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Mirha Edit3

The forgotten legacy of trans artist and activist Mirha Soleil-Ross

Selected by Chelsea Manning, podcaster Morgan M Page reflects on the influence of the groundbreaking videographer

For her guest edit in the Infinite Identities issue of Dazed, Chelsea Manning selected seven vital activist voices from around the US to answer a single questionWhat, for you, is the most under-discussed issue affecting the trans and non-binary communities in America today? Here, Canadian historian, writer and artist Morgan M Page provides her answer, by telling the story of artist and activist Mirha-Soleil Ross. 

“Transsexual sisterhood is powerful” is scrawled in jagged purple script under a group of rough-hewn women on a page in the seminal 90s zine Gendertrash From Hell. Signed Jeanne B, the art was actually the creation of Mirha-Soleil Ross – a woman who was, by then, already on her way to the forefront of trans rights activism in North America.

Ross first came to my attention in 2008, as I scoured the internet archives in the pre-‘Transgender Tipping Point’ world for traces of a trans culture that had something, anything to say outside of tips on transitioning. I had transitioned years earlier and was now in need of deeper reflections on my experience, beyond the often-stale transition memoirs that flooded the tiny niche market. In the 1990s, I discovered, Ross had created the world’s first transsexual, transgender and intersex arts festival, Counting Past 2, which featured videos and performance art with a punk and political bent.

Uncovering her life through largely defunct websites, I found for the first time a role model who could encompass not only my experience as a trans woman, but also as an artist and an activist. Ross is a Métis transsexual sex worker, performance artist and activist from Quebec who, I discovered, had overseen the birth of trans activism and social services in Canada during the 90s, until her sudden retreat from public life in the mid-00s. 

Ross spoke fearlessly about her life as a transgender sex worker, articulating a trans politics that centred the voices of the most marginalised – sex workers, indigenous trans people, and the homeless – and which flew in the face of middle-class campaigners who tried so hard to prove we could be just as middle-class as everybody else.

She stood against a mainstream activism that would gladly appropriate the deaths of her sex-worker colleagues for candlelight vigils, while simultaneously doing nothing to improve the lives and working conditions of those still breathing. But Ross didn’t stop at the edges of her own life experience. Beyond fighting for sex workers’ rights internationally and helping to create the first trans social services in Canada, she also battled tirelessly for the environment and the rights of non-human animals.

“I was 16 years old when I saw a documentary showing animals – coyotes, foxes, minks, wolves, birds, raccoons and lynx – agonising for hours in steel-jaw traps and snares,” she said in 2000. “I was so traumatised by what I saw I immediately knew those 12 minutes of footage had instantly and radically changed my life forever.”

As an individual whose life was set at constant risk – doubly as a prostitute and a transsexual – Ross saw that her struggle was inextricably bound up with those of not only other marginalised human beings, but also with all animals subjected to cruelty, violence and exploitation. There was little difference for her between the abuse she suffered for being feminine as a child and the industrialised abuse perpetrated on animals in farms. After all, in her working-class neighbourhood on the south shore of Montreal, the kids who tormented her could easily grow up to be the men who butchered animals at the nearby slaughterhouses.

When she was elected grand marshall of Toronto’s Pride Parade in 2001, Ross used the opportunity to lead a contingent of queer and trans animal rights activists, dressed in coyote masks and carrying placards celebrating the victories of the Animal Liberation Front – an underground group dedicated to freeing animals from exploitation by any means necessary.

“Throughout her tenure as an activist and artist, Ross consistently pushed at the limits of the LGBTQ+ movement, prodding it to consider its relation to sex workers, indigenous communities and the very fate of the planet itself”

These masks referenced the sex workers’ rights group Coyote, or Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics. The connection between the hunting of coyotes and the violence directed at sex workers would take centre stage that year in her one-woman show, Yapping Out Loud: Contagious Thoughts From an Unrepentant Whore. In the performance, Ross skilfully argues for the decriminalisation of sex work through a series of alternately humorous and devastating monologues – both as herself and as a series of caricatures of feminists, journalists and men who hunt prostitutes.

“As a prostitute, I am expected to... shoot an angry finger at childhood abuse, at alcoholic parents, at addiction, at a world of gender apartheid, and at my Great Aunt Rita’s bad breath,” she says in rapid-fire staccato during one of the monologues. “Why should I own any responsibility for what I’m doing with my life? Well, the real question is: who wants to be the one having to face the battalions of feminists, social workers, social justice activists, journalists and other respectable citizens who are all so furious in their determination to force our lives into the politically convenient and lucrative victim framework?”

Refusing to be a treated as a victim, Ross was often called a force of nature. Perhaps taking this metaphor as inspiration, she created a piece of video art called “Tremblement du Chair” (2001), which juxtaposed images of her naked trans body with lightning, tornadoes and other natural phenomena. These striking visuals refuted the anti-trans myth promoted by a small number of feminist scholars that trans people are unnatural, a creation of modern western medical science.

Ross showed us that her body – even her breast implants – was part and parcel of the natural world. Ross spent 15 years fighting for the rights of the marginalised and entertaining audiences big and small before her sudden disappearance from public life, following the death of her romantic and artistic partner Mark Karbusicky – detailed in Mike Hoolboom’s award-winning documentary, Mark (2009).

Years later, after I had taken my own turn running the services she’d created and launched my artistic career in her image, I would track Ross down, leading a quiet life on the south shore of Montreal. We walked together in the sharp cold and she led me, half-protesting, out on to the St Lawrence River. The ice beneath our feet could crack at any time, my anxieties told me. But I followed ‘Aunt Mimi’ across the ice, the two of us more than used to living precariously. Standing out in the middle, it was a little exhilarating. Even in retirement and largely forgotten by the community she helped build, Ross’s ability to lead shone. An inexplicable force of nature.

Throughout her tenure as an activist and artist, Ross consistently pushed at the limits of the LGBTQ+ movement, prodding it to consider its relation to sex workers, indigenous communities and the very fate of the planet itself. As our world teeters on the brink of not only fascism but full ecological collapse, her words bear a terrible relevance for all of us today. “I’m hoping one day the queer movement is able to open its political agenda to recognise and embrace struggles that go beyond its immediate boundaries,” said Ross in a speech from June 2000. “I’m not too optimistic this will happen, but I would love for you to prove me wrong.”

See all the activists and writers selected by Chelsea Manning, and read their responses to her question, here