Please check out this scholarship in honor of Bryn.
Please check out this scholarship in honor of Bryn.
*Trigger Warning* This post discusses systematic violence and suicide. I have placed a *TW* a few sentences before text that could be especially triggering. Please take care of yourself. <3
A year ago, Leelah Alcorn died* as a result of trans oppression and violence. How she died and the words she left behind sparked shock and outrage among cisgender people around the globe. To trans people, who face trans discrimination every day, it was a familiar event in a string of losses that make up our people’s history. And as I see facebook events and news articles about Leelah appear, I think back to exactly six months to the day before Leelah’s death, when 28 year old Tiff Edwards, a young trans woman of color, was murdered.** Like the first vigil, on the anniversary of Tiff’s death those of us remembering her did so without visibility. Part of what made Leelah so well remembered, in addition to her whiteness and viral post-death statement, is that she asked the world to “fix society” to keep others from living, and dying, as she did. In the past year, as demand for trans resources continues to rise, the issue to be “fixed” is not the presence of trans oppression, it is the absence of trans liberation.
I have been working as a trans activist since the day I came out, which will be ten years next month. The majority of my work has centered on my, and Leelah’s, home town, Cincinnati, Ohio. Like Leelah, I came out into a dark void of isolation, fear and anger but unlike her, I was privileged in that I was older, 21,; I was not entirely rejected by my family or friends, and though I was poor, I was independent enough to fend for myself. I was fairly green as an activist, but I thought if I worked to fix what caused trans suffering, eventually I would stop suffering too. I hoped that if I made myself seen, other trans people would find me. This eventually lead me to found Heartland Trans Wellness Group, a Midwest focused organization that primarily addresses Cincinnati area trans community needs. People often ask me how I learned to do this work, to which I always respond, “I learned how to swim by trying not to drown.” And that is what activism among the oppressed is like. We are in the sea of oppression trying to save our community from drowning without drowning ourselves.
When working on behalf of your own community, a lot of activism doubles as a mode of survival. As organizers struggle to support ourselves, we become less and less able to provide for our communities. When a community lacks resources, it is difficult for new leaders to emerge. Here we see the vicious cycle of every oppressed movement. The trans movement does not appear to move slow or in spurts because we are disorganized. It is because we are distracted by the need to survive. Upon hearing this, many people say, “That’s where allies come in!” and I don’t entirely disagree, however at this point in the trans movement, allyship is primarily being used as a misnomer for representative. Few cis allies will purposefully usurp trans leadership, but when you look at how trans people are treated in media, human service, and the non-profit industrial complex, the result more than speaks for itself.
A local Cincinnati newspaper published an article asking if anyone has “fixed society” in the last year. Written by a cis ally, it presents an important discussion on progress and problems related to the trans movement. The article is long and thorough, covering national events and statistics as well as issues specific to Cincinnati. Of the eight people interviewed for the article, two of them are trans. 25% of an article that is 100% about trans people comes from the perspective of trans people. If anyone feels compelled to reiterate the “not enough trans activists” argument, that can be easily dispelled. Here we have two experienced trans service providers, one in medicine and the other in mental health, each of whose work is entirely dedicated to trans needs and work with trans people every day. Knowing them both personally, I can attest to their exceptional competency and expertise on Cincinnati’s trans community and yet in the 2,244 word article, only 70 of them are quotes from trans people – that is 3%. What’s more, the cis voices given the most space are in the same professions as the trans providers right down to their specialty population (Yokoyama and Conard both serve trans youth; Yokoyama also serves trans adults while running the city’s only trans service organization). It is also notable that both trans interviews are placed in the middle of the article, neither setting the initial tone for the piece, nor closing with the final thought. Both of those critical spots where given to a cisgender physician who in each quotation uses Leelah’s dead*** name, an action that to trans people is considered one of the most significant forms of psychological violence. The good intentions of the article are lost behind the veil of cis privilege, leaving an inarguable example of systematic trans erasure. If you search for articles addressing Leelah, including those written by LGBTQ media outlets, you will find a primary absence of trans interviews. When looking at coverage of Cincinnati’s political response, including the installation of a memorial sign and two about the city’s “conversion therapy ban,” none include trans voices or the voices of trans or queer youth. I also can’t help but point out the irony of Cincinnati city council member Chris Seelbach, a relative newcomer to trans allyship, who immediately took the media stage upon Leelah’s death, stating the importance of addressing transphobic language when he has avoided accountability for his own transphobia as recently as last Spring. I do believe a person can learn to be an ally regardless of their past behavior; however, it is not appropriate for a cis person brand new to trans allyship to claim a lead voice in Cincinnati’s trans movement. Seelbach is a prime example of a cis person who has been repeatedly called upon by trans people to back up, and yet is still found quoted in nearly every news address of Cincinnati’s trans movement.
So who should be the lead voice in discussing Leelah? We must look to the community most directly impacted by this tragedy, trans youth, but you will not find them in any of the the aforementioned articles either. Trans activist and young person Jason Hettesheimer offers critical perspective as he recalls a meeting he recently held with trans and queer high schoolers, *TW* “…They didn’t know their rights or how to find support. We could use the momentum from Leelah’s death to work on empowering trans kids but instead we spend it on impractical policies and vigils for someone who died a year ago.” Memorials and vigils serve many purposes, including being a healing space, demonstrating the need for change, and most importantly, motivating people to make that change happen. Hettesheimer says, “Instead of using dead trans youth as the face of trans youth activism, we could empower living trans youth to fight against the systems oppressing us.” His statement speaks volumes about communities experiencing epidemics of violence, torn between survival and remembrance. Despite the violence, there are countless trans organizers around the globe, but as the community and its needs increase, so does the pressure on trans organizers to fill the gaps left by cisgender run systems of healthcare, housing, education, and human service to name a few. And when unsupported activists burn out, we are finding fewer and fewer people to replace us. For six years Hettesheimer has been one of the most vocal trans youth in Cincinnati doing everything from creating youth groups, to lobbying for policy change, to teaching workshops. Now, he finds himself against a wall. “Adults like to tell me how smart and strong I am,” he says, “They love to invite me to events, but when I speak they don’t listen. I don’t want to work with people who only care about trans kids when we are dead.” Yesterday he posted an announcement on his Tumblr stating that due to ageism and a lack of action in Cincinnati, he will no longer participate in the city’s trans activist movement.
Hettesheimer is far from the first trans activist to step back as a last choice for self care. Over the years I watched activist after activist back up or burn out in minimal time from Cincinnati’s toxically conservative environment which, in one way or another, mirrors all cities including more “progressive” ones. I could never blame a person for leaving the movement, or more frequently the city, for the sake of self care, but I couldn’t avoid the heartbreak that came each time a glimmering hope of a comrade fizzled out. Speaking for myself, while my work in Cincinnati filled me with humbling gratitude and joyful purpose, over time my work drained me emotionally, physically, and financially. In the eight plus years I worked on Heartland Trans Wellness Group, over six of which I was the only full time organizer, I averaged a 50-60 hour week and never once received a paycheck or benefits. Because the organization had no funding, I took touring gigs and odd jobs alongside my activist work and paid Heartland’s bills with the same checks that paid my rent. I worked in consistent isolation, suspiciously monitored, and in a few cases harassed by colleagues and other members of the LGBT community. I was constantly stressed out by my inability to provide enough resources, haunted by the people I’d lost to violence, and the impeding doom of losing more.
