Encouraging education and inclusion
Transgender Empowerment and Awareness Week provided space for the MU community to learn about what it means to be transgender.

Reporter: Lexi Churchill | November 30 2016

The LGBTQ Resource Center held Transgender Empowerment and Awareness Week, a tradition started by the Genderfork.com managing editor Gwendolyn Ann Smith in 1999. From Nov. 7–11, an educational event or open forum was hosted each day. This video documents the highlights and the significance of the week.

Taking up Space

As people filed into the Walt Disney Ballroom for Tyler Ford’s keynote speech on Nov. 9, the Wednesday after Election Day, the room felt heavy. It was difficult to spot a smile.

The audience was set to hear the writer, public speaker and media personality speak behind a podium, but the weight of the evening brought a new setup. What was originally planned as a lecture-style seminar turned into an open group discussion. The crowd helped transform rows of chairs into an extended oval.

After enduring long pauses, Ford asked the group about how they were feeling following the election results. Gradually, a few hands inched up. The beginning of each response opened with an adjective like “scared” or “worried,” but the speakers each time concluded that their community brought them comfort.

“Today we all need to process from this Trump victory that I just felt that it would be better for everyone if everyone just got to be like, ‘Hey I’m not OK today, and this is what I want to talk about or this is what I’m feeling or what I want to learn,’” Ford said in an interview after the event. “And for me personally, I feel terrible today emotionally … I just wanted to talk with other people who are going through the same experience.”

After voicing their appreciation for one another, the group shifted its conversation to empowerment. They spoke about encouraging each other and taking the extra step to include others.

Near the end the event, an individual spoke out on the idea of being physically present. The individual felt that making others uncomfortable with your presence is a good thing — it is the only way to learn.

Take up the space, the group concluded. It's still yours — and that is exactly what they did throughout the week.

On the third day of Transgender Empowerment and Awareness Week, writer, public speaker and media personality Tyler Ford ran a discussion regarding community threats, fears and methods of empowerment. Attendees opened up about their personal narratives in addition to concerns regarding recent election results in the Walt Disney Ballroom of Memorial Student Union.

Experimentation Station

Junior Angel Beck models a gown as a part of the “Let’s Gender Together” event staged in the Women’s Center on Monday, Nov. 7. The event offered students resources to explore different appearances.

Monday’s “Let’s Gender Together” event aimed to create a safe space for any person wishing to explore their gender expression. Scattered throughout the Women’s Center, tables were covered with items typically associated with feminine or masculine gender expression — Victoria’s Secret bras, patterned ties and L’Oreal eyeshadow set around the room.

Each table was meant to offer alternative forms for physical expression. For some, this event meant educating themselves on gender confirming opportunities, and for others, it meant assembling a new outfit that fulfilled their self-expression.

Junior Angel Beck began at the hair station. According to senior Jess Duncan, a student volunteer involved with the LGBTQ Resource Center, the best way to learn how to do hair is to practice while watching.

Knees folded on the floor, Duncan crouched in front of Beck and began twisting and tying the unshaved part of Duncan’s maroon hair. The side French braid came along slowly as Beck maneuvered through the unfamiliar pattern.

After five or so minutes, Duncan took over, weaving Beck’s dirty blonde locks into a French braid, while periodically placing bobby pins throughout. All that remained was selecting the perfect wardrobe.

Beck tried on a floor-length, royal purple gown from the clothing table in the back, embroidered with silver sequins and edged with black ribbon. His fuchsia-laced grey tennis shoes peeked out from underneath. Beck left with the dress.

Swap It Out

A clothing swap was held Tuesday and Wednesday in the Student Center, allowing individuals to donate old items in exchange for new ones.

Originally organized by the Environmental Leadership Office, the collection started small, but in recent semesters the organization decided to pair with the LGBTQ Resource Center to host the event.

Together, the partnership hopes to provide an easy way for students in need of new clothing pieces, as well as educate the community on the environmental impacts of textile production. The exchange promotes reused items, helping to avoid costly and environmentally unsustainable purchases.

Clothing racks are filled, ready for exchange during the clothing swap run by the LGBTQ Resource Center and the Environmental Leadership Office Nov. 8–9 in the upper level of the Student Center.

Get in the Know

At the end of the safe space training, Cole Young conducts a symbolic coming-out activity with stars. The activity demonstrates the range of outcomes one’s identity reveal can have on those around them and their own personal careers.

Thursday afternoon, a small group gathered in Memorial Union for “Trans 101,” a session aimed at clearing up misconceptions around transgender identities.

