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I was kind of a dreamer growing up. I would just write about when I would have long hair, write about laying in the grass and talking to a boy and doing things that I think my peers took for granted. So, I always knew that I would be a writer in New York City, telling stories, as a woman. -Janet Mock, The Out List, premiering on HBO June 27
In September 2011, I sat on a black leather highchair, barefoot and a bit nervous. It was the first time I had been in front of the camera after sharing my story only four months earlier in Marie Claire.
I felt vulnerable as I looked into the darkness ahead of me which masked photographer and filmmaker Timothy Greenfield-Sanders‘ crew. There was one glaring light shining on the left side of my face and I was engaged in conversation with producer and interviewer Sam McConnell, whom I could see in the camera’s monitor.
Sam was tender with me. As a result, my initial nervousness left me and I was just a young woman telling my story to someone eager to hear. That’s what I witnessed last week when I watched myself on the big screen at the New York premiere of The Out List – a documentary and portrait project that shares the stories, experiences and faces of bisexual, gay, lesbian and trans Americans.
After watching the film I was struck by the undeniable power of testimony, the collective narrative of being unapologetically yourself and the fact that despite the unifying acronym there is not one LGBT experience. And that’s a good thing. Yet, I did feel lonely being the only trans person in the documentary, which is poignantly representative of the movement’s current focus that tends to see trans people as an afterthought, a gesture of inclusivity.
One person cannot represent anyone but themselves. The burden of representation is too heavy for one to carry. My journey isn’t reflective of all trans women, men and people’s lives (for example I say “fully transitioned” in the film, which varies for all trans people, and refer to my relationship with my body as “the wrong equipment” – some feel theirs is in fact “right”). The number of people of color featured is wonderful and so is the fabulousness of drag legend Lady Bunny (who adamantly points out drag queens’ and street people’s – let’s not forget about trans women’s – presence at the Stonewall Riots) and Twiggy Pucci Garcon (who represented the ball community and mentioned my legendary sisters there) – all of which helps diversify the portrait of race and gender.
I still find myself struck by the fact that I, this brown trans girl from Kalihi, a low-income, resilient town in Honolulu, was sharing cinematic space with groundbreakers, from Ellen DeGeneres and Wanda Sykes to Larry Kramer and Lupe Valdez. It dawned on me as I sat down in that dark theater that my life, my story, a snapshot of my existence will forever be archived as part of our movement.
A little girl growing up like I did will be able to see herself in this film. She will not have to hunt down the footage, like my dear sister Reina Gossett had to when she sought and uncovered footage of Sylvia Rivera at the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally. This will be on HBO, not hidden in archives or blazed into the faulty memory bank of witnesses.
WHEN I WAS interviewed for the film I was rapidly in the midst of awakening to my own political consciousness. I admittedly was not, at the time, as vocal about the need for intersectional social justice as I am now, and a part of me is happy to have a snapshot of where I was at that time in my life. I was not as experienced with media, I was not sound-bitey, I was not overly political. I was just a girl, telling my story, a story about my journey to womanhood and my quest for self-revelation.
Personal stories are vital to culture change and I believe that this film will be pivotal to changing people’s perceptions about the LGBT community, but personal narratives are not everything. True progress occurs when we’re able to contextualize our personal experiences and come to the realization that we are part of a movement of people struggling with similar and dissimilar systemic oppressions.
As reported in Vanity Fair, the fight for marriage was a major catalyst for the creation of this project. And it’s with a note of bittersweetness that I celebrate the premiere of this film and the striking down of DOMA. The freedom to marry is important (it took decades of organizing, movement resources and millions of dollars), as I said on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry (clip embedded below) on Saturday, but so are daily access issues that low-income, homeless, incarcerated, HIV-living, immigrant, jobless and LGBT communities of color face, which frankly are not sexy issues that make passersby feel all warm and fuzzy inside. And these issues don’t garner the same resources and media focus as marriage.
“We’ve had many victories and celebrations for our gay brothers and lesbian sisters, but we can’t ignore the fact that trans people are casualties in this fight,” I said in The Out List. It’s telling to me that in New York, which is seen as this mecca for LGBT people, has only extended “equality” to gay and lesbian people, who can marry (in New York and a handful of other states) and be legally recognized and economically sanctioned by the state and now federal government, who are protected against discrimination when they’re seeking employment, housing and public accommodations due to the 2002 passage of the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act, which politically left trans and gender-based protections out.
Today, trans and gender nonconforming people in New York are still fighting for equality, having gotten the blow last week that for the 11th year in a row the trans civil rights bill, the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), hasn’t received a vote by New York Senate – despite having the endorsement of The New York Times and 78% of New Yorkers. Additionally, we must still fight for inclusive ENDA nationally, for reproductive justice, for the Voting Rights Act, which the Supreme Court gutted, ensuring that racism continues to be a part of our democracy.
I understand the importance of marriage and how it’s helped many Americans understand what it means to be gay in America. But I don’t wholly believe the saying that “rising tides lift all boats.” It operates on the assumption that we’re all coasting along in the same ocean. For some of us, our oceans are monstrous because we cannot separate the fact that we are trans and brown and women or that we are queer and native and gender-nonconforming. We need this movement to be cognizant of this reality by elevating its politics beyond a single focus and by ensuring that the staffs of major LGBT organizations are representative of our diverse community or at the least in close counsel with grassroots efforts that are accountable daily to such communities.
I AM GRATEFUL to Timothy, Sam and Catherine Pino for being champions of me, for extending their powerful platform to me so that I could tell my story. I am also humbled to share space with and to have heard the stories of Dustin Lance Black, Lady Bunny, R. Clarke Cooper, Wade Davis, Ellen Degeneres, Twiggy Pucci Garcon, Neil Patrick Harris, Larry Kramer, Cynthia Nixon, Suze Orman, Christine Quinn, Jake Shears, Wanda Sykes, Lupe Valdez and Wazina Zondon (whom I coincidentally share a hair salon…small world!)
When I shared my story two years ago, I could not have envisioned such an honor. I merely wanted to be heard and to extend an example of a different kind of woman to the little girl I once was. I hope she’s out there watching, being filled with hope and possibility for a better future that we must all do the intersectional work to create.