The conversation about transgender rights is more prominent than ever before. TV shows revolve around the subject, transgender actors are being cast in mainstream roles and when hate surfaces, swarms of people rise together to combat it.
While allies and members of the trans community did indeed successfully battle against a transgender military ban, we can’t forget the people who don’t respect those rights. We can’t ignore that there are those who question Playboy’s decision to have feature our first transgender Playmate in November 2017. Why does this hatred still live among us? Why are we still so far from accepting anything that can be identified as the other?
According to Merriam-Webster, the term transgender is defined as “of, relating to, or being a person whose gender identity differs from the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth.” Though the term transgender can be defined rather simply, it is still difficult for our society to truly understand what it means to be transgender.
To break it down, perhaps it’s best to look at leaders within the transgender community understand what bravery is required in order to wake up every morning and choose to live by their truth. In Gavin Rayna Russom’s case, that bravery led her to on going on her first worldwide tour with LCD Soundsystem as her true self.
Russom has been apart of the iconic band since 2010 and is best known as a musician and synthesizer designer. She’s also released music under the guise of Black Leotard Front, Black Meteoric Star and The Crystal Ark over the past two decades. Yet, despite her longtime career in the spotlight, the world wasn’t really introduced to her until 2017 when she came out as a transgender woman. “I identified as femme throughout my life before I had a career that put me in the public eye,” she explains. “Like any other person, I’m complex with lots of different interests, but there was an internal identification with femininity rather than masculinity that didn’t have to do with what kinds of toys I played with and didn’t have to do with what kind of things I was interested in, but maybe had to do with the way I was interested in them.”
“That seemed to be at odds with the culture that I was living in. [It led to] a persistent sense of wrongness. There was always something wrong, and I couldn’t figure out what it was.” Russom would blame her family, her teachers, her job and her mental health, but nothing resolved that feeling of discomfort that sat with her like a weight on her chest. “The conflict between my internal experience and external environment meant that I tended to internalize and see my interests and my passions and my feelings as constantly at odds with each other.” Once Russom found support and understood that she was a transwoman, she felt like a “whole person” with a completely different perspective that–for the first time–didn’t feel like an unsolvable puzzle.
Just as in any community, there are many variations of someone who identifies as transgender. Where Russom is known for her artistry and is set to take a global stage once again as part of an global band, Jennicet Gutiérrez is best known for her fearless activism–more specifically, for interrupting President Barack Obama in 2015 during a dinner at the White House celebrating LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Transgender, Bisexual and Queer) as a representative for Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement. “That’s when I first became aware of Jennicet. It was very powerful for me. I was still finding my way to my truth, so that action was really inspiring,” Russom suggests. When she listed Gutiérrez as a person she admired during an INTO interview, journalist Nico Lang connected them.
There was a connection that happened inside me where I connected to who I was at a core level and who I was going to be going forward.
Today the pair are good friends—friends with vastly different backgrounds and platforms, but with a shared perspective as trans women. While Gutiérrez sits next to Russom at Playboy’s Beverly Hills headquarters, she turns to her and says, “I totally relate with the experience of having to struggle with who we are.” She then postures herself and leans forward to elaborate, “So we are assigned a specific gender at birth, but then as we start to become conscious of our existence, I think the external component is the one that holds many of us back from truly living openly and authentically. It came to a point in my life that I just could not let any external forces hold me back.”
What many don’t know about her stance at the White House is that Gutiérrez’s interruption was planned. A member of their network of LGBTQ members contacted Familia in November 2014 in search of an undocumented trans woman to potentially confront the President. “I had the choice to just join in the celebration, but then again, I would not be honoring all of this hard work my peers have been doing for so long.”
Although it is hard to pinpoint when the discussion about trans rights shifted for the better, Russom hypothesizes that the attention Gutiérrez demanded was especially impactful–pointing specifically to the undocumented trans community: “You know, there’s trans women in every community. I was in Hollywood last night and I saw a homeless trans woman of color being assaulted on the street, and to witness that, to try to intervene, to feel a sense of powerlessness there and to understand that involving law enforcement would almost certainly make it worse–these are very important conversations to be having and they’re not going to happen unless people take steps like Jennicet did.”
