This summer I met Joshua Byron who writes with Alfredo Franco for the brilliantly written, acted, and filmed TV show Trans Monogamist. Joshua told me that they are also a survivor of Conversion Therapy, something we need to be talking about as often as possible with other queers and queer allies to gain the momentum needed to finally make it clear that this practice should be made illegal in all 50 states, and as soon as possible! When I am in Europe performing or teaching and talk about Conversion Therapy, everyone is confused that such a violent practice is not only allowed but is sometimes state-sanctioned. We need to put an end to this New Dark Age some US Christians would love for us to collapse beneath.
Joshua Byron is a nonbinary storyteller based in Brooklyn. Their work includes the webseries Trans Monogamist co-created with Alfredo Franco and Artless Media, Idle Cosmopolitan with Glo Worm Press, as well as the zine Sincere Hate. Previously they have written dating columns and lyrical essays for Bushwick Daily, the Body Is Not An Apology, Yes Poetry, and more. Their films have been screened at Sarah Lawrence College, the Indianapolis LGBT Film Festival, Secret Project Robot, and more. They love Ursula K LeGuin, rose soap, and lots of coffee.
Trans Monogamist is about a trans nonbinary dating columnist who works to make their peace with monogamy in Brooklyn while their friends stir up their own trouble – it is a Sex-and-the-City-inspired, Gilmore-Girls-loving, DIY-embracing series inserting non-binary characters into a genre from which they have been historically excluded and think through a simple concept: are monogamists annoying?
The series was produced by Russell Sheaffer, who has been featured in the New York Times, Frameline, MIX NYC, MoMA, and is the director of Artless Media. The series has a number of queer New York-based comedians, including folks from Open Flame Mic, and queer artists like Sophia Wallace, Chariot Wish and others. The trailer is live here. Episodes One through Seven are live on transmonogamist.com and air every Monday through August 12th! They have been written about by the Advocate, Bushwick Daily, NewNowNext, and Luna Luna Mag.
This July and August I conducted an email interview with Joshua:
CAConrad: Thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed, I’m a fan of the TV show you and your friends are making, I think you are a bunch of brilliant people! When you and I first met recently you talked a little about surviving Conversion Therapy, and I would like to start this conversation with you around that. Could you please tell us about this experience?
Joshua Byron: Mmmmm. It’s difficult to understand for me even now, I think it allowed me to doubt myself. To be in a place of fear and worry and while those things were there before Conversion Therapy, it certainly intensified afterward and during. Even now it isn’t something easy to work through. I felt like it was hard to see myself as a good person for a long time and that made a lot of parts of my life hard. It certainly wasn’t the only thing that at times made things hard- but it was sort of a microcosm of the intense way queer people can be treated at times. I sort of feel like only recently have I been able to be public about queerness in a way that has been healing for me, to be open and this show was a big part of that. It can be hard to show up for yourself as yourself. I don’t always know how to talk about it. I don’t feel like things like Boy Erased tell the whole story. There’s more to it, something lingers for a while after. It isn’t always a clear story.
CA: Boy Erased might be able to reach some of the people with the power to finally put an end to this form of torture, that is possibly one good thing from it. I am not someone who goes looking for the silver lining, I just want this medieval practice to stop! When protesting the anti-trans, anti-queer HB2 law in North Carolina I met multiple Conversion Therapy survivors, some who were forced to undergo shock treatment! We are electrocuting queer kids in this country!
JB: Definitely! My own experience was different, and that’s part of the issue is that it sort of morphs to bypass things. It’s important that more narratives cover this issue, its complexity, its trauma, and the way it sort of forces one to live outside their body. It was disconnecting in a way that I don’t think some narratives get at. For me, it didn’t just happen, it was unfolding until I was able to learn some basic healing practices. And that takes time to learn and isn’t linear.
CA: Everyone I have met who has survived Conversion Therapy needed therapy afterwards. In Trans Monogamist the high cost of therapy comes up, which I appreciated, as though only rich people have feelings that are worth healing.
