T. Khyentse James


T. Khyentse James
formerly Tammy Cresswell

1) Birthdate:


2) Birthplace:

Stoughton, Massachusetts

3) Date you first mark as getting together w/partner:

First LGBT partner 2001.

4) City/state where you live currently:

Chicago, Illinois and Boulder, Colorado

5) Education:

Columbia College (Chicago) Inter-cultural Relations and Filmmaking, 2000
Naropa University, University of Colorado (Boulder), Engaged Buddhism and Business, 2008

6) Careers:

Founder and executive director for the Estrojam Music and Culture Festival [renamed Decibelle Music and Culture Festival in 2008]. Estrojam/Decibelle is an annual 501(c)3 not-for-profit, community-based event that features internationally acclaimed and emerging female musicians and artists, educators, activists, and community leaders. Each year it has dozens of events, including concerts, workshops, panels, and a film festival, all presented at Chicago's best venues.

Estrojam/Decibelle is organized by women and open to all. Each year, it partners with, presents, and benefits powerful women and women's nonprofit organizations for the arts, education, health, social change, human rights, and non-violence.

Estrojam/Decibelle deliberately uses art as a tool for social change by showcasing the most groundbreaking, fearless artists of our time whose work inspires new ways of thinking, breaks downs stereotypes, and strives to eradicate injustice in our communities and around the world. It features women artists, creates positive images for girls, and gives a voice to underrepresented genres, themes, and human beings. Estrojam also advocates for positive media representation and visibility for women.

7) Did you serve in the U.S. military; if so, what years?


8) How do you describe your sexuality and your gender?

I consider myself bi/female.

9) Do you have children and/or grandchildren?


10) If you are GLBT, please describe when you first “knew”:

I thought about experimenting from about age 16. I had a relationship around 20, and that was the beginning of knowing for sure. I had a boyfriend who thought it was cool; he said, "Just don’t get any feelings" and I agreed, but then the feelings came and he got mad. Well, what did he expect, that girls just experiment and can't have real relationships?!? I think that's a general misconception with boys unfortunately.

At the time I was living in a small town in England with this guy in HIS world without any intellectual stimulation and felt stifled. When I met this girl, she introduced me to so many new ideas, music, ways of thinking... that it blew my mind. She was openly gay and any person in their right mind would have a crush on someone who makes you feel so alive and so connected to what speaks to you in the world, regardless of gender...that's where it all began!

11) Who did you first “come out” to and when?

I had several experiences while still just dating men. It wasn't until I moved back to Chicago after two years abroad that I was able to come out. The openly GLBT-supportive community that the city offers was awesome.

12) What troubles did you face as a GLBT person?

Because I was in the city and looked femme, I think it was a lot easier for me. My girlfriends tended to have a more challenging time because they were butch looking. I remember hearing rude butch or lesbian comments directed at them. And definitely when I traveled with my girlfriend I felt very challenged and that I needed to hide my identity.

13) Did you have mentors in the Chicago GLBT community?

Brenda Schumacher was a big mentor for me in the community. Always helping to produce amazing events and was a big supporter of building the queer community. She is actually my biggest mentor in Chicago and has always been so incredible supportive and encouraging with Estrojam. Amazing, smart woman.

Ronit Bezalel from Dyke Diva.com was so strong, supportive, open-minded, and present at all the events early on, and made me feel like I had a place in the community. She and I became very good friends quickly and she is one of my best friends to this day.

The Ladyfest experience (Chicago): I was able to network with so many pioneering women through organizing this event.

The Chicago Kings shows were a wonderful place for the community to come together and network. Heather Chappell was at the forefront of organizing these events; she’s such a strong leader and made everyone feel a part of something great. She welcomed so many women into the shows on-stage and off and gave so many people a place to feel like they had something to identify with. I admire this girl so much, and she has remained a dear friend to me. She also volunteers her time every year to Estrojam. She stage manages for Blue Man Group in Vegas now and makes time to give back to her community in Chicago regardless...WOW. :-)

14) Involvement in organizations (GLBT and/or mainstream):

I am the founder/director of Estrojam/Decibelle, and along with that comes extensive donation of volunteer work and funds. Estrojam/Decibelle values bold self-expression and involved, engaged communities. It takes a lot of work. See also questions 6 and 23.

15) When you were coming out, what were your favorite GLBT bars in Chicago?

Berlin 2000-2005 and way back when Girlbar was opened, 2000-2003 I think.

16) What were the key issues faced in the GLBT community when you first came out?

Marriage, equality.

17) What issues do you see as key in the GLBT community today?

Marriage still, equality still.

18) How have AIDS and/or other health issues impacted your life personally?

I personally don't have any close friends who have had AIDS. I have watched several close friends deal with breast cancer and it has definitely made me aware of how important it is for us to unite together and bring awareness to these issues with our activism.