*TW* After Leelah’s death, Heartland experienced a huge spike in service requests from within the trans community. After the news broke, Jonah Yokoyama and I worked three days and nights to address trans community distress; Jonah was juggling a full time job on top of it. In addition to addressing the community’s and our own emotional upheaval, we fielded responses from the media and the cis community. The organization had been little more than a wallflower to the cis community, but cis shock and guilt quickly elevated it to being the most popular kid in school. But that popularity didn’t last, and when the dust settled promises of volunteers, donations, and fundraising never materialized. Some of these promises came from the very people who continue to block trans voices with their own. Heartland continues to strive to meet trans needs, and Yokoyama presents a positive picture of its growth, but what is not mentioned is that it is still an unfunded organization resting on the shoulders of a few trans community members, primarily Yokoyama, who continues to go under-recognized and unpaid for their work.
*TW* When we talk about “fixing” society, it is important to pay attention to where it is broken. The trans movement is not easily split into heroes and villains; there are complex systems of oppression at work here. When you think about trans community leadership, who comes to mind? How many people are celebrities versus those working on the ground every day? This lack of representation is not because trans leaders don’t exist and it is not accidental. It is a symptom of systematic trans erasure which is caused by the glass ceiling of cissexism and privilege. It keeps trans people trapped in the water, drowning, and society only looks down when one of our bodies floats to the top.
To be clear, I am not promoting the idea of a “trans only” movement where you have to be within the trans community (including partners and family members) to contribute. There are a lot of awesome, hardworking cis people contributing to the trans movement and the best, most credible folks are doing it quietly, not giving interviews and speeches. Whoever is involved in the work, the focus of the trans movement must always be on trans people and trans experiences, being told by trans voices – more specifically by the voices of those who are the most targeted such as trans people of color and trans youth. Yes, trans activists struggle, but like gentrification, the solution is not for cis people to take over or for LGB non-profits to adopt trans projects and siphon funding away from trans lead ones. It is to support the people and organizations who are already doing the work. Give us your money, collaborate with us on a grant and give us control of it, give us spaces to meet, educate yourself, and volunteer with a closed mouth and an open mind. This is what will help the trans activists of our movement and create ways for more trans community members, including partners and family, to take on leadership. It is common knowledge that there is strength in numbers, but strength is relative. I truly believe that any person that feels compassion for trans people is capable of valuable, important work. That said, capability does not equal competency. There is no exchange for a trans voice for a cis one. It is only through supporting and empowering trans communities that we can hope to combat our oppression.
If you are struggling, remember that it is a sign of strength to ask for help. Talk to the people you love. If you are in the Midwest, you can call Heartland Trans Wellness. You can send me an email to talk it out. OR 24/7 call Trans Lifeline at (877) 565-8860, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800) 273-TALK, or Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386. If it is an emergency, call 911. You are not alone.
If you would like to help the efforts of Cincinnati’s trans community, you can donate to Heartland Trans Wellness Group, offer to volunteer, or share the link and encourage others. Thank you for the support.
*I chose news articles from smaller media outlets because they did not include text from suicide notes, mug shots, given names, or misgendering. **TransGriot is run by the well respected trans activist, Monica Roberts.
*** Common label used by trans people, especially youth, to describe the name given to them at birth (verses their chosen or true name).
I am disappointed to see that even with plenty of strong, capable organizers on staff, Cincinnati Pride continues to value it’s own ‘pride’ over that of the community.
For the second year in a row, the committee finds it appropriate to allowing a religious anti-LGBTQPIA hate group to walk in our Pride parade. Many people have complained, but despite this the Pride committee sees fit to use it’s own judgement, and perhaps the judgement of “other cities” who they consulted, on how to “share” OUR day with those who are responsible for our deaths. This issue is about more than just the parade. It is about Cincinnati Pride’s history of bullying the community it is meant to serve. Cincinnati Pride both allows, and in past years has even condoned, people harassing, insulting, and threatening anyone who challenges Cincinnati Pride’s actions. Over the years, myself and many people of my acquaintance have been targeted for asking well worded, diplomatic questions. There have even been times where LG community members, many of them friends or partners of Pride organizers, and sometimes the Pride organizers themselves have harassed me on the street, cornered me in bars, spammed my email, and even worked their way into my facebook friends list just to troll my wall and try to dig up dirt (only to find none). These actions continue to not only go unchecked, but unrecognized.
Pride organizers have stated that by allowing the hate group into the parade, “show that we do not discriminate and attempt to silence other voices, as has been done to us for so many years.” First, best practice (and common sense) tells us that having a mobile unit of protest has more of an impact than a static one. Cincinnati Pride has assured the public that it is working with the local police to keep the protesters in check as they walk through our parade, but once an act of violence happens it is too late. (I should say physical violence because they are already causing emotional violence). Wouldn’t it be better to not risk our people’s personal and physical wellness for the sake of Pride’s pride? Lastly, and most importantly, PRIDE is a celebration of our people rising up against oppression. To willingly hand over sacred space and air time to our oppressors is as offensive as it is illogical. Pride is a day for our people, especially our youth, to grab a sense of acceptance and normalcy. Today, that will not happen for Cincinnati.
It is important to note that most people do not do community organizing/volunteer work without the best intentions. That being said, intention is not impact and I may be so snarky as to say that good intention is not intelligence. Cincinnati Pride has consistently struggled with accessibility issues, racism, sexism, classism, transphobia, elitism… the list goes on. This is not because the Pride organizers are bad people; it is because Cincinnati is a city with a bad politic. The first Pride was a riot; an uprising to stamp out oppression. In order for our people to rise against our oppressive environment, we have to stand up against it, not lay down in front of it as it walks through our Pride parade.
Cincinnati Pride, remember who your boss is; the people of the LGBTQPIA community. By allowing violence to spread under your roof, you are just as guilty as if you were making the attacks yourself. Whether these attacks are coming from anti-LGBTQPIA protesters or from our own community, you are responsible for the damage they cause. You are responsible for finding the solution.
Friends, it is with joy and pride that I announce that I am stepping down from my post as the Director of Heartland Trans Wellness Group. Seven years ago, I stumbled into the “real world” of community organizing with a dream to address a lack of trans resources. Soon, I was teaching a workshop outside of Cincinnati for the first time. Afterwards, a nervous young person approached me with tears in their eyes and said, “This is the first time I have ever been in the same room as someone like me.” Looking at this person, I could see myself. I knew I wanted to dedicate my life to building resources that empower trans people to help ourselves find each other, support each other, access health and wellness care, and obtain the rights and recognition we deserve.
