Imara Jones: Hey, fam. It’s me, Imara Jones. Welcome to the TransLash Podcast, the show where we talk about news, politics and culture from a trans perspective. But more importantly, welcome to our holiday show, which today we’ll be emphasizing two stories which are not only joyful but practical, giving you some last minute holiday ideas–and who doesn’t need those? But before we get to that, I wanted to let you know how over the moon I am, the TransLash podcast was featured in this year’s Spotify wrap, which highlights the best shows of 2020. Thank you, Spotify for lifting us up and honoring our work. And thank you to all of our listeners who helped us get here.
Your positive reviews and love on social media really helps get the word out and elevates our show. So please keep sending us that love. We might even share it here on the show, like that of Kristen Parisi or @Kris10Parisi on Twitter who said, quote, “If you’re looking to get some more education on the trans community, I recommend TransLash, a podcast with the incredible @imarajones,” close quote.
Kristen, thank you for sharing that and sharing your thoughts. And no, we didn’t pay her to say the word incredible. That tweet just somehow landed in our timeline. Now, on to the heart of our program. I’ve been thinking about all the small trans- and non-binary-owned businesses and creators making fabulous products and at the same time supporting our communities in powerful ways, and they can use your support this season.
Less than 1% of all small business owners are LGBTQ+, with a tiny fraction of that trans, non-binary and gender-nonconforming owners. That’s why for today’s episode, I wanted to lift up these creators and show their incredible work. Today, you’ll be hearing from Madin Ray Lopez, the founder of a nonprofit giving support to homeless and housing insecure LGBTQ+ youth called ProjectQ. They’re also innovating in the haircare space, and recently started selling hair products of their own.
Madin Ray Lopez: After cycles of violence have been placed upon us, I want to create cycles of success.
Imara Jones: Plus, I sit down with Al Sandimirova, who creates jewelry for people of all genders, and started the radically inclusive company, Automic Gold.
Al Sandimirova: For me the goal of the business, not to make more money, but to build happy and safe community around my work.
Imara Jones: Listeners, you know that we normally start each episode with trans joy, but in the spirit of the holiday season, both of these segments are joyful, so there’s no need to spotlight that separately. With that, let’s get started and bring some joy to the world.
One of the incredible organizations we’re highlighting today is ProjectQ. The nonprofit recently launched a line of new haircare products called ProjectQurls, specifically designed for curly haired people of all genders like, me, so that they (we) can have the ProjectQ hair experience right at home. And all the proceeds go to the ProjectQ barber school to help train a new generation of trauma-informed barbers so be sure to check them out. But ProjectQ is about so much more than hair products.
It was started by Madin Lopez to support homeless and housing insecure LGBTQ youth by providing free gender-affirming haircuts. And it’s such a vital service for many queer and trans people. Hair is such an important form of self expression that can help us feel more like ourselves and affirmed in our gender. ProjectQ also provides mentorship, educational workshops, gender-affirming clothing, food and other resources for LGBTQ youth. Madin, I’m so thrilled to be talking with you today about ProjectQ, and ProjectQurls and all the important work that you are doing.
Madin Ray Lopez: Thank you, Imara. I’m really glad to be here.
Imara Jones: I wanted to first ask you about ProjectQ. How did you come to land on the idea that focusing on providing haircuts to LGBTQ people, with people who are trauma informed is a really important service that wasn’t being met, and that you decided to meet it. How did you come to that?
Madin Ray Lopez: Well, I think that if you are any type of gender variant, or POC, and then the intersection that you’ve been at, you’ve had that moment where you’re sitting in the chair, and you’re just like, “I don’t think this person sees me,” you know, “I don’t feel seen by this person.” And, or “They see me, but I don’t think they know how to cut Black hair. I don’t think they know what to do with curls, or with any type of texture.” And so starting ProjectQ was really, for myself. I think that we do that a lot is movement, space creators, we’re just trying to find a place for ourselves first.
And that’s what I did. So I started ProjectQ after I’d been doing hair for about eight or nine years, I believe. And then now it’s been 17 years of doing hair, and about eight years of doing ProjectQ. So it’s been really nice to have a space that I made for me. And then as they say, once you do that for yourself, and you’re just making room for more people like you.
