Alberta GSA Conference Keynote – Cooler Than Caitlyn Jenner: The Revolutionary Power of Queer and Trans* Youth

*Text of a keynote presentation at the 2015 Alberta GSA Conference on Nov 21, 2015.  Thanks to Sarah Atkinson at the Calgary Sexual Health Centre and all the youth organizers!GSA ConferencePoster 2015

Performance of poem “Body Art”

Good morning, everyone.  I am honored to be here today, and grateful to Sarah Atkinson, the Calgary Sexual Health Centre, the youth committee, and all of the other organizers for inviting me to share and hold this space with you.

I am grateful, also, to all of the people who make this space possible, including those who are not in the room today, and whose names I may never know:  The people who built this university, and the people who clean and maintain it; the people whose hands made the computers and the furniture and the food and all of amenities that we are enjoying now; the people in this country and the Global South, whose bodies and work is exploited every day for the comfort of a privileged few.

I am grateful to the Treaty Seven First Nations, upon whose land this city stands, and by whose ongoing oppression the nation of Canada is able to exist.

I am grateful to my blood ancestors: a long lineage of Chinese migrants, whose struggle and sacrifice brought me to this place and time, with all of the privileges and challenges it brings.

I am grateful to my queer ancestors: queer and trans people of color, a fierce and fabulous tradition of butches, femmes, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, asexual, trans men, trans women, and a host of individuals impossible to label in their brilliance, who led both riots and silent revolutions so that one day we might live in a freer world.

And I am grateful to you, queer and trans* students, educators, and allies, for all of the courage and strength you bring to this struggle that we share.

SO, all right, that’s enough poetry and mushy stuff for a minute. We’ll get back to that later. I know, who even likes that stuff, right? Let’s get down to this keynote business.   You know, the Important Stuff.  No big deal or pressure or anything.  Just the moment when I deliver to you a shimmering nugget of inspiration, accented with some seamless pop-culture references, cut with a few casually self-deprecating jokes, and all of it tied together by my flawless fashion sense.

You are relieved, no doubt, to see that I have, at the very least, the fashion part down.

And I want you to know that I take this all quite, quite seriously.  To be given a platform, an audience, and a speaking fee that would make any twenty-four year old working-class grad student’s head spin, in exchange for taking a shot at inspiring the next generation of Calgary’s LGBTT2IQA+ youth, is a very serious thing.  (I also got some of those awesome little hotel soaps.  That’s how you know you’ve hit the big time.)

And to be honest, when I first got the wonderful Sarah’s email asking me to speak, I wasn’t sure I was up to the task, or even that I wanted it (but the hotel soaps that got me).

For one thing, when I emailed her back asking just what Calgary’s finest youth (yes, that’s you) wanted from a keynote speaker at the provincial conference for gay-straight alliances, she sent me back a rather vague paragraph saying that you were interested in gender and in hearing from someone “cool.”

Femmes, butches, and gentle queers, now is the time to admit:  There must be some mistake.   I have been surprisingly many things in my twenty-four years of life – overachiever, piano prodigy, high school burnout, mathematics failure, comic book geek, about ten different university majors, slam poet, awkwardly adorable, and for some reason apparently entrusted with people’s mental health as a clinical social worker and family therapist – but never, in that time, have I ever considered myself “cool.”  (And if you ask my boyfriend, my sisters, my parents, and my closest friends, they’ll probably confirm this.)

Seriously, if you wanted a cool trans woman, my friends, you should have booked Caitlyn Jenner, whom I hear is now not only an Olympic gold medalist and ex-spouse of a Kardashian, but also the most famous trans person in history after coming out only a few short months ago.  She was on the cover of Vanity Fair, okay?  Now that’s cool.

Or maybe you should have gotten Laverne Cox, the first black trans woman actress to star on a hit TV show (if you haven’t seen Orange Is The New Black, you may wish to re-evaluate your priorities), Emmy-Award nominee, one of People Magazine’s 2015 Most Beautiful Women in the World, and LGBT advocate.  She was on the cover of Time.

Or, perhaps, you could have booked my personal trans woman idol: the writer and television reporter Janet Mock, the New York Times’ bestselling author of the incredible memoir Redefining Realness, and fashion icon.  She was on the cover of Marie-Claire.

So I’m not sure what happened, gentle queers, but somehow you bypassed all of the above – not to mention trans supermodels  Andreja Pejic and Valentijn von Hingh, trans actress Candis Cayne, trans lawyer and advocate Dean Spade, the non-binary trans activist-artist duo Darkmatter, asexual agender reality TV star Tyler Ford, and Buzzfeed’s first transgender staff writer Meredith Talusan – and got me: a slightly neurotic yet totally adorable psychology nerd who watches too much television and writes poetry in her spare time.  For the record, I have never been on a magazine cover.  (Yeah, I still hold out hope for someday.  I mean, have you seen this face?)

So I was freaking out about that until, oh, ten minutes ago.  Then, of course, I realized how freaking cool it is that I can even name ten transgender celebrities off the top of my head.  That, gentle queers, was not a thing when I was in high school – and this was only six years ago. So there’s at least one piece of inspiration I can offer you (whew).  Things are beginning to change.