JB : Yeah- I think that talking about therapy, about healing practices was important to us. At least mentioning them and trying to sort out what having access to them meant. It is so important to work on healing and being kind to yourself… Feelings don’t necessarily need healed in mind, but they do need to be felt, dealt with, not just letting them sit and shape themselves into new things. They need to be confronted head on. But so often access to therapy can be tricky for economical or social reasons for many people. Therapy has been incredibly healing and important in my life, there was a lot of residual feelings that needed to be dealt with- and shame- to be able to feel whole and queer and joyful.
CA: Could you please tell us about your healing practices?
JB: Well, I think part of it is that I work hard to be in community with others and learn about healing through them. Some things are processes—learning to be whole to show up as a person in as many situations as possible—not without fear but without paralysis. Saying I am afraid of how this could go, but I’m going to stand this ground anyway. A lot of asking for what you want and need. Reading. Patience. Taking alone time. Things I’m still learning a lot of but things self-help practitioners, poets, and folks like Joselia Hughes, Brené Brown, and god knows how many others have been saying for a minute. I’m not very gentle with myself but learning to be gentle with others. And then of course, being gentle and engaged with the body- I eat vegan and do yoga and those have felt important as a way of reconnecting with myself. Breathing exercises. Things I learned in therapy. Learning about the “narratives we play in our head” and how to unlearn those. And sort of how to engage with the chaos of the world, something I feel like Jackie Wang, Urusla K LeGuin, Octavia Butler, and Adrienne Maree Brown are thinking through. And often healing is tuning things out. Or learning to re-engage without despair. I don’t think that’s an easy thing but if we engage with despair we aren’t really engaging.
CA: It makes me happy that you mention being vegan and doing yoga. We have privileged the brain so thoroughly in our culture, but leave it to queers to remember the importance of the body, and that the brain is not the only part of us with memories linked to trauma. I love the writers you mention and why you mention them. Jackie Wang is a living genius! Have you ever read LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness?
JB: Such a big part of my life these past few years has been developing a relationship with my body. That’s such an important point about queerness, so many are not allowed a body for a long time and it takes a lot to reconnect. I love LeGuin and Left Hand of Darkness is a big part of that. It’s interesting because of allegedly ambivalent the narrator is in terms of gender and sexuality. Everyone talks about the people being genderqueer but the narrator seems queer in this sort of weirdly passive but disruptive way. I also love LeGuin for her kindness. Tehanu is one of my favorites. It’s such a simple tale about how trauma and kindness are linked and how being kind to yourself (such a trite but wildly important thing to say!) is essential for laying a ground work of relating to the world. I read the Tao Te Ching after a LeGuin binge and found it equally illuminating. There’s a mystical practicalness to LeGuin.
CA: When you say being kind to yourself is essential for relating to the world, I can see that premise at work in Trans Monogamist. It feels like the healing and connecting you are wanting in your life is part of the writing you and Alfredo Franco are doing for the show.
JB: I’m glad that comes through. I think I was in a pretty different place when we made this originally, so the plot feels anchored in that time frame for me, but the voice overs were written almost a year later, so they feel more rooted in this time of my life. It feels like the voice overs bridge the years, so in some ways the show feels linked to certain place, things, and people, and in some ways it feels linked to other memories. So many of our friends were involved in the show even in its post-production, so that healing and kindness was a communal thing, something that sprung before, during, and after the show. My current roommate went on to be one of our music advisors and was an extra in Episode 6 – Myrrh Crow. I think the show’s ultimate conclusion finds a balance—of that hunger and that emotional openness. But River has a hard time getting there. Even with what we see of Harbor, Greta, and Joseph, they all struggle to sort of come to terms with various things—work, love, pain. But the things they learn are partly about being kind to yourself and partly about the systemic issues they rub up against.
CA: You played River and I wonder how the names were chosen? Thinking of you using a name for that character which represents a moving body of water feels appropriate.
JB: A few people asked me about this recently. I met this amazing musician and writer River Smallflower just a few months ago, long after we’d written the series, but honestly, the reason I chose River and Harbor was that it felt intuitive. I think River came about wanting a “gender neutral” name- with all the complexity that brings- and with wanting a name that felt… flexible. I think the more we see of River the more that sort of unfurls, they change and are changing. There’s no singular River just like there’s no one being we are our whole lives. I think that’s something about tv that sometimes irks me—we inhabit years of life with people and they change so little—but people change so often and so rapidly. If we get more seasons, there will be more Rivers- depressed, angry, confused, lost, lonely. We see some of those Rivers in this series of episodes, but there’s more to it. Greta felt like a name that would be a goth school teacher name. Harbor felt like it was sturdy enough for that character. The Boy was named the Boy because we didn’t want to give him a name.
