“Do I belong here?”
That’s the question I often found myself asking as I attended events for Pride Month in New York City.
I’d never aligned myself with any group growing up because I didn’t really fit. I was mostly okay with being the traveling square peg in a bunch of round holes. I hung with the band geeks, the gym rats, student council enthusiasts, the popular girls, the queer boys, the dorky newspaper staff.
I was everywhere, but utterly alone at the same time.
Since opening up to the world about being a trans woman, I’ve been embraced with open arms and hearts by a larger minority: the LGBT community. In the past few weeks alone, I attended Mayor Bloomberg’s annual LGBT BBQ at Gracie Mansion, live-Tweeted as the New York Senate passed marriage equality, cried furiously while watching The Normal Heart on Broadway and marched with the It Gets Better project in the NYC Pride Parade.
And once again I was everywhere, yet questioning where exactly did I fit.
Before opening up publicly, I was merely this writer who was open about her own love story and had a coming-of-age saga she was aching to tell. That was me. Then I had to “come out” because the story of transitioning as a teenager had to be told as a nugget of hope to trans youth, letting them know that they are not alone nor are they the first to take that journey.
I have friends, very close friends, who worry whether I am pigeon-holing myself by aligning with so-called LGBT causes, by going public with my story, by leading with my trans-ness. “Are you scared of being labeled a trans writer?” one friend asked. I totally got her concern, I understood her worry and fear, but I had to remind her that my whole “coming out” has never been about me.
My public revelation has been about adding another lived experience to this collective journey of human narratives, of displaying our true colors as marginalized folk, and showing that despite what some laugh at on Maury and Jerry Springer and any other limited “freak show” portrayal in the media, we exist and deserve rights and protections.
NYC PRIDE MARCH
My belief in these protections and a better tomorrow is why I held the It Gets Better banner so proudly down Fifth Avenue. I was proud to be there because I believe in my optimistic core that it does get better, with support and self-acceptance and determination. My boyfriend Aaron snapped pictures as my best friend Mai and I stomped all the way from midtown to Christopher Street. We waved and did spirit fingers to the crowd. It was glorious.
I even teared up when grand marshall Dan Savage yelled, “We’re making it better!” to victorious GLB onlookers who have fought and have been heard and are now recognized as human beings who love through New York’s recent legislation. Yet despite the celebratory mood, I still wondered when I’d be able to concretely show trans youth that it does get better, especially for them.
In the weeks since coming out, I have been lucky enough to connect to many trans people, who have written numerous emails and messages to me about their transition stories. They’ve applauded me for telling my story, for giving them hope, but they also express their bittersweet feelings about what comes off as my so-called “privileged journey” (I had supportive parents, transitioned young, got an education, have a career) because their stories are quite different. I’ve heard devastating stories of trans women who are aching to transition but feel trapped, not only by their body, but by the fear that they’ll lose their jobs, lose their homes, lose their families if they transition. I’ve heard stories of women unable to find a job because they’re unable to “pass” and are pushed by society oppressions to make a living in underground economies.
As I held that banner, I thought of those heartbreaking stories. I searched the crowds for “my people” – kids who reflected me in the years in which I didn’t know I was trans and had yet to know that fierce determination and medicine could help align my insides and outsides. I found a few faces and beamed at them, hoping that they knew that I was there to represent their pride, that I was there as a symbol of hope and that I was there to let them know that they mattered.
I’m not an activist. I don’t know much about legislation. I can’t recite all the letters in the current LGBTQQIA acronym. And I still get called out for using both terms transgender and transsexual. But I do know that civil rights are human rights, and I wore my vocal chords out screaming in celebration not just for GLB but for our society as a whole. Marriage equality is not a gay issue, it’s a human rights issue; just as I believe that the many-times-failed Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA) is not a trans or LGBT (or T) issue, but a human rights issues.
While gay and bi boys and lesbian and bi girls (and even trans individuals who are also GLB) had something to celebrate, a concrete example of it getting better, I still mourned the fact that I couldn’t let trans youth know that when they grow up they’ll be allotted civil rights that would protect them from being discriminated against when they apply for a job and/or look for an apartment. I almost felt I failed because I could not guarantee – at least legislatively – that it gets better for us all.
THE NORMAL HEART
Beyond my torn feelings during the march, I finally saw the Tony-winning revival The Normal Heart on Broadway. This beautiful, powerful narrative, written by Larry Kramer, was an eye-opening snapshot of what the gay community (or lack thereof at the time) endured in the early ’80s as they confronted the epidemic that would become AIDS.
The first time I had ever heard of AIDS was in Oakland in 1991. I was buying a box of Nerds in our corner candy store. The shopkeeper had his radio on, and the DJs were debating Magic Johnson’s life expectancy. From that moment on, HIV/AIDS had been interwoven in my youth, just as the DARE program was a thread in my early adolescent tapestry. I was always aware of the crack and AIDS epidemics, but I was completely ignorant of AIDS roots, which The Normal Heart so beautifully relayed by making the disease a character, a real character that you, the audience member, see coming, like a monster, and these characters you love on stage aren’t stopping the monster.
I left the Golden Theater invested in these characters and in the cause. I wanted to jump on stage, like a time-traveling sage and let them know that they had to band together now, stop the in-fighting and gather in love and collective cause and fight, fight, fight because like most important causes, it’s not just a niche issue, it’s a human issue.
SO WHERE DO I BELONG?
After relaying the past month’s events, I don’t know if I quite fit anywhere. Even at the march, many lesbians of color smiled at me in solidarity, I’m assuming proud that they had a queer woman of color to represent them. I nodded and cheered at them as well. I noticed that many thought Aaron and I were straight allies. I cheered along with them as well. I rah-rah-rahed my way down Fifth Avenue celebrating and recognizing the lives of some thousands of brothers, sisters and siblings in New York.
Yet despite still being a square peg, I do know where I belong: I belong at my desk writing about my lived experiences as a marginalized woman embodying layered identities; I belong at Aaron’s side as we continue to live our lives visibly, in love and free; I belong here, right where I stand as me, a woman who fought everyday of her life to be exactly who she is.
I hope that one day I can tell my kids that we collectively chanted “It! Gets! Better!” on a sunny day in New York City way back in 2011 in celebration that gays and lesbians were able to legitimize their love and their families, to have their human hearts recognized by the larger collective.
I hope to relay that story of victory and hope to my children, and hear them ask in reaction, “Why did you guys grant civil rights incrementally?”