Colorado, You Need to Look at Transgender People
We deserve to exist safely in our communities, unthreatened by the hate and fear of those who seek to eradicate us
I’m cat-sitting tomorrow for a friend, the one with the apartment right over R Bar. They’re out of town to visit their Californian partner, a children’s toy engineer with pastel blue hair.
R Bar is the first place I think of when I hear about Club Q. R Bar and the cat I need to go feed.
The R Bar and Lounge is a small venue in Fort Collins, Colorado. Situated in the corner of a university town, yet mostly ignored by students, the events hosted by the town’s LGBT+ bar are largely patronized by folks in their mid twenties and over.
When I took a gal there last month for a comedy show, the crowd of thirty did a pretty good job of filling up the space. I did my part in closing the distance between her shoulders and mine, and the laughter did the rest.
The acts were bawdy, explicit, exuberant. Tall tales of threesomes gone sideways and blowjobs gone backwards had the audience cackling, rollicking in our seats. The headliner was bombastic, bisexual chaos incarnate.
After the show, the two of us went up to the bar to close out our tab. The bartender complimented my date’s necklace. She beamed and fawned, though I knew that she had spent the show annoyed by the way her braids kept catching on the clasp of the statement piece she wore. She told me on the walk back to her car that she wears the jewelry anyways, that after quarantine she needed all the positive attention she could get. I hoped fervently in that moment for the chance to give her everything she needs.
We made sure to thank the headliner on the way out, complimenting his set. He was endearingly bashful, peddling his poetry books to the patrons, doling out only the softest of “thank you’s” to the appreciative audience members.
I learn about Club Q in my kitchen, from my roommate and one of his partners. They are brewing coffee, and I am brewing tea. Or I am brewing them coffee, and they are brewing me tea. It never seems to matter. It’s been cold for weeks now, and we are always heating up water and passing around mugs.
I keep switching to decaf to push the jitters away. I don’t know how I keep switching to decaf.
My kitchen is about two hours from Club Q, or one hour, or an hour and a half, depending on if I, my roommate, or one of his partners is driving. We all have vastly different relationships with the speed limit.
My phone buzzes, again and again and again. I hear about Club Q in my bedroom, in my living room, in my office, back in the kitchen. My community wakes up, brews coffee and tea and decaf, and reaches out.
The gal I took to the comedy show texts me minutes after the coffee’s gone stale. Hi. Just checking in. There is rarely time to complete mourning one event before another.
I sit with that thought and it fills me with unease. The mourning for the pandemic still roils in my gut, an unfinished plague still ripping through hospitals, still bringing a crumbling nation to its knees for a third winter. The grief I carry for my own losses hangs unfinished in my chest, a draft I’ll get around to writing an ending for eventually.
But she’s absolutely right. The magnitude of the endless cycle of loss faced by my community as we suffer mass violence time and time again, the threat of it ceaselessly pressed to our throats, must be neutered in time for work on Monday.
In September, my friends back in Illinois made a splash across national right wing news outlets for hosting a Youth Drag Show. The event had to be canceled as threats of violence poured in from across the country. I watched from afar as my loved ones from back home had to prioritize the safety of the teenagers we once fostered and mentored together. That was six weeks ago.
That was six fucking weeks ago.
I get more texts about Club Q.
We heard the news.
I hope you’re okay.
Sending love from back home.
Do you need anything?
Others just say I love you.
I turn off the notifications from The Transgender Center of the Rockies altogether, the avalanche of grief I can’t handle on top of my own. I delete a handful of messaging apps off my phone for good measure, then seek out a handful of trusted voices.
Rumors swirl, the grapevine shakes, we try to pass down information, try to understand what’s going on, what just happened to our community down the street before the national news seizes hold of what’s happened.
It was a drag show.
It was a Transgender Day of Remembrance Event.
It was a murder at a funeral.