And then I started thinking about how, despite the fact that we now live in a time when trans models can grace the covers of magazines, and gay actors can be stars on television, and same-sex couples can get married  – despite the fact that being gay and trans is, apparently the “cool” new thing these days, the truth is that the reality on the ground, as it were, is still incredibly hard for most of us who live outside the norms of sex and gender, and particularly for queer youth and young people.

I don’t, of course, need to explain this to most of you.  Looking across the room, into your eyes, I can see that you know, as I do, what it means to struggle.  What it means to fight.  What it means to be attacked and frightened and belittled and shamed, for as long as you can remember, for something that you couldn’t control.  To not be heard, or to be heard, but not believed.  To want to be invisible.  To long to be seen.  To be sexy, to be beautiful.  To be loved.  To be loved.  To be loved.

***

Despite queer and trans people being more visible in the media today than we’ve ever been before, the fact remains that most of us will not appear on magazine covers, particularly if we are not white and thin and non-disabled.   The fact remains over three in five trans and genderqueer students will experience bullying at some point between kindergarten and post-secondary education.  The fact remains that a progressive law that would have allowed trans people in Houston, Texas to use the public washroom that best suited their gender was recently repealed.  The fact remains that poor, ethnic minority queer and trans people are disproportionately subjected to discrimination and violence.

There are hard truths, but I think that some of you already know them, in one way or another.  I knew them as a high school student living in East Vancouver, and so did most of my best friends at the time.  We were all racialized, and many of us were working-class and immigrants, or the children of immigrants, and most of us were queer (even if we didn’t know it yet).  We didn’t need anyone to tell us that prejudice and discrimination were real – we lived through those things every day, just as I know many of you do.

But we didn’t talk about these things, or tell anyone.  We didn’t have the words.  No one told us what homophobia was, they just called us faggots or dykes like that was a bad thing, and we believed it was.  People told us that Asians were ugly nerds and that dark-skinned people were criminals, and we didn’t know that this was racism.  It was just what happened.

I once had a high school teacher whom I think hated students.  Looking back, I can see that she resented teaching a classroom full of Asian immigrants, most of whom spoke English as a second or third, or even fourth language.  She made fun of their accents and wrote these incredibly intricate insults on our assignments, like “this pile of canine fecal matter isn’t even worth the paper it’s written on,” or “Shakespeare would hath thee and thy vile abuse of the Queen’s tongue submit to the mercy of the flame!”

Being the loudmouth that I am, I wrote an essay for this teacher arguing that teenagers were disempowered members of society, and deserved more rights.  She told me that this was ridiculous, because teenagers could not be DIS empowered, since we never HAD any power to begin with.

I’ve always remembered that:  A teacher who believed that youth have no power.  That it didn’t matter how badly she treated us or how little she respected us, because we didn’t deserve respect in the first place, and had no way to stand up to her.

I wish I could tell you that since leaving high school, I never met anyone else who thought that way.  But I have two university degrees in social work now, am working on a third in family therapy, and I’ve worked in three hospital programs for queer children and youth, and I’ve met way too many teachers, doctors, nurses, social workers, and counselors who cannot see the incredible strength and power of young people.

There are adults – some of them very compassionate and well-meaning – who think that queer and trans youth who are being bullied, who are exploring their gender in wondrous and unique ways, who are navigating the complicated worlds of school, family, friends, and work, have no idea what’s happening around them.  At best, they think that queer and trans youth are like endangered animals who need to be saved by “experts,” and at worst, they think of us as “crazy” delinquents who need to be whipped into shape.

The worst part of this is that many queer and trans youth come to believe in this same myth: that we have no power.  That we have no knowledge and no strength.  That we have nothing valuable, nothing to offer in the struggle for queer and trans rights. I believed that about myself for a very long time.

But like I said, I’ve worked in a bunch of programs for queer and trans* kids and youth, and I think that queer and trans young people are the most incredible, resilient people that I have ever met.

It takes courage to get up in the morning and decide to express your gender when other people bully you for it.

It takes strength to withstand discrimination, to go to school or work, day after day, without knowing when or if the injustice will end.

It takes intelligence, creativity, and compassion to live with family members who do not always understand you and cannot support you.

It is revolutionary – it changes society – when queer and trans youth decide that they will not let anyone else decide who or what they are.   And that, my friends, is what I think is cool – even more than being a supermodel or appearing on a magazine cover.

***

So basically what I’m saying is that it doesn’t even matter that I’m not as cool as Caitlyn Jenner, because all of you are even cooler.  Okay?   The other reason that I was a little unsure about giving this speech today was that I, for one, absolutely despise motivational or inspirational speeches.  I hate them.  I hate them with the fiery passion of a thousand suns.

I hate them because, most of the time, so-called inspirational speeches can be boiled down to one easy answer.  Like, if we just think positively, then we’ll be fine.  Or if we can just be patient and wait a little longer, things will get better.