CA: Television has never felt to me like a catalyst for change, if anything the opposite, even when we are finally given LGBTQ characters they are all status quo comfort zone, or invisible. Sex & the City always made me sad because Darren Star is an amazing gay writer, but he is living vicariously through his women characters like gay men have been doing since the church started to try to colonize the world. My boyfriend tells me to chill out on Star, give him a break. My point to this is that the writing you and Alfredo Franco are doing in Trans Monogamist is not living vicariously, but living!
JB: I hope so! I think living as yourself is such a process and one we are always working through- how to be authentic in any given moment. There’s no static answer. I think Trans Monogamist is some of the seeds of that. I think I sympathize with Star, it was so much easier for a time to relate to cis straight women, to see ourselves through cis straight women, but that’s just losing yourself in someone’s ego. I think I still do it sometimes, right, that’s why we love strong personalities, we can lose ourselves for a while. It’s the allure of Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, and Miranda. They are obnoxious, wild, themselves most of the time, and truly iconic. I like the way Carrie isn’t always likable, I like the way she fights herself and others so hard to feel things. I don’t understand how so many privileged people relate to her. Superficially, sure, she’s a wealthy good-things-happen-to-her-Manhattanite. But she’s ruthless. She’s jealous. She’s achingly sad and desperate. I think that’s why I like the show. There’s something off-kilter about it in that way, the way they are mean to everyone, the way they so rarely bullshit the pregnant and the couples and the wealthy. Everytime I rewatch I think—this show rips every subgroup to shreds. Art guys, ex-co-oppers, current co-oppers, Russian painters, Wall Street guys, women who want it all. That said, it has so many moments of also choosing the popular path and the fantasy and ignoring marginalized people. Poor Stanford. Barely even a character.
Trans Monogamist has some of that meanness, that desperation, that uncertainty, but in a very different way. These people don’t have the ability to look down on people and then go grab a Gucci bag. They can be mean and sad and jealous and ruthless, sure, but it’s not the same.
CA: You said earlier, “if we get more seasons,” and I was wondering what you need? When you imagine Trans Monogamist going forward, what do you want that to look like?
JB: It’s a big question! I would want it to look warm, inviting, and sort of letting characters move through different states- from singlehood to monogamy to breakups to togetherness to trying on things. River needs to experience more, maybe some healthier relationships. Alana’s character has a journey to go on as well and experience more types of dating. Harbor and Greta are (SPOILER) engaged now, so that must play out as well. Another lens on dating. But also involving more people as characters and letting the world we’ve started developing to expand. I have a lot of new people I’ve met since the show started that I would love to work with and include as characters. We’d love to delve into these characters with some more twists and turns now that they’ve been established. Of course, we’ll see how things go! I’d love to do an episode set at a murder mystery party.
CA: How did Trans Monogamist get started? Where were you? How did the first conversations around the show begin?
JB: It probably started long ago I’d always wanted to do a twentysomething show while I was in my twenties, which I still am. When I moved to New York a few years ago and met Alfredo and Shelby and soon after Alana, something felt like it clicked. It felt like we were a group and it felt like… I don’t know we had so many outings and good times and bad times and then a few months later I pitched Alfredo the idea of writing a show together. We sort of talk about it as I can be sad and he can be funny—and of course we both can do the alternative—but it felt like a good case of opposites working together. We went to a lot of parties and bars and art openings and talked a lot about bad dates and me and Shelby grocery shopped a lot and talked about art boys and jobs and all those things are in the show. I lived across the street from Alfredo and Shelby at the time too, so it was sort of magical. Then we got Russell Sheaffer of Artless Media involved who does a lot of experimental queer filmmaking like Saltwater Baptism and Masculinity/Femininity, which is an incredible film work that has amazing folks like Sophia Wallace—who is also in the webseries, Barbara Hammer, Carolee Schneemann, Susan Stryker, and many other amazing queer and trans artists. When Russell agreed to it, I sort of knew we had something cooking. And then we got to work.