I gave this speech as the keynote address for the 2014 West Michigan Transgender Day of Remembrance: A Gathering of Hope, tonight.
Some of the dedicated people who volunteered their time to make this event happen
Thank you so much for allowing me to speak to you, and thank you to all our allies for being here tonight. This is a special night for our community. Even nationally, we don’t have a lot of spaces that belong just to trans people. Because of this, we very rarely have opportunities to welcome you into our space. But tonight, I’m borrowing Pastor Doug’s (and, well, Teri’s and my) church and appropriating it as “our space” (Sorry, Pastor!). So, I do want to take a moment to welcome you all into a space that belongs to trans people. If you’re one of my trans siblings, you belong here. Tonight, this is your space. Yours in which you should be proud of whom and what you are, yours in which you should hold your head up high, yours in which you should demand that you be seen and counted and recognized. And, if you’re here as an ally, for this one rare time, please let us welcome you into our space. You belong here, too. Because trans people are people, and people don’t stand alone, and you are our community.
Now, what I’m about to say may make some of you uncomfortable – but I would feel wrong if I didn’t say it. The thought behind it made me uncomfortable, for a long time. I also think you, like me, will be better for being uncomfortable. Chad Griffin is the CEO of the Human Rights Campaign, probably the biggest LGBT advocacy organization in the world. He came to Southern Comfort Conference a few months ago, to apologize to our community for HRC’s historic missteps towards us. HRC kind of owed us that apology. When Chad did that, he started by acknowledging his privilege.
I want to do the same. I want to acknowledge the stark contrast between my life and the lives of the siblings we are here today to mourn. Where many of them were impoverished and more than a few experienced homelessness, I have always had a warm bed to sleep in, and enough money to pay for everything I needed and a fair amount of what I wanted. Where many of them were estranged from their families, my parents have been so good to me, and if not perfectly understanding of what it’s like to be me, open to trying. My father said, “I don’t know why you came to ask me if I accept you – of course I accept you, you’re my child.” My mother said, “If anybody in the family has a problem with you, they’ll have to come through me,” and she’s as fierce as I aspire to be, so I wouldn’t mess with her. Where many of them were cut off from their communities, I should acknowledge that I live in a world of talking business over lunch or after-dinner drinks (or, sometimes, brunch!). Far from losing anyone in either my personal or professional community through transitioning, my social network has only grown and strengthened. Far from losing recognition for my expertise in autism, I gained recognition now also for my role in the LGBT community. And where many of our siblings were seen as what the police protected “us” from, I am able to generally assume, when I see a police officer, that they are there to protect and serve me. Their presence makes me feel more, not less safe. I want to come clean about all of this. I don’t want to stand up here and ignore how I do not face many of the risks that felled our siblings – 268 in the last year, I think that’s 12% more than last year.
I want to come clean about the disparity between me having about as good an experience transitioning here in West Michigan as anyone has, anywhere, and the siblings, not just out there, but right here, who struggle with a lack of acceptance or access to resources, and of course, the siblings who paid the ultimate sacrifice, just for being what God made them. We live in an intersectional world. Some of us live at the intersection of multiple forms of marginalization, that make it harder to live authentically, harder to be accepted, harder to survive. And some of us live at the intersection of multiple forms of privilege, that make even challenging life experiences, like transitioning, something through which we not only survive, but thrive. That’s privilege. Mostly, I didn’t earn it. It’s just a matter of luck.
Look at me, getting all fierce
Of course, that’s not the whole story. It’s just a starting point, to challenge you to think differently about how we go farther in getting the world to accept us, in getting our needs taken seriously, and in finally seeing a world where freedom is a right and not a matter of being “one of the lucky ones.” For ALL trans people. To get, there, we need to re-think our use of privilege and visibility. They need to become not just something for which we apologize, or about which we are bashful, but weapons that we will use to win this thing.
So, while I respect that each of us must make choices that are best for them – we cannot build the revolution on anyone’s back – I do want to push you to think differently about being visible. When I was coming out, I knew that I couldn’t be “stealth” in my profession. I’m in a small technical field. Even if I moved to Texas, too many people in my field know me. I could not have been stealth in my profession. But I could have been stealth, in my community, in Texas or some other far-flung place. I thought about this, after I started transitioning, and before my story became public. For a moment. I chose not to leave. Not just because I love Grand Rapids – I do – but because not being stealth gave me an opportunity to be a little more fearless as an advocate. I had a little less to lose. Plus, I don’t really know any other place to wear my heart other than my sleeve. Everybody who knows me knows that.
