Carl Haart interview 3 September 2022 - TJ
TJ: Thank you for taking those photographs. I can't wait to see them.
Kathryn: TJ. This interview is really just to talk to you about what's influenced you and your views and that kind of thing.
TJ: No worries.
Kathryn: So I mean, you work here in a queer artist studio, the 343 in Cathedral Buildings in the heart of Belfast, which is just about to close down. Could you describe your performance?
TJ: For me? So Carl came about, I used to do really hyper femme burlesque. And then when we went into lockdown and I was allowed to be myself full-time, I realized I couldn't go back to being the character that I was before, which was really femme.
So I decided to work on a new character and pulled inspiration from people that inspire me, like Dick Von Dyke.
So Dick is my drag dad. They're one of my biggest inspirations. And then just finding sort of country references.
Carl Hart comes from Carhartt, which is the American work wear brand. So it's kind of working, builder, cowboy, that kind of a vibe. And just, I'm trying to use the platform that I create with Carl to promote issues close to my heart.
So I do a lot of routines revolving around trans rights. I'm trans myself. So it's very important to me that if I'm given a platform or a stage, that I can use that to kind of show the inequalities that we're still facing and the things that need to be resolved and fixed, basically, with society and how we treat trans people.
Kathryn: It's like everything here in the north, we don't treat anybody well.
TJ: No, we definitely don't.
Kathryn: Trans people get really appalling treatment here. I mean, they do from the UK government - still. The jury's out on what's going to happen in Westminster in the autumn. [When legislation is due to be tabled banning conversion therapy - with the exception of trans and non binary people].
TJ: Statistics everywhere are shocking and appalling, but it's like, it's four to five years here to wait for your first appointment. And there's too many people dying on a waiting list because they're not getting the access to the healthcare that they need urgently. It's not seen as an urgent thing or something that needs treated urgently. So you're just kind of left.
Kathryn: And then you've got the right wing backlash about the Tavistock clinic and all that kind of thing.
TJ: Oh, of course. Yeah, yeah. The only thing the media wants to talk about is where we want to go pee in a bathroom. That's the only fight they're willing to talk about. They're not willing to talk about the actual implications for trans people and the fact that that's not at all. The trans agenda is not to take over bathrooms, it's literally just to get to exist as you are.
Kathryn: Yeah, quite. Exactly. When did you start performing?
TJ: So I started performing as Carl this April. So it's only been a few months with Carl. And then, like I said, I've been performing since 2018 under a different name, but I kind of reinvented myself the beginning of this year and started to debut Carl on the 21st of April this year, I think was my debut. So not very long.
Kathryn: It's going well. And where do you perform.
TJ: Yeah, so mostly around in Maverick. On Thursdays it's open drag night, so anyone can perform provided you've kind of told them before that you're going to perform.
So I'm in a competition now for the next six weeks called Drag Stars, which is kind of a version of the likes of Drag Race. But it's just a whole bunch of different drag performers from kings, queens and things. And we're going to compete for the next six weeks to win the grand prize.
I want to kind of push Carl to kind of do... If I had it my way I would do country numbers and Shania Twain and Orville Peck all day, every day, all my favourite influences.
But I'm excited to kind of push myself, we've got the themes for the weeks. And there's a lot of things that maybe not necessarily would be something I would look at, but I'm really excited to push myself out of the box.
TJ: Yeah. So week one is basically your best drag. So just what you interpret your best performance to be. So I'm bringing my... It's called trans riot. It's a routine that I do to I Predict a Riot. And it kind of goes through the facts and the statistics for trans people in Northern Ireland. So about the waiting times, about how you're kind of pushed to go privately and what we actually need to be doing as society instead of allowing the same rhetoric to be repeated over and over and over again. Just something nice and light.
Kathryn: That's great - I really like that tatt on your wrist there, "Exist Loudly." I mean, there's no point in existing if you're not going to exist loudly and be true to who and what you are.
TJ: Yeah. I think that's the thing. I think for me, through drag and through my personal life, there's no way I'd be where I was without other people speaking up for me and speaking out to me. So I'm like, if I have the energy and I have the capacity for it, then I feel like I owe it to those people and to myself to kind of pass on what I've been told.