In the days to follow, the news will learn that the culprit was a Mormon man. I look, bleakly, at the plastic tackle boxes where I’ve stored my valuables since middle school. Nestled between suede necklaces from summer camps and cheap charms from dollar store bracelets lay Joseph Smith Jr. themed jewelry from my late grandmother.
I carefully lift out my Young Womanhood Medallion, an award painstakingly earned over hundreds of hours of work in the Mormon church. I consider, for the thousandth time, throwing it away. Or perhaps burning it, like I did my carefully annotated Book of Mormon. Like I did my photographs of my parents.
I hooked up with a fellow ex-Mormon last month. They kept trying to talk about Mormonism in bed. Every time they did, I threatened to walk out and leave them cold. We didn’t sleep together again, but I did bring them home to meet my roommates, to smoke joints on our porch to the chagrin of our neighbors with the yappy dog.
Their glasses hung crooked on their face the last time they came over, and we offered to take them to the eye doctor. They shrugged and said they’d think about it. Sure enough a few days later I got a text that their glasses had fallen apart.
I know it’s the holidays, so no rush, they said. I’ll be fine for a while.
Don’t be stupid, you teach reading to babies. You need glasses. I said. I got a sympathetic migraine just thinking about trying to introduce literacy to a six year old, let alone doing it while squinting. Let’s do it Monday. I’d just feed the cat after we got back.
But I had forgotten about the snowstorm from last week, and the date I had to reschedule for the day I had off, Monday. And like hell was I going to reschedule with the stunning ginger entomologist again, and risk them thinking me flaky. So circles my mind on Transgender Day of Remembrance; tragedy, eye doctor, tragedy, feed the cat, tragedy, date night, tragedy.
I wind up mourning backwards. The names and faces of the deceased won’t start to circulate social media for another few days, so my mind latches onto a known quantity, the number of victims that passed—five. Five fewer of us.
My mind obligingly fills in the rest, neatly. A pair of crooked glasses, a cat in an empty apartment, coffee gone stale on the counter. All the days those people should’ve had, all the nights they deserved to live. I look ahead at my calendar. My high school friend is flying in for Thanksgiving, and we’re having people over for hot pot. I try to wrap my head around that table standing empty.
I used to live in Illinois, both in the suburbs of Chicago and in a handful of the rural cities in the central region of the state.
As an out trans person in rural Illinois, I got a decent handle on what hate looks like. It was hurled at me from lifted trucks, spat at me from coworkers chapped lips. It found me on a walk around my neighborhood, once with a small mob forming to chase me home, a group of grown men screaming “mangirl” after a single young adult.
It was explicit, loud, and visible.
I moved to Colorado, in large part, to be safer. For the most part, it’s worked. I’ve even been able to dye my hair bright yellow since moving here, something I would’ve never dreamed of trying back home.
Sure, the hatred of Colorado is much quieter. Until, of course, an explosion like the one at Club Q.
That ex-Mormon friend and I wind up getting boba tea and spam musubi a couple days after the shooting. A massive flatscreen TV dominates the cafe, blaring tragedy directly into our wide eyes.
“Musket fire,” they mutter. I sigh, and know exactly what they mean.
Just about 14 months ago, a prominent Mormon leader released a statement, held in as high regard as scripture to believers, infamously known ever since as the ‘muskets talk’. Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland told devotees at Mormon college Brigham Young University to, literally, take up muskets against LGBTQ+ people. While there have been other, subtler condemnations of what Mormons so lovingly designate ‘the lifestyle’, this call to violence was direct and clear. Ever since the muskets talk, any gay person who knows Mormons has been holding their breath and bracing themself.
Barely a year later, a Mormon enacts a mass shooting at a gay club.
“Musket fire,” I spit. It wasn’t the first piece of indoctrination the cult of our youth hurled at impressionable people. But any good ex-Mormon knows the leading cause of death of teenagers in Utah. Any good ex-Mormon knows the rates of PTSD in LGBTQ+ Mormon survivors. And any ex-Mormon worth their salt knows that for every time something’s said out loud, there’s a thousand times it’s been whispered.
