When I talk to folk about activism under the transgender community umbrella, the discussion usually goes to task-based activism. You know, such as working on specific antidiscrimination ordinances and legislation, providing healthcare services, providing for basic needs (such as food and shelter), or educating those in and out of community about community members and their concerns.
But, there are other non-task functions and roles within transgender community that have to do with activism. If one thinks about it for a moment, there is more than one type of leadership within groups. We know about task leadership roles, but there are other group building and maintenance roles. These other group building and maintenance roles include encouraging (offers praise to group members), harmonizing (seeking to resolve conflict), compromising (resolving conflict by coming “half-way”), and gatekeeping (someone who keeps lines of communication open in a group), for example.
With that in mind — that all the functions of community aren’t task related — let me present a nonexhaustive list of non-task functions and roles within community that are also forms of community activism.
Mentoring: Mentoring is the teaching of the next generations of community members. It can be formal or informal, with formal roles and set goals, or informal “as life happens” moments that are just ad hoc. Sometimes it involves showing mechanisms and means to accomplish goals, sometimes in involves identifying means to cope with the ups and downs of doing the work in the trenches, Sometimes it’s clarifying pit falls others have experienced along the way and how to avoid these.
In other words, mentoring is a lot of things, but in terms of transgender community activism it’s teaching the next generations about how to be activists.
Mentee-ing: Being a mentee is being willing to learn. In a formal setting, it’s listening to, and acting upon the knowledge and wisdom of the mentor. In the informal setting it’s the same thing, but any community member can learn the knowledge and wisdom of any other community member — or non-community member.
I’ve been a mentor, and even now I’m a mentee. Learning is a lifelong process where one never knows everything there is to know — keeping oneself open to learn is an important function of all transgender community members…all transgender community activists.
When to be a rock: By rock, I mean being a person to lean on — a stabilizing force. It’s giving a peer a hug when they’re down, and offering what assistance one can to others who need assistance of one kind or another.
When has a community filled with as much hurt, pain, and need as transgender community has, one can see how much being a rock matters. And, when one knows that more than four in ten transgender community members have attempted suicide in their lives, and more than eight in ten have seriously considered suicide, can see how much being a rock matters. Being rocks to others is a function our community can’t afford to ignore.
When to be the untamed sea: Sometimes, the boat needs rocking. Sometimes we need to rock the boat instead of being a rock.
It’s too easy for all of us in community to get comfortable within our own lives or our safe community spaces, accepting conditions that shouldn’t be accepted. Being the untamed sea that rocks us our of our comfort zones is often a necessary function to awaken transgender community members from being complacent.
[Cheerleading, healers and nurturers, holding a mirror, “rock stars” and martyrs below the fold.]
Cheerleading: Cheerleading is recognizing our accomplishments, and encouraging the activism of others.
When I’d been out for just a couple of years, I had began volunteering as an amateur, online community news archivist with transgendernews. (I still back up the transgendernews archive every other week.) At a healthcare hearing up in Los Angeles, I met Cecilia Chung for the first time, and she told me how important what I was doing was for community, and encouraged me continue archiving our community’s news and history.
That was meaningful and important to me. I knew who Cecilia Chung was, and was surprised to learn she was aware of who I was and what work I was doing. Her appreciation of what I was doing, and her encouragement, built me up — I went to back to archiving as an energized activist.
Here five-and-a-half years later, I still remember what Cecilia Chung said, and still feel energized by the realization that what I do for community matters. She gave me that encouragement, and it cost her little but a few moments of her time.
I’ve had many opportunities to encourage others as Cecilia did — as an informal mentor to me. She taught me by example that cheerleading the good work of others, and the people themselves, can result in energizing people who are doing wonderful work…others who otherwise may feel that both who they are, and what they do, is unimportant.
Cheerleading is kindness that is both a very human and humane thing to do. But beyond how cheerleading builds an individual community member, it’s an action that when done by many to many, is a strong community building action — and transgender community needs that kind of building work.
