Trans Folks Are Changing the World

{Background: I was invited up to the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh as a keynote speaker for their yearly Trans Action week. It was a pleasure to be part of the conference,  and the visit spawned some new projects I'm pretty excited about.  I was able to record the talk, and once I figure out where I can host it, I'll get the video of the presentation linked here as well. For now -- here's the text of the talk I gave. Feel free to cite it (with credit, of course). The statistics from the National Center for Transgender Equality are all available here. If you have questions about the content, feel free to contact me.}

Presented at the University of Wisconsin's Oshkosh campus for Trans Action Week, March 31, 2016.

Text version below-- click for a {Link to view the google document}.

Thank you all for being here.

I’m Elyria. And I’m going to try to be as honest with you as I've tried to be with myself while I was preparing this talk. Let me start with a short introduction. I want to tell you a little bit about me -- specifically, about my gender identity, and why it matters.

I identify as agender. To me, that label means that I don’t really feel like I’m male or female, masculine or feminine. I don’t feel like gender offers much insight into my character. Calling myself “agender” and talking about that label with people makes me feel like I'm giving people a chance to see me for who I really am, and to connect with the "real" me. Sometimes that label helps me contextualize choices I made growing up -- everything from what games I liked to play to who I wanted to be friends with. Sometimes reminding myself “I’m agender” just helps me understand why I feel a little alienated or confused when people talk about being strongly identified with a binary gender, or scheduling a "girls night out". It also has a really interesting side effect of making me feel more connected to things in the world - like places, like ideas - the things our language tells us don't have a gender at all.

But realizing I was agender is a pretty recent development. That word - agender - is a word that I haven’t known about for all that long. It’s only been a couple of years since other people I knew started to come out as agender, and it took a little while for me to realize that maybe I could apply that word to myself, too. Mostly, the agender identity helps me affirm that I am myself. There are still days when I reach for earrings and almost stop myself because, somehow, it feels like wearing things in my ears isn't "agender" enough. But that's the beautiful thing about finding a gender identity that works for you; you get to decide what it means. Gender identity doesn't depend on how you dress, or even the pronouns you use or don't use. Gender identity is who you are, not how other people perceive you.

When you interact with the rest of the world, it's never that simple. Many of the struggles facing transpeople and non-binary gender people are about changing perception, about getting access to care, and about simply being recognized as the people we really are, not the people society or our own bodies tell us we are, or should be. And it is a struggle, even for those of us who have managed to build stable lives and partnerships and communities that accept and cherish us as we are.

So, how does my gender identity matter?

There are a couple of ways to answer that question.

One answer is that my gender identity matters because having a non-traditional gender identity changes my perspective. When there is no box you can check on your passport application that reflects who you are -- when Ms. and Mr. both don't work -- you start to understand a little about what it feels like to be excluded in more serious ways. You start to develop compassion for people who have gone through all kinds of similar experiences. That's how my gender identity matters to me; it gives me insight into the identities and challenges facing many of the people I care about, and it helps me affirm myself internally.

But my gender identity starts to matter in different ways when I share that identity with other people. With you, with my family, with my friends, with the clients that hire me to organize their homes. Talking about gender gives me an opportunity to let people get to know me as a real, whole person, and to replace whatever stereotype was in their head with a picture that's a little more realistic, and maybe give them a picture that's a little less likely to make them uncomfortable, or afraid. When we finally replace the singular image the media offers of transpeople with a mosaic that reflects more of our lived experience, it won't be too soon.

Identity is a tricky thing. I still feel like I'm settling into being agender. It's not that anything has changed about who I am inside. It's that the framework or the lens has changed; I have a word for something that has been true about me since I was born. I don't have to call myself a tomboy. Calling myself agender helps me affirm ALL of who I am. Everything fits. I don't have to attach gender to my hatred of nail polish; it just feels weird on my fingernails. Shopping is NOT an inherently feminine thing; I don't have to bring gender into my ethical views on buying things secondhand, or not buying things at all. Sports aren't inherently masculine; I can dislike watching them and love competing just as much as I ever have. And gender doesn't have to have a place in any of my views. It is SUCH a relief.

But like I said, identifying as agender still feels new to me. And understanding that an agender identity is also a trans identity feels even newer.

I confess, I was surprised when I was invited to give a talk here. I worried that some "real" transperson wasn't being invited because of me, someone who had experienced discrimination based on their gender identity, someone who could actually speak for an immensely diverse community of people. I thought about it for a few days, and realized that my concerns boiled down to two main questions.

1. "I’m agender. This sounds like a transgender conference. Can I really call myself transgender without disrespecting the differences between me and all the trans people I know who have chosen to transition, or the intersex people who have lived with complicated biology their entire lives? Am I a legitimate part of the trans community?"

2. "How can I (one person) speak for a whole community of radically different people?"

