See What We See: Joëlle Bayaa-Uzuri

See What We See is a storytelling campaign focused on listening to queer voices that bring injustices to light in their own way. Whether it be via activism, writing, self-care, or simply by existence, the humans involved are using their life as a catapult for their community--however that may be defined--to ascend.

Joëlle Bayaa-Uzuri cannot be characterized by a single word or label: she’s a boss, blogger, designer, interviewer, fashion enthusiast, and advisor. She’s the creator and owner of the clothing brand Ten90Two, LLC and contributes to The Mahogany Project, Inc.

Joëlle Bayaa-Uzuri photo

Your background is in fashion, specifically streetwear or streetwear-adjacent. For a section of the industry that is so focused on storytelling, queer and trans stories are rarely a part of those stories. What was your experience in that industry like, and what made you choose that fashion in particular?

Any type of art or anything creative that I've done was always this need to express myself and to tell a story that wasn't being told. Coming up and even now, I look around and I see the stories that are being told aren't very original. They're not very representative of just the spectrum of life and identity and experience. So when I started in fashion, and any endeavor afterwards, it was always about wanting to tell a story and use my voice to express myself.

In fashion, I started on the creative and design side. Then I decided to move into the manufacturing, technical and planning side because for me doing anything, I want to know every aspect of it. I love planning and I love being the boss. My nickname is Boss Lady.

I also thought that that was another realm Black queer people were not represented at any time, in any company that I worked in. It was important for me to push through and say I don't see anyone like me in the room; I'm gonna walk into the room. They might not let me stay in the room, I might get kicked out, but I'm at least going to push and try because representation is the most important thing to me. Just showing that there are voices in there that are actually in the room, not just used for marketing.

How do you think your experience as a trans woman and particularly as a Black trans woman impact the way you brought that boss aspect to your work?

I always had to prove why I needed to be in the room, whether I wanted to or not. It was a challenge at first but I always took it as an opportunity because I also felt that I am all about community. I feel like when it comes to fashion and apparel it's less about the top, and it's more about the bottom, which is basically like society; it's less about the top 1%, it's more about the bottom 99. For me it was about forming those bonds with people within the apparel community that were not the white CEO. It was about the Hispanic community that were the pattern makers and the cutters. Because of the intersectionality of my identity, I was able to actually identify with them and build those relationships.

When it comes to being a boss, manager, and leader, I never lead with fear. I always lead with empathy.  I might be the leader but we're in this together. That's only something that someone that is marginalized, or someone that has an identity that has been discriminated against can really truly do.

I totally agree--I think most people with any kind of marginalized identity have an increased capacity for empathy. How did moving from LA to Houston affect your involvement in fashion?

I moved to Houston for a fresh start and it's just crazy just how much opportunity there is. In corporate fashion, I had a list of goals, and I met them fast and I wanted to do what somebody else wasn’t doing. I wanted to do what a Black trans girl isn't doing. I wanted to be a manager and then when I was a manager, what's the next level? It was hard because I didn't see anyone that looked like me so I didn't know that those things were possible. But I had the skill set, background, support, and knowledge. Why am I not going to that next level?

I was told that even though I had this amazing background, I'd be suited for a position that was below or you know I was told blatantly discriminatory things. What I was seeing is because of transphobia, discrimination against queer people, the racism, the misogynoir against Black women. I was hitting roadblock after roadblock after roadblock and I hit the glass ceiling really hard.

I thought, is my goal to be a mid level manager at a corporate company whose identities and ideals do not align with mine? No, my goal is to be free, and my goal is to be my own boss and be this idea and representation of Black trans queer life that shows that you can do and aspire to be anything. I love fashion, I love apparel, I love being my own boss--I'm gonna start my own t-shirt company. I've made companies millions of dollars. I planned production for over a decade, I went to school for fashion. Why wouldn't I work for myself? Yeah, it would be three times as hard to succeed because I'm doing it on my own, as a Black trans woman, but I wanted to, I just wanted to break away.

