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Coming home from the latest seminar I attended that was offered for my community: the Trans community, I was struck again by how exhausted I was, not only physically, but also emotionally, which is a deeper, more draining weariness. These conferences always have this effect on me. But this time, riding home on the Portland Tri-Met bus, turning my view inward to ask this question, I began to see why these Trans conferences are so draining to me: it forces me to look at, or in this case, hear, some things that I have learned not to listen to in my own inner dialogue.
You see, our conferences are built around stories. We, like many other minority groups, have developed an oral tradition. We find power in our stories. It is the one time that we have a voice and that our lives take on some sort of larger meaning. We tell our stories to those outside our communities to educate them about our lives and to also reveal aspects of society that many people take for granted such as privilege and the oppression that privilege depends upon. We train those entering our community to tell their stories in order to empower themselves. And, we tell our stories to each other in order to form community.
We do this because telling our stories is empowering. I remember when I first came out and was in my first panel in front of a college human sexuality class at CSU Sacramento. I, who usually have no stage fright, felt like I was going to throw up before I entered the classroom. It was a palpable, very real fear that I felt that this was something I had to do, a rite of passage of sorts, but also one of the most threatening experiences I had ever faced. It was like coming out . . . in a very public way. The same fears were there as one feels when coming out: fear of rejection, of humiliation, of not being valid, of being alone, of being different, of being . . . well, “queer.” But then, after you swallow the huge lump in your throat and the feeling of a mouth choked with dry sand, and fight back the tears threatening to form in your eyes, and start speaking with a quavering voice, you feel it, that power of mattering. You realize sometime in that first experience, or at least I did, that this is when your life matters. This is when you get out of the daily grind of trying to figure out how to continue on and find that you that you seek, and get to feel the daily realities of our life become truly tangible and start to matter. It starts to become about US and not about you as a person. It starts to fit into a larger context. It starts to matter because it is in the telling of the story that other’s knowledge increases and stereotypes, misconceptions and lies start to shrivel and die. It is in the telling of these stories that change in society becomes possible. Each of our stories becomes a stepping stone in the walk-way that those who will take this same journey of discovery will be able to walk across in order to save them from the sucking mud of intolerance, ignorance and the feeling of being the first and only one to have taken this journey.
So we tell our stories. We tell about the losses we have encountered since we came out. We tell about our fears. We tell about our small victories. We tell about how we found our new places in the world with our new bodies and developing sense of the real us. We tell about tears and sometimes we laugh. We talk about our darkest days when we contemplated or attempted suicide. We talk about losing jobs and we tell about economic hardships. We tell about loves that walked away from us, and we tell about our periods of fear that we will ever feel love again. We tell about family and friends that found walking out of our lives to be easier than walking beside us on our journeys. We tell about community. We tell about the triumph felt when we either make personal gains or make gains as a group. In other words, we tell about our lives, and during the telling, we begin to matter. We step out of the silencing, shaming box that society tries to force us into and we stand atop it and make it our soap-box in order to be heard above the din of the world around us and of our own inner cacophony. And even though we sometimes choke up, and we sometimes have to stop to gather ourselves and wipe away the tears, we find that our voices take on the sound of power; we find that our voices matter.
But, it’s not an easy thing: either to speak or to hear our stories. Because we are honest. That is one of our shared traits. We are all in this because we seek truth and honesty in our lives and our bodies. We speak the tough truths. And, when I attend one of these conferences, I hear that truth, and it hurts. It hurts because we all tell the same stories. The settings may be somewhat different: some occur in men seeking their true feminine selves; some occur in women seeking their true masculine selves; some occur in different areas that may be more or less accepting; some occur in different social or class settings; some occur suddenly and some are long drawn out processes of accepting one’s path in life and true inner self; and some, far too many, end suddenly and tragically and have to be told by others; but all have so many of the same themes and elements that they are all simple variations on the same story. Each of them matter because their tellers matter, but all of them are disturbingly the same.
And often these stories tell about things that we, as the story-livers and tellers, try to look away from, and these are the common themes. They include heart-break, loss of economic stability, loss of jobs and housing, often violence is involved, lovers and family leaving, depression, denial, anger, often we try to lose ourselves in drugs or alcohol or other numbing excesses. But when we tell them in a setting such as a Trans conference, they become tolerable. Because we all have been there, we all sit listening with respect, compassion and understanding in our eyes, and all too often – the silent nodding of those who acknowledge that “Yes, I have been there too.” Whether it is the super-stars of our community: Chaz Bono, Julia Serrano, Kylar Broadus, or one of our beautiful youth who are learning to exist in this life that were given, or one of us who have been around for a while and are stilling trying to figure it all out, or one of our brothers and sisters of color, a trans-man or trans-woman or someone who has found a place in between for themselves, we all tell our stories and we listen to each other’s stories. And somewhere, in the telling, we become. We become real. We become valid. We become human. We become a part of a greater whole. We become a community. With all our hopes, fears, tears, triumphs, failures, strengths, weaknesses, gains, losses, loves and heartaches, we become a part of the human experience. We become the voice of those out there not in our community who have the same experiences as us in their birth genders, maybe not as amplified as we experience, but still just as valid. We become the voice of those who face sexism, prejudice of whatever form, rejection from their families, loss of jobs for whatever reason, discrimination, harassment; we become the voice of women and men: trans and cis, gay and straight. When we tell our stories, the labels we are forced to wear peel off and we become who we really are underneath them – simply human.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Tara Golden is an activist who recently returned to Portland Oregon after twenty years of life elsewhere. Born and raised in Hawai’i, Tara moved to the mainland during grade-school and eventually, after a stint of living on the wild side, attended college at the University of Colorado, Boulder studying Literature and Fine Art. Tara graduated with a membership in Sigma Tau Delta English Honor’s Society and returned to California for California State University, Sacramento’s graduate program in English Literature. While there Tara came out publicly and became an activist in both the LGBT community and the Trans community. Tara, after facing discrimination at CSUS, got into security work and fostered the rebirth of the Lavender Angels, a street safety team for the Lavender Heights area in Sacramento. Since then Tara has trained with the Guardian Angels, the F.B.I. and local police and self-defense experts. Now back in the NW, Tara is in the process of searching for her true self at forty-something, and although that may lead to further activism, along the way there may be art and writing.