I don’t usually like referring to dictionaries, but for once they came in handy with that first concern. Here’s the dictionary definition of what it means to be transgender:

Transgender: denoting or relating to a person whose self-identity does not conform unambiguously to conventional notions of male or female gender. (x2)

That was NOT what I was expecting. And it's a pretty broad definition. It’s definitely broad enough to encompass many experiences of gender. But it’s almost too broad to be helpful. It’s not like all people who “do not conform unambiguously” have the same experience of gender; many transgender people feel a strong identification with the binary gender system. In that case, being trans has to do with being in a physical body that doesn't fit your lived gender identity. Non-binary people identify outside of the male/female gender system. As far as I could tell, there’s only one thing agender and transgender people all have in common: we’re not cisgender. That is, our gender identities don’t match the physical traits of the bodies we were born into. Because of that, most of us have probably experienced gender dysphoria at some point in our lives -- the feeling of our external & internal identities not matching up. But other than that, we could have everything or nothing in common. There is incredible diversity, when you look at all the people in the world who fall in the “not cisgender” box. Some are intersex, born with ambiguous genitalia. Many intersex babies are operated on at birth, and are generally shoved into the "female" box because that's easier. Some people identify as agender, like me, or not like me at all. Some people have made up their own words to describe their gender identities. They’re gender outlaws, or dinosaurs. Some are transitioning from male to female, or female to male. Some have decided not to transition and it's just as important to honor their gender identity as it is to honor the identity of trans folks who do transition. Some trans people realize mid-transition that they like exactly where they’re at, somewhere in between the binaries of the way our culture tends to see gender. Every person has their own story.

I struggled for a while with that, even after the dictionary assured me I was trans. There is no way that I - or any one person - has lived all the different ways there are to be trans. Somewhere in there, I realized that STRUGGLE is actually another thing we have in common: all of us have a relatively complicated relationship with gender. We’ve all struggled with gender identity at some point.

And somewhere in there, I finally got it. I grapple with gender. I am a legitimate part of this mysterious group that “does not conform unambiguously” with conventional ideas of gender. I could decide to speak here without trying to make it about a whole community of people. I’m don't think it’s really possible, or ethical, to try to speak for people you’ve never met, or listened to. The only person I can really, honestly speak for is myself. And that’s why my gender identity is important. It’s part of who I am, part of my experience of the world. If I didn’t tell you that I was agender, would you know it? Would you know that my gender identity influences the way I see the world?

So here’s what I’m going to do. I’m not going to pretend that I have perfect insight into what every transgender person or every non-binary person thinks, or believes, or experiences. I’m not going to try to speak for an entire community, especially when I only know a few dozen people who are part of it. What I am going to do is speak openly as myself, share what I’ve read and learned about communities that have experiences that are like and unlike mine, and offer my perspective on all of that. Because, when it comes down to it, as much as I don’t believe I can speak for anyone else, I also don’t believe that anyone else can speak for me.

I’m one voice in an amazingly diverse community of people who have grappled with gender, and we each come up with our own ideas of what to do about it. I’m proud to be part of that community. I don’t think the community or any member of it is perfect, nor are we above criticism. But I love how we honor our own identities, and each other's identities. I love that we feel so deeply about who we are that we’re willing to risk our health and our relationships and our livelihoods -- to be honest, to be ourselves. I love that we don’t all follow the same path. And I love the times when we support each other, when we reach out and help each other through rough patches, when our other support structures have failed.

So - that’s a little about me. A tiny peek at one facet of who I am in terms of gender. Now that we have that shared ground to start from, I want to talk with you about some amazing people who are trans or have non-binary genders, and the ways they're changing the world. (The title of the talk is "Trans Folks are Changing the World, so I'd better get to it.)

Trying to pick out who to talk about -- has been a process. It's been a wonderful process, and I've learned a lot, but I finally admitted that I wouldn't have enough time to talk about all the amazing trans & non-binary people I looked into in my research. There are just too many possibilities. Such problems, right?

Don't even get me started on trying to pick out trans & non-binary people in history, before we came up with those terms. We can't ask people who are dead what their gender identity was, so if they didn't leave some record of it we'll never know. But I think it's worth wondering about - if they had had the words for it that we do now, who would have identified as trans or non-binary? Emily Dickinson, who scholars believe loved her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert? Perhaps some of the Greek philosophers - Socrates, Plato, Aristotle? Sappho, the famous lesbian poet? How many people through the centuries have had gender identities that "don't conform unambiguously" to notions of male & female? We'll probably never know, but every culture has developed ways of contextualizing alternative genders. We show up all over the world. Being trans isn't only a modern issue, even though some of the words we're using to describe ourselves, and the ways we can change our bodies to reflect our identities, are very new.

I've done my best to pick out a few modern-day people who represent different types of identities - from gender identity to race to religion to sexuality and more. There was no way I could include everyone, even if I took a full day to give this talk and tell you about the work thousands of amazing (and sometimes controversial) people who are trans or non-binary are up to. But I can almost guarantee that if you look for a trans person in any kind of category, however you want to define the category, you'll find them. Orthodox Jewish professor who went to my synagogue before she transitioned: Joy Ladin of Yeshiva University. Monica Jones: transgender student & sex work activist. Transgender Republican who is also an Olympic athlete: Caitlyn Jenner. My favorite folk singer / songwriter Dave Carter, who died early in the process of transitioning. Laverne Cox of Orange is the New Black fame; reality TV star & LGBT activist. Comedian and activist Eddie Izzard. Korean Pauline Park, co-founder of the New York Center for Gender Rights Advocacy & first openly transgender grand marshal of the NYC Pride March. Film director Lilly Wachowski who was just forced to go public with her gender identity, co-creator of the Matrix with her sister, Lana. Neurobiologist Ben Barres, with Stanford University, campaigner for women & gender equality in the sciences. Kate Bornstein, Jewish escapee of Scientology, cancer survivor, author of foundational books that explore her own gender identity. Cleopatra Kambugu, of Uganda, where public attitude is incredibly homophobic and transphobic: the new "Pearl of Africa" series is based on her explorations of gender, her struggles, and her transition.