So I go privately for hormones. And I only learned that through people responding to me on Instagram and telling me, "Hey, this is the route. This is who you should look at. This is where you should go."
So I'm like, if I have a platform, of course I want to share that with everyone else because I've lost friends to waiting lists. And if there's anything that I can do, any small part I can play, I want to be that person. I want to stand up and kind of show that we have so much further to go.
Kathryn: Well I think that's particularly hard in the north, all over the place but particularly in Belfast, where you've got Jolene Bunting, who came out and did the protest at the MAC at drag story time.
TJ: It's absolutely appalling. And I think it just further feeds into this narrative that they want to play out, not just for trans individuals, but for queer people in general, that there's something seedy and there's something very sordid about being queer. And it's like, a drag queen isn't forcing kids in and rounding them up in the streets. It's literally like-minded parents who want their kids to be exposed to the entire spectrum of society that are going, "Oh, this would be class. My kids would be really interested in this." The same drag queens have performed story times where they've dressed up as Pinocchio, and I've seen them do Matilda ones. There's never protests, but to stand outside when it's a drag queen with signs to say, "Protect our children," it's absolutely appalling.
Kathryn: People don't look at what reality is, they look at what their idea of reality is.
TJ: Yeah. I think that's the thing, as I was saying before, there's only certain narratives they want you to listen to. So they want you to listen to the narrative that trans people only agenda is to go into sports and ruin it for everybody. And their only other agenda is to go and want to take over the bathrooms. Gay people and queer people are still being persecuted for literally just existing, where they have three or four narratives and that's all they want to push because they realize that it's not this big newfangled thing that they think it is. It's just people existing as themselves.
And queer people existing quietly as well as existing loudly.
The more they're going to push these narratives, the more it's going to push things like this further and further back from being accessible to people, because they'll have to be hidden.
I did a Queertopia show for trans pride, and there was concern about the same kind of picketing at that. And I'm like, "It is 2022 and we're still... we can't just run a night of incredible performers without doing..." Thankfully nothing had happened at the show, but I'm just like, with the likes of the drag queens at drag story time - What is their end goal? What are they going to achieve? Because spoiler alert, we're not going anywhere.
So if you've nothing else to do a Sunday afternoon, and that's what you decide to do, I mean, that's on you. But I just don't see what their end goal is because they're not going to stop it. [drag story time].
It’s the same as with everything in Northern Ireland, that they've tried to persecute and they've tried to push down.
But it's not going to go away. Just because you lose access to rights around something doesn't mean that that thing isn't going continue. Same with the abortion rights argument and stuff. It's always going to happen. It's always going to be here. We're just trying to make things safe.
Kathryn: Well, abortion always has existed in Northern Ireland.
TJ: Yeah, that's what I mean.
Kathryn: But things don't change here very quickly.
TJ: No, they really certainly don't. I mean, I count myself lucky, I have incredible friends and supporters around me and I'm part of really class groups of people through trans pride and stuff. But I don't think they realize that their end goal is so unachievable because they're not going to cancel anything out. That there's no point to them getting on the way they're getting on. We're still going to be here. We're still going to be having events. We're still going to be reading story books to kids and they can't stop that. It's going always to continue.
We're struggling for arts funding through all of the sectors of the arts, to have events and to run things for the entire family, that you would just think they'd go, "Okay, it's not my cup of tea. I'll not attend myself, but it's not hurting anyone so I'll just leave it be."
Kathryn: That's exactly it. There's no such thing as a liberal agenda in the north. There definitely isn't. So your activism is actually driving you and the performance?
TJ: I think so, 'cause I think I've kind of found that, because I have this platform and this is something I'm confident in, this is something I really enjoy doing, that this is the kind of means to push that out. So I've got a couple of routines that are very centred on the trans experience, but also just me presenting as Carl opens conversations and doors with people that I think maybe wouldn't be there without it.
And I think it's important to show, especially because of the rise of the influence of drag and how big drag has become, it's even more important now to show that drag queens are cool and they are class, and they're very valid and they're very part of the community, but they're not the only gender expression available to drag. There's drag kings that have been there from the beginning that aren't... Drag Kings are always the ones taking the photos instead of being in the photos, Drag Kings are very much behind the scenes. Drag Things as well.
