Going Out and Being Outted

This past weekend, I went out to a bar with several good friends, to see one of our very close friends playing guitar for a funk show. Overall, the show was great, they had good energy, and my whole table was up and dancing most the night. For some reason, most of the rest of the crowd just sat back, took out their phones, and took pictures of us all dancing instead of joining in. Of course, we did not let this phase us and just enjoyed the show anyways; we weren’t letting anyone ruin our good time!

During the show, when we were dancing, a guy came up and started dancing with me, which was fun and exciting. I did have a quick moment of anxiety, wondering if this guy somehow knew I was transgender, and if he didn’t, what would he do when he found out? We danced, and his hands were on my body, and I was afraid but excited, and enjoying myself. Then the song ended, and I went back to my table. After that particular moment, I let go of the anxiety, I let the situation just slip from my mind as I enjoyed my time with friends at our table.

After the show, my friend who was performing joined us at our table, and we were all hanging out enjoying a pitcher of beer. The guy who had danced with me came up and joined us, reflecting on the show with my friend who played guitar. However, I noticed now this guy was using male pronouns for me. He even pointed right at me and said “That guy” more than once. I wasn’t exactly sober by this point, so it took me a minute to really understand that he thought I was a man. Several of my friends at the table noticed, but nobody was sure exactly what to do. It’s a situation most people will never encounter, what do you do when someone starts to assert your transgender friend is not really the gender they are presenting?

Many people I have been around when things like this have happened do not notice, or give the other person the benefit of the doubt and assume it was a slip up. After all, we all mess up pronouns sometimes, myself included. There is a difference, however, between a slip up, and intentionally asserting someone is not the gender they present as. A slip up happens inconsistently; if someone uses the wrong pronoun over the course of several distinct sentences or thoughts, I consider it intentional; not a mistake. This night, it was repeated, and intentional. It was not a slip up of a pronoun, but this man directly asserting to me and everyone at my table that the person in my chair was a guy. This would have been humiliating with most people. If anyone did not know at that point I was transgender, they now did, or at least would suspect this.
There are a lot of possible consequences in a situation like this. First off, this situation could be dangerous for the transgender person, especially if they are alone. There are countless stories of something like this happening, and when the other person realizes they have been flirting with a transgender person (which, to them, means the trans person is the sex they were born, not how they identify or present), they get angry they were “tricked” into being attracted to someone outside of their sexual orientation, and lash out in anger. This could (and often does) result in verbal harassment, beatings, rape, or death. Luckily, I was with many friends, so even if this guy was angry, he could not lash out at me. This behaviour often comes from straight men, but I’ve experienced such lashing out when a lesbian flirted with me, until she realized I was trans, after which she turned to her friends and started mocking me in front of everyone.

There are more than the physical dangers though. The emotional distress that can be caused by situations like this is significant and just as dangerous, though much less immediate. Being forced out of the closet in a public situation itself can have direct results (the typical dangers of being outted… being fired/denied opportunities/rejected by family or friends, etc). But there are indirect results too. Everyone in this world has the right to define themselves however they see fit. In these situations, someone else is invalidating a transgender person’s identity, asserting that they are not actually the gender they present as, and often puts transgender people in a lower category of person, which can make a transgender person feel isolated and helpless It may make a transgender person doubt themselves, or consider themselves not good enough. A transgirl like me may have spent a lot of time and energy to look pretty, like fixing my hair, applying make up, putting on a cute skirt, and wearing uncomfortable heels, and to have someone come publicly declare you are male makes that effort seem fruitless. Situations like this may result in the transgender person isolating themselves and avoiding social situations, especially out in public where this humiliation and danger could repeat.

If the transgender person is surrounded by friends or family who let this happen without intervening or defending them, the transgender person may feel like their issues don’t matter, that their friends don’t really support them, making it hard to trust them, which makes the trans person feel even more isolated. If you are a friend of a transgender person and this happens, my advice would be to use the right pronouns assertively. When some stranger says “that guy” correct them that there is no guy there, just a girl (or whatever pronouns your friend uses). It doesn’t have to to be confrontational, you can be polite about it, or give the person funny looks and laugh at their inability to comprehend a person’s gender.

