Claye Bowler: Full Interview

Duration 36:11


Claye Bowler
Interview by Ray Larman
30th March 2019

RL: This is Ray Larman recording for West Yorkshire Queer Stories. It is the 30th of March 2019 and I’m here with Claye who is gonna introduce themselves:

CB: Hi, I’m Claye Bowler, I was born on the 11th of February 1995. I’m queer and non-binary and trans. And I use they/them pronouns.

RL: Okay, so Claye, can you tell me about being an artist?

CB: Yeah, so I’m currently studying a degree and it’s in textiles, but the work I make now is more, it’s kinda of moved into sculpture and more installation work, and I’m looking specifically at the, at archiving and ways that different people have been archived and are currently being archived. And my work at the moment is looking at the way that queer and trans peoples’ like – not only in institutional archives but in any kind of collection of like family archives or, yeah, just friends and people – that, that information being destroyed or being hidden or altered so that those stories can’t be continued. And so I’m making sculptures that kind of look like an archive or look like a collection, so that looking at cardboard boxes and bubble wrap and the things that we use to protect information, but are fragile and made of plastic and when you move them they all break and some of them are full of ash or things to like show that there should be information there but it’s been destroyed or it’s been changed, kind of, in a way that you can’t get to the information.

RL: What kind of archives have you looked at and kinda discovered that stuff isn’t there?

CB: I haven’t really looked at many, but like when – I think one of the things that a lot of people say when they have fascist arguments is like, ‘this is a new thing, it’s come about on the Internet, it’s like young people have decided this has happened’, and when you try to find information, it’s like, ‘look, we’ve been existing for thousands of years’, there’s only like single stories that you can find and you know that that’s not true, there are multiple things that aren’t being collected and people are slowly finding more. And I’ve been talking to people about, like, things that they’ve been finding out and like projects like the Queer Stories and things like that that, that – that I know that there’s things there but you know that I haven’t, it’s not in the mainstream and it’s not talked about, and I think… Like a lot of the stories that they, that do exist are embedded with the fact that they’re hidden. So, like, with Anne Lister, like, she wrote her diaries in code and like the embedded hiddenness to that because it wasn’t allowed, or it wasn’t seen as being able to happen. And my friends were talking about – I can’t remember who it was – but the, the court records, they were burnt, y’know like the bit that mentioned gender was burnt away, whereas the rest of the court record, they were being tried for having sex outside of marriage or something, I don’t know – Kit talked about this, I can’t remember, I came in halfway through the talk, so. Yeah, but that kind of, the stories that we do hear about are not fully there and artists I like Gluck and Claude Cahun, I can never, Marcel Moss? is that the person that was with Claude Cahun or was that Marcel Moore? I can’t remember.

RL: So, why are you particularly interested in them?

CB: I think, like, because they all quite overtly, being not within gender roles – and whether that was being trans, a lot of the things they said fit within what we would describe as trans, and sometimes explicitly said that I use he pronouns or call me a man. But there is like, that information is being disregarded by different people and they’re like, no they were a woman, or… like, I think. Yeah, because it’s not clear and cos information like that was destroyed, like – I went to see an exhibition about Gluck and their wardrobe didn’t exist, but the wardrobe of other people that they were lovers with existed, so it was an exhibition of like their clothing, but there was none of their clothing there, and that whole history wasn’t, of their life, was hardly there. It was like here’s the paintings that are acceptable and the things about other people they knew, but it was just very small, and I found information that was pieced together to be like, look they were really gender non-conforming and probably trans and… yeah. But then when I was in that exhibition there was someone giving a tour who was using she pronouns for the whole time who, and I was like, I don’t want, and so there is a record of that but people now have been disregarding that, and so I think it’s looking at like trans histories that exist but completely disregarded. And like, I like, trans people now saying, ‘I’m trans’ and that being disregarded in lots of different ways, I think.

RL: Do you think there’s um… some sort of element of competition between different LGBT factions over claiming people from the past?

