For May 2015, the UC Davis Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, and Asexual (LGBTQIA) Resource Center planning committee organized a month-long celebration of “Shades of Pride” that focused, in part, on the multiple intersecting forces that shape the vitality and oppression of trans* people.
This “Shades of Pride” celebration comes at a moment when the lives of transgendered people in the United States have never before received such high visibility. Although activists in the U.S. have worked tirelessly for decades to ensure rights, respect, and recognition for trans* people, public interest has always simmered just below the surface of mainstream awareness.1
One moment that perhaps broke the boil was the June 9, 2014 issue of Time Magazine, which featured actress Laverne Cox – best known for her critically-acclaimed role as Sophia Burset in the Netflix series Orange is the New Black – as the first African-American transgender woman to grace its cover. Titled “The Transgender Tipping Point,” author Katy Steinmentz’s profile of Cox referred to the movement for trans* recognition as “America’s next civil rights frontier,” and sparked a public conversation around trans* issues.
As part of a series of events celebrating trans* identity, the LGBTQIA Resource Center invited Laverne Cox to speak at UC Davis on May 19 in partnership with the Cross Cultural Center and the Women’s Resources and Research Center, the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts. And, on May 17, trans South Asian spoken-word poets DarkMatter performed at the ARC ballroom.
“In bringing Laverne Cox and DarkMatter, we wanted speakers who were more intersectional in their approach to social justice and advocacy,” said Val Sierra, Community Intern at the LGBTQIA Resource Center. “Both Cox and Darkmatter identify as trans* people of color and speak to the struggles other queer and trans* people of color experience as we navigate a society that actively denies and attacks our existences with violence, incarceration, and social stigma.”
Laverne Cox delivered a moving speech that weaved together autobiographical stories and feminist and queer theory. She moved between scales of personal struggle and social transmisogyny faced by folks who live “at the intersection of multiple oppressions of race, gender, sexuality, and class.”
Cox argued that “pronouns matter,” and mis-gendering (intentionally referring to a transgender person by their birth-assigned gender) is an act of violence; she called for empathy and for all of us to work towards creating spaces of healing in order to deal with internalized shame and pain.
Building on bell hooks, Cox noted that “cis/heteronormative, white, supremacist, capitalist, patriarchy does not leave a lot of room for beauty,” and asked the audience to use “#transisbeatiful” in celebrating the diverse beauties of transgender people.
A valuable summary of Cox’s speech is captured by two UC Davis English undergraduate students, Megan Hartenstein and Nora Kovaleski, in their article “13 Things We Learned from Laverne Cox’s visit to UCD.”
Going beyond mainstream discourses of recognition and inclusion for LGBT people that is most often captured in the debate about marriage equality, performance art duo Alok Vaid-Menon and Janani Balasubramanian, known collectively as DarkMatter, reframed the urgent political needs of trans* people. DarkMatter critiqued the priorities of the It Gets Better Project and other mainstream lesbian and gay platforms in their poem “It Gets Bourgie Project”: “There is a difference between being insecure and being incarcerated/ … ItGetsBourgie / When marriage and not murder is the number one queer issue.”
Throughout the performance, DarkMatter redirected the discussion around trans* lives toward the lasting violent impact of colonialism, structural racism, capitalism, and patriarchy. Sierra noted that having speakers like DarkMatter at UC Davis “allows people to have more exposure to other important LGBTQIA related issues and gain knowledge/become inspired to critique and dismantle white heterosexist, cis-sexist, and transmisogynistic social structures that influence our lives.”
Awareness of trans* issues is growing in U.S. mainstream culture: from President Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address which called on Americans to “condemn the persecution of women, or religious minorities, or people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender,” (which became the first use of the word transgender in a state of the union speech), to the current media obsession with reality star and former Olympic athlete Caitlyn Jenner’s April 24 interview with Diane Sawyer in which she detailed her experience transitioning to female.
However, visits by DarkMatter and Laverne Cox to UC Davis remind us to consider a multiplicity of forms of trans* experiences and refuse to pursue a narrow vision of rights and recognition for transgendered people.
elizabeth cotè, Director of the LGBTQIA Resource Center, looks to UC Davis students as an example of powerful, multi-faceted trans* activism: “Trans* student-scholars have been involved in activism that has led to a more inclusive name policy on our campus, increased numbers of all-gender restrooms, and educational programming about trans* identities and experiences.”
The LGBTQIA Resource Center is providing services to trans* students, cotè explained, “through advocacy for more inclusive campus policies; campus-wide educational efforts and ally trainings; personal one-on-one advising and support navigating legal and health care systems; culturally competent mental health consultation services through our Community Advising Network Counselor, Jezzie; and educational events such a trans*-focused poetry, film, and art.”
– Stephanie Maroney, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral candidate in Cultural Studies
(1) This article uses the word transgender as a descriptor for people who identify with a different gender identity than the one they were sex-assigned at birth. Cisgender people are those whose gender identity is the same as sex-assigned at birth. Trans* is used to signal the multiplicity of gendered expressions of identity to include folks who fall within the “umbrella” of trans* but do not use the specific term transgender to describe themselves.