Sunday, April 29, 2012

Identity and Advocacy, by Gilligan

I go to a small, liberal arts college in the state of Maryland, in the US (in a very conservative part of the state). There are only about 2,000 students (two of whom I know of are out as trans*, including me), and virtually no resources or support programs for trans*spectrum folks.  At the start of this year, the administration made a decision to include “gender identity and expression” in their non-discrimination policy.  So, my friend and I have spent the past year trying to increase awareness and resources on campus, and amongst faculty and staff.

This has left me exploring the relationship between advocacy and personal identity more than I had anticipated.

In such a small school that prides itself on providing an individualized and inclusive experience, those who advocate are typically those who are experiencing oppression. There is such a wide variety of involvement opportunities and causes, that it is very rare to find people completely unaffected by an issue who are willing to dedicate significant amounts of time and energy to the cause. As you can imagine, this is often the case. 

I’m dealing with this conflict of identity and outreach.  There are only two gender-neutral bathrooms at the school, no gender-neutral housing, no trans* health awareness at the medical/counseling center, and most of the faculty has little to no idea why the “gender identity and expression” clause was added to the policy, or what it means.  I don’t feel I can let this continue in good conscience, or allow the administration to ask for input on LGBTQ issues without responding with suggestions for improving trans* awareness and inclusiveness.

It is very important for me to be as stealth as possible while at school. I’ve lived in this area for most of my life, and my interactions with the community and people I knew prior to coming out often center around pronouns, name blunders, educating people, and/or concerned and judgmental looks and whispered comments. Though school is generally a safe and open place, very few students have an understanding of what “transgender” is, and coming out to them involves a slow educational process during which my gender is consistently called into question.  Even in spaces and meetings where I feel completely safe and comfortable describing my trans* experience, there is always a danger of my advocacy being ineffective because I am a trans* student. No matter how much I discuss other identities, other potential problems and improvements related to breaking the policed binarist system on capmus, and why they apply to all (especially trans*) students, people always tend to focus on my identity and my story. They try to fix a specific problem without addressing systematic change and institutional oppressions.  They apply my insights and experiences unilaterally to other trans*people. Further, without a cisgender ally to back up our ideas, those reactions (however well-intended) can be just as detrimental as they can be helpful.

I’m then faced with the task of trying to do work to help a community without focusing that work on my own experience, as many do; and many questions arise for me:

  • Where do personal identity and community advocacy intersect?
  •  Where do they need to be kept separate?
  • How can someone explain a group made of thousands of lives and identities and experiences to someone with little to no background in that area while avoiding presenting the importance of change and the definition as only the stories of a few individuals?
  • Is it possible to be stealth and an advocate? Do I have to choose? 
In many ways, we all face these choices. When we come out, work the technicalities of name changes and restroom facilities, work and school, family and friends, and advocate in the professional versus the personal spheres, we are constantly choosing how much to educate, how much to keep private, when and why to come out, and how to use our experience and personal narrative. The great thing is that (for the most part) we have a choice. Navigating those choices in a myriad of situations and social and political dynamics, though, is the hard part.

Filed under the long list of tough and intriguing questions I’ve come to face regarding gender identity, sexual identity, advocacy, and daily life, that I’m sure I’ll be struggling with for a while. Thoughts, experiences, comments, and reactions? We’d love to hear them at

 - Gilligan


  1. Whew. I don't know. Even when you are out, it is hard for people to know when it is ok for them to even acknowledge it. Or when it is ok for me to reference it in some way. I don't feel comfortable at all speaking for other trans* folk. Just reading the interwebs about other trans* experiences educates me as to how diverse our feelings and thoughts and lives are. However, I do believe in the power of one relationship making the difference for a whole. I am sure that my relationships with other people in my life who know me as trans has opened their eyes, even if it is a small amount, to trans* lives. It is so rare for Cis people to have a known trans* person in their lives that I choose to believe that I am helping our community by being out to even a few people. Beyond that, I find myself at a loss as to what to do.

    1. Thanks for the response! It is tough, and I think lack of open discussion (due to lack of education and a variation in how comfortable people are being out)contributes to it being a little awkward on both sides even when someone is out. I agree - I try to use instances in which I am outed or end up coming out to give people experience having a relationship to someone who is trans* and a little info about the diversity of identity. But there are times I shy away from even those conversations because I'm worried that I'll give the impression that all trans* people are that open talking about trans* topics. I hope that our community starts being able to talk about this respectfully and honestly with a lot more frequency.