CB: Yeah, I think especially with Gluck, like it is, it’s generally women and lesbians that are saying no, Gluck was one of us, and trans people are like, ‘but they said this’. Yeah, and I think, I think there is so much crossover between like butch culture and trans masculine culture that it’s hard to say what is who belongs to who and it doesn’t necessarily mean that it belongs to them separately. I think they can be in both parks, but I think especially in the past before we kind of thought about the different – had more words for the identities that exist then it wasn’t as clear to them either, like how things were. And I don’t know if we, if we can ever say that one thing is categorically true or not, but I think it’s people who are ignoring the fact, or like disregarding completely that trans identities couldn’t exist because they were somewhere else.

RL: What’s your take on the ‘fuss’, ‘fuss’ I’m gonna call it, over the Anne Lister plaque in York?

CB: What was the fuss?

RL: Oh okay [laughs] Okay

[break in recording]

RL: Can you tell me a bit about the Yorkshire Trans Choir that you’re involved with?

CB: Yep, so I’ve been involved in choirs for all my life, really, and I was living in London for about three or four months and there’s a trans choir in London and so I went along to that. I was also at another choir in London that was, that was a kind of targeted as a, marketed as a protest-y choir and for change, and it was like. And so I was at both of these choirs and the trans choir in London, it was looking more at pop songs and things that people knew, and but the protest-y choir was like angry things and chants and the way that the protest-y choirs was taught was that everybody learnt every part and that, that it wasn’t gendered in any way. And a lot of the time, people like would just sit down and then they’d end up singing the soprano line even if they’re usually a bass and but like, just the way – and then that it was a really nice choir, and it was never said that it was gender-neutral or that that’s how they were doing it, but that’s just how it happened and that was really nice. But the, I think what I didn’t like was that it wasn’t explicitly talked about that it was, that that’s what they were doing. And I know one of the conductors uses a different name, different pronouns in different places and so like, it’s interesting that, that they had decided not to bring that element of themselves to the choir. I’m not sure what their reasonings were, but like, yeah it felt.

And I was, cos my dad signed up for me for that choir, so I had, my name, I just pretended that my name was Peter because that’s what they’d already printed on the badge [laugh] and so I don’t know why he signed up with his name, but it was like, people, someone said, ‘oh that’s a weird name for a woman to have, Peter’, and I’m like I’m trans, like – that was not on the minds of the people there and so I think I, when I left London and moved back to Yorkshire I was thinking I want both of those elements together for that, nice trans choir and that the atmosphere and like the way of teaching those songs, because that was how, that was inclusive or trans. And I thought that the way the trans choir did it, it still kind of enforced the a binary because we were still using the bass, tenor structure. And I was still ending up singing the more woman’s parts, which I didn’t want to be, and so, yeah.

And I was talking to my friends like, ‘oh I really want there to be a trans choir’ but I’ve never run choirs before and I don’t really know what I’m doing, and my friend was like, ‘just do it, no one knows what they’re doing, just wing it’. And so I put it out there and some other people seemed to have the same idea at the same time and so there’s about three of us who are in the more like running roles, but we want the choir to be more, like, archaic and that everyone brings songs from wherever they want and that we decided what songs we’re singing together and how we sing them and whether we change the words or what key we sing them in or… like how, yeah, how we do it in rounds or whether we do it in ways that we have any harmony or anything. And, and within that is everything that we’ve, that I’ve taught has been by ear, so we’ve not used sheet music or, we’ve used words, but it’s, it’s, you’re not required to know about music and – and by teaching everybody every part, people whose voices have changed cos of hormones or just general life or not sung for a while, then they can like work out the best place for their voice to fit. Cos sometimes, bass parts, but an octave higher is a completely different part to what a soprano and alto’s parts are, and so it’s like, it’s creating a different, new part, like somewhere else. And the structure of a lot of parts, like, a lot of alto parts are the same and a lot of bass parts are the same, and I’m usually singing alto, which is, you get quite boring parts or like sometimes you just sing the same note for ages.

