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USC Keynote Address
Interviewing Isis King
“I write for my school paper and I want to be a writer like you someday,” a high school junior named Evie told me last Friday. “But I have to transition first.”
I was just like Evie, a high school junior who happened to be transgender. I was a year into my cross-hormone therapy, watching myself mature into the woman I always dreamt of myself being. But I had other dreams beyond settling my gender-body incongruity. I wanted to be a writer, and I struggled with balancing my dreams of womanhood with my career goals.
Hence, the duality of growing up transgender for today’s youth, the theme of my talk as part of a panel of career (trans)women at New York’s Hetrick-Martin Institute.
I was wracked with nervous energy when I walked into the conference room, peppered with pink and white balloons and filled with about 50 young people who regularly seek refuge in the center’s after-school program. Ayana Elliott, a nurse who specializes in transgender health, was standing regally at the front, detailing the overall effects of hormone therapy.
I could make out parts of the chatter as a result of my entrance. Some teens recognized me from my It Gets Better video as I took a seat in the back of the room with Aaron, who was fussing with his camera ensuring he got shots from the event. “Oooooh, she’s fierce, darling!” I heard one young man in the back of the room snap.
It was then that I started pitting in my nude-colored sheath. Yeah, there goes my fabulosity.
I felt guilty for being a distraction, as I was only a small part of Ayana’s “Woman in Me” program, a seminar she designed specifically to educate young transgender women about leading healthy lives. She and the center’s coordinator Bali White had invited me — along with America’s Next Top Model Isis King, Vivienne Morgan and trans activist Danielle King — to speak about my adolescent journey to womanhood and my subsequent career as a writer and editor.
The talk would mark my first time addressing an audience since going public with my teenage transition story. While running my points through my head, I began fretting over my toenail polish and messing with the crown of my curls. I tend to fuss over the ridiculous in times of crisis. Then, my name was called, and I sashayed down the aisle to take my seat between the ladies. I thought, “What would I have wanted a career (trans)woman to tell a 15-year-old me?”
Vivienne kicked off the conversation, telling her story of transitioning while working in corporate America. She even detailed her own struggle of not fully knowing that womanhood was possible until later in her life. The teens applauded, then I heard my bio being read by Ayana, and I was up.
I opened with the truth: “This is my first time speaking and I’m a little nervous but so happy to be here.” The kids were kind, going into a chorus of “ahhhhs” as I fiddled with my fingers up front.
I relayed a dream I recently had about the boy next door, literally, who was the object of my teenage obsession. “He was a guy who liked girls and I was a girl who like boys but happened to be born a boy,” I said, garnering laughs from the audience. “Yet despite this glaring difference, I loved him anyway and the 12-year-old me wrote letters to the boy next door. Some were sent anonymously and others were kept in a binder I had, a binder that eventually became my very first journal.”
I wrote about Neal often, but the journal transcended my puppy love. I soon realized that I wrote about everything, including stories about my girlhood adventures with my best friend Wendi and elaborate fantasies about my would-be life.
“By writing things down, they became real to me,” I explained. “I became real to me, and Neal was just the catalyst, the beautiful inspiration that gave me an excuse to write, a reason to discover my true passion.”
I talked about how I survived before taking steps toward transitioning: I balanced my true self (the person I knew myself to be) and my false self (the front I put up in order to survive, blend and protect my truth) and the dreams that birthed themselves from the combination of the two.
After detailing my transition story, my move to New York, my career as a writer and editor, I left with one message, the one thing that my biggest cheerleaders had told me as a teen when all I seemed to care about was fully embodying my womanhood: “You are so much more than your circumstance. You are so much more than a transgender teen or a gay high school student. It’s just a facet that makes up the multifaceted beautiful being that is you.”
With that the camera phones were whipped out and I posed with the kids for the next hour before taking a tour of the center with Lillian Rivera, the director of after-school services for Hetrick-Martin. I learned that the Harvey Milk High School was only one facet of the center. Many of the kids that I spoke to weren’t even students at the high school; they merely sought refuge in the activities, the health resources and the supportive staff that validated their experiences of “otherness.” HMI is a safe, nurturing space for LGBT youth; a place of their own.
Hetrick-Martin ended up being the refuge that I didn’t know I needed before showing up on that muggy Friday evening. I walked in a young woman who had finally owned all of her history, all of her experiences, and left with sisters. It was the first time in my 28 years that I was able to seek an inherent, intimate bond with women just like me. Ayana, Bali and Isis weren’t only healthy, outgoing women, they were also trans women of color striving to make a change in our community which still has a difficult time accepting the LGB community, no less the even more “foreign” concept of being transgender.
From the media portrait that I grew up with, all that I thought existed were sexy Asian women who were able to blend in with the best of them and late-in-life transitioning Caucasian women, many of whom had the privilege of economy (and our racially conscious society) to afford hormones and feminizing surgeries and even genital reassignment surgery. I didn’t know that women like Ayana and Vivienne existed. And the problem isn’t just the media’s limited portrait of shock and awe, it was also our fault. We had chosen (for many varying reasons) to live “stealth” for years, we had chosen to blend into society because our race was enough to fight for, and finally we were visible.
In the week since spending time with these women and the youth of Hetrick-Martin, another transwoman of color, Lashai Mclean, was murdered in Ayana’s hometown of Washington D.C. She was only 23, and detectives are looking into the possibility that Lashai was the victim of a hate crime. Regardless of the findings of D.C. police, Mclean’s death is another glaring wake-up call for we women of color who have transitioned to shed the benefits of the “stealth” life and come forward.
Intolerance and ignorance have proven once again to be lethal, yet in the midst of this tragedy there is hope. Strong women like Ayana, Bali, Danielle, Isis and all of us who bravely prove to live visibly are helping to change the collective portrait of trans people everywhere. My hope is that by shedding our anonymity and being visible we can help educate our community about our struggle, our triumphs and most of all our humanity – and can inspire other trans people, like the young women and men we addressed at the seminar, when they’re ready and safe to come out and be fully seen.