Trans People Talk Prejudice, Pain, Pride, and Why ‘Trans Joy Is Revolutionary’
Seven trans people from across the U.S. share their pandemic experiences, hopes, fears, what they really think of Caitlyn Jenner, and their determination to embrace and enjoy life.
“Being a Black woman, being a Black trans woman, and then being in the South, that’s more of a fight, every day.”
“I was really going through a hard time, all the media, just in my face, then all these anti-trans bills popping up.”
“I’m in a really good place, which is awesome. I’m about to go off to college and I’m very proud of myself, and a lot of that has to do with being able to figure out who I am.”
From anti-trans laws to COVID-19 to Caitlyn Jenner’s candidacy for California governor, several out transgender people got together recently for a special Pride month discussion about matters personal and political. They also talked about their worst moments since beginning their transition, and the joy they’ve experienced since then.
Five joined in conversation via Zoom; one advocate unfortunately missed the group chat, but we caught up separately. They represent a variety of aspects of this marginalized community, including Black, Latinx, white, as well as nonbinary, asexual, queer, straight and lesbian; they are athletes, performers, activists and social workers. They range in age from 16 to 50 and are spread out from New England to the Deep South to Southern California.
· Former champion wrestler Mack Beggs of Texas is spending his summer in Alabama before his final year of college in Georgia. He’s now 22 and has been actively campaigning against anti-transgender legislation.
· Trans activist for the homeless Kayla Gore, 34, is the co-founder and executive director of My Sistah’s House in Memphis, Tenn. As The Daily Beast reported last year, she is building a future for trans women of color, literally, by building houses. Gore is also the Southern Regional Organizer at the Transgender Law Center.
· YouTube personality, professional singer and photographer Melody Maia Monet, 50, of N.Y., then Texas, has called Central Florida home for more than a decade. She is on the steering committee for the National Transvisibility March, which will for the first time step off in Orlando this October.
· Nonbinary trans teen Naiyah McGlamery, 16, is a college-bound community activist in Hartford, Conn. who says they faced so much unrelenting hostility over their identity in high school, they dropped out. They are the youth programing coordinator at Kamora's Cultural Corner in Hartford.
· Early Intervention Specialist Michelle Anderson works at Friends for Life in Memphis, Tenn. as an advocate for people living with HIV and AIDS. Her clients include members of the transgender community.
· Social Worker Katy Michaels, 49, of Southern Calif. specializes in helping children who are victims of abuse. This Pride, she’s celebrating almost five years being an out trans woman, a journey which started with a conversation we had during the L.A. Pride March.
Our conversation lasted almost 90 minutes. Their quotes have been lightly edited for clarity and space. A video of the conversation is here.
Perhaps no issue is more pressing than the 13 state laws passed by Republicans across the U.S., many set to go into effect July 1. They were part of an onslaught of more than 100 bills considered by legislatures this year, and activists expect more to come.
One of those speaking out against the measures is Mack Beggs, who made headlines in high school as a trans boy forced by Texas law to wrestle girls. His struggle is featured in a documentary about trans student-athletes that hit Hulu this Pride month, Changing the Game. Then and now, lawmakers and reporters have given him grief. “I was really going through a hard time, all the media, just in my face,” he said, “then all these anti-trans bills popping up.”
As he prepares to graduate college, Beggs has switched sports from wrestling to Mixed Martial Arts, but still carries with him the burden of what some call “passing privilege:” being perceived as a cisgender male.
“I have the privilege, and I wish I didn’t have to say that I passed well, but I'm privileged enough to be put in fortunate positions where I can compete,” Beggs told the group, as we discussed the hateful comments directed at him in high school just for competing as his authentic self. “And I just don’t want that to happen to anybody else who does not have that privilege. So, I’m using my voice in order to help with that progression.
“Have you gotten used to having male privilege?” this reporter asked.
“No. I guess I’m used to it, just in the sense that I ignore it, but I still am in that state of mind, being fearful whether I pass well or not. Someone could just be very curious, like, if people watch me, in maybe the slightest movement, and say, ‘Oh, well, you’re not really a guy.’”