And so then it’s nice to like be able to learn every part and switch around and see how, yeah, the structure – and I think that’s useful for like if you’re trying to compose or trying, or wanna sing more, like I’ve never written any music or been in that situation because I don’t, I don’t know the theory of it, I’ve just been to choirs, cos yeah I come from an art background and I just sing. And so that’s really nice, and it’s been going well and I’ve been like, learning how to conduct in a way, like I’ve never conducted at all before and so the first session I was like, ‘?!’ and I don’t know how to like count people in in a way that is the right time, and so I think it’s really nice that like I don’t really know what I’m doing, no one else, like I think, some people are scared because they can’t sing or they don’t know where their voices, but I don’t know how to conduct either, so we’re all the same, like. Yeah. A nice community level of stuff, and every session has been really good, and afterwards it’s been like yeah a really good feeling, and just singing with people is really good, and I’m glad that they – a lot of people have said that they used to be in choirs when they were younger and they’ve not been able to and because people would’ve been to like LGBT choirs, but they seem to still follow the structures of like SATB and still seem to be quite binary in their, like, who sings which parts, and so this is yeah really useful to do that.

And when people have come and asked me about the choir and I’ve said, ‘no we don’t do that, we just sing whatever we want’, and it’s like, ‘oh cool, yeah, that’s much better’. And saying like, if people, cos people’s voices when they’re, especially with testosterone, it like cracks in really interesting ways because you’re accelerating puberty in a different way to how it happens if you’re a cis man then it takes, yeah, different ways of getting used to it, but that a lot of medical professionals don’t understand or care to look at, which is, yeah.

RL: When did you start the choir?

CB: Last – so 2018 in the summer we started talking about it, and it took us ‘til the end of December to get a room, we wanted it to be a free room and so, the university in Leeds where we were having it, they – it took them – cos we were asking from July to have a room, and I don’t know why it took them so long. But yeah, since January we properly have started, and we’re planning on just meeting in people’s houses over the summer, and hopefully it’ll be less long time to get a room. Cos I think, yeah houses are nice but, it’s not a neutral space, and I think that’s what’s nice about the uni.

RL: What kind of things do you sing?

CB: Yeah, so I’ve been teaching more protest-y songs. Things kind of from like the folk revival in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and also more modern music. And there’s things that I’ve picked up from choirs from, like the kind of smaller little chanty songs that you warm up songs, so there’s a lot of those. And then as we’ve been learning them people have been like, ‘oh let’s sing different words’, so we’ve been making them more trans and more angry and specific. So, there’s one that we’re telling TERFs [trans-exclusionary radical feminists] to fuck off, which is a good one –

RL: Can you give me some lines?

CB: Yeah, I can sing it if you want.

RL: Yeah, go on, please.

CB: [Sings]
I am a tower of strength, within and without
I am a tower of strength within.
The tall buildings fall from my shoulders,
All anxieties slip from my mind.
Let every TERF be silent,
Every TERF fuck off
[Singing ends]

Yeah, so the last line of those wasn’t about TERFs originally. But, yeah, and the way people in the choir were like, no let’s sing something else cos those words are, cos it’s like, ‘let every shackle be looser’, I think, which is a bit like, shackles we don’t really use that as a terms anymore. Yeah, and so that’s – and some other people in the choir have been singing like more pop songs. We did ‘Creep’ by Radiohead, and we’ve got, we’re gonna get the music to an Abba medley [laughs]. We found a like a really classical, I think madrigal, I’m not sure who you say it, version of ‘All Star’, which is gonna be, I’m not sure if we’re up to that, but so I think that’s the next, we’ll see how that goes.

RL: Do you see the choir as activism?

