Trans* = all variations of trans and genderqueer identities
When I was a kid, I remember thinking how powerful it would have been to see and know people like me. That was a time that predates Instagram and YouTube. There were no positive representations of trans* or queer people that I saw or knew about.
No matter who you are or where you fall on life's spectrum, seeing other people like you is not just comforting, it is validating. It can be self-affirming and life changing. Seeing other people like you, knowing that they even exist, is a reminder that you are more than not alone. You are among and supported by many.
That’s why I first started volunteering as a camp counselor at camp for gender expansive kids two years ago. I originally signed up hoping to make a positive difference in their lives. I wanted to be that person they could relate to and identify with. I hoped to be one of the reflections that I so longed to have when I was younger. However, and I’ve told my campers this, they’re really the ones who do the inspiring.
At five, six, seven, eight, nine, and ten years old and up, they know who they are. They’re confident, self-aware, generous, silly, thoughtful, compassionate, and wise beyond their years. They proudly and messily color outside the lines—literally and figuratively. They obsess over Judy Garland and ten-tiered lanyards. Many of them are themselves without a second glance in the mirror on the first day. Many of them leave on the last knowing a little bit more about who they are, but now with lifelong friends to count on.
On the first day of camp, the counselors introduce themselves to a room full of young campers. Just the basics: name, hometown, gender pronoun, and gender identity (if we’re open to disclosing). The campers meanwhile squirm in their chairs with giddiness and excitement. But then their heads swivel around when they hear some of the counselors are transgender too. They suddenly see themselves in us. And I know the counselors do too. We see ourselves in them.
Then one counselor will stand up and come out as cisgender, or non-trans*, and who is not LGBTQI-identified at all. Then another. And another. The first time this happened, my mouth embarrassingly dropped in shock and awe and amazement. I never expected that people who were not like me, or the campers, would take a week of their time to volunteer as arts and crafts mavens, lifeguards, hiking guides, campfire builders, and bunk order-keepers.
I shouldn’t have been so surprised. I shouldn’t have ever assumed that everyone who cares about transgender people may not be transgender themselves or even members of the LGBQI acronym. You can be someone who cares about other people. It’s not revolutionary.
Allow me to hop up on my soapbox for a moment.
You do not need to be the same as someone else to care about them. You do not need any credentials to be an ally or a friend to someone else. You do not need to know everything about queer or gender theory to be open to your own education and expansion. I know that I am constantly learning where I work at the Los Angeles LGBT Center about the community I’m a part of. You can make mistakes and be imperfect (I know I always am) as long as you move forward with compassionate amendments and positive intentions.
So what does this have to do with turning awareness into action?
Although this year has been unprecedented for trans* visibility, visibility still matters. Intentional positive visibility very much matters.
Like the kids who attend this camp, it was important not only for them to see other transgender people like them but also people who are not. Seeing people who are different from you who are in your corner and on your side as teammates and a cheerleaders—knowing that those people exist—is a reminder that you are more than not alone. You are among and supported by many.
Be visible—if and when you safely can—as a trans person (and, of course, if you want to). Even though I am recognized as male most of the time, I come out when I can. I am visible for those who cannot be. Because as a kid and even as a young adult, I know how much I needed to see myself in others. Because when I saw those campers’ relieved and elated reactions, it’s worth it. They’re worth it.
Be visible—if and when you safely can—as a trans* ally. As a kid and even as a young adult, I know how much I needed support and to see positive examples of people accepting, loving, and supporting their trans* friends and family. When you stand up for someone else, you stand up for others to come in the future. Because when those campers learned that not all of us, their counselors, were trans*, I can only imagine that they felt a different kind of safety and comfort.
At least, that’s how I felt.
You help create safe spaces for people by being a trans* ally in public.
Visibility still matters because being visible—whether as a trans* person or an ally—allows people to see you and get to know you and feel safe to be themselves with you. That’s been the power of Happy Hippie’s #InstaPride. You know our stories because you first saw our faces and the faces of people we care about, and who care about us. You know us. And we know a lot of you.
The gay movement has made progress because most people now know someone who is gay in their life. Those people who don't likely know another person who does and accepts gay people. That tragically isn’t true for most trans* people. Most people don’t know us and many people don’t know people who care about us.
That’s why I come out every opportunity I can. Not only to educate people, but to get to know them and to let them get to know me. So now they do know at least one trans* person. That’s why I tell people I know to talk freely and openly about gender, gender expression, and—more generally—about accepting people for who they are.
Trans* people are not just their gender identities. We are so much more. We are a diverse community of individuals with distinct experiences, backgrounds, and ambitions just like everyone else. For acceptance, people need to get to know us. They can’t do this without first seeing us and those who care about us.
In an effort to translate all of this into real life talk: Don’t wait on other people to show their support for trans* people before you do. Raise your hand. Go first. On social media and—more importantly—OFF of it, be the first to like something or someone who is authentic and inclusive in person. Be the first to comment and do something if you see someone being disrespected or bullied. Be the first to share your education and experience because you never know whose life it will affect and change and even possibly save. Go viral with your words and actions. Everything that does eventually go viral starts with just one like, one comment, or one share. It starts with just one person.
Don’t just inspire with your words. Inspire with your actions. Like my young campers, be confident, self-aware, generous, silly, thoughtful, compassionate, and wise (even if not beyond your years.)
One of my favorite rules at camp is not to yuck someone else’s yum. We don’t always have to understand why someone eats their grilled cheese with ketchup to get that that’s what tastes good to them. We don’t always have to understand why someone wears 5-inch heels during a mile-long hike along the lake if that’s what they feel good wearing. We don’t have to understand everything about someone to accept and respect them.
No matter who you are or where you are in life, to see other people like you is not only comforting, it is validating. To see other people like you pursuing happiness and succeeding—or at least ambitiously trying—means you are also capable. To see other people like you being wholly appreciated, supported, and loved should remind you: you are enough and deserving just as you are.
To see Miley Cyrus—this creative, genuinely kind, passionate, talented human being celebrating people whose genders are as expansive and diverse as all the people in the world, it is life-changingly affirming. It’s transforming. It’s everything. Why wouldn’t you want to join in?
I’m not saying everyone needs to volunteer at a camp—I’m not very outdoorsy myself as much as I’d like to be—but what I am saying is that you can show up for people in all kinds of ways and you can do it every day, in your own way.
When you are visible and vocally support, uplift, and empower others to be their true selves, you can change someone’s life. Trust me, you will inspire other people to be and do the same. They will follow your lead. Those small acts of kindness and compassion add up. That’s what changes public perception. That’s what changes cultural institutions. It’s person to person. It’s your words. It’s your actions. It’s powerful. That’s how the world changes. It starts with you and me.
To all my campers, you are my personal inspirations and heroes. My work is dedicated to all of you. Thanks for letting me be a small part of your illuminating lives.
To all the Happy (Hippie) campers out there, keep lighting the way.