Life, Stories: U-M's 4th annual W. M. Trotter Lecture focused on trans lives
I think that the first time I heard Janet Mock was on the Another Round podcast. She charmed me right away. I loved her passion and the way that she told her story. So, when I heard she was going to speak on Feb. 8 at the University of Michigan's Rackham Auditorium, I knew I wanted to be there at the 4th annual W. M. Trotter Lecture, “My Life. My Story! Centering the Voices of Trans Lives.”
I hadn’t taken a close look at the event when I reserved tickets for me and my son. I didn’t know I was going to spend an entire evening listening to seven trans people of color share their stories and then spend the entire weekend thinking about what I heard. On the other side of the event, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“What does blue feel like to you?” --D Wang Zhao
D Wang Zhao was the first community speaker to take the stage. A fifth-year senior at the University of Michigan School of Art and Design they told their story as a performance poem. (They is sometimes the preferred pronoun among trans people.)
“I want to think about blue,” Zhao said as they walked the audience through a selection of experiences such as being misgendered, finding a place at Michigan, straddling cultures, and about what they called “institutional bureaucratic violence.”
“If my community consisted of people just like me, I wouldn’t have one.” --Vidhya Arivand
Vidhya Arivand, a Master of Science in Information student, asked the audience some questions when she took the stage. She asked the audience to think about how many trans women of color there are in the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti area. Then she asked the audience to think about how many South Asian trans women there are in the world. She described her past self as transphobic and difficult to befriend, then Arivand told us about her friendship with the first trans woman she met. Now, trans herself, Arivand is able to be “a friend [she] can be proud of.” At the end of her talk, she said that friendship is the best allyship.
“I just want to be seen.” --Max Mendez
Max Mendez took the stage to a notable amount of applause. Theirs was a story of moving to a new place and looking for acceptance. They used humor throughout the talk, mentioning that they decided on the name Max while watching The L-Word. Oh, and their cat at home? Also named Max.
Mendez recently earned their Master of Social Work and had a life-changing experience at their internship at The Neutral Zone. As a part of an activity, those present were asked to write down their names and preferred pronoun. This seemed to provide a moment where Mendez felt seen for who they were and a nudge to move forward in the world in a way that felt true.
“I will always be in transition.” --Leo Sheng
Leo Sheng, like the other speakers, took a moment to notice the size of the audience. He was thrilled by the interest in the event and told his tale for the first time that evening. He let us into his story by telling us that he is a Taurus, that according to Pottermore he’s a Hufflepuff, but that according to Buzzfeed he is a Ravenclaw. He is also a Chipotle fan, a Chinese-American adoptee with two moms, and a transgender man.
Through his time on stage, it was clear Sheng has thought a lot about his many identities and what they mean in the world. He is grateful that despite tension in his family, his gender identity did not result in him losing any of his loved ones. He told us many elements of his story but talked about the tension between his race and his gender, how both of these elements are a part of him that deserve to be honored.
“I cannot let other people stop me. No matter how much they love me or how much they hate me.” --Brian Michael Smith
Brian Michael, one of the evening’s keynote speakers, grew up in Ann Arbor. He is now an actor playing Toine Wilkins, a transgender police officer, on Queen Sugar. The story he told was about growing up enamored with the sport of football and set his sights on playing in high school. His mother wasn’t so excited out of fear for his safety. Michael asked his mother if there was a reason, other than his then-female body, that he shouldn’t play football. There was not. Then came the tryouts. He made his way to the school, telling himself, “I’m going to wait until I’m not afraid, then I’m going to go.” He realized that the fear wasn’t going to go away on its own. He tried out for the Pioneer High School team and made it, playing football all four years.
“The only person who can live my life is me.” --Amiyah Scott
Amiyah Scott is an LGBT advocate who has focused on giving transgender women a voice. Currently, she is playing Cotton in Lee Daniels’ series Star. She also seemed moved by the crowd in the auditorium. She took the stage and, with much emotion in her voice, said, “At 30 years old, it’s been 15 years that I’m living my truth.” She seemed a bit overwhelmed by the experience but talked about the importance of loving oneself. She said that public speaking is not her thing but her manager told her to come out on stage and tell the truth.
“I swore I was Carrie Bradshaw. The black version. That would be Khadijah.” --Janet Mock
When Janet Mock began telling her story, it was clear that she had done it before. She told a large story that made reference to those who had influenced her whether they were writers like Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, or Maya Angelou, or her grandmothers who she says taught her how to be feminist and intersectional despite not having those words to describe these things.
Mock was also the first in her family to go to college, and then went on to graduate school. She earned a successful career, becoming an editor at Time magazine. She was also most often seen as a cis woman. In 2011, Marie Claire published an article that revealed to the world that Janet Mock was a transgender woman.
As she moved through life meeting her goals, she thought about how important it is for meaningful representation. She decided that she was, indeed, going to attach herself to the trans community. She wanted to be there for girls who had grown up like she did. She has continued her quest to tell trans stories and is currently involved in writing and producing the FX series Pose, which centers on trans women of color.
It is not just representation that is important to Mock. She also aims to bring attention to other issues that impact trans women of color disproportionately such as poverty, homelessness, unemployment, and barriers to health care.
At the end of her talk, Mock challenged the audience. Charged us to extend beyond ourselves, demanding, “Use your voice and your access for change.”
The evening then moved into a Q&A with the keynote speakers. As they answered the questions, the underlying answer to most of the questions was that these were just people who wanted to live their lives and fulfill their purposes.
In one particularly moving moment, Amiyah Scott shared that she knew that she was living the life she was meant to when she heard from a mother that Amiyah had changed her life. The mother had learned about Amiyah through hairstyling videos and had assumed that she was a cisgender woman. When she learned that Amiyah was a trans woman, the mother realized that she needed to treat her own child differently.
Throughout the Q&A, the panel demonstrated they wanted to do whatever they could to help others who were navigating the challenges that they had faced. They also lamented that there is little nuance in the way trans people are represented in the media. Representations seem to be stuck at two poles: on one end, the brutalized; on the other end, the red carpet. The keynote speakers wanted the audience to leave understanding that people live three-dimensional lives, even recommending books such as George by Alex Gino and Becoming a Visible Man by Jamison Green to help folks get there.
Sherlonya Turner is the manager of the Youth & Adult: Services & Collections Department at the Ann Arbor District Library. She can be found diving headfirst into all sorts of projects over at sherlonya.net.
Click here to watch a video of the 4th annual W.M. Trotter Lecture.