And those are just the names of a few people out of hundreds. Thousands. There are millions of people in the world who don't identify as cisgender, and there are probably millions more who are still coming to terms with their gender identities.

And I'm only going to talk about a few of them in any depth. A few people who are trans or non-binary -- people who "don't conform unambiguously" to notions of gender -- people who are changing or have already changed the world.

How many of you have heard of Patrick Califia?

Patrick is a transgender author. He's in his 60s now. He was born in Texas, into a Mormon family. When Pat came out as a lesbian just after high school, his parents had him committed to a mental hospital. Once he got out, he moved to San Francisco and continued to write stories and nonfiction. He identified as a butch lesbian for years, and built a public identity as a lesbian author. Many of the communities he was part of rejected him at various points because he wouldn't stop talking and writing about his transgressive interests; some lesbian groups disapproved of his interest in BDSM, some feminists disapproved of his sex-positivity. Patrick chose to transition in 1999, despite knowing it might be hard for some of his audience to accept the change. He's published over 20 books in his lifetime. His titles will give you a good idea of some of the topics he delves into:

Public Sex: The Culture of Radical Sex

Sapphistry: The Book of Lesbian Sexuality

Doc and Fluff: The Dystopian Tale of a Girl and Her Biker

Speaking Sex to Power: The Politics of Queer Sex

Feminism and Sadomasochism

I first encountered Pat Califia's books through one of my roommates, probably 5 or so years ago. She lent me her copy of Speaking Sex to Power. As soon as I opened it I was hooked. I had never read such insightful commentary on what it felt like to have a gender identity that didn't fit society's ideas of what was acceptable, or on the scale of the challenges transpeople face. Patrick's ideas and the evolution of his gender identity are translucent; he hasn't tried to erase the years he spent living as a woman and a lesbian. He's just as open about the fact that he doesn't feel entirely at home in his body as a man or as a woman; for him, transitioning eventually became the best of a bunch of non-ideal options. My favorite quote about his writing is from Janet Hardy:

"He's got a phenomenal mind. ...He's willing to get a hold of a thought and follow it through to the end, even if it doesn't feel comfortable."

Since Patrick is a writer, and a very eloquent one, rather than paraphrasing what he has to say, I'm going to share some of his words and thoughts with you. These are a few excerpts from the preface of Sex Changes: The Politics of Transgenderism.

"Most of the literature about transsexuals has been written by self-proclaimed experts, from a position that claims to be academic or scientific, and therefore objective. …

"I am uncomfortable with the stance of the objective outsider who, because of a sheaf of credentials, purports to have a point of view that is more important or powerful than that of transgendered people themselves. In medical and feminist discourses, transsexuals are stereotyped as patients undergoing sex reassignment, the troubled clients of psychotherapists, or faux, man-made "women" created by the patriarchy to act as moles in the war between the sexes. This gives the experts a privileged voice and disenfranchises differently-gendered people. In autobiographical or fictional accounts, they may set down what they perceive to be true about themselves and the world around them, but it is the medical doctor, therapist, academic, and feminist theoretician who interpret "them" for the rest of "us" and thus claim to be the voice of reality.

"There is a powerful assumption here about the audience, as well, that it is constituted for the most part of "normally" gendered people. The setting-aside or excommunication of the transsexual from the main body of society is a vital, and easy to miss, part of this conceptual process. I suspect this is a strategy for reducing the anxiety of a reader who might otherwise be forced to confront his or her own failures at living up to gender stereotypes. It makes it easier to disavow or avoid imagining altogether guilty pleasures that potentially may be taken in deliberately violating these norms. In industrialized Western society, it is a thought crime to imagine oneself in the body of the other (always opposite) sex, or appropriate any of the artifacts of the other gender's role. To be differently-gendered is to live within a discourse where other people are always investigating you, describing you, and speaking for you; and putting as much distance as possible between the expert speaker and the deviant and therefore deficient subject.

"I have tried to examine the claims of medical professionals and scientists with all the tools of rational intelligence and objectivity. Despite my work as a therapist, I am not comfortable allying myself with supposedly objective experts, or positioning myself as one of their colleagues. The claim that anybody is objective about transgenderism should be met with profound skepticism. Anyone who confronts gender variation has a highly personal and emotional response. Transsexuals challenge our ideas of health and mental dysfunction. If we have a sense of "rightness" about ourselves as men or women, gender outlaws scramble it. Gender dysphoria - even someone else's - literally gets us by the short hairs, where we live, between our legs. When such visceral responses are ignored, they surface in other ways. I trust the investigator who outlines his or her own biases much more than the expert who compulsively excludes the personal element from his or her prescriptions and explanations. In matters of sexuality, we understand so very little that any claim to authority is premature. The best we can do is speak our own truth, make it safe for others to speak theirs, and respect our differences."

Pat Califia's books and ideas and perspectives on gender and sexuality are insightful and necessary - as much so now as they were when he wrote them, even if some of the labels he uses aren't the ones we would use now.