“I am a trans woman of color,” said Michelle Anderson, who has come face to face with these anti-trans laws both at home in Memphis as well as when she visits family in Mississippi. Tennessee requires businesses with public restrooms to post signs warning that trans people may be sharing their bathroom; Mississippi bars trans women like Anderson from using the ladies’ room.
“It’s kind of difficult because we just want to live. We just want to just blend-in and just be ‘normal,’” Anderson said. “In Mississippi, according to their law, I have to use the bathroom assigned to me at birth, which causes complications, because I can’t go into a men’s restroom!”
“So what do you do, Michelle?” this reporter asked. “Do you hold it?”
“I do. I honestly do,” replied Anderson. “Seriously, most people in Mississippi think that from seeing movies and other things on TV, that trans people are pedophiles, that they’re only out to get kids, be molesters and things like that. And that’s very discouraging. Being a Black woman, being a Black trans woman and then being in the South, that’s more of a fight every day.”
Anderson also weighed-in on the laws banning affirming health care to trans people. “If you are a person who is a doctor who specializes in trans individuals and trans health, you shouldn’t be penalized for being able to help someone,” she said.
Beggs added: “What they’re not recognizing is the fact that we are human, and we are people, and we are being denied affirming care from doctors. The whole thing is messed up. It’s tragic.”
This reporter noted that lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union have already gone to court in Arkansas to argue these kinds of laws are unconstitutional.
“It is unconstitutional,” Beggs said. “And the fact that the Biden administration isn’t growing a pair in order to address necessities and needs of the people in this country is appalling.” (Since our conversation, a supportive DOJ has joined the fight in Arkansas over its trans teen health care ban, and in West Virginia over its trans sports ban, submitting statements of interest.)
Florida’s Republican governor signed a law banning trans student-athletes on the very first day of Pride, June 1. But Gov. Ron DeSantis wasn’t done.
“He followed that up the next day, by basically cutting out two large cash appropriations to nonprofits in Orlando that basically treated Pulse survivors for trauma,” said Maia Monet, who documented several victims’ last night alive with photographs she took inside the club the night before the massacre. “I myself rely on some of that funding myself for my own therapy.”
Monet, a Latina, described her adopted hometown as an oasis in a very red state. “I very much enjoy living in Orlando. I love Orlando, in fact,” she said. “But you can’t just venture too far outside of Orlando before you’re into some pretty hostile territory, both racially and for LGBTQ.”
Monet said now that she’s fully vaccinated, she has returned to singing at local venues, something she calls her “lifeline to sanity. Things are looking much better now, but there were some dark days where I was really not in a good place,” she said.
“I just turned 50 in February, and I've had difficulty dating, so being forced to stay at home wasn’t exactly conducive to meeting people and going on dates or anything like that, so it was just me and my dog for quite a long time,” Monet recalled. “As it is, I already suffer from depression, and it did not help that situation at all. For quite long stretches of time, the only relationship I had really was with my Uber Eats driver and Doordash guy and all those folks. So yeah, I gained my COVID weight. It was a lot of lonely times.”
In a phone conversation after the Zoom chat, Kayla Gore described herself as a “homebody.” She said for that reason, the lockdown wasn’t too hard on her, personally. But for the nonprofit she runs, COVID-19 presented real challenges.
“We didn’t really have a lot of time to make a lot of, I would say, well thought-out decisions,” Gore told me. “Not with an uprising going on, or where there’s a global pandemic happening. For us, we had to really move and shift a lot of things in order to be there for our community in a time where there wasn’t a lot of help for people who were experiencing homelessness in the LGBT community, more specifically with trans people.”
The few services that were available, Gore said, didn’t use affirming language to welcome trans members of the population. “Our community didn’t feel as though those services were available to them.”
Katy Michaels said she had a much different experience during the pandemic.
“I think because of the work I do, I wasn’t affected the same way,” said Michaels, who works in Child Protective Services. “When we go into people’s homes, which I continued to do throughout the COVID, we wear an N95 mask and a facial screen. I think because of my job, I haven't felt so isolated, really.”
However, Michaels had the extra challenge during the pandemic of keeping temptation in check.
“I'm sober 23+ years from drugs and alcohol and some other things that I struggle with. I've actually lost some weight, but it’s because I have a food program that’s pretty strict. I don’t eat flour and sugar. I just mention those things because I’m also very lucky in that I have resources that many people don’t have with Zoom, and 12 step meetings. I really took the time this year to work harder on myself. Not that I don’t do that already, but was just another opportunity to go deeper.”