Imara Jones: Yeah, well, first of all, I’ve seen your pictures, and I don’t believe that you’ve done anything for 20 years. But hey, that’s just great genes and great haircut, and great lighting. I’m wondering if you can share with us an experience that you might have had in a chair, where, you know, you realize that the person wasn’t recognize you and you fully as who you are, and how that impacted you?
Madin Ray Lopez: Yeah, I mean, first, I want to just speak to the vast majority of humankind and how they, like, the misogynoir of our hair, of like Black hair in general. when I was really young, I wanted to wear my hair natural, you know, I think my dad started to relax my hair by the time I was in second grade. And what for folks that don’t know, if you have tight, kinky, curly, textured hair, when it’s relaxed with sodium hydroxide, which is one of like the strongest chemicals known to our industry, what they’re doing is they’re taking away this part of you that’s connected to your roots, to your ancestors, and making it more acceptable for white society.
And so a large part of what, you know, I wanted it, within having my curly hair as a young person, was wanting to have this connection to my roots, right. But I was told by family members that I did not look pretty with my natural hair, that you shouldn’t do that. “No, no, that’s not pretty.” And so what that was saying to a very young Black mind was you’re not good enough, the way that you just wake up in the morning, your natural person is not good enough.
And so translating that into “Okay, well, I’ll get relaxers, right, and then I’ll start to make my hair blonde.” And I’ll do all of these things, and then going into this gender space of understanding who the rest of me is beyond my hair texture, and how I get to express that through my hair. You know, like literally sitting in chairs of stylists that are like, “I see you I understand you I think that you’re great, you know, but I don’t know how to cut Black hair. Because that’s, that’s not really hair.” Right? Like, it’s, it’s not, that’s what I’ve been told before. So it’s what’s wild to me is that at that intersection, it didn’t matter if somebody saw me for my Blackness sitting in Black salons, and then you know, being ignored for my gender identity, misgendered, deadnamed, right.
And then the opposite end of that of like having my identity respected, but like not having the knowledge of how to work with my hair texture. So that’s really where I wanted to kind of create a movement and some space for folks that have both of those identities.
Imara Jones: Yeah, and I know, for instance, so many transmasculine people that I know who…that experience of being able to go and get a haircut can be so fraught when you walk into a barber shop, and the barber shop is the barber shop, which can often be a misogynistic place or, and the same is true for trans women, having to pick between these two ideals, maybe the place is accepting but they don’t know how to deal with your hair, maybe they know how to deal with your hair, but they’re not accepting, is a really fraught space.
And as you say, you know, hair is so tied to our identity that it can be devastating when you don’t go to a place that can figure out how to connect who you are with your hair and vice versa.
Madin Ray Lopez: Agreed. Yes.
Imara Jones: Yeah. So one of the things that’s really interesting is ProjectQurls. And I looked at all the products, they looked amazing. And it’s so interesting, because social justice organizations often are looking for a way to innovate, or to get outside of the idea of cultivating donors or donations. And you came up with this really innovative idea to, you know, sell hair products that’s connected to your brand, that’s connected to what the organization is about. How did you decide to do that? That’s like a pretty good hustle.
Madin Ray Lopez: Well, I feel kind of, I feel like I’ve definitely been groomed for this–
Imara Jones: –In quotes!
Madin Ray Lopez: In quotes, ooh, I didn’t even do that on purpose. It just came out naturally. Um, but I worked for a hair product line, that was one of my first jobs straight out of school when I was about 16. And so I did research and development with them, I did education, I was a salesperson, I did their shipping, like I had been at every single level of their company, as well as learning from the stylists that created the product. And figuring out how it worked best in hair.
The thing is that, I mean, I love them to death still to this day, but they were focusing on white hair, and they weren’t focusing on Black textures. And then also seeing product lines that were made for Black hair that I loved being taken off the shelves because it didn’t sell for white community. All of that to be said that queer folks come in all different textures. We really do.
