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By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly

On Thursday, July 31, Basic Rights Oregon will hold its second annual “Front and Center: Racial Justice and Transgender Justice Showcase.” The event takes place at the Artist’s Rep Theatre from 7 to 10pm, and features recording artist and transgender activist Angelica Love Ross.

Front and Center is a performing arts showcase, highlighting the work of transgender people of color (TPOC) across multiple performance disciplines, such as singing, dancing, spoken word and performance art.

With the program, BRO hopes to give a platform to the trans people of color community, which is especially vulnerable, statistically, to hate crimes, unemployment, homelessness, and HIV infection, so that they can share stories that too often go unheard. “As we continue our work toward social justice,” a Basic Rights Oregon spokesperson said, “we hope to provide a platform for honest expression of our struggles, for us to share our visions for the future, and for us to celebrate each other’s passion and creativity.”

Headlining this year’s event is Chicago-based singer songwriter Angelica Love Ross. Ross describes her music as “extremely spiritual” and “progressive pop,” and cites as her influences the artists she grew up listening to, such as “Phil Collins, Genesis, Pink Floyd, India Arie, Michael Jackson, and Madonna.”

Church music proved another formative influence for her. “I grew up singing in the church choir, and even though I no longer identify as a Christian, I recognize that gospel music has heavily influenced my sound,” Ross says.

Ross attended a Pentecostal church in Racine, WI as a youth, “with people speaking in tongues and passing out and all that good stuff,” as she says. She escaped the church and town, and their anti-LGBTQ messages when she was young by enlisting in the Navy. The military, sadly, proved just as oppressive, and Ross was terrorized by fellow sailor demanding to know if she was “gay.” She left the service after four months.

Ross admits encountering so much “ignorance, hate and violence” so early in life makes remaining optimistic a struggle at times, but says, “I have learned to let my heart break a little in order for it to withstand it all.  To know that I can sit with sadness, without a need to escape it, makes me more able to help be strong in the midst of struggle.”

“I credit my current perspective and outlook 100% to my being a Buddhist,” she says. “Finding Buddhism, helped me find the language and the tools I needed to go beyond the suffering, and try to find the joy in all things.”

Ross is flourishing today, pursuing her music career, helping the trans community through nonprofit endeavors, and hosting her radio program “Miss Ross Live,” on which she’s interviewed Laverne Cox, Janet Mock and Isis King, among others.

As a musician, Ross appeared in the documentary “Trans Beats,” which featured trans artists, such as herself, Mina Caputo, Our Lady J, and others. “It was beyond inspiring to connect with other musicians and artist who’s work is so integral to their life experiences,” she says of the experience. She also appears in the new documentary “Just Gender,” currently screening around the country.

“This is a powerful film that aims to educate our society beyond the ‘trans 101’ and provide more understanding of what it’s actually like to live life as a trans person,” she says of “Just Gender.” After years of working with LGBTQ nonprofits, Ross describes herself as disillusioned with the approach followed by most organizations toward serving the trans people of color community.

“Many programs are starting to aim their program’s focus on trans women of color,” Ross says, “but do not actually have trans women of color who actually know the struggle more intimately informing their programming.  At best, many of us are glorified tokens within non profit organizations whose leadership does not remotely reflect the population they serve.  We are capable of much more, but we are not being put into positions of power to be able to do so.”

To counter this, Ross founded TransTech Social Enterprises, which seeks to empower and educate trans people to work in the tech industry.

Ross’s online radio show, Miss Ross Live, grew out of the fury she felt regarding the treatment of Cece McDonald, a trans woman sentenced to 41 months in prison after stabbing a man to death in self-defense.  Owing to media attention from Ross and others, authorities released McDonald after 19 months. Miss Ross Live has been on hiatus for a bit, but will return later this year, Ross says.

Portlanders can see Ross, as well as other performers, July 31st at the Artist’s Rep Theatre during Front and Center. Tickets can be procured on the Basic Rights Oregon website for a suggested $15-20 sliding scale fee, although no one will turned away for lack of funds. Front and Center. July 31, 2014, 7-10pm. Artist’s Rep Theatre. 1515 SW Morrison St. 97205.

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