Hi crush monsters, this is Straddler On The Street, a feature where I celebrate all of you incredible Autostraddle readers by hunting you down, demanding you chat with me, and then writing about you on the Internet so we can all crush on you. Get excited, because butterflies in your stomach 24/7 is a fantastic way to live.
Header by Rory Midhani
Straddler On The Street: Abby, 22
Abby was the winner of the A-Camp 4.0 Kreuzbach10 campership, and as you might expect from such a human, Abby is sweet, energetic, confident and dapper as all hell. Abby grew up in New York, went to New York University, and now works at Warby Parker. Abby makes films and tells stories that focus on gender and race and national origin and this work is probably going to inspire humans and change the world, because our histories and our words are important and Abby knows that. Abby had a million and one amazing things to say about A-Camp and wants you all to go to A-Camp in the future, yes, every single one of you. Abby also managed to reference Taylor Swift in response to the very first question of our interview, so I instantly fell a little bit in love. You will, too.
Hi! Let’s start out with the basics. How old are you, where do you live, what do you do, and how should I spell your name – is there an E in Abb(e)y?
Like Taylor Swift, I’m 22, and unlike Taylor Swift, I live in Bushwick, Brooklyn – home of all of Lena Dunham’s crack-related incidents – although I grew up in Queens. I work at Warby Parker, the eyeglass company/startup, where I just changed positions. I used to work at the retail store in the Meatpacking District, and now I work in operations and other behind-the-scenes stuff at their headquarters in Soho. And you can spell my name Abby, although my name is like a whole other thing… I also just graduated from NYU last May.
I went to NYU, too! I majored in English and Gender Studies in the College of Arts and Science. What did you study?
I also did Gender Studies, but with a slightly different slant. I was in Gallatin, where you build your own concentration by taking classes all throughout NYU, and I studied nonfiction media – documentary film and creative nonfiction and memoir and stuff – but with a specific bent towards nonfiction and how it relates to gender and race and national origin and all those good things! So I read a lot of Audre Lorde and Cherríe Moraga and watched a lot of Paris is Burning, among other things.
That sounds amazing. I have a lot to ask you about your work and interests, but before we continue, do you want to elaborate about your name? That sounds like it might be a Thing To Talk About… but only if you want!
Yeah, I’d love to! So my nickname is Abby and I typically go by Abby, but my full name is Abena, which is a Ghanaian name that means “girl born on Tuesday.” Fun fact, I was actually not born on a Tuesday, but I was named after my grandmother.
Sometimes I’m more into being called Abena, because it’s generally less easily gendered that Abby (in the United States – in Ghana, Abena is immediately female) and I’m not really into being easily gendered, I guess? But Abena is really really difficult for white people, haha. If, on the first day of class, it isn’t immediately mispronounced, a professor will literally get to my name in the alphabet and just give me a blank look until I say it for them… followed quickly by a “But you can call me Abby!” And this has been going on for as long as I can remember!
So my name is kinda tense in that I really like to be called Abby, but I also enjoy Abena as a cultural marker that binds me to my Ghanaian-ness and also severs me from Western assumptions about gendered names. I hope that makes sense.
That makes a ton of sense. Can you talk a little bit about your ties to your Ghanaian-ness?
Ooooh man, my Ghanaian-ness. My dad is Ghanaian and my mother is Haitian, and in the fall of 2011 I studied abroad in Accra, the capital of Ghana. The summer before, there was a particularly popular article circulating through social media: “World News: Ghana Orders the Arrest of All Homosexuals.”
So I was going to Ghana with this kind of looming over my head. Mind that I’d always grown up surrounded by mostly white folks – a high percentage of whom were European immigrants, first-generation like me, but white all the same – and I hadn’t given much active thought to my Ghanaian-ness before that semester. So this was kind of my introduction to Ghana: You are Ghanaian, or you are queer, and you can’t be both.