Of course, trans people like myself deal with this sort of situation often, and we get better at dealing with them. Most times, you can ignore what some random person on a street says, or when some conservative nutjob says we’re monsters. But sometimes, it slips in passed all the armor we put up and truly hits us at the core. A person can cause damage our self-esteem and confidence in our gender expression. Even after we build all of that back up (which we learn to do in order to survive), there may be a lingering fear that the situation will be repeated the next time we go out. It’s a struggle not to let situations like this bring you down and prevent you from exploring new opportunities and situations.  I do believe that we are all individually responsible for our own happiness, but that does not mean we are completely unaffected by the things that happen to us.

For me personally, I was very lucky to be with friends who supported me that night. My friends stood up for me and laughed at the guy when he called me a man. The guy who was causing problems was driven home, and I had friends to support me afterwards. Still, it definitely impacted me, and reminds me why I try not to go to bars alone. It also leaves me wondering how this person knew, and what I could do to avoid it happening again, both questions for which I don’t have any answers and cannot change, nor prevent from repeating.

Broken

Recently in my life, I have come across several profoundly “broken” people, primarily women, but some men as well. I know these words might be hurtful to some, but it is true. We are “broken” not because we are weak, or because we are bad people, but because we have endured such terrible, cruel things in our life, that we are damaged. I’ve been alarmed to find so many broken girls, girls who struggle daily with panic attacks, with fear, who make bad decisions over and over, all rooted in the way they have been treated throughout their life.

As a woman who has endured through much of what I see in the people around me, I can’t help but be sympathetic. There was a point when I was so traumatized by what I have been through in my life, I was nearly non-functional. Panic attacks, flashbacks, constant fear, all plagued me daily, until I made some really hard decisions to change my life. I was lucky to have some really amazing friends to help me through that time. But they didn’t fix my problem, they just provided me guidance, support, and stability when I had none. No, looking back I can see that I was the one who overcame my own issues, I endured through the panic attacks so bad I was sure there would be no tomorrow, and I found that, not only is there a tomorrow, but it is full of unlimited potential, and it is beautiful. I don’t claim to be fixed, I know I am still, in many ways, healing, but now I see how far I’ve come, and I share what I have learned. My experience was unique, and I recognize that; I had to deal with transition and overcoming the childhood trauma, one right after another, if not simultaneously. But I still think the lessons I’ve learned might help others, so I wanted to share.

The most important lesson, and it sounds incredibly cruel, but in the end, you are entirely responsible for yourself, and you cannot rely that anyone else will take care of you. If you find someone who can help you, that is fabulous! But in the end, at the end of the day, it is you who are responsible for yourself, for your bills,  and your happiness. If you do not pay your bills, you’ll find your power and phone shut off. If you cannot make yourself happy, you might find yourself depressed and spiralling. If you can find a way to claim your own happiness, you can always stop your spiral, and when people are there for you, you’ll be even happier and stronger, but you will not need them to save you whenever anything is wrong.

The next most important lesson, is that all things have a start and all things have an end. Even if you are in the middle of the worst panic attack in your life, you can rationally point to when and where it started, maybe even why it started, if you’ve experienced enough of them. And, logically, you know every prior panic attack you have had has had a beginning and an end. So a safe conclusion can be drawn that the current panic attack started, and it will end as well. In this way, it is possible to get through any panic attack, because you know it will eventually end and you will be back to normal again. And once you recognize there is a start and an end to it, you can push towards that end faster. You can learn to take steps to make the panic attack go away faster, deep breathing, meditation, a stroll in the woods, a good cup of coffee, whatever it takes.

There is a commonality in both these pieces of advice. Both are about you taking control of your situation, and you improving it. It is all about you. It’s hard, but it’s true. And, its good. You take power of your life. You are empowered to fix your own issues. And once you can fix these problems, its easy to see how you can change other things in your life. Afterall, if you can overcome the most terrible terror and fear, something like climbing a mountain, riding a roller coaster, getting a new job, even something so mundane as paying taxes, it all seems so much easier in comparison. You take control of one part of your life, and it empowers you to take control of more. Then you can get yourself out of your difficult situations, and prevent yourself from getting into more bad situations, and slowly you can take control of your entire life. It’s hard work, but its more rewarding than any other work I have ever done, and the results are unlimited potential in a future I never expected to have.