So I bought myself a starter kit to start to sample out different products and different ingredients that were going to work for Black hair. And you know, here we are a year later, I’m on my third wave of packaging, we’ve sold over 100 shipments, which means it’s almost it’s about 2, 200 products sold,
Imara Jones: That was clearly the right move, because it’s such an innovation, to sell a product that meets the needs on so many different levels, like your product is still core to your mission. It is a Social Justice Initiative in and of itself. And the fact that it earns income on top of it is really something for I think, everyone to think about in terms of how we’re funding ourselves and how we are making social justice movements, especially in LGBTQ groups that are vastly underfunded, for there to be thought about innovations like yours.
What have you gotten from your experience, we have a sense of what you’ve given right? Thinking about self esteem, thinking about the whole person thinking about making all the people that you have contact with look good, look great, selling products. But what have you as a person, Madin, gotten from your experience with ProjectsQ, from doing it?
Madin Ray Lopez: Oy, okay, you hit me, hitting the hard hitting questions, huh? You know, personally, I would say that I’ve gotten to see myself represented, you know, within the people that we service, but also within myself, a large part of what ProjectQ is, is that we want to show the youth that we service that they can be anything when they come get their haircuts, they get a haircut in exchange for their attention with a self esteem building, workshop. And what that does is it shows this youth like, oh, you’re you’re in coding, you’re trans, I’m trans, I can be in coding; oh, you’re Black, and you’re an engineer, I guess I can be an engineer too, because I see you.
And so what it’s taught me on the back end of that is that I get to take up the same amount of space that I’m offering, being a queer, AFAB, like POC, like specifically Black POC, we’re not taught that. We’re not taught to take up space or that we are deserved space or that we’re worthy of it. It meant that when the salon got closed down for the third time now, and you know, a lot of my contemporaries are closing up their spaces, I’m on the other end of that, hiring on new people to help me with these other programs. I feel blessed and I’m not a religious person, but I do feel blessed
Imara Jones: Within that, all of the space that you’re talking about and that you’re creating… What is your dream for ProjectQ?
Madin Ray Lopez: I have so many, I have so many dreams. A large part of our most immediate dream is obviously to create more trauma-informed queer barbers of color. We only hire queer folks of color our entire board is queer people of color except for one, one specific person. And really, the hope is to pass it on. And so that’s a large part of what’s happening right now is how can we create as many programs and job development experiences so that my two assistants that I have, I can get them assistants, right and then continue to hire more queer folks of color?
The person that works with me on ProjectCurls, her name is Jessica Jean. She’s a trans woman of color. Now working with me by my side helping me with my programs. I want her to now have her own person that comes and helps her, like, after cycles of violence have been placed upon us I want to create cycles of success.
Imara Jones: Hmm, hmmm. And lastly, I’m wondering what’s your favorite hair product? What’s your favorite ProjectQurl product?
Madin Ray Lopez: Out of what I made?
Imara Jones: Yeah.
Madin Ray Lopez: I love them all so much, it’s got to be the curl cream, like that was my catalyst was creating a cream that worked for curl patterns 2B to 4C. So that took a lot of time and energy. So I gotta say that that’s my favorite one, I haven’t tried any product that’s quite like it. And so I feel like that’s the golden child right there.
Imara Jones: Right, and it’s for the tight, tightest curl pattern, right? That’s what you were describing when you went into your technical-ese. Those are, those are the tightest curl patterns, listeners. So if you have tight curl patterns, or know those who do, that’s, that’s the product for you.
Well, Madin, thank you so much for everything that you do and have done and the way in which you connect and create space for others and also for yourself through figuring out how to link our identities with how we were able to present ourselves, and how we are expressing ourselves through through our hair, which is so so important as human beings, I really appreciate it.
Madin Ray Lopez: I also really appreciate you, thank you for this platform and for inviting me.
Imara Jones: Of course, of course. That was Madin Lopez, the founder and executive director of ProjectQ, you can learn more about ProjectQ and find the new ProjectQurls haircare products at projectq.me.
And next up on our special holiday podcast, we’re talking about jewelry, which of course is a popular gift around this time of the year. Jewelry can sometimes be tricky for trans non-binary and gender-nonconforming people. Either the sizes are too big or too small for the type of jewelry you want, or the pieces are made with the gender binary in mind, with either quote “masculine” or quote “feminine” ideas in mind. That’s where Automic Gold comes in. It’s a company with quite a story. It was founded by Al Sandimirova, who came to the US in 2009 as an LGBTQ+ refugee.
