After a whirlwind year of celebratory projects, webchats, and blogs, I wanted to take some time on this Thanksgiving Day here in the US to reflect on why it is so important to me to do this work. (Then I got sidetracked by one of my favorite parts of Thanksgiving – the baking! And then again by an impromptu pop-in by my daughter as I was trying to write this morning with a thank you gift for me. Seven year old kids are the best!)
Back to the topic at hand, this is a time for gratitude and celebration of the abundance I have in my life with wonderful family, friends, and the gifts that I continue to garner through conversations about diverse sexuality and gender with everyone I meet through my work with Censored2Celebrated, The Human Empathy Project, and PFLAG. As I know, not everyone has the privilege to celebrate as openly as I am able.
As you may know, or surmise, two of my primary values are authenticity and empathy. You can imagine how much joy it brings to my life to be able to have authentic and empathic conversations about topics that are so close to my heart. And yet, even in 2015, I know that this is not a universal gift.
Indeed, you may be a person who is challenged in finding ways to have authentic, empathic conversations about sexuality and gender with the people in your life. And you may have lost people in your life because of who you, or your child, is in the world.
In the spirit of this day of thanksgiving, and in the spirit of honoring those of us who may not have family celebrating us today, I wanted to share some of my own personal journey about why I fiercely dedicate myself to move beyond tolerance and acceptance to full-on celebrate diverse sexuality and gender.
Not only is celebration a tool of empowerment, but I believe that it is a matter of life and death. And while I am able to celebrate diverse sexuality and gender in my own life, this has not always been the case. Everyday I try to do something that helps me – and others – be more brave in the world.
In that spirit, here is my story. I shared it at the Transgender Day of Remembrance / Transgender Day of Resilience on the steps of Austin’s City Hall on November 21, 2015. And now I share it with you. I hope it helps you be more brave to speak with authenticity and empathy to celebrate all the people in your life.
Celebration as a Tool of Empowerment
by Melita Inara Noël, MA
Presented at Austin’s Transgender Day of Remembrance event
Last November, my daughters and I sat where you now sit – perhaps a little uncomfortably – on the concrete steps of Austin City Hall. As you may remember, one year ago, befitting the mood, it was raining. As we listened to the challenges and heard the names of the dead read, I remember looking at my girls, and worrying about what these words might be teaching them about what it means to be different – whether that difference is language, race, ethnicity, class, ability, age, or sexuality and gender identity – or any intersection of these differences.
Mostly, I remember feeling grateful that I had the forethought to tell my girls that this event dares to speak out loud about the challenges that many transgender people experience in their lifetime. Challenges stemming from cultural censorship, such as the basic right to “pee in peace” – more on that later – or the internalized self-censorship where a trans person might feel that they must “pass” in order to be fully known as their authentic self.
Some say that I am an unusual mother in the world of people who parent transgender children. After all, I have a Master’s degree in Sexuality, and I have a long history of exploring gender identity. I have also walked through my own internal and external censorship as a single woman who identifies as queer, femme, and pansexual. And I am delighted to celebrate diverse sexuality and gender as the CEO and Founder of my business From Censored to Celebrated, and as the Vice President on the Board of The Human Empathy Project, and a proud member of PFLAG Austin (and hopefully, soon, a Board member!).
My 7 year old daughter has been self-identifying as a transgender girl for 18 months. I celebrated her right to explore and speak her truth long before that. For the most part, I have been able to shield her from overt expressions of censorship and hate. As we know, differences are sometimes feared, sometimes tolerated, and sometimes even accepted. However, in my experience, differences are very rarely celebrated.
Sitting on these steps, trying to keep dry from the rain, we had our first in depth conversation about the challenges that so many transgender people feel everyday. I was grateful my girls witnessed this powerful event that speaks hard truths about these difficult experiences. Even though it can be so painful, I am grateful that this community – and many others internationally – takes this time in November to share these stories.
Given who I am in the world – inhabiting the space of a sexuality and gender educator, parent of a transgender youth, and identifying as queer – I want to focus now on how I use celebration as a tool of empowerment. I have three tools to share with you that any one of you can use to celebrate a person who is “different.”
TOOL 1: CREATE SAFE SPACE
Let me start by admitting: I am a feminist. So to have my “assigned male at birth” child racing home from preschool everyday to put on a skirt, or a dress, thrilled me. I celebrated that my child felt comfortable exploring gender roles and gender expression. A child who lives authentically, with the fullest range of options before them, doesn’t consider the adult labels of gender important. And, most importantly, I had a child who was expressively, undeniably, happy.
But the language of adults can be tricky, so I chose to use my fancy “adult language” to make space for my child to just BE. I talked openly to anyone who would listen – including my child – about how it is critical for healthy self development to be able to express one’s authentic self fully.
If you don’t celebrate your child, WHO WILL?
Through these conversations, and my celebratory support, I created space for my child to play in the safety of our home, friend’s and family’s homes, as well as at dance and music classes, birthday parties, and our church.