Maybe this is just the ramblings of my caffeine-riddled brain, but tonight I got a really good picture of how far I have come since graduating college, and with how many people I see enduring the exact same thing I went through, I just wanted to share my thoughts. There’s a lot more to say, but for now, I hope this advice helps someone out there!

Lavender Graduation

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Lavender Graduations (also sometimes called Rainbow Graduations)  are special ceremonies held in colleges and even sometimes high schools specifically for the queer students who are graduating. This smaller ceremony is usually held a few weeks prior to the actual graduation ceremony, and serves as an opportunity to recognize not only the exceptional students who went above and beyond, either with their academic achievements or their contributions to the LGBTQIA community on campus, but to acknowledge the shared struggle of all the LGBTQIA students of being queer on campus. Students are usually given a rainbow or lavender cord to wear with their robes at the official commencement, to signify our shared struggle. It’s a somewhat new movement that has been rapidly gaining popularity over the past few years, which I think is amazing.  My college did not (and still does not) have a Lavender Graduation ceremony, however, a few of us queer grads were given rainbow cords to wear at commencement.

I was honored to be the keynote speaker for Bloomsburg University’s Lavender Graduation this year. It was my first experience at a Lavender Graduation, and it went really excellent. I wanted to share some of what I spoke about here as well.

I started college in 2005. At that time, there was 1 state that had legal same-sex marriage. Today, 10 states have legal same-sex marriage. Then, there was hardly any legal protection for queer people in PA. Now, more and more counties and cities are passing ordinances to protect the rights of LGBT individuals. Then, there was no discussion of transgender people in the media, except on Jerry Springer. Now, gay rights are discussed on the news all the time, then gay characters were still largely jokes. And now, polls show more than half of Americans believe queer people should have all the same rights and protections as straight people, which includes marriage. This is a struggle, for visibility and acceptance, that all queer people are part of. Whether you are a devoted activist, or you just support all of your friends who are queer, or you are out, or you are an ally, we are all part of this struggle together.

Finding employment as a queer person is often one of the biggest struggles, especially for any gender variant individuals. In the workplace, especially in white collar workplaces, you are expected to conform to certain standards, be it dress code, language, or even behavior. Often, these narrow standards have no room for variant individuals. It was something I in particular struggled with out of college. Luckily, at that point, I had been on hormones for about two years and passed fairly well, so it was easier for me to blend in. When I was outted, or outted myself, it often did create problems, especially around using the bathroom. But I was never ashamed of myself, and I was always honest. It helped a great deal to have a few allies in work who would either stand up for me, or support me when I stood up for myself. Overall, everyones’ experience will be different .

Depending on your field or even on your company, it may not be at all an issue to be queer and be out. On the other hand, some jobs will all but require you to be in the closet. It is important to decide for yourself how much you can put up with. Research your company’s discrimination and harassment policies. Find ways that you can be out comfortably without making it a confrontation. Maybe a picture of your partner on your desk or a rainbow flag or somthing. Many people in the “real world” haven’t encountered out, proud queer people. They may need time to figure out how to deal with that. Be patient, and try to educate others where you can. When you feel safe and comfortable, answer questions they ask; sometimes they will come out rude but often they don’t mean it. Try to give them the benefit of the doubt and clear up their misconceptions, but if they are being offensive you have every right not to answer and to politely ask them to stop.

Every time we educate a straight person, teach them to be more accepting and understanding of us queer people, it has a larger effect than we often see. That straight person, who may have never thought about what a transsexual person is, will be more understanding of other gender variant individuals they meet. If we can make an ally, not an enemy, we can make a big change. Its not just for the individual though; the more people we educate, the more people understand, the faster the entire LGBT movement moves forward. Indeed, the struggle of every individual queer person is always a part of the bigger struggle for equality, since the people we educate and help understand will undoubtably interact with more than just one queer person in their life. And if, later in life, their child comes out to be gay or their best friend transitions, they will be more able to understand, love, and support these other people.

