I sat quietly in a large room at Chicago’s Gerber/Hart Library. Some sat nervous like me, wide-eyed and curious, fidgeting with their clothes, bags, nails and expressions. Others seemed like old friends, gallantly laughing, bending wrists, and gliding across the room in an array of both extravagant and dapperly conservative fashions. This was Gender Queer Chicago, a safe space specifically for the gender non-conforming community. For the last 6 months I had been obsessively watching FTM video blogs on YouTube. And like a lot of other guys I would meet, in those moments everything began to make sense. I was mesmerized by the weekly transition updates, a bit of facial hair, a drop in voice, suddenly waking up with a six pack — was this for rea!? Not only were things making sense, but an active initiative could be taken to do something about it.
I was ecstatic, alarmed, confused and filled with questions. I remember deciding everything I would and would never do. I was afraid. A lesbian was one thing, but could I be trans? For the first time I had entered a space where I could openly explore gender, both as a construction and as a chosen identity. I was overwhelmed with a sense of home and belonging. This was my second coming out and it was life altering. It was like I was 12 all over again, a pre-teen slyly sneaking out to Howard Brown’s LGBT youth mixer (Synergy). Glitter may as well have rained from the sky.
Eventually we all took a seat in a circle and for the first time ever I was asked, “What is your preferred pronoun?”.
That was 7 years ago and I must say a lot has changed over the past few years. Technology in many ways has overcome social spatial fixes connecting us across cities, nations and continents. The term “chosen family” has greatly expanded considering the growing number of LGBTQIA resources available. One can find community almost instantaneously through all social media platforms, dozens of blogs and a rising amount of websites that specifically cater to Trans* individuals.
We’re also beginning to take initiatives to create platforms for ourselves. Community groups, exhibitions, web-series and films are surfacing all over the web. For the first time we can be like, “Omg! That’s me!” or “I haven’t seen me yet — let me do something about that”. If you had told me in 2009 I’d be making a Trans web-series. With an all black cast. In London! I’d have hit the roof with questions! How? With who?! Will anyone care?
According to Flavia Pansieri, the UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, in the last four years 10 countries have reformed policy to recognize the gender identities of transgender people. In 2011, a historic moment took place when the UN Human Rights Council directly recognized violent discrimination faced by trans and gender variant people. In addition, as of June 2015, the European Parliament has included a gender equality report inclusive of trans folk. We can look to these shifts in legislation as milestones reached and motivation for the future of transgender and gender variant equality.
Yet while legislation is progressing (slowly) and mainstream recognition has grown, Trans* folk, particularly trans* folks of color, continue to face obstacles that aren’t fully being recognized.
When I took my first dose of testosterone, I was overjoyed. And I was certain this was what I had to do. This was the obvious step one must take in their transition. I was in no way prepared for the sudden “hyper-masculinity” projected on me as a black male. Passing went from an exciting realization of self to the embodiment of criminalization. Clutched purses, violent confrontations and fear I wasn’t “man enough” caused debilitating anxiety. I also came to realize that ambiguity, queerness and fluidity were disappearing from my grasp. It was suddenly taboo for me to vocalize certain subjects, like my desire to have biological children. “I thought you wanted to be a man?” was a common response.
Visibility for the trans* community is not just focusing on an achieved aesthetic, before and after pictures or another box checked on a long list of activist labels. It’s recognizing that the number one cause of stress is when an individual feels they have no support system or community. There’s a necessity to maintain our emotional, psychological and for many, our spiritual selves. For allies, it’s not about saying “Look, this is my trans friend, you can’t even tell”, followed by excessive grinning.
Mental health is a part of the picture and must continue to be addressed… and not only in the Western world.
The International Declaration of Human Rights includes 30 Articles stating universal rights to all. Yet while this document has been foundational to Human Rights Law since 1948 it still remains inaccessible to thousands of Transgender people. Since 2008, there have been 1,731 recorded murders of Transgender and gender non-conforming individuals globally. Of that number 78% occurred in Latin America.
So what are some steps that can be taken to affect trans* livelihoods? Laws that enforce social stigma need to be reformed; the ECtHR’s ruling against Article 40 in Turkish Civil Code is an example of this. Access to documents that reflect one’s gender identity would immediately reduce unemployment and suspicion in the workplace. Advocating for national legislation that insures access to healthcare while simultaneously mapping/reporting violence would allow for murder and suicide prevention. Rights policy is necessary — laws such as Matthew Shepard and James Byrd and the Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (2009) demonstrate progress in this area. Last but not least, advocacy for asylum cases of transgender people fleeing persecution due to gender identity will help protect trans family globally.
I know we aren’t all lawyers, advocates and activists; some of us just want to BE.
Someone once told me, “Didn’t you know? Trans people are magical, they are transformers! WE HAVE SPECIAL POWERS!” And you know what? They were right. The ability to transcend gender, re-define it, be self-made, destroy it, wear it with high heels, wear it with a beer and bowtie, a moustache and glitter, flaunt it with extraordinary creative talent, witty genius, assertiveness… (I could go on forever), offers an array of perspectives that makes us re-think societal norms, structures and fixes. Rather then having to defining ourselves in opposition to society, I hope we can develop a deeper consciousness. One that allows us to focus on ourselves as people and how we connect with each other, our purpose and the world.
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Khaleb Brooks is a digital storyteller seeking the revival of indigenous creative methods and innovation. Nothing is impossible. Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, he was inspired by a multitude of art-forms, the reality of injustice and the diasporic happenings of youth culture and making home. Since traveling to Cambodia in 2007 and working with street youth, he has dedicated his life to social justice work. He has worked with Ayamara and Coetchwa peoples in Bolivia, Nicaraguan refugees in Costa Rica, victims of sex-trafficking and the caste system in India, and conducted research in Panama, Chile and Cuba. After recently completing an MSc in Violence Conflict and Development at SOAS University of London, he has hit the road to pursue free-lance writing, sculpting and acting. Website: artisrevolution.org Instagram: @khalebsalah_ Twitter: @FirstAmmendment