Prizm News / March 25, 2019 / By Troy Anthony Harris

Writer Troy Anthony Harris (Left) sits with Mozaic Community Engagement Coordinator Sile “Luster” Singleton (Right) for an intimate Q&A.

Her name is Sile. AKA Luster De La Virgion. AKA Lustivius De La Virgione…

By Troy Anthony Harris

Luster is a trailblazer and leader who accepts she, him, and they/their/them pronouns. More specifically, Luster is a trans-masculine activist destined to give us new insight and awareness into why “Trans Lives Matter.” She’s a TedX speaker. He’s a Drag King performer who’s founded a Drag King traveling show and community experience. She likes getting her eyes done up, while he breaks new ground on outreach for the gender-non-conforming population. And very appropriately, they will be honored this week at Equality Ohio’s Annual Advocates and Allies awards program, celebrated as Advocate of The Year. We’re talking about one human, one person who’s had significant impact on capitalizing the “T” in LGBT.

I was introduced to and grew to know her as Sile Singleton, an ambitious and focused advocate for our Central Ohio non-profit community, always thirsty for knowledge and building relationships within that community for impact. I share with Sile a passion for the arts of our black brothers, sisters and genderqueer artists. Together we have commiserated over new ideals for bringing our community together, while helping each other overcome our own life obstacles to live with the passion we want to bring into the world. Sile is an artist and inspiration, a debutante and a muse, a friend and a colleague. Sile makes each day just a little bit brighter. 

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While she’s difficult to “nail down” for longer than 5 minutes, I was honored to share some quality one-on-one time with her in her new home, Equitas Health, in the Mozaic Center for transgender, gender non-conforming and gender non-binary guests.

Photo by Emma Parker

For the record, would you like to state your name as you’d like it reported? 

AKA Luster, AKA Lustivious de la Virgion, AKA Sile P, AKA “Hey Girl!” 

What pronouns do you use?

Currently, I’m using he/they/she. My friends say “all of them.” I’m okay with “whatever you see is fine by me”. If you have a difficulty between he or she, then just use ”they.”  

The more you use non-binary pronouns, the easier it gets. 

Where were you born?

I was born in Zanesville, Ohio. Southeastern Ohio, about 55 miles East of here, on the Ohio River. I consider myself Appalachian. From the river, I’m river country people. We moved around a lot, mainly in Ohio and Pennsylvania. My father was working for a shoe company that was bought out by Sears, and he was a manager – which was good for a black man at the time. However, he was not in a position in which he could say “I do not want to move my children and my wife,” so we would move whenever the store wanted us to move. I graduated from Zanesville High School, but also went to West Muskingum High School and one other.

I’ve always known you as Sile Singleton, particularly when you were a part of the United Way of Central Ohio Pride Leadership program, a training program to teach LGBT community leaders to become non-profit board members…

So my birth name, the name my parents put on the birth certificate is Sheila. In my early 20s, I was into spirituality. I claim a Christian identity, but I lay claim and am interested in all types of faiths, all things spiritual. Next I got into numerology, and representation of letters and words. A friend came back from the United Kingdom, and spent some time in Ireland, and when I saw her she spelled my name “S-I-L-E.” The minute that I saw it, something resonated with me.

For me, it did not represent something either male or female. I didn’t have the words then, but it represented something neutral. When I did the vibration work over that name, it brought up for me where I saw myself, and where I wanted to be in the trajectory of my life. You may call it “psychosomatic”, but there is something that resonates or vibrates when someone says your name, it is heard and comes back to you, with all the essence of who you are and who you want to be. So with the SILE doors opened for me. One of the reasons that I’m okay with people calling me “Sheila” is because I see it as SILE, and I know that they are referring to me as THAT multi-layered person. I came out as transgender sometime between 1992-94.

So you consider yourself Transgender?

I do consider myself Transgender. Actually NOW, now that we have the language, I consider myself gender non-conforming. I make jokes about myself being the queerest queer. I originally claimed a transgender identity because when I worked for Ohio State, they only had a GLB office. James Byrd had been killed down South, and we also had the Matthew Shepard story happening. James Byrd was a black man in the South.

We hear coded things when people talk about us, so for me there were some coded conversations around James Byrd that made me feel that he may have been somewhat effeminate: He was into choir, into music, everybody loved him, he was a ladies’ man that never seemed to have a lady, these kind of things. One night, James made an ill-fated decision to get in a car with some guys who ended up chaining him to the back of a car and dragging him off. Not long after, we had Matthew Shepard. So as I sit and digest this, I don’t understand why the whole world came alive for Matthew Shepard, but this black man who’d been drug down a road didn’t get the same [recognition]. It made me think about us not having the “T” in the GLB office, so I went to my boss and asked her why. She said the basic answer is that no one has come to us, to say that they need transgender support. So I took that home and came back the next day.

[Sile talks about how at the time, the office was called Student Sexuality Services and this was before the Multicultural Center of Ohio State.] 

Photo by Emma Parker

I met you when you were in Pride Leadership with United Way. How did your path lead to that?