In all honesty, I had no idea if I could do it; many days I still wonder at how the project has come so far. Looking back, specific things stick out in my memory: the first time I pressed “publish” for the website; hosting support group meetings in my shabby living room; the first time a stranger asked me for help; the first phone call the organization ever received; the first faces coming to meetings; the first moments I truly felt I could help someone. I remember the desperation I felt when there were so few options to provide. I remember the first time I could say, “Yes, I have a resource for that.” The first time I could say, “Yes, I have a place where you can go.” I remember being angry at things not changing fast enough; I remember unadulterated gratitude for the little victories of a smile or a thank you. I remember the first time someone said, “I want to work with you,” and that person was Jonah Yokoyama. It doesn’t feel like it’s only bee two years since I went from being a staff of one, to that of two. I still laugh at the strange, but delightful novelty of going to start a task only to find that Jonah had already done it. Jonah, thank you for helping me grow my dream into an full organization that serves our people. I always knew I would not want to be a non-profit director forever, but I can’t imagine being able to hand my ‘baby’ over to anyone but you. Thank you for taking Heartland into its next chapter in life. I am grateful. I am happy. I know with your leadership, it will continue to help people in ways I always dreamed it would.
The work I have done at Heartland has provided me with the most fulfilling moments of my life. Thank you to every person who has supported me; the ones who assured me I could do this; who listened to me vent and cry on the bad days and celebrated and hugged me on the good ones. Most of all, I am eternally grateful to every trans person who has ever trusted me to lend a hand; and to every partner, every parent, every friend. My life has been greatly defined by the gifts you have given me. For the last seven years, you have empowered me with purpose. Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to serve you, and our people. I will still be helping out with CTCG in the coming months, and no matter what, I will always do my best to be there for you whenever you may need me. I am looking ahead to the many amazing activist adventures we will have together in the future. I am sure they will be just as amazing as the last seven years have been at Heartland Trans* Wellness Group. Yay *Little Flags*
I can appreciate that cis people are interested in supporting Bruce Jenner. I also can appreciate that the attention brought on by Bruce’s coming out brings further visibility to trans people. That said, as the media circus swirled over the weekend, so did my frustrations. Cisgender (cis) people have been doing pretty well with trans identity politics recently, but in the last couple days something went awry.
A cis ally is someone who has some level of knowledge about the trans community and proactively builds solidarity with trans people. We know that there is no right or wrong way to be trans but sometimes our community extends that philosophy to say there is no right or wrong way to be an ally. This surely comes from our people’s desperation for support and recognition. In other words, we take whatever we can get with an obligated gratitude. I rarely abide by this practice which has given me the reputation of being “mean” or “impatient.” (Perhaps those who call me “mean” have not seen me spend hours patiently educating offensive, but well intentioned cis people all with an impenetrable supportive smile.) Contrary to popular belief, it is possible for trans people to appreciate cis efforts for solidarity while also addressing problematic behavior. Supportive education is my general practice, focusing on strengths. I try to avoid value-loaded words like “right” and “wrong” and use strength based language like “a better word would be…” or “a more positive way is…” It’s also to be expected that education will look different depending on who is being taught. If you are brand new to trans stuff, then I’ll be very patient and gentle. If you’ve been working with trans topics for years, my method is going to be more direct saying, “I respect your ability to comprehend this at a higher level so let’s be polite, but real.” Then there are times when an issue is so large, it is necessary to address the cis community as a whole. Every situation requires careful strategy, and sometimes that strategy is simply saying, “No, you’re doing it wrong.”
To help our cis friends along, I have compiled a list of ten reminders for cis people when trans identities become a focal point in the news:
1) You do not have the right (or ability) to comment on or describe the significance of coming out as trans. It is not ok to offer your opinions on how trans people experience ourselves or what it is like to be trans. If you aren’t trans, you don’t know what it is like. You can be supportive without trying to speak for us.
2) Be prepared for trans people to challenge your self-titled allyship or the “trans ally” hashtag in your posts about a white famous person coming out when trans people (namely, trans women of color) are murdered every day and you never say a damn thing about it, with or without a hashtag. #youredoingitwrong
3) There is a difference between following the nice-person-politic internet herd and being an active participant in the trans movement. Trans people do not need cis validation of our joys or sorrows. We need solidarity and cis advocacy. Ask yourself, how often do you read about trans stuff when we are not in pop culture headlines? Are the only trans related posts you make about the death of a trans person? Are you tagging #translivesmatter about white trans people without acknowledging that it is an adaptation/appropriation of #blacklivesmatter? Solidarity requires more than a mouse click or a hashtag; it requires consistent buy-in, socially just education, and speaking out in real life. You do not get extra ally points for every trans post you reblog on tumblr.
4) If you only talk about the trans community when the news is about a white trans person, you are embodying one of the most damaging and pervasive oppressions trans people experience: racism.
5) If you hear yourself say, “The race of a trans person doesn’t matter because trans oppression has nothing to do with race,” just stop because you’re doing everything wrong.
6) Don’t assume trans people are interested in talking to you about trans news or want to hear how brave and magical you think we are. There are ways to honor the trans movement without tokenism and it is cis people’s responsibility to learn how. If you feel the need to bring up an issue, consider whether it is appropriate. “Hey, I heard about that person’s death…” is not appropriate conversation for crossing paths at the doughnut shop. A better statement is, “I appreciate the work you are doing.” Trans people are not responsible for providing unconditional edu-tainment for cis people; We have more important things to do like live our lives, fight oppression, and try to survive past the age of 30. If you blame, shame, or judge a trans person because they chose not to educate you or you felt offended by their response, you’re doing your “allyship” wrong. The first, most important step in allyship is taking a step back.
7) It is not ok to send/post sensationalized trans related articles to a trans person to demonstrate your solidarity. Doing this can not only be a trigger and/or out someone; the article could realistically be about the death or injury of someone we know and your well intentioned “sharing” can create devastating results. Furthermore, do not interpret a trans person’s internet silence as not knowing about or ignoring a news story. Believe me, we know, and probably knew before you did. We may not post about it because the news language may conflict with our values; we could be too angry to speak; we may be grieving. We are likely not posting as part of our self-care and we are often processing the event offline with other trans people. If you are concerned for a friend, a better option is to check in privately and offer support (note that support does not include interview questions – see #6).
8) Do not connect every event about a living trans person to a trans person who has died. It can be meaningful to hear a cis person say, “I care about trans rights.” It may be less meaningful to hear, “I care about trans rights because “person X” died.” When someone says that to me all I can think is, “Well, a lot of people died before that person… and thanks for only caring if we are dead.” Then, inevitably, the trans person becomes responsible for comforting the cis person in their sadness over our oppression. If you want to talk about trans rights, recognize that we are more than headstones and news stories. We live and breathe and some of us have to work hard to ensure we continue doing that. Focus your conversations on our fight, not our deaths.
