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Comic artist Sam Orchard tells Sarah Lang about coming out and celebrating difference.
Sam Orchard, 37, came out many years ago as lesbian and then transgender: “It still often feels like I’m coming out to different people,” Orchard says. “I have a beard and I look and sound like a man, but I also talk openly about being trans. Usually I’m not sure who knows and who doesn’t. I watch peoples’ reactions. I enjoy seeing people be surprised and become aware of their own assumptions. Sometimes they’re surprised at their own surprise. Sometimes I’m surprised by their surprise.”
“I knew from an early age I was queer. I didn’t know about the concept of trans back then – it wasn’t something anyone in my world had talked about. I came out as a lesbian when I was 20 then came out as trans later.” Which one was hardest? “Coming out as trans was easier because I’d already gone through a coming-out process as a lesbian, and had more tools for self-love and self-care, so I didn’t angst about it as much.”
“But it was harder for my parents because, while they knew about being lesbian, they didn’t know much about being ‘trans’, apart from quite negative stereotypes the media had perpetuated, centred around trans women, whereas there was a void of information about trans men. My parents worried that me being trans would make my life harder.”
“Back then, most people didn’t know, exactly, what being trans meant, particularly a trans guy. Being transgender was somewhat scandalous, and was talked about as ‘Ah, you’re trapped in the wrong body’.”
Orchard was born in Australia and has three brothers. “We moved around a lot. Melbourne, Sydney, Tasmania. My dad is an industrial chemist. Mum is a teacher. We moved to Invercargill when I was 16 – my dad told me it was a resort town!” Eventually he forgave his father for that. “Then I studied film and media for a Bachelor of Arts, and also law at Otago University. I realised law wasn’t for me, but I got so stubborn that I finished the degree. After all that study, it’s kind of comical that I became a comic artist and community worker.”
Orchard has spent 10 years or so doing freelance projects: drawing comics and cartoons, creating infographics, and designing and illustrating resources. He also has his “autobio webcomic” Rooster Tails, which has been going for 10 years. “Rooster Tails started as a way to see people like me reflected publicly – at that time I couldn’t find any stories about queer trans guys in the media or elsewhere, and the easiest and most authentic story for me to tell was my own. It’s about my life, my journey of transition, and what I get up to.”
It’s been read by thousands of people. “It’s quite often used as a resource by queer educators who come into high schools and universities for classes that help demystify sexuality and gender.” Sometimes educators from other countries contact him asking if they can translate a strip into another language. Any royalties to speak of? “I usually ask for a koha, but it often depends on who, and why people are using my comics.”
Orchard is also one half of the excellent “semi-comic” web series Queer Conversations, supported by the Goethe-Institute New Zealand. Largely during Lockdown and working partly via Zoom, Orchard and Germany’s Illi Anna Heger drew comics in which fictionalised versions of themselves have “rainbow conversations” in important locations. They’ve also been issued as a printed book.
For the past year, he’s been working on his first graphic novel – an adaptation of 2010 novel f2m: The Boy Within, about someone transitioning from female to male (hence the title f2m). Orchard and the two co-authors, he explains, have updated the novel’s language and social knowledge around being transgender. He has a couple of chapters to go. They’re looking for a publisher and hope to go international.
On his website, which lays out his projects past and present, Orchard describes himself as “a queer and trans illustrator, comic creator, and designer”. Now he can add another role to that description. “I’m the Assistant Curator of the New Zealand Cartoons and Comics Archive at the Alexander Turnbull Library.” The Archive includes 60,000 cartoons, comics, and caricatures by and about New Zealanders, from the 19th century to the present, and material relating to the artists’ lives.
“It’s my dream job. And probably the only job that someone with my skill-set could get! It combines my two passions: comics and community. I’m engaging with makers of cartoons and comics, and with communities, to develop our archive and collection practices. What are the priority areas? Where are the gaps and what do we need to fill those gaps? I’m particularly looking at diverse voices. I’ve also been learning the systems and theories behind curation and caring for taonga, and ensuring they’re accessible to anyone doing research.” And yes, getting a salary is a nice change.
The former Aucklander runs the annual Same Same But Different Literary Festival, held in Auckland in February. “The late Peter Wells set it up in 2016 to celebrate queer writers. Peter asked me to come on board in 2018. We fly in people from all over the country. We’ve also run some Wellington events and are looking at doing more nationally.” There’s a decent budget.
He’s worked unpaid on passion projects, and on paid commissions.“Sometimes you do things because you love them, though they don’t pay that much.”
One paid commission was from the Disabled Students Association at Victoria University, a project to raise disability awareness. “I did illustrations of people with disabilities, to role-model how allies [non-disabled people] can support the disabled community. For instance, if someone in a wheelchair is trying to get up a hill, a stranger might come and push her chair. She’d say ‘no, you can’t just push me – ask me what I need first’.”The illustrations were shared via posters at uni, and social-media shares.
Meanwhile, a Master’s project in creative writing sparked his “Family Portraits” project. Three small volumes (available as print or e-books) tell the stories of nine individuals, and their sexual orientation and/or gender identities. “One man was in a gay relationship before homosexual law reform, and another was a first-generation queer from a migrant background.” The first issue “Queer 101” is used by educators in countries including France, Germany, Australia, the USA, UK, and Spain.
Orchard is keen to share information. He’s designed and illustrated many resources – including – for the Asia Pacific Transgender Network – fact sheets for trans people, their families, friends and colleagues (available from his website).
Is there a strong queer community in Wellington? “Yes. But we’re often asked to speak as if we are a homogeneous group when we actually have different political, and social backgrounds and viewpoints.”
“Celebrating differences brings joy to my life – and my comics are largely about queer people celebrating parts of themselves that society might not appreciate. It feels important when parts of myself and other queer people are valued. I think wanting to be valued is the same for all people, whoever you are.”