Safe Space training led by senior Cole Young, director of MU’s Transgender Empowerment and Awareness Week, began with a quiz over language used to understand the LGBTQ community. After moving around the circle gathering answers, the group dove into a discussion on the complex distinction between sex and gender, not only as social constructs, but in the context of the transgender community.

Young noted that traditional society has created specific binary categories for what feminine and masculine qualities are, both in gender and in sexuality. Sexuality in particular often falls within these two narrow divisions.

“We tend not to talk about sex that way, and I think it’s important to know that sex is also a social construct,” Young said. “There is biology happening, but we are still giving meaning to that biology.”

To represent the coming out process, Young presented a stack of colored paper stars labeled with family, friends, workplace and other important support systems. Each attendee received one of four star colors, each representative of a unique coming-out situation.

“The weirdest part was the family member, having to tear that off because that’s the biggest thing I’m afraid of is coming out to my family,” the owner of a pink star said in the activities debrief.

Slowly, Young moved through the hypothetical circumstances for each individual, all varying in received responses. With each negative response, attendees were to rip off a portion of the star. While one star received almost total support, others represented less positive experiences, and in certain cases received backlash and judgment from those around them.

The training furthered knowledge of the community by recounting outdated medical terms for gender confirmation surgeries, discussing the best approaches to addressing a transgender person in unfamiliar or work environments and significant do’s and dont’s of phrasing and terminology.

Rolls not Roles

The fusion of food and discussion furthered the week’s educational efforts Friday at the “Pizza Rolls, Not Gender Roles” event held in the LGBTQ Resource Center.

As the attendees dipped their cheese-topped breadsticks in marinara sauce, sophomore Riley Dinwiddie, the web coordinator for the LGBTQ Resource Center, handed out paper “genderbread” people, outlines of a classic, gender-neutral holiday treat. Each person filled them out individually, representing the way they view themselves.

Ranging from simple to complex, the “genderbread” symbolized the identity of each artist. One figure was composed of all-black clothes, a jean jacket and a foot tattoo, while another included question marks and the line “Sometimes femme, sometimes nothing, always genderfluid!”

The discussion that followed led the group to emphasize the necessity for sensitivity and consideration when interacting with the transgender community. It is always better to ask what their pronouns are, in order to correctly address each person individually, Dinwiddie said.

After explaining the coloring and question marks on their “genderbread” person, a transgender student sets down their drawing and listens to others’ creative reasoning. The student included the nonbinary flag to represent their own identity.

The Necessity of Existence

Director of Transgender Empowerment and Awareness Week, Young, welcomes the audience to Traditions Plaza for a vigil for fallen members of the transgender community.

The royal purple spotlight traced Young’s silhouette as he spoke of recognition and remembrance of fallen transgender community members. In the midst of the message, his voice cracked, and Young’s hand cupped his mouth for several moments as the silence settled.

He regathered himself to start the ceremony designed to remember those lost to violence.

“It is an injustice to our past, present and future to not give ourselves the space to feel sadness, our fear and our grief,” Young said. “Tonight, we face the eyes of hatred. I commend you for standing here in solidarity so we can take the time to honor and remember who we have lost.”

Several new speakers took Young’s place on stage and began to read information about the “fallen members.”

Following the name recitation, Young asked audience members to share their own stories of violence. Though no one came forward, the audience didn’t leave immediately. Almost every individual remained in their seat in silence for several minutes before leaving.

“I don't think we stop and reflect enough on things that are happening to us and just giving ourselves space to be in our own thoughts and our own emotions,” LGBTQ Resource Center Coordinator Sean Olmstead said the following afternoon. “I think last night reinforced that need to sometimes just exist.”

One Last Dance

On the ground floor of Memorial Union, Mizzou after Dark’s Spa Night festivities were well underway, with a line extending through the hallway. Upstairs, a more intimate celebration began.

The week’s finale had finally arrived. Olmstead stood in a black velvet sport coat, greeting students as they walked in. His warm welcome proceeded the entrance to the “TranscenDANCE” where colorful lights flooded the Mark Twain Ballroom, reaching even the corner concession table.

Within the room, the glittery dress Angel Beck had picked up four days before sparkled, only this time it was paired with Converse shoes rather than Monday’s gray tennis shoes.

While he did not wear the braid Jess Duncan taught him in the Women’s Center earlier in the week, Beck still sparkled as he showed Duncan the steps to a slow dance. This time, it was Beck’s turn to teach.

At the tables, regulars and newcomers to the community intermingled, laughing and tapping their feet to the rhythm of the music. It was their time to celebrate the week, and that’s what they did into the night, enclosed by the door’s dancing rainbow streamers.

Angel Beck leads the way, teaching Jess Duncan a thing or two about slow dancing at the TranscenDANCE.