by Michelle Polek
This post started out as a personal journal entry! Journaling has been an important aspect of my own self-care, especially during this political climate.
One of my favorite videos right now features Lucas Silveira (from the band The Cliks) and Laura Jane Grace (from the band Against Me!) singing “The Ocean,” a song that Grace wrote in a time before she was able to live openly as a woman. In a basement-like room, surrounded on all sides by fans who are mouthing the words, they sing a song of dreams and transformation:
“And if I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman
My mother once told me she would have named me Laura
I’d grow up to be strong and beautiful like her.”
As someone who has recently come to Silveira’s work and has just finished Grace’s book Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout, I feel especially able to appreciate the meaning that this performance entails. Silveira and Grace have overlapping stories as two singers who came to front popular bands, publicly start their gender transitions at age 32, and afterward continue their artistic journeys as their authentic selves. Silveira and Grace both felt gender dysphoria from a young age and grew up in environments where the very concept of living as a chosen gender different from the one assigned at birth was almost inconceivable.
The video is also dispersed with clips of Silveira’s talking about his experiences as a trans person – in particular, his experiences of coming into his own as a person and as an artist. Oftentimes, stories about LGBTQ people focus on the moment that they openly disclose their identity to others, be they family or fans. Coming out isn’t the whole story, however – living openly in a world hostile to difference comes with its own series of challenges. Silveira frankly discusses his mindset during his most recent (and worst) suicide attempt. He has experienced marginalization not only from U.S. society as a whole, but from within the LGBTQ community itself.
“I started to believe that I was ‘just’ a trans person and that because I was ‘just’ a trans person, that I wouldn’t be able to succeed at anything and that I didn’t have value, and that I would never be worthy of love,” Silveira states in the video.
He goes on to talk about how he ultimately made the choice to live, and how powerful and empowering that choice was for him. He feels that he is now able to focus on living life in a way that’s authentic for him and encourages others to do the same .
“I don’t see myself as a trans person, I just see myself as a human being – and an artist, really,” he notes.
For Grace, the process of openly transitioning also came with struggles. Heather, Grace’s wife at the time, was supportive in some ways, such as making sure that people were calling Grace by the correct pronouns. However, at times Grace refers to feeling like some of the ways in which her wife and others treated her were actually “infantilizing” and unhelpful. I have a suspicion that even the people closest to Grace may have contributed to treating Grace like “just” a trans person by overly focusing on her identity and assuming how she would be living her life as a trans person. Both Silveira and Grace are rightly open and proud about their identities. But pain can happen when even well-meaning cisgender folks feel that they can define what those identities signify. We need to respect the fact that individual trans people have their own journeys and choices around gender.
In many ways, it feels like a victory that this performance exists. Both Silveira and Grace experienced multiple suicide attempts. At various times in her life, Grace experienced drug addictions that partly stemmed from her need to reconcile the gender dysphoria that she was constantly experiencing. In all senses of the word, they literally needed to present their authentic gender expressions (and have those expressions respected by others) in order to be their fullest selves and in order to thrive. Music and art are vulnerable, a medium that allows for deep sharing and connection. This video of Silveira and Grace on stage singing together, alive and defiant and moving forward, is a triumphant piece of queer history. It is impossible to miss the joy on their faces as they sing about the ocean swelling inside of them.
As a queer person and as a prevention specialist dedicated to helping all the youth I work with find their most authentic selves, I recognize that joy. And I think that in some way, anyone who has ever struggled to be their own true self recognizes that joy, too. I am so grateful to live in an age where I can access Silveira’s and Grace’s stories: stories that show that even with struggles beyond imagination, there is the hope of fulfilling our own stories.
On a more specific level, this performance is a reminder of the importance of recognizing and protecting the rights of LGBTQ folks. This kind of support is necessary particularly for our kids. Many youth are discovering and claiming trans identities earlier in life, but that does not mean that their journeys are easy – especially in our present political climate. After the current administration decided to ban trans people from serving in the military, the rate of calls that LGBTQ-specific suicide/crisis lines received skyrocketed, as it did when this administration revoked protections for trans/gender nonconforming youth in schools. Taking away existing protections and rights sends a strong message to youth especially: You will never achieve full personhood in our society – you shouldn’t even be able to safely access a bathroom. Your safety and your very survival do not matter. We will not protect you.
