Through Their Eyes: An Interview Project

“…I look then at the silly walls
Through dark eyes in a dark face—
And this is what I know:
That all these walls oppression builds
Will have to go!
I look at my own body   
With eyes no longer blind—
And I see that my own hands can make
The world that’s in my mind.
Then let us hurry, comrades,
The road to find…”
— I Look At The World, Langston Hughes

 

 

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Last week, I was scrolling through Facebook on a casual Tuesday afternoon. Among the Buzzfeed videos, Trump articles, and personal updates I sifted through was one particular post that caught my eye. It was a link to an anti-LGBTQ+ petition a Facebook “friend” had posted. The petition encouraged signatures against displays of public affection of LGBTQ+ people on Disney Channel, for fear of polluting young minds. I explored further and found that this individual’s timeline was filled with other hateful attacks against the LGBTQ+ community, specifically transgender people, and she had gained support from many of her non-inclusive friends. I was not only disgusted but hurt and admittedly surprised by such blatant hate. It’s 2017, for goodness’s sake. Could there really still be so many cases of this normalized aggression against LGBTQ+ people?
In the first two months of 2017 alone, “seven transgender women have been murdered” in the U.S.

From 2012 to 2015, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs has recorded a staggering 88 homicides of people who identify as LGBTQ+

Currently, the homicide rate in America [ for white transgender women] is 1 out of every 19,000. For black transgender women, that number is 1 in every 2,600.

These are not just murders. These are hate crimes against a specific community of people.

Nearly a fifth of the 5,462 so-called single-bias hate crimes reported to the F.B.I. in 2014 were because of the target’s sexual orientation, or, in some cases, their perceived orientation.

Moreover, recent research has shown that in the United States, L.G.B.T. people are twice as likely to be targeted as African-Americans, and the rate of hate crimes against them has surpassed that of crimes against Jews.

And these injustices certainly transcend U.S. borders as well.

A project called Transgender Europe’s Trans Murder Monitoring reported that at least 1,700 transgender and gender-expanisve people have been killed since 2008 in Central and South America. It cited 295 reported killings of trans and gender-diverse people between Oct. 1, 2015 and Sept. 1, 2016.

From this data, is it clear that we must illuminate the realness of LGBTQ+ exclusion and oppression, especially that of trans people within said community. In order to accomplish this and to migrate from such a cycle, recounting the intimate stories of individuals is essential.To highlight these truths, I interviewed my friend Lee (abiding under a psuedo-name for security purposes) to document a personal experience navigating through the reality of aggression against LGBTQ+ people.

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Lee is an identifying member of the LGBTQ+ community. Lee also identifies as Gender Non-binary and goes by the pronouns “they, them, theirs” as opposed to the binary (male/female) gender pronouns of “he, him, his” or “she, her, hers”. This is one of many pronoun preferences used by the LGBTQ+ community. For further information and a more complete list of available pronouns in use, please visit: https://uwm.edu/lgbtrc/support/gender-pronouns/

Throughout the interview, Lee also utilizes several umbrella terms in reference to their experience as an identifying LGBTQ+ member. A list of these terms is included below. However, it is crucial to note that these are personal working definitions Lee has given, and no term is universally concrete. Other members of their community may define said terms in a manner unique to their own identities as well.

Terms/ Working Definitions:

Trans: term for those who maintain or identify with a gender identity that was not their birth-given sex
Presenting (to present): the physical manifestation of gender identity— clothes, voice, hair, makeup, body shape, etc.
Passing (to pass): to maintain the physical manifestation of either gender binary identity— male or female— and to be socially accepted under this condition
Gender Non-binary: term for all gender identities that do not fall under the recognized male/female gender system of privilege
Gender Non-conforming: gender identity or expressional variance that does not fall under the supposed societal “norm” of identification of one’s birth-given sex
Hetero-patriarchal: term used to describe the extreme gender and sex bias toward male-dominant and heterosexual-dominant society
Cis(gender): Someone who identifies solely with their birth-given sex— male or female assigned
Aspiring Ally/ Allies: someone who actively works to support marginalized communities. This is not a self-identifying label but a condition under which one operates through word and deed
Masc: a gender identity or presentation that reflects masculinity or the expression of that which is socially considered masculine
Femme: a gender identity or presentation that reflects femininity or the expression of that which is socially considered feminine

