Black Woman Creator: Jay Justice
Who are you, Jay Justice?
I am a Jamaican American queer disabled Black woman who is into comic books, sci-fi, and baseball. (Yes, I am familiar with the sportsball, I used to work for the Yankees for three seasons, I’m really really into baseball. I was so salty with Pitch got canceled.) I’ve been getting into doing more editing. I’m really proud to say that I contributed to the editing on a New York Times Bestseller — if you’re familiar with The Adventure Zone, I was brought in for a second to help with some sensitivity reading and some of the editing on that book. I also helped do social media for the McElroys during the publishing process for the book, so it was really exciting. I want to do more of this work for sure. We did this work last year, so it’s been really great seeing the fandom go crazy for the work that we did and it’s awesome.
What do you create?
I create costumes, I create narratives, I help people to promote their work. Basically I try to create a space within fandom so people who are marginalized can feel more welcome and be more successful. Sometimes it takes just one person to listen to someone go on about the game they’re developing and say “no this game is good, I believe in this game, I think it should be seen by people who can get it further than I can.” I like to reach out to people who think that just because they’re a woman or they’re trans or they’re queer or they’re Black that their work is not as valid as everyone else’s and I’m like, “no it is.” And I may have a smaller platform because I do cosplay and I’ve done promotion and marketing for other companies, but I feel like it doesn’t matter how small you think you are, it’s how big you make other people feel with your presence.
It’ll be my ten year anniversary of cosplaying next year and my first cosplay ever was Storm. I want to do a side by side of before Jay knew anything about makeup because dear God I was a hot mess. Someone tell baby Jay you don’t have to have white eyebrows to be Storm. I would like to do a much better Storm costume with a better wig, makeup, one that wasn’t hand-sewn and safety pinned and hot glued and stapled together, made out of literally coat-hangers and upholstery from a car.
Why do you create?
I create because I feel like sometimes you’re just about to explode with the need to do something with what you have inside of yourself. With me that can be released in comic books, it can be released in costumes, it definitely gets released in a lot of, you know, trash posts on Tumblr but for the most part it’s my way of expressing how much I love the medium of comics. I was kind of scared and lonely as a kid and wanting to do something with myself that wouldn’t get me in trouble and comics were a safe way to create something and enjoy something and to just read. Just building literacy itself is so important. I know a lot of kids who didn’t really like reading, but I would tutor back in the day so I helped them increase their reading comprehension with comic books. Free Comic Book Day is how I lured the little suckers in and the next thing you know they’re spending all their lunch money on Spider-Man. But they’re reading though.
Who is your audience?
What’s interesting is that my so-called built in audience would be people like me who are disabled or Black or female or queer who just want to support someone who is like them and out there doing the thing. That’s me in a nutshell, I am my own audience. Sometimes I reach people who are outside of my so-called demographic, I’ll get people who are white, cis, straight, whatever and they’re just like “I like this, I think this is cool,” and they may want to support just because they enjoy the art, but occasionally they’ll make a point of supporting someone outside of their usual zone. For example. I was hired to speak at MIT about advocacy and modern media to help them with their own queer community and to help them be more seen and heard at MIT because Boston is extremely white and very racist. A lot of the students there were telling me about their experiences and just helping them to understand that I understand how sucky it is to have a project going on and you’re super qualified for this but the person in charge is only going to ever hire or place within their own circle.
People don’t realize that we’re not saying “you yourself are a racist.” You are not defined by this. [But] you’re capable of partaking in this because you have the privilege to not have to worry about someone noticing you for a project because you’re the default. You’re a white person so of course you’re hirable automatically. A lot of the things that I do with my audience is teaching them to unlearn this stuff because not only are you making a better place but it literally enables you to enjoy art on a deeper level because you’re not being hindered by your own privilege. And watching somebody wake up to that fact is just — I’ve seen it so many times. I hope I keep seeing it because people really go, “wow, I was ignoring this because I thought it was a Black thing, I thought it wasn’t for me but my money is good here.” Yes! Your money is very good here, pay a Black person, it’s fine. Your white money is good everywhere, we will happily accept it. Buy Black products!
What or who inspired you to do what you do?
