Samantha Maria Rivera-Fotos — AKA Sa’Mantha SayTen (they/she) — takes every opportunity she can to engage in public conversation about diversity, equity, and inclusion; in fact she’s known for doing so even in the middle of her disruptive drag performances.
SayTen, a Latiné non-binary trans femme artist and activist, recalls a piece she performed at L’Etage: Sitting in the audience, she wrapped a chain around her leg, crawled onto the stage, and then slowly changed out of an orange jumpsuit into more affirming clothes of a black dress with a slit, a red boa, and high-heeled boots. To illustrate how difficult it is for Queer Trans People Of Color (QTPOC) to be truly seen for whom they are, SayTen returned to the chains, weaving through them every time she removed or put on clothing throughout the show.
“I found my calling to provide professional services to a population that rarely gets to see success and feel good and safe and heard while doing it,” Sa’Mantha SayTen explains.
“Then I sing a ditty at the end,” SayTen laughs. “It was fun to hear the audience go, ‘Woo!’ and throw a dollar at me after I just showed them my pain.”
That laugh, despite the pain she’s describing, is part of SayTen’s entrancing personality, what draws people to her as she draws them into the truth of her community. And, it’s part of a larger mission to increase QTPOC representation on a local scale, in order to promote trans-centric education and activism. “I found my calling to provide professional services to a population that rarely gets to see success and feel good and safe and heard while doing it,” she explains.
SayTen is the founder of SayTen Studios. “For queers, by queers,” SayTen Studios is a queer, antiracist, body- and sex-positive, counterculture movement. Using community donations to subsidize SayTen’s labor and studio costs, she offers low or no-cost services to QTPOC performers, including portraiture, boudoir photography, sex work videography, web tutorials, make-up design, and even occasionally choreography.
“By actively donating, you put money in the pockets of the community and give people an opportunity to achieve a professional media presence by working with someone who looks and talks and shows up just as Brown and queer and trans as them,” SayTen says. SayTen Studios also offers LGBTQ+ literacy training services for companies, like local Gayborhood bars Tabu and Level Up.
In partnership with Forman Arts Initiative, The Citizen spoke to SayTen about her art and mission. A condensed and edited version of the conversation is below.
What made you decide to move to Philly?
I taught at Rowan University in South Jersey for a few years; it was great, but living in a college town (Glassboro, NJ) was very expensive, and it was a very White, cishetero [a heterosexual person whose gender aligns with what they were assigned at birth] space. I felt like I was paying money to tell my story to people who didn’t deserve it, people who were kind of fetishizing my trauma by, like, trying to give me awards, always telling me how great I was. But, where was the money though? Recognition is more than saying “this thing exists.” You also have to support it. You have to make sure that it’s protected, that it’s thriving. Until you do that, you’re not actually doing anything.
I knew I wanted to expand my photography business, and I was desperately seeking a family of queer friends. I got a job at Penn, moved to University City, and fell in love with West Philly. I remember the first day moving in, hauling furniture, and me and my roommate saw a queer couple holding hands and we were just like, “aww!”
Can you describe SayTen studios and its role in the queer community?
SayTen Studio is perpetually in conversation with the anti-racist, sex working, neurodivergent, queer-as-fuck reality that is my life. QTPOC aren’t a population that thrives in terms of survival, but we do thrive in terms of creating art. And I think my part in that reality is to try my best to disrupt it by increasing representation — specifically, very professional media — of QTPOC so that we stand a fighting chance in an economy dominated by White supremacy and cishetero normativity. I actively engage in trauma-informed practices, something most photographers cannot offer — so my clients and models leave having been cared for, not just served.
What I love is that we are not creating art for anyone but ourselves and for our community, using our language to describe who we are. Because otherwise we’d be leaving it to, you know, the lovely Laverne Cox’s, the folks at Pose. But we wouldn’t really see representation on a local scale.
Like, what queer trans performer of color is going to be like, “yeah, I can drop $250 [for studio time] every few months?” We can’t do that. Clients come to the studio and see giant lights, giant diffusers, backdrops, chains hanging down from things. It’s just so good to see a bunch of Black and Brown people walk into a space and say, “I have never experienced something this high quality. And it’s me, it’s my body.”
I’m very grateful to have helped so many queer clients develop an archive that they can use to access euphoria whenever they want. It’s a very powerful thing — to share your vulnerability with yourself and with others is dope.
It seems to me that your work as a performer and activist are one and the same — take your performance in which there’s a call and response between the lyrics and sound clips about police brutality.
Activism and public conversation about the pain my community suffers is very important to my performance art. When we put queer people of color on a stage that fails to address and actively combat racism, it leads to financial and sexual abuse. It’s violent.
