Many lifetimes ago I was in between jobs when a friend who was employed at the Ali Forney Center in New York City, offered me an opportunity to make a few bucks as a fill-in counselor for a couple days. The catch was, I'd have to take the overnight shift.
The Ali Forney Center is a refuge for LGBT homeless teens and young adults. Disproportionately displaced by their families and often made outcast and shunned by their school communities, many of these young people seek emotional and physical shelter through the center during their most desperate times. New York City can be a brutally cold, hard town but especially so when the adults who are supposed to shepherd you, straight throw you out to the wolves.
My friend who worked there "got" me, which is to say, he understood that I was born intensely sensitive to the plight of others, and yet as a Native New Yorker with a fair share of warriorheart, I am pretty much tough enough to deal with kids of any stripe from the 'hood. I had the right qualities. He needed someone quickly and I was game.
But the first night rocked my world.
I had been warned to stay awake through the night no matter what and to keep my belongings close. And I had been warned about "Cynthia," (name changed) the 17-year-old trans girl who was angry and jittery and prone to snap. As evening turned to night, I watched my back. As the kids adjusted and readjusted themselves on cots in their respective corners, I pretended not to be overwhelmed by the sudden sense of privilege I felt facing a room full of homeless, disgarded Black and brown children. I pretended not to be completely shook by the knowledge that the bickering and beef I'd seen in the earlier part of the evening, could easily spill over at any time into a chaos there would be no way that I and only one other counselor could control. I pretended that Cynthia, who'd barely acknowledged me when we were introduced, wasn't the size of a line backer.
At least 6'2" and easily 220 or so lbs with an exceptionally wide neck, Cynthia was who said the least to anyone in the earlier part of the day. Even at the height of all the frenetic teenage chatter and bustling, she asked for nothing. She offered nothing. In tight (really too small) jeans and a sweater, she stayed coiled up in her area slowly thumbing through what looked like a fashion magazine. After night fall, she was the last to actually fall asleep.
I knew this because after 'lights out,' from my area across the open space, I fought sleep myself, keeping one eye trained on her. I stole glances, with us both lit by night lights, but after a while was watching her less with fear and more with fascination. To my knowledge, I'd never seen a trans person other than in passing, but never a child this young, never in a body this big, never as a complete personal study in femininity.
Cynthia, unaware of my gaze, had waited until there were no stirring souls to witness her nightly ritual. She took out her rollers and in the dark, part by part, set her long permed hair. She rummaged through a large beat up purse in search of her scarf eventually tying it on her head. I watched how she rearranged all of her affects, her lotion and toiletries first out of and then back into a tub she tucked carefully beneath her cot. In slippers, she swished across the hall to the bathroom and came back out in a flannel gown. Lastly, in the quiet of the night, Cynthia snapped her sheet. It was a gentle snap as not to wake anyone, but firm enough for the corners of the sheet to fall evenly on the floor. Then she tucked herself in.
I was afraid to swallow. I was afraid of Cynthia. But I wasn't afraid of the person I had been warned about. I was afraid of the Cynthia I did not know. The one I'd made a zillion assumptions about. I was afraid of confronting a new truth. Here was a person before me whom I had every reason to believe was a young man—except she wasn't. I thought of my own nightly rituals performed in the comfort of my room, performed in the fullness of my own femininity and I thought about how similar, in fact, mine were to hers. I was afraid that Cynthia had somehow changed me. I could never un-know this moment, the moment when I stopped seeing Cynthia's physical size and her male body and started bearing witness to her female essence. This was not a person performing for me, for anyone. She was merely being. This was before I was comfortable with terms like "gender identity" and yet staring at her, I could no longer pretend that gender identity was so black and white. If you have muscles and a penis (even if tucked in jeans you stopped fitting a long time ago), you're a boy. Sure, most of the time. But in watching Cynthia that night and a few more that followed, I observed what I knew in my heart to be a girl child. It was that simple. It takes one to know one.
Flash forward a few years later. I'm an editor freelancing at Seventeen magazine and I have an opportunity to interview a young White trans boy. He's far away and we are on the phone but I listen and listen and listen and suddenly all the dots I'd suppressed connect for me. NEWSFLASH: SOME PEOPLE'S GENDER EXPRESSION AND THEIR GENITALS JUST DON'T MATCH UP. SOME PEOPLE ARE BORN IN THE WRONG BODY. HELLO, KIERNA, IT'S NOT JUST CYNTHIA.
Many years after the Seventeen story, as fate would have it, I'd have the opportunity to interview yet another trans person. I had been groomed in a way, through my own subconscious, through the nagging way that Cynthia had first (unbeknownst to her) touched my spirit and deeply transformed my understanding, to meet the incredible Janet Mock. Throughout several months, we worked together fighting fears and stepping out on faith to craft the 2011 Marie Claire article that would be later nominated for a GLAAD Award, but more importantly would change the course of her life (dare I say our lives). (More to come here!) Through her honesty, Janet gave me access and information about the trans experience I could've never known. That new education emboldened me, it freed me to be not just an ally, small 'a', but an out and proud Ally big 'A'.
However being an ally doesn't mean that I (or anyone who believes that trans folk deserve all the rights, protections, opportunity, love, health and happiness that the rest of us enjoy) always get it right. It means I'm always willing to listen and learn–and perhaps as important, share what I know with those around me. I encourage anyone reading these words to decide that today is the day that you will open your heart and mind and discard old and, quite frankly, dangerous ways of thinking about the trans community. The advantage of the Internet has never been more apparent than when it comes to how simple it is to research communities other than your own. You can find what you are looking for if you care to.
One of the sheer joys of being the Editorial Director of EBONY.com has been the ability to unabashedly champion the best of the Black LGBT community. While the ''T" often gets lost in larger discussions of what is generally known as gay rights, we try not to let that happen here. But even here, LGBT education is an active thing, it's not a one-and-done type of mentality. We aim to learn and teach, report and challenge. We don't pander. We want to earn respect, and as such want to be respected. In this era of public shaming, it seems so often the first course of action is the rabble-rousing takedown as opposed to the discourse that might actually lead to greater understanding and sustainable change. Be that as it may, we made a mistake yesterday on Twitter (we own that), and some would say also in the lack of deeper context in this as-told-to confessional about a transgender woman. We do hope that a loving trans community can forgive our failings and embrace our successes. As it is, I am and we are committed Allies. Big A.
Kierna Mayo hopes to be the change. Follow her on Twitter @kiernamayo