And for many trans individuals, it doesn’t get better.
In the aptly titled report “A Matter of Life and Death,” you can read the stories of the 21 trans people who were murdered in 2015 (in 2017, there are already 19 documented murders of trans folks thus far) – and these numbers likely underrepresent the actual number of trans people lost to violence. Trans people are more likely to be homeless, are more likely to be fired or experience job discrimination, and are more likely to be killed by an intimate partner than the general population. These are only a few of the disproportionate struggles that trans individuals experience. It’s difficult to thrive when one’s very basic human needs are not being recognized and affirmed. One study reports that forty one percent of trans individuals have attempted suicide.
All of these statistics are connected to and informed by other forms of oppression which operate throughout every aspect of our society – sexism, classism, racism. Last month, my coworker shared an article about the gathering of Portland birth workers and community members to protest the killing of Charleena Lyles, a Black pregnant woman and mother who was recently killed by Seattle police. Lyles is part of a nationwide pattern of police violence against Black women that can start from childhood. It is heartbreaking, then, but not surprising that the overwhelming majority of trans women killed in the United States have identified as women of color.
I was especially struck when I read a comment made at the Portland gathering by Mikal H. Shabazz, an imam with the Muslim Community Center and president of the Oregon Islamic Chaplain Organization. Shabazz noted that in the moment of her killing, there was no empathy for Charleena Lyles: “You can’t do that if you see (her) as a human being like yourself.” And I was left wondering – What could it mean for our community, our nation, and our world if we were able to wholly affirm each other as human? What could it mean if we recognized each other’s strengths and dignity? And what could it mean if we held ourselves and others accountable for all forms of violence?
These questions represent more than my own private dreams, for their answers are very much a matter of life and death for both individuals and communities across the United States. Many of us who are drawn to social services work or volunteer opportunities dream of a world where we are all treated equally. In an age where so many lives are at stake, however, it is important to remember the now-famous difference between equality and equity (check out this image/article if you’re not familiar with this concept!). Although it may be tempting for some to point out that in the end we’re all part of one human race, the solution is not to treat all of our community members as if they are all the same. Some members of our community are experiencing persecution and pain in more or different ways than others – and some members of our community are doing the hurting. All of us are affected in some way by the rising level of hate crimes in the United States, and many of us feel fear whenever we turn on the news or get (yet another) news alert on our phones. However, for Jewish people, for queer people, for people of color, and for immigrants, the protest in Charlottesville and every other act of hate always means more. The blatant shouts of Nazism, the Klu Klux Klan, and white supremacy is a chilling reminder of systems that have quite literally tried to terrorize and wipe them out of existence.
It is critical that we see the connections between Charlottesville, the outright and violent targeting of immigrants and Muslims, violence against indigenous peoples and lands, the destruction of Holocaust memorials, and the attempts to remove trans individuals’ rights (such as the most recent initiative in Washington State). It is critical that we ask our marginalized neighbors how we (as individuals and as a community) can best support them and offer a measure of safety. It is critical that we honor our humanity but also the fact that some of us have to struggle against barriers to gain safety and realize our best selves.
SafeChoice took our inspiration for our upcoming Domestic Violence Awareness Month from WSCADV, who in turn was inspired by the Movement Strategy Center’s “Lead with Love” pledge (now “Love with Power” pledge!). This October, we are holding several events that we hope to encourage self-love, love of community and communities’ resilience, and strong community responses against domestic violence. We hope that you’ll check out our website, where you’ll see details for all of them.
This started out as a love letter to my queer folks – especially for those of you who identify as trans, because all too often, the struggles that come with your identities are not properly respected even by us cis members of the LGBTQ community. So, I want to end by clearly stating that I love and see and stand with you. You have power. You are and have always been some of the most vital of our community’s artists and activists and advocates. You matter. Your story matters.
And all of us here at YWCA Clark County will do what it takes to make sure that you get to write it.
Note: We highly suggest that you check out this awesome Trans 101 video, especially if you are unfamiliar with any of the trans terminology used in this article! Please also note that the term “tranny” is a derogatory term and should not be used to refer to trans folks.