Aeryanah Von Moi has lived in Philadelphia for 27 years and has had a wealth of creative and professional experiences, including as an assistant to Family Court Judge Tiffany Palmer, where she still works. But it was acting that liberated her “in so many different ways.” Von Moi’s experience in theater began in the early 1990s with People’s Light, a theater company just south of Philly. When members of the theater company held auditions for students in suburban schools, Von Moi tried out and got cast in a show when she was 12 and also became one of about 16 children in the New Voices Ensemble, a group of mostly Black youth from Chester, Paoli, and Phoenixville, Pa. New Voices put on all kinds of shows, from Shakespeare to original works, and branched off into a smaller group called Younger Voices.
“It was basically about bringing kids together from all different backgrounds to create art,” Von Moi said. “It was getting a lot of buzz because it was one of the first theater groups that brought children from all different brands, backgrounds, all different colors, [together] to create art. The things that I think about now, I really honestly didn’t have to think about until I was 18 or 19 because my whole life was enthralled in theater.”
Television also played a part in Von Moi’s affinity for acting. As a kid, she would watch TV after school at her grandmother’s house while her mom was at work.
“I grew up on Steven Spielberg,” she said. “I was drawn to acting and different characters. When the theater thing popped up and I gave it a chance, it just took off. I think subconsciously, having the trans thing underneath was elevating everything all at once because it was developing a confidence in oneself that I didn’t even realize I was building at the time.”
As she discovered her gender identity and sought to live authentically, Von Moi left theater because she was scared that the people she worked with wouldn’t have accepted her as a trans actress.
“I think the fear back then grasped me; I just left,” she said. “It could have been revolutionary; I could have been the first one, but I didn’t even give them the opportunity to even try, so I don’t know if they were ready or not. My own fear of that made me leave.”
Von Moi told her theater group that she was leaving to go to college, but she really planned to go to New York or Philadelphia to find herself. “I didn’t make it to New York, I stayed in Philly,” she said. Nonetheless, Von Moi found acting and her trans identity to be heavily interconnected.
“Being trans was almost a way–but I didn’t know then–that you can be anything you want to be,” she said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean being a woman or feminine, I think it was just the idea of, there is no identity that you have to really worry about when you are in theater because you have to be a frog, you’ve got to be a tree; everybody’s a tree.”
One of the shows she performed in was the fable “Crow and Weasel,” a mythic, coming-of-age story about two animal people who set off on a journey and encounter obstacles along the way.
“It’s a beautiful story, but the whole premise is about leaving the safety net and going on this journey,” Von Moi said. “There’s going to be vultures and it’s going to be awful. You’re going to get to what you set out to get, which is so scary, but then you realize that’s where the knowledge is. The scary thing is where you learn to find your peace. Usually the journey home is just a little bit different; you take what you’ve learned along the way, you return back to where you’ve come from and then you share what you know. I think that’s how you inspire other people to go on the journey.”
Despite her fear of not being accepted, the bonds that Von Moi developed with her theater group as a teen remained with her into adulthood, she said. Creating art in a judgment-free space initially made her think that everyone shared that same level of open-mindedness.
“I think when you actually know what it feels like to not be judged, you definitely know what it’s like when you are judged,” she said. “When it does happen, it almost knocks you off your rocker; it’s a bubble-burst. Once I left the safe bubble and I kept coming across things that kind of beat you down that would normally jade a person or make a person angry, I think it’s my relationship with my theater group, and with the people that I grew up with for so many years building art, that allows [me to think], ‘not everybody’s the same.’”
Members of the New Voices theater group that Von Moi was a part of now work in a variety of industries, including video game design, executive management, corrections and education. Von Moi herself had diverse professional experiences. In her mid 20s, she worked as a radio co-host for the Philly station Q102 alongside then evening host Jessie Jordan, a job that fell into her lap. Now, she occasionally does nightclub-style performances as part of Brittany Lynn’s birthday drag shows; and is still connected to People’s Light, where she got her start.
“You just never know people’s lives,” Von Moi said. Referring to her theater group, she added, “I think if everybody was like that, which is to mind their own business, then everybody can create art. Transitioning to being a performer in Philadelphia — that was great, because I left the theater because I felt like I couldn’t be myself. To create theater onstage where I was myself was fantastic.”
As for her feelings toward her identity now, in her forties, Von Moi said, “as I get older, I realize I’m not a woman; I’m not a man, I’m not trans; I’m not nonbinary. I just want you to call me Aeryanah. I’m too complicated of a person to be labeled as this or that.”
Michele Zipkin is a staff writer for the Philadelphia Gay News. She received her B.A. from Goucher College and her M.A. in journalism from Temple University.
This story is made possible with support from Comcast Corporation.