the forest of the future: how we got here.


illustration by lavender wolf

the story behind the story of the Forest of the Future

Dear ones:

There is a story I want to tell you about the Forest of the Future: and it’s kind of a long one ⎯

My own.

Fifteen years ago I picked up a camera and realized I was an artist, forever. It was a thing that I did, a way of being in the world that made sense to me.

I never went to school for it, I just did it. I was mentored by Wing Young Huie, an outsider artist who had big ideas. When I was 22, I helped him produce a giant public art project in Minneapolis. It was the beginning of my practical education on making visionary dreams come true.

At 25, I landed a job at the Open Society Foundations, where I continued to work on and off for over a decade. What felt like a random administrative job in a frustrated Burmese democracy movement was actually a lesson on the big picture of how a movement is organized and formed.

I’ve spent most of my career combining these pieces in various ways: artist, producer, big-picture thinker. Bird, bee, butterfly; community organizer, traveler, transient yenta. Utopian rebel and clear-eyed pragmatist. A lover AND a fighter.

My work has taken me from Congressional hearings to the dark broken streets of Berlin before dawn. An MFA classroom sunken below midtown, radical faerie sanctuaries, Holocaust memorials, street protests, endless consensus and process and notes. Over the course of three years in Minnesota, I saw an entire immigrant rights movement grow from tiny sparks to a 40,000 person fire, and was humbled to play a visionary role as an ally in its unfolding.

Since I left my sheltered youth on Long Island, I have moved through life as a traveler. I’ve been to dozens of countries, intentionally checked my privilege, I’ve worked with immigrants from all over the world, and along the way I’ve talked to a lot of people. As a transient photographer, and just as a curious person ⎯ I’ve tried to listen to a lot of different perspectives, with so many people teaching me so many things along the way.

Yet I never quite knew where MY place in all of it was, until five years ago when I wandered into a JFREJ Purimshpil meeting and was like, “who are these weirdos? These people remind me of ME.”

This had never happened before.

Quickly, I found that being queer was a fundamental part of my life and survival. It felt essential to be surrounded by others who were constantly asking questions, challenging assumptions the way I did. Ultimately, two years ago, I finally was able to understand myself as a trans person, neither female nor male, but something different entirely.

Transition marked a significant shift in my career: Suddenly I wasn’t an ally in somebody else’s movement.

This time, it was about ME.

Me, my friends, and our lives. This was about our survival.

As I rooted myself deeper and deeper in our communities, passing through circle after circle of dear friends and lovers, fire starters and collaborators, I could feel the energy of our combined forces, the electricity of our collective potential.

In my particular queer community, in this particular moment in time, I am astoundingly aware of the raw talent in our midst, and also the infrastructure of our cultural networks that have been built in the 44 years since Stonewall, which built on more underground work done earlier. I can also hear the chorus of dissent, the anger, the frustration of having to navigate a non-queer world.

Movements are built on personal relationships, which grow into organized circles, which combined grow into overlapping networks of power. And power is what we need to unfuck the world, right?

I started to wonder what would happen if we decided to be more strategic about pooling our artistic talents together, and aim them more intentionally towards a greater goal.

Because this wasn’t about me anymore: it was about US.

We are queer communities living through historic times. Too many of our fierce ranks were decimated in the AIDS crisis, leaving a traumatized cohort of survivors and an aching generation gap.  Too many of us are harassed and killed on the daily, just for being ourselves in the world.

Yet we are now experiencing palpable momentum. Suddenly, we are everywhere : loud and proud and more visible than ever. The underground community I photographed in 2010 has massively accumulated since, with new flocks of trans-identified and gender-nonconforming individuals and baby queers flooding our nightclubs and community spaces. Scores of events organized by a rising generation of cultural leaders fill our calendars. We are growing stronger, and faster, and louder, and more.

It’s a very exciting time to be queer.

As queer communities integrated with the trans-identified individuals amongst us, our collective power is growing, and it seems that right now the world is paying attention on a much more global scale. Our struggles for recognition and safety is the civil rights movement of our time, so I hear, and the secret deepest most liberal-Jew MLK-loving part of my heart leaps to believe it.

Can we as overlapping communities of cultural workers unite our forces around a few shared messages about gender? Can we coordinate ourselves more strategically into a mass cultural movement?

A trans movement is a queer movement: we are interconnected. Queer, trans, hetero, homo, gogo, transhumanist, genderqueer, third gender, ally, LGBTQIABCXYZ – ANYONE who believes the ways things are structured when it comes to gender is not how it should be.

This is about ALL OF US.

When I began to re-understand myself as trans, I did a lot of agonizing ⎯ as many trans people do, when they begin to transition and go through that soul-searching process of understanding who on earth they are.

What I found was, internally ⎯ I knew that I wasn’t a girl anymore, but I didn’t think I was a boy either. I struggled to reach an understanding of myself.