Those very changes in labeling are one of the reasons Pat Califia's words still hit me so powerfully. I've seen many more recent writings find creative ways to leave out pronouns like "his" and "her" altogether, in favor of the inclusive and pleasantly ambiguous "their." His book was written in 1997, and still uses his / hers. While this may seem like a small change, it's worth paying attention to; it's real progress. In some circles, maybe still on the edges of the mainstream but maybe not, the default assumption is not always that we have to describe every person we write about by their gender first, and everything else later.

But that manufactured divide between transpeople and "normal" people that Pat points out is still alive and well. We still have bathrooms that separate us into two groups - male and female. Nobody I know does that at home, so why do we do it in public places? We still ask each other what the gender of our babies is going to be, and many of us buy gifts for the still-unborn solely on that information. We don't prepare parents for the possibility that their baby might be that 1 of every 100 who isn't born with "standard" genitalia. States don't have consistent laws that let us change the bureaucratic representation of our gender to reflect our actual gender - for example, Tennessee won't issue a birth certificate reflecting an accurate gender even if you've had surgery and obtained a court order verifying it. Most other states will issue an accurate birth certificate... at least, they will to people who have the time and resources to get sex reassignment surgery. And a court order. And of course, there's no possibility of creating a bureaucratic identifier other than M or F on official documents for all the non-binary people in the world - that would be far too complicated for us to deal with.

I want to read you one other excerpt, before I get lost in ranting. Patrick Califia says this just perfectly.

"When well-meaning physicians perform surgery on infants with ambiguous genitalia, surgery that may make their families more comfortable with the gender the doctor assigns to the baby, but will also impair that child's sexual functioning as an adult, it isn't right. When a young boy is forced to receive punitive psychiatric treatment because his mannerisms are judged to be effeminate, it isn't right. When a teenage girl is incarcerated in a mental institution for refusing to wear dresses, or for having a sexual relationship with another girl, it isn't right. When a man loses custody of his children in a divorce case because his wife reveals he dresses up in her undergarments, it isn't right. When someone who needs sex reassignment surgery can't obtain it, either because it's not locally available, or because insurance companies and government programs won't foot the bill, it isn't right.

"The violence, discrimination, and hatred heaped upon differently-gendered people is an enormous wrong. This bigotry will stop only when the rest of "us" are able to accept our own gender conflicts and pinpoint our own prejudices about biological sex and social sex-roles. I hope that someday gender will be a voluntary system for self-expression, used chiefly to enhance the pleasure we take in one another's unique realities."

We've still got a long way to go before we get there on the large scale, but keep that it in mind. Pat Califia does a brilliant job of showing the connections between the challenges that face lesbian, gay, and trans people - and he's been doing that since before we all got used to lumping people together in the LGBT acronym.

You can find Pat Califia's books on Amazon and in some local bookstores - if they don't have any of his books, ask for them. This is something I've learned about writers, recently; they won't usually ask you to do this, but asking bookstores to put their books on shelves really helps. So does leaving them amazon reviews - especially 4 or 5 star ones, when you feel their writing is worth it.)

But despite everything Patrick has done, from educating around the country on HIV / AIDS prevention to offering affordable counseling to trans people of color in CA, like too many trans people, he's been struggling with a host of medical issues. Some of those issues have made it hard for him to get much work done the last few years. In the weeks leading up to this talk, I asked him where to direct any of you if you wanted to support him, as he has supported trans people around the world. I haven't gotten an answer back yet, but I'll reach out to the folks who organized the conference when I do. In the meantime -- go look for his books.

How many of you have heard of David Bowie?

Surprise! Almost everyone. It still feels a little strange to include him here, the same way it felt strange for me to affirm that as an agender person, I'm also part of the trans community. As far as I've been able to suss out, Bowie never identified as transgender. His androgyny is legend. He was some flavor of queer, and at different times he publicly asserted that he was gay, and later that he was bisexual.

Bowie's performance career and the genderfluid personas he created are incredibly powerful. They're incredibly visible. And they still speak to people of all gender identities today. It's not that David Bowie was the first man to wear a scarf, or a dress, or makeup - far from it. But I've seen the effect that Bowie's life and music and his personas have had on pretty much all my close friends. Sometimes it's a subtle influence, something that brings a smile to people's faces when they think about watching Labyrinth. Sometimes it's social, like the DJ who played Dance, Magic Dance at a convention and pulled almost everyone onto the floor. The best part is that Bowie's influence is widespread enough now that we don't always notice or remember his part in it.

A lot of people saw Bowie as constantly reinventing himself. It's a view that reminds me of one of the criticisms I've heard of trans people in general. As far as I can tell, the idea is that there's something immature about being in a process of exploring gender, maybe that it isn't worth spending a lot of time thinking about, that eventually that process will end and we'll end up with a single, solid gender identity.

Bowie has something to say about that. "I don't have stylistic loyalty. That's why people perceive me changing all the time. But there is a real continuity in my subject matter. As an artist of artifice, I do believe I have more integrity than any one of my contemporaries."