But thinking positively wouldn’t have stopped my therapy client, we’ll call her Andrea, from being kicked out of her family home for being a lesbian.  Positive thinking didn’t help my other client, whom we’ll call Shawn, a fifteen-year-old Black trans girl who lives with child protective services, from being housed in a facility for boys.

Being patient and waiting didn’t save the transgender lives that were lost this year.

So instead of being inspirational, I think the best that I can do is advise you to be suspicious of easy answers.  Be wary of people, well-intentioned or otherwise, who tell you that thinking happy thoughts and being optimistic will get you everything you want in life.  These are the easy answers that say, wait till you grow up.  Wait till you move out.  Wait till some old white rich guy politician in some distant Parliament decides that you can change your legal sex, use the bathroom you need to, have legal protection from discrimination.

I can’t be inspirational – I can only tell you what I hope to Goddess you already know, which is that you have power.  You prove that every day that you survive.  Society will try to hide it from you, because it is afraid of what you might accomplish.  Refuse to surrender your strength, and refuse to wait to use it.

What does that mean in concrete terms?  Well, here’s a piece of advice from some of my trans mothers – that is, older transgender women who have mentored and protected me as I went through my transition, who supported me as I built my professional life in a health care industry that is extremely dismissive of trans people – and that is, your greatest strength is each other.

What do I mean?  Well, a few years ago, when I first started transitioning, I lived on a very busy street in downtown Montreal.   I was just discovering what it meant to be trans in public, and felt very afraid on most days whenever I went out.  I was afraid of being harassed, and I was afraid of being hurt.  Most of all, I was afraid of speaking out, of using my voice, lest it bring down even more harassment and violence upon me.

Every day that summer, I would walk past a hotel on my way to work.  It wasn’t a very nice hotel – I bet there weren’t any nice little soaps there.  There was, however, a man who sat out front all the time, and every morning, as I walked past on my way to work, he would catcall after me in a way that let me know that he knew that I was trans.  And every day, I just kept walking, furious but afraid to say anything back.  You see, I was raised to be afraid of men.  To feel helpless and powerless.  To not see that the very act of walking out my front door as a visible trans woman was an act, as Laverne Cox says, of revolution.

Then one day, I was walking past that same hotel.  This time, something was different.  This time, I had a trans femme friend with me.  And this time, when that man called disgusting names after me, something felt very, very different.  With my friend by my side, I whirled around, full of righteous fury.  And with fire in my belly and ice in my spine, I said, “EXCUSE ME SIR HOW DARE YOU SPEAK TO A WOMAN THAT WAY THINK OF YOUR MOTHER I BETTER NEVER HEAR YOU EVER SAY ANYTHING TO ME EVER AGAIN OR SO HELP ME GOD I WILL COME BACK HERE WITH AN ARMY OF TRANNIES AND BURN YOUR DIRTY HOTEL TO THE GROUND.

And you know, there never was a problem after that.  That was the moment I found my power.

This September, in the US state of Missouri, a high school student and trans girl named Lila Perry led a protest at her high school after being bullied for using the women’s washroom.  Over a hundred students walked out of class with her in support, and dozens of national and international mainstream media stations suddenly turned their cameras toward her.

This is what I mean by finding your power.  You are already doing it in this moment, at this conference: raising your voices and making connections with each other.  Alone, we can only think in terms of survival.  Together, we can make change happen.

***

Today more than ever, we live in the era of the celebrity: the media says that things are changing for queer and trans* people because there are more and more queer and trans stars.  And it’s true, this is a wonderful thing, and people like Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, and Caitlyn Jenner really are blazing a trail and raising awareness.

But the thing about celebrities – the way that celebrity culture works – is that there can only ever be a few at a time, which means the rest of us are supposed to sit back and watch them do the work of transformation for us.   This takes the power away from us, and places all the responsibility for change on a few – which is actually why I hate it when people come up to me and call me inspiring, a voice for the trans community, or any of the other cliché things people say to highly active, visible trans folks.  Janet Mock once wrote that being called an exceptional member of an oppressed minority isn’t inspiring or exciting – it’s lonely, and I agree.   I don’t want to fight this fight alone.  I need all of you with me.

Celebrity culture, which is about a few individuals becoming stars, is the opposite of social movements, which are about everyone coming together to create revolutionary power.

So what am I saying?  I’m saying that the key to revolution isn’t and never will be me, no matter how many hotel soaps I steal or how pretty my dress is.   It isn’t this microphone, or the funding grants that no doubt paid for this conference and for me to be here, or even the university we sit and stand in now.  It isn’t Caitlyn Jenner, or any other trans celebrity.

Because the key to revolution is the people in this room, the words and ideas and energy that we share, the dreams that we dream together.  The key to revolution is connection and courage, is looking beyond isolated individuals or even isolated  issues like homophobia and transphobia and joining with as many other people from as many other movements as possible – people fighting against racism, and poverty, and climate change, because injustice for any one of us is an injustice to all of us.

So there you have it: all of you are strong, important, and yes, cool.  Beware of easy answers.  Find your power, and find each other.

The key to revolution is you.  And you, and you.  It’s community.  It’s us.

Close with performance of poem “Blessing”

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