At the same time, Michaels said two friends, both social workers, died from COVID-19. “So it affected me in that way.”
“I got COVID,” said Naiyah McGlamery. “Then I was in the hospital for mental health reasons while I had COVID-19. So I was completely locked in a room by myself for two weeks, in the hospital, without being able to see my family, except for maybe an hour a day on FaceTime. So the beginning of the pandemic was really difficult for me.”
But the lockdown provided McGlamery with time for introspection. “I always knew that I was ‘not straight,’ but the pandemic made me realize that the label for that is ‘lesbian.’ And then that made me able to recognize my nonbinary identity. I guess just like having a lot of time alone, with myself, to really think about who I am and how that’s different from how I’m perceived or how I’ve been socialized, was definitely the good that came out of the bad in the pandemic.”
This reporter asked if it felt like a lot of weight off their shoulders.
“Yes!” McGlamery declared. “And similarly to Katy, I’m not an addict, in that sense, but I did used to self-harm compulsively. And I just reached one hundred days clean.”
While in no way insensitive to the horrific death toll wrought by coronavirus, and those who have fallen sick, Beggs had personally “really liked” the last year. He found being locked down “rejuvenating...just being able to kind of really focus on myself and really figure out the things I needed to do for myself as an individual, and give me time to really think, to do the things that I enjoy and love… I really developed as an adult. I found myself, and my truest path I want to follow in life.”
For Anderson, the pandemic triggered past trauma, but motivated her to find help.
“I had a few trans women on my caseload and we were just so used to seeing each other and giving that validation to each other,” said Anderson, who felt phone calls were a poor substitute for that in-person affirmation. “It just wasn’t the same. Also, it brought up a lot of trauma that I was experiencing from my past, being in isolation—not having anyone to reach out and touch or give a hug or anything like that. Just trying to live everyday life in lockdown was not what I was used to. But it did drive me to get a therapist and work on my mental health.”
As the resident Californian, Michaels felt compelled to comment on Caitlyn Jenner’s gubernatorial candidacy and problematic statements about trans youth.
“I try to have compassion for her, but I feel very angry towards her, because I feel like she’s a traitor,” she said. “I just don’t understand how someone who is trans could identify as a Republican. But I also know I have a brother who is gay and he’s a Trumper. So, I mean, it’s possible.”
Michaels discounted the effort to recall California’s Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom as “ridiculous” and predicted “It’s not going to happen.”
“I completely agree with you, Katy,” offered Beggs. “I think Caitlyn Jenner has no business saying anything about the trans community. If she’s not going to say anything that’s going to help progress our community, then she shouldn’t be saying anything at all.”
Monet recently tweeted that she was “anticipating living in a bomb shelter” just to avoid the transphobia Jenner’s candidacy was stirring up.
If given a similar chance to meet Jenner, “I wouldn’t say anything to her,” Gore told me. “I would just like to say, and it’s been said many times before, she doesn’t represent the whole entire community. She represents her and the people who believe in the things that she believes in, and that doesn’t take away from her transness, that she believes in people who seek to demonize us. But it does take away from her ability to be a part of a community that is very special and resilient.”
Most transphobic experience
Beggs has been booed by parents and misgendered by politicians and reporters. But that pales, he said, to what happened one day at Life University. “I think probably the worst situation for me happened in college. There was this guy on the team that I didn’t think I was going to have an issue with,” he said.
No words were exchanged; instead, Beggs said the teammate revealed his transphobia during a wrestling drill.
“He decided he wanted to injure my knee during one of the sessions that we were having, and continued to, after practice, address me as a female and say that I don’t belong in men’s sports. I was like, ‘Well now, this is unacceptable. I shouldn’t be treated this way. I deserve equal rights just as everybody else on this team. I deserve to be here. And you do not need to be saying those things to me.’ I quickly addressed the situation, told my coach, and that was the end of that.”
Monet was triggered by an out lesbian friend on Facebook, who shared a negative post about nonbinary individuals.
