Last week, November 16 – 20, was Transgender Awareness week; a week aimed at augmenting the visibility of the transgender and gender non-conforming community and highlighting the issues that we face. On November 20, Transgender Awareness week culminated in Transgender Day of Remembrance; a day which seeks to remember all trans folk who we have lost to acts of transphobic violence.
According to the Human Rights Campaign joint report with the Trans People of Color Coalition, at least 21 transgender persons in the United States of America have lost their lives to anti-transgender violence thus far; the vast majority of them being trans women of colour. Within our Jamaican context, I have not been privy to any other horrific act of homicide since 16-year-old Dwayne Johnson was stabbed, shot and run over with a car in July of 2013 after attending a party whilst presenting herself as her true gender. But not because there have been no such reports, means that we are safe.
Personally, I believe that intolerance – except cases in which to it the individual purposely clings – is fueled by apprehension and a lack of understanding which, in severe cases, combines to produce hate. I also believe that education is the first step to alleviating ignorance; effectively rendering it as one of the fundamental reasons I participate in advocacy and other altruistic initiatives.
In particular, I quite enjoy working with TransWave as they develop into an invaluable resource for the Jamaican, and by extension the Caribbean transgender community. I recently lent my rather handsome face to their visibility campaign which was a tremendous success. From what I’ve seen, the volume of positive responses has been overwhelming.
“The single story creates stereotypes and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The final day of the campaign featured a group photo captioned “Our Voices, Our Stories”. When I saw it (yes I had to wait just like everyone else) I was instantly reminded of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Ted Talk “The Danger of a Single Story” . It was one of such talks that had had the most profound impact on me; so much so, that upon hearing it two years ago, I was moved to write a blog post which featured it’s content as the central theme, much like I’m doing now.
For far too long has there been the existence and propagation of a single story for the transgender community – an incredibly diverse group of people. Given the multifariousness of it’s members, it would be absurd to believe that we all identify with either end of the gender binary, possess identical preferences, hail from similiar backgrounds and that our journeys all lead to equivalent destinations; yet, this is what is generally being presented.
Last year Father Sean Campbell held a special church service to commemorate Human Rights Day (December 10). He invited members from various marginalized populations, LGBT, sex workers, displaced individuals etc, and I was privileged enough to have been amongst the invitees. The program saw Father Sean washing the feet of two lesbians, followed by my brief address to the congregation. Not surprisingly, the event caused quite the media stir.
For about two weeks, letter after letter filled with varying commentary graced our local newspapers. Needless to say, Father Sean experienced quite the backlash; not solely from the general population, but his very own congregation as well – some persons felt he was condoning the “sexual immorality” practiced by LGBT individuals and sex workers.
“The consequence of the single story is this: it robs people of dignity. It makes [our] recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different, rather than how we are similiar.” – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
One of the first letters published in The Jamaica Gleaner by a member of the congregation was a prime example of how single stories define the narrative for an entire community of people; creating stereotypes which are not only harmful, but additionally strip them of their dignity.
In the letter penned by Sonia King (JP), she unashamedly stated that prior to the church service, her view of “transvestites” (she was attempting to refer to transgender individuals), “was the ‘Hollywood-inspired’ caricature with long, flowing hair, pouty red lips, and well-manicured nails.” Needless to say, she was quite surprised when I, a “modestly dressed, articulate, young man” proceeded to the microphone to deliver greetings.
I regard this letter as a testament to the reformation of attitudes and perceptions which can occur when we break our silence and utilize our voices in the telling of our stories; OUR numerous unique stories. Without them, the world and all those who dwell therein, even the most well-meaning of us, will be forced to accept an obscure version of the truth.
This is precisely why our visibility as trans folk is so crucial. For if persons are not presented with alternatives which challenge their misconceptions of the community, then we shall always be painted with the same broad brush strokes in the colour of Hollywood-inspired caricatures.
“And that is how to create a single story: show a people as one thing, as one only thing, over and over again and that is what they become.” – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The onus is on us as members of the transgender community to tell our stories, re-frame the narrative and educate those who know very little, if anything at all about us and our unique journeys through life. Only when our humanity is recognized can we be treated as human beings by our fellow men, deserving of equal rights, dignity and respect.
We have come a long way, but the path before us is longer still; and so we are indebted to those who boldly step forward and shatter the silence, especially those who in doing so, risk their very lives; to those who facilitate our endeavours by providing platforms which we can utilize and to those who continue to support us, cognizant of the fact that they too, might be graciously treated to the discrimination we face all too frequently.
I am thankful for initiatives like TransWave and organizations such as the Colour Pink Group and JFLAG; for without them, many of our stories, including mine, would not have been able to be told.