I saw an opportunity, and my boss at the time, Willa Young, asked me to take advantage of it. She was the boss that I had that said we could add the “T” to GLB, and she was advising me to connect to the community. So at that time, I became a transgender advocate. I was doing [performance work with] The Kings, and so it all culminated together. By the time that I actually started Pride Leadership, I had [begun working] at Alvis House. Alvis House was an interesting place because 85% of the [participating] youth identified as GLBT, but they didn’t get very much. We needed more at Alvis House: more leadership, more training, more staff and so I saw this opportunity to make a case for myself to represent Alvis, [an organization that] saw itself as being progressive, even though it’s supported by [faith-based initiatives]. I saw it as an opportunity to connect Alvis with other opportunities. So I started working on my totem, and…

Wait a minute…What’s a “totem?” 

A totem is an indigenous practice of finding your spiritual guides. A person that I knew who was very involved with her community and her tribal community [shared with me] an opportunity to participate in her group’s “pow-wows” [a “coming together” of community in indigenous cultures]. To heal our relationships with indigenous people, I asked to attend those events and learn more about the culture. Participating in that ritual led me to believe that [with Pride Leadership] there we could stack the deck, to build the community resources with greater diversity. This what made me want to participate in Pride Leadership. 

Was it a good experience for you?

Yes, of course. I learned a lot and still draw on much of the experience I had there. I didn’t really end up on a board, but my strong suit is not sitting around and talking. It is not easy to find a “working board,” and I wanted to be more than a figure head. I am a hands-on [administrator] and I want to be on the front lines, asking “how do we make this work,” “what do we need to do or say to talk about [how to solve a non-profit problem].” So when I talk about the experience of the totem, the spirit-animal that came through for me was the spider. A spider builds these webs that connect things together that otherwise wouldn’t’ be connected.  That’s what I wanted to be. People with this spirit are gifted with making the connections.

What do you think YOUR best gift is?

 I am a visionary. I see myself as a little bridge. I speak a lot of languages – I can sit with the VP of Student Affairs and speak that language and also go hang on the corner and talk to folks on the outside, and see how to connect those populations. One of my gifts is figuring out a way when people tell me there’s “NO WAY.” I have a gift for making the impossible possible.

Do you have another example of that? 

Well, one of the projects I’m really proud of is our Rainbow graduation. We are now actually able to give diverse students scholarships, and it was a need that at the time was not much talked about or regarded, but came out of my tenure with the University. We now do a National Coming Out event, and I think they are still weaving in the practice to have a little news spot on the steps where the President’s Hall sits to celebrate National Coming Out Day. Someone hesitated to assist us, saying that it probably wouldn’t be appropriate, but we persevered and actually marched to the President’s office, and lo and behold, President [Gee] came down and celebrated with us. http://mcc.osu.edu/events-and-programs/graduation-and-recognition-celebrations/lgbtq-rainbow-celebration-and-graduation/

I’m also proud of the developmental work I did leading the International Drag King Community Extravaganza. https://idkeconference.wordpress.com/about-2/history/

We who wanted to develop this community of drag kings were told that the “queens” of the performance world would never [cede] the stage to us. We were told that we would never be accepted in those circles or that this community of drag king impersonators would never be regarded in the same caliber as drag queens. 

Well, we did!  

We’ve now developed scholarly articles, films and other large projects that formed a 4 day festival, which we’ve now taken to Austin, Minneapolis, Vancouver and Winnipeg [Canada]. No one would have imagined that we would eventually bring over 400, over 500, sometimes over 700 people into these towns around this notion of gender and female masculinity. 

What is your definition of gender non-conforming? 

Gender non-conforming to me is “I really just don’t fit” into categories or definitions of male, female, or even transgender. For many people, transgender is a male who wants to be a female, or female who wants to be male. For me, I’m not pre-op, or post-op, and I don’t take hormones. What I do know is that I’m not your everyday girl. I’m not a lesbian. Now I claim a lesbian identity because it’s all that we have.

I would say that I’m a lesbian politically. I really could “get down” with lesbian focused, feminist politics. Those resonate with me. Lesbian politics, women’s studies, those are the things that gave me room to be who I want to be. I am a feminist with the best of them. Even though I claim a trans-masculine identity. For me, those are two different things. 

My gender does not determine my politics. Because my gender identity is trans-masculine, it does not mean that I lose the ability to be a feminist. I have two degrees in women’s studies, undergraduate and graduate, and someone has suggested that I need to give those up, or back. Because of my gender identity, I really feel like I’m somewhere in the middle. Growing up, people would call me a tomboy, and since then I struggle with people looking at me [through the lens] of male or female. So when I started performing as a drag queen…

Drag queen?? I thought you were about being a Drag King? 

