By CHELO GRUBB
TC Tolbert had Little Debbie’s Zebra Cakes on the brain when he renamed himself.
Tolbert, a transgender feminist poet who teaches writing courses at Pima Community College and the University of Arizona, first brought up the topic of getting a sex change to his mother when he was a fifth-grade girl.
Her mom said no, and Tolbert continued to grow up in a Pentecostal Christian environment. In college, she married a man and tried to live the life she understood to be correct.
Tolbert loved her husband, but wasn’t completely happy with where she was in life. Her husband was the first to tell her that she was a lesbian.
The two separated, and a few years later, she began to question her gender. Around that time, when Tolbert hiked the Appalachian Trail, her journey into diversity really began.
Making the transition
On the trail, hikers are known by their “trail names,” not their given names. As a snack, Tolbert had brought along a box of Little Debbie’s Zebra Cakes.
The person he was hiking with asked, mistaking the name, “Where are those Tiger Cakes?” Tolbert responded, saying, “There is no such thing… and I ate them.”
“Tiger Cakes” stuck, and became Tolbert’s trail name. At the end of the eight months it took to hike the trail, Tolbert decided to stick with an abbreviated version of the name. He dubbed himself “TC,” all uppercase, with no added punctuation.
“I was in the middle of changing, but I didn’t really know what would happen,” he said.
After the hike, Tolbert began taking steps forward. He decided to get a master’s degree in poetry, and to begin taking testosterone. He also asked friends to use “he” when talking about him.
“I don’t feel like I was born in the wrong body, but I do feel like I got to a place where I was ready to just transform, you know, to grow into a new body,” he said.
Tolbert describes himself as genderqueer, meaning he doesn’t see himself as entirely male or female.
“I present as a guy, but I’m also a very effeminate guy and I love that. I don’t want to hem myself in,” he said.
For Tolbert, the term stems from more than physical presence.
“It also means having more radical politics, very left of center,” he said. “Not just around voting but around definitions, relationships, equality… how to navigate quality and relationships. It’s not just a gender expression thing.”
Tolbert writes poetry that deals with gender topics.
His debut poetry chapbook, “territories of folding,” was published in March. The book, an excerpt from a longer, unpublished manuscript, plays with moving text around on a page and reading the words from different directions.
Tolbert says some of his most impactful writing is done during the two hours a week he spends with Movement Salon. The group is made up dancers, writers and a musician who, without planning, create a piece of art together that feels cohesive.
During this time, Tolbert says, “anything goes.” Everything that happens in those two hours becomes part of the piece.
“If I can understand how to be totally present to pay attention in the moment in this small space, and respond to people and work with people in a way that is opening in this space, then I can apply that to the rest of my life,” he said.
The artists laugh together and joke about real-life applications of their work.
For example, if someone pulls out in front of him in traffic, Tolbert might say, ‘Oh, that person is dueting with me now’ instead of calling the other driver a jerk.
The concept is, ‘OK, that was a choice I didn’t expect, and now I’m going to work with that,’” he said, laughing.
Tolbert is also co-editing an anthology that will come out in early 2012. He won the Arizona Statewide Poetry Competition in 2010.
Last year, Tolbert founded “Made for Flight,” a transgender youth and ally empowerment workshop series that discusses transgender history, ally development and creative writing.
He decided to start the program after attending a few Tucson events for the Transgender Day of Remembrance, which is held on Nov. 20 every year.
The first year he attended, about 10 transsexuals participated. The commemoration consisted of participants holding hands and singing a song.
“I felt uncomfortable with this idea that transpeople, who are already struggling with these certain kinds of oppression, gather and are just really sad together?” Tolbert said. “Where are our support systems? Where are our allies?”
With Made for Flight, Tolbert visits youth groups and gay-straight alliances, who make kites for specific transpeople who were murdered in the last year. Workshop participants then attend the day of remembrance and release the kites.
“We are lifting up this image of a person, and celebrating them, and literally getting our eyes off the ground and up so hopefully our spirits go up as well,” Tolbert said. “There is a sense of hope when you look at something in the sky.”
Tolbert also spends much time working with non-profit organizations. He is the assistant director of Casa Libre, a writer’s community center that hosts literary events.
In conjunction with Casa Libre, Tolbert is involved with Read Between the Bars. The group provides prisoners with educational and entertaining books, and publishes Trickhouse, an online cross-genre arts journal.
During the summer, Tolbert leads a week-long “Heroic Journey” that helps teenagers who are dealing with the death of a friend or family member.
Tolbert is easy to talk to and extremely friendly. He says being involved in numerous projects is simply his nature.
“I get a strong sense of connection by working with a lot of different folks,” he said. “I don’t like for my world to be small. It’s really important to feel like I’m connecting with folks that I normally just wouldn’t bump into on the street.”