Intellectuals are annoying. They’re convinced of their superiority, obsessed with academic form and constantly convincing you of their importance. Kat Blaque is not an intellectual. She knows who she is, and if you’re not into her, she knows you can click elsewhere. Her videos cover her solicited responses to issues affecting trans people, including how to handle rejection, the monetization of anti-feminism and queer and Black representation on RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Blaque tells truths based on lived experience rather than academic study. She leaves room in her talks for herself to be wrong or for her viewer to insert themselves to create dialogue. Blaque doesn’t engage with trolls or play devil’s advocate, but she does engage with people who are trying to learn or construct their own identities.
If you disagree, Blaque already knows she’s not here for you; she’s here for someone else. On Wednesday, May 16 over five dozen people convened at the Smith Memorial Student Union ballroom to hear Blaque’s personal testimony on self-discovery, evangelical Christianity, Hollywood and the artistic community’s misguided sense of progressivism.
Kat Blaque, an illustrator, transgender activist and YouTuber, was the keynote speaker at Portland State’s Pride Month, where PSU resource centers, student groups and departments hold events celebrate LGBTQ+ history and visibility. Blaque’s keynote was sponsored by five different PSU organizations which included PSU’s Queer Resource Center; the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies department; the Women’s Resource Center; and PSU’s Speaker’s Board.
Blaque and American Sign Language interpreter Abel Constantine were introduced by the QRC’s transgender retention specialist Jill Seale. “[Portland] is a lot less kitschy than I was expecting,” Blaque opened, dressed in a flowy, sheer ensemble ready for summer goth music festival season. “I thought it was going to be more granola and crunchy, but it’s like every other gentrified area I’ve ever visited.”
Though an atheist, Blaque’s educational background includes private Christian schooling, which is where the tradition of personal testimony came into play. (Sidebar: Blaque confessed to having released a Christian pop album years ago.) Blaque discussed constructing her identity through a paper diary bought at the church store, then moving to Gen Y social media networks like Blogger, Xanga and MySpace.
Blaque shared the two sources of identity construction formerly available to trans people: messy, non-passing Jerry Springer “trannies” and a form-story whose common elements include shame and secrecy, working with sketchy doctors until they finally had The Surgery, then living out their days in passable secrecy—a term Blaque referred to as being stealth—with a loving spouse, and 2.5 kids.
It is a form-story that was likely meant to inspire hope among a population disproportionately targeted with violence or worse simply for trying to define themselves—a population trying to survive in the shadows. Although the form-story highlights a complex issue trans people experience daily, one cisgender people might not anticipate: not all trans people can or want to attain stealth, but all trans people long for an existence where they are not constantly made to define themselves or think about the politics of their survival. Blaque described these struggles as being a distraction that her straight, cis and even gay peers don’t have to overcome. How do trans people share their experiences without giving up stealth?
The answer, to broadstroke, is that you can’t, and you have to be willing to navigate what that means for you. For Blaque, this meant coming to terms with realizing that as she used YouTube, people might find her videos while seeking her for illustration work, and the lack of compartmentalization could cost her jobs. In this process, Blaque also came to learn she wouldn’t want to work with anyone who did not accept her for who she is. This is not to say that this was an entirely pain-free process.
Blaque recalled being betrayed by her gay best friend in college when he outed her to one of her roommates who had a crush on her. “I thought gay men had a sixth sense about being trans,” Blaque said. She recounted when she and her ex were evicted when her ex’s cousin shared her Buzzfeed appearance with other members of her ex’s family, effectively their landlord. She recalled traveling to Hollywood to find work and being laughed at behind her back by workers who took her resume, none of whom ever called her back. Blaque noted she could laugh about these stories because she was not a victim of physical violence, but was aware they could have very easily ended worse than they did, and reminded the audience that other trans people are not as lucky.
At numerous points in her keynote, a recurring theme was Blaque’s blogs and videos being viewed by people she didn’t realize were watching her, which almost always led to incredibly positive reactions, like becoming popular in college as a result of her classmates watching her videos when she previously navigated popularity through academic intelligence, or working with the influential blogger-slash-YouTuber ChescaLeigh, whom some people may know better at MTV’s Franchesca Ramsey.
Another theme was goal orientation: Blaque presented impressive goal plans from her teen days and outlined how she had completed or deviated from those plans, like getting into one of the United States’ top animation school, only to discover she hated navigated industry politics and ass-kissing. Having met those goals, and in some cases moved on from them, Blaque did not lay out a detailed plan for her next decade. The unstated implication feels to be that Blaque is allowing events to happen as they happen without needing a multi-step goal for global conquest ready for review.
Blaque hilariously recounted points in her self-discovery journey when she grew out of some phases, like being a Gervais-level atheist, an obsessive queer radical or having an objectively terrible taste in men. “Art school does weird stuff to you,” Blaque said, to laughter.
Blaque recognized these identities as stations she had to outgrow to become who she is now. She lovingly described the people she has been as being “so cringe,” and in this way she opened room for her audience, who may be in these phases of self-discovery, to recognize this cringe factor and move in a new direction. But if they’re not ready, Blaque isn’t mocking or judging them.
One of the talk’s most important moments came during the short Q&A at the keynote’s end. Blaque took a question from PSU Sociology graduate student Joy Mutare Fashu Kanu, who told Blaque she is still a Christian and uses her videos while instructing classes and in her social networks to educate other Christians.
Mutare and Blaque discussed PSU department conversations over the name of Mutare’s department—sociology of minorities—and whether there is a better name. “How about ‘sociology’?” Blaque joked before explaining that the term would allow sociology students to focus on areas of oppression outside of how white people engage race, such as the study of precolonial queerness throughout international cultures, among other topics.
Blaque’s keynote opens PSU’s Pride season highlighting several important messages: the path to happiness and the path to success aren’t always the same paths, changing your plans and changing yourself are totally okay, and other people’s perceptions of you shouldn’t interrupt your own self-actualization. Blaque and Mutare’s exchange was a model of how people with conflicting ideologies can find common ground and be respectful toward one another. It’s also a matter of admitting that those are goals. If there’s one message the world needs for 2018, it’s this: don’t be a gross troll.