feature image is an illustration by E Henderson
dear fellow trans girl/woman/femme,
say yes and join.
no, really. do it.
you might be one of the few like us in the room,
but building power is an alchemy like no other
that fashions solidarity out of fragile unions.
and also, it is the only way to freedom.
Sometimes, the things you say yes to surprise you. The flicker of something that feels like hope and desire that dances from your stomach to your throat, as you gaze into the mirror and weave earrings through your earlobes. A galaxy that expands with a strength and pride underneath and across your collarbone, draping on and buttoning up a shirt that fills out a gender that is your own with a nod to what has come before. The words that come tumbling out, messy and undone, sorting out who we are alongside to who we were, making room for whatever is to come.
When I said yes to becoming a part of an organizing project that intentionally works across the lines of race, class, and gender, I knew that it was going to be mostly made up of cis people because that’s who mostly makes up the population of the county I call home. What I didn’t expect — what continues to surprise me — is that choosing to build power in a way that feels riskier than just being in exclusively queer and trans spaces has allowed me to cultivate a grounded hope in the face of fear by teaching me that there are far more cis people who choose care and solidarity than I once believed.
“Solidarity is not forever; it shatters on the rocks of difference, on the fear of exile.” — Joan Nestle (‘A Fragile Union’)
I came out as queer and trans in 2010 as a 19-year-old after my first year of college in Greensboro, North Carolina after moving there from Atlanta, GA. Despite most of my friends and the people I did social justice work being queer or queer-affirming, it took a while for me to take the risk of coming more fully into myself, surprising myself with the joy that came on the other side. That same year, in the state that would become the place I would call home, the North Carolina GOP captured majorities in both houses of the state legislature for the first time in more than 20 years, as a result of Tea Party mobilizing anti-Black racism in the wake of President Obama’s victory in the 2008 U.S. Presidential election.
At the time, I didn’t really pay much attention to that seismic shift in power. I didn’t believe in voting as a way to make change and because what felt most pressing were the anti-LGBTQ thoughts, actions, and behaviors that I bumped against far too often. From anti-trans rhetoric online, mindless misgendering from strangers and close friends, and a family member telling me that I was fundamentally undesirable to other queer women due to the sex I was assigned at birth; the world felt like a painful place to exist in. At the same time, I had many friends, family, and comrades who loved and affirmed me, reminding me of my inherent dignity and worthiness, even as I struggled to internalize their care.
While I was learning to feel for my resilience and belonging amidst these intimate hurts and heartbreaks, the North Carolina GOP used their newfound power to push through Amendment One in late 2011, leading up to the elections in 2012. Amendment One was a constitutional amendment ballot measure that stated that the only relationship that the state would recognize would be a heterosexual marriage, removing any benefits for LGBTQ couples in civil unions and domestic partnerships in counties in North Carolina such as Guilford County, the one I lived in and now call home. In response, LGBTQ and allied organizers and activists began forming coalitions to defeat this attack on our communities — including queer people like myself who didn’t believe in marriage.
After years of doing activist work and then organizing where I intentionally stayed away from doing anything electoral, this time it felt different. Part of that was that my politics and approach to strategy had matured and developed; but more importantly, it felt more personal as an attack on me as a queer trans woman and people in my community that I loved.
We ended up losing that campaign and that victory set the stage for their right-wing to capture not only a supermajority in the legislature but the governor’s seat as well. But that organizing project contained many lessons. Here are the three that stick out to me. First, organizing out of a belief that we don’t have to cede the places we love but haven’t always loved us back to the right is a great way to find home, family, and stay in the work as a queer Southerner. Second, contending for power across big cities and small towns is transformative, life giving, and is a necessary source of hope, as we meet more people who also want a different world, even when we lose. And third, despite practicing solidarity across the lines of my own race and class privilege, I left that campaign not trusting straight and cis allies to actually show up for queer and trans people.
It felt true, and why wouldn’t it? The cis people I saw working to combat transphobia were queer, and the straight people seemed to feel more alliance to cis lesbian and gay people rather than trans people. Amidst all of this, Black trans women were, and continue to be, murdered at an alarming rate, creating a sense of persistent unease and a fear of hate violence. I could see how anti-trans “feminists” were operating in the queer womens’ communities I was beginning to find home in as a dyke. This would lead me to always keep my eye out for the moment when cis comrades would inevitably mess up, and they often did.