I mean I don’t know because when I first started cosplaying I wasn’t really thinking of a particular person in mind I was working promo and marketing for Activision at NYCC to promote Ultimate Alliance 2, the video game. I was at the booth doing my thing and looking at all the cosplayers — and I was in regular clothes. I had just been hired for my comic book knowledge and nerdiness and not for any costume because I had never cosplayed before. And I thought it was pretty fun and that I should try it. My main goal was to be a character not a person, so I don’t really have a cosplaying senpai or whatever. It’s really always been about trying to match the costume or the character. Even if I don’t match 100% the way it is in the picture, it’s more about being that character.
[With regard to disability advocacy,] Annie Segarra (@annieelaney). She’s an amazing disability advocate who has done so much work to support the community. She’s the one who started the #AmbulatoryWheelchairUsersExist and I have so many of her t-shirts with her catchy hashtags on them. She’s just so great and so positive and super encouraging. She’s definitely someone I admire in terms of just being a cool person to support in social media and to listen to because her experiences are valid.
We all have a lot of experiences as disabled people trying to move through a world that is extremely inaccessible and dealing with people who look at you and think that you’re entitled. I’ve actually been told that I seem entitled and I was like “I’m literally just trying to make your company comply with the law?” I don’t understand. I’m working a convention at a university and they have blockaded the only wheelchair accessible door. If the building is on fire I wouldn’t be able to escape. I almost missed my Lyft because they couldn’t find me because I couldn’t get out. I had to manually remove a stack of parking cones from this door and then the security guard yelled at me and I’m like sir this is the only way I can escape the building, you need to not have this door blocked. I’m not trying to anything besides hold your company accountable.
I’ve encountered that problem a lot: they’ll block off access for their own convenience. Stop all the elevators so no one can sneak into the con, but then you’re also not allowing disabled vendors, attendees, exhibitors, guests of this hotel who may use a wheelchair to access the entire lower floor of the convention. Every single day, they never fixed this. For a three-day con!
In my opinion, accessibility is independent accessibility where you do not require an adult to allow you access to a part of the library, a part of the school, a part of the hotel, whatever it is. If I have to find someone who has a key to the special elevator lift and you don’t know where the key is, you don’t know how to operate it, that’s not accessible to me. That is, the building’s on fire and I’m going to die because I can’t get out of here because you don’t know how to help me.
That’s why I really admire Annie because a lot of her work talks about that in a way that is easy to understand and, I’m not going to say doesn’t rile up able-bodied people because you know what, you should be riled up, you should feel upset on behalf of the people who have to deal with this crap every day. But then it makes us seem like we’re attacking them. No one’s attacking you for being able to walk without impediment or pain, we’re attacking the system that makes it difficult for us to get access to things that we need, which is again the law, but not always followed.
Why is it important as a Black person to create?
Because you are the inheritance of thousands of years of oppression and misery and pain and it’s up to us to really speak for everyone that wasn’t able to speak before us. We’ve been told that our voices aren’t valid, that we don’t deserve a right to speak, and so I feel like our creativity is something that has been a long time coming and needs to be shared with everyone. It’s not just about us teaching ourselves, it’s about teaching our children and the children of those who inherit the so-called right of oppression. The people who have the privilege to do more and don’t, they need to hear our voices so that they do.
It’s all about maintaining integrity with your work, and someone saying that forced diversity is a lack of integrity is really not paying attention. Because nothing is forced it’s literally representing the exact world that we live in and there’s no white fantasy in New York, it full of people of color, I don’t know where you got this from but this white fantasy never actually happened. I’m really over this white feminist nonsense of everything having to be white. I’m over the idea that I should support a white female character when the Black ones get sidelined all the time. As a Captain Marvel fan, it’s extremely frustrating to know that Monica [Rambeau] is never going to be seen in the eyes of the younger generation as who she is, a former leader of the Avengers, the first female Captain Marvel. She’s basically being marginalized in the narrative of Carol — which I support, I love Kelly Sue DeConnick I think Captain Marvel is a great book. It’s just frustrating as someone who was a really big fan of the Captain Marvel before her to know that this kind of support and love is something Monica is never going to get. And I hope that when Monica appears in the movies that she has her own narrative but it really does feel like she’s going to be some kind of person who really looks up to Carol and this ain’t it.
Why do you think it’s important for disabled people to create?
