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We Rock Charlotte Cultivates Inclusive Expression for Trans Youth

Paint outside the lines

An artist rounds out the edges during We Rock Charlotte’s recent spray-paint workshop
An artist rounds out the edges during We Rock Charlotte’s recent spray-paint workshop. (Photo by Krystle Baller)

On a cool Sunday morning, I watched a couple of middle-aged women in circle scarves and cardigans admire a newly painted wall. The women were my fellow classmates in a spray-paint workshop led by acclaimed Charlotte artist Elizabeth Palmisano.

Palmisano had accepted me on short notice as an observer and participant in the class, held at We Rock Charlotte’s Rock on 22nd house in Optimist Park, and had helped me and about a dozen other novices create one long, weird final product. When the bell rang marking the end of the workshop, I had spray painted a purple skeleton stoking a giant fire, lit up by the acronym “T4T,” a reference to trans people who are attracted to other trans people.

Surreal is not a word strong enough to describe the experience of these women ooh-ing and ahh-ing at my punk rock portrait. I was surprised that our collaborative work looked so cool, but I was shocked that these cis women were praising a skeleton with top surgery scars. But maybe I shouldn’t have been.

Proceeds from the class went to We Rock Charlotte, an organization that aims to inspire young people through music, arts and social justice.

Palmisano, a member of the organization’s leadership team, has long championed the arts as both a vehicle for self-exploration and a way of supporting her community. Her work in We Rock’s year-round workshop Amplify! made her an expert at getting children, teens and even adults to let loose creatively. 

On Feb. 28, the organization announced its full rebranding, including a name change from Girls Rock Charlotte to We Rock Charlotte. The decision, which director Kelly Finley executed with a grant from marketing agency Wray Ward, was meant to make the program more visibly inclusive to trans and gender nonconforming young people.

It also served to unite We Rock with Pachyderm Music Lab, a year-round music education program for children of all genders.

Krystle Baller — founder of Pachyderm, creative director of We Rock, and Palmisano’s partner — said the transition was only a matter of time. 

Given the general attitude toward trans youth in this era, the move is surprising. With so many pundits and politicians calling for greater defense of women-only spaces, what drove these local artists to carry out their rebranding now in the name of allyship?

Then and now of We Rock CLT

Baller, who also attended the mural class, told me the name change was a logical next step for We Rock Charlotte.

“We were just kind of waiting for the right timing,” they said. “Because when we started in 2014, the gender language wasn’t where it is now.”

Even as Girls Rock, the organization had always included transgender and gender-nonconforming kids, and had done so openly. “Don’t let all of the girl power fool you, though,” read the About section on their website. “Pachyderm is a super inclusive spot.”

Teens playing guitar
Teens play guitar as part of Girls Rock Charlotte, which recently rebranded to We Rock Charlotte to be more visibly inclusive. (Courtesy of We Rock Charlotte)

In recent years, however, its leadership team noticed a dramatic change in the population it served. 

“A growing percentage of the young people who engage with our programs self-identify as part of the LGBTQIA+ community,” stated We Rock executive director Kelly Finley in a press release about the rebrand.

As we circled up after the class and introduced ourselves, I couldn’t help but notice a bit of a generational divide within the class itself. Most of the attendees were older cis women who either fumbled through their pronouns or stated “she/her” with practiced cadence. The younger people in the group, including a couple teenagers, used all types of pronouns.

“The space that the kids have created has become more genderfluid, especially in the past four years,” Baller said. 

We Rock Charlotte is far from the first youth organization to observe this phenomenon. Many previously girl-focused institutions, from after-school activities to women’s colleges, have started to answer the challenge of trans inclusion. Some opt to keep with a girls-only approach, be they trans or cis. Girls on the Run, for example, states that if a child identifies as a girl and her family agrees, she can participate. Girl Scouts of America champions a similar policy, but specifies that troops handle transgender and gender-nonconforming youth on a case-by-case basis. 

What’s different about We Rock Charlotte is that all trans kids — whether boys, girls, neither or both — are welcome in the program. The Girls Rock Camp Alliance, an international coalition between rock education camps for kids, has elected to forgo a binary approach altogether. Its mission statement stipulates that camps “must center those who experience marginalization because of their gender identity and expression.”

“We Rock has always been meant for girls and gender-diverse youth,” Palmisano said. “But now, our name reflects that.”

