People often don’t listen to you when you are speaking; They are just waiting for their turn to talk. You can see it in their eyes, nodding affirmatively with a slight curve of the lips. Sylvia Thomas is not one of these people.
She is inquisitive, and genuinely so. Your words aren’t just traveling in one ear and out the other. She eats them up and briskly retorts, showing her love for people and hearing their stories with an authenticity that you seldom find in people. While interviewing her in my home, her warmth engulfed me, letting me know I was heard and always will be when in her presence.
That may be because words are what Sylvia does best. The activist and poet’s writings have jettisoned her into the pantheon of writers from Indianapolis. They’re raw, human and remarkable regardless of what you identify as. So much so that the organizers put her on stage at World Pride Day this year in Copenhagen, her biggest stage performance yet. So, it felt quite fitting to have the esteemed wordsmith on the November digital cover, the month that hosts Transgender Awareness week. Listen to what she has to say; I promise you she will do the same.
Jacob Moran: Many people in our city know who you are and your involvement in your community and the art community. But I want you to tell us in your own words who Sylvia Thomas is and what your mission is.
Sylvia Thomas: I am a daughter from the Midwest trying to make an impact on the same soil that has breathed a lot of ignorance and misconceptions, I am trying to change that. Whatever ways possible for me and my capabilities. Whether it’s working in public health, writing or activism. We’ve had some conservative leaders here who have led us astray and I want to be an outlet to those who need help here in our city. I want to be an example that people like me can thrive and live here. I could go to New York or Los Angeles, I could go to all these places where the community has already created things and continues to develop, but why not nurture a garden that hasn’t sprouted? That’s huge for me.
JM: I’ve always felt that writing is the hardest art form. You are quite literally putting your most honest self and emotions for people to read and critique. When did you find writing as an artistic outlet for you?
ST: I think the first time I realized I had a talent for writing and honored it was in high school. There was a creative writing club and I got really in touch with my writings. They released a literary magazine every year. It was a really cool club to be a part of. Later I joined a queer writing group on Facebook called ‘Quake’ that showcased the queer artists of Indianapolis. You could submit a video of yourself if you wanted to perform so I did and they accepted it. I met all these other queer poets and writers. It was really special! It influenced me to pursue writing pretty seriously.
JM: I’m always interested in the grind it out days for creatives especially writing because it’s such a hard field to break into. Was there ever a time when you felt like giving up?
ST: As a poet, you have to start performing locally at shows, then you expand statewide and eventually nationally. I started to build a reputation and then got invited to perform in Copenhagen in 2018 and then once I came back I was so lost. Here I was, just getting back from the biggest performance of my life, and I was just so stuck. I couldn’t create. I thought I had hit my peak as a writer and I was done. My mental health took a pretty big hit. I started working full time in public health and put writing aside. Eventually time went by, and I thought of writing again. My first idea was a book all about divinity, sex and transition. Then I just wrote it! It all came back to me. I wrote it, printed it and sold it and I picked it back up like I never left. I think it was a really important lesson for me to honor myself first, and my writing second.
JM: Your writings are moving, raw and a peek into the trans experience. You don’t sugar coat and provide an honest peek into your life. Everything is right there, in your face and real. How biographic are your writings?
ST: They’re my experiences. But when it comes to my writing, what you consider personal I may consider open and freeing to talk about. What you think is gut wrenching, I may think is funny! A lot of my writing comes from queer night life, break up music or even fashion. But I also really enjoy paying homage to the beauty of what people consider trash. What people maybe make fun of or want to escape. An ode to growing up in a dirty, poor and disgruntled part of America, and I wholeheartedly honor that part of my life. My writings are honest and harsh, but they ultimately bring me joy. When people see me they see a fat, trans, queer person. I am very proud of that. I want to make art that is in that image.
JM: Do you feel any sort of responsibility to champion a change here in the city and open the door for more transgendered poets to share their stories?