When they did mess up, it felt like a violation of trust and shared values. I wanted people to know not just that their actions were wrong, but why their actions were wrong, in the hope that it would prove the worthiness of my humanity. At best, those conversations were generative, caring, and deepened solidarity. But often, I ended up practicing some of the harmful trends that Maurice Mitchell has brought up in his incredible piece Building Resilient Organizations; namely neoliberal identity (I’m trans, therefore I know what’s best) and choosing to take a maximalist approach to my beliefs and values (it’s either perfectly pro-trans or it’s a threat to my well-being).
These experiences led me to engage in amazing abolitionist organizing led by trans people of color and formerly incarcerated people back home in Atlanta, Georgia and exclusively worked to organize people from those constituencies. This organization ran powerful issue campaigns that not only stopped a proposed city ordinance that would have racist, sexist, and transphobic impacts on communities in Atlanta, but also won city funding for a program that would divert people away from incarceration and towards critical, life-saving services.
It felt safer to be in an organization led for and by trans people. I dealt with less anti-trans behaviors and actions than I would otherwise. I got to learn from older trans folks with incredible life experiences to share, but who were full of their own contradictions around race, class, gender, and sexuality. As a result of the organization’s founders believing in a model of organizing that supports personal transformation alongside systemic change, I learned skills that made me feel like multi-racial organizing was truly possible in a container that I knew affirmed trans people. Those skills included the ability to feel for my own dignity in connection to other people’s dignity too, rather than just being deferential to other people across lines of difference in a true belief that I had a stake in our collective freedom. That skill then grew my confidence in my ability to make requests and hold boundaries and receive support in addition to offering it across the lines of race, class, and gender.
However, choosing a more affirming place to organize that primarily built power in a few core constituencies and called on already aligned allies out of a fear that our trans-specific needs and demands would get sidelined comes with its own cost. The fears weren’t coming from an ungrounded place, either. The leaders of color I was organizing with — both cis and trans — had lived experiences of people with more power and privilege believing that a rising tide of positive change for some would lift all boats, and as such throwing our needs and our people under the bus in the name of progress. But the cost of those individual and collective decisions was that the important and necessary power we built wasn’t able to fully defeat the power of money or allow us to capture the power of governing, particularly in a city as large as Atlanta. It meant that our wins hinged on whipping the votes of council members that were hopefully able to cobble together tenuous majorities rather than generating the power of tens or hundreds of thousands of people who would have the power to elect or unelect leaders based on their actions.
In the meantime, I was watching from my front porch in Georgia as the right wing in North Carolina and the U.S. continued to seize power. After capturing both houses of the legislature and the governor’s office in 2012, the North Carolina GOP advanced an aggressively destructive policy agenda. They used their governing power to attack reproductive freedom, healthcare, undocumented people, public education, environmental activists, labor rights advocates, voting rights, the growing Black Lives Matter movement, and — in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2014 ruling affirming marriage equality that overturned Amendment One — trans people.
Responding to the city council in Charlotte voting for an anti-discrimination law in public accommodations that included gender identity, the North Carolina GOP advanced what was known as HB2, or “the Bathroom Bill” before the upcoming presidential election in November. While HB2 declared that people must use public accommodations like restrooms based on their sex assigned at birth, opening trans and gender non-conforming open to increasing levels of violence, the bill also restricted the ability for local governments to pass any new anti-discrimination ordinances until December 2020 as well as from raising the minimum wage on the municipal level. On the federal level, the right wing was able to usher the Trump administration into the presidency, embolden and empower the far-right, and harm millions of people in their pursuit of power and profit.
They were coming for our throats.
“You don’t go into coalition because you just like it. The only reason why you would consider trying to team up with somebody who could possibly kill you, is because that’s the only way to stay alive.” — Bernice Johnson Reagon (‘Coalition Politics: Turning the Century’)
It would be a lie to say that one of the lessons from 2016 is that state-sanctioned transphobia is undefeatable. It wasn’t. It isn’t. Persistent protest from LGBTQ communities combined with economic pressure from other states with progressive governments, corporations, and cultural performers cost the state $400 million in revenue, which generated the ability for a coalition of centrists, liberals, and progressives to un-elect Republican Pat McCrory from the governor’s office and place a corporate Democrat, Roy Cooper, into that seat. Cooper’s victory led to the repeal of the bathroom restriction in HB2, the most intimately anti-trans aspect of the bill. However, that compromise cemented the provisions barring local municipalities from enacting any new anti-discrimination laws for five years and that only the state government could raise the minimum wage instead of local governments.