I was constantly being told, you need to change this, you can't wear that, and it was never about my qualifications, it was never about my skills, it was never about my connections or anything. It was always, Well, you can't dress like this, you can't look like this, or maybe if you tone this down… So, I decided that I'm gonna build a company that I'm proud of, even if it takes however long it takes, but one that truly represents my identity.

The designs on your clothing are your way of portraying a Black trans experience.  In my opinion, if I'm creating designs or collaborating with queer artists to create designs, it’s inherently queer. It doesn't need to have a rainbow on it to be queer or it shouldn't. It seems to me like a lot of the queer clothing that's popular is barely dipping the surface of queer identities.

I don't need to wear a rainbow for me to be who I am.  I also don't need to look a certain way, I don't need to identify a certain way to fit your box or your ideal. I am who I am. My brand is an urban t-shirt company that's owned by a Black trans woman. So it's inherently pro trans, we're pro all of it. I don't need to profess it on a shirt. If I choose to, great, but I don't. Someone once told me you know you could sell more if you did something that was blatantly queerbaiting. And I said, No, I don't want to do that, that's not authentic to my brand.

My brand is still a part of the community, it's still poetry and everything. And I just feel like representation is a spectrum. It's not just a monolithic experiment. People still don't understand that we are not a monolith. They will say that we are all lumped together, oh, LGBTQ LMNOP, but there is no monolithic experience as a queer person.

As the leader of a clothing brand or with your work with The Mahogany Project, what are some of the stories that you would like to see more?

I'm tired of these tropes in the narrative of the queer community.  We’re always suffering, always. It just, it never fails that we’re getting killed or murdered. We're always struggling with identity. Why can't we just have a regular story? Why can't it be a Friends new type of show, but they're queer and trans and non binary and gender non conforming? I live a pretty regular life, I work a regular job, I have pretty regular issues. Shows we're involved in are always someone being, you know, gay bashed or someone raped or someone attacked or someone getting killed or murdered.

I just feel like there is this inherent need to keep the narrative so small and narrow. It's so frustrating. For example, I'm very into music. I know a lot of queer people in the community take offense to certain music because it's not inherently queer. If I'm interested in it, it's queer. That's really what I'm all about, whether it's different types of love stories, or you know, just giving different types of stories, even about life and experiences because a lot of the people within the community don't tell their story. I feel like it's imperative that we continue to tell those stories and to tell our story, and to create stories, and art, and create content, so that the next generation coming up has something to really see and live on.

Are there any parts of that storytelling narrative that you would like to see developed more?

I like where storytelling is moving, I just want to push them a little harder. We're still doing this thing where we're going to have one minority character that’s the super minority, that's queer and brown or Black. But I feel like we're making great strides. When I think about storytelling, I love love love the show Euphoria. It's amazing. It's kind of dark, but I love what they're doing in terms of identity and really addressing just the complexities of gender expression and identity. It's stuff that I've never seen before. Just to have a trans character that's a lesbian. I've had those conversations with people before, but I've never seen it. I’m a stickler about only having the one super minority care character that's Black, and then there'll be something else like they'll be Black and poor or trans and white and poor, but I definitely feel like the needle is moving. I hate to wait for Hollywood because they're always super slow, so I'm always looking for the underground. Really and truly the queer underground community moves the needle, we push and shove Hollywood to tell the story. I'm clearly not going to get the story that I want to see from Netflix or HBO, unless I'm going to put out content that I want to see to manifest it.

Of the projects that you've worked on so far--regardless of when it was--what are some of your favorites? Or the ones where you felt like yes I'm finally on track with where I'm trying to go?

There have been a few. I used to be an urban burlesque performance artist in LA. LA is a city that is very Hollywood. It's a very, very white city. As a performer I wanted to do what I wanted to do. I don't want to do what anybody else is doing. There was this show from San Francisco called Trannyshack, and it was one of the biggest drag shows from San Francisco that would come down to LA like twice a year. And I went when I first started performing and I was like, I'm gonna be on this. I'm gonna work my damnedest. And eventually I performed on that stage, and my performance was such a big thing that they had to redo their setlist because I had to go in a specific place. It was a huge production--I had filmed an intro video, backup dancers, wardrobe change, and it was a big thing. Even after doing this amazing show, as a Black trans artist opportunities were not being presented to me.