I decided to leave town to be alone for six months. so I could step back and take the long view, reflect on what I had learned, listen to myself more clearly.

I traveled to Vermont and Berlin and New Hampshire to put my pieces together, finally taking the time to read Leslie Feinberg and Harry Hay, research two-spirit and other indigenous notions of gender, chip away at the back catalog of queer films from Jack Smith to John Waters that I hadn’t seen yet.

I found echoes of myself in all of these places. And somehow, despite my attempts at solitude, I still came home with an expanded community.

I grew to an understanding of myself as a person who just really does truly exist between genders.

And then I was like, “BETWEEN genders? Fuck that! Why gender in the first place?”

I became dissatisfied with the more dominant narratives playing out in the media about the linear experience of transitioning from one gender to another.

Then I thought of my brilliant, courageous friends, who approach gender as a multi-faceted and complicated place. I watched and learned from them, felt my self reflected back.

What I understand about movements and what I understand about people is how sometimes the things that paralyze you in your own heart, that you take very personally, as your own thing to work through ⎯ particularly when it comes to gender, which at its root is identity-based ⎯ sometimes those things make you feel really isolated in your own experiences. And yet ⎯ we talk to people, and we talk to more people, and we talk to more people, and we realize the things that we experience privately in our hearts is often reflected by the experiences other people have in their hearts too.

And so, I wanted to start a broader conversation about that, because I didn’t feel like that was happening enough.

I wanted it to involve a lot of the individuals that I had talked to along the way that I had learned things from. I wanted to share the things I had learned abroad with my community here at home, but I also wanted the people who I had met ⎯ many of whom had felt similarly isolated in their experiences of themselves, and don’t have access to communities like ours in Brooklyn ⎯ I wanted to bring some of them here, too. To experience what our communities are like, to share what their communities are like, to deepen our understanding together of what a more global queer space feels like. And what it’s like when we’re in charge of the rules, and what it’s like when we’re in charge of the trees, and what it’s like when we grow our own ecosystem ourselves.

What could we build together?

And thus began: the Forest of the Future.

This project is driven by an intuitive sense of necessity, a continuation of convergence and survival.

I was driven by a question : what would happen if I brought all of the sharpest, most talented people I had met in my travels together in one place at one time, as an ecosystem?

What might become of it?

It is my attempt to throw every resource I have available to me at this question – to go for broke, to see what might happen.

Because I feel very strongly that we are exploding into a movement here, that I believe needs to be coordinated globally, because I think that the way that world perceives gender, and structures it, is fucked.

It is not true to my experience.  It is not true to the experience of a lot people building the Forest.  It is not true to the experiences of people who AREN’T here, and maybe don’t even know that a different way of considering gender is possible because they’ve never even HEARD of it, because it’s not part of how our global culture perceives gender, or structures it.

The WORLD needs to change.

I say that with years of experience crackling my voice, not the stoner voice of impossible visions.  I believe our gender revolution must be global in scale.  We need to take care of each other individually, as chosen families, as networks of aligned friends, as intersecting communities of different persuasions, as geographic regions, and at last globally interconnected –  because the queer world is an ecosystem and each one of us is part of it, and none of us should stop fighting until we have ALL been liberated.

This is a revolution we need to lead ourselves, and build up in circles the way a tree grows rings.  The bark of each tree needs to grow stronger, moss needs to grow on its visible roots, birds need to nest in its branches.  Queer fruits need to drop and burst like balloons, scattering their juices like glitter on the forest floor.

We need not fear the depths of the forest.  Take the time to sit inside the tree of our ancestors, reflect on the ways their energy has nurtured us and brought us here.

We need to be curious, we need to explore, we need to play.  Climb up on the balcony of our faerie punk tree house and look out at the big picture of what’s unfolding below us.

We need to sit with each other and listen through our tears. Above all, we need to learn from the mistakes that we make so we can continue to grow wiser together.

The Forest of the Future is an ecosystem that we build together, and will continue to build not just in this project, but over our lifetimes.

It is a metaphor for how we can grow as a movement, in an interconnected way.

It is a call out for those who are tired of the slightly-off or totally fucked-up messages our global culture sends us about gender.

I want us to create new messages in a unified way : about our existence, and the legitimacy of that, and the pride that we take in it, and how amazing our gifts are.

I want us to do this in a way that celebrates our individuality, that doesn’t erase our differences but works through the complicated issues our conflicting selves sometimes raise.

Before we make demands from the dominant culture, we need to look within and make demands of each other.  Our first step is to listen to each other, and learn from what we hear.

The Forest of the Future is our space to question, our responsibility to process, our opportunity to grow – a chance for us to evolve together.


And then I want to say, FUCK THAT!






— from the Green Room of the Forest of the Future. March 2, 2013. minor edits June 2016.

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