We truly are striving together, and we are making progress. Every time a queer individual fights for their protection and equality, they are simultaneously promoting those rights for all queer people. And the person whom they educate will often be an advocate in some way, down the road, even if its something so small as using proper pronouns for a gender variant person or as big as shouting there is no difference between that gender variant person and themselves (one of my coworkers at my first post college job did just this – yelling at some maintenance person who called me disgusting). Its progress that we are all making together. We endure in hopes the next generation will not need to. We are changing the world for the next generation. But in order to make that change, we need to practice self care. Self care is essential for all of us, and getting a job that will allow you to be stable (while not driving you too insane) is essential. So the last piece of advice I shared with all the grads was this: You have so much to be proud of, and you have many struggles ahead. Take care of yourself, make sure you are stable and strong enough to face whatever comes your way.

Day in the Life: Passing

Last week, I met a new friend, who I know is very comfortable with transgender people – she has had many friends who are trans in the past. She said something to me that was very surprising to me, “You don’t look like you were ever a boy.” It was absolutely flattering, to hear that I ‘pass’ so well that even people familiar with transgenderism wouldn’t guess I was trans. It also made me reflect on my current situation of being to the point I pass more often than not now.

Its an odd sensation; after years of walking around somewhere in-between the two genders, of having the wrong pronoun used, of having to use my former male name, I am now at a new stage. My gender marker, my name, my appearance, and my mannerisms all point to the fact I am female. I walk down the street and am read as female. I go to work where nearly all of my coworkers only know me as female.

I used to absolutely dread going to bars; I would have to flash an ID that outted me immediately, which I knew (depending on the bar) could lead to embarrassment, teasing, and potentially much worse. Now, I hardly give it a second thought. There is still risk and I do recognize that, but I usually do not get outted unless I decide to do so myself. I can walk around the bar and blend in with most other girls.

I believe this gives me an amount of privilege; I really can blend in. If I want, nobody has to know I’m trans unless I want them to. Now that I am in this position, I understand why so many transwomen chose to go stealth at this point. Going stealth means transitioning, then living your life as your chosen sex entirely, doing what you can to hide the fact you were ever the other sex. I’m not quite there; SRS is a big missing step, but I am close enough I can see the temptation.

It isn’t the path for me; I like talking about being transgender, and I think it is important I continue to talk about it. If all transsexual people go stealth after transitioning, there would be nobody to guide the younger trans people just starting out, just as I was helped by several in-transition and post-transition women when I was starting. There would be no one to show the people just starting that yes, it does get better. Its often these people who have transitioned that can make some of the biggest impact in advocacy for trans rights. Because of all this, I don’t think I can ever go completely stealth.

Right now, I am really enjoying the position I’m in. I pass well enough I can live like an ‘average’ person when I want, but I can also stand out when I want, and I do, often.I feel empowered, it is my decision now.

Tweezing

Something I haven’t really told people, but I was quite self conscious about my eyebrows lately. I wanted to get them waxed or something, but the timing never worked out for various reasons. Part of it was some sort of weird anxiety about doing something so distinctly girly alone. I think it is not uncommon for a transgirl to feel that sort of anxiety from time to time. Its not that I don’t think I will pass, or that is wrong for me to do it, I just have a little hesitation sometimes about the most random of things for whatever reason.

I was having this anxiety, and so I decided to do something about it. At a local pharmacy, I saw a set of tweezers, and decided to take care of my problem myself. It took a while when I got home, and was more painful than I expected, but I took care of my problem; I tweezed my brows back to a manageable shape.

I guess the reason I wanted to post this very simple story was this: Sometimes we get anxious about stuff for whatever reason. We think, “I can’t” or “I shouldn’t” and instead we shut down, we restrict ourselves from doing things. We think it would be easier, or safer, to just leave things how they are instead. Or that, we need a group in order to do it. Sometimes, the best thing to do is to stand up and do it anyways, sometimes its good to empower yourself, and resolve your issue on your own in a responsible way.

