June is Pride month, which means it’s the time of year we celebrate the historic Stonewall riots and the trans women that kicked off the LGBTQ+ rights movement in the United States. As the month comes to a close, I thought I’d share some of the ways Pride and being a member of the LGBTQ+ community has informed my work here at the Northern Center.
I am transgender. This means that my gender identity differs from the one I was assigned at birth. More specifically, I am non-binary and trans feminine. Unlike most of my coworkers, my path to advocacy and environmental work was through the LGBTQ+ community. It was through hosting National Day of Silence events at my high school. It was through clothing drives, STI and AIDS prevention trainings, and implementing non-discrimination protections for transgender students in the entire Fairbanks Northstar Borough School District. It was through my decision to start transitioning (transitioning is a term for the process of altering one’s gender presentation and/or sex characteristics to align with their gender identity) that I began to really understand environmental stewardship and the Just Transition framework.
I began working in the environmental movement a little over a year ago. In that year, I have heard questions like these make their way around, either privately or publicly, at nearly every large gathering: ”Why are we saying our pronouns before a meeting? What does this have to do with climate change? Doesn’t this just distract from the issues at hand? We’re alienating people by even talking about this.” I have heard people who identify as allies to the trans community speak at length about how talking about pronouns distracts from our goals, or drives away the less “woke” allies we would have otherwise.
Comments like this are categorically untrue. Creating an inclusive space does three things: it makes marginalized people feel more welcome and safe, it normalizes presence and partnership with a broad group of people from very different backgrounds, and it helps to educate those that are less accepting or informed.
In addition, building an inclusive space encourages marginalized groups to be present somewhere they otherwise might avoid for fear of discrimination. Ensuring that everyone feels welcome and is allowed to be fully themselves means we can speak out and actively take part in the discussion and issues at hand. Normalizing and building coalition and partnership across communities only strengthens all of our work. It brings in new perspectives and encourages innovative, revolutionary solutions.
Transgender people, especially transgender women of color, are one of the most marginalized groups in the United States. We face an average life expectancy of 35 years, and a much higher murder rate than cisgender people (people whose gender identity aligns with the sex they were assigned at birth). The bottom line is if we want more people to get involved in our movements, we have to take active steps to address the reasons they might not have felt safe or welcome.
Trans people are almost always portrayed in the media as objects of suffering, so often that many people think transness is itself defined by that suffering, by dysphoria, anguish, and lost loved ones. While it is true that many trans people experience dysphoria, that many trans people lose loved ones when they come out, it is not the essential nature of being trans. We are not a group of people that can be diminished merely to something pitiable. We are a community joined by a shared experience of marginalization, yes, but we are also joined by the shared joy of inventing ourselves, of taking hold of our lives and shaping them into something better, more just.
This can also be said of the elements of working for just, sustainable energy solutions, healthy lands, and clean waters; it offers me hope for the futures of Alaska and trans people. Our partner organization Native Movement defines Just Transition as “a fair and equitable shift to a Regenerative Economy that is in alignment with the earth and can regenerate and ensures equity, dignity, and justice for all.”
My body is also the site of a radical transition. I, and every other trans person, am a living, breathing example of stewardship, revolution, and a Just Transition. Both forms of transition are rooted in two concepts: Redefinition and building something new. Just Transition is the redefinition of what makes an economy and the building of equitable models that focus on benefiting the whole rather than individuals. My own transition is the redefinition of gender, and the building of the self and identity in a more sustainable and equitable way, focusing on affirmation and actualization. Both require decolonization of the self and of society. Trans individuals must shed notions of gender essentialism and societal pressures to conform, while a Just Transition requires us to unshackle ourselves from a purely extractive, exploitative relationship with the earth and one another.
I am proud to identify as transgender. I am not defined by my discomfort with my assigned sex at birth, I am defined by my joy of self discovery. I’m defined by my exultation at redefining myself. It makes me better at my work, more aware of the world around me, and more able to engage with Just Transition and decolonization.
Trans people like myself are an integral part of the world. We are deeply nuanced and varied, and like many of us, the world needs a just transition. Being trans has helped me learn to not only envision a better world in some far off future, but to understand the steps and work that must be done to get there.
An important footnote regarding transition: Transition, and even the decision of whether or not to transition, is deeply personal. While there wasn’t much of a choice for me, some trans people, for various reasons, cannot or choose not to transition. This does not make these individuals any less transgender or nonbinary than anyone who does transition.