’s just a day trip when you can afford the time. Having a community that embraces you and loves you is supremely important. The internet can be a place to find solace and community as well. I bemoan the internet for a lot of things but there is a lot of help there also. It's where I learned to tuck properly and how to do my makeup like a Disney princess. And it can be a life raft when you live in a town full of small minded bigoted garbage people. Strike out where you can but ultimately be safe. We need to be out and be seen, especially in hotbeds of homophobia and trans-phobia, but at risk of violence and death you need to be careful. We need you to be alive most importantly. And retreat to the places where you feel safe when you need to. But always inside... if you're queer or asexual or trans or non binary... be proud of who you are and give yourself love for it. I love you for it. Very, very much.
CL: Finally, what was the last thing that inspired you? It can be anything....
CM: Another friend of mine, Laura (Burhenn), is releasing a new record this month with her band the Mynabirds called Be Here Now and she's using the media attention on the album as a platform for some real talk. A lot of her words approaching similar topics we covered here and she is an inspiring woman in general - but I think it’s radical - in the true sense of the word - for a mainstream musician to align herself in such a way and be so outspoken about political issues. So many other bands in the world, cowardly shy away from making any kind of statement or attempt to create a cultural shift to level the playing field for those less fortunate. Even a lot of bands in the "punk scene" - which in my days of youthful idealism I thought was supposed to be a politically charged scene and one that held people accountable - I sadly know now this not to be the commonality in 2017. I think what Laura is doing with this record is fucking awesome and I'm so very proud of her.
Also, at a diner I frequent here in town called Cindy's, there's a sweet lovely girl who works there from time to time, and this week when I saw her she had on a huge pink and blue “fight for transgender rights” pin. I told her how much I liked it. And then I overheard that she and some of her high school classmates had made them and were disseminating them at their school. I'm not much of an optimist for the progress of humanity but then sometimes I see a thing like that and think... the kids are alright.
dimber performs at the Chain Letter 2nd Anniversary party this Wednesday Aug 23 at the Hi Hat.
Damber EP comes out November 10th.