Everyday Russom and Gutiérrez, along with 1.4 million Americans make the conscious choice to own their individuality. It is a conscious choice because there is always potential for retaliation. On the streets there are stares. There is anger. Just in 2017 alone, 25 trans members were murdered. “We’re facing murder, then fleeing our home countries because we’re already facing obstacles like rejection of family, being bullied, harassed by the police or by people on the streets. “
“There were lots of times when I would go out and present femme, I would wear women’s clothes and makeup, I had long hair for years. But it was different to do that once I realized that is actually my truth. There was a difference between feeling the joy and the connectedness of inhabiting traditional modes of feminine performance. There was a connection that happened inside me where I connected to who I was at a core level and who I was going to be going forward.” Each step outside her home with any remnants of femininity was “absolutely terrifying”.
And that anxiety was, unfortunately, not entirely unfounded. “I’ve experienced being assaulted.” But Russom understands that any aggression comes from the predator’s own anxiety. “People read me as feminine when they see me from the back, and then once they had seen me from the front and read me as masculine, they became really angry. It started as harassing me when they read me as femme, then turned into anger when they started to get confused,” the artist recalls. “A lot of it too, I think is the internal fear of stepping into an unknown place–of stepping out of a societal norm. If anyone has ever had an experience where they feel like they’re at a new job, any experience where somebody fears criticism from others, that might give them an idea of what I’m talking about.”
There are just so many structural barriers to break that add to the fear of being unseen, invaluable and unworthy, but I think that’s why we have to fight that every day.
Gutiérrez jumps in to point out that internal fear of the unknown is exactly why activism is needed when it comes to human rights, so that panic can be conquered by knowledge. “By us sharing our own pain, our own experiences, someone from any other part of the world can somehow be given hope,” she says. “There are just so many structural barriers to break that add to the fear of being unseen, invaluable and unworthy, but I think that’s why we have to fight that every day. And in that process, we can help other people that might be going through similar experiences.”
Such activism, according to these two women, can be varied as their trans community–and it’s much bigger than just them. If you stand with Russom and Gutiérrez–and the trans person you see in your coffee shop or workplace–then you are standing against bigotry. “We live in a culture that, at this moment, is in desperate need of healing and I think that healing is going to come from the voices that have been heard least, not from the voices that have been heard most over the last 300, 400 years.” Russom articulates.
Just like any other cause—whether it be about environmental or human rights—it is the citizen’s duty to sit back, educate themselves, be humble and take action. “It’s unacceptable that, in America in 2017, we’re still facing a lack of healthcare access or facing lack of employment, education and the basic needs to survive,” Gutierrez proclaims. “What is your role?” She and Russom agree that allies can join in with organizations like Familia: TQLM, TGI Justice, Sylvia Rivera Law Project, Transgender Law Center, Trans Women of Color Collective.
Another way allies can contribute to progress is by simply interacting with the trans community, whether it be on the street or at a party. One seemingly simple, but major facet of transitioning from a man to a trans woman is pronoun choice. “One of the things that makes me so proud to be a trans woman is when I share with the people I am closest with that I prefer the pronouns ‘she’ and 'her’ and that I prefer the name Rayna.” But just because the LCD Soundsystem pioneer admits her want for change, she doesn’t expect it to be instantaneous for anyone. Training the brain to refer to a trans individual by a new name is a process, a process that requires reevaluation and self-reflection. “They will make mistakes, they will catch themselves, they will get angry sometimes. There is all this stuff that they have to work through. It’s a daily process for them too of being really willing to change on an individual as well as a societal level.” She adds, “People definitely need to be more uncomfortable because I’m not going to do it for them anymore. It’s a good thing to feel uncomfortable. It’s growth.”
Above all, the powerful trans movement we are witnessing is an opportunity for growth for everyone. It’s an opportunity to listen, to pay attention and to let go of preconceptions. It is a chance to challenge a society that has been built to separate us into categories, to check boxes that are meant to identify us. “It’s not us over here and them over there. We are actually all in this together,” Russom declares.
To learn more about Gavin Rayna Russom’s musical endeavors, visit her website.
And to learn more about Familia: TQLM, visit their website.