Queer zines, naked hearts and confessions of a teenage, transexual whore: the art and activism of Markus/Star Harwood-Jones

by Michael Lyons

Existence, in itself, is resistance, says artist and activist Markus/Star Harwood-Jones.

Survival has been a recurring theme from the time Harwood-Jones came out as queer and trans in his adolescence.

Currently the coordinator for Ryerson University’s Trans Collective, Harwood-Jones goes by either Markus or Star interchangeably, and uses either “he/him/his” or “them/them/their” as gender pronouns.

“Helping people survive is my activism,” Harwood-Jones says, sitting at his desk in the Collective’s office in the spring of 2015. These days the 24-year-old, Winnipeg-born, Toronto-based community organizer is dedicating himself to the survival of others.

Markus/Star Harwood-Jones in the Ryerson Trans Collective's office.

Markus/Star Harwood-Jones in the Ryerson Trans Collective’s office.

Harwood-Jones got his start in the LGBTQ community in Winnipeg, in support groups at community centres and doing drag in the city’s club scene.

From the get-go, the activist says his involvement in the community took a distinctly political bent.

His activism really took off around the time when the Manitoba provincial government was deciding if its provincial health insurance program would cover gender reassignment surgery for transgender people. When the province’s New Democratic Party made the announcement they wouldn’t fund surgeries—a decision later reversed—Harwood-Jones spoke to the media and said the decision would make him have to choose between university and transitioning.

“When my family read that they just went through the roof,” he says. “Their biggest fear for me was that being trans meant being homeless, in poverty, being rejected from society.

“Of course, what they didn’t realize was that they were making that happen by being transphobic and not allowing me to express myself and not supporting my transition. They certainly could have afforded to do so if they had so chosen, but instead I did end up having to choose between university and transition, and I chose transition, and when I was ready I went back to university.”

Harwood-Jones left his parents home at 17, due to conflicts about his gender-identity among other issues, and was out as trans and queer by 19, when he dropped out of the University of Winnipeg. He moved to Toronto in 2010 to pursue resources to transition he could only access in the city, and to pursue a romantic relationship.

“I moved in with him… but we did not last that long, but it was enough time for me to get a taste for the city, and know that I wanted to live here,” Harwood-Jones says. “I picked up a cheap place downtown, and began to get involved in trans communities as a method of pure survival.”

Throughout this entire period, Harwood-Jones created art, like painting, as a method of making money to live on and processing his emotions.

While in Toronto he eventually ran out of stable housing, and decided to travel from Toronto to San Francisco with only a few hundred dollars, his art supplies, and the contact information of trans people across the United States.

Harwood-Jones ended up interviewing fifty different trans people about gender identity, navigating the community, and survival. These interviews would turn into a full-length documentary, Mosaic, which he produced in 2014 with friend and collaborator Shane Camastro.

Camastro—currently doing his bachelor of education at York University after completing a degree in indigenous studies at the University of Toronto—originally met Harwood-Jones through the image blogging site Tumblr.

Camastro remembers how one of the first times they hung out in-person was in downtown Toronto on a freezing-cold evening. He explains how they chatted about a bunch of things—space travel, books, things like that—“but ultimately we had some great conversations about justice and community building,” he says. “It’s a silly memory of the two of us just genuinely getting to know each other.

“I had never really spoken openly about my own identity with someone who was essentially a stranger until this point,” he continues. “When Mark and I first met, he wasn’t in a great or stable place in his life and my own life was pretty hectic and scattered.

“For whatever reason, we were able to begin building an honest and authentic friendship when neither of us had any real reason to trust anyone given our past experiences,” he continues. “I think it’s pretty special for us but I suppose what makes it special is that it demonstrates that he has always opened his heart to his community. I think we both learned what it meant to rely on someone because of our many memories like this one.”

One of the many gorgeous paintings by Harwood-Jones, available as prints through their website. Click through the image for more info.

One of the many gorgeous paintings by Harwood-Jones, available as prints through their website. Click through the image for more info.

After his travels Harwood-Jones was accepted into Ryerson University’s department of sociology, and began his studies in 2012. He worked with RyePride, the campus LGBTQ organization, in his first year, then took a year off to produce Mosaic before the Ryerson Student Union hired him as the coordinator of Equity Services’ Trans Collective, an organization that challenges transphobia and cissexism on campus, and seeks to affect policy change.

Nursing student Pina Newman met Harwood-Jones in her first year at Ryerson. “I remember I came to the Women and Trans Centre just looking for some resources,” she says. “They were someone who was right there, very friendly, very outgoing. I had a brief temporary run in with them. From there I had a really great first impression.

“From there I would see them intermittently throughout the year, and then they asked me to be a part of Mosaic… or… I can’t remember if I asked them to be a part of it… one way or another I ended up in Mosaic!” she says with a laugh. “That was a really great experience and let us get to know each other better.”