The fight against HB2 in North Carolina and the following gubernatorial election was a stark reminder that trans people alone did not have the power to defeat the most explicit of the bill’s attempts to erase trans people from public life. And adding the entire larger LGBTQ community was also not enough. But trans people and the wider LGBTQ community, alongside hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of cis and straight people? Together, we did have that power.
Despite knowing this, deep in my bones, being a part of a power-building organization that worked across multiple lines of difference and hoped to have hundreds if not thousands of members engaged in the work felt like a minefield waiting to explode. It wasn’t just that I was scared of experiencing hurtful anti-trans thoughts and actions from cis people as I canvassed on the doors or inside of member meetings. I worried about messing up and hurting people too, due to the way white supremacy and capitalism have worked to shape my thinking and actions in service of domination as a queer trans woman with race and class privilege. But in late 2019, three years after HB2 passed and Trump took power, I was pretty certain that not taking this risk was a losing game. I had moved back to North Carolina and was ready to make the place I called home love me back.
A group of us launched what became Guilford for All in early 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic swept through our communities, hoping to make an impact in one of the most consequential elections of our lives — and we did. We organized around issues of public education, housing, and supported local organizers as millions of people rose up in defense of Black lives in 2020. As electoral justice groups mobilized voters and unelected President Trump from power nationally, we were able to successfully flip the balance of power of our County Commission.
After the 2020 election and in the early part of 2021, we decided we needed to build a platform, a set of policy priorities that would guide our organizing strategies. Our members talked to more than 500 people in our county outside of grocery stores, at bus stations, and online. Most of the people we talked to were Black or other people of color and were working class. Those conversations informed the platform that our working groups drafted, and eventually voted on.
One of the working groups was focused on the issues of health and wellness for all. In that group, a cis member-leader drafted and pushed for a transgender healthcare and wellness policy for the platform. There was some fear about this policy becoming part of the ballot, from trans people and allies alike, not because we didn’t agree but because we were in the beginning waves of the attacks on trans healthcare in 2021 and 2022. We knew that like the county we lived and organized in, our organization was only made up of a small percentage of trans people. We worried that the vote might feel like a referendum on whether or not the organization supported trans people as it wasn’t clear or certain that we had enough support to win.
In the end, the vast supermajority — 84% — of members and platform survey participants who voted were in favor of being a part of an organization that clearly and directly affirmed the human rights of trans people. To know that a vast majority of people connected to an organization that I am a part of – people who I know and that I don’t know – have affirmed a pro-trans agenda alongside a range of other policy visions for the world has provided me with a sense of collective power to rest into in the face of what feels like rising and intensifying transphobia in this country and across the world.
It’s not like the potential minefield hasn’t exploded at times, but it hasn’t destroyed my belief in organizing across lines of difference. Yes, I have been misgendered by people we organize and build power with. But frankly, it’s less than I would have expected. When I operate from a place of mutual dignity and a trust in our shared vision for the world, it’s easier to remind myself that individual cis people are not my enemy. Instead, our shared enemies are the ones who benefit from hurting all of us, and I’ve been able to enter into those conversations, finding more care and solidarity on the other side.
One time, I was on the phone calling one of our member-leaders, a cis woman who lived in the majority Black and working-class neighborhood we’ve been organizing in, to see if she was going to attend our event the following weekend. There was a bad storm that knocked out power in the neighborhood for a few days, so she was staying at a hotel with her family when I reached her. On that call, she called me “sir” a few times. It hurt to feel unseen and called out of the gender I am, but it wasn’t the right time to bring it up. The next time I saw her, we were at a member meeting in her neighborhood, the sounds of a DJ and kids playing on a bouncy house in the playground. We started catching up about life since we last spoke, and I brought up our last conversation.
“Remember the last time we talked? On that call, you called me ‘sir’ a few times. That hurt, because I’m a woman and not a man,” I said. “I don’t think you intended to hurt me, but I just wanted to bring it up because you’re important to me and the organization.”
“Oh yeah,” she said as she looked me in the eye. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know. I won’t do that again.”
“Thank you,” I responded, smiling. “Are we good?”
“Yeah, we’re good.”
Another time at a recent statewide convention, a younger Black cis man who is part of our organization, called to me saying, “Hey what’s up brother,” outside our motel room.
I winced, and responded, “Hey man, good to see you. I’m not your brother though, I’m a woman.”
He had a look of surprise and a smile on his face, and quickly corrected himself as he dapped me up. “Oh that’s what’s up. How you doing, sis?”
