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Jonathan Van Ness marks two years living in Austin, talks trans rights at SXSW

Jonathan Van Ness does not consider himself a new Austinite. 

“I actually passed my two-year anniversary,” the star of the Emmy Award-winning reality TV show “Queer Eye” said on Monday. Van Ness had just finished a meet-and-greet at a salon pop-up promoting his new hair care line, JVN, during the South by Southwest Festival and Conference. A diverse group of fans, including a few young children, beamed and blushed as the Netflix show’s hair specialist took a few moments with each of them, tossing their tresses and trying to forge real connections between strangers. 

Van Ness moved to town to film the Austin edition of “Queer Eye” in the first week of March 2020. When production shut down five days in, he decided to stay.

“The city is so green and so beautiful. I just fell in love with it,” he said. 

Then there were the cats.

“I didn't want to get four cats on a plane and fly back to New York City in March 2020,” he said. Austin offered more space for his feline crew (the colony has grown to five in his time here) plus a proper garden for his British husband, Mark Peacock. Van Ness spent his pandemic in his husband’s garden where he found himself delighted to experience every fruit and vegetable’s “flower moment” and suddenly obsessed with insects.  

Read more:How 'Queer Eye' star Jonathan Van Ness became an art champion in Austin

Texas bugs inspired him to launch his new Netflix series, “Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness,” with an episode about insects. His wonder continues to grow. (His popular podcast of the same name continues as well.)

“I found this tarantula outside molting in my front doorway, obviously, so many scorpions,” he said. “I really have gotten so much more respect for nature since moving to Austin.”

‘Republicans are scapegoating, trans and gender non-conforming people’

But Van Ness, who is nonbinary, also arrived at a turbulent moment in Texas politics

During a featured interview with author and multimedia artist ALOK earlier in the day, Van Ness called a new order from Gov. Greg Abbott that calls on the state child welfare agency to investigate reports of "gender-transitioning procedures" as child abuse “a stunning example of governmental overreach and an example that democracy is under threat in various parts of the United States.”

To shift focus from other issues, “Republicans are scapegoating, trans and gender non-conforming people,” Van Ness said.

“Those vulnerable populations in our country are being used as political cheap shots for financial gain,” said ALOK, who also is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns. ALOK said it was painful to see fights over transgender children take focus from “the biggest issues of our times, climate apocalypse, housing evictions, a global pandemic.”

“Trans people have been blowing this whistle for centuries, saying, ‘Actually notice what's happening. You're more concerned about things that have nothing, no real bearing on your life than things that do,’” ALOK said. “And this is an organized strategy that conservatives have been doing for a long time. And we know how dangerous it is.” 

They are “essentially, lying to the entire public about a threat on tradition that has never existed and existence of a gender binary that has never been, historically, our accurate truth,” Van Ness said. 

Read:SXSW condemns Gov. Greg Abbott order to treat transgender care as child abuse

“We all really must remain vigilant,” he added, noting that while transgender and nonbinary public figures feel enormous pressure to speak on these issues, “the silence of our cisgender allies is deafening.” 

He implored allies as well as beauty brands “to make this a more center issue in your fight, your existence: to elevate trans equality, LGBTQI plus liberation, and also equity for everyone in the United States.”

He reminded the crowd that transgender rights are human rights. 

“You shouldn't have to change who you are to be safe and to be loved,” he said. 

Other actors and artists, including Jamie Lee Curtis, Lee Pace and Lizzo, have spoken in support of transgender rights while appearing at SXSW this year.

ALOK, right, gives Jonathan Van Ness a hug on stage before they sit down for their featured session Monday during Southwest at the JW Marriott Austin. Van Ness, widely known for the Netflix reboot series "Queer Eye," and ALOK, mixed media artist, performer and activist, discussed identity, belonging and changes in the beauty industry.

‘They’ve mined us as mood boards’

From a young age, Van Ness felt called to express himself in ways that broke traditional gender rules. He wanted to do his hair, his cousin’s hair.  

“I wanted to dress up, I wanted to put on gowns,” he said. 

When he began working as a stylist, he learned that even within the beauty industry, breaking those boundaries was not welcome.

“I didn't see anyone like me celebrated. Within the beauty industry, it's always been this sea of same,” he said. 

More at SXSW:Jonathan Van Ness of Netflix's 'Queer Eye' hosts JVN come as you are pop up salon

“Gender non-conforming people have always been the originators of so much industry fashion culture,” ALOK said. “Our aesthetics make it. Our ideas make it. We're the hairstylists on the set, but we're never seen as the actual beauty. So our labor goes into creating beauty that everyone else gets access to. But we're told that we're ugly. And I've always thought that that was so perverse.”

Jonathan Van Ness, from left, Ava Qureshi, Isabella Paez and Ray Qureshi take a photo during a meet and greet at Van Ness' pop up salon at South by Southwest titled 'JVN Come As You Are' Tour Monday, March 14, 2022.

ALOK called Van Ness’ position as “a gender non-conforming person taking up space” in the beauty industry “a role reversal” that makes people uncomfortable. 

“For so long, they've mined us as the mood boards, and never actually seen us as leaders,” they said. 

Van Ness’ stature could be world-changing for nonbinary young people, ALOK said. As a young person they felt they were not “feminine enough to be a woman, but not masculine enough to be a boy.”

“When you and I were growing up, there was no vocabulary around this stuff,” they said. 

The history of gender non-conforming people is as old as time, but it has largely been buried. 

Van Ness described the understanding that “there's generations and generations that have come before us” as empowering. 

“There is a concerted effort to disappear people like us, and in spite of all of that we are here,” he said.

Queer joy is 'precious and sacred'

ALOK believes the violence against gender non-conforming people has as much to do with joy as it does gender. “I want to be glamorous. I don’t just want to be visible. I want to be flamboyant. I want to be all the things that you think are excessive,” they said. 

In the face of so much pain and discrimination, “I've been really thinking a lot about how precious and sacred queer joy is,” they said, adding, “they may take away our rights, they may take away our safety, but they can't take our (expletive) joy.”

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In two weeks, Van Ness turns 35. At the salon, he said his life has come into alignment with his childhood vision of himself, “like the little 4- and 5- and 6-year-old that was obsessed with big hair and wanted to wear evening gowns and was just really flamboyant and really loud.”

Even in this difficult political moment, Van Ness said gratitude defines his life. 

Van Ness is a survivor of sexual abuse. He survived meth addiction. He is thriving while living with HIV. "All of those things are things that have allowed me to be really grateful and hyper present,” he said.  

“I don't want to waste any of my life not being who I am.”