An artist paints a design during We Rock Charlotte’s recent spray-paint workshop
An artist paints a design during We Rock Charlotte’s recent spray-paint workshop. (Photo by Krystle Baller)

Learning through creative collaboration

After making our first marks with spray paint at the outset of the Sunday afternoon workshop, Palmisano gave the class a new challenge. 

“Start thinking about how to incorporate your vision with your neighbor’s,” she said.

She told me later that one primary focus in her classes is to get people to share and collaborate, and she employs creative means to this end. At one point, she told me she only sets out a few tools in her arsenal so her students are “forced” to share and work together. 

“The camaraderie is just so important. Especially for kids,” she said. 

If you’ve been following the news, you know there’s a war on trans youth right now. South Carolina is discussing legislation that would ban trans girls from competing in school sports. Over the past year, multiple bills in a similar vein have made it to the North Carolina General Assembly. And though the expiration of HB 142 has allowed local nondiscrimination ordinances to become law once again, trans people living outside of more progressive areas remain at risk.

We Rock Charlotte began with the passion for fostering creativity among one marginalized group: girls. Could it also be a safe haven for other children maligned for their genders? 

Palmisano thinks so, but it takes more than a rebrand. We Rock Charlotte has made a point to include socially conscious programming. In recent years, it has expanded to include workshops on allyship and policies on misgendering.

But beyond informative programming, she also believes creativity has inherent value for young people struggling to find themselves.

“There’s so many things that young people carry with them. So much judgment and shame,” she told me. “But when you introduce a creative outlet, they take that thing inside them and kind of pull it out and look at it in a more objective way. They really look at it and not feel judged.”

And when it takes place in a collaborative setting, opening up about painful topics becomes easier. 

“In general, when people’s hands are busy, they open up,” Palmisano said. “The conversation gets real deep, real fast. It gives you a chance to get out of your head.”

The final spray-paint product after the workshop
The final product after the spray-paint workshop. (Photo by Krystle Baller)

I saw what she meant. Despite having known each other for all of five minutes, my neighbors and I were able to weave our disparate scenes together to form one cohesive painting. The roots from my trees extended down into a mountain of green swirls; the bubbles surrounding my neighbor’s giant bird floated up and around my skeleton.

As we approached the end of the session, Palmisano pulled me to the side and angled me to the right.

“Look,” she said. “Did you even notice that you made a symmetrical mural?”

We hadn’t. Somehow, our combined effort produced a work greater than the sum of its parts.

Letting young people lead the way

Children hardly ever define their lives within the bounds adults set. And so as a leader within her organization, Palmisano sees the importance of stepping back and giving children autonomy. 

“It’s hard to put the kids in a box,” Palmisano said. “Like, yesterday, you went by she/her, and today your name tag says he/him. There’s a lot of fluidity! The space itself is set in a way that encourages an exploration of self.”

I have to admit: Even in my early 20s, I feel out of my depth watching younger trans people imagine the future of gender. The next generation has already wrought dizzyingly novel identities for themselves.

It’s easy to be scared of that, which is why adults often seek to control young trans people. They believe that with the right punishment, these children can be freed of gender trouble. But what’s both horrible and amazing about being trans is that we will never be free of gender trouble. The most important lesson you learn in trans adolescence is how to harness it — how to turn deep pain into power of the highest degree. 

Trying to persuade young people out of transition is like trying to persuade the wind. Or, as Palmisano might put it, trying to persuade a stream of spray paint. The first time she held a can in her hands, she was “terrified.”

“You just can’t control it,” she said. “You have to work with it … There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s almost like giving up, and then giving in to the process.”

Nikolai Mather stands in front of his section of the mural at We Rock Charlotte
Nikolai Mather stands in front of his section of the mural at We Rock Charlotte. (Photo by Krystle Baller)

It’s true that trans children and cis children have wildly different needs. It’s true that the cis adults in a young trans person’s life may not always understand what they want. It’s true that transphobia is a foregone conclusion for cis people, even among those who spent years working with trans youth. 

But it’s also true that Palmisano, Baller and the rest of We Rock are attempting to meet the challenge anyways. And though there’s no way they can be perfect, they will be brave. They will give up in order to give in to the endlessly enigmatic process of trans childhood. They will let the kids tell them what they need.

Not all of my classmates needed to understand what T4T meant to appreciate my work. I put down my spray paint and joined them in walking the wall, admiring the vista we had just created together, individually and together.

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