A.J. Bryce identifies as many things: transgender, queer, a parent, a person of color, a North Carolinian, an artist-activist. But he never imagined he would one day be the founder of a pioneering trans-run publishing company.
Trans-Genre Press began as a side project in 2012, but it became a way for Bryce to combine his creativity with his passion for LGBTQ rights. Now the Chapel Hill-based press is preparing to publish its second book, Writing the Walls Down, an anthology of transgender and trans-ally creative writing.
Bryce, who has lived in Carrboro and Chapel Hill for about a decade, has been drawn to art since his early days growing up in the Midwest. Years later, when his mother was diagnosed with cancer, he turned to drawing to cope with the pain. When she passed away, he wrote songs to help during the grieving process. He calls himself a rocker who "spearheads revolutions in trans-awareness."
The seed for the press was planted in 2011, when Bryce was performing in a variety show called The Tranny Roadshow in Colorado. It showcased trans artists who performed songs, comedy and commentary. It led Bryce to create the Trans-Genre Project, a website that serves as a database for work by trans artists. Then he was approached by Ryka Aoki, a Japanese transgender author based in California, whom he had met in Colorado. Aoki was in the process of releasing a collection of her poetry when her publishing deal fell through.
"She suggested that I found a publishing company because of my passion in trans arts and my foundations in the Trans-Genre Project," Bryce says. "That's how Trans-Genre Press was born. I wanted to focus on the 'trans-ness' of works, but it didn't have to be the driving force. The priority was to publish voices coming out of the trans community and to build bridges between communities—to connect."
The next three months proved difficult for both Bryce and Aoki. She had already scheduled a book tour, so the project needed to be published quickly. At the same time, Bryce had to care for his mother, who had been diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer.
"Neither of us got much sleep those three months," Bryce recalls. Knowing virtually nothing about publishing, he educated himself through online research and practiced graphic design for the cover.
"I jumped in head first," Bryce says. "I never knew that Microsoft Word had so many features."
In April 2012, when Aoki's Seasonal Velocities debuted on Trans-Genre Press, the imprint became what Bryce claims is the first trans-run company to publish a trans-produced work, just ahead of New York's Topside Press, which issued a trans-produced collection of fiction later that year. Seasonal Velocities garnered enough attention to be nominated for the Rainbow Award and the Lambda Literary Award, both of which are annual contests celebrating LGBTQ fiction and nonfiction.
"When Seasonal Velocities became a finalist for the Lambda award, it didn't fit neatly into a category because it wasn't just fiction or nonfiction, it was poetry," Bryce explains. "Now, because of us, there is a transgender poetry category. Even the biggest LGBT literature award wasn't prepared for what we were coming out with, but we changed that. That's why we need to keep pushing the boundaries."
As a trans person who has faced discrimination, including being asked inappropriate questions about his body, Bryce hopes his company can foster education and understanding. In October 2013, two West Coast editors, Helen Klonaris and Amir Rabiyah, pitched Bryce Writing the Walls Down, a compilation of LGBTQ writing derived from The Walls Project, a 2010 performance that brought together artists in the San Francisco Bay area to "explore the physical and metaphorical significance of walls" in their lives.
"The proposal sounded amazing," Bryce says. "I knew I had to publish it." More than 100 people submitted their writing, and 45 of them were accepted for the anthology. It's due out Oct. 14 and is available for preorder at www.Trans-Genre.net.
"The main contributors fall within the LGBTQ spectrum and represent a variety of people," Bryce says. "It's a multicultural convergence." Two of the writers who made the cut are from North Carolina.
Alexis Pauline Gumbs, who has lived in Durham for 11 years, identifies as a queer woman of color. She learned about the project from Rabiyah. Her piece, "an act of radical waywardness," is an excerpt from her forthcoming book, Spill. In experimental prose and poetry, Gumbs draws on legends and origin stories. With themes such as crookedness and straightness, she plays with ideas based in sexuality and her experience living with scoliosis. The work expresses her feeling of not fitting neatly into conventional categories.
"Writing is a way to work through that," Gumbs says. "I have to look closely and clearly at the world around me and make or unmake sense of it."
Raleigh resident Jordan Rice, a trans woman and a lesbian, writes for similar reasons. Her work deals with difficult conversations surrounding the transgender experience. While she doesn't necessarily view them as autobiographies, "Tresses" and "Birthright" seem to come from a personal place. Lines such as "when my mother speaks to me again there's been six months of silence between us since I said she lost her son" offer poignant glimpses into the transgender experience.
"I hope this project allows for more awareness," Rice says, "and fosters more communication between LGBT individuals and the outside community and, ultimately, more understanding."
Gumbs and Rice both think the anthology is breaking new ground for trans voices.
"I'm glad that Trans-Genre Press is in [the Triangle] and that there are trans people of color taking leadership," Gumbs said. "This [project] is an example of that."
Looking forward, Bryce hopes to continue publishing works that give a voice to marginalized communities.
"When you do something that people thought was impossible, it makes you think about what else you can accomplish," he says. "[The press] isn't making money right now, and the priority is to pay our contributors. Right now, it's a labor of love."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Trans formation"