Transfaith sat down with two black trans elders to discuss what has changed since they came out, what has not, and how trans youth and young adults can be in solidarity with our elders. Cross-posted with “Loving and Learning with Trans Elders” at Transfaith.
How can young trans people support Trans elders?
A. Dionne Stallworth: In the age of instantaneous information most young trans people have no idea who [their] elders are. The first thing you can do is seek us out. Spend fifteen or twenty minutes Googling trans history. There's a great abundance of information out about who we are, what we've done, our struggles, and things that we've seen.
I saw a post on Facebook this morning that said a certain legislation has trans people fighting for their lives. I responded "I'm confused, when haven't we been fighting for our lives" It’s never stopped, the war is on. It’s like the old Superman tagline "the never-ending struggle." If you want to know where we've been so you can continue or adjust the path that we're on, speak to us first. Engage us in your planning. Engage us in your activities. Just because we may not be looking “fabulous” to quote Indiana Jones "we've got a lot of mileage." That mileage says we've been someplace and we've done something. Best pay attention, ya heard?
Louis Mitchell: Young trans people need to do what they can to be self supporting, because it doesn't help us if you sharpen your pencil down to the eraser every day. One thing we haven’t done is model self care. Young people need to practice self care and model it for us, because we're bad at it. It's really important to be present and available. Check on us every now and again. But start with really finding your own place in the movement. Disclosed, undisclosed, activist, non-activist, check writer - whatever your place is, find it and fill it. Everybody's place is not the same.
What do you wish younger trans people knew about being a trans elder?
Dionne: Surviving this long is [about] knowing what fights to engage in, knowing who your friends are, who your allies are. You have to see what it's actually happening. It's a matter of people taking it upon themselves to see what is actually happening, and hold those people who are in positions of power accountable. This is where the elders and the youth should be combining forces to drive the point home to those governmental agencies, even public, private, and nonprofit partnerships. We can hold these bastards accountable, but that has not happened. What I see in a lot of these movements today is that they have forgotten that we stood first and before us there were others who stood. There is strength and wisdom in knowing that. If you really desire the wisdom, if you really desire to work for the greater good, then you have to know your history. You have to know where you have gone in order to know where you're going. Listen to us, and don't placate us, don't condescend to us. Understand that we've been in this fight a little bit longer, and while our ways may not be your ways, our ends our very much your desired ends.
Louis: That it's not as rare as you might believe. There are a lot of us out here. In my generation if you were transitioning you’d go away where nobody knew you. We have no clue how many trans elders are out there and we have no idea they’re there! They were taught to be non-disclosing as a matter of becoming.
There's a lot of time wasted in trying to find branding. Branding is a cute thing, but it doesn't save anybody's life. Spend less time branding yourself, and more time being present with each other. Since the late 90s and early 2000s it's really been about "this is my picture, this is my voice, I'm the poster trans child" but you haven't done anything except be! Who have you served? That doesn't make you an authority or an icon because you exist. It does make you special and courageous and awesome, but I almost would like to see a trans corps - kind of like the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps where you do a year of service before you get to claim a title or throne. Do something for somebody other than yourself. Learn about community outside of your own backyard, because there's a lot of variation in who is trans. If you spend all your time Instagramming and none of your time having a cup of tea, or beer or whatever, and getting to know your community, who are you really representing? Make room for other people to make mistakes and love them through it. We have everybody in the world throwing us under the bus, let's not give them a hand.
How has being trans changed since you were young, and how has it stayed the same?
Dionne: What stayed the same is the inordinate pressure on people, even if they are outside the binary, to conform to binary standards vis a vis passing. The line when I was younger was "passing is life" and I would say that unfortunately happens to still be the case.
What has changed since I was younger, the best part is that as an elder I’ve had to reexamine my own concepts of gender and go beyond the binary. Being outside of one's comfort zone makes one a bit uncomfortable, but the fact is that the binary is only a small piece of what exists. There is scientific, cultural, and historical proof that the binary has always been a small piece of the puzzles of gender and sex. As we continue to explore this information there will be a point where it becomes the standard. I'm fearful, though, in these days and times when there are so many people who are attacking facts and reality, that scientific truth and reality may be the first thing to disappear if we are not open and wise enough to engage these people and stand and dispute them.