“Instead of being in a place of actually being open and learning, it actually was disparaging, but they’re trying to pretend that they’re open minded about it. And then people are off to the races with transphobia in the comments. I find that really very stressful. So when you see that from somebody you know, somebody you considered a friend and an ally, it’s very much like being blindsided, and it colors my entire day. It really derails my entire day when I see things like that. I find it very hard to deal with.”
Michaels shared the painful memory of being rejected by one of her two brothers, hurting her deeply.
“I think the most transphobic thing was probably my brother telling me he didn’t want to see my transition and deleting me from Facebook,” she said. “One of the challenges of my coming out has been my family's response. One brother, who’s gay, and my mother, they moved to Deltona, northern Florida, and my other brother, who I haven’t spoken to since September 2015 since I came out, he and his wife live in Lake Mary with their four children. Their girls, who are 5, have met me, but the boys, who are 10 and 13, I’m not allowed to see, because they don’t know. My brother is not comfortable with my transitioning.”
“Maybe if you guys didn't dress like women around here, fooling men, y’all probably would live.” Anderson recalled someone saying that to her on social media following reports of yet another Black trans woman murdered. Already in 2021, at least 28 transgender and gender nonconforming people have been murdered, mostly Black and Latinx trans women, according to the Human Rights Campaign. The American Medical Association termed it an epidemic in 2019.
“And that hurt me so bad, because you just don’t understand that when we transition, we're transitioning into our truth,” she said. “I'm glad I know how to block people now, when negative comments come up.”
Negative comments about their identity drove McGlamery to drop out of high school before graduating, they said.
“There was a general resistance to using people's pronouns; For trans people in general, but especially nonbinary trans people,” said McGlamery. “For me, there was a general refusal to use my pronouns, except for in front of my parents; I think they knew that that wouldn’t be OK. My parents are the most supportive parents and they would not have enjoyed seeing that from the school.”
McGlamery said among many instances of misgendering, one stood out: “A teacher asked me, ‘Well, are you sure you’re nonbinary? Because you wear makeup and you have long hair, so, I would assume that your pronouns are ‘she/her.’ And I was like, ‘But they’re not.’ It was crazy, thinking back on it. There was so much stuff.”
Is that why McGlamery decided to drop out?
“That was, yeah,” they said. “My identity and my activism were weaponized against me.” They accuse school officials of mischaracterizing their transness as mental illness.
McGlamery said they were accepted into attending early college this fall. “Honestly, dropping out was the best decision I've ever made.”
“Having my mom be a part of a documentary that I did with National Geographic,” Gore said was the happiest moment since coming out as transgender. “Having a lot of things in my life come full circle should be a part of it, too.”
“It’s been a long process,” Gore said of coming out. “I’ve been out for a while now, and I think it’s a continual process. I don’t think it’s just, ‘Hey, I'm out!’ It’s a growing process, and sometimes it grows in a good way. Sometimes it doesn’t.”
The next happiest moment for Gore will come Labor Day Weekend, when My Sistah’s House hosts a celebration for the completion of two new homes in Memphis and the groundbreaking for two more, right across the street, as well as a party to celebrate Gore’s birthday. “So it’ll be like a housewarming, birthday party, groundbreaking Labor Day celebration,” she said.
Beggs recalled asking his sister, “Did you ever feel like I killed the version of myself that you wish you had?” and “Have you ever felt resentment because of that or ever felt that way?” She said, “Because you’re my sibling, no matter what, no matter when you came out, I never felt I had lost a sister. I always felt that I did have a brother.” Beggs was blown away.
McGlamery told the story of the first time they used nonbinary pronouns and was accepted.
“I think one thing I learned in the pandemic is that I like myself and I can be alone,” Monet told the group. “As somebody who has had challenges with that in the past, and especially thrives on being around other people and talking to other people, having time to do basically intensive therapy for months at a time, where I just concentrated on me, even if it was over Zoom, actually, helped me quite a lot.”
Anderson said her happiest day was when her very religious mother accepted her partner into her home and correctly referred to her with the pronouns “she” and “her.”
“Instead of her saying that she has a daughter and a son, she said, ‘My two daughters.’ So that’s kind of very liberating to me because she was someone who I never would have thought could adjust. She’s a real Bible thumper! She can quote the Bible. But for her to accept me, and say ‘our daughter,’ and use ‘she/her’ pronouns, that was like the biggest, affirming thing to me, to show that my transition isn’t in vain.”