If you’re a trans person in the room, and you’re engaged in professional or other leadership spaces, especially, you’re kind of used to something that’s new to me, over the four months or so since I went “full time.” You get used to the times when, over and over again, you sit at a table, or speak up in a conversation, or stand up in front of a crowd, and you realize that you are boldly going where no trans person has gone before. And you get used to the sense that there are a million other times when you’re doing that, and you didn’t even realize it. When we go into those spaces and we own them – we stand tall, and proud, and fierce, and we stare down anyone who stares at us, or we throw them a dismissive smile – our visibility makes it easier for the next trans person, and the next trans person, and the next. Even when they hate us, your visibility helps us, because it outs the hate. And when you look around this room, you realize that we have lots of different kinds of visibilities. Some of us are visible with our faces. Some of us are visible with our voices. We are visible by our presence. You are visible just by gathering here tonight. All of you have one kind of visibility or another.
And what about our privilege? Right here, in Grand Rapids, the LGBT community and our allies, we raised more than $280,000 in pledges and donations for Our LGBT Fund. In less than four months. Trans people are represented at that table – as donors and as leaders in the Fund. We are being vocal about our needs and our expectations as we begin the process of prioritizing what we can do with this new source of funding, so that we make sure that trans people are represented at that table as recipients of the supports this funding will bring, as well. Money is one kind of privilege that gets us to the the table. It’s a privilege the trans community is hesitant to mobilize, although today, even small contributions to causes, when added up, can make a difference and emphasize our role in changing things.
But money is just one privilege. Connections, cultivated friendships, opportunities you’ve had to develop skills or prestige, all these privileges are currency in a very real way. That currency helps us get a seat at those tables. But, we choose to be at those tables, because it’s important to make sure we have a voice in the conversation. What I want to challenge you with, tonight, is that we have more privileges than we realize. Some of you work for large corporations. Some of you have privilege by membership in an ethnic group or social class. Many of you have privilege that education brings. Again, when you look around this room, you realize that we have lots of different kinds of privileges. Those privileges, when we lord them over each other, when we use them to build a wall between us and our community, become terrible. But when we we leverage those privileges to make the world a better place for trans people, they can be redeemed.
You can see this – leveraging privilege and visibility – writ large these days. And you don’t even have to look outside our own trans community. I came out in a time of Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, Kristin Beck, and Chaz Bono. Their use of privilege and visibility to advance trans acceptance and inclusion – especially leveraging their talents in something other than being trans – made it easier for me. Honestly, they’re kind of hard to argue with. Kristin is like a real-life G.I. Joe character. Laverne had what started as a small role in Orange Is The New Black and kind of stole the show, and not because she was trans, but because she’s an amazing actress and has a warm, lovable personality. And Janet is inspiring as an example about how to be graceful and real, at the same time, for anyone (myself certainly included). And Chaz? Well, I guess I just wish I could dance like Chaz can! Each one of them, in their coming out, made a choice to be visible. They made a choice to leverage their privileges – whether talent or name or appearance or connections – to advance our cause. Those of you who are here as allies, who maybe only know one trans person, who haven’t had the opportunity to be in a space where we’re the majority, you may not know just how many more stories there are, out there, like Kristin’s, Chaz’s, Janet’s, or Laverne’s. You may not know just how awe-inspiring the talent level is when you get a room of trans people together. But you trans people in the room, you know better. All that talent, if we focus it on changing the world for us, can be powerful in changing our perception as a community. So, this is how privilege and talent become weapons.
In the days to come, we’re going to need those weapons. We’re going to need to get uncomfortable, because this is war. So I’m calling on you to ask – how and where are you willing to be visible? And will you think again about the privileges you have and how you can use them in this fight? In a world where so many of you have done so much to advance the cause of marriage equality, we’ve got a lot to do to teach the rest of the LGBT community that “it ain’t a party if I ain’t invited” (even though we’ve always been here). In a world where we need so many candles to mourn our dead, we need to hold accountable the people who have the gall to say we’re “fully protected” already and that our state’s civil rights amendment doesn’t need to include us (this isn’t hypothetical – we need your help on this right now). And in a world where people still call us unnatural, in contradiction to scientific evidence and common sense, we need to teach people the truth – what our friends know already: that the colors are brighter, the laughter more joyous, the songs more cheerful, and the world so much better, when our community embraces us.