Kathryn: That's really interesting.
TJ: Yeah. I think that's something that not enough people realize is part of drag also, because I think...
Kathryn: Could you say a wee bit more about that?
TJ: Yeah. So Drag Kings and Things are basically just anyone that falls outside wanting to identify as a Drag Queen. So a Drag King usually is more masculine presenting. Drag King, Drag Things, sorry, can kind of fall somewhere in the middle or somewhere entirely different from that. So there's some other incredible performers like Xxxpresso Martini that I work with.
There's That Count Bella Lubowsi.
They're both incredible performers and they fall under the kind of bracket of being like, they're both psychedelic, bright colours. I know Xxxpresso calls themselves a psychedelic clown, which is perfect. That's exactly what they are.
They're both brilliant people. But I think it's kind of showing that this binary representation of drag is slowly changing. I think it's incredible. I'm not a fan myself of RuPaul, but it's incredible to see the push of drag and showing a mainstream audience what drag is and making it more accessible. But I think we've kind of lost sight of actually what drag performance is in part of that, and kind of left out the majority share of the community who do drag, who have always done drag. Seeing Drag Kings as this other and Drag Things as this other, that can't compete mainstream is appalling.
The Boulet Brothers' Dragula are the first ones to put a Drag King, with Landon Cider, into a public show. I mean, Dragula's fantastic if you've never seen it, it's terrifying and spooky and gross, but it's just wonderful.
It's very, very much alternative drag. And I think it's kind of showing that this, what most people would class as alternative drag, is in fact as valid and as represented, needs to be as represented as mainstream drag would be.
TJ: There is. I mean, definitely, like I said, in the last couple of years I think through having more exposure in the mainstream media to drag, that has created a lot more opportunities for people. There's Onya Becks, she's a drag queen in Belfast who runs open drag night in the Maverick. on a Thursday and she lets anyone perform.
And I have really seen, when I started performing five years ago now, there was maybe a quarter of the drag performers that there would be now. It's absolutely taken off and it is this huge, big... We have a whole industry now behind, where fabric companies know all of the drag queens because they buy from them.
So it's kind of created this whole community and it's like, there's people locally who make wigs and do costumes and stuff like that. So it's created its own kind of micro industry, almost, which is really fun to see because it's nice that...It's a lot of queer people supporting queer people. So we're kind of staying as self-sufficient as we can through it. And from my experience personally, I mean, everyone is... It's welcoming and it's open and it's available to everyone.
Kathryn: And you get a lot of support from fellow performers.
TJ: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Like I say, I mean, Dick is my biggest inspiration and my biggest influence And just one of my biggest performers... One of my biggest supporters. I've got a lot of other people, there's Ross Anderson-Doherty who runs Cabaret Supper Club and has done all
these incredible pieces they put on.
But I think people think, and I think this is probably the fault of the TV shows, that you have to be at a certain level to get into drag. That you have to already have this fully brandable image and this full look, and throw all of your money at it. And drag is absolutely not that, drag is creative and DIY and do-it-yourself. and have a go and fuck around and find out, you know? It's not...
Kathryn: It's like street art.
TJ: Yeah, literally. It's not polished as you're presented it on the TV. Yeah. It's supposed to be raw. It's supposed to be, you're having a go and seeing if something works.
TJ: You're supposed to be making your costumes yourself. It's not this pageant-level polished image. To me personally, that isn't drag. That is a very hyper version of something that should be more grassroots and more DIY and more kind of supporting each other and building it, excuse me, from the ground up as a collective. Instead of just watching these hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pounds of costuming and wig and makeup and stuff. I mean, if that's your style of drag, cool. But to me drag is more gutsy than that.
Kathryn: Yeah. You see, everybody I've talked to, everybody seems to be really driven by activism and expression of that activism. It really kind of informs or motivates your performances.
TJ: Yeah, I would say absolutely. I mean, definitely, I think, coming from Northern Ireland adds another level to that, because I think especially if you're someone who's in the queer community, you know the level of activism we've had to do. So you know the fighting we've done for years for marriage equality, you know the fighting we've done for anything that we've got as a community. So I think we are all born with this natural instinct of like, "Oh, I'm going to do it, but I'm going to do it with a slant that engages people and has these discussions that still need to be had.”