Take what Pat Califia has to say about gender - that one day it could be an individual system of expression - and what Bowie has to say about style. They get at this point in very different ways, but I think both of them would be on the same page. The idea of style, the idea of gender, is presented to us when we're very young as immutable. We're supposed to have "loyalty" to one gender, one style. We don't get to pick and choose - we're assigned one gender at birth. Isn't that what identity means? We're supposed to take the weird divisions our culture makes between girl and boy to heart, and ignore anything that falls in between. We're not supposed to notice the discontinuities between our lives and our selves and these enormous gender boxes. But we can all see them. Trans people and intersex people and non-binary people make those gaps glaringly obvious. Bowie was really good at playing with the gender boxes, and stepping deliberately outside them. His lack of what other people would call stylistic loyalty gave him the freedom to explore how artificial gender boundaries really are. And while some trans people do end up identifying within a binary gender system, many of us identify outside of it, outside the boxes, in the gender wilds.

Most of the things we've learned to associate with one gender or one sex role really are artificial. Of course women are strong, of course men have emotions. Of course some men like cooking and some women don't like shopping. Someone asked Bowie once why he was wearing a woman's dress. He said he wasn't: he was wearing a man's dress. Of course. And it's just as artificial - just as silly - to imagine that the growth people go through in their lives won't involve changing the ways they express and understand their gender. Most of us still assume that everyone has a single gender identity 'destination'. Take too long to find the gender that fits, try on too many hats, and even other trans or non-binary people may end up rolling their eyes.

I've had conversations with a lot of trans & non-binary people about how hard it is to find an identity that fits. I had a friend in grad school who identified first as a transvestite. He loved dressing up, and he looked great in heels and dresses. His eventual decision to transition ended the relationship he was in. And a couple years later, he decided not to transition after all. His family wasn't exactly supportive. The thing is… throughout that process, no matter what he was calling himself, no matter what labels he felt fit or didn't fit, that person was still my friend. The qualities I appreciated in him - wit, insight, his art - those didn't go away because he changed his mind a few times about the words he used to describe himself, or because he tried out different ways of dressing on different days.

David Bowie really never settled into a single gender expression. He kept exploring, and there were parts of himself in every character he brought to life. Is there something wrong with that? I don't think so. I see a lot more wrong with the idea that at some point we should STOP exploring, and settle down into a single identity, even if we never find one that actually fits.

Bowie wasn't an intellectual. He didn't make great strides forward in thinking about or articulating the challenges facing trans or non-binary people. He was a flawed creature as much as we all are. And that's actually why I wanted to bring him into this conversation. He was exploring. He brought up questions for his audience without having answers for them. And he had fun while doing it. There was a playful streak in his exploration, and a fearlessness, that I haven't seen very often. Maybe that's because of Bowie's privilege, and the fact that as a white male pop star he was able to visibly play with gender in ways that many poor trans people of color can't do safely in public. But there's something infectious about playfulness. Why else do we get our news through comedy shows? When there are so many serious things wrong with the world, we all need breaks. We need to relax, find things to laugh about. I think that's why so many of my friends love Bowie's work - he feels like one of us, it feels like he took the internal gender struggles we've all had and made them into something more fun than we had realized they could be. That's an amazing gift.

So yes, Bowie's transgression of gender stereotypes helped change the world. I definitely encourage you all to go and watch some of his movies, and some of his on-stage performances. And enjoy them.

I've watched people bond over Bowie's work, or his play. He helped create community among the people his art resonated with. That's exactly what the next two people I'm going to talk about are doing, too.

How many of you have heard of Sasha Alexander & Olympia Perez?

In the summer 2013, Sasha Alexander started to organize events that were explicitly focused on the black trans community. He had a background in working for social justice, making media, working with LGBT youth, and political activism. He organized under the hashtag #blacktransmedia & #blacktranseverything on twitter.

The catalyst that started #blactransmedia was an attack. In August of 2013, a black trans woman named Islan Nettles was attacked in Harlem. She died from it.

Sasha attended a vigil in her memory that catalyzed a lot of community members to step into more visible positions. He came to the understanding, like many people who see injustice do, that no one would give him permission to do what he felt needed to be done, and no one would invite him to do it. Nobody was going to make a job for him and let him know to apply to it. So he started organizing events to hold space for all the black trans people whose voices were getting drowned out in all the movements they were part of. He organized screenings of films by black trans artists, and raised money to bring some black trans artists to New York. He organized holiday celebrations for the black trans community.

Less than a year later, Olympia Perez joined the #blacktransmedia project. She's a poet, artist, and facilitator, and Sasha's focus on the black trans community resonated with her experiences and the things she wanted to change about the world. Together, Sasha and Olympia have been invited to speak all over the world about the work #blacktransmedia does.

They're both black and trans. They saw a need in their community and they started working to meet it. #blacktransmedia isn't a huge political force yet, but it's helping amplify the disproportionate discrimination and injustice facing black trans people. It's a voice and a project that does a wonderful job of holding space for a community that's marginalized in too many directions to count. Olympia and Sasha are creating a space where black trans contributions are seen, supported, respected, and honored.

They're also in love. It's still incredible to me that loving the people we love is one of the most revolutionary things we do. For Sasha & Olympia, their love is part of their activism. The way they understand each other and their struggles and their achievements helps them hold space for the community they're creating. Too many of their tweets are about violence against black trans people, because there is too much violence against black trans people. They know we don't gain anything from downplaying the violence, or looking away when awful things happen to black trans people.