Louis: I didn’t transition when I was especially young, I transitioned in my late thirties. At that time, at least for me as a trans man, I had no ideas because there was no such thing as a trans man in my understanding of the world. It was a fantasy. There were trans women forever. You could read about them, they were on the cover of Jet Magazine - thank you Monica Roberts, but trans men were non existent. I had nothing much to compare myself to. I think guys coming out now have a couple of generations to compare themselves to, we had nothing, because whoever was there was so deep undercover that they could not be found. Gender nonconforming folks have a similar story because the language wasn’t there to identify who their elders were.
I think part of the challenge of being a trans man is that we are trying to find ourselves and have some visibility, and we are also often working against sexism and the erasure of trans women. That delicate balancing act between wanting to see ourselves, and wanting to save space and make space for others is a delicate thing, and I mess it up all the time. It’s important that I remember to center voices that still will bear the burden of sexism, one I know too well from my previous life, and to not be greedy or impatient. Yet also to recognize that I have the right to be seen and heard as well. It’s really tender, it’s some new math.
What is one piece of advice for young trans people that you wish someone had told you?
Dionne: Look at the whole picture. Affirming who I am was important to me, and I think that’s the way that a lot of people see it. Those of us who haven’t had the good fortune of a Jazz Jennings or supportive parents had to transition when we were older. For trans women, that means we had to exist as boys. A funny thing happens when you change your presentation as well as your identity; the resources you had with your previous identities are no longer viable, they don’t exist for you. I found myself in a position where all of my skills including my education were no longer accessible to me. That meant I didn’t have a job that I could qualify for, I didn’t have references that people could check. I had no job history, no credit history. These are very important things.
Look at the whole picture. Prepare your path to transition. If you have the support that you need, fine. If you don’t that means your work is going to be rather intensive. There’s an old saying when I was a kid, “people do not plan to fail, they fail to plan.” Making one’s transition has led to many casualties - emotionally and physically. Some of these things lead to great emotional trauma besides the actual transition being a trauma onto itself. You’re going to find that not only is your body is going through changes, but relationships you have depended on may no longer be there. You have to sort out and seek out new relationships, and some may not be as good as the old ones. They may not have time to develop as much as the old ones. Make sure your transition plan is in place.
Another thing is I’ve seen a lot of young people able to transition earlier, and it’s been more supported by families and significant others and people in their immediate space. Yet the lack of support from the overall lesbian and gay people that we have always stood for and with [worries me]. I heard one of our black gay male leaders say to me that a trans individual of thirteen or fourteen years old cannot possibly know who they are to make the decision to transition. That is the same argument that was used against gay people in the 1940s and 1950s. How dare they be so hypocritical and short sighted? Trans people have always been the sacrificial lambs for the overall queer movement. This is no longer acceptable. We are fighting for our lives and to quote another great leader of color “If things are alright for trans people in America then everyone else will be fine in America.” A rising tide lifts all boats, we rise, we fall, we stand, we get crushed all together.
Louis: Cross the street and get to know trans people who are not in your experience. If you’re a trans man, get to know some trans women, if you’re binary, get to know some gender non-conforming people, if you’re inclined to get every operation to align your body, get to know people who are non-op and choose to be. Get to know other stories so you understand the fullness of what makes a community. We might feel less isolated if we spent more time, not in our silos of pain and frustration, but actually trying to break bread and break those bonds of separation. When we stay separated, it’s easier for anybody outside of our community to defeat us.
A Dionne Stallworth is a transwoman who was activist and advocate for many other issues for disenfranchised people.Highlights of her service are being among the original founders of GenderPAC, one of the seven person committee that founded the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference under Charlene Arcila-Moore, a public grant reviewer for the National Institute of Health, board member of the Pennsylvania Mental Health Consumers’ Association, founded the first organization to deal with issues of trans youth of color in Philadelphia, and a founding member and original co-chair of the Transgender Health Action Coalition, which contributed to the first assessment of the health of trans people in the greater Philadelphia metropolitan area. Among her many awards are being listed in the Trans 100 for 2014 and the 2016 Charlene J. Arcila Lifetime Achievement Award. Today, she is semi-retired from activism and lives with her fiancée in central New York.
Louis Mitchell is a pioneering “intentional man,” elder, and advocate, who serves as the Senior Program Developer for the Transfaith™. Louis has been involved in the fight for health, respect and self-determination since the late 1980s, with deep engagement in political, mental health, recovery, and black church contexts.
Cyree Jarelle Johnson is a non-binary essayist and poet from Piscataway, New Jersey. They are Managing Editor at Transfaith, a Poetry Editor at The Deaf Poet Society, and a candidate for an MFA in Creative Writing at Columbia University.