9) Do not make jokes about us. Do not make jokes about our bodies, our names, our appearances, or our identities. To not claim that it is “all in good fun” and defend transphobic humor by saying you “make fun of everyone.” There is a difference between stating a celebrity is “dramatic” and making a food product represent a trans person’s disembodied genitals. This kind of humor is rooted in the same transphobic oppression that causes us to be murdered. Recognize that your humor is a form of violence, and when you do, educate your peers (or your customers) on why you are changing your behavior. If you apologize for a cruel joke, but do nothing to stop the room from laughing, you’re doing your apology wrong.
10) Listen to trans people. I repeat: Listen to trans people. Many trans people need every ounce of our time and energy to focus on our survival and the survival of our people. If one of us makes an effort to educate you, be grateful that we are offering our precious resources. Be thankful that a trans person trusts you enough to share our feelings. Trans people face harassment and oppression countless times every day. You may only be corrected by a trans person once or twice in your life. Recognize the rarity of what you are receiving; we would not address something if we did not feel it was important. Lean into it and use it to grow. A call out is not an attack; it is a sign of respect and a desire for solidarity. Listen to trans people and respond with humility and gratitude.
No one likes to be told they’re wrong, even as a clever running gag to break up the heaviness of a pretty serious series of call outs. Call outs are hard. You might feel hurt; compare that how much it hurts us to experience the oppression you accidentally embodied. You might think we are being mean; to us, your behavior is beyond mean – it is cruel and exhausting. Is it not fair and just for a trans person to draw attention to behavior that promotes our oppression so it can be corrected? Is it fair for cis people to insult and belittle us for standing up for ourselves? This is not about you; it is about the impact your words and actions have. The most important thing to remember is that intent is irrelevant. When I am teaching classes, I describe privilege like dancing. If you are busting a move with a friend and then accidentally hit them in the face, you friend has a right to be displeased because they just got hurt. They may tell you, “Hey, don’t dance like that because you hurt me.” You can get mad; you thought the move was going to be awesome and you didn’t mean to hit them… You could get embarrassed and run away, leaving your friend alone in their injury. You could ignore it; it’s not your fault they got in the way. Or you can say, “I’m sorry. It was an accident, but that doesn’t stop you from being injured. I’ll rework my dance so it doesn’t hit you or anyone else in the face.” We all make mistakes; no one can do everything right (including us magical trans people). But once you receive feedback on your mistakes, even if it hurts, you can work to do better. It’s time to do better. We have come far enough in this movement that it is fair to expect cis allies to get it right and to take responsibility when you don’t. Until that becomes a reality, expect that sometimes you’re going to be reminded when you’re doing it wrong. Use it, because then you’ll start to do it right.
“Last week, Cincinnati Police LGBT Liaison Officer Angela Vance was publicly reprimanded by Mayor John Cranley and Cincinnati Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell for her inner-department newsletter that addressed the recent death of transgender teen Leelah Alcorn.
In the letter, Vance called her fellow officers to discuss the societal systems that influence transgender violence – specifically what can come from accepting vs. non-accepting religious groups. Of the 1,000 officers that receive this newsletter, four complained. This spurred Blackwell and Cranley to publicly apologize, admonishing Vance. Blackwell assured the public he will “review” Vance’s future writings before publication. Cranley speciously reframed Vance’s words as “the government telling people where to worship.” Whatever hints of support may be laced into these criticisms, there is a larger issue here: When even the slightest pressure is on, city officials aren’t up to the test.
Vance did her job, which is to educate her department about systems that impact LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) people in Cincinnati. Vance goes above and beyond to support this city, and I am saddened that in turn, the city does not do the same for her. The emotion displayed in her newsletter is proof of how hard she works to draw attention to LGBTQ needs – a job she was asked to do. Now that she has people’s attention, the reaction further demonstrates the lack of LGBTQ cultural competency among city officials.
I was born and raised in Cincinnati. I am also a transgender person. Cincinnati is a very difficult and dangerous place for transgender, gender non-conforming, and non-heterosexual people to live. I founded an organization that serves transgender people, and even as a provider, I struggle to survive here. I met Vance when she was appointed as the LGBT liaison. Like any strong ally to the transgender community, she immediately reached out to collaborate. In the field, Vance and I meet youth whose stories mirror Leelah Alcorn’s every day. We don’t do this work because we are paid for it (which we aren’t). We do it because it is our passion, and passion can inspire as well as intimidate. Vance wrote her newsletter with a passion to inspire good deeds among her colleagues, and people got scared.
City officials have discussed transgender rights more in the last year than in all of Cincinnati’s history, but supporting transgender people also requires supporting those who speak up for us. It is not easy to discuss the transgender community when many people still oppose our right to live, let alone our right for civil inclusion. This is why we need people, especially those in power, to speak out. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The ultimate measure of a (person) is not where (they) stand in moments of comfort and convenience, but where (they) stand at times of challenge and controversy.” Cranley and Blackwell know that the four offended officers represent a larger anti-LGBTQ population which can, and realistically might, stir controversy. And so, they chose to coddle the feelings of the privileged rather than acknowledge the violence that impacts transgender people every day.
To stop violence, we must discuss how it is manifested as well as what role we may play in its progression. Rather than discipline Vance for starting the conversation, we must urge the city to continue it. We must call for dialogue, education, and acceptance among police officers and city workers. City Hall and Cincinnati Police must work with LGBTQ people to combat oppression. Vance is doing her part to create change. It is time for city officials to follow suit.”
Republication of column I wrote for WCPO Cincinnati News as a part of the wider response to Leelah Alcorn’s death. There has been a surprisingly competent and lasting media response and I am hopeful that this visibility will aid our local movement’s growth.
COLUMN: Transgender identities can seem complicated, and when a person is first learning about gender it can feel like you are learning a different language. And in a way, you are.
The transgender community, or trans people as we frequently call ourselves, have developed a variety of words and practices to address our experiences, and each are shaped by a long history of community development.
Before beginning to conceptualize the differences of trans people from non-trans people, let’s consider what we all have in common: Everyone has a gender identity, or a way of knowing ourselves as a woman, a man, neither, both, or something else entirely.
Gender identities exist on a spectrum and we cannot choose what identity we have. A person who is cisgender has a gender identity that aligns to their designated sex; in other words a non-trans person. A transgender person has a gender identity that does not align to their designated sex.
The main difference between a cisgender person and a transgender person is not who we are, but how we are treated. Trans people are disproportionately exposed to discrimination and violence, be it at school, work, a doctor’s office, a public street, or even in our own homes.
If you are seeking to learn about the lives of the trans community, the first step is to understand that society defines our differences; our differences do not define us.
No two people are the same, and this is still the case in the transgender community. One trans person’s experience may be very different from another’s. Other factors, such as racism, poverty, and age will influence a trans person’s experiences.
Language is very important. A trans person’s name, identity label and pronoun (she, he, they, ze) are decided upon very carefully, and for good reason. My name and pronoun are not my preference; they are a requirement just like yours. No one would like to be called by a name that isn’t their own, or called something they are not.
I trust you to know who you are, I expect you to trust me too.
Because many people are unfamiliar with trans experiences, they may ask about our pasts, how we came out, or about our bodies. All of these questions are extremely personal. If you would not as a cisgender person what they look like naked, you should not ask a trans person. Allow us to volunteer the information we want to share.