Sandimirova says that they then started the company, quote, “out of survival” close quote, originally selling pieces that they made for eBay. Now Automic Gold is a growing brand well beyond eBay, which makes pieces intended for everyone, putting racial representation at the heart of what they do. Automic Gold also uses reclaimed gold, putting gender inclusivity as well, in every single piece. That’s why I’m thrilled to talk to Al today. Al, welcome, thank you so much for joining us.
Al Sandimirova: Hi, Imara, I can pay you for this intro. And you’ll write it down for me? This is the best introduction ever.
Imara Jones: Sure thing. We’re full service operation, happy to do it.
Al Sandimirova: Couldn’t say better myself. Wow.
Imara Jones: That warms my heart. I want you to feel welcome and seen and heard and all the ways that you are. So that brings me joy. So the thing that’s interesting about the company that you’ve created, that makes beautiful things is that it started out of tremendous difficulty.
Al Sandimirova: Mm hmm.
Imara Jones: And I think that it’s one that a lot of LGBTQ+ people, specifically trans, non-binary and gender-nonconforming people can relate to. You came to the country in 2009 as an LGBTQ+ refugee, I don’t know if we do that anymore. But once we did upon a time we did. From, you know, a region of what is now Russia. And I’m wondering if you can just talk to us about the difficulty that pushed you here, what, what happened to make you come to the United States,
Al Sandimirova: Basically the family and the place where I’m from, it’s very not accepting of LGBTQ+ people. So I had some bad accidents, both with my family, and I’ve been outed. So it’s been some accidents with the outside of the community, some my life been threatened, and I had no choice but to run outside of the country. And I choose New York specifically as the safe haven.
Imara Jones: How did you turn to the idea of working with gold and putting it on eBay as a means for survival? Do you remember when you came up with that idea?
Al Sandimirova: Yes, I’ve been working illegally in the refinery of gold refinery, and my boss wasn’t treating me well, because I wasn’t documented. Low pay, sexual harassment, so I really didn’t want to stay there. And when I tried to find another job, I didn’t speak English at the time. So I had no choice but to start my own thing.
Imara Jones: Now the reason why I asked that question is because I think that one of the things about your story is that you just kept transforming the thing that was right in front of you into the next step, right. And a lot of times, people want to figure out how to start their own businesses, particularly people who are trans or non-binary, gender-nonconforming, because of all the reasons that we know, right?
All of the things that you experienced in your life are the reason why people leave, harassment on the job, threats, you know, that you couldn’t leave, you couldn’t find anything better, all the things, but get stuck or paralyzed thinking that they need to find one big idea, but you just kept transforming the thing that you were doing into the next step. And I just think that’s a really important example for, for entrepreneurs, you know.
So you start out on eBay, eBay clearly was a cracking success. And then you decided to not only sell jewelry, but to sell jewelry in a completely different way, right, to make a brand that was gender inclusive, where the sizes of things worked for people. So let’s just say for example, if you wanted a piece that was more on the masculine side, in quotes, but you had a smaller hands, because that maybe that’s not the gender you were assigned at birth, you make the sizes for that, you decided to make a brand that was inclusive, racially as well. And those are choices that are not made by jewelry companies, and anyone turns on television or opens a magazine or goes online that those are the choices of jewelry companies. And I’m wondering what motivated you to think, you know what, I’m gonna do this differently.
Al Sandimirova: Yeah, so as I was selling on eBay, I didn’t enjoy wearing any single piece myself, the masculine jewelry would be like very cheap, and the feminine jewelry would be like, too feminine for me. And I’m like, I” have 1000 pieces of jewelry in stock, and I can’t wear a single one.” But I love jewelry, let me go to school and make my own jewelry. So I went to jewelry school. And for me, this is the mindset if the jewelry is good, it will sell. I don’t need the brand name around it. One my friend bought 415 pairs of earrings. And she said to me, “Oh, you don’t have a brand. Why don’t have a brand?” I’m like, “Why need to have a brand?”. She’s like, she was shocked, obviously.