It is important because we’re seen as disability meaning lack of ability to do anything, when really it means an inability to access things that are made for able-bodied persons. Being disabled doesn’t mean that you can’t create or build or discover or learn or teach. It just means that you require different tools to be able to do those same things. And that you require those things to be accessible so that you can reach your full potential and not be seen as just your limitations but for the whole of who you are. Your limitations and your strengths.
I think it’s important to fight against the narrative of the “good disabled person” to show that everyone has different abilities. It really frustrates me because people assume that if you can do something you’re not disabled and if you can’t do it, you’re not trying hard enough, there is no middle ground. It is one or the other. I think it’s important for folks to read the words we create rather than the things written about us, especially with mental disabilities. There are people with autism writing wonderful works explaining their experiences and people are ignoring them and listening to Autism Speaks and the parents or families of disabled people and not the people living with the trauma of the ableism they’re facing, which can be worse than your actual illness in many cases.
We don’t live in a country with basic income we have to start from nothing and get something out of that. To tell me that my mind is useless because my body doesn’t work is absolutely missing the point, people think you can’t you can’t create because you’re sick, that’s why we have to, to show them that we can. We have value regardless of how our bodies and minds operate.
You mentioned accessibility in getting to cons, are there any other struggles that you face as a disabled creator?
People look at me and see someone who looks healthy, because they don’t know what disability looks like -- the answer is it has no look. I’m going to quote Nyle DeMarco who is a deaf model/activist who was told he doesn’t look deaf, which is like what does deaf look like? Disability doesn’t have any particular appearance. People sometimes assume I’m faking or I just have a cane for fun, I deal with stuff like that.
At this job I used to have, I got a new manager, who was told “this is Jay she’s going to be a great employee, all you have to do is carry this one thing for her because she physically can’t do it, but everything else she can do.” They were like “trust me, she’s a great seller, you’re going to love working with her.” He actually didn’t, because he just really hated disabled people. People think that’s not a thing, it is. Because he had to do one single thing to assist me, which my previous bosses were happy to do until they got transferred to other departments. I literally did everything else, like I literally bought attachments to my scooter — that cost me money out of my own pockets — so that I could carry more stuff so he didn’t have to do all those things for me. But this was one thing I couldn’t do. And he told me that I was useless, that I couldn’t help him from that chair that I was in, and that I didn’t deserve to get full wages, that he was going to dock my pay because of my disability. I later left that company because I didn’t feel taken care of well enough there, but I’ve experienced stuff like that in other jobs too.
That’s honestly why I prefer to work for myself or do social media, editing, or stuff online, because I can’t deal with being in that environment. You feel like you’re going to have a panic attack because you’re being told to your face by someone who — I mean he was racist too, he would show me KKK pictures, thinking it was funny, it was real bad. The ableism was what stuck with me the most, being told that I was basically furniture by someone who had the ability to take away my actual income was terrifying. It’s why I fight so hard, I don’t want anyone to have to go through that, it’s really sickening. I know that the law in many states is that they can pay disabled people less than minimum wage because “oh it’s fine, they don’t know any better, they’re just happy to have a job.” And that’s legal!
How do you balance creating with the rest of your life?
Balance? What is that? With me it’s more like how many spoons do I have? If I don’t have enough energy to do a thing that day, it’s not happening. There are days where I’m having a flare up and I can’t move or I can’t stop shaking and I can’t shower or cook or do anything besides, if I’m lucky, open the protein shake by my bed that I hopefully remembered to leave there so I don’t die. So I can’t work on costumes, I can’t take commissions because I don’t know how much mobility I’m going to have, and I don’t want to make anyone miss their deadline. I’ve had to refund orders because I wasn’t able to get it out in a certain amount of time. That’s why I really like to do things that require me just to be able to use a computer, although my disability is one that affects my whole body — it’s one of those systemic ones — so sometimes I lose the ability to use my hands, so I can’t type. And you then have to spend time convincing yourself and others that you’re still worth hiring, despite all of this. Because the days I am on, I am on, I am in it.
It’s all about working when I can and leaning on the people that are there for me emotionally speaking because sometimes it’s hard. Trying to manage your schedule, trying not to make too many things too fast, especially with costumes. I’ve been cosplaying since 2009 and I have like 80-something costumes so it’s one of those “maybe just wear this old one and don’t make a new one because you don’t really have time for this.” And I haven’t even worn all of them yet.
Do you have any advice for young creators or ones just starting out?
