In a photo featured on a fundraising page for his new project, Transilient, former Asheville resident Basil Vaughn Soper looks the camera in the eye. He’s got one hand in his shorts pocket; the other holds the leash for his dog, Yep, who is glancing backward as if hearing his name called. Soper wears a hat, boyishly cocked back on his head, a lock of hair curling across his forehead. His expression says, “This is who I am.”
It’s a serious look, Soper admits. In the background, there’s the Mississippi River and the iconic Crescent City Connection bridge of New Orleans, where the activist and writer now lives with his girlfriend and Transilient co-founder, Johanna Case.
While living in Western North Carolina, Soper founded the LGBT advocacy group Just Us For All. He also led anti-violence protests including “We’re Not Bashful,” curated an art/education/community event called “How We Identify” and helped ensure that trans students can use their preferred names at local colleges.
Now Soper and Case are launching a photo documentary, Transilient, on June 1.
Basil, Case and Yep will travel the country, meeting transgender people and chronicling their stories, he says. They’ll stop first in Gulfport, Miss., followed by Atlanta.
They’ll come to Asheville June 7-8. “If you need support, it’s a great place,” he adds, mentioning such nonprofits as Western North Carolina Community Health Services and the Campaign for Southern Equality, along with community groups such as Tranzmission.
“I’m going to be getting interviews and taking photographs, not just trans men or women, but people on any aspect of the gender spectrum, different races, trans people in relationships,” says Soper.
In a recent commentary for The Advocate, he writes, “We want to illuminate real transgender people, highlighting the myriad ways our lives are woven into the fabric of the overall human experience. I reject the idea that our entire life, our entire sense of self, must revolve around our gender identity and history.”
Xpress chatted with Soper about his life, his project and his advocacy.
Mountain Xpress: Why did you choose the name “Basil,” like the herb?
Basil Soper: I had a friend, right when I started transitioning, who committed suicide. Right before she died, she had left a whole basil plant on my porch. … It [represented] an important part of my life.
You transitioned in Asheville, struggled with depression, started a career as a writer and activist here. You became, in your words, “a loud trans voice.” It’s kind of cool to choose your own name along the way.
It’s an opportunity to come into yourself, when you know who you are. Names are interesting, because we’re given them by people who don’t even know us yet. Trans folks [can] take a name that suits who they are, that means something. I’m pretty grateful for that. [But] if I’d been given the opportunity to pick my name when I was 6 [years old], I would have gone by “Babe Ruth.” He was my favorite [baseball player].
I might have picked Pete Rose at that age! “Transilient” is another meaningful name, and you’ve chosen it for the new project.
It means to move from one state to another. It also plays on “resilient,” and I’m actually moving from one [American] state to another [for the project], interviewing people, and hopefully one country to another when we go global. “Transilient” has a lot of strength in the way it sounds, too, and it involves the word ‘trans.’ … It’s all about changing and moving and being strong.
How’d you develop your idea to interview and photograph people?
Similar projects have come out, and I like them and appreciate them, and I’m glad they exist, [like] Transcending Gender, which is a photo project that focuses on things outside of the gender mainstream, but these just didn’t speak to me in the way I wanted people to connect. …
I’m tired of trans people being asked about their bodies, when they came out, how they have sex, what surgeries they had. … We are people and deserve to be seen as living, breathing, feeling humans who have experienced many of the same things that cis [people who identify with the gender assigned to them at birth] do.
The Humans of New York project inspired you?
[HONY] was so good at opening people up, being vulnerable to other human lives. … I wanted to do something similar that makes [interviewees’ gender] ambiguous but focuses on trans folks. Everyone [interviewed and photographed in Transilient] is trans, but you don’t know where they’ve transitioned from or where they’re transitioning to, or what they identify as. … I want to show the world that anyone you meet could possibly be trans.
This project comes out of your life and activism in Asheville, too. You were a fairly well-known figure, and your work brought a lot of attention to you. Perhaps moving away gave you a chance to just be Basil?
It totally did. Coming out of depression … and being such a loud trans voice in Asheville, I didn’t have a choice in how I wanted to come out, or when or if I wanted to come out. Sometimes, I don’t want to have to tell people I’m trans, especially if I’m in a conversation with someone [at a grocery store or wherever]. Sometimes I want to think about other stuff, like anyone would.
We’re all human, you’ve said.
It’s easy to recognize the differences, and sometimes the reason we have labels like LGBT or lesbian or gay or whatever is because we need to create our own community or own identity. It’s really easy to keep those differences in mind in order to give us visibility, but we don’t have to just be different. We can also be similar. And that’s OK, because that’s how humans work.
You left Asheville to intern for the international LGBT advocacy group All Out in New York and now live in New Orleans.
I remember I was so relieved when I left Asheville [and went to] New York. It was so cool to walk down the street and not be looked at or ogled. I don’t know what it was about Asheville — the small-town [aspect] or the type of tourists [who] come there, but I felt scrutinized by people all the time. [Maybe] it had nothing to do with being trans. I’m a flashy dresser, and that could be enough to get looks. But here in New Orleans, I’m pretty tame [and] one of the most boring people who live here. That’s cool.
Yes, for New Orleans, you’re pretty boring.
I absolutely am. I’m cool with it. I can choose when and if I tell people [I’m trans]. It gives me a chance to have constructive conversations with people. [One time], a guy was talking smack about Caitlyn Jenner, and he was misgendering her, and I said, “She’s totally hot and I would totally date her.” … He would have just dismissed me if I were [seen as] trans. Because he believed I was cis, [my comments] set him straight, which is weird, because I don’t necessarily like being invisible, but sometimes it’s more effective.
You made him think about what he was saying. In Asheville, did you feel that the town was a good place to transition?
I spent eight years in Asheville, and I consider it my home, [though] I grew up in South Carolina. In comparison to other places [in the South], Asheville is a great place to come out. It’s got a lot of community support for trans folks. But the financial strain is really hard.
You mean the lack of good-paying jobs and the high cost of living?
I left because of the socio-economics of the city. [As an intern for All Out], I was renting a room in Brooklyn for nearly what a room in Asheville costs. … Since my internship, I’ve expanded creatively and in my career in large ways that I don’t think I could have in Asheville. … You can be an artist easily in Asheville: for free.
You also say you just needed to get out of the town where you transitioned.
I wanted to live in a way that gave me the space to choose when to come out, rather than being out or outed daily. From my experience [in Asheville], the trans issues were overshadowed by the gay-marriage movement, too, which needed to happen, and I’m so glad that it happened, but there wasn’t a lot of room to bring trans issues to light.
So your goal with Transilient is to highlight the issues, such as the violence against trans people, but to do it in a different way than you’ve done before?
I’m hoping it will shift people’s ideas around and show what people look like when they’re trans. There are stereotypes about trans, like … they look a certain way … but that’s not always true. [Trans] people can look how they want. This whole bathroom issue, [North Carolina House Bill 2], is trying to suggest you can tell when someone is transgender, and the truth about it is, you can’t. Your ideas about it are wrong, so let’s shift them.
I want to sit down with any transgender, gender queer, or people who identify as gender nonconforming and interview them about any part of themselves — their lives, pasts, present or future experiences. My end goal is to showcase a variety of trans voices with the intention of humanizing trans people by connecting them to the overarching human experience that all people embody and can relate to. …
I want to show the world that we [transgender people] are more than our identities.
If you would like to be interviewed for Transilient or want to help, email Basil Soper at email@example.com. For general inquiries, itinerary and fundraising information, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Look for Transilient on Facebook and Instagram (We Are Transilient).