Monika London grew up surrounded by music. The Portland-based DJ and producer, who goes by Monika MHz, started laying down beats at a young age on her toy drum and Sesame Street record player. Her mother’s vast record collection offered London an education in the best of Motown and disco, while she learned classical performance on tenor saxophone (and eventually other instruments).
“I think there was probably never a time in my life that wasn’t dominated by music,” London, 28, says. “Music has absolutely contributed to saving my life and I know it’s saved others. It helps us find something truer about ourselves…. I helped find myself through losing myself in music.”
The person she found is a nerdy, feminist, electronic musician who also happens to be trans.
For years, London has blended as cisgender, her trans status only coming up in dating situations. She wasn’t making a particular effort to live under the radar, she just figured it wasn’t anybody’s business — and why should she be held accountable for how others perceived her identity, anyway?
But lately, she’s been thinking about the potential positive impact of inviting the world into her life. London, a queer-identified Latina, is an activist for gender, romantic, and sexual minorities (she prefers GRSM to LGBTQ). She’s even writing a book that seeks to reconcile modern trans feminism with other takes on feminism.
“Part of the goal of doing what I’m doing now is to open up a new avenue,” London says of her decision to disclose her trans status. “Now is a really important time to move forward with this work.”
“I’ve always felt like Portland would be one of the best places to live openly as a queer trans woman of color,” Monika London says. Photo by Jeffrey Horvitz, PQ Monthly
London was inspired to speak out after her friend and former People.com editor Janet Mock shared her transition story in 2011 with Marie Claire magazine. She started to feel claustrophobic about the extent to which she was restricting that part of herself from her interactions, activism, and music.
“That was a really compelling moment for me. For the first time I saw a woman more like me being profiled in one of these types of articles,” London says. “Just being a trans woman of color existing in her body is a radical fucking thing. It blew my mind. Basically, I’ve spent my time since that moment working up to this moment.”
By lending her voice to an increasingly visible community of trans women of color, London hopes to break barriers and change perceptions of what it means to be trans. She wants to stand from her position of relative safety to speak out for those who cannot.
“Too many people don’t have the safety, the ability. They can’t or won’t [live openly]. I wanted to do it so that someday it won’t matter anymore,” London says. “It won’t matter someday who is trans and who isn’t because it shouldn’t — it doesn’t change the value of the individual and our voice.”
But the strength of London’s conviction doesn’t dilute the fears that come with her newfound vulnerability. There’s familial impact to think about, the potential for career retaliation, possible blow back within the queer community, the risk of violence. Her fears aren’t unfounded. Trans women of color experience the highest rates of violence among LGBTQ people. And no matter how close the letters are in the acronym, queer folks are not immune to transphobia, racism, and other ignorant bigotry.
“I know I’ve had women — even here in Portland — who were hitting on me, turning angry and accusing me of violently deceiving them by just sitting at a bar and being someone they were attracted to,” London says. “It’s never a pleasant experience to feel someone shift so immediately from flirting to disgust so quickly.”
These experiences, along with the stereotypes she’s heard perpetuated by queer folks about trans women — that they are either “sexually-violent infiltrators caricaturing ‘real’ women” or “uptight, un-fun, unfunny, un-sexy, and shy” — have shaped London’s concerns about disclosing.
“I honestly never wanted to risk losing something so powerful and so important like community. But it’s my belief that maybe we can be better than that. It’s my belief that in Portland and beyond we are at the cusp of a time when my fears are just a dated piece of history,” London says. “I’ve always felt like Portland would be one of the best places to live openly as a queer trans woman of color.”
She also worries about how she’ll react to these fears. She has only recently become comfortable with wearing “masculine” clothing and doesn’t want to stop being herself out of a fear-induced compulsion to fit others’ ideas of femininity.
“When I bought my first button up shirt and T-shirt, I felt like for the first time I was being more authentic,” she says. “The way I present is something I feel incredibly comfortable with now. I couldn’t have imagined it six years ago. This [disclosure] is certainly part of it. This is kind of a step in being more authentic.”
But if anything, it is the ways in which London’s life diverges from the standard issue trans narrative that gives her story the power influence people’s perceptions.
“I think whether we’re talking about the Latin, queer, women’s, or house music communities, the main thing I’d hope to accomplish is that people expand and reshape their idea of who a trans woman is,” she says. “That we are more than an abstract, far off curiosity; more than a vague approximation of a woman built for the pleasure of others and patriarchy; more than a joke to laugh at behind closed doors; and more than a dead woman on television. That we are full flesh-and-blood human beings bursting with life, desires, hopes, dreams, joys, pet peeves, loves, and passions; and we span the full and rich diversities that reflect those of all of us as people.”
Trans women, she points out, are everywhere and they look like every kind of woman — including the Latina house DJ with the shock of cherry red and platinum hair and a punky fashion sense.
“I fought to be who I am. And that fight was not in vain,” London says. “And I think that is a powerful message. That you can fight to be who you are and it can be a success. Like, yes, I am who I am now. And I have all the right to be who I am just as much as everybody else.”