This interview was conducted as part of the interview series LGBTQ&A, a weekly podcast that documents modern queer and trans history.
When Mila Jam sings about wanting to be your lady in her new single, "Number One," she's referring to dating and a potential romantic partner, yes, but she's also talking about herself.
"My whole life trajectory has been growing into being the woman that I am, and I want to become that number one lady that I've always dreamed of, that I've always imagined in my mind," the singer says. "What she looks like and who she is and how she breathes and moves and walks and talks: that's the spiritual soulful connection of the transition for me."
Jam's dreamy vocals are showcased on the new song, which follows a string of statement-making music videos. Most notably, "Masquerade" features Jam on a rooftop with "Stop Killing Us" painted across her naked body.
To celebrate the release of her new song, Mila Jam sat down to talk with the LGBTQ&A podcast about why it's vital that we hear more examples of black parents who are supportive of their LGBTQ kids, challenges she's experienced while dating as a trans woman, and how our culture, particularly men, view and treat women.
"The biggest misconception that I had before transitioning was that men really respected women. And I don't believe that is true."
Read highlights below and click here to listen to the full interview.
Jeffrey Masters: The majority of your music is overly political. Have you ever received pushback from the industry for that?
Mila Jam: The industry doesn't do push back so much as silence. If there is an issue with someone or someone's point of view as an artist that people don't resonate with, they just don't talk about it. They don't promote it and they don't post the articles. They don't want to do interviews. So in a sense, that's it, but I haven't experienced it directly.
JM: With this moment that we’re in, I don’t know if a singer who is trans can make a song that’s not political. Even something seen as a simple love song is a massive statement.
MJ: Right. It's a huge statement. I was just thinking this. I have a new single out called "Number One" and the song is so beautifully danceable and simple in so many aspects, but then it's so complex. That connotation comes into every project that I do as a trans woman, as a black woman too.
JM: What do you want people to get from "Number One"?
MJ: It's really about a song about wanting to be that lady, the number one. I think of it in two ways. There are relationships that you have with people and the relationships you have with yourself.
And I think it's to highlight being the lady for the man I would want to be with, but learning how to be that lady for myself because I've always worked to be that lady for me. My whole life trajectory has been growing into being the woman that I am, and I want to become that number one lady that I've always dreamed of, that I've always imagined in my mind: what she looks like and who she is and how she breathes and moves and walks and talks. That's the spiritual soulful connection of the transition for me.
We can go back and do the history of The Maury Povich Show and Jerry Springer and Ricki Lake and see all of the trans women that were on those shows, just to be gawked at. It was something that I even believed. I didn't believe a trans woman could be a fully realized human being, a person with standards, a person that was multifaceted, had goals and a job and a career. These are things that made it clear to me, that's who I am and why I am who I am.
JM: When did you realize that’s the message you were getting from these shows?
MJ: Oh my God, I mean, in my teens, late teens, early '20s, I just feel like it's the same thing that any person in the LGBTQ spectrum goes through. There is always this assessment of yourself, like Is this what I want it to be? Is it what I think it is? Is it something that will work for me?
I think people who fall for trans people in the dating world, they're going through those questions too. What does that mean about me? So we're all looking at ourselves and asking questions and, ultimately, you just have to do the work and get to a place where you can actually make some choices about what you feel and what you need.
JM: When dating, with someone like you who might not be read as trans, does that mean you have to have a greater number of conversations disclosing?
MJ: This is one of those things…I think the grass is greener for a lot of people. They think being seen as cis-passing is just easier. And I will say that there are moments allotted to me. I think there's a real big problem when you're a black trans woman and you can recognize your own privilege when most of the cis hetero white world can't even acknowledge their privilege and get upset when you call it out.
I understand the privileges that I have. I understand that when I walk into certain spaces, people don't look at me as trans or they just see a black woman or a pretty black girl or whatever. Having to tell someone when they don't know makes them really question everything that they were taught. If guys could know that they could potentially meet a trans woman and not know she's trans, I feel like maybe they would have a little bit more empathy.
