This article may contain content troubling to readers, including discussions of sexual assault and self-harm.
When I saw Vyvian Looper at The Comet, a bar in Cincinnati, I asked her if she was back. Where was she living nowadays? In her car, she responded, with a small laugh. That’s her home. But she was back for a few days to perform in Cincinnati’s inaugural Ladyfest from October 15-17. She bounces around.
The soft-spoken Looper, or Luuli — her stage name — plays music and does art, but isn’t your typical performance artist. She’s more on par with unconventional performers such as Serbian Marina Abramović, known for brutally testing the limits of her body and mind. Like Abramović, there is sometimes blood involved in Luuli’s works.
As a trans woman, Luuli often feels like she carries an invisible weight. She doesn’t want to be seen as a victim, but has dealt with a lot of strife since her transition. For instance, she has had to repeatedly fend off sexual assault and rape attempts and has been sexually assaulted a number of times.
“I came up with a performance art project to put on display for the public that pain and the innocence lost and the weight being dragged around with me from being sexually assaulted,” Luuli says. “[There were] four or so attempts [at sexual assault or rape] per year for the past seven years since I came out. So I did a sort of graphic performance.”
Back in March this year, Luuli wore her prettiest dress and made a sign with statistics about transgender death rates and suicide rates; she included her own personal statistic along with that. She carried that sign around with her after slicing her arms thirty times (about one slash for each sexual assault attempt in the past few years) with a razor.
Being covered in blood wasn’t where it stopped. Luuli also tied a cinder block around her neck. She dragged it around the busiest part of downtown Cincinnati from lunchtime until 6 p.m. The weight around her neck represented the emotional burden of being assaulted and the blood portrayed the invisible pain someone goes through when assaulted.
“I wanted to take the invisible inside stuff about being trans and show it in a way where people are sort of forced into compassion because they see someone literally hurting in front of them and literally struggling in front of them,” explains Luuli.
That’s the kind of bold expression Luuli is all about. The 33-year-old Colorado native has been traveling around the country for the past seven years after realizing that she was a woman. Along the way, she’s been discovering herself through her art and music.
I spoke with Luuli about art, travel, her unique life experiences and how to be a better ally:
ACRO: What are some difficulties you have faced in regards to your transition?
Luuli: My poverty started when my transition started. So I have a lot of views on discrimination and trans challenges for the lower class trans women and women in general. I’ve tried to get Craigslist prostitution work several times and never followed through with it because everyone who responded wanted to “hurt-fuck” me for $30 or something along those lines. I also did webcam sex work for a while. I was sort of under the impression that would be empowering — not so much for me. Sometimes you are doing hurtful sexual things to yourself for hours because you need the money so much but people are tossing digital pennies at you and degrading you, then trying to find out where you live. I’ve also been sexually assaulted several times a year ever since I came out. Especially being homeless, you are so much more preyed upon. That is why I did the performance art piece.
ACRO: How do you view your identity?
Luuli: I [used to be] fairly bitter along with all these other low financial class trans women I’ve met who’ve had to basically write off the idea of having surgeries because the $20,000 price tag and the many months of healing time are not something very many people feel is achievable. So yes, bitter about that at times. I also deal with plenty of objectification, discrimination, targeting and misogyny, and I have a fairly experienced view on being a woman aside from any “trans stuff” because I don’t see myself as trans; that’s something [society has] labeled me. I’m a woman born male sexed. I’m not transitioning genders. I was always a woman gender, but I was born in a place where [society wasn’t] yet advanced enough to really understand how what I am could be possible so they taught me that what I was was wrong and shameful and not possible. I dream sometimes about what it would have been like to be born into a world that let me decide whether I was a boy or a girl or something that defies that binary.