But it’s not just other folks having growing edges, I do too. In another situation, I found myself avoiding entering into and speaking up in a conflict between leaders of color in an attempt to be a “good white woman”. Two of our values around multi-racial organizing is believing that building power together is more important than trying to be a perfect individual ally; and another is remembering nobody is above accountability and nobody is below deep reverence. A comrade and close friend in the organization reminded me that my inaction was not in alignment with our values, and that it was hurtful. That pushed me to enter into the conflict and take on the responsibility for caring for the organization and our strategy and see that as more important than my own discomfort. It helped rebuild some trust and grew in my own confidence as a leader in an organization working across lines of difference.
In these situations, we’re not just navigating the power dynamics of gender, we’re navigating race and class, too. There is a way where my legitimate hurt could be more believed or taken seriously as a white trans woman and lead people to face — or fear facing — uneven consequences as working class and Black members of the organization due to the ways white supremacy works to undermine multi-racial power-building through betraying our comrades of color. But to shy away from this complexity weakens our movements rather than strengthening them. Bluntly naming the hurt and correcting folks when they make mistakes and choosing connection has generated the possibility to be met in solidarity without having to put my own dignity up for question. Oppression hopes to rob us of these moments, the joy of connecting with each other in ways we might not have expected, as we work to build another world.
“Our responsibility as leftists is to begin to arm people with the concepts and information they need to take control of their own lives… Wherever we demanded of ourselves and our audience a confrontation around sexual and economic issues, ultimately we won, even if that didn’t show up in the vote, because we laid the groundwork for the kind of connecting we need to do to build a movement.” — Amber Hollibaugh, speaking on the defeat of the Briggs Amendment in 1978 in (‘My Dangerous Desires’)
Most of the people who are in Guilford for All are cis, but not all. Quite a few of us are a part of the broader LGBTQ community. In our county, we have a handful of trans and gender non-conforming people as important member leaders. When we include the statewide organization we are a chapter of, the Carolina Federation, there are even more trans and gender non-conforming people in all levels of leadership.
In 2020, a group of people in the statewide organization held a political study and relationship-building group called the Feminist Solidarity school, and part of that process included convening a meeting of a multiracial caucus of trans and gender non-conforming folks. In that caucus, I met another trans femme organizer who worked in one of our affiliated organizations a few counties over from mine.
Over the next two years, we chatted about what it was like to be trans femmes as we intentionally work in power-building organizations that are mostly cis. We supported and cheered each other on as we shared what it was like to risk talking to hundreds of strangers as we are embodied in our genders, sent each other photos of manicures and pedicures and dresses and floral jumpsuits, a reminder that, “I see you and the risk you/we are taking to be more free and powerful. We are not in this alone.”
This sort of trans-for-trans support feels different from other trans autonomous spaces I have been a part of. It feels like a practice of refuge and resource that we return to and exit, entering back into the broader project of collective struggle.
Across the country, I have a few other comrades — trans women, trans men, nonbinary and gender non-conforming people — who are taking these same risks for the sake of building power for a bigger we, working to be strong and powerful in our rightful place in the movement, as one in the number alongside others working to get free. I believe there is more hope there than we are led to believe, and that only our enemies benefit from us being alone as they try to pick off our possible allies to their side.
And cis comrades, do not get it twisted. It is not just a matter of trans people choosing to be brave and enter into spaces to build collective power where we may be one of the only ones like us in the room, on the doors and phones, or in the strategy sessions. Ignoring the right-wing’s use of anti-trans hatred and strategies is a losing game, and it weakens our collective power if you don’t trust that cis people like yourself could also be in solidarity with trans and gender non-conforming people. Anti-trans narratives and policy fights from the Christian Right are wedges that aim to get people who may otherwise join the freedom side join our opposition or abstain from the freedom struggles of our time, and our task as liberation workers is to craft the bridges for folks to join us.
“To those who insist on denying us our full humanity, we will insist on the sacred humanity of all people. A bridge, not a wedge. A bridge, not a wedge. It has a nice ring to it. We can say it like a mantra when we feel the Right getting too hot.” — Mab Segrest (‘A Bridge, Not a Wedge’)
dear fellow trans girl/woman/femme,
i see you
your painted nails on your hands and feet
dangly earrings and bright skirt
t-shirt and jeans and lipstick
dressed up and dressed down
deep breath as your heart races
full of nervousness and hope and love for the people
remembering your last good one-on-one
the eighty-four percent who voted yes
the quick shift he made from bro to sis
the younger you who would doubt all this
this you, this we, this us
fist up, knuckle on door
open to possibility