That sentiment was more or less echoed by my father, who I have been out to for going on six years now, but who told me when I was leaving for Ghana that I wasn’t to talk about queer things when I got there. Almost all of my paternal family still lives in Ghana, and I’m not sure whether he wanted me to effectively go back into the closet because he thought it was unsafe or if he thought our family would reject me.
Did you follow his advice?
I did the exact opposite! I went to Ghana and ended up making a short documentary about the queer individuals and friends I met and made, their lives and their experiences, hopes, and dreams. I was also able to learn a lot from them about what being queer and African could potentially look like. That semester, there was a big to-do as well about Great Britain’s threatening to cut aid to West African countries if they didn’t change the laws that affected LGBTQ people. (I forgot to mention! Homosexuality is de facto illegal in Ghana!) And imagine my reaction when I found out that those laws (and similar laws in countries like Nigeria and Uganda) are actually remnants of British and French imperialism. Bullshit.
Ugh, seriously. This might be too personal to ask, but I’m curious based on what you just said: is your dad comfortable with your identity?
He actually totally is! He has probably [had] the easiest [time] in my family, besides my siblings, [with] coming to terms with my queerness. The other day he called me at like 11 pm just to tell me that he saw that gay marriage had passed in New Jersey. He also just told me how much he loves his two new favorite shows, The Rachel Maddow Show and Melissa Harris-Perry. He might actually be the cutest. [But] his telling me to not talk about queer stuff in Ghana was even stranger in that sense.
I get that. So your experience in Ghana turned out to be very different than you expected. How did you go about meeting the queer people you met there?
Good question! I met most of them at this underground salsa party in downtown Accra; I also met a few through some of my professors and their friends, who knew I was making this film and trying to gather as much information as possible. One of the classes I took was specifically about making a film about the city or something that attracted you about it. I pitched a film that explored some of the lived experiences of queer people, popular opinion about the issue, a little stuff about me, things like that.
That sounds very cool. Are you interested in continuing to do projects like that?
I would love love love love love that! I’m planning to apply for an MFA in writing in the next few years, which I know people can get down on, the monetary worth of graduate school and things, but I am so into an experience in straight up intense workshop conservatory writing – reading and writing and critiquing everyday for multiple years. It would also be a great jumping off point to apply to fellowships and other grants that would let me take my writing and my projects to the places where it matters the most to me (like the Caribbean and sub-Saharan Africa). My [undergrad] studies opened a lot of doors to me as far as beginning to learn the tools I can use to understand myself and the world. [I learned] that nonfiction has a history and is important and diverse and wild, and that personal experiences have a history and are important and can be beautiful and life-changing.
I’ve always wanted to apply for a campership, but at every deadline I always psyched myself out: “They’re never gonna pick this essay. It’ll never be me.” But when I read the post for the Kreuzbach10 campership, the description of Anna’s company and the essay prompt both really resonated with me.
As a short, small-framed butch-identified person who often goes into fits of dysphoric rage in dressing rooms, the phrase “masculine clothes that are made to fit women’s bodies” was like music to this boi’s ears! Then the essay prompt was asking me to write about something that I spend a lot of my time thinking about: learning to feel good about my presentation, and how feeling good has come to affect my life. I talked a lot about the experience of presenting as masculine in Ghana, and how the love and acceptance I found in my body there translated to an increased confidence in myself in the U.S. So this time I just went for it!
How did you feel when you heard you had won the campership?
Didn’t believe it. Not a single part of me. I got the email from Dani RDS and I was seriously like, which Abena did Dani mean to send this to? But then I got another email from Anna Kunz right after, that was talking about the essay and Ghana and stuff, and I was like HOLY FUCKING SHIT! I called my best friend, screamed for like 2 minutes, said “I’M GOING TO GAY CAMP,” and hung up.
That is such a cute story! Did camp live up to your expectations?