By doing this interview, Lee said that they understood that I would be asking questions solely about them and their personal experience. It in no way was an attempt to have them speak on behalf of a population but to shed light on things they have experienced through being a part of a marginalized community. All in all, the goal is to discover what it is like to see the world through the eyes of Lee, to create a discourse on the construction of identity, and to reveal what said structure has meant to them personally:

The Interview:

Interviewee: Lee James
Age: 21
Personal Pronouns: They, Them, Theirs
Time and Place: March 12, 2017 at the Chapman University Cross Cultural Center

Jodi (interviewer): How are you feeling today? Did you have any initial thoughts about being interviewed today?

***Lee says they are used to being interviewed and was feeling okay during the day. They shuffle their feel on the coarse carpet and their purple finger nails clack on the plastic armrests of their chair. On their left hand is a wedding band that their wife gave them.***

This might seem like a strange question to start with, but may I ask you for something you like about yourself?

I like my ability to verbalize and express my feelings. I like my ability to communicate. It’s a huge part of who I am and how I’ve grown. Physically, I like my hands because they are the one part of my body I am always able to identify with. They’re also fun to draw.

I love that. Going off of this– this idea of who you are– what does “identity” mean to you?

For me, identity is a very loaded word. Its definition has gone through several transformations because I grew up in a really strict, conservative Catholic family where I would have associated identity with strict individualism…and this would tie really deeply to capitalism— like you build yourself up and everything is very “you-centric”. Now, it is sort of like I view my identity in how I fit into communities, related to an individual. So my individuality within a community. Thats the more practical definition of the word. I think of it in relation to the communities I’m in….I think of my gender, being a non-cis, person and being in the trans and gender non-conforming community and how that affects me. Sexual orientation identity….I guess it definitely relates back to communities. For example, my whiteness makes me think of identities that give me privilege…so where I fit in each

Based on this distinction between identity and individualism, how do you think society has shaped those constructs for you? Has it been a negative or positive experience?

I would say that the overall society..the dominant society definitely impacted me negatively— being raised as assumed to be a woman was very difficult. Even now, everything is shaped in a binary way, and it still hard to get recognition past the gender binary as far as gender identity is concerned. But in my most immediate community since I began attending college, it has been very positive. Mostly peers, I might add. As far as teachers and adults, I can count the number of adults who have positively impacted me in that way on one hand.

Chronologically…the people in your life that have affected you positively in navigating your identity and your individuality have increased post-entry into college. Can we talk a bit about your time before college and what that looked like in those respects? What was it like growing up with people who maybe didn’t understand or accept the ways in which you choose to express your identity?

The biggest thing is that it clouded me to knowing my own identity…because that is the goal of the dominant cis hetero-patriarchical society…is to make people refrain from adopting identities that are not reflected by the dominant group. So the biggest think was blocking me from what that was. I grew up..the best way I can describe it now is I grew up thinking everybody didn’t recognize themselves in the mirror…I just thought that was a part of life and didn’t question it…I mean, that was a part of life for me, why not others? So it wasn’t blatant discrimination that I was aware of so much because I hadn’t come into my identity yet…it was oppression through blocking me from knowing what my identity is. It forced me to wear certain clothes, present in certain ways, not play certain sports….and then sexuality-wise, I realized I was queer my Sophomore year of high school, and it was the most damaging thing in my life long-term that wasn’t accepted. I had to stay closeted and what that led to was an extremely abusive relationship for five years and that wouldn’t have happened if I wasn’t endangered to come out. It was abusive because absolutely no one else knew about it, so I had nobody to see what was going on or intercept. So back to the identity question, those five years of constant trauma and really, possibly some of the most crucial years for development in identity— all because of the danger that is presented to queer people. It definitely played a role in my identity even today.