Sasha and Olympia are still pretty young. They certainly don't have the kind of reach that Pat Califia or David Bowie do. But their work through #blacktransmedia is changing the world. They're helping make black trans people more visible, helping give the black trans community love & space that nobody else gives it, helping put the struggles black trans people go through more in the public eye, even when the public eye would rather look at celebrity trans people like Caitlyn Jenner or Lilly Wachowski or Laverne Cox.

So much of our shared conversations these days depends on the media. And we only see a few people there. Who can capture the attention of more news outlets, who has more followers on social media? That's one of the reasons I think Sasha Alexander and Olympia Perez are perfect examples of how trans people are changing the world. They're not huge celebrities. They're people. They saw something that needed doing, and they started working on it. Go check out their work -- look up the #blacktransmedia and #blacktranseverything hashtags on twitter, and see what they have to say.

Most of the things that change the world don't happen in the limelight. They happen between individuals, between friends and family. I asked a few trans & non-binary friends if they had any transgender heroes when I was getting started on this talk. The thing that struck me is how many of them mentioned trans people they knew personally, not the trans people everyone knows about.

And that's where we come to it.

Look around. Look at each other. These trans folks who are changing the world are all around us. They are us. WE are changing the world.

There's no single way to change the world. And there's no single way to be transgender, or non-binary. There's no single way to be a trans ally if you're a cisgender person. Part of the strength of this community is that we have so many faces, and so many voices, and so many unique and deeply considered perspectives.

There are only a few threads in common between all the people whose names I've mentioned. One of the big ones is that they don't keep their gender identities secret. That's not something it's safe for everyone to do. Sometimes, we all have to compromise - for our safety, for our families' safety. But the more of us that come out about our identity, the more reach we collectively have. The more people who realize that a trans person is one of their good friends, or that they're related to a trans person, the less likely they are to demonize trans people for being trans.

One of the things I've been struggling with is what to do when people parse me as female. In a couple of cases, when people have offered compliments that included gender, I've gently tried to tell them that I don't identify as female. I'm not sure they really understood what I meant, but I'll keep working on that. For people who are androgynous, or who don't show clear signs of their gender history on their face or their body, passing can be pretty easy. And while blending in may feel like security, I would argue that it's actually the opposite. Blending in, passing, doesn't help us. It may in the short term. But in the long term? We're hiding important parts of our identity. We can't be accepted for who we are if we're not honest about it. And our silence doesn't do anything for the rest of the trans community. Silence may be more comfortable, but in the long run our silence makes it easier for discrimination to continue.

So I'm asking you, when you safely can: talk about your gender identity with the people you know. Go farther than only asserting your pronouns. Help give the people you talk with more realistic images to bring to mind when they think of transgender people. Talk about gender and what it means to you with your family. Tell them that no trans person has ever attacked someone in a public bathroom -- but that plenty of trans people have been attacked in bathrooms. Take the conversation to places where they can relate, because there are places where none of us fit those weird gender stereotypes that tell us what colors and activities and kinds of people we're supposed to prefer.

Talking about these identities helps people around us to explore their own identities, and to come out eventually if they feel a need to. Part of the reason I think it took me so long to identify as agender is that my family is full of strong Jewish women who are fierce about their womanhood and their feminism. Both my mom and her mom chose to pursue careers in astronomy, and ran into incredible sexism in their colleagues and the institutions where they worked. They both spoke out often about how important it was to get more women into the sciences, to create a scientific culture that championed women and rewarded them fairly for the work they did. That's a wonderful undertaking, and a necessary shift. But it had the side effect of making me feel like it was important to my family that I act like and be another "strong woman." Paradoxically, my own feminism kept me from coming out as not-actually-any-gender-at-all. Now that I have, it feels much more honest to talk about women's rights and feminism -- and trans people's rights and transgenderism -- because I'm not hiding in part of a group that I don't actually identify with. And I recognize that many, many trans people have a MUCH more difficult and dangerous time coming out than I did. But all of us can use support, and having conversations about gender identity is a kind of support we can all offer each other.

So -- being open about who we are is one important piece. Being open about who we are is changing the world. But only being open isn't enough.

I've talked here about a few trans people who have already done some important things. They've written books, explored and interrogated a lot of important ideas. They've started the long slow work of tearing down stereotypes, and used their personal platforms to do so. They're creating communities for marginalized groups under the trans umbrella. But there are so many things trans people still need. Those needs aren't the same from country to country, or person to person. We need better laws to prevent people and organizations from discriminating against us. We need doctors who respect us and our identities. We need people to stop attacking us for being ourselves. We need the world to change.

In 2011, the National Center for Transgender Equality finished up the most comprehensive survey of discrimination against trans people that has been done yet. More than 6400 trans people participated in the survey. The Center titled the report of the survey's findings "Injustice at Every Turn." In summary:

"This study brings to light what is both patently obvious and far too often dismissed from the human rights agenda. Transgender and gender non-conforming people face injustice at every turn: in childhood homes, in school systems that promise to shelter and educate, in harsh and exclusionary workplaces, at the grocery store, the hotel front desk, in doctors’ offices and emergency rooms, before judges and at the hands of landlords, police officers, health care workers and other service providers.

Let me share a few of their findings here, so you get at least a high-level idea of the discrimination transpeople face. While some of these numbers have changed in the last few years since the survey was completed, most are still far too high.

