Listening to Sahara

02/11/2014 06:38 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

I will always remember the sound Sahara's voice -- her strong, vibrant voice, a voice so loud you knew she was going to enter a room long before she walked in the door. She greeted everyone with a booming "hi!" as she walked by, enveloping them in unmatched warmth. A member at the LGBT youth center where I used to work, Sahara and I first met when she joined the summer internship program I ran.

The day before the program started, I created a sign-in sheet for the group members. As I searched the client database, I could not find a "Sahara" in the system and learned from a colleague that she had a different "government" name -- a name that she had been given at birth but did not use in her daily life. In all my interactions with her and conversations about her with other staff, "Sahara" was the only name that had come up, but my computer screen clearly indicated a different one -- and a "boy" name at that. I had a choice: use the name from the computer, with all its official weight, or use the name I had heard her say when I first extended my hand and said, "Hi, I'm Sam. What's your name?" I made my choice, and with six quick keystrokes, S-A-H-A-R-A went onto the sign-in sheet.

The next day, Sahara was the first to arrive to group, and she dutifully walked over to the sign-in sheet, well aware of agency signing-in protocols. She scanned the names on the page and looked up at me. "Sam, my name's not on here!" she said.

I assured her that it was, and she looked back down. A moment later she raised her face, now void of her usual wide grin. Slowly she said, "I've never seen it written down before." Her finger was touching the place on the paper where her named was printed.

I've never seen it written down before.

I do not claim to know what Sahara felt in the moment, but what I read on her face was a sense of possibility -- the possibility of a future where she would not have to fear saying her name out loud or writing it down on paper, despite the times that saying "Sahara" had been met by questioning glances or confused looks from others.

I have known many people in Sahara's shoes in my years working alongside LGBT youth. As a cisgender, white, gay man, I have learned immensely from the transgender, gender-nonconforming, genderqueer, intersex, queer, racially diverse, homeless, etc. youth with whom I have worked and who have entrusted me with their stories during our long and frequent conversations. Most of the youth I worked with were growing up facing challenges and hurdles that were polar opposites of the ones I'd faced in my own adolescence. There was no way I could have done my job without first listening to what they had to say.

That's why I give the same answer to the countless cisgender teachers, administrators, parents, community members, etc. who have asked me, "How do we support trans students? What can I do to make schools better for them?" My advice always boils down to one message: Listen.

First, you listen to the person who is trying to tell you something about how they see the world and about how the world is reacting to them. You listen to their stories about how society treats those who do not meet normative expectations of gender and sex. You listen to them explain what it is like to have one's body policed in countless and dehumanizing ways. You listen to the stories that are too frequently ignored and erased from public discourse. You listen, you listen, and then you listen some more. And then you start to work together to do the long, hard work of changing minds and shifting policies. There is a lot that comes after the listening, but surely no change can happen without it.

Even with my experience, I do not consider myself to be anything approaching an expert on trans issues. But everything I have ever learned about and from trans people and the vast experiences they face comes from the fact that I have listened to what they had to say, just like I did with Sahara. When she said to me, "I'm Sahara," I listened. And my first response was, "Sahara, it's nice to meet you."

To the teachers, parents, concerned citizens, and, yes, even the talk-show hosts and pundits who are seeking to be allies to trans folks, I encourage you to do to the same, for listening -- good, active, attentive listening -- is the only way to start a real conversation.