…If they just left us alone we'd probably keep quieter. But if they're going to keep making a fuss, we're going to make a louder fuss. That's the way it has to be until you show just how ridiculous these arguments are, to the point where they just have nothing else to come back at you with. It's 2022 and I reckon the arguments we're having centred around Pride are exactly the same as when it began. Pride in Belfast began in the nineties but it just feels like it's the same.
I think it's the same narrative that they've tried to push the whole time, we’re queer history they're trying to write out of the history books. So I think that's probably another reason everyone is as loud and is talking about it and kind of making sure that we keep those stories. Because we have generations of stories lost. Queer elders and trans elders don't exist from certain generations 'cause the government and everyone around them were happy enough to let them be wiped out. We're happy enough to feed these narratives through the AIDS crisis, where people had to hide because you couldn't be associated with that. We've kind of decided that they're going to rewrite history to exclude queer people, when since the dawn of time, people have been queer since the dawn of time. People have done drag since the dawn of time, people have been trans. I think this generation, certainly generations before mine are going, "All right. Okay. We're done with that being allowed. We're done with that being acceptable. We're just going to push now."
Kathryn: Can you talk about your tattoos 'cause they're fantastic.
TJ: No, I mean, my tattoos I kind of have been collecting them over the years. Some of them have meaning, some of them don't. I mean, my friends... So this one, the rain frog, this is what my friends say I look like because I have a very grumpy little face.
So my friend, when I did burlesque my friend drew this for me. So it's a little grumpy frog with nipple tassels. I have these, "Exist Loudly," because that's kind of my biggest message. But I've also got it mixed with, "Crybaby." I have, "Soft," because I think for me, this is one I tattooed on myself, and it's kind of one of my most meaningful because I think everything would make you want to become a tougher person. I think if you have tough experiences and if it's hard to kind of exist as yourself, it's very, very easy to make this hard shell around yourself that you don't let people in. So it's kind of my daily message.
Kathryn: So you've done most of your own tats then?
TJ: Oh no, no, no. Just a couple of them. I pay professional people with a lot more skill than me to do the majority. I've just done a couple of wee ones, my hand and stuff. But yeah, I think that's kind of my most important, 'cause I think everything wants you to be this hardened shell of no emotion. You can actually be soft and enjoy things whilst having to deal with all of that stuff.
Kathryn: Well, I think that's one of the hardest things to do, actually, to let people touch you. That's one of the strengths that I see in drag performance. In this role, it is open. It's emotional. It's also very funny. I think humor and satire are great tools to use.
TJ: I've done speeches, I did a speech at trans pride and that was kind of quite hard hitting and very deep and personal to me 'cause it was all about my personal journey. And I think that can be difficult to listen to. And I appreciate not everyone, because of where they are in their stage of life, can listen to something like that. But if I can put that kind of energy, but put it with... I do one with Orville Peck's version of Born This Way, where I've gone on stage before and applied Testogel, which is how I take my testosterone, and kind of show that you can take those hard hitting messages, but kind of put them in a performance
TJ: An easier to deliver method if you will.
Kathryn: Yeah, I think that's very liberating.
TJ: Yeah, I think so. I kind of want to show people 'cause I think, again, because of a lot of focus for me is trans, the narrative is that trans healthcare is this big, brand new, revolutionary, never been done before...
When hormone replacement therapy has been done for years and it is very, very simple and it's not this big thing. So I, at trans pride, kind of used the statement of applying my Testogel to show that it's such a simple process. That it's the government, that it's the media narrative that's over-complicating it and making it seem like it's this huge, big, impossible task. And I'm like, "It's a bottle of gel, a bit of pump in my arm, rub it in well. And I feel happier in myself for doing it."
So I think it's important to me to kind of show that side as well. And I like taking something that would be quite a hard hitting message and putting it in a more palatable sort of delivery option, which is drag for me.
Kathryn: Yeah. That's a cracker quote to end with. Thank you very much TJ!