CB: Yeah I, I think so. And… cos I’ve been involved in lots of other activism before, and I think… I’m looking more at the ways which community is activism rather than, like, going out, like building our community and giving space for things to happen. I think there’s a nice quote from this book, it was like, ‘being queer is not demanding to be included’ (is this relevant?) but like not, it’s not like being included but it’s not letting yourself be excluded. And so this trans choir is like to not – we’re not, we’re not being like, we’re not allowed in, we don’t fit in normal choirs and so we’re creating the space for us to have that. And we’re not like asking for the inclusion in normal choirs because they’d have to completely restructure the whole choir, we’re like creating a space that is for us and like for our needs. I’m not sure if that makes sense, but [laughs] And, yeah, I think… I think it is activism and I think, I think the songs that I’m singing how I want to see them and want to teach people is, is activist songs and is protest songs and is looking at the struggles of other people and putting our struggles into them all. And I think that was what was missing from the trans choir in London was that it, that we were just singing ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘The Bare Necessities’, which are nice songs, but yeah they’re – I think that, there wasn’t the power, there wasn’t like the anger behind and when we sing the song about telling TERFs to fuck off, like, everyone gets really into it and so yeah I think that’s really important.

And we’re singing, we’re planning on singing them in the Trans Pride march as well. I think in Leeds like general Pride, the trans community led the Pride in 2018, and that was kind of all last minute and we didn’t have any music or drums or… we didn’t really have any chants written down and as people who were leading it, it felt a bit like, like I don’t know, anticlimactic, like it was, ‘we’re gonna lead Pride!!’ and then because we didn’t have any of the actual support, we didn’t have that camaraderie that, it, yeah, it felt a bit flat and that was a bit sad, but that’s why I want the Trans Pride march this year, I’ve got words and I’m gonna try and teach people songs in the march, and I’ve shared a song on social media so that people can learn it if they wanna and sing, and so that we can, so that there is something that we can be shouting about and telling TERFs to fuck off. And, yeah. And… and I think that’s… yeah really important.

RL: So, I heard you sing something at TDOR [Trans Day of Remembrance] last year, could you maybe say a little bit about that?

CB: Yeah, so it was a song written by my friend Rowan Frank who lives in Sheffield, and it’s based on a traditional folk song that’s like hundreds of years old. And so the – it’s called ‘You Wish You Wish’, and the original’s ‘I Wish, I Wish’ and the original’s about a woman who has sex before marriage and then can’t get married to the man she loves or something cos, ‘oh no’. But the way that Rowan’s written it’s being like, ‘you wish that I wasn’t trans, but I am’, so it’s a really nice, angry, sad song that reflects that. And I think it’s a really well put together song that really fits. And I like recorded it and I put it on social media and everyone was like, ‘you’ve changed all the words!’ and I didn’t even realise I had, and I really like folk music, that’s how it’s kind, always evolving that people change it and make it slightly nicer and however they want it, so.

You wish, you wish
But all in vain.
You wish I was a maid again,
But a maiden I ne’er shall be,
‘Til apples do grow on orange trees.

I wish I had no fear to roam,
Free as a bird to fly from home.
But like a ghost, fear haunts my dreams
And I am not the maid I seem.

Oh grief, oh grief, so many lives,
Lost by anger, fear and strife.
I long the day when folk like me
Can live their lives in liberty.

Dig me a grave, And dig it deep,
Lay a [?] stone both head and feet.
Inscribe my name as bald as you can
So all shall know I died a man.

You wish, you wish,
But all in vain.
You wish I was a maid again,
But I never was a maid you see,
And apples do grow on orange trees
[Singing ends]

RL: Thank you. So, tell me a little bit about how it felt singing that at TDOR and why you went with that song?

CB: Yes, I think that was - when, the first time I heard it, I was like, 'Oh, yes!', and like, it gave me goose bumps and I wanted to share that with everyone else… And I think it, it's, it's quite a personal song and it talks about, like, one person's life but also, it's relevant to so many people. Like, the way that my friend wrote it and I was like, 'Oh, that's about me!' And, yeah when I sang it at TDOR I was, I couldn't tell if I was just really cold [laughs] or if I was really nervous but I was really shaking and it like, felt it was like trembling out of me in a different way to the way that I've sung it before, I've sung it on my own. And it like felt like everybody was listening to it in their own way. And I think that was really nice and powerful, for me at least.