Most of all, I’m saying, we all have things that make us scared, so we can all move forward and overcome our ordeals

The Up and Coming LGBT Leaders Summit

This Wednesday was the LGBT Up and Coming Leaders dinner at the Vice President’s estate. I could write for hours and hours about the details, but let me sum it up with one word: Amazing! In a few more words, I’d like to share some highlights with my readers!

Early in the morning, I was part of a tour of the White House. It was really fascinating seeing the history and culture of America for myself; to walk through the rooms where diplomats and dignitaries met for almost two centuries. It was absolutely breathtaking. And I got one of those classic activist photos of me in front of the White House, as seen above.

Next, we were brought into one of the nearby offices where several prominent figures in DC politics and policy talked with us about the progress made for LGBT people in America. First, we talked with one of the most senior LGBT people in the President’s administration about the general direction of acceptance and our progress over the past few years. Then there were several presentations by a wide range of panelists, ranging from specialists in HIV/AIDS prevention/study, international LGBT rights, LGBT youth advocacy, and homelessness in the LGBT community. They let us ask the panelists a few questions, though the time was extremely limited. However, I was able to get up and I asked a woman from the Department of Health and Human Services about a subject very dear to me: what is being done to ensure resources that are supposed to help out struggling Americans are there for LGBT people? Specifically, I talked briefly about my experience of being turned away from a domestic violence shelter because I was transgender, and asked what was being done to educate these various groups and shelters of the needs of LGBT victims. Sadly, there wasn’t much to be said about what was being done, but it is definitely an avenue they wanted to pursue, and it became the main topic I talked about with others for the rest of the day.

We leaders were then given a few hours to meet with national LGBT leaders. I went with some others to a brown-bag lunch with the National Center for Transgender Equality and the Gay and Lesbian Task Force. We learned of some of the specific accomplishments of each group, as well as their immediate plans moving forward. More than anything else, this was our opportunity as driven young leaders to meet with the people who will one day pass the torch onto us. During this meeting and a few others I had over the next 24 hours, I was able to actually sit and work with the major movers and shakers in the LGBT community, which gave me a chance to plug in and lend my voice to the movement, and gave me a great deal of perspective on how I can further my activism moving forward. In addition to meeting with NCTE and the Task Force, I was able to meet one on one with people from some other major groups such as the Human Rights Campaign, Think Progress, and Campus Pride.

Later that night, I arrived at the Vice President’s estate, greeted by a huge motorcade of about 10 motorcycle cops and several limos. His estate was absolutely gorgeous, and huge. This was the best time to connect with the other leaders, and I made many new friends and contacts with some absolutely amazing people from across America. Vice President Biden and his wife Jill Biden came and greeted us and each gave a brief speech talking about how amazing it was for them to see so many young, energetic leaders . They took great strives to make it clear, this event was about us, the next generation of leaders in America. VP Biden told us an amazing story about how he believes the work of the LGBT community is critical for America, not just because we fight for the rights of queer people, but because we fight for the soul of America itself. If not for the LGBT movement making the straight community question it’s values, America as a whole would still consider beating/humiliating/killing queer people “alright.” Because of the work the queer community has done, the straight community has been enriched and is wiser, and we can move forward as a freer, better, and more enlightened society. I cannot even begin to express how amazing it was to have one of the most powerful people in the world look me in the eye and say “Thank you, your work has made America a better place.”

This event was an amazing opportunity to make connections, to further my work as an activist for the LGBT community, but even more so, it gave each and every one of the leaders gathered a chance to see the bigger picture; to see the fight that we as a people face, not just the fight that we people face. While the event is over, the friendships made and the message left will stay with all of us for a very long time. This was the first time the US Government has ever done something like this for the queer community, and I was incredibly honored to be there. If any of the coordinators of this event happen to read this post, I just want to say thank you publicly. Engaging young leaders in such a positive, productive way was absolutely amazing, a new way to pull talent into the larger movement, and I truly hope more events like these happen in the future.

Ashley Hope in the News Again!

Tomorrow is the big day of my trip to Washington DC to attend the LGBT Up and Coming Leaders dinner at the Vice President’s estate. While in the area I’m also going to be meeting with several national queer groups, such as the National Center for Transgender Equality, Parents for Lesbians and Gays, and Campus Pride.