It is appropriate to privately ask a person what language you should use. It is also important to ascertain whether it is OK for you to tell anyone about someone’s trans identity. It is advisable to never disclose a person’s trans identity unless you have explicit permission, even if you think it is relevant. This is called “outing.” Outing a trans person can put them at risk of hostility, losing their job, their housing, a loved one, or even their life.
Respecting a trans person’s privacy is a critical act of support.
Google exists for a reason. Before you go ask your trans co-worker to explain every aspect of trans theory, Google it.
Just because a person is trans, does not mean they know everything about being trans, and even if they do, they do not have an obligation to teach you. If a trans person does choose to talk to you about trans issues, listen to them. If I decide to talk to someone about my trans identity, it means I have something important to say.
If a trans person asks you to change your language or behavior towards them, it means we are trusting you to respect us. If someone calls me the wrong pronoun or outs me, I do not assume that person is transphobic. Generally, I assume the person doesn’t know they made a mistake and I want to correct them for next time.
If you accidentally use the wrong word or somehow let it slip that someone is trans, apologize and try to do better. You don’t need to make it an issue, or extensively explain yourself. It’s likely we already know why the mistake happened; what we need is for you to correct it.
As you learn more about trans experiences, it is important to remember that loving a trans person is not the same as being a trans person.
Cisgender people have privileges we trans folks don’t have. You didn’t choose the privileges of cisgenderism, but you can choose to take responsibility for your place in society, and improve it.
There are many ways to advocate for trans people and they range from asking your workplace to host a training, to volunteering, to politely correcting someone when they call a trans person the wrong pronoun.
Every time a cisgender person takes a moment to address trans discrimination and ignorance, they are making the world better for everyone.
You might not think that a two-minute conversation can save the life of a trans teenager, but change is a ripple effect.
One drop can spread to unimaginable sizes.
The more voices we have behind us, the more we can gain the rights we, and everyone, deserve. The more rights we can obtain, the more lives we can save.
You can help make it happen.
*Trigger Warning* This post discusses suicidal thoughts and suicide. Details are minimal, but I have placed a *TW* in front of a paragraph that may be especially triggering. Please take care of yourself. <3
The last time I saw Leelah, she was smiling. She was a kid who was easy to remember. Cincinnati Trans Community Group isn’t a huge program, but it’s big enough that sometimes I need a minute to remember names and faces. Strangely enough, the people I remember best are the ones who rarely attend. Something in their face burns into my memory; I can see how much they want to there, to meet someone like them… It is a feeling I know very well. So, when those rare-comers come to sit in my black plastic chairs, they get the bulk of my attention, even if the meeting is packed. When I was little, I learned a story that said, “When a shepherd of one hundred loses one, he will leave the ninety-nine to seek the sheep he has lost.” Similarly, a person can be separated from the community and to find us, they must brave the wilderness. I go to find them as I once wanted someone to find me. Leelah braved the wilderness, and that is how I met her.
While running group, I am either watching faces, or listening as I look down at a circle of shoes. Once Leelah wore sneakers, another time she had chunky heels. Her eyes were dark, nearly matching her hair which she swooshed to one side over her eyebrows. Usually I can see the sadness in someone’s eyes, even when they smile. Leelah smiled quite a lot. I could see her sadness and I saw what looked like hope each time we spoke, or as she spoke to other trans people in group. That is what I have chosen to carrying with me. It’s a gift from her. I could not anticipate the rest.
In the trans community, suicide is a common part of the conversation. In fact, suicide has become such a normalized part of the trans narrative that many people, especially youth, consider it to be a probability for them. According to a 2014 study by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the rate of suicide attempts within the U.S. non-trans population is 4.6%, whereas the rate within trans populations is a staggering 41%. And while most trans people don’t know this exact statistic, we know that suicide and trans identity are well acquainted. And in case you are thinking that maybe this trend is crowdsourced, keep in mind that my organization serves trans kids seeking help for suicidality who are as young as ten years old. These kids have never met another trans person in their life, but once they do meet us, they start to get better. Trans people do not struggle with suicidality because we are trans. It is because we are oppressed; we are exposed to negative things in our lives that make us doubt the safety of the world around us, and doubt ourselves.
It is not weak to want to end your life. The desire may even be understandable. At least, I understand it. I am not a spokesperson for all who have practiced self-harm or considered suicide, but I am one of those people. Sometimes I am nervous to admit it, but I am not ashamed. From recent event, one particular instance has been popping from my memory. When I was 16, I sat on a high story window ledge with concrete below. The details are mine to keep, but I will tell you that my dad came in to talk to me. He made me feel loved despite all the things I felt were “wrong” with me. He made me feel accepted, even when I felt like a freak. He left the room, I made it to the next day, and here I am now. When someone dies too soon, especially from suicide, I wonder why I made it when they didn’t. I’ve heard many people say that it is luck. The pills didn’t take. The phone rang. The sun came up. Maybe it was luck that my dad came in when he did, but one thing is certain; if I didn’t know people who make me feel like I deserve to live my life, I surely would have ended it a long time ago. I don’t consider myself dependent on others to survive in a literal sense, but I recognize that my mental and emotional wellness is linked with participating in a loving community. The need to belong is one of the most powerful forces we humans know. It drives us to seek out others for companionship, for affirmation, for recognition, and affection. I used to consider myself weak for needing other people and was fairly certain I could survive well enough without them. Being a radical trans activist who came out some years ago in a hellishly conservative Midwestern city with no visible trans community, one can come to understand the terrorizing impact of isolation very quickly. However, my battle with isolation didn’t start then. It has followed me from my early days as a gender non-conforming, disabled, just plain weird Indian kid. For many years, I thought being alone meant I was strong but I confused isolation with independence. Independence is a healthy state; being isolated is unhealthy or even dangerous. Isolation is not the action of one or even a handful of people, it is a systematic method of violence. Isolation may well have been my first enemy in life, and so it continues to be a primary objective in my work. It’s a violence that can strike anyone, and those who are shunned by society are easy targets. It has the power to rob us of our own sense of humanity and tear our souls apart. Such is the struggle of many trans people. Society tells us we do not belong. We are separated, singled out, and confined to where we cannot equality participate and many cannot meet even our most basic needs. In that rejection, we are told we are not worthy of love, or life. As a result, some of us take our own. Suicide is merely one of the many forms of violence trans people face and it is the result of trans oppression. In order to survive its impact, we as trans people need sources of strength. Without making the assumptive comparison that I know every reader here is going to make about a certain family, I grew up with a consistent source of love and, no matter how faint, the sensation of being loved. I was able to feel accepted on the most basic level which made me able to bear the rejection I find elsewhere. I can’t say I have borne it well, but I made it to adulthood. And as an adult, I was driven to fight that rejection, which turned into activism. My passion for activism gave me what I had been lacking; it wasn’t a will to survive, but a drive to make my survival mean something. That is why I am still here today.
