why having a voice matters

On November 11th, I had the great privilege of delivering a guest lecture to a university class of 150 third year Criminal Justice students in Toronto. I was working with my friend Danielle Bottineau, the LGBT liaison officer from the Toronto Police Service. She had asked me to join her to share my own story, all of it over the years since coming out as a trans woman and my advocacy work for over 30 years. It was likely that many of the students had not seen a real live trans woman in the flesh.

It was a new experience for both of us, we had never worked together to deliver a talk or lecture before.

People have asked if there was a lot of preparation work to be done for it. Actually, no, I had the topic given to me about an hour prior to the class. How much work do you need to do when you are sharing what is most familiar to you, your own life’s story and experiences.

I did keep in mind as I began to speak what my best friend Rachel has been telling me throughout this year, “It’s one thing to share your story honey, but, you must share ALL of it, not just the sunshine and happiness bits. People will only begin to understand our experiences and what we deal with on a daily basis when you tell all of it.”

I looked out on all those faces in the lecture hall, took a deep breath, and began to speak. A few notes to begin, explaining that I am bilaterally deaf and wear hearing aids, so if they would be so kind to look directly at me so that I can hear and read them unless they could sign. First laugh, “Look, I’m a colorful old broad, and as much as I will work to keep this fairly PG, I will at times need to punctuate something. If you blush easily, I suggest you do it now and get it out of the way so you don’t miss anything.” And, as is necessary these days, I did add a trigger warning, that I would cover many topics that are usually not discussed in mixed company and if you need support, see Danielle or myself after the Q&A session.

I began to tell the students the story of this transgender woman, from coming out at age 16, to a brief stint as a sex worker in my late teens, to attempting transition in my 20s and running headfirst into conversion therapy and bailing out after 5 months. The damage caused by that, spending over 20 years chasing an answer to fix myself when I was never really broken. The fight for rights over the years, dealing with multiple mental health issues on top of gender dysphoria, to the death of my mother and ending up homeless and on the streets in my late 40s, spending 17 months in a homeless shelter – multiple assualts and sexual assualts while there, two suicide attempts, plus living through a violent sexual assault on the street prior to TDOR in 2014. Ending up at where I am now, over 18 months on HRT, a new career in media (writing and reporting, print and television), how transition got me to a place where I no longer need the multiple drugs I used to have to take to combat anxiety and depression.

Intermingled throughout, I compared my experiences to those of many in the transgender community. I had noticed as I spoke, the only thing I could hear was the sound of my own voice, and the sound of my heels on the floor as I walked around. I expected to see fidgeting, eyes locked on cellphones or lost in something on a notebook screen. I’ve never seen an audience that focused. I also made note of a few points when I heard an audible gasp in the hall. I knew the point I was illustrating had had an impact. And I’ve never had the experience of waiting for an applause break in the middle of a thought.

After I finished, Danielle shared her story from coming out through work experiences, life experiences, her wife and the work that she and I do together to educate the police service on LGBTQ issues.  Her story is equally fascinating, and again the students were hanging on her every word.

The Q&A session was amazing, almost 2 hours that demonstrated to both of us that they had not missed one item we had discussed. After we concluded, students came up for some one on one time with both of us. The first student I spoke with had one question, “Can I give you a hug please?” I never turn down hugs! My goal, any time I go out to speak, is to reach at least one person, to have them see through my eyes, to understand what it takes to be transgender in today’s society.

The Thank You card we both received from the professor said, “Thank you so much for the guest lecture. Education can be the premise for social change. Thanks for providing it to my students.” The e-mail I received from the professor a few days later said, “It was amazing how silent the class was when you were telling your story. I am sure it will have a lasting impact and most importantly you spoke on behalf of some of my students who would be ashamed to talk about their own situation.”

And yes, we’ve received invitations to deliver more guest lectures in the winter semester. Again, if I can have an impact for just one student.

A few folks asked for a piece from the lecture, so here is a snippet I captured:

Picture in your mind the last moments of a trans woman, and with current statistics, a trans woman of color, crumpled on the pavement, her last breath and last heartbeat… a figure bathed in light approaches…

She looks up at the figure, “Is that you God?” (or creator of your preference or belief)
“Yes child.”
“How?  Why?”
“Because it was time for you to come home child. But, this will make a difference for those left behind.”
“But God, ain’t I a woman?”
“Yes child, you always were a woman. Rise and walk with me and see yourself as the woman I have always known you to be.”

Stop and consider that moment.  Isn’t it time people… my life is not a joke, your life is not a joke, her life was not a joke, their lives were not a joke.

Please. Not one more.

My only hope by sharing my story, is that it will heal somebody who hears it and cause a positive difference for my trans family.  And please remember to LOVE each other INTENSELY.