RL: So, where was it?

CB: It was in the park outside – I don’t know that park, near the hospital, the town hall. Yeah, so people had been saying poems and speeches and kind of talking about themselves, the people who had died this year and people who were like relevant to them or how they felt about TDOR. And so then – yeah, I don’t think, I think I like said I wanted to do it and I’d forgotten, so then everyone, and then all the volunteers, and I kept trying to like, ‘oh I’ll do it’ and then it got later and later and later so I was like, ‘I won’t do it’, and then I did, and so it was yeah, good. But yeah I think and every time I sing in public view, like it’s [nervous noise], but yeah it’s a good feeling [laughs] as well.

RL: Is there anything else you want to say?

CB: Not that I can think of.

RL: We’ll stop there, thank you.

[Break in recording]

RL: This is Ray Larman. This is part two of the interview with Claye. So, can you tell me a bit about your involvement with Non-Binary Leeds?

CB: Yep. So, it started in 2016 and I just – I think it was – I’d just finished my first year of university. And I think I came into the university a bit older than other people and I’d been involved in a lot of things outside of university before, and so when I came in I felt a bit like, I was too pompous and didn’t really make any friends, cos I was like, ‘oh I’m better than all these people’. No one’s queer enough, like no one’s radical enough. And so then it was kinda the end of the year and I was like, ‘oh, I don’t have any friends’ [laughs]. I mean I was, there was people like, I was acquainted with and talked to but I didn’t feel like I found anyone that I had, like I found a connection with. And then I came across this non-binary event on Facebook, and I was like, ‘ooo, that’s, that’s exciting’. And so the first one we went to was in Live Art Bistro and it was just testing the waters of what people wanted: did people want a regular group, how did people wanna work? And like just as soon as I was in that space and that was the first time I’d been to LAB and like really been to Leeds properly, and like been in the queer scene in Leeds, people had told me about it and like told me about Wharf Chambers and things, but I’d like that was the first time I’d properly gone – cos after that we also went to Wharf Chambers and so, and I was like, ‘[gasps] this is so, this is the people that I’ve been missing’.

And cos I was – I’m at university in Huddersfield, which is about 20 minutes on the train from Leeds, and so there is queer scenes in Huddersfield, but not as prominent in, as they are in Leeds. And then that slowly turned into a regular group that, Non-Binary Leeds once a month, and it moved to MESMAC. And it, yeah, that, I found that like loads of my best friends and got really involved in – and I was even helping run it for a while, before I moved away for a placement year. And then when I came back, that’s when I did Trans Choir instead. It was like, I’ve got my, how many spoons have I got? [laughs] I think that’s, it’s a really important space and it’s really helped with my like… how I’ve come at being non-binary and like acceptance, the acceptance of that group has been really important in the rest of the things that I do in my life and how I’ve, how I present to people who are cis or who are more binary trans, cos there was, in Huddersfield there were the university runs a trans group but it felt very binary, and everyone in it either already passed or was trying very hard to pass, so it was all about the medical side of things. And the first time I went, they were like, ‘so what medical things are you gonna get?’ And I’m like, ‘oh’ that’s the kind of route. And so yeah, then this non-binary group, there wasn’t ever that pressure and every time that conversations do head that way and it’s never like, this is the be-all and end-all of being trans, like it always like, if people did want to do that, and I think that’s really important in the way that we deconstruct gender and how we be trans, and what is acceptable of being trans. And… yeah…. I was gonna say more things.