I want to be clear; I do not struggle with self-harm and suicide because I am trans, but the oppression I experience as a trans person has impacted my life and wellness significantly. Fortunately, it is no longer an everyday battle for me to stay alive. That is a privilege. I have seen threats of death, from both inside and outside of myself. I have learned the value of life, and the benefit of love and friendship. And while life holds many obstacles, it brings many opportunities too. The longer I live, the better I am able to comprehend life as a gift, and not a burden. It is possible to light the darkness, and keep it lit. If I had jumped, I would never have learned that. I wish I had said this revelation louder, and to more people. Maybe if I had, one person would still be here. But, one person’s death is not the problem; it is a symptom of society’s attempt at trans erasure. Our community does not need to “come out” – we are already here. We have always been here. Others will try to isolate us, tear us from each other and from our own sense of self. It is up to us to fight, to stay present, and if we can, survive. If we look at the practical elements of the lives of trans people, what happened to Leelah is not hard to comprehend. In the past week, I have brought the same statement to every news interview, meeting, and microphone: Leelah’s situation is not unique. I work with people like her every day; people, mostly youth, that are cast out from their families and communities; are rejected and refused, controlled and destroyed by the wasteland that is my beautiful Midwest. And it is more than geography. It is our inability to access resources, often because the resources do not exist. Those of us on the front lines of trans activism continue to struggle to meet our people’s needs; to combat the transphobia, the racism, the poverty that tries to smother us. Yes, there are trans people on TV, but I am too busy trying to keep the trans kids on the street alive to watch it. I hate the fact that I have to explain the death of a kid as a “reality of our community.” I resent the response of shock from those who I have been begging for help all these years. Each day cisgender straight and gay systems continue to appropriate trans experiences for their own agendas; they ignore trans voices and draw resources away from our community to pad their own. They only notice us when they find it in their best interest. They do not understand that their self-oriented good intentions are contributing to trans erasure. While these outsiders are gaining a sense of freedom in “unity,” I am feeling suffocated by their sudden demands. I know the high road is not to focus on how an ally got here or how long it took, but that they’ve arrived. I truly, honestly am glad to see them. I can’t wait for more to show up. The trans community is speaking, the rest are learning to listen. But while society has been taking its time to get here, I have been scanning the landscape, wondering if those lost people ever made it. I remember every trans voice that never called back, every kid that stopped showing up, every face that has disappeared into the wilderness. I carry them with me and I will always wonder if I could have done more. I know I have the right to feel angry at late-comers, but I am striving to process that hurt into forgiveness, and then friendship. We must do the best we can, as it is all we can do. I am grateful to anyone who is willing to join the trans movement. But even the best efforts can result in failure. I am grateful for what little support I was able to give Leelah. I have few joys comparable to what comes from seeing trans people truly connect with one another; seeing them smile. I saw Leelah smile. In the end, what I had to offer was simply not enough. It is not my fault, but I feel the guilt of this loss. I try to embrace these feelings because in this sorrow is the remembrance of all those we have lost. Each time one of us dies, I see the work I have not yet done. I know I cannot control this society, but I am angry at my failures to protect my people from it. I want to be the shield for the bullet, and I would take a bullet if it meant no one else ever would.
Due to a lot of factors, I’m simply not at my best right now. After Tiff’s death, I felt very helpless, and now I find those feelings returning with the loss of Leelah. When I am feeling powerless, it helps to create something, so this week I have created as many spaces and outlets for my trans community as I can. It wasn’t until I found myself weeping in the grocery aisle, lamenting that no brand of cookie could fill the holes death has left in my community that I fully realized how raw my soul has become. Later that night, I walked a room full of trans people; one after another, people sought me out for comfort. Each time, I am struck with a mix of gratitude and desperation. I am grateful for the chance to help, and I am desperate to be able to give it. In these people, I see myself. Their struggle is mine, and I want to help us all. I am overcome by the desire to better our lives, so much that sometimes it makes me weak. When I am with my people, listening to them and offering support, I am filled with the richness of life. Where I was empty, I am full; where I was broken, I am healed. As trans community of trans people, partners, and family members (chosen and blood), we are strong and whatever strength we are lacking, we can find in each other. And while I am here in Ohio, there is someone in Pennsylvania, in Michigan, and everywhere that trans people are fighting to save each other. And I am slowly finding that we are not alone. In the last week, I have witnessed a greater outpouring of support, encouragement, and activism than I have ever experienced as a trans organizer. After so many years of working for a cause that few to none were willing to acknowledge, I am unsure of how to react to the kindness I have been receiving. It is heartbreaking to me that this surge of attention came at the cost of a kid’s life. It disturbs me that the death of one white young woman is noticed more than the death of countless young women of color. But despite all of that, I am grateful to everyone who is taking action, be it by sending an email after we haven’t spoken for years, bringing me food, making yourself visible for the sake of supporting others, writing to the media, or planning/attending an event. I am grateful to my fellow trans people, locally and around the world, who work to fight injustice. Thank you for sharing your hearts; you are filling mine in this moment of grief.
I will remember Leelah for the rest of my life. I will remember Tiff. They are not the first to be lost and they will not be the last, but I am here to fight for them and for our community. I have been building a beacon for my people to see and I am calling to anyone who might hear me. I am waving the light I so desperately sought when I came out. This light is heavy; it burns my hands and sears my eyes, but I am waving it to you with dedication and desperation. Come find me. Wait for me. I am looking for you. Don’t jump.
RELATED FOLLOW UP POST: Fixing Society: Leelah Alcorn, Cis Allyship, and Trans Erasure
If you are struggling, remember that it is a sign of strength to ask for help. Talk to the people you love. If you are in the Midwest, you can call us at Heartland Trans Wellness. You can send me an email to talk it out. OR 24/7 call Trans Lifeline at (877) 565-8860, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800) 273-TALK, or Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386. If it is an emergency, call 911. You are not alone.
If you would like to help the efforts of Cincinnati’s trans community, you can donate to Heartland Trans Wellness Group, offer to volunteer, or share the link and encourage others. Thank you for the support.
Today is Trans Day of Remembrance; what day could be more fitting for me to wake my sleeping blog and make a firey comeback.
Earlier today, I saw a post pop up in my Facebook feed from a local organization promoting Trans Awareness Week by advertising a blog post by social worker from a local hospital which houses a trans youth clinic. The clinic itself is, after a bumpy and I’m just be up front and say it, trans-exclusionary launch, overall doing good things for the trans community and I am always glad to hear happy clinic stories from trans youth who attend my programs. I am glad the clinic exists, but it is no secret that I oppose how the clinic functions. Mired in monolithic hospital bureaucracy and archaic versions “best practice,” the well-meaning providers do their best to provide affirming care. Working in a system that requires pathologization they tell me they aim for it to be as non-pathologizing as possible. So, when a blog like this crosses my path, I find it difficult to not comment on how in a movement with a growing number of non-trans (cisgender) allies, even well-intentioned work can still easily contribute to trans oppression. It is fair to say that this specific article is no different from what we see in Huffington Post, talking about trans kids and how we should care about them (good stuff), describing trans with the strict binary myth where boys like “girl stuff” and girls like “boy stuff (yeah, that is not good stuff), and then (with clearly good intentions) aligning the trans experience with inherent dysphoria, depression and suicide (No. Unacceptable). One of the primary reasons trans people experience violence and discrimination is because we are stigmatized as being mentally ill. Mental illness is considered a curse in our society, making those of use with it to be less than. Trans people are considered less than human for many reasons, and pathologization is a big one. If we continue to promote narratives of mental illness, even in the most loving ways, it is still oppressive. You can spank a child with love, but that child has still been hit.