Being the healers and nurturers we have historically been: In indigenous societies in America, and across the world, transgender people have been healers, nurturers, and shamen. Trans people have been spiritual leaders who bridge division.
One of the roles of transgender community is to continue that tradition of spirituality — whatever that might mean to an individual — and that tradition building bridges.
Holding a mirror to ourselves, our individual peers, and to our community: One of the non-task functions of transgender community is to hold up a mirror to community and community members. When one holds a mirror up to one’s community or one’s community members, one is asking:
“Is what we see reflected back to us beautiful? Is this ugly? Is this both a little bit beautiful and a little bit ugly at the same time?”
The follow up question to those questions always is:
“What do we want to do — what are we going to do — about what is being reflected back at us?”
Recently, as many of you here at Pam’s House Blend know, I looked in the community mirror, and saw something ugly reflecting back — So I held up a mirror to community to show others what I was seeing reflected back.
Presenting an ugliness reflected back from one’s community is always messy. It’s always messy because we don’t like to think of ourselves, our peers, or community as being capable of ugliness. And too, showing the reflection of ugliness it’s always unpleasant because of that unspoken question:
“What do we want to do — what are we going to do — about what is being reflected back at us?”
The person who holds up the mirror often is subject to blowback — person who holds up the mirror is often accused as being as ugly as what he, she, or ze is trying to show his, her, or hir peers in the mirror.
There are other times when holding up a mirror to community is a joyous action. When we can reflect back what is beautiful about a community member, our community peers, or our community as a whole — this can be a most wonderful experience.
But of course, there are often those who want to see the ugly in the beautiful, and the beautiful in the ugly, so even holding up a mirror to community to show the reflection of beauty is often an ugly experience.
Holding up a mirror to transgender community is a difficult function to engage in, because for good or for ill, any person who holds up a mirror to community members, community peers, or to community as a whole is putting themselves out as a target for community slings and arrows.
But holding a mirror to ourselves, our community peers, and to transgender community is a necessary function. We can’t be mentors, mentees, rocks, the sea, healers, and nurturers unless we’re willing to reflect who we are and what we see to others about us. Without the function of holding up mirrors, no non-task functions in community can occur.
Rock Stars: “Rock stars” seem bigger than life and people we can admire — even if an individual “rock star” has feet of clay.
Communities need “rock stars” because we need to see people who are much like us succeeding in society. We need to know we too can be successful, we too do belong in society, we too aren’t complete pariahs, and we are not alone. Transgender community is no different than other communities in this way — we love to have “rock stars” we can love, or can love to hate.
Martyrs: Just as we need our “rock stars,” we need our martyrs. We know the value of the lives Martin Luther King Jrs. and Harvey Milks — people who gave their lives in pursuing betterment for their respective communities. We know the value of the four young African-American girls who died in 1963’s 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, Matthew Shepard, James Bird Jr., Gwen Araujo, and Angie Zapata because they were innocents victims who didn’t deserve to die just because they were members of minority groups.
We need our martyrs to remind us what we should strive for as a community, and to remind us who we are fighting for the lives for. We need them to remind us to say “We will take societal oppression no more — we will push back against our oppression.”
Well, these are some of the non-task functions within transgender community. There are obviously more non-task functions for community than I’ve listed, but these are some I’ve been thinking about lately. If you have functions that you believe should be added to the list, please feel free to do so.
And too, if you identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or queer without identifying as transgender or transsexual, what parallels to you see in your own subcommunities of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community? If you belong to a different identity group — or belong to multiple identity groups — what are the parallels you see between non-task functions of the L, G, B, and T subcommunities and the other community you belong to?
I believe this is an interesting time — we have an opportunity point within communities to ask what we want community to look like at this point in time, and looking at non-task functions of community ties into community leadership — it’s a look at some of the maintenance functions and roles that are every bit as important task leadership.
* Why Transgender Activism