OH MY GOD. OH MY GOD VANESSA. I tried really really hard to go to camp with zero expectations. I was actually so nervous the week before that I had started to convince myself that my whole cabin would hate me and I would have a terrible time and then fall off the mountain. BUT THEN CAMP WAS EVERYTHING.
I am so glad you didn’t fall off the mountain. Tell me your favorite camp things. The penguin I painted on your face better be one of them. Just kidding… (but not really).
Your penguin is the FIRST one of them. That penguin was so fucking cute and perfect, and it had tattoos on its triceps like me and everything!
My whole entire cabin: Flashdance, you mean the world to me. We invented a game called “Spin the Bottle with Feelings,” which is where you spin a bottle and whoever it lands on, you need to ask a personal question. And then you MAKE OUT. I don’t know if I could envision a gayer game.
I learned to throw a football! The strip spelling bee and Deanne Smith! Dapper hour and ukeleles and snow and the Carnival – magical!
I don’t know, I definitely know a lot of queer people in New York and Brooklyn, but I have never felt so full and surrounded by so many non-judgemental queer faces, so many people that instead of getting defensive when someone felt hurt or slights, they asked, “How can I be better?” For that entire weekend I felt valid and normal and attractive, in a not horrible and objectifying way! And I also danced SO MUCH.
Also! The QPOC and gender panels were amazing. So many beautiful and insightful and necessary comments from both panelists and audience members, and I was genuinely pleasantly surprised at what a safe space the QPOC panel felt like. Going to those panels, and having those hard discussions with the hopes of bringing about some real healing, was incredible. I am rarely if ever able to do that in my “real life.”
I’m so glad you had such an amazing time at camp. Seeing as you are the KREUZBACH10 CAMPERSHIP CAMPER, I am curious how you think of your personal style. What are some items of clothing you cannot live without?
Oooh, this is difficult in that I don’t really see myself as particularly fashionable. I definitely couldn’t live without a denim jacket, some black jeans, and a pair of Vans. I also would need at least a few button-down shirts and maybe a half-dozen ties and bow ties. I think I’d describe my style as half Brooklyn hipster and half New England lacrosse bro. I wear a lot of flannel, five-panel hats, and printed t-shirts, but I would also never say no to a bro tank and basketball shorts, or a pastel oxford with a striped tie, khakis, and duck boots. I guess it depends on whether I’m going to work or going skateboarding. I also cannot live without prints and colors all over my clothes.
Do you have a celeb crush?
OH MY GOD HAVE YOU SEEN JENNIFER LAWRENCE’S HAIRCUT? J-Law by far. She is brilliant and gorgeous and so talented, and she also does not give one single fuck.
I also adore her. Speaking of The Hunger Games, what are some of your favorite books and movies?
Oh man. So my favorite movie is obviously One Direction: This is Us, because I love One Direction and personally identify as a Directioner.
I’ve been reading a lot of Junot Diaz lately, because I absolutely love The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Drown but haven’t read either since high school. So I’m re-reading those, and I just got a copy of This Is How You Lose Her, which I am really excited about.
I also love The Hunger Games, and have been reading a lot of literature for young adults in general lately. John Green is another of my favorite, I read Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars in the past six months and both were were so good.
And of course, above all, Harry Potter. Fun fact about me: I am definitely a Hufflepuff, and have two very large Harry Potter tattoos, one of which is a badger.
I am so into all of it, every single thing you just said. Do you have anything else to say to the Autostraddle community?
Go to camp! If you can afford it, you should definitely go! Apply for a campership, apply for all the camperships! And I’ll see you all at A-Camp 5.0.
If you would like to be featured as a future Straddler on the Street, please email vanessa [at] autostraddle [dot] com. Include a few photos, 3-5 sentences about yourself and put “Straddler Submission” in your subject line. Approximately a million people have submitted so far, so please be patient as Vanessa goes through her inbox — you’re all sexy with really smart brains, and don’t you forget it!