My name is Jami (she/her), and I’m a trans artist blacksmith in rural northern Michigan. Besides ironwork, my resume is a diverse constellation of experiences in traditionally male-dominated spaces. I’ve worked as a carpenter, web designer, programmer, wildland firefighter, landscaper, farmer, chef, and more. I cherish the time I’ve spent dipping my toes into these fascinating worlds, but for as proud as I am to have had these experiences, when I reflect on them, it’s painful to acknowledge the forces which caused me to drift away from each, including blacksmithing. My experience as a blacksmith is in many ways representative of how being unable to articulate and handle those forces caused me to become marginalized by them, and that’s the story I feel I need to share about my time in the blacksmithing community.
Bigoted beliefs about gender identity continue to find fertile soil in the minds of many people. I grew up soaked in these beliefs, so I could literally *only* imagine that my own instincts about my gender were wrong. As a result, I contented myself with self-loathing for most of my life. I know it can be difficult to understand what this is like for someone who has never experienced it, so if you like, you can do me a quick favor. Imagine trying to write with your non-dominant hand. Now imagine you grew up in a society where people with your dominant hand are considered degenerates, lesser-thans, embarrassing aberrations from the natural order of things. That’s a little bit what it was like, being a boy and following boy rules felt so wrong and stressful to me all the time, just like trying to write with your non-dominant hand all the time would be difficult and stressful for you. So I tried to re-train my hands (to continue with the analogy). I made it my mission to transform into the only kind of man I could imagine myself truly loving – a good father. My goal to become “Best Dad” included all of those wonderful skills and experiences I mentioned earlier. But it was a child’s solution to a grown-up problem – an answer found at the crossroads of personal desire and social coercion, smacking of survival instinct more than emotional truth. Yet it continued to inform a lot of my career decisions well into adulthood, and is a big part of what drew me to blacksmithing initially.
In 2013 – many years before beginning to come out as trans – my partner and I moved to Bend, Oregon, and I was fully invested in my goal of becoming a blacksmith. I had read all the library books and watched hours of related YouTube, but I had no idea what I was doing. Sadly, for all my asking around I wasn’t able to get anyone in town to take me on as an apprentice, but I began to pick up a lot of odd-jobs from the local smiths whenever one might need an extra hand, and I was eventually able to compel one of them – Hunter – to let me work with him as an unofficial intern for a few years.
I loved working with Hunter, and many others who I met through him. They were fantastic teachers. They supported me in countless ways, and made all sorts of opportunities available to me. But being in the company of Hunter and the other smiths in town took an enormous mental toll on me. It was exhausting performing masculinity around them. Huge portions of my attention were constantly, relentlessly occupied with policing my behavior to blend in with them, to only middling success. Go back to that non-dominant hand analogy. Imagine the extra effort it would take to write with that hand, and the stress of making sure no one ever knew what you were hiding. The prodigious waste of my time, mental energy, and potential as I strove to be unoffensive in the company of these men, were so many thousands of lost opportunities for me to exercise my creativity, passion, curiosity, and all the things that make me truly valuable.
Crucially, this was not something any of these men were asking me to do, and I believe many of them would be alarmed and saddened to know the stress I was experiencing, but I didn’t see that I had any alternatives. For one, I would never have had access as a trans womxn to the sorts of harassment-free opportunities I found as Hunter’s shadow in the blacksmithing community. The infuriating irony is that I was never able to fully seize the opportunities that being around him brought me into contact with because I was too preoccupied with simply maintaining.
After several years, it was clear my fairy tale vision of how I’d become a successful blacksmith was hopelessly naive. In 2017, my partner and I made the difficult decision to leave Oregon, and eventually ended up moving to a remote bit of old farmland in northern Michigan. I left a great deal behind, including much of my enthusiasm for blacksmithing.
This must be recognized: I was *unbelievably* fortunate to be born a combination of nationality, genitals, and skin color which continue to be valued higher than any other in the world. Even today as an out and proud trans womxn, the relative acceptance I enjoy is built on the immeasurable suffering of trans people of color, whose invulnerable spirits have been forged in the fires of America’s deliberate neglect.
Personal liberty costs social responsibility. If you find yourself in possession of the many freedoms America celebrates, you have the precious opportunity to expand that freedom to include others. Be expansive with your sense of community, and be vigilant in challenging hate and fear inside your community and yourself, no matter how mundane or impressive it appears.
As a coda to this, let me share some joy. The last three years have held an absolute *ton* of personal growth for me, and as I’ve begun to heal my heart and find the courage to be myself, I’ve found that blacksmithing has gradually become a private space for me to explore my feelings artistically again. A friend of mine told me years ago, “Move a muscle, move a thought,” and the forge has become a place to engage my whole self in healing labor.
Blacksmithing has transformed from a source of strife for me into a form of meditation in the same way my self-reflection has through my transition. I hope someday I can rejoin the larger blacksmithing community on more equitable and honest footing, but for now, I’m satisfied with making my work my own, one vulnerability at a time
Forged Elements @fe.ironworks on instagram