Gender and justice in a gentrifying city
When I saw Ela Barton for the first time, she was performing at the Seattle Grand Poetry Slam in 2012 at Town Hall. I was mesmerized by her warm, fiery energy and related to every word she spoke in her poem “Aspen,” based on the perils of working class life and coming short of thriving, or even really surviving, on minimum wage. She spoke in a passionate, yet clearly compassionate, lyrical, knowing way.
Four years later, in the late fall of 2016, the artist Ebo Barton, no longer Ela, sat down for an interview.
Ebo Barton, with that shift in identity, is now more than ever, at peace with the public and private acknowledgement of their inherent gender queer identification. (Barton prefers the gender queer singular pronoun, they/them/their.)
I met with Barton on a Wednesday night, though it might have been more fitting to have met them on the Tuesday night we had originally planned. The name Ebo, in Ghanian culture, is given to one who is born on a Tuesday. On discovering the name, its origin and meaning, Barton was certain that this was the name they would adopt — as many of the most important events of their life have happened on Tuesdays.
“A lot of special things in my life have happened on a Tuesday. I was born on a Tuesday, Slam happens on Tuesdays…”
But this particular Wednesday was nevertheless an important day for Barton and others. The Gender Justice League, Q-Law Legal Foundation, and the King County Bar Association were sponsoring one of their clinics on changing names and legal gender identification.
Sitting with Barton at a wooden, seemingly hand-crafted table at the Agnes Underground on 12th and Pike on Capitol Hill, there was a warm vibe, something like being by a campfire but never feeling too hot.
Barton was in the Agnes Underground’s Cloud Room, which you reach through a minor labyrinth of low-lit hallways, through a courtyard with a micro night market comprised of fruit and bakery stands staffed by peacoat-wearing 20-somethings with semi- to full beards. In the Cloud Room, triads of small, glowing white orb chandeliers hung from simple metal fixtures in the ceiling, giving the room an iridescent glow.
The energy in the Cloud Room was as incandescent as the lighting. At the close of the evening, each participant in the Say My Name event would depart a new person — having changed their name and/or gender markers legally. It’s a process that, without the volunteer assistance of numerous doctors and lawyers onsite for this free to low-cost event, would take weeks or even months to complete.
Joking about the presence of a shiny, white baby grand piano against a far wall of the room, Barton moved to the family-sized craftsman table just adjacent to it.
An accomplished poet in the world of slam poetry — locally, nationally and internationally — Ebo Barton recently returned home from the International Individual Slam Poetry 2016 competition, held in Flagstaff, Arizona, as a top 5 championship competitor.
Barton’s place in the competition was clinched with their performance of the poem “Aspen,” with its exploration of what it means to be working class.
As Barton says of themselves, their identity, as much as their look, is defined by being “half Filipino, half black, but not visibly so.” Their kind face and relatively petite stature, at not much more than 5-foot-5, makes Ebo seem approachable, like someone you would want to be friends with. Their compassionate demeanor leaves a visitor feeling immediately accepted.
Asked about the effect they most hope their spoken word poetry has on audience members, Barton is reflective yet self-assured. “I always hope it reaches the person in the audience who needs it the most,” they say. And that echoes another sentiment they expressed earlier: “I hope my poetry helps people feel less alone.”
For all their poetry, thematic elements have to do with existentialism as juxtaposed with modern, urban life.
In “Scrabble,” Barton employs inventive uses of rhythm and poetic devices — to relate the experience of an adolescent who takes his own life as a result of the pain he felt as a young boy coming of age and coming out as being gay.
In “Open for Business,” Barton explores themes Seattleites have on the edge of our minds as our city expands and individuals either thrive or succumb to the effects of gentrification. The poem explores the increasing divide between those who have (and who are most often white) and those who do not (and who in large part are not.)
City dwellers across the nation can relate to the reality of the high-tech, high-rise boom; they experience its reverberations — not the least of which are those who are left to question where they belong amid the seismic socio-economic jolts of gentrification.
Barton lives in the Central District and finds frustration (and hence, inspiration for their poetry) with the implications of gentrification for art and for the artists themselves who inhabit communities like the CD.
Fellow linguistic artisan Gabriel Teodros, hip-hop artist and rapper, professed how lines from Ebo’s poem “Open for Business” resonated deeply with him. Barton wrote, “They find our music to play in their coffee shops as if to remember us fondly." Teodros had walked into a café he’d never been to, and one of his own songs was unmistakably coming through the speakers; ironically, he could never afford to live in that neighborhood himself.
About Teodros’ comments, Ebo says, “It was heartbreaking, and I was honored to hear that he was touched in that way.”
In the Cloud Room, there were upward of 50 people waiting for a most pivotal moment in their lives to occur — to be given the chance to be seen for who they are from the inside out — to be given legal acknowledgement of their gender identity as gender queer, gender binary, gender fluid, or transgender individuals — to feel more seen, more understood — to feel less alone.
The conversation with Barton takes a pause from time to time when an event coordinator announces the names of the next group of participants to be called to an adjacent room to receive assistance to legally change their name and gender markers.
“Attention, we are ready for the following participants: Violet, Ava, Alexandra, Jesse, Catlin, or, sorry, Caitlin, Lillian Mae Powers, Ariana…”
Seeing each person stand up at hearing his, her or their name called, I know that I’m in the middle of something important. These individuals are dressed in skirts, dressed in suits — but, more importantly, dressed up in the integrity of the knowledge that the outside, at last, matches the inside. And that what they have known in private to be true about themselves will, after this evening’s paperwork is complete, be known and legally acknowledged, by others.
Barton, to be sure, is already acknowledged in many other ways. Tara Hardy, whom Barton considers to be a mentor in the Seattle Slam Poetry community, says in an email, “People in both the Seattle and national poetry community know Ebo to be extremely generous, loving, supportive and often facilitating connection. They are most certainly one of the leaders we've been waiting for. When Ebo is involved in something, I know it's not only going to be a quality production, but also have solid values of inclusion and support.”
Hardy added, “One more thing: Ebo Barton is absolutely a revolutionary. Liberation is afoot when Ebo is around.”
In fact, Barton is around — and actively working on creating more art: culture-jamming art that’s a means to the end of giving voice to those who are often overlooked, oppressed and actively marginalized by mainstream society.
Their current work of art is called “Rising Up”; it’s a “queer social justice play about queer fems, disabled people, people of color, specifically in Seattle.” And, even more specifically, gentrified Seattle. It’s a story “of a trans woman of color that gets out of a relationship, moves into a coop house” and how the “roommates live lives in activism and in their identities in Seattle.”
The play will show in two acts with 12 characters and opens on May 11 at Gay City in Capitol Hill.
And, so it is when Ebo’s name is called, after an hour and a half wait through our conversation, they do as much — they rise up, I give them a hug, they walk over to the event coordinator, and they move on. To the next room, for their legal name and gender marker change; to the next day, to work as a Youth Arts Coordinator at Gay City in Capitol Hill. To the next Slam poetry event at Re-Bar, where their spoken word poetry is rendered as so many “Love letters to myself — constant love letters to myself. I’m using my voice to fight back. I never want to be the voice of an entire group, but a voice in a group.”