As I mentioned above, but feel the need to mention again: Today is Trans Day of Remembrance. This day exists because trans people, specifically trans women and gender non-conforming people of color, are murdered and exposed to violence at dehumanizing rates. Violence comes in many forms: physical, emotional, psychological, institutional, cultural… Yes, being shot, beaten, raped, molested, this is violence. Do we consider it violence when a kid can’t go home because, though he never gets hit, he doesn’t feel safe or loved? Do we consider it violence when a person struggling with depression cannot find a trans accepting counselor, and so goes without? Is it violence when a child is raised by a family who psychologically mutilates them because they think that their trans identity is a curse from the devil? Is it violence when that child grows up maladjusted, homeless, and hurting? Is it violence to have no access to employment because of discrimination, forcing a person must make a life on the street through drugs and non-consensual sex work? Is it violence when addiction takes a life after years of trying to mask the pain of societal rejection and a never ending fight for resources that don’t exist? Is it violence when a trans person dies from a disease that could have been cured if they only could have accessed better healthcare? All of this is violence. All of it.
The trans community is powerful, with powerful leaders like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha Johnson to lead the way for us. The reason the trans community has not grown more established like the HRC and “Gay and Lesbian” groups is due to more than the discrimination we experienced in the “Gay Rights” movement. It is because as “progress” came and privilege arrived for many, trans people are still focusing on basic survival. We cannot organize a movement; gather to fight a war for ourselves if we are distracted by violence and the need to survive. In the last two years, I have told people that the reason I haven’t been blogging or touring, is because I’ve been busy building my non-profit, finishing grad school, and working to become a therapist for trans people. This is the truth, but only a small portion of it. The reason my presence has been sinking from blogging, community projects, making new programs, and visiting social scenes is because I have been struggling to make it. After nearly nine years of feeding both myself and a growing a one-person trans organization from the same tour-schedule paycheck, poverty and burn-out caught up with me. And as it did, a genetic medical issue sent me to the emergency room: my blood pressure dropped and, near death, I was rushed to surgery, but not before giving a nurse my business card for her trans niece. This was pre-Affordable Care Act and I have accrued large amounts of medical debt. I couldn’t afford to not work through my recovery period. My PTSD, inflamed by almost dying, went untreated because I could not find a therapist (or afford one) who was competent, or willing, to work with trans people. Within six months, a former member of the trans support group I run started aggressively stalking me, the continuation of what had already been a two year ordeal. I went months without reaching out for help because the only support organization for stalking, “Women Helping Women,” has a terrible reputation among trans and queer people and I could not cope with facing transphobia in the state I was in. The police, unfamiliar with trans needs, offer me a mix of supportive and scarring interactions; the courts, horrific and stale, continue to lead me through hoop after hoop, with wrong pronouns and problematic language stinging me with every step. Even if I was not trans this would be hard, but I found that being trans created more barriers than I ever expected. I was extremely fortunate to eventually find a survivor advocate who works with me even though it isn’t part of her job description because there is no one else who knows how. Over the last year, she has been working hard to try and find trans resources for me to cope with my depression, anxiety, and PTSD, but ironically, every referral she got was the same: “You have a trans client? The best resource is JAC Stringer.” I reached out to people in the community for support with minimal success, teaching me the lesson that if I want people to really pay attention to the violence I experience as a trans person, I have to be dead. And, I believe very strongly that if I were not a person with white colored skin and an education, I likely would be dead already. After all, I am 30 years old and the average life expectancy for trans person is between 23 and 30.
Beloved friends, first let me tell you that I am safe in my own home, and that I am hoping this stalking case will continue to improve. Next, I want you to know I tell you these things not to scare you or to upset you; I certainly do not tell you so that I might hear more guilt inducing pleas of “Why didn’t you tell me?” I expose myself here to show that even the trans people you may think are the strongest, are fighting to survive every day. We are all in this together and we must keep working to make all forms of trans violence a thing of the past, not a crippling reality of the present. So many times, I have said to myself, “How the hell can I support my people when I can barely support myself? How can I meet your needs when I am struggling to care for my own?” And the accompanying guilt of cutting programs, cutting work hours, delaying projects all of which I know will be felt by the trans community all because I had no choice but to take care of myself. This is why the trans community looks as it does: because when you are in the front lines, you get shot. It takes time for the medic of self-care to reach you and in the time you are healing, there is one less person fighting.
As more non-trans (cisgender) folks join the movement who are not partners, who are not parents- the non-trans people who are outside the trans community, I am happy, I am excited, and I am skeptical. It is still hard for me to believe that those who ignored us for so long can turn the page and suddenly care at all, let alone care enough to do the work. It is hard to accept the embrace of those who once told me “we don’t want you here.” It is hard to understand how people can offer to help you, but when you need them most, they still turn away as if nothing has changed. Last week, Cincinnati HRC held a press conference to celebrate that the National HRC has awarded the city a 100% score for being, I donno, good to LGBTQ people – I don’t know how their sticker system works. This was awarded because the city, thanks to the work of a specific trans woman, now includes trans health care for city employees. This is indeed a great accomplishment, but to acknowledge it Cincinnati HRC did not invite any trans organizations to the press conference, or contact any trans leaders to ask for feedback, statements, or even just to attend. I found out about the press conference via a lucky connection; told them I was coming, but a week later when I arrived at the location it was empty. I later found out that the event had been moved but no one bothered to call me. I tried to reach out to the HRC, but still I have gotten no reply, no apology. But on the bright side, Cincinnati now has a 100% HRC score. Cincinnati, which does not have an LGBTQ Center, or an LGBTQ health clinic, or an LGBTQ inclusive adult shelter, or a trans inclusive anything… Cincinnati, where our LGBTQ population is riddled with black tar heroin, Hepatitis and HIV/AIDS, survival sex work, racism, poverty, homelessness, – but we have a 100% with the HRC. And I am considered “inflexible” and even “hostile” when I hesitate to work with these people. But, I am still willing to try… Tonight, instead of standing beside my community in mourning and reflection over the countless lives lost to trans-centered violence, I accepted an invite to speak to several hundred social workers at the NASW conference. The state chapter is giving me an award, but I continue to ask myself why. How much does the NASW, or your average social worker, know about trans needs? When I seek help for trans people, I find them to know very little. When I seek help for myself, I find them to know even less. And yet, here I am, a trans person, presented with an opportunity to thank them for recognizing me, a white skinned, educated person, on behalf of the work I do to address their offensive and insulting lack of service to my people. I know I should be grateful that they are finally paying attention, at least a little bit. I should not chastise those who are late to the game because at least they showed up. I know these people are trying, but how can I forgive them? Honestly, I don’t know if I ever fully will, but I am willing to welcome those who want to help, not just because we need it, but because I want it. I want help from any good person willing to give it and I am grateful. As for the ceremony, I am using the opportunity to change minds and shake hearts to the point of bursting. The way I see it, as long as I am alive, I will be fighting – and yes, I mean to use the word FIGHT with all the aggression and power behind it. I will fight on the streets; I will fight in the schools; I will fight in faith places; I will fight at the powwow; I will fight in the hospital room; I will fight from my sickbed; I will fight until the breath has left me… Make no mistake; this is not because I am a hero. It is not because I am strong, or inspiring, or special. It is because I do not have a choice. None of us trans people do, no matter how many hurdles we may jump or how easy our life may feel, when one of us is oppressed, we are all oppressed. If one of us is murdered, a piece of us all is dead.