Well, Luster is a drag queen. During my last few years of performance, I have come to the stage as Lustivius de la Virgione. I come out on the stage as Luster, but I play with the fact that Luster and Lustivius are sister and brother. My extensive performances with these two characters would help other performers [within the show] prepare for their next acts. Working the stage between these two characters would mess a lot with my own head, because I was working out coming to terms with these identities within myself. I’m a shape-shifter, and I believe that we as African Americans are really capable of that, especially if you work in the fields of academia. This is also true for those in the queer community. You have to get up and put something on to enable yourself to exist in the master’s language, and then become something different, more yourself, when you come home. That’s the life of a marginalized person…. 

I do this great piece where I come out on stage, very thankful to the audience for supporting our shows and our work, and I make an announcement that “you [the audience] will never see me and my sister on stage at the same time. Well, that’s because I did not think that you would accept me. My sister is not Lustivius. Lustivius is me.” People were blown away by that. Lustivius doesn’t even really exist but for Luster coming out on stage. Lustivius cannot happen without Luster, because Lustivius is Luster’s drag queen. This all helps define me.

Someone the other day said that I was a gay man with lady bits. {Laughter between us.} I didn’t know that my performance life would go this way, even though I was always enamored with Flip Wilson and his Geraldine character, and other male performers who had a female identity. What it brought up for me as trans-masculine is that it is okay to express my male side, or male character, who also liked to dress it up and do things like put on eyelashes. That’s big for me, because I LOVE, I LOVE getting my eyes done and wearing something glittery. So it became a matter of thinking that, well, if I’m a girl then I can’t like boy things, and if I’m a boy I can’t possibly like these girly things. That didn’t work for me. 

Photo by Emma Parker

Let’s talk about Mozaic. What’s your title? 

It was Outreach, but now I’m Community Engagement Coordinator. 

Mozaic Center officially opened when? 

We opened October of 2018 [http://equitashealth.com/community-programs/mozaic/

How’s it going? 

We will celebrate 6 months next month. We are just beginning to start to see the fruits of our labor. Who knew that there would be challenges finding this space? Who knew that we would have to do more education of our community to get them ready to help us? It’s been a huge learning curve, but what we realize is our grant is specific to 13-29 year old people of color who also identify as transgender, gender non-conforming and gender non-binary.

These terms are new. For communities of color, particularly in the Midwest, this is a 10-15 year conversation. We’ve been having these conversations on the [coasts of the country] for decades. Here in the Midwest, it’s taken this long to get here. We need to educate, educate, educate. Our own community has only looked at transgender community as drag queens, entertainment and great fundraisers. There’s nothing about the rest of our lives, our engagement is reduced to that. The lives of transgender people have been treated as though it is purely a sexual identity. And it’s more than that, far more. 

What we learn is that gender is of the mind, and sexuality is of the groin area…is that a simple explanation? 

Someone, somewhere once said that you have to match your male sexuality with your mind’s gender definition. Masculinity and femininity have had these very strict and rigid definitions, even though with males, there are plenty of examples of men who wore dresses, had soft hands and were considered more genteel. We have to disrupt those definitions. For many men, the more “cultured” they were, the better.

Let’s talk about the success of Mozaic.. 

Well, just yesterday, we had a guest who was a 70-year-old trans woman. She transitioned in the late 60’s with Cleveland Clinic and then New York. Her whole family supported her, and she shared with our community how she was unapologetically herself. We’re going to have her come back and talk to people because she offers another story. That not all transgender stories are stories of despair and isolation. These are stories that provide hope. When parents are dealing with a child who comes out as transgender, the initial feelings are around fear of what others will think and how others will act toward your child. You just want to take that fear away. So we’re building a community [with Mozaic] to help alleviate those fears and show that there is support.

We also want to make this about our wrap around services. We want to deal with the whole person. Many who are TG/NGC/NGB want to know: how do I relax?? How do I unwind?? How do I let go?? And they need spaces to figure those things out with others who are like them, and that’s the space we provide here. Helping them get jobs, get clothing, as well as provide the grant funded health services that we’re charged with providing. 

In April, we’re going to have the discussion “So You Think You Want to Transition?” Counselors and clients will come the third Tuesday of each month to hold these open dialogues. There’s so much that goes into transitioning and we want informed engagement to explain all those different facets. 

So where will Luster be in 5 years? 

I see Mozaic definitely building and expanding to start addressing homelessness with the TG/NGC/NGB community, and opening a series of houses to accommodate this need. I see myself being a leader or coordinator of these types of housing environments. I would like to be a Director of the program that is running the homes. My mantra would be as you’re living in this house, you’re learning how to develop a house of your own. I don’t see myself in a corporate environment. I want to be able to support programs like this.

You’re getting an award this week. What’s that about? 

It’s an award for advocacy. They give an award each year to someone that does exemplary work as either an advocate or an ally. This year, I was blessed and impressed to be receiving the award for being an advocate.

What makes you exemplary?   

I think that I’m tireless. I’ve just been tireless since I stepped foot on this journey, ever since I walked off the curb into that first Stonewall march. I stepped off that curb with the ideal that I didn’t want my nieces and nephews to ever think that they couldn’t be proud of me or think I wasn’t proud of myself. I’m an advocate because I’m willing to make myself vulnerable, and to put myself in spaces to say “hey, we exist.”