To watch a close friend suffer with breast cancer is something that changes you forever. Feeling completely helpless while people suffer is one of the hardest situations I have ever been in. I really respect the Lesbian Community Cancer Project (LCCP) for all they have done in this respect.

19) How would you describe the “diversity” within the Chicago GLBT community?

After attending grad school in Boulder, Colorado, I feel that Chicago has made great leaps in creating diversity. Of course when you in the center of it you see all the flaws, and I have definitely had my qualms at times in Chicago, but in retrospect Chicago is far ahead of many places in terms of diversity.

There is no escaping the fact that we feel most comfortable with those who are most like us, but Chicago has many amazing events that work towards bring people together. The Chicago Gay Games, The LCCP Ball, and Taste of Every Palate are all fine examples of how Chicago has brought diverse GLBTQA communities together despite age, gender, class and race.

20) If you consider yourself a “political” activist, how do you define this?

For me political activism is creating cultural change. That’s what Estrojam/Decibelle represents to me. I don’t feel that mainstream represents the way I feel, and I don’t see enough of the amazing women around me being represented in the media, getting the respect they deserve or the opportunities they need.

This makes me want to go out there and create the world I want to see... bring those people together and unite with a voice that women across the globe will hear, and so they will know that they belong somewhere, and that somehow their voices are being heard.

21) Describe what you feel your personal legacy is to the Chicago GLBT community.

Community is so important to me. Growing up, I was in foster care and then lived on my own at 14, being emancipated at 15. Growing up many times alone made it very real to me how important a community of like-minded people is. Many kids these days grow up in homes where both parents are working full time and it definitely leaves young people searching for something to identify with.

The arts for me was that outlet… to see a reflection of myself made into something tangible gave me strength and I wanted to share that. I wanted to help connect young women to these positive outlets and communities so we could experience each other’s talents and voices together.

I’ve always wanted to create a space where a diversity of women could become the storytellers… so that corporate America, mainstream television, and the government aren't the only ones making up the story.

It’s so important for everyone’s experiences to be acknowledged, valued and heard and so, together, we can pioneer a revolution that will speak to the human experience male, Female, LGBT, whatever culture, with the understanding that we all experience a divine spark of joy just the same.

I truly believe that everything that happens in our world, even on the other side of the planet, will eventually effect on our lives right here in Chicago and vice versa. We are a global community and as a result we have to be more aware, educated and involved on a global scale.

There’s a Martin Luther King quote that I really love that seems to sum this up perfectly: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality – tied in a single garment of destiny – whatever affects one directly, effects ALL indirectly.”

With Estrojam/Decibelle especially, I strive to bring this all together through the platform of the arts. Music and art can speak to any person within any culture and with any experiential background, and it is through this commonality that we find our interconnectedness. It is my goal to help to continue paving the way to understanding human-ness by promoting our individual connections, regardless of gender, race, sexuality or cultural differences.

22) This project is also about “defining moments.” Please discuss some of those in your life.

My experiences growing up in foster care and then living alone early on were definitely defining moments for me. I had some time to figure things out on my own, seeing things for what they really were, instead of being told.

23) Additional comments and memories.

A few more words regarding Estrojam/Decibelle... Things are going well!! It’s funny because when we first started out in 2002, the first thing most people tell me they think of when they hear “Women’s Music Festival” is mostly folk music… which is fine because we love folk music, but that image is changing – “women” are changing and in addition to folk, we have female heavy metal bands, electronica stars, and female mc's that rap better than many of the mainstream male mc's.

In the past, a little girl may not have gone out there and picked up a guitar to rock out, but now we have things like rock camps for girls to learn these skills at a very early age. Women have got their hands in everything from sound engineering to being CEOs of major music corporations. It's a wonderful experience to watch this evolution develop.

That said, the music industry is STILL produced mostly by men, whereas women are underrepresented and highly sexualized. There is work left to be done! I still see a lot of talented women around me – behind the scenes and on the stages – who aren’t being taken seriously or getting the breaks they deserve.

Over the years we have had the great honor to work with thousands of amazing women all the way from Wanda Jackson (who toured with Elvis in the ‘50s and ‘60s) to Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls (who has worked with the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico)… many women who deeply believe in building supportive communities and the power that these communities can have in creating social justice through the arts, locally and globally.

We are very fortunate to have such an amazing and supportive community in Chicago – and as a result, things for Estrojam/Decibelle have only just begun! I hope that our efforts can make an impact for our culture to see how artistic expression mixed with social responsibility can transcend gender, sexuality, race, and culture throughout the world.

Out and Proud in Chicago: An Overview of the City's Gay Community, the book is edited by Tracy Baim and features the contributions of more than 20 prominent historians and journalists. It is published by Surrey Books, an Agate imprint, and is hard cover, 224 pages, 4-color, with nearly 400 photos.
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