And I’m like, “Ah, okay, Americans need the brand to buy. They can just send the link to the good product.” Okay. Okay, time to make some more money. So yeah, read the book, read online classes, how to start the brand. I’m lucky to be in New York and see all this presentation of sizes, colors and genders. And I never been the one shopping like in Kay Jewelers. So I never need to transfer that toxic mindset to my brand. So I guess why it’s so easy to me because I’m surrounded to people like that. And it comes to me naturally, it’s never was a question to like, do men’s and women’s categories. I’m like, no, doesn’t exist to me or to my community. No, I’m not gonna do it. Why would I do it?
Imara Jones: Yeah, I want to be honest about something. And this is gonna maybe sound strange to people? I hope not. I think that they’ll understand. I mean, one of the things that can happen specifically with luxury brands is that they want to not have a broad racial representation, right? Cuz the idea is that these brands are aspirational. And that in America, aspirational upward mobility is still associated with whiteness, and brands have very much embraced that, specifically jewelry brands, for a really long time.
Al Sandimirova: Even higher end jewelry, Chanel just had the first Black model headlining this, this this… century.
Imara Jones: Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about.
Al Sandimirova: Yeah. All high end brands. Yeah.
Imara Jones: But you didn’t go that route. And I’m wondering why you didn’t go that route?
Al Sandimirova: Um, I guess because for me the goal of the business not to make more money, but to build happy and safe community around my work. For me work is hospice. For the most of the people two thirds of the life, you spend eight hours a day with your community of coworkers. This is more time than to spend with our family and loved ones. I don’t want to take investments from anybody. I do want to sell more and be successful just to show everybody big fuck you, but I don’t want to do it to be on a yacht or to be with the 20 Chanel bags.
So what, all my coworkers are happy, and I can buy them donut and they can buy me Chanel perfume as a gift, which they did last week. It’s so nice. They bought me perfume as a gift. Like “Yeah, I’m gonna pay good money so you can buy me like this expensive perfume, it’s so nice. Thank you.” Yeah, I don’t want to misuse it and just sit on a ton of money myself. Yeah. So the goal is never was just to make more money but to make happy life for myself and people around me, this is my goal, is what I want to do.
Imara Jones: Wow. Wow. That’s really powerful I–
Al Sandimirova: –I am shocked what it’s powerful to people! why not everybody wants that?
Imara Jones: Because that’s not what a capitalist society tells you, you know, the capitalist society tells you that. For me, what struck me when you were talking is that for you, what’s most valuable about the gold isn’t the gold itself, it’s the values that you put in the gold that allows you to live out the values in a much larger way. Right?
Al Sandimirova: Yeah.
Imara Jones: But for most people, the gold is the value and it’s transactional. And it’s about the money and, and that’s what our economy is built on. And it’s tells people that values aren’t important. Money is the thing that’s most important. And whenever you got to do to make the most money, then that’s what you do. But you’ve made a very conscious decision to not do that, because your values are fundamentally different. And I think that’s why it’s a surprise, because you are succeeding in this environment, even though the way that you are succeeding is not supposed to be.
Al Sandimirova: I see. Yeah.
Imara Jones: I think that’s why it’s shocking. You have said that there’s so many ways in which you feel conflicted being a non-binary business person, because there times in which you are even now, you know, misgendered, when talking to people, understanding that the way that your gender is perceived, is a determinant in whether or not people want to work with you and sometimes having to make choices even now about, “Well, wait, do I correct them on my gender identity? Do I tell them this? Do I tell them that, because it may impact my business.” Again, I think this is a dynamic that a lot of our listeners can relate to. And I’m just wondering if you can just talk about that alittle bit.
Al Sandimirova: If somebody I want to, like buy gold, for example, like big supplier, sometimes don’t fix them right away or fixing more friendly, jokingly matter, or just don’t tell them because survival, the end of the day, and like, making good for my company is more important when like this person who I talked only once or twice, respecting my gender. So I got to make, yeah, choices. And the end of the day the I’m a business owner, I’m live in a good apartment, I have good food. So I’m fine with that. Yeah, whatever. But at the end of the day, I think safety and mental safety is the most important.
Imara Jones: And then you’ve also said the same thing. I also think this is an important thing for people to hear. You’ve also said it as well, about, you know, the times that you decide to take the money. Right?
Al Sandimirova: Yeah.
Imara Jones: Or like, ultimately, I’ve got to find a way to survive, right that me surviving, as the person that I am in this society is the victory. And sometimes that means, you know, it’s okay to take the money.