And yeah, I think it’s, it’s a really good space to, to like shed the pretence, to just shed all the feelings you get when you’re with cis people all day [laughs] And like, how we talk about that, and it’s all things that are just so generic like, oh everyone at work is cis and they all think these things and it’s just like a space where, once a month, you can just be like, ‘ahh’, y’know, it’s all okay, like, we all have a nice time and can vent about that and work out coping strategies or like how to come to HR and be like, ‘you need to change things’ or help people rewrite letters with their selves to different people and things – got letter-headed paper.

RL: Is it like peer support, a support set up?

CB: Yeah, so the group kind of used to be more… less formal and just was chatting and was just whatever people wanted to talk about that week. And then it slowly moved, and we had a box where people put questions in and we take questions out, and now the sessions like, the first half is, is a structured like, this is the topic that we’re gonna talk about. And then the second half is more chatting and whatever people want to bring to the group. But I think it’s just, just being with non-binary people like whatever we’re doing is really good and then the Trans Choir, everyone who’s come has come to Non-Binary Leeds as well and so I don’t know whether that’s because I run that and I’m in Non-Binary Leeds or if that’s just [laughs] the people that it’s attracted. And yes, it’s just another, like, I think Non-Binary Leeds started off in creating that community but now we’re all splitting off and doing different things and there’s like a coffee morning, a coffee afternoon with different, once a month as well, and then the Trans Choir and other things and we’re starting to – now we’ve got that basis of a community we’ve been able to expand it, which is really nice.

RL: What’s the relationship with Trans Leeds, do you kind of do stuff together?

CB: Yeah, so a lot of the time we’ll do stuff together. I think – and Trans Leeds is open to non-binary people as well, but I think, I’m not – it’s just, yeah, a different space. I have been to Trans Leeds things as well, but I’ve, I’ve felt it’s not quite what I wanted. I’m not sure if there’s any tangible reasons for what they just, I just didn’t go to many things. But things that we’ve had joint together, like I know a lot of people in Trans Leeds and that I think they’re both important to have but I think it’s, it’s nice to be in Non-Binary Leeds where it is specifically just about that. And it also seems to be that a lot of people in Non-Binary Leeds are older, I don’t know why. But like, yeah Trans Leeds seems to be – maybe it’s a similar age range but?

RL: What is that age range?

CB: So, like, Non-Binary Leeds I’d say the people who come quite regularly are over 25 to maybe 40. But when I’ve been to Trans Leeds it’s been a younger crowd, kind of 18-25 and I’m not sure why, cos that’s – and I think maybe that’s why Non-Binary Leeds I’ve felt more comfortable there. I’m not quite 25, but I like… yeah. I think, I think there’s really big difference between people who are born before and after the millennium, or like more on the cusp. And I feel like I’m on the edge, so everyone younger than me I feel like there’s a lot of difference [laughs] I don’t know if that’s true or if that’s just me. Like I give tours at the university for open days and all these kids, I can’t relate to them [laughs] They’re all like, cos they’re all born after 2000, weird [laughs]

RL: So, you mentioned Wharf Chambers a little bit earlier, could you tell me about Wharf as a space where you feel comfortable?

CB: Yeah, so someone had mentioned to me Wharf before I went there, and I never like, the way that they described it, it was not at all how I imagined it to be, and I think I like, was intimidated with the way they described it and I don’t know why – cos I think they, they said that the last time they went there, they like ended up kissing someone and it was like the first time they’d kissed someone in public that was gay and they just got a bit freaked out by it and so I think their feelings with that space were a bit, I think, I don’t know why, but (what’s the word?) hard to deal with. But yeah, so they were like, you need to go there but, so then the first time I went there I was like, oh it’s a lot more like chill and comfortable and like, yeah a space that I was like really comfortable in. I’ve been in similar spaces in different cities before and I’ve been involved in the Woodcraft Folk before, which kind of build spaces a lot like that, and so that’s, I was like, ‘oh this is the space I know and that is comfortable’ and, yeah, is relaxed and chilled and just really queer and not really overtly queer but is just, it’s there and you know that nothing bad will happen in that space. Yeah.

RL: Shall we stop there?

CB: Yeah.