Kaiya Kramer at KBBF's studios, where she broadcasts conversation, music and news about transgender issues to a rural, billingual audience weekly. (Photo: Jeffery Newbury)
When Kaiya Kramer, host of The Queer Life radio show on KBBF-FM, uses the word "awesome," she actually means it.
“I am in awe,” she tells on-air guest Shanna Butler, referring to the Sonoma County psychotherapist's work with LGBTQ communities. “The word 'awesome' totally is appropriate.”
It’s the kind of subtle-but-witty cliché-buster that I hear repeatedly from Kramer, who continuously re-evaluates and subverts those pesky things called words. From a muggy, shed-sized recording studio in KBBF’s Santa Rosa headquarters, the 25-year-old transgender woman turns a simple observation about the weather into a Game of Thrones reference (“winter is coming”); discusses the pejorative history and subsequent reclamation of the label “queer;” opines that pansexual “sounds like you’re worshipping the god Pan;” and leads a nuanced conversation about the term cisgender.
“Terminology and labels do change over time, as does language,” she says at one point.
Kramer's voice is probably new for some of KBBF's listenership, which Director of Programming Josué López characterizes as primarily conservative, both socially and religiously. Broadcast from an antenna atop Mt. St. Helena, KBBF reaches 18 Northern California counties, including parts of the rural, right-leaning Central Valley between Chico and Lodi.
But despite often-heavy subject matter (police brutality; hate crimes; Indiana) it’s also a weekly dose of Kramer’s unflinching humor, full of Family Guy clips, cat science, well-placed drum rolls and sarcastic slow claps. And it's a forum for new music from artists like Yui Karlberg, Alyssa Hailey and Aristo, making for an eclectic mix of echoing-vocals-and-ambient synths, unapologetically Top 40-style pop and made-for-the-dance floor crescendos -- all of it, as Kramer says, "turned up to 11."
In other words, it’s a weekly dose of Kramer herself, who, on this particular Friday evening, wears a casual combo of jeans, flip-flops and a tank-top. When on air, she navigates the mixing board with second nature-speed and (even after her guest has left) gesticulates like she’s conversing over coffee — not addressing listeners she can’t see.
When we speak after the show, Kramer clarifies that she does, in fact, view it as a conversation. And she doesn’t want her voice to dominate.
“It’s not just about me; it’s not just about LGBT; it’s not just about trans people,” she says. “It’s about cisgender people, straight people, gay people, lesbian people. It’s about all of us understanding each other.”
Still, she acknowledges that her perspective, that of trans woman of color (she's Thai) is both important and, too often, excluded.
If you have access to the Internet, cable, the grid or, hell, a neighbor with a solar-powered generator, you probably know about Caitlyn Jenner’s Twitter-breaking Vanity Fair debut earlier this month. But despite Jenner’s high-profile revelation; despite the president’s first-ever inclusion of the word “transgender” in a State of the Union address last January, and even despite Orange is the New Black and the incredible Laverne Cox, transgender women and men still lack a statistically representative media voice. One of Kramer’s "drum rolls" on the night I sit in responds to the fact that a trans actress (Jamie Clayton) was cast to play a trans character (Nomi Marks) on Netflix original Sense8— a still-rare occurrence in Hollywood, where cis men usually take such roles.
And that’s hardly the most urgent issue facing the trans community. Transgender men and women make up about .3 percent of the U.S. adult population, according to the most frequently cited numbers. More than half experience serious discrimination, from job loss to eviction, sexual assault and incarceration, according to another study. Latino, black, multi-racial and American Indian trans people report higher rates of those same life-changing acts. And all of that info comes from small samples; because large, publicly funded surveys are still check-the-box binary, good national data just doesn’t exist.
Meanwhile, somewhere around 40 percent of the trans population reports at least one suicide attempt (nine times the national average). According to Kramer, that number is higher locally.
During her show, she shares a figure from her support group, made up exclusively of transgender people from the North Bay.
“Of 138 people polled and asked, 'Have you attempted suicide?' It was 70 percent,” she says.
Rachel Sutter, co-facilitator of Transgender North Bay, says the local percentage is actually around 80 percent, with some attempts stretching back to early childhood. A transgender woman herself, Sutter says she tried to kill herself when she was only seven.
For Kramer, that devastating reality frames The Queer Life, despite its lighter side (and dramatic house music segues). She brings it up again on the Tuesday following her show, sitting around a conference table with López and Bilingual Broadcasting Foundation Vice President David Janda.
I’ve asked the three of them about their vision for KBBF, and how Kramer’s show fits in.
“I'm trying to make it conversational and informational and educational," she says. "And I want it to happen in a subversive way, like if someone's talking and they're like 'Oh, Caitlyn Jenner, did you about that? Wow he looks...' You know, misgendering and stuff like that, I want somebody to be like 'Oh, I heard on the radio that [a lot of] transgender people commit suicide.' I want this to be a small domino effect, planting the seed of understanding in the listeners' minds."
According to López, KBBF's bilingual reach makes it the perfect platform for this kind of matter-of-fact subversion.
“As a Spanish-speaking, bilingual, immigrant — all of that stuff — community, we don’t get too much exposure to this particular world,” he says. “Kaiya’s at the forefront of this change that’s happening, and it’s amazing.”
And Janda, who recruited Kramer for The Queer Life when she was just a station volunteer answering phones, adds that he already sees changes percolating throughout KBBF’s listenership.
The station, founded by activists and students in 1973, has remained a voice for Santa Rosa’s Latino community over the last four decades. But through its new location, tucked between the local carpenters' labor center and the freeway in the largely Latino, unincorporated neighborhood of Roseland, Janda says the conference room where we sit has become a kind of neighborhood living room. People drop off veggies to share, kids hang out after school and local gatherings take place (Board President Alicia Sánchez later tells me she once turned down a request to hold a wake here, coffin and all). Overall, Janda says that he’s seeing the community gravitate toward more movement-building and activism. Part of the reason: A black-framed photo that greets KBBF visitors as they walk in the door. The photo memorializes Andy Lopez, an unarmed 13-year-old Cook Middle School student shot and killed by a Sonoma County Sheriff's deputy in 2013 while holding a toy gun.
"I really think a sleeping giant in Sonoma County has awaken, and I don't think its going back to sleep any time soon," he says, describing a collection of forums and roundtable discussions the station hosted soon after Lopez was killed. After hearing story after story about racial profiling and police brutality, Janda says he's watched the community organize. And though Kramer's show illuminates voices that have historically been marginalized due to their gender and/or sexual identity (sometimes along with their language or race), Janda sees it as a continuation of KBBF's social justice work.
“There was a long time when the station just became a jukebox,” he says. “But in recent years folks like Kaiya and Edgar [Avila, host of The Broken Record Show] and others are not just cultivating a culture of service receivers, but are empowering a culture of activism.”
Of course, as Kramer explores on Friday night, not everyone feels the same way about trans womens' increasing visibility. Mike Huckabee had some truly hateful things to say earlier this year, and Kramer plays his February speech -- followed, you guessed it, by the appropriate slow clap.
But from that hot broadcast room, so close to the freeway that Janda jokes you can hear it on-air, Kramer answers back.
“This is not a 'social experiment,’” she says, quoting the Republican presidential hopeful. “Trans people have been around since the dawn of man.”