Do not measure yourself against your peers or idols. Measure yourself against your own progress. Work on being the best version of yourself that you can be and don’t get caught up in trying to keep up with the Joneses or whatever because that way lies pain and misery, don’t do it. Definitely don’t do anything outside of your own means — stretch a little bit but not too much.
Remember that you started in this for fun and then get good at it and somebody offers you money and then you take the money. That is how it worked for me. That’s probably how it’ll work for you. Maybe with comic book writing and art it’s different, but it’s not though because you did draw it for fun, you didn’t draw it because you were trying to be famous. You drew it because you wanted to create something and you wrote because you were trying to create something. You wrote a fan fiction because by god they should’ve been gay in the story, they’re gay now! That’s why you wrote it and what you write may be good enough to get published but you have to keep writing for yourself before you do anything else. That’s what I’m doing I’m still writing for myself. Eventually my story will be good enough for other people to see it and it’ll get published, I’ve already talked to someone about that so that’s exciting, but it’s really about doing art that you love and then maybe other folks will like it too. But it’s okay if they don’t because you made it for you.
What has been your favorite or most memorable cosplay experience?
There’s a couple that really stand out. The building process of (Commander) Shepard (from Mass Effect) was absolutely horrible and I never want to do it again because I was someone who primarily sewed costumes and that was the first suit of armor I’d ever made. I cut and burned myself many many times. I famously cut and burned myself at the same time using what basically a pocket lightsaber. Mistakes were made. It was an exacto-knife that heats up to 400 degrees. I was cutting and gluing and heat forming at the same time with three different heat tools with no gloves! Children don’t do it, use protective gloves. And I reached without looking and I picked up the blade by the wrong end. And it removed a fingerprint and a chunk of finger was just gone. And I screamed so loud that my roommate who was on Ambien woke up. And he was like I’m just going to go to the store and get you some burn cream. God bless that man, he saved me, he’s a hero to us all. The best part was that the costume wasn’t done, and the con was in four days, so I finished it with my left hand. And I wore it, and I got to meet half the cast of the game so it was all worth it.
But my favorite experience in a costume: cosplaying Nakia from Black Panther has been the best experience ever, no matter which version I’m in it’s always positive feedback and it’s really great. And I get to cosplay with my friends because of course we’re all the Wakandan high council, we get to cosplay Wakanda together. We always have a great time with it. Just getting to be a positive Black hero that everyone knew was so great.
Do you have any future or current projects you want to plug?
Everyone should buy The Adventure Zone because everyone worked super hard on that book and it’s amazing, if you love D&D, if you love podcasts, if you love really good graphic novels, go get The Adventure Zone.
I’m going to be at NYCC at booth 1483 promoting my company LGBTHQ, I’m one of the codirectors and cofounders, we like to promote queer comic book writers and gaming people all over the industry. If you’re queer we’re here for you, we want you to get your work out there. Buy Kid Riot Comics, they are New Jersey’s premiere queer superhero team, we’ve got some awesome superheroes, we actually did one, their new superhero is from Ghana and they looked for Ghanaian sensitivity readers to make sure she was written accurately, I really support that I love them for that. They have a trans superhero called Riot Diva, I love her design, and they did a lot of work speaking to trans people to make sure that she was written correctly. So I really like Kid Riot comic books, their new book is called Riot Squad because they wanted to do a team book not just one person. They’ll be at NYCC as well.
I will be the Cosplay Guest of Honor at Geek Girl Con in Seattle. I’ll be doing some panels there, one is about Disability and Cosplay in Media. I have a lot of cons coming up. I want to try to plan for the future because I want people to know that even if your disability gets to the point where you literally can’t do anything, don’t think of yourself as bedridden because you can escape, you can do things that bring your reach outside of your general area, and you can still affect people even if you yourself aren’t physically there. But I want to be physically there for as much as I can.
Jay Justice (@ThatJayJustice) is a Jamaican-American cosplayer, editor, and advocate. Her work has been featured by SyFy, BBC America, and Marvel Comics, and she has been the inspiration for new characters in DC Comics and Boom Studios. Since 2009 she has crafted over 70 costumes and created panels at conventions across the country on the topics of comics, gaming, diversity in media and costuming. As an outspoken POC, LGBTQIA+ and disability advocate, Jay is dedicated to creating lasting change within her community & inspiring others to do the same.
Shop: email thatjayjustice @ gmail to order