October was LGBT History Month. To honor transgender people and their unique histories, I featured transgender people and parents of transgender children all month long. Through sharing their stories, I hoped to raise awareness of this amazing population of people who still struggle for basic human rights. To finish off the series, I have one final post on being a part of Trans History.
By Hannah Elyse Simpson, writer, trans advocate, and nerd.
It is hard to think of October as LGBT History Month, when every month these days seems to represent some huge headline in the transgender experience, either my own or at large. We were once marginalized by obscurity, yet today it is as easy to feel lost within the mainstream, as if our journey no longer makes us special or unique. It feels like all the firsts have been taken, but if you want to be a part of trans history, you just need to be a part of one.
I met seven-year-old Jake while volunteering in the children’s playroom for a transgender health conference. Some of the kids were themselves trans, others were cisgender siblings or children of transitioning parents. As a general rule, the boys, cis and trans alike, were physical and rough, loud, and completely off the walls. The girls, however, were physical and rough, loud, and completely off the walls. Kids are going to be kids, and we could all do better to ease off the gender stereotypes, but I digress.
Jake was on the younger side, but did his best to keep up with the room’s rambunctiousness. Eventually, nerves and an upset tummy sidelined him in a corner. I sat down beside him to check in, only to witness his last night’s spinach dinner find its way out to the carpeting. He was devastated and embarrassed, so we just had a little chat while his mother was on her way.
“I like your shirt and buttons,” I said. It was a tank top, slightly splotched by vomit that hardly concerned him, which read, “This is what trans looks like.” It was pierced by lots of conference buttons. He pointed toward his favorite and read it aloud to me, “I’m F-T-M,” he said, “Do you know what that means?” “Well,” I replied, “I think I do. Did you know I’m M-T-F?” Jake, who had moments ago been dejected, lit up with a smile. I don’t think he believed me at first. I didn’t have to be the first transgender movie star, to be perhaps the first grown-up transwoman he had ever met.
I met Jake’s mother as she came to the rescue following the vomit incident, and we talked throughout the rest of the conference. With her permission, I asked Jake if he would like to be my penpal. We have been exchanging cards and letters since. I have this little secret: I know what it’s like to have been a seven-year-old boy, so we get along pretty well. We both love reading FTM Magazine. He looks up to the men it features as role models; I just wonder if they’re single. Maybe he sees in me as a grown-up who relates to him, but I draw inspiration right back from the courage he may not yet realize he has.
I may not have been my school’s first transgender homecoming queen, but I was home and on call when Frank, or so he called himself that night, reached out for help. Frank needed someone to talk to about the stress he was under from his parents and school who didn’t share his enthusiasm over living his life as a boy. This was something nontraditional in his culture, he kept repeating. It became clear Frank’s parents spoke limited English, so I reached out to my circles and connected him with trans friends who spoke his particular Chinese dialect, though at first his parents refused to speak with them.
Over the next few months, I kept checking in on Frank, who lives in Canada. By pure coincidence, I knew I would be traveling nearby his town for business, so I mentioned it. Interacting with trans minors is tricky, since parents don’t always approve, but are in charge. You have to bend the rules a little at first, but his parents knew by now he was accessing resources and had made considerable progress embracing him. I explained that I’d like to meet him, but only if his parents approved and accompanied him so that I could formally introduce myself. It didn’t hurt in demonstrating my authenticity that I had a video on YouTube to send ahead, along with pictures. To Frank’s astonishment, his parents approved.
Frank’s father was a skinny but sturdy Chinese man whose face conveyed all of his appreciation where words failed him. He was impressed that I had come so far to a nondescript Pizza Hut beside the train station in his suburb. He waited in his car while Frank and I chatted about high school, fitting in, and growing up. I was invited home to meet Frank’s mother. We discussed what it meant to be transgender, and I had a chance to speak from my own experiences about hormone therapy. I answered lots of her questions.
There have been countless transgender people before me, and countless will follow, but I was the first to show up at this door, across this border and hundreds of kilometers from home, all because I happened to get his message one day. Frank used the word “honor” a lot, so I repeated it intentionally to his parents. I lent my voice behind their son’s, after he had already so bravely and relentlessly advocated for himself, telling his parents just how much their son had inspired me. I am looking forward to introducing Jake and Frank to each other soon, at least virtually. Jake could use a big brother, and Frank would love a little one.
Community means different things to different trans people, and it’s totally normal that that changes over the course of our journeys. Closeted, stealth, or visible, and binary or boundary-breaking, we are linked by life experience we can share only with one another. Community doesn’t necessarily mean attending weekly groups, speaking out publicly, or drinking at local queer bars, it may just be making a single impact in a trans life beyond your own. Whether any of us know our own “LGBT History” or not, the freedoms each of us have to contemplate our identities, let alone assert them openly, were paved with and paid for in the sweat, tears, and all-too-often, blood, of those who came before us. Many whose names we know, and far too many whose names we will never.
The way we make a new narrative is by knowing each other’s names and by knowing each other. We cannot help those who preceded us, so it is our obligation to help one another in the present. Prevent a single trans suicide, or prevent a single trans homicide. If it ever feels like all the firsts have been taken, you aren’t looking hard enough. Remember that being part of trans history is being part of ONE trans history.
Hannah Simpson is a medical student in New York City, marathoner, and an unabashed nerd. Her writing has appeared on Refinery29, Marie Claire, the Advocate, the Jewish Times of Baltimore and the Times of Israel. She has appeared as a guest commentator with Melissa Harris-Perry on MSNBC, and on Fox 5 (WNYW) Good Day New York. Find her on Twitter @hannsimp or Instagram @hsimpso.
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Special thanks to Mary Tyler Mom who inspired this unique and beautiful way of honoring LGBT History Month.