I tend to do that particular number for White crowds. Trans performers are taught to pigeonhole ourselves, to do a bunch of top forties and TikTok movements to appease a White crowd. It’s not very affirming as a transfeminine person of color.
I’ve had plenty of people say that my performances changed the way that they looked at performing in the drag scene. They say that it needs to be felt by more people, that if more people sat with trans POC narratives, perhaps more QTPOC will experience representation and non-QTPOC folks will be taught how to show up and how not to show up for us.
Those are the performances that really defined, I think, my stint with drag. I don’t really do a lot of drag anymore. It did not feel great to put on a wig. It felt like I was performing “woman” for people who were there to laugh at me and to ogle and to be entertained. And I would much prefer being in a conversation with an audience, sharing an experience with an audience.
In your podcast interview with SJP (South Jersey Philly/ Southern Jawn Productions), you mention advocating for pay equity and inspiring other drag show producers to do the same.
Equity is a fickle thing for trans people of color. We all have stories about losing opportunity, about not being seen or heard, about experiencing abuse and neglect and ridicule.
I’ll give you an example. My friend Parris pioneered this movement of advocating for all trans shows. We started at Stir Lounge, a tiny little dive bar, tiny space, awful lights, awful sound. I got tripods and lights into this tiny little space, I was photographing, videographing, doing stuff that was just impossible for the venue. The show was so successful to the point that we were asked to bring this show to different venues, like Tabu.
We moved to Tabu and started Gender Blender, which was a dance party that celebrates trans bodies. And we did it for a while, until we realized that advertising for ourselves, meant advertising to chasers, advertising to people who would like to abuse us. We experienced a significant amount of anti-trans hate from people within our community. We experienced sexual assault, we experienced neglect … it just broke me.
I was just like, “I’m not doing any of this. I’m not doing this drag shit no more.” We try our hardest to create a space that is safe for our audience members, and we can’t even ensure safety for ourselves. So it was just too much for me.
My life is riddled with these stories. The lives of trans people are riddled with these stories. My friends are constantly being fired from drag gigs, for dumb reasons made up by White bar owners who don’t even go to their shows. All they do is look at numbers, they don’t think about community or how their space can be used to create a larger narrative of advocacy.
Do you ever experience burnout? How do you celebrate yourself and recharge?
Burnout has a very familiar face. As a neurodiverse human who experiences chronic trauma, my body is rarely able to keep up with my intentions due to pain, fatigue and dissociation. I theorize that trans people experience chronic pain and fatigue and psychological injury at high rates because we exist so long outside of ourselves, outside of our given bodies as a means to cope and survive through dysphoria and bigotry and abuse. The micro-aggressive day-to-day matched with experiences with inequities all contribute to trans exhaustion — that is, the fatigue we feel after having experienced a prolonged occurrence of trauma. Not existing authentically and presently in your body as a means for survival is traumatic and we have very little in place to support our survival.
I am convinced a significant portion of the trans population is suffering from chronic post-traumatic stress disorder from existing so long outside of ourselves as a means of survival. And the more research we have on the disorder, the more we will be able to serve the queer community.
Until then, we find solace in all trans and POC spaces absent of the cis and White. When we have each other, we have a means for survival, we have a way to recharge so we can bear the next day.
What’s your favorite drink? Where’s the best place in Philly to get it?
There is a single Black and queer-owned gay bar in Philadelphia, just one: Level Up on 13th and Walnut [1330 Walnut Street]. You’ll often find me there, slinging a camera or shaking my ass, often with a drink in hand. They have a wonderful drink called Liquid Marijuana that is truly lovely.
What are you excited about right now?
My drag daughter Beary Tyler Moore is renovating this gutted coffee shop underneath their home into a new venue, the Painted Mug Cafe. They’re pouring their heart into collecting a significant amount of people to do labor to create a space that is for queer folks, designed by queer folks. They’re trying to get a [wheelchair] ramp because, what queer safe bar has a ramp? So that’s a fantastic opportunity for outreach.
This story is part of a partnership between The Philadelphia Citizen and Forman Arts Initiative to highlight creatives in every neighborhood in Philadelphia. It will run on both The Citizen and FAI’s websites. The writer, Morgan Nitz (she/they), is a queer interdisciplinary artist and writer in Philly, and the operations & development editor of Philly Artblog. Their work has been shown at The Institute of Contemporary Art, Vox Populi, Pilot Projects, and other venues; they completed a residency at Jasper Studios; and were the co-inaugural curator of Straw, Tyler School of Art’s AV-closet-turned-Alumni-gallery. Follow them at morgannitz.com | @son_of_m.a.n
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Sa'Mantha SayTen, Courtesy of Sa'Mantha SayTen. Photo by SinnStax