So I said, well, I'm going to throw my own burlesque show. One of the reasons why I did the show was because being a performer I remembered when I was a younger ingenue who was just starting out and not being able to get booked as a Black trans queer performer. I didn't book artists that get booked all over town. I booked up and coming queer artists, I booked singers, I booked a fire thrower, I booked all different types of artists within the community that would have never gotten booked. I paid them, I promoted them, and I made it this whole thing for me even though I was so in the moment I couldn't enjoy it. It was probably one of my greatest achievements--to produce something as a Black trans woman that was profitable. The club made their money, I made my money and I paid everyone. And just seeing just the camaraderie of the community and just seeing all the talent that came on stage and then to follow them afterwards and to see them flourish has got to be one of my favorite experiences.

In a recent article you were saying how busy your schedule is and how you kind of realized recently that it has to do with you unconsciously pushing some things away. It's so easy to get distracted now and ignore deeper things. So I wanted to ask you a double sided question: how does your outer appearance contribute to the bigger narrative you're trying to tell, and how does your inner appearance contribute to your own narrative?

When I first started my trans journey, a lot of people, especially men, would tell me what I needed to wear to be preventable, or to be passable. I was like no that's not me. That's not me, I'm gonna wear what I wear, and whether you like it or not that's fine.

My identity, I say who I am, and that's it. It's not up for discussion.

For me, my outward appearance, I always dress for myself. I want to feel good. Getting my nails done and putting on my makeup is for me to look at. I want to be like, Joëlle, you're a hot bitch. I'm attracted to you. I'm gonna put on that outfit, I'm gonna make sure my nails are on, I'm gonna do those extra things that I value for myself so when I look in the mirror, I see what I want to see for myself.

My inside is such a conundrum because I'm private, and I'm this fun person and I'm super weird and just strange and I like random things. Being a Black trans woman who is kind of bossy, who's kind of aggressive, who's assertive, and who's ambitious and who's also nerdy and loves music and trivia and history and's hard to wrap that up in a neat package. And so, for me, the challenge is what bits and pieces am I presenting that are true to myself that convey to the world who I am, and I know some days are more successful than others.

There's so many layers and it's so complex and I'm so random that it's hard to consistently show a part of myself and to consistently show up the same every day.

Maybe it's just us being Scorpios and wanting that like portraying that hard, outer shell. It's a difficult balance, especially when you know at least some portion of your life is dedicated to like, nope, I'm definitely not that because that would suck.

Looking forward, what gives you hope?

What gives me hope is reflecting on the past and reflecting on where I've come from, how far I've come, what I've been able to overcome, and where I am now. And just manifesting and believing that things can be better. I think that what tends to happen is whether we're queer, trans, or non binary, I feel like this even happens with straight people as you get older, you lose that youthful Peter Pan-like invigorating spirit for life. The spirit for change, newness, adventure, and for knowing that things can get better. I lost some of it and I tried to gain some back in moderation. I feel like losing that spirit stifles you, and it keeps you grounded.

I don't want to be grounded, because you can't make change and you can't change your life being grounded and you can't do these amazing things, planting your feet to the ground. So for me it's truly letting go and seeing how fun life is and how fun life can be, and really being excited for my own life and my own growth. So, there is a silver lining. It may not be the silver lining that you had planned for yourself. But you have to decide what you're going to do.

I mean, it was trans, queer non binary, gender non conforming people that started the queer gay liberation. We continue to be at the forefront of change. I just think that we're so caught up in the struggle and the heart and the trials and tribulations that we're not seeing it. We really have our finger on the pulse and on the trigger and on the switch, and it's just a matter of flipping this whole system on it’s side and starting anew.

You can find Joëlle on Instagram at @___yourmanfirstchoice___.

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