Now that you are in university, what are some ways you have seen not just tolerance and acceptance but appreciation…that made living out who you truly are easier?

Just being exposed to more people and finding a group of peers who are amazing— that’s really where the positive has come in. And maybe two faculty and staff …but definitely mostly the students I have come to surround myself with, and the cross-cultural center.

Is that why you like working here? — Referring to the Cross Cultural Center at Chapman.

Yes! It is like a student union for people of marginalized identities. It’s definitely ground-breaking. As a faculty member said, “Before the center, we had to be the center.” So, we were traveling and finding new spaces, and now we have like a home for the things that we do. And it’s great that it’s here, but it’s really important to take note of how hard it was to get it here. It’s like a “finally” type of feeling surrounding the experience, and it shouldn’t have taken so long to attain. It shouldn’t have taken this long…so it’s important to recognize the journey and not see it so much as this big step in progress from the university. This is all progress by students from years and years and a few key members of the university. It’s not a recognition of chapman as a whole….it’s more like it finally gave up…so the body won. Now, Chapman is going to use this for social capital— like “look at how progressive we are as a school”— and they aren’t going to talk about how Doti said this was going to “ghettoize” the school. They’re not gonna talk about how Chapman as an institution fought and slowed down this process.

Are there other ways Chapman has inhibited the ability for you to express yourself for feel safe in your community?

The one that comes to mind first is that many figure heads of Chapman will use idea of free speech when convenient and totally ignore it when it goes against their agenda.

Can you elaborate on this?

Yeah…like protection of racist comments on a free speech in supposedly inclusive spaces…in the globe area at Chapman where students were expressing themselves, someone wrote a very toxic and non-inclusive thing about a student from a marginalized community… when it was taken to faculty, only the slur itself was removed but the context was still there. Still left up.

Also the All Lives Matter sign that was put up during the Black History Month without consent was just handled so awfully… which, is not directly attached to this subject but is totally valid to talk about because it has to do with other marginalized peoples on campus and also me acknowledging my whiteness and my privilege. The only reason the sign was taken up was because it was an unapproved violation rather than horrendous comment. There was another instance where a student was almost fired from a Chapman on-campus job for speaking out against a bully that attacked this person online. She was brought in and was scolded because her behavior and words reflected poorly on the university…and the person who attacked her online worked for the Panther News.

Do you view this as misplaced freedom to speech or even a reflection of mistreatment or micro-aggressive behavior against certain groups of people?

Oh, completely. The double standards don’t protect marginalized people. An example relating to my own gender identity is that there are not nearly enough gender-inclusive restrooms on campus. I was just physically and emotionally attacked two weeks ago in the AF first floor bathroom. I went to open the door and this lady said “this isn’t your bathroom” and pushed the door to push me back out of the bathroom. Literally shut me out of the bathroom. We are also supposed to have gender-inclusive restrooms on this floor with the Cross-Cultural Center but Dean Price said they had hold ups from certain policies they had to get around…but that doesn’t matter. Other schools have them. They should have planned sooner. They should have been here before the center was even here, and it’s just not an excuse. There is not at least “out” trans-faculty member…it’s really hard for cis people to think about that…it’s in a similar vein to thinking about how white the campus is and trying to imagine…I suppose trying to imagine if you’re a cis-woman and you’re in the business school— most of the professors are “mascs”, so it could be, you know, alienating not to see someone with your identity…so relating that back…not one member of faculty— not one person shares my gender identity…like imagine that you’re a cis-woman and every professor on your campus is cis-man…it’s the same for me— underrepresentation.

In dealing with such a cis-normative climate, what are some ways you have experienced specific barriers by this binary on campus?