ST: I always try to get trans artists opportunities. My full time job in public health makes it a little harder to take others under my wing. When your full time job is caring for people and the well-being or health of the trans community, you have to have something that is wholly for yourself. I center myself in my art. I am not shy about the fact that I am selfish about my art. I created it for myself. Of course I hope that other trans and queer people read it and get inspired so they can do it too. Championing a change to allow more trans artists to be heard can come in many different forms. Personally, I feel like doing what I do is championing change. I have had people come up to me and tell me how my writings have affected them. But as far as mentorships go, I just don’t have that capacity. I am only twenty six. I have been really embracing my youth lately and that means centering myself, while doing my best to uplift the voices of others.
JM: You’ve performed here in the city countless times. Spoken on panels and are associated with the Arts Council. But just recently you got to perform at World Pride Day in Copenhagen and I’d love to hear more about that.
ST: I built a relationship with the organizers when I performed there in 2018. I was lucky enough to be invited back this year and it was breathtaking. The only reason I am an artist is because of community. It’s not just because I can write. When I was flown to Copenhagen and I got to the hotel, there were three hundred of us from different countries. We had to share rooms which bred more community and relationships. They booked me for a ten minute set and it was great. It was the second to last day there and they asked me if I wanted to perform the closing ceremony. It really felt like my own Amanda Gorman moment! I spoke right after the princess, Royal Highness, Crown Princess, Mary of Denmark. It was so wild. As you know there is no royalty here in America but it is such a huge deal over there. I met her and she was so lovely. The people I met and the conversations I had, had a huge impact on me. Here are three hundred queer people, all with their own unique, personal story. It really showed me how Pride can be so vast. It led us to the question; What is Pride to you? What does being trans mean to you? The evolution of answers from that question spawned so many special conversations.
JM: Indy has been making some progress in its inclusion and acceptance of the queer community and culture, but there is still a lot of work to be done. What do you want to see more of from our city? What do you want to see more of in the community?
ST: I would like to see more investment in spaces by queer people, for queer people. I think there is a push and pull when it comes to the normalizing of queerness and transgenderism in the mainstream. There are a lot of straight people in gay bars now. And there isn’t anything wrong with that, all are welcomed. But one thing that Copenhagen taught me was the sacredness of spaces for queer people, by queer people. Again, there were three hundred people, all queer. It was so beautiful. This was on display in the daytime. Here in Indianapolis, I feel like all you see and hear about is queer culture at night. It’s all about being who you are at night. And while that is a huge inspiration for my work I want to see queerness day and night.
JM: You have a new collection of poems coming out soon called ‘Twirl’. Can you tell us a little bit about the creation and content?
ST: Of course! During the pandemic, while so much rhetoric in the news and media told me the lives of trans people are precious or dead, I wanted to convey how we are so alive. I went from being alone in my apartment for eighteen months, to the biggest stage with the most giant audience of my life thus far. ‘Twirl’ is a collection of poetry that exhibits joy in all the most beautiful and honest ways. So much vulnerability that anyone, cisgendered or transgenderd can find their truth in and learn what it means to be alive in a world that often murders people like me.
JM: You’ve accomplished so much and have become a figure for all people to be inspired by. If you could go back in time and talk to ten year old Sylvia, what would you tell her?
ST: This might be problematic for me as a trans woman to say!
JM: Feel free to not answer! I don’t want to make you or anyone else uncomfortable.
ST: No, I’m not uncomfortable with it, I love it! I’m kind of pushing the boundaries, challenging other trans people. First and foremost, I consider myself to be a woman throughout my whole life. Every trans person has a different relationship to their body and name(s) attached to it. For me, I love who Seth (dead name) allowed me to be. I would tell him while you want to advocate for your community as a queer young baby, make sure you are making time to live for yourself. Honor that time you have with you because it is so precious. People talk about Marsha P. Johnson. Her legacy, as important and courageous as it is, is limited to six days. She lived years and years and years. She is known for making that specific impact. But who knows? Maybe there were other moments that were more impactful to her life. She could have ten other moments in her life that are way more important to her. I don’t want to live my life for six days. I want decades.