  • Employment discrimination: Survey respondents experienced unemployment at twice the rate of the general population at the time of the survey, with rates for people of color up to four times the national unemployment rate.

  • Widespread mistreatment at work: Ninety percent of those surveyed reported experiencing harassment, mistreatment or discrimination on the job or took actions like hiding who they are to avoid it.

  • Over one-quarter reported that they had lost a job due to being transgender or gender non-conforming and 50% were harassed.

  • Large majorities attempted to avoid discrimination by hiding their gender or gender transition (71%) or delaying their gender transition (57%).

  • The vast majority (78%) of those who transitioned from one gender to the other reported that they felt more comfortable at work and their job performance improved, despite high levels of mistreatment.

  • Overall, 16% said they had been compelled to work in the underground economy for income (such as doing sex work or selling drugs).

  • Housing Discrimination: Respondents reported various forms of direct housing discrimination — 19% reported having been refused a home or apartment and 11% reported being evicted because of their gender identity/expression.

  • One-fifth reported experiencing homelessness at some point in their lives because they were transgender; the majority of those trying to access a homeless shelter were harassed by shelter staff or residents (55%), 29% were turned away altogether, and 22% were sexually assaulted by residents or staff.

  • Almost 2% of respondents were currently homeless, which is almost twice the rate of the general population (1%).

  • Suicide: A staggering 41% of respondents reported attempting suicide compared to 1.6% of the general population, with rates rising for those who lost a job due to bias (55%), were harassed/bullied in school (51%), or were the victim of physical assault (61%) or sexual assault (64%).

  • Health care discrimination: • Health outcomes for all categories of respondents show the appalling effects of social and economic marginalization, including much higher rates of HIV infection, smoking, drug and alcohol use and suicide attempts than the general population.

  • Refusal of care: 19% of our sample reported being refused medical care due to their transgender or gender non-conforming status, with even higher numbers among people of color in the survey.

  • Uninformed doctors: 50% of the sample reported having to teach their medical providers about transgender care.

  • High HIV rates: Respondents reported over four times the national average of HIV infection, with rates higher among transgender people of color.

  • 57% of transgender respondents experienced significant family rejection. But -- in the face of extensive institutional discrimination, family acceptance had a protective effect against many threats to well-being including health risks such as HIV infection and suicide. Families were more likely to remain together and provide support for transgender family members than stereotypes suggest.

The conclusion of the study is worth sharing, too:

"It is part of social and legal convention in the United States to discriminate against, ridicule, and abuse transgender and gender non-conforming people within foundational institutions such as the family, schools, the workplace and health care settings, every day. Instead of recognizing that the moral failure lies in society’s unwillingness to embrace different gender identities and expressions, society blames transgender and gender non-conforming people for bringing the discrimination and violence on themselves.

"Nearly every system and institution in the United States, both large and small, from local to national, is implicated by this data. Medical providers and health systems, government agencies, families, businesses and employers, schools and colleges, police departments, jail and prison systems—each of these systems and institutions is failing daily in its obligation to serve transgender and gender non-conforming people, instead subjecting them to mistreatment ranging from commonplace disrespect to outright violence, abuse and the denial of human dignity. The consequences of these widespread injustices are human and real, ranging from unemployment and homelessness to illness and death.

"This report is a call to action for all of us, especially for those who pass laws and set policies and practices, whose action or continued inaction will make a significant difference between the current climate of discrimination and violence and a world of freedom and equality. And everyone else, from those who drive buses or teach our children to those who sit on the judicial bench or write prescriptions, must also take up the call for human rights for transgender and gender non-conforming people, and confront this pattern of abuse and injustice.

"We must accept nothing less than a complete elimination of this pervasive inhumanity; we must work continuously and strenuously together for justice."

I grew up with a Jewish tradition that includes speaking aloud the names of people who have died recently who we are mourning. My rabbi suggested that sometimes we include not only the names of those we know, but also of those that have been forgotten, whose names we will never know, whose stories we will never hear.

There are millions of trans & non-binary people who are changing the world. We'll never hear most of their stories. Maybe they think their story isn't worth sharing. Maybe they've been silenced. Maybe they're too busy trying to get by to think much about it. Maybe they were killed because of who they were. Maybe they just don't want to talk about their struggles. We know some of their names. But we will never know them all.

(I want to take a few silent moments now to honor the trans people who have died, whose names & stories we will never know. Speak their names aloud if you know them, or to yourself, or hold them silently in your thoughts.)

(Thank you.)

It's important to talk about the challenges and the injustices transgender people face. But that's not the only thing happening in our communities. It's important to recognize that our efforts are making a difference in the world around us. And I think it's also important to talk about the ways gender identities influence our own worlds, on a very personal level.

I started by telling you a little about my gender identity. I want to take a minute now to talk about my partner, Michelle. My fiance, actually - she proposed just over a month ago. Most of the people I've been in relationship with have been cisgender, until recently . Michelle isn't -- she's intersex, and she's been very open with me & with the public about what that meant for her growing up. Her family never told her she was intersex. She found out about 10 years ago. She had a lot of surgeries as a young child, and it turns out one of those was done to "correct" her gender. She still has intense gender dysphoria, but she's decided not to transition physically for a host of personal and practical reasons -- she loves her singing voice, she's built a celebrity career on her name, and she doesn't want the health complications that come with taking hormones. And she definitely doesn't want more surgery than she's already had. That all makes perfect sense to me.

