As attendees filled Rackham Auditorium Thursday night, a slideshow flashed images of acclaimed figures in the trans community, both living and dead. A few of the many honored were actress Laverne Cox, “Survivor” star Zeke Smith and Sylvia Rivera, the late activist and drag queen. Over 250 people attended the Trotter Multicultural Center’s lecture “My Life. My Story! Centering the Voices of Trans Lives,” honoring the lives, works and stories of transgender and nonbinary people.
Jessica Thompson, program manager for the Trotter Center, did much of the organizing for the lecture, reaching out to trans student speakers at the University, as well as the celebrity keynote speakers. At the start of the event, she expressed her appreciation for the student speakers’ willingness to share their stories. She said while the celebrity speakers brought inspiration to the event, it was the students she felt were most impressive.
“Although they (the celebrities) are amazing, I have to be honest, that’s not what makes this event star-studded,” Thompson said. “It’s the students that make this event star-studded.”
The student speakers came from diverse backgrounds and different parts of the University: Art & Design senior D. Wang Zhao, Information graduate student Vidhya Aravind, Max Mendez, a recent graduate from the School of Social Work and 2017 LSA graduate Leo Sheng. Each student expressed their story in different ways, but all included their struggles, perseverance and gratitude for the support of friends and family.
Zhao told their story through poetry, using the color blue to represent their fluid gender identity and express frustration with discrimination.
“My blue is not masculine-centered, not feminine-centered, but fluid and indistinguishable,” Zhao said. “My blue is of transience and of being an immigrant of having aesthetics that involve of yes, bleaching my eyebrows like I did last night. My blue is a soft blanket.”
Aravind discussed the struggle of having so few other South Asian trans women in her community, discovering her trans identity in 2014 while experiencing depression. She said she was indebted to the friends she met during that difficult time who supported her and ultimately helped her recognize her trans-ness.
“My transition is primarily the story of community and solidarity,” Aravind said. “It’s the story of people sacrificing time and energy to care for me.”
In Mendez’s speech, they talked about not fitting into a gender category growing up and how this made them feel isolated.
“I remember people always calling me tomboy, that I was one of the boys,” they said. “To me, that meant I wasn’t doing girl right, but I wasn’t quite boy enough to be respected the way a real boy is. I felt broken, like I wasn’t doing gender right.”
Mendez also highlighted certain obstacles they face as a nonbinary person, such as being forced to check either male or female on a job application or struggling to find a gender-neutral bathroom. They conveyed their desire to be accepted as who they are.
“At the end of the day, I would just like people to see me as who I am,” they said. “Our existence is too nebulous to be filled in one box. We’re too full of possibilities.”
Sheng similarly talked about being uncomfortable in his gender as a child. He talked about his rejection of anything considered “feminine” as a child, joking that to his friends, it was as if he was a little Mulan. He then discussed his coming out experience and the medical transition that followed.
“My body was rapidly forming to fit my soul, and while it was something I’d wanted more than anything for six years, it was overwhelming,” he said.
He further noted the changes in his thinking since his medical transition four years ago, especially his acceptance of his trans identity as being part of his search for happiness.
“I spent so long thinking that being trans was a roadblock to happiness, but I know now that while it doesn’t make it any easier, my trans identity isn’t a roadblock, but a part of that journey,” Sheng said.
After the student speeches and a reflective moment of silence, the keynote speaker portion of the event began. One of these speakers was actor Brian Michael Smith, an Ann Arbor native, who has had roles in TV shows such as “Queen Sugar,” “Chicago P.D.” and “Girls.” Smith told the story of playing for his high school football team, despite the fears of his mother and the stigmas surrounding it. He connected this to his experience as a trans person through the lesson of going for goals even as the people express their doubts.
“As a trans person, a lot of what I’m struggling with is not my own fear, not my own doubts, but other people around me,” Smith said. “So I’m here today to tell you don’t let that happen to you. There’s so much you can do, there’s so much in your heart. If that’s something you want to do, you have to go for it. People will come around, people will learn and most importantly when you share your story, you’re going to give somebody else the courage to do that in their life.”
The next speaker was modal Amiyah Scott, an actress on the TV show, “Star.” She said she was grateful for being able to attend the event and exist as her trans self against all odds.
“I’m thankful first of all because the woman you see here today was told she couldn’t exist,” Scott said. “I was actually told I was crazy for thinking she could exist. And I’m here.”
She noted the times she’s been distressed while trying to achieve her dreams and her ultimate perseverance. She urged the audience to always love themselves and fight for their ambitions.
“Self-love is very important,” she said. “You have to love you. Aside from that, you have to believe in yourself, you have to give yourself a chance.”
Activist Janet Mock, author of memoirs “Redefining Realness” and “Surpassing Certainty,” was the last speaker. She talked about coming from an unstable family and a neighborhood filled with poverty noting her eventual success is a rare occurrence in her community. She spoke of the liberation telling her story gave her.
“Choosing to tell my story emboldened me,” Mock said. “Giving me a voice, allowing me to shift conversations about living at the intersections of gender, race and class.”
A question and answer session between the three of them followed the individual speeches. They discussed their initial dream careers, experiences of being exploited for their trans identities, the need for widespread education on issues affecting marginalized communities and more.
Morgan Gallimore, a senior at Greenhills High School, went to the event with her race and gender class after reading one of Mock’s books. She said Mock’s focus on intersectionality resonated with her especially, due to her identity as a Black female. She hoped Trotter Center hosts another lecture like this one in the future.
“I hope they do it again,” Gallimore said. “It was a really cool event.”
LSA senior Yaz Cross appreciated the knowledge she gained after listening to the many speakers.
“I got to hear about different experiences I wasn’t exposed to,” Cross said. “I got to resonate with different passages and takeaways that they wanted to leave with people.”