On top of interviewing Newman and featuring her in Mosaic, Harwood-Jones asked her to be a part of the Trans Collective, so they’ve been seeing a lot more of each other.

Newman’s work with the Collective has meant meeting more trans people on campus—anywhere between five to fifteen are regularly involved with the organization—which leads to discussions about issues the community is faced with. “Advocating for all-gender washrooms is a big thing going on right now,” she explains.

Harwood-Jones has been working with Newman and the Trans Collective in a campaign to convert bathrooms at Ryerson to be all-gender. “We want to work with the school to build more all-gender bathrooms, but also to just put new signage on some of the existing bathrooms to make them all-gender.

In a follow-up interview going into the new school year, Harwood-Jones explains: “The bathroom campaign is coming along great! We will be very soon announcing some big changes at Ryerson – watch for a statement from the RSU, CESAR, Student Centre after the break and a follow up from Ryerson University itself in November!”

Everything: A Selfie Portrait by Markus/Star Harwood-Jones,

Everything: A Selfie Portrait by Markus/Star Harwood-Jones, “A little something I’m working on for my next zine.” Click through for the original from their website.

Tempering his activism around campus, Harwood-Jones’ art practices have never stopped. In the coming week he’ll be participating in two separate Toronto art events; Naked Heart: The LGBTQ Festival of Words, produced by Glad Day Bookshop and the Toronto Queer Zine Fair 2015.

Harwood-Jones was invited to participate in Naked Heart by Glad Day co-owner Michael Erickson, and will be speaking on the “First-Person Pleasure: Non-Fiction Sex Writing” panel—an unfortunately non-wheelchair accessible event. “I’ll also be reading an excerpt from one of my ‘Confessions’ zines on Sunday at Buddies in Bad Times (this venue is wheelchair accessible), as part of a reading event called ‘Too True,’” he says.

He’s also a long-time supporter—as both attendee and seller—of the Toronto Queer Zine Fair, now in its third year. As a seller at this year’s zine fair, Harwood-Jones says “Confessions” will be available, along with DVD copies of Mosaic, the documentary’s soundtrack, “and possibly even a new zine series of mine – if I can get it together in time!”

“I love the community there!” he says. “The organizers are so sweet and really take steps to make the fair accessible, offering free food and making sure the space works for everyone, even providing free childcare! Truly a magical event, and the people who show up (both sellers, buyers, and all other types) reflect the beautiful, vibrant communities we have in the GTA queer and trans scenes.”

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Newman says one of her favourite things about Harwood-Jones is that he takes his passion for social justice beyond the walls of official organizations. “We went to Queer Swim Night at Regent Park Aquatic Centre,” she says. “[Harwood-Jones] got there just before I did, so they had already jumped in the water. When I got there they jumped out of the pool and were so excited. We all got to go on the slides and stuff. I have a very fond memory of that entire night.

“It’s nice to be in a group that’s supporting you, and to see that translate into real life, seeing how much he takes that not just like a position he’s paid to do, or a position that he’s spearheading or feels really strongly about,” Newman says. “Bringing it into real life, too, into my peer group. That was a really great connecting experience.”

Camastro says what he admires most most about Harwood-Jones’ work is that his friend is unapologetic and endlessly collaborative. “How amazing is it that they are carving out spaces for trans folks to not only be visible but be heard, respected and safe,” he says. “Those are still some pretty revolutionary notions.”

For more information about Harwood-Jones’ art practices and activism visit their Tumblr page, Starkiss.

For more information about the Ryerson Trans Collective, visit their website.

Naked Heart: An LGBTQ Festival of Words runs from Friday, October 16 to Sunday, October 18 at various times and locations in Toronto. There is a $5 cover for entry to individual events, or you can buy a festival pass for $47. Facebook events exist for the dozens of individual events, including “First-Person Pleasure: Non-Fiction Sex Writing” (in a non-wheelchair accessible venue, up two flights of stairs) and “Too True” (wheelchair accessible venue), both events Harwood-Jones will appear in alongside other incredible writers and artists.

The Toronto Queer Zine Fair 2015 is happening on Saturday, October 17 from 11 am to 7 pm at Trinity St. Pauls United Church, 427 Bloor Street West in Toronto (a wheelchair accessible event). Cover is pay-what-you-can with a suggested donation of $5, but no one will be turned away due to lack of funds. A Facebook event page exists for this event.

Disclosure: The author is involved as a panelist and reader at the Naked Heart literary festival, separately from Harwood-Jones’ events.

Special thanks to Professor April Lindgren who provided significant edits and insights in the creation of this profile, originally written for her “Journalism in the Political Sphere” course for Ryerson’s Master of Journalism program.

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