I sat down with the Co-Chairs of the student group The Alliance, Eric Nickel (EN) and Jonah Richmond (JR), to talk about the work of the student group and Transgender Remembrance Day, November 20th. During the interview, Eric and Jonah created a safe and comfortable space to talk about gender identity and sexuality which reflects how they approach their work with The Alliance. Our conversation meandered. We spoke about meeting people whose gender identity we have never encountered before, as well as mainstream gay culture and where transgender issues fit in. An edited version of my interview is below.
The activities planned for Transgender Remembrance Day are listed at the end of the interview.
What does Alliance do and why is it at VLS?
JR: Alliance is here to promote LGBTQ equality in our community and for the world. We also provide a place for LGBTQ people to gather and meet. We fulfill our mission through social events, various forms of activism and providing services, such as HIV testing, and coming out day.
EN: All of our events have some educational quality to them because exposure is an important part of education.
Are there challenges the group faces in the VLS community?
JR: A challenge is getting the people who identify or might identify as LGBTQ to come and participate with the Alliance. A lot of people here get caught up with school, or job searches, or think that identifying may negatively impact them. There are plenty of people who are not willing to commit to attending social activities, and that is one of things holding us back from doing more.
EN: I don’t care if you are LGTBQ—you’re a person and if you support these issues, come to our events. I am very open about that—come to the meeting, you might have fun. If you want to help out or talk about something, even if it is not directly impacting your life—please come.
Shifting gears, Transgender Remembrance Day is happening next Tuesday, November 20th. I’d first like to start out with some basic questions about gender identity: what is a transgender person? What does that mean?
EN: Gender is between the ears, and sex is between the legs. When those two do not meet—when they both do not say I am a girl, or boy [that is transgender]. Gender queer is when someone does not completely identify with being male or female. I met a gender queer person and it was very interesting. The person did not try to be masculine or feminine. They used the nongender pronouns like ze. It is interesting because part of [the experience is] not knowing how to address the person, like “what do I call this person?” My friend was like, “call her whatever you want to call him; she doesn’t care.”
Your idea of transgender being disconnect between the ears and between the legs is an interesting one. My understanding is that gender is social construction, not a part of your brain when you are born. Can you describe what “in between the ears” means exactly?
EN: It means how you self-identify versus the gender that people assign to you is different. When you are boy, people assume you are a boy, until you outwardly identify as otherwise. Your parents dress you as a boy, which is a social thing and also indicative of American culture where we only identify with two genders. In some Native American cultures there are many more [genders]. I think they are call two spirit people—[gender] is more a continuum in these cultures, versus the two genders; male and female, in American culture.
What are the activities that you have planned for Transgender Remembrance Day?
JR: We are so excited about the day. We are thrilled to have Professor Johnson speak, who has been doing a lot of research on transgender issues and will give us a rundown of transgender military people, who are not allowed to serve openly yet. This is starting to change in some ways, so we will hear about that.In the evening we are showing the movie “Soldiers’ Girl” with Calpernia Addams, who was a performer in Nashville, who was dating a serviceman. The serviceman was beaten to death in his sleep, when it was discovered they were dating. Clapernia is still alive. She has become a voice of activism for transgender rights and the prevention of hate crimes, after this happened.
EN: We are inviting Veterans to see what their reactions are to the movie and if they faced these issues in the military or attitudes in the military.
JR: We have a lot of veterans in our community, and considering that November is a month where we take time to honor veterans, it is a good time to consider how veterans and military service members can intersect with transgender equality. Discrimination continues after your service ends in the military—health benefits, for example. We are also lucky to have the Norwich University, the oldest private military college in the nation, just up the road, and we are inviting them to this event too.
Why is Transgender Remembrance Day important? There are lots of people who are oppressed and victims of hate crime. Why Transgender people?
EN: It comes back to awareness and education. When you know about [transgender] issues they are not as scary. Trans remembrance helps expose people to the struggles [trans people] face. We have pictures of transgender people and also a description of the hate crimes committed against them.
JR: Transgender people are in the shadow of the overall mainstream gay agenda, so it is important that we do recognize them, because gays were in that situation once, as a more oppressed group. [Trans people] need our support and it is our responsibility to do that. The other issue in our community is that we do not have any open transgender people in our community. We are hoping that the more welcoming and supportive we are, the more diverse a student body, faculty, and staff we can attract here.
November 20th | Transgender Remembrance Day Activities Cornell Library Author Series |12:45-2 |Cornell Seminar Room Professor Greg Johnson presents, “Unfinished Business: The Military’s Treatment of Transgender Service Members”
Dinner & Movie: Soldier’s Girl | 6PM | Cornell Seminar Room Enjoy a southern dinner and the showing of the movie Soldier’s Girl. Adam Schmelkin and Christopher Smith will make a short presentation after the movie. There will be time for lively discussion and the opportunity to learn about Trans issues.
All are welcome.
November 19th and 20th look for The Alliance in Chase Breezeway and show your support by wearing a black ribbon.