Al Sandimirova: Yeah, so for me right now, because I have employees, it’s very clear boundary. If I want to buy a good deal of the beyond gold and the person doesn’t respect my pronouns, but it’s going to benefit the 10 employees I have. I’m like, I don’t care. Call me call me, girl. It’s okay. Just give me a good deal on this gold.
Imara Jones: I’m wondering, so you started out Automic Gold with the idea of survival in mind. Then you went from survival to creating your brand because as you said, Americans can’t buy anything without a brand, which is shady, but true. And now, you know, the company has reached a size where you have many employees, it’s growing, it’s established, you’re out of survival mode. What do you think about the future? Sort of when you think about the future of Automic Gold, say, 10-15 years from now? What do you want it to be?
Al Sandimirova: Ah, I have so many dreams. But realistically, in 10 to 15 years, my dream is to take the niche on the market, where I have cute little stores in across America or in every mall. Because right now, Kay Jewelers will sell like hollow gold or silver. Garbage diamonds. I want people to come in any size. And I want to have it in stock. I want to LGBT couple to have and have regarding all style so they can buy an engagement or wedding rings where it’s not just “Oh, you girl, you get a diamond” or “You boy, you get the band.” I’m so excited to design and engagement ring collection next year. Yeah, I’m all about that.
Imara Jones: Well, thank you so much for joining us. Thank you for being so open about your journey and about your struggles and ultimately, your times and what motivates you. I was thrilled to learn about Automic Gold. Now everyone knows where to go when you need an engagement ring. You heard there’s a whole collection coming up next year. So be sure to check them out. And I’m just so glad again to know you, to know about your company, and to thank you.
Al Sandimirova: Thank you so much for having me. Yeah.
Imara Jones: That was Al Sandimirova, the owner of Automic Gold, a trans-owned fine jewelry brand. You can see their selection online at automicgold.com, and automic starts with an “au,” like the chemical symbol for gold on the periodic table for all you science nerds. Again, that’s “a-u-t-o-m-i-c”gold.com.
Thank you for joining me on the TransLash podcast. Now listen all the way through to the end of the show or something extra. I’m Imara Jones.
If you enjoyed today’s show and are looking for other trans-owned businesses to support this holiday season, TransLash is highlighting even more creators in our monthly WNYC program Lives at Stake. You can live stream that the same day as this episode, December 17 or find it online afterwards. You also can visit translash.org and click on our Shop Trans for the Holidays link where we list even more trans, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming small businesses. Please go to Apple podcasts to rate and review our show, that really helps us out. You can find TransLash on Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Check us out on the web at translash.org to sign up for our weekly newsletter. You can also follow us on Twitter and Instagram at translashmedia. Like us on Facebook and tell your friends! TransLash podcast is produced by TransLash Media by Futuro Studios. The TransLash team includes Oliver-Ash Kleine, Montana Thomas, Tyler Wilson, Ruby Fludzinski and Yannick Eike Mirko, and the Futuro Studios team includes Nicole Rothwell, Jess Alvarenga, Stephanie Lebow, Julia Caruso, Leah Shaw, Elisheba Ittoop, Rosanna combine and Gabriella Baez. Our digital strategy is handled by Daniela Capistrano with support from Agency of Joy. The music you heard was composed by Ben Draghi and also courtesy of ZZK Records.
Hey TransLash fam, what I’m looking forward to this week is the launch of my new website, imarajones.com. Go to imarajones.com, we’ve been working on it forever. So excited for you to see the photos there that were taken by the amazing, Richie Shazam. And you can also see all of the other people that are behind some of the looks that I have like Busayo, this fashion brand that keeps a Nigerian textile-making process alive that’s ancient there, style the clothes. So there’s so many reasons to go there. Go to imarajones.com. Look at all of the things there, sign up for our newsletter, because we’re going to have an Imara Jones newsletter, too. So that’s what I’m excited about. Thanks for listening.
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Looking for more reading, rare-finds, and resources? Head on over to the Second Annual TransLash Holiday Survival Guide Zine for things like poetry, art, and wellness tips, and check out the Trans-owned Small Business Directory for a variety of shops to buy from ranging from art to hair products and more.