I like to inform as soon as possible. I always think there's a time period between meeting a girl that you like, that you think is hot, and you find out she's trans. And then you go away and then the guy's like, "Oh my God, what does this mean? Oh my God, okay, I'm into this." And then they come back a week, two weeks, six months, a year later, "Hey, you gave me your number. I was thinking maybe we could go out."
JM: How do you respond when that happens and they reach back out?
MJ: It's important at times to say that I am a trans woman because that's truth and that is a part of my experience. I'm not ashamed of that. I think I've always just been in that place having to talk about it. I understand women in my community that are completely done with that, who don't want to participate in trying to educate people and that's fine with them.
I understand when guys do that and I'm okay with talking about it to a degree. The problem is if you are not retaining any information, if you're not paying attention.
I don't need to waste time persuading people. I've gotten to that place in my life where I'm like, "Great. Thank you. Take care."
JM: It strikes me as an enormous amount of emotional labor for you.
MJ: Right. Transitioning and transness to me, it's more than just claiming who you are. There is a lot that comes with the experience. I don't think it's something that's for the faint of heart. Everyone has to make that decision to want to be out about their transness and to pursue a life where they can be open about who they are. You have to be really, really tough. This is why I don't understand why our culture and our community doesn't really celebrate queer people because our lives are built out of adversity.
Queer and trans people, we really do have something that's a gift, that we can share about the human experience. Why can't our culture celebrate that?
JM: With these different challenges that come with dating, did anyone early on give you a heads up about what to expect?
MJ: Not really. Maybe, but I will say this. When you are in your mode of where you need to go and you're at the beginning of your transition, all you can see is the golden halo at the end.
The biggest misconception that I had before transitioning was that men really respected women. And I don't believe that is true.
That's systemic and I think that's a conditioned reality because men are told to treat women a certain way. Respect, as a whole, for women and what women go through, the microaggressions that we deal with...a lot of men just don't understand it. They don't see it.
It just goes into transitioning for yourself as opposed to transitioning for people or men or dating or to be cute. There's this thing that you just walk into it and you're like, "I don't know what's going to happen. I just know that I need to like this woman inside of me is she needs to live," and you just step into it and it's really stepping out on faith.
JM: You originally started making parody videos under the name, Britney Houston. When did you realize that you weren’t just performing as a woman, that there was something deeper there?
MJ: Pretty early on, but I think that came from my conditioning. Me, being male-bodied, it was all of the stuff that I had to work through thinking that transness and femness is a joke. The only way that people receive it is through comedy. You have to be funny.
JM: So the only outlet for your femininity, at that time, was making parody videos?
MJ: That's also how I justified it to family and friends. But it was also a way for them to accept me.
What happened for me doing these videos, people were excited to see them. They were getting a lot of views. I had an awakening and an epiphany, that no one's ever going to respect me as a woman. And what does that look like? Because I'm more than just comedy relief.
JM: And your parents ultimately accepted you being trans. It's vital that we hear about supportive parents.
MJ: It's vital that we hear about supportive black parents. The journey was very difficult. I came out to my mother and she did not understand and she just was like, "You need to get some help." She didn't put me in conversion therapy, but in the black community, there's not conversion therapy, there's church. So you go to church, you go to see the pastor, you have a little situation. We did that whole thing.
My parents have been divorced since I was little, so my mother has been my mother and my father for most of my life and she's done the most amazing job at that.
But it wasn't until when I said that I'm a woman, she was like, "Why can't you just perform?" I was like, "No, I go to sleep and I wake up and I feel like Mila. I am Mila." My aunt Sheila was the one person in my life who was always in my corner helping my family and my mother, saying, "Just let the baby do what the baby needs to do to get to where they need to go and let them grow into who they're supposed to become."
That's the love that I come from. I think loving your child is first.
Mila Jam's new single is called "Number One".
New episodes of the LGBTQ&A podcast come out every Tuesday on the Luminary app.