I mean, pronouns for one. There isn’t even a policy for trans people on campus to go through people are trans and binary who have the privilege of being able to change their pronouns to an accepted pronoun…they still have to go though so much work to get their papers changed to reflect those preferred pronouns. And if it isn’t legally changed, you can’t change all of them here. Nothing is written out, there’s no protection through the school itself — you have to use California state policies, so it takes longer.
The restroom thing, like I said, is absolutely a struggle.
Getting gender inclusive housing as a freshman is often extremely difficult. There aren’t places on campus to use gender neutral pronouns on campus
Teachers don’t respect the effort to use personal pronouns, sometimes even the ones that are progressive.

***Upon further inquiry, Lee revealed that not a single professor in their educational career had ever asked for their personal pronouns***

“If I’m in a class with someone I know is a good, aspiring trans ally and we are doing introductions, I’ll ask them to go before me and say pronouns. So it’s not just me. And sometimes that will catch on, and sometimes it’s just the two of us. But I have always had to ask.

Could we talk more about the role of allies—specifically cis allies— how would you personally like to see them advocate for you and your community in more beneficial ways?

There was a rally and teach-in put on by the trans community just last week for solidarity. And allies need to show up for things like that. Me along with probably the six other trans people out on campus gave our time to educate allies which is not our job to do, and we took the time to do it. So allies need to go to things like that , they need to educate themselves, and they need to physically show up and break their own binary worldview. Stop saying ladies and gentlemen. Stop saying just he or her. Even though it’s not just about bathrooms, take the time to walk your trans friend to the gender-inclusive restroom. Or go with them into the gender specific restroom if that’s what they want or choose to do. Say your pronouns when you introduce yourself— everywhere you go. That’s a big one, no matter how small the introduction is. Normalize that as something someone should do. And then I would say make sure that you’re humanizing trans and gender non-conforming people. And make sure we’re not just this topic. We’re real. Centralize trans femmes and trans women of color and any solidarity or event you do, any conversations held…8 trans women of color have been murdered that have been reported just this year…donate if you can to go-fund-me-accounts, specifically to black trans femmes— if you are able. If your trans friend is in trouble or experience violence, ask them if they would like the police called. Police in general are not a friend to trans and gender non-conforming people. They usually cause more danger, especially if they’re a person of color, especially if they’re black. Check in with people, not just…you know…I got a lot of people checking in with me after Orlando happened, but it should not take mass murder for people to reach out and care. Just any other bullying or discrimination..stand up and speak out when that happens. Especially for micro-aggressions because that is where people of marginalized identities become demonized the most— is calling out micro-aggressions…because people say “oh, you’re so sensitive”. Things like “ladies and gentlemen” or “boys and girls”…if I were to say something like “hey, that doesn’t include me. That’s not inclusionary’, people usually don’t listen. So that is important for cis people to call out. I mean you don’t want people falsely assuming your gender identity either as a cis person. So it’s the same thing.

Are there any other things you would like to touch on that maybe haven’t been addressed? Any other advice or struggles?

We’ve all been conditioned to see the world in a certain way, so making sure that you are in a habit of checking your own self and your own privilege. Like, it took me a while to stop saying “hey guys”…there’s habits we form. Also cis people need to immerse themselves in these communities. Follow trans people on Facebook and Youtube. There’s an amazing trans femme, non-binary, Indian trans activist named Alok Vaid-Menon that everyone should follow. They give such great talks about the trans community. It’s a great way to get information straight from the source without having to ask someone to labor for you, so that’s big. I would also say don’t refer to people with marginalized identities as minorities because they have been minoritized— always say marginalized.

Wow. Thank you so much for making yourself physically and emotionally available today. I really appreciate hearing your story.

Of course. It was my pleasure to tell it.

Hey Lee?

Yeah?

I like your hands too.

** Lee laughs** Haha, thanks. They are pretty cool.

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