Ari Moore’s Long Road From Police Officer to Buffalo Trans Icon

Ari Moore is a Buffalo-based artist, teacher, and activist. (all images courtesy the artist)

This article is part of Hyperallergic’s 2024 Pride Month series, featuring interviews with art-world queer and trans elders throughout June.

Artist, teacher, and activist Ari Moore entered Buffalo’s art world in the 1970s. These days, she’s focused on sharing her decades-worth of knowledge with the next generation. “The Buffalo art scene is growing, thriving, and dare I say, booming,” she said over Zoom.

Moore’s time in the art world, however, was not without interruption. After instructing at the city’s Buffalo AKG Art Museum (formerly known as the Albright-Knox Art Gallery) and working in for-profit galleries, Moore spent 25 years as a Buffalo police officer.

From displaying her work in Buffalo’s Juneteenth festivals to spending two decades campaigning for trans rights, Moore delved into her personal history in the latest edition of our Pride Month series.

H: How did you first enter the art world?

AM: A friend of my family — a gay male artist — saw artistic potential in me when I was young. He sponsored me to take art classes at Albright Knox Art Gallery here in Buffalo. Because of that chance, I gained not only a sense of artistic self-worth and art education, but also the background to challenge some of the norms in the art world.

H: What were some of those norms, and how did you challenge them?

AM: I had wonderful art instructors at Buffalo East High, a 99% Black school in a city which is still fairly segregated. I spent a couple years at the University of Buffalo, then matriculated at Rosary Hill College, which was a very White suburban college at the time. I saw the old boys’ network in full motion. I had to do code-switching. Then I was offered an assistant art instructor position at Albright Knox and later employed by a major gallery. I might not have been able to break particular glass ceilings at that time, but I was aware of where they were, and I casually climbed the ladder.

I taught at Albright Knox for 14 years and continued my studies. I gave a lecture on African American art from the 1700s to 1965, of which many instructors and professors hadn’t the slightest clue. Even today, when I have interactions with executive directors of galleries and museums, some of whom have wonderful exhibits, I ask, “Do you have a Robert Duncanson? Do you have a Jacob Lawrence? A Romare Bearden? A Faith Ringgold?” If they give me a blank look, I give a little education on why they should have these pieces in their collections.

H: Who do you see as your mentors?

AM: I ran my own art studio for several years when I was young, and artist Bill Cooper was several doors down. Having someone like that in a space where I could pop my head in and ask, “Hey, what are you doing? How do you do this?” was very instructional. While I was teaching at Albright, I would take summer jobs at the Langston Hughes Center here in Buffalo working as a painting instructor. Seeing Black professional artists doing massive things and then making space for other Black young artists to display in the center made me think, “Yes, I can do this. I can be this.”

I came out to my mother at age 16 and her accepting me was another big thing for me. As far as mentorship in my trans experience, which happened to me in the ’70s and ’80s, I met a trans woman by the name of Dixie Gilbert and she introduced me to a troupe of female impersonators named the Pearl Box Revue (as opposed to the Jewel Box Revue in New York City). They were a Black cast that traveled with their cabaret around Western New York, Northern Pennsylvania, Ohio, and as far as to the Poconos. I met Bobby Lopez, Wanda the Cox, Tanya Nelson, Irma Love, Randy Martini …. all these interesting names and flamboyant characters.

I stand on the shoulders of so many giants before me. I stand in many rooms: one foot in the Black community, another foot in the trans community, another foot within White society. Being black in a White society is always stressful. I am active, I am productive, I am blessed, and I’m lucky because many people that look like me don’t get this far. They suffer from stigma and oppression.

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Ari Moore painting “Trans Liberation” (2023) with her friend Cecilia Gentili

H: How has your identity played into your work?

AM: I did an art exhibit called Queens I’ve Known, which comprises paintings of Western New York’s drag and trans folks. I did another series called Two by Two of gay couples who had been together for over 10 years. That’s ongoing. Many of them were purchased and gifted for their weddings.

H: Do you see yourself now as a mentor?

AM: I noticed there was no space for trans women of color, so I started the African American Queens in the early ’90s. Then in 1999, a friend of mine, Camille Hopkins, was transitioning and asked me to accompany her down to the Capitol to advocate for transgender rights. That became an almost decade-long struggle, but I was introduced to so many trans warriors. Camille and I founded Spectrum Transgender Support Group of West New York. We moved forward forcefully and kept it going for almost 20 years until COVID shut things down. It’s important to have love and support and be able to see others like you, who, if nothing else, say, pat you on the back and say, “Well done.” In 2019, I got a call from the governor of New York to come down to New York City for the signing of the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, which we had worked on since those early years. It was an honor. But at my age, I’ve had to slow down quite a bit.

I’ve mentored several young folks here in Buffalo. As my grandmother always said, “Honey, education, education, education.” Education is one thing that once you learn and know it, they cannot take it away from you. They might take other things, but they cannot take that away. I have a young woman of color and another young Black man who opened their own galleries. A black trans woman is now a director of our organization here in Buffalo. Another, a trans man (I call him my son), has gone beyond my expectations and dreams. They are the chosen family we seek and choose, and when they are successful, I can sit back. As an elder, if I do not share the knowledge I have, it’s all wasted when I’m gone.

H: What led you to join the police force, and what were those years like?

AM: For those 14 years before, when I was an art and painting instructor, I was living my very best gay queer life. But when the funding and the money ran out at the gallery, and our staff dwindled from 12 to four, I came to the realization that I needed a job that would give me longevity. My father worked in a steel plant, but from time to time, they would lay off the workers. My mother had worked at the hospital. I realized that I needed a job that would give me healthcare, a pension, and job security — where I wouldn’t be laid off or furloughed or pink-slipped. So that job would be in government. In the ’70s, I heard Dick Gregory speak, and he made a statement that stuck with me: “If the government is not what you need it to be, get involved, get invested in it, and make those changes.”

I had to literally go back into the closet. I cut my hair and attempted to grow peach fuzz on my lips. I was able to effectively present as male for some 20 years. The first year after I left, I started my transition.

It was difficult and it was dangerous, but it was also satisfying because I was able to help people who had no other recourse. I was able to help people who saw the police officer as a gatekeeper and bogeyman — then I arrived and showed empathy, understanding, and compassion. In some cases, I accompanied people to court to make sure that they got protection, or to let the judge know that they needed this paperwork now because they had an abusive partner.

Being able to be in a position to make a difference for the queer community, as well as the Black community, was satisfying for me. But in the last five years, it just got to be too much, being misgendered and sometimes ridiculed. It didn’t come from the neighborhood. It came from the people I was working with. It was starting to wear me down. So after 25 years, I had had enough. I left in 2007.

H: What does Pride Month mean to you?

AM: I have a sense of self-perspective coming from my mother. Then as a teenager, seeing queer adults who were active and productive community members and hearing about the Stonewall riots gave me courage and a backbone. I lived through the Civil Rights movement, witnessed the feminist movement, saw the protests over the Vietnam War, then saw the struggles for gay liberation and transgender rights. Pride is a continuation of a struggle for human rights.

Associates and elders who have been in this for a long time complain, “It’s so large, it’s so commercial.” I have to remind them, “Isn’t this what we were looking for all along? To have inclusion from larger society, and to be embraced and rejoiced because of our very existence?” Maybe we have done it too well, but the queer community still has issues of stigma, gender, and racism. We have a chance to move the line forward for our young people.

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