ACRO: Tell us about your music and performance style and what’s influenced it:
Luuli: I’ve managed to keep making music through all the challenges of homelessness as a trans woman [who’s struggled with] poverty and mental challenges. I’m also a photographer and artist, and I’m working really hard to make a living off of that even if its a very low-level living. So as per my performances: I decided that human connection is confrontational and that looking in peoples’ eyes is confrontational, and that engaging them when they expect me to be some DJ hiding behind a speaker stack and a computer pushing buttons is way more powerful of an experience for people. So that’s where I’m different. I use music and performances as a medium through which I can tweak peoples’ perspectives and give them growth opportunities.
ACRO: Has this confrontation style been a challenge for you and how have you overcome it?
Luuli: So I have crippling social anxiety. Performing is actually a nightmare for me, but in the sake of confrontation, I deal with how uncomfortable it is in efforts of overcoming it. A huge issue thwarting our culture’s evolution is the comfort we are all in. When things are comfortable, we don’t want to change them. When they are uncomfortable, it prompts us to want to change things. So I do things that make people uncomfortable and give them the chance to learn to be okay with it. I’m passionate about causing disturbances. “You have to shake things up to wake things up.”
ACRO: How have your music and performances been cathartic to yourself and others?
Luuli: To me, my music isn’t just some art or some hobby — it’s the only thing I’ve had in times when I needed someone or something so bad just to survive. It’s been there for me through sexual assaults, through poverty, through being rejected by my peers or my community. It’s never afraid of my emotions, it never rejects me, and anytime I need to get something out, it provides a safe place for me to do that. So my music is so intensely personal that many people cannot relate to it. But those who do relate to it have also been through some really harsh stuff and are genuinely really great people who have in many ways been sort of forsaken by the conditions they were born into and they’ve been needing someone or something to reach out and say, “you are not alone.” I’m just now coming into my element as a performance artist and it’s my greatest passion. But there is so much to it in overcoming the inhibitions that prevent people from impactful performances. So as I overcome, these [bolder and bolder] and deeply personal performances come to the surface. I’m big on forced compassion. I’m comfortable with self-harm, but I don’t want to do it as shock value. I want to do it for a reason if I do it.
ACRO: What are some performances you have in store for the future?
Luuli: I have another performance I want to do that I have had on hold for a while. It would involve me lying in the same position for days with no stimulation and letting plants grow all over me while I’m fasting, and then, at the end, eating the greens off of my own body to sort of express the connection between nature and our bodies. It’s interesting — I just this year saw that movie about Marina Abramović and I couldn’t help but see so many similarities. For instance, in her gazing performance, I do that in my musical performances because I’m standing there with a whole room of people staring at me. And it becomes really powerful and confrontational when I simply stare back at them — stare deep into their eyes, and watch them panic and look away, even though I’m doing nothing but standing there being real and bold in front of them. I also could relate to the radical tests of patience and how difficult and intense it is to simply do nothing or simply wait or sit. I also can relate to the confrontation of pain and the things she talked about with passion and being an intense person.
ACRO: How can we be better allies to transgender people?
Luuli: I think people can be better allies to trans people by taking into consideration their special social needs, but at the same time, understanding that special treatment is not what trans people want. They want to be treated as normal, because for so many of them, they have never felt normal. Trans people are striving for normalcy, not specialty. They are trying to change society to see them as one of everyone else. [They want] to be considered as attractive [as anyone else] without it being out of pity or fetishism. [They want] to be given jobs based on their personality and qualifications rather than on their appearance. [They want] to have people believe that they are valid and really [listen to] what they say. I could go on and on and no matter what I say, I know I can’t possibly speak on behalf of all trans people. But I do think that an overwhelming majority is fighting tooth and nail simply to be regarded as normal and to restructure the way society as a whole views transgender non-binary gender existences. So the way to be a better ally is to aid in that change and aid in the conversion of that fear into understanding, and aid in the change of that resistance towards change into the allowance of evolution. There are so many ways to be an ally…too many to list…so to distill it, I think perhaps its best to simply see that anything fear-based is holding back evolution, and anything that allows and encourages the change back into a state of normalcy from a state of social disturbance and disruption is a good thing.