I’ve already had two interviews this past week about my upcoming trip, and I know there is at least one more for after the trip, but I wanted to share the article that was published this morning in the local paper, Easton Patch. I think they did a really fabulous job!

 

http://easton.patch.com/articles/easton-activist-will-meet-with-biden

In less than 24 hours, I will be in the White House! Wish me luck!

9/11 – A Reflection Eleven Years Later

11 years ago today, I was a kid in highschool, on Long Island, New York. I was about 30 minutes from the city. Around this time in the morning, I was pulled out of science class by family just before the news reached the school. I went home to see the towers on TV crumbling. Over the course of hours, I watched as thousands of people who died; I watched as my friends and classmate’s parents and relatives were killed. I was sheltered away, and didn’t go to class for several days after. This event single-handedly tore apart so many of my classmate’s and neighbor’s lives. And the strife didn’t just stop after the attack. For days, emergency responders, firemen, police men, etc, were going into the rubble and trying to save lives, and many of these brave men and women also died, either immediately or years later from inhaling all of the toxic substances during that period.
I was just a child, it was hard for me to wrap my head around the magnitude of what just happened just so incredibly close by. Its still hard for me to understand how many lives were irreparably changed because of that one day when I was 14.
9/11 was a terrible and horrible tragedy, the likes of which America rarely sees. But it is sadly not a very rare tragedy. This sort of attack happens all too frequently around the world. Look at Syria alone, where an estimated 30,000 people have died during the Syrian Civil War. The way we as a nation responded to the situation over the past 11 years was extreme. We started 2 wars that specifically were not paid for in order to get revenge. Stores around America took up the slogan “Buy a car or the terrorists win.” We went from a several trillion dollar surplus to a massive deficit. We turned international opinion on us in many cases. Even us Americans started mocking ourselves, with movies like “Team America: World Police.”
There was a great deal of good that came after the attacks as well. We, a nation of diverse individuals, came together in many way. There was a sense of unity and patriotism among a broad range of people. And this was because we all had a shared experience of suffering. Everyone could empathize with everyone else about what happened. People from Texas to New York were brought together and supported each other. Massive amounts of food and resources were funneled from around the country to those suffering the most. Even if a particular person did not lose a love one, one of their loved ones probably had. Everyone had suffered directly or indirectly from the terrible attack, and it drew us as a community closer.
Some of my frequent readers might recognize an expression in my last paragraph, the “shared experience of suffering.” The fact that every person went through this tragedy, we came together and supported each other. As a transsexual woman, this is the same principle I describe when I am asked why makes the LGBT community different. We have all endured oppression and discrimination. We empathize with eachother because we each have dealt, directly or indirectly, with suffering and tragedy.
Eleven years after 9/11/01, I think it is important to look back and reflect on what happened. We are all just individuals in this nation, but it is our choice whether to follow the path of revenge and anger, or the path of unity and empathy. Or maybe we shouldn’t pick one or the other, and continue moving forward doing both at once?

Alphabet Soup: A Documentary on Love and Acceptance

This is a post I have been waiting to release for some time, but with my upcoming trip to the White House, I felt this was an excellent time to share with all of you a documentary I took part in during this past spring. This documentary was planned, filmed, and edited by my dear friend Katie (check out her blog!). Katie made the main focus of the film my life, and my struggle for acceptance as a transsexual woman in a culture that is far from accepting. She also conducted several interviews with people from our alma mater asking what love means. This is a truly touching film, and I was absolutely honored to take part in it. Thank you so much Katie!

Invitation to Washington D.C.

 

 

 

 

 

Yesterday afternoon, I received a very, very special email from an official government email address:

 

This September, I will be heading down to Washington D.C. to take part in an Up and Coming LGBT Leaders gathering. I expect this will be an absolutely amazing experience. I’ll be able to tour the west wing, attend a LGBT Policy Summit, and meet numerous other young queer leaders across the country.

Over the next few days, I plan to significantly increase the amount of posts I make, and truly start expanding on the structure I laid out here on my site several months ago. I also have business cards coming in next week. Stay tuned for more posts and information in the very near future!

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