So, early on in our relationship, I asked her what name and what pronouns I should call her by. "Michelle" didn't really feel right to me - I told her I had pretty much always parsed her as male. She said at first that it didn't really matter to her. Many different people call her many different things. Fair enough. But eventually I asked how she thought of herself, and she let me know the name she identifies with, Seth, and said she thinks of herself with male pronouns. We also talked about how to reconcile that real inner identity with her public persona, and settled on a system that so far, seems to work pretty well. In public, or talking about Michelle to other people, I generally call her Michelle and use female pronouns. In private, Seth is my partner, soon to be husband-partner, with a body that doesn't reflect much about who he is. He likes to call the body "false advertising."

So when I hear people complaining about how much work it takes to get somebody's new name or new pronouns through their head, I have to say -- it sounds pretty weak. I can hold two completely separate identities in mind for a person I interact with every day. It's actually easy. All I have to do is remember that I love and care about that person, and that using the right words when I talk about them is one way to show that love and care. It's like remembering somebody's name in the first place. You don't have to get it down right away, but eventually if you keep calling someone by the wrong name, eventually they're going to feel like you don't care about them. And they're going to be right.

To be fair, I've been good friends with people who have changed their names and their pronouns for almost 10 years, so I have some practice juggling names and pronouns. But it's not rocket science. It takes some real mental effort at first, and probably some apologies when you inevitably muck things up.

It still breaks my heart to hear Seth talk about what happened when he first discovered he was intersex. At that point, trans people and intersex and non-binary people weren't nearly as visible as they are today. And his friends were pretty much assholes. They were too attached to the "Michelle" identity they were used to. They didn't realize that the person they were looking at wasn't "Michelle," or that perceived gender shouldn't matter as much as a person's feelings of being seen, and understood.

I haven't had most of those experiences. I have my own struggles with gender, but I don't know what it's like to be intersex, or what it's like to find something like that out when you're 30. But our experiences don't have to be the same. Love and care let us empathize with experiences we've never had. We can support people we care about, even when we don't understand why they need support.

This kind of empathy is exactly how communities grow. We're not all the same. We just meet, and start to care about each other. And we make an effort to see our similarities, not just our differences. We recognize and respect each other's complicated gender identities, even when they're not complicated the same way ours are. Even when identities contradict each other. I worry sometimes that we get so focused on the nuances of how we're all different that we'll lose sight of the things we share -- whether that's the love between partners, the struggle with our own gender identities, or the goal of creating more accepting and diverse communities. We can take everything we learn from struggling with gender, and turn it into acceptance and support for each other.

Each one of us is so much more than just a gender identity. We all have passions, ideas that excite us, projects that we'll gladly spend our lives working on. Science. Acting. Teaching. Counseling. Medicine. Sex therapy. Computer programming. Occult studies. Parenting. Politics. Music. Law. Buddhism. Environmental justice. Film. Relationships. Theology. Human rights. Social Media. Organizing. Writing. We're at our best when we pursue the things we care about passionately, and we have the capacity to make our gender identities part of that work in ways that work for us and support our trans and non-binary communities.

So -- what do you want your story to be? Do you want to be the one to tell it? There's space in the world for all of our voices. I've started talking more about gender identity in the last few weeks. Plenty of my friends didn't know that I was agender, since there isn't a pronoun I like enough to insist they use. Almost everyone in the world is probably related to or friends with someone who is trans. That trans person may not be out -- it may not be safe for them to be out. But maybe you & I can be.

I'm sharing my experience of what it means to me to be agender -- and what it definitely doesn't mean. Seth and I volunteered to talk about our gender identities on a radio show a few weeks ago. When I talk with people who aren't familiar with trans issues, I try to go well beyond pronouns; as important as pronouns are to affirm our identities, focusing too much on pronouns is missing a golden opportunity to talk about the kinds of discrimination that end people's lives. I'm trying to find ways to bring gender and transgender perspectives into my poetry. And I'm here, giving this talk to you.

Let me ask you this. What can you do to help end discrimination against trans and non-binary people? What are you passionate about? How can you connect your interests to the needs & interests of other trans and non-binary people? Can you start a trans group at your college, or with other alums? How can you support trans people of color, who are the most common targets of discrimination and abuse? Can you be open about your identity with your family, and with your friends who aren't trans themselves? Who else can you talk with? Can you host a holiday dinner for trans folks who aren't welcome at home? Can you write an op-ed for a newspaper and share some of your story with people you've never met? Can you start or join a trans support group where you live? What can you dream up to do on social media to amplify trans voices? Can you do any or all of these things? And can you do them while taking good care of yourself and making sure you're not in danger?

I don't have the answers to all those questions, but you do. So keep asking yourself: what can you do?

Transfolks are changing the world. And there's a lot more that we still need to change. So let's offer each other help when we can, and remember to ask for it when we need it. Let's find a place for every single person who wants to stand with us. Let's create vibrant support systems in every community. And let's come up with a hundred new ways to make the world a better place -- for people of every color, and gender, and non-gendered identity to live, and love, and be themselves.

Thank you.

 

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