I am aware of the privilege I hold in knowing the language of diverse sexuality and gender. I am also aware that anyone can celebrate their child. I think that the most important path to celebrating your child – or anyone in your life – is to witness and engage them, as well as the world around them, and create the space for their most authentic selves to develop.
TOOL 2: CHANGE THE CONVERSATION
When we go to bat to celebrate our children – or anyone who feels the weight of having their identities suppressed in whole or in part – we make the statement to the world that the hate stops with us. Sometimes you have the privilege to be private about a difference, and to walk in the world in “stealth” mode, as it were. Other times, differences are seen the first moment you walk in the door and no option of privacy is available. In either case, you can make the choice to celebrate differences everywhere.
For those who have transgender family members who are living in the closet for a period of time, consider whether you can celebrate diverse sexuality and gender on social media feeds, or by calling out subtle microaggressions in conversations with coworkers, or at the grocery store. For those of us who can be loud and proud, we can march in parades, attend events, give speeches, write a blog, lobby our government, and listen mindfully before outwardly celebrating the stories of those of us who need to be in the shadows for now.
The goal is to seek small and large ways to change the conversation, give space for the evolutionary process, and approach tough talks with a empathy-filled heart.
TOOL 3: CELEBRATE EVERYWHERE & IN THE EVERYDAY
These days, with the creation of safe space in my home and community, and by being so aware of censorship, it has become easier and easier to change the conversation. As a result, — please, listen closely here — in this moment, right this second…this is the first time I have been given permission to publically celebrate my daughter’s transgender identity.
It makes me more proud than I can convey in words, and I am so honored she has trusted me with this opportunity. I take this moment for her, for myself, and for everyone here and at home who don’t have the same freedom – to celebrate diverse sexuality and gender in all their beautiful and complex prisms, and I want you to do the same where you can.
Here are two examples of what celebration looks like in my everyday life:
First, through my work with From Censored to Celebrated this summer, I was able to travel with my daughters to 24 states and Ontario where we spoke with librarians and donated children’s books celebrating diverse sexuality and gender. The celebration was two-fold in that we had the honor of receiving these books from families who celebrate their own transgender child’s journey while allowing me to recognize their celebration by having me gift these books on their behalf.
Secondly, this past March at Wildflower Unitarian Universalist Church in South Austin, we were preparing for our 9 month old daughter for her child dedication. Simultaneously, I invited my older daughter to be recognized for her transition to identifying as a transgender girl, to which she agreed, and her ceremony became one of the most powerful and celebratory moments I have experienced at our church. I was grateful to hear that many in our church community also experienced her celebration in a very powerful way.
During the child dedication ceremony the minister, Reverend Brian Ferguson – who is here with us tonight – said:
Six years ago we dedicated you as [a boy]. Since that time, you have realized that you are a girl and seek to honor yourself as such. While this is often referred to as a transition and we are referring to part of our ceremony as a transition celebration, in many ways it is an act of recognition within you of who you most authentically are.
Consequently, we wish to honor and celebrate this recognition for you. You said to me that you are a transgender girl. For you, it is an act of honest recognition. For those of us around you, it is an act of transition as we commit to recognize and celebrate you as a girl. This is a courageous path you have chosen to find your wholeness when much of society is forcing you to conform in a different way than feels right and authentic to you. Today, we honor you as the girl you are and admire you as you undertake this journey to make your spirit whole.
These words alone took my breath away.
Then the minister continued:
May your journey of recognition, and your parents example as loving, committed parents, be a gift to this community. May you all be an example of what it means to live with honesty, courage, and integrity.
Whether you claim your child with pride in a public forum such as this one, partake of a sacred ceremony with your inner circle, or simply champion co-workers as allies – do what you can, where you can, to lift up and affirm diversity wherever it occurs.
Having shared all of this, I imagine that many of you here tonight knew as a child that you were different. You may have wished – more than anything – for safe space to explore what that might mean for you.
Imagine for a moment if someone had created safe space for you to feel celebrated. Imagine if you now choose to consciously create safe space for another person in your life who deeply needs to explore their authentic selves. What would that look like? How could this one act of quiet celebration change someone’s life?
Audre Lorde once said that poetry is not a luxury. Similarly, for me, celebration – in the face of censorship and hate – is NOT a luxury. Indeed, celebration is the way through. Those are the words I live by. Those are the words that shape my thoughts, and direct my actions.
In celebration of you, in celebration of all of our children, I commit my business, my time, and the time and talents of the team that supports me to making sure that every single-stall restroom on the planet is safe for you. It begins here in Austin as I lay the foundation for the #PeeInPeace project.
I commit to you now, today, in this moment, that at this event next year I will say to you: In Austin, it is done. Never again will you be in this city without allies like me making it safe for my ally in you.
If you want to join me, in making Austin a safe place and setting the standard for public restroom ordinances elsewhere, let me know.
Support the basic human dignity to #PeeInPeace here:
Click here to watch why Ivan Coyote thinks we all need a safe place to pee.