Earlier this year, a young woman named Tiffany Edwards was murdered just a few miles from where I grew up. She was a trans woman of color, young and aspiring to lead a creative life of self-expression. When she was murdered, I found part of my grief was selfishly oriented towards me. I felt guilty that this woman, who had contacted our organization a couple times, had so few resources. I felt that her death was proof of how little I have done, and can do, to help our people. I know this was grief talking. I try very hard to remind myself that the work of countless activists like me matters. Racism and poverty are a form of transphobia. Transphobia is a form of violence. Violence is with us every day, but it is my hope that someday it won’t be like this. It is my hope that someday, as soon as possible, trans people, specifically the young women who come after Tiffany, will have a better life. We have to work to support ourselves, and each other, as trans people. I believe that non-trans people will, and must be, a part of our movement. And in that belief, I am hopeful that they will educate themselves against the outdated narratives and exclusionary practices that they have been used to. The people who come after us will have, must have a better life. Recently, my adopted kid (now 19) started T, and while it wasn’t a perfect or oppression free scenario, it was exponentially easier and safer for him than it was for me. I told him, “This is why I do what I do. It’s for you, so you don’t have to grow up to be like me.” Every time I see him with his friends, or hear him speak about his passions and dreams, I am reminded that there is more to come. And so today, as you think about Tiffany and the countless lives lost, look towards the future. We must never forget those we have lost, we must fight for those with us today, and we must build a better future.
I’ve never been very dedicated to school. As a non-traditional learner with typical ‘atypical’ learning (dis)abilities, I was never very adept at the “learning environment” as it was presented to me. I entered grad school with two primary motivations: hope and desperation. I was hoping to become better; to become more skilled and learn the things I hadn’t been able to teach myself. I was desperate for more; I wanted to do more to help my community. I wanted more authority over the systems that ruled over me. I wanted more power, and power comes from getting that paper.
I really don’t like my university; And not just because it is an exemplary representation of the corporate college industrial complex; its sick sports obsession; its gross financial incompetence; or its staunch conservatism. I don’t like it because I’ve got a grudge. It was there I first put faith in my ability to change a system, and was first truly let down. I was used to being rejected by the learning process, but this was the first place I actively decided I would do something – not wanted to it or hoped to; I decided I would change it, no matter what. Contrary to the stories I flung at administrators, I didn’t work for change out of school spirit. My activism was aimed more at thwarting the institution’s dynamic, rather than supporting it. The institution pushed back, and hard, until I ended up spending all my time doing activism, not studying. The school was a system I was trapped inside and making resources felt like the only way out. Activism was my education, the classes were auxiliary. When I look back, I’m still amazed I graduated; only took me 6 straight years… And when I was done, I prepared my activist projects for new leaders and I got the hell out. I don’t think I thought I would ever come back, but here I am.
This winter, I attended an open house for the campus’ brand new LGBTQ Center. It was surreal for me to walk into the (exact) space that six years ago, I ignited the (long smoldering) fight to get. I came to the event feeling happy about the space being built, but still angry about my own blood in the bricks. But when I walked in the door, all I felt was nervous relief; a mix of retreating anxiety and seething frustrations. The small program started and I listened to the administrators ramble about how great their work was for this space. I wondered if they were really as delusional as they seemed. Looking them in the face, they didn’t remember me as the frustrated student activist in front of their desk. I was just another student they “helped.” I felt even more disconnected from the institution, and just as jaded about the administration. I listened to the last speaker with low expectations. There was a lot of disappointment in our joint past. Years ago, she was both a hurdle and a step in my work to get a queer center. I felt like she could never see past her desk, though perhaps not from a lack of trying. She always loved to compliment the faculty and staff, forgetting to mention the reason they were all there: the students. In my years as an organizer, it was a huge point of contention between us. I respected her for listening to my complaints; I judged her for not acting on them. When she stood in front of the room, I was shocked to see, through the folds of her papers, the names of student organizations. After all these years, she thanked the students first – in fact it was the only thing she talked about. You could tell she was a little out of her element, but her intention was clear. She was the only speaker that day who mentioned students in any context that was not a direct compliment to themselves. She made a point to show the students had done the work, and I made a point to thank her for that. In the after-program crowd, a dean walked past me. I recognized him as one of the many talking heads I had met as an undergrad; another face behind a desk, saying he wanted to help, but mostly powerless to do anything about it. As he came by me, he smiled and put his hand on my shoulder. “Good to see you again.” he said, “I glad you were hear for this.” I have to admit it. I was shocked. I smiled and shook his hand, but I doubt he knew why I was so glad to do it. I was grateful that someone cared enough to remember me. Sometimes we have to be reminded that administrators are people too. I guess I should know that, considering I was one for a short time. And if working in a college environment (as an activist and again as a professional) taught me anything, it was that administrators are not all suits behind desks; there are ones who really care about the students. Being in front of the desk showed me the red tape; being behind the desk made me feel it. An administrator can be a wrench in the gears, yes, but the machine is the real problem. “Higher Education” “Student Life” is a machine; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. That day, it worked, in more ways than one.
All of this didn’t sell me on the institution. Call me a judgey mcjudgerface if you like, but it takes more than a couple warm fuzzies to win me over – though it is a good start. And though I wasn’t feeling any strong sense of kinship with the admins, I did sense was a bond with the students. I watched them sitting on the floor, smiling, happy to have their own space; a place where they could feel safe and be themselves. They have a LGBTQ center. It isn’t perfect, and I know I’ll soon decide it still isn’t good enough, but it is there – it exists. When I was in undergrad, that was just about all I wanted… Standing there, seeing the reality that I had only dreamed about, it reminded me of how I used to feel: that passion I felt, and the desperation; how tirelessly I worked, how much it hurt every time I was kicked down, and how much stronger I felt every time I got back up. I was filled by a humbling sense that I played a small part in something bigger. It reminded me of how important campus activism can be, how many people it can reach, and how many lives it can change. It may seem like an organizing “small fish,” but when the pond is a puddle, a small fish is pretty damn big.