For Michaels, there were three:
“My first day on the job as Katy was Dec. 7, 2015, or as my gay friends would say, ‘Pearl Harbor Day:’ I got my pearls that day, which sounds so ridiculous.”
“June 9, 2015, was an amazing moment because of—I don’t know if Dawn remembers this, but—the things she said during the L.A. Pride March, which turned on the light: ‘It’s not who you go to bed with, but who you go to bed as.’ I was trying to stuff any kind of awareness about that until that moment, but it was impossible.”
“The most amazing experience I have had was when my aunt flew out from D.C. to hold my hand before going into gender confirmation surgery or vaginoplasty. Waking up and she was right there,” Michaels recalled. Her aunt is a rape crisis counselor for the U.S. Navy in Annapolis, Md. Prior to our talk, she texted her this message: “I’ll never forget how amazing I felt that you were there the day that I really feel like I was reborn,” which was July 12, 2018. Her aunt replied: “There was no other place I’d rather be.”
“It just means so much, because my own mother is not able to be there for me,” Michaels said.
Her comments struck home for Monet and myself, who have each struggled with our mothers’ inability to accept us for who we are. Monet recorded a video about hers; I spoke to the group about mine. “Seven years ago today,” I told the group, “was the last time I saw my mother alive. I surprised her at her home, and she didn’t recognize me at first, but reluctantly, she agreed to let me in, for us to talk. Nothing changed that day, but I got to hug her goodbye. She disowned me.”
Of course, that was not my “happiest moment”; that would be my wedding day, 25 years ago, and the three days our three children were born. But if I had to select a happiest moment since my transition, it would be the day in 2013 that they finally met the real, authentic me.
“I would say Mack is bulletproof at this point,” Monet told Beggs. “You've gone through more things than any of us. God bless you! Thank you so much for everything you've done to help bring the cause of trans athletes to the fore.”
Then she turned to McGlamery. “I want to let you know that I see you, that I see your identity as valid. The fact that you’ve had to drop out of high school but are going to college, that’s a wonderful thing. And I encourage you to keep going in your life, and know that not everybody over 25 or so thinks that ‘they/them’ isn’t a valid identity. Some of us understand and support you.”
Beggs thanked Monet, and congratulated McGlamery on coming out to themself at 16.
“For you to figure that out at that age is very overwhelming, but also liberating at the same time,” he said. “So I just want to commend you for that. You’re doing great. Keep doing what you’re doing and keep staying strong.”
Michaels shared something intensely private, as she addressed Anderson.
“I was born in Oklahoma,” Michaels said. “I don’t tell people that. Part of it is, full disclosure, because I was molested there. I do the work I do today because I am in recovery and I love the father that I had, even though he molested me. But it was in Oklahoma. And Oklahoma is like a wicked red state and it’s in the Bible belt. And he was a born again Christian. And I don’t need to go into much more detail, but I just know from where you live, how tough it must be.”
“Michelle is a constant, in all the work that I’ve done over the years,” said Gore, who recommended Anderson for this conversation. “She has inspired me in more ways than she probably realizes, as far as work, as far as personal. She’s an inspiration to people.”
Anderson in turn had these words for Beggs, McGlamery and for me: “Thank you, Mack, for all the activism that you do, and you as well, Dawn. And to Naiyah, stay believing in yourself, and no one can tell you your truth but yourself. So just keep up the good work and good luck.”
McGlamery took in all the positivity, and basked in it.
“I’m in a really, really good place right now, better than I probably have been in three years, which is awesome, even though Mercury’s in retrograde,” McGlamery said.
“Mercury being in retrograde is probably the most lesbian thing I’ve heard so far in this conversation,” replied Monet to laughter.
“I don’t usually believe in that stuff, but it’s been lining up recently,” said the teen. “I’m about to go off to college and I’m very proud of myself and I think a lot of that has to do with having, like Mack said, being able to figure out who I am.”
McGlamery had a positive message for the entire group.
“It really makes me happy and hopeful to be able to see other trans people living truly as who they are, and being able to be happy, because I really think that trans joy is revolutionary.”