This is the first edition of a new interview series called "The Q List," in which I sit down with the creators, movers and shakers of queer culture in Chicago to highlight the important faces and happenings in Chicago's LGBTQ community.
The first interview is with Jen Richards of We Happy Trans (WHT), a website that interviews trans people from across the country to showcase positive stories of trans life and change the public narrative on what it means to be trans. In this piece, Richards talks about her website and why WHT's message is important for the trans community in an increasingly wired world.
The interview is an excerpt from a longer podcast interview with Jen, which you can find here.
Nico Lang: As a fan of the site, I would first like to know how it got started, what the concept was and how all of this happened.
Jen Richards: Obviously, there is a longer story, about how my experiences and how they were playing out in this kind of way that diverged from the standard narratives that I encountered prior to my own transition. But the short version -- slightly more dramatic one, too -- is that I was on Twitter one day complaining that there wasn't a website that talked about positive transgender experiences, and a woman, a trans woman that I know from here in Chicago, this really fierce, tough lady named Jasmine Jewels, said: "You gonna talk about it or are you gonna do something about it? You've got one month. Make the site yourself."
Nico Lang: Well, no pressure.
Jen Richards: Exactly, and she is kind of scary, in a good way, so I took it seriously. Three weeks later I launched the first version of the website. That was in January. It started to grow a little bit. Then I got put in touch with an incredible graphic designer in Chicago, and brought on Noah, who is a young trans man from the West Coast, as a contributor. The three of us we relaunched the site in March, with its own special look and logo and tons of great new content. Since then, we've had over 50,000 unique visitors.
Nico Lang: So, when you are looking for people who you want to be on the site, how do you reach out to people?
Jen Richards: Well, it started out as a personal blog, like any other Wordpress, with me talking about my personal experiences. Right from the beginning, I wanted to include other voices, and I wanted other people to contribute. What I did was I came up with a set of seven questions. Now I call it the "7 Questions" project. It just sounds more formal that way.
I made these seven questions and I put the call out there to say, "Hey, I would like trans people to answer these questions, and then send me their answers. If it's text, you could just e-mail it to me. If it's a video, go ahead and put it up on YouTube, send me the link, and I can embed it in a post and introduce it, refer the readers to your various forms of social media, et cetera."
The first video came from Italy, before I even really started asking for videos. Someone had come across the site and thought it was a great idea and did a video. A lot of the ones that came in from the start weren't solicited. I just put a general call out, and they somehow found me. That was really thrilling and exciting, and once we had a couple on there and it was starting to work, I started seeking out people.
I think I started with my Twitter community. I know a lot of people through something called Trans Chat, which I and a few other people host once a month on Twitter. It's a two-hour discussion on a specific trans topic. I built up a big community through that. So I just started haranguing people, trying to get them to send videos. The ones that said they were interested I wouldn't let go. From that point on, every week I would just ask, "Hey, have you made your video yet?" Slowly, one by one, they did. We started doing better, word started spreading and we've had over 30 contributions so far. There's quite a few in the pipeline.
Nico Lang: How did you come to the seven-question format?
Jen Richards: I figured [if] I just put an open call out there for them to tell me their story, it would be a little too loosely structured and a lot of people really wouldn't know exactly what to say; it might make a little more anxiety-producing. Plus, I wanted to have some kind of structure not only to make it easier for the person to tell their story but then so we can compare these stories. I came up with the idea of: "Why don't we just have a set of questions? We'll have everyone answer the same kind of questions."
I always love that -- when you see different people answering the same questions. It shows something about their personality, their style and their history and how their narratives are different. We started thinking about these seven questions. They went through several different drafts. But the idea was always to get a basic sense of who they are, then to frame the positive aspects of their transition and focus on the things that went right. And also to talk about action -- not just to talk about their identity, but about what they are doing in the world and really who they are in addition to being trans, something beyond their gender identity.
Nico Lang: You originally did a prologue, an introduction for the site, and then about a month or so later you added your own seven questions to the mix. What was that like for you?
Jen Richards: I have to be honest: I took the seven questions a lot less seriously than I took the prologue. I was very conscious of the prologue; it was the first thing I put on the site because I wanted to set a certain tone. A couple of friends of mine tried to start a We Happy Trans a while ago, and it just didn't take. Every time we tried it, it just didn't work. We were trying to make it fun, because we thought that might be a nice corrective to the general rhetoric around trans* issues, but it came across as glib. It was kind of superficial, in a way I didn't feel comfortable with. It didn't really acknowledge the kind of serious issues that we do face as a trans community.
So then I retooled it and came up with the current take on it, and the first thing I did was the prologue. And what I wanted to do there was kind of write from the outset, acknowledging my own privilege and acknowledge that though this site is focused on celebrating the positive, it was doing so in my full knowledge and mindful awareness of all the issues that we truly face: the violence, the harassment, the job losses and the homelessness. Even though I had a positive experience, and I thought it was important that that story was told as well. I wanted to encourage other people to raise their voices around that.
I also wanted to acknowledge that part of the reason I had such a positive experience was that I transitioned when I was middle aged, because I'm white, because I live in a queer neighborhood in a major progressive city, because I am well-educated and have a good job. It's hard to be trans, no doubt about it, it's hard to go through a transition, but all the factors were in my favor to have a successful experience. And I wanted to acknowledge that that was my perspective and that I was aware of that.
A couple months after that, I was out to dinner one night with a friend of mine, an old friend of mine from college, who was kind of trolling me because I would go to tell her things and she would say, "I know. I know. I read about it on your blog" or "I read your Twitter." It was one of my first experiences of that other people are paying attention to what I was doing in a way that, well, you don't think about it. You don't hear directly from people. She then asked me, "When are you going to do your own seven questions?" So that night, I came home and started the mic and just answered off the top of my head. Honestly, I don't think I remember anything I said right now. And the answers now, they would probably be different than the answers then.
Nico Lang: In asking these questions, what are common themes you see come out of the stories?
Jen Richards: I think what's most satisfying is hearing these stories is how different they are. I will say that there are a couple of things that unify: a lot of the participants have a similar attitude, and there seems to a be a kind of ebullience, a positive attitude. I think that's a little bit self-selecting, the kind of people that are going to submit to We Happy Trans already have a bit of a happy outlook and a positive transition.
But I think it's part of the reason they are having such successful transitions. These are people who take ownership of their process and do see themselves as beautiful and worthy and want to celebrate being trans in some way shape or form. So I do see that unity, but again, I am really astonished by the variety and the diversity of stories. It's really easy to slip into this false idea that the trans community is cohesive, that there is one trans narrative. You only have to watch two or three videos before you realize how widely varied our stories really are.