Hate lives in the glares of the public. I catch it on walks, in stores, at the library and the pharmacy and the post office. I’ve developed a litmus test, my own passive aggressive coping mechanism. I beam my widest smile at a suspected ‘phobe. If they scowl back, I’ve got confirmation that their day has been ruined by my continued existence in this Starbucks. My Denver high score is eight scowls over lunch, but I’ve got friends who can rack up over a dozen in an hour.
It’s gratifying to exist with trans people at your side and share that moment of knowing that you are unwanted, rather than shouldering it alone. Still, there lurks that unshakeable feeling that congregation creates danger, that togetherness is a folly.
Even in a university town like Fort Collins, groups of four or more of us have tugged hats over dyed hair, pulled coats on over blouses, pulled mittens on over painted nails before quick walks down the block after one too many adverse incidents threatened safety.
The persecution quietly pursues us into our workplaces. This summer I worked at a daycare for school aged children. My boss called me in to relay a parent complaint about me. One of the children had gone home and reported that one of their teachers was “not a boy or a girl.”
Children ask me constantly what I am. In public, in line at the grocery store, on park benches, when I substitute teach, and most certainly when I worked at daycare. As a nonbinary person, I’ve perfected my delivery of the same simple answer. “I’m not a boy or a girl, I’m just a Kaia.”
My boss told me never to say that again and that I was not allowed to reference my gender at work. A flurry of emails, sobbing into my roommates’ shoulders, and discussions with human resources later and we may possibly, eventually, see a revision to a policy someday. Still, I kept telling the kids the same answer, and my boss just spent the rest of the summer avoiding eye contact with me.
This fall, I received a near identical phone call from a high school administrator. He had received a parent complaint that I had introduced myself to a class of high schoolers with… the administrator struggled here.
“You use they/them pronouns?”
I confirmed that I did.
He continued haltingly. “The parent wasn’t…clear what the.. issue…was…” When it became clear that I was not going to confess to any overt acts of indoctrination, the conversation was apparently over.
An educator friend of mine in a nearby town also got called in to several meetings with their boss this fall about pronouns in the classroom, including an attempt to forbid them entirely. Many local administrators, emboldened by legislature in other states, have been pushing for trans students, employees, and educators to, as the catchy saying goes, “Don’t Say Gay.”
We get it constantly, the push and pull of staring and looking away in disgust. The awkwardly invasive questions glaringly paired with the silence on using our actual pronouns and correct terms.
That quiet dismissal is not harmless, and not just because it contributes to an eventual explosion. It’s dangerous in the present as well.
Colorado, you need to look at transgender people. Not just visit us when you’re comfortable for the occasional outings to our safe spaces, not just marvel at us when we choose to perform for your entertainment. It’s not enough for you to gawk at your televisions. You need to look around you, and listen, and start asking questions. Question yourself, question one another, and then, finally, question what you actually know about us.
You already know a transgender person. I constantly correct well-meaning coworkers, peers, and allies when they effusively thank me for being the first trans person they’ve ever met.
“No, that’s nowhere near the truth. I’m just the first one who came out to you. And, there’s even a chance that there were others before me who tried to tell you as well. I could just be the first one you noticed.” Even I, with a rotating wardrobe of They/Them t-shirts, nametags, and witty reminders still manage to slip under the radars of those who desperately want to avoid perceiving me.
Transgender people have two holidays. One, mentioned earlier, is Transgender Day of Remembrance, occurring annually on November 20th since 1999. Transgender Day of Remembrance was spurred by an overwhelming community response to the homicide of black transgender woman Rita Hester in early December 1998.
Ever since, the transgender community and our allies have used late November as a time to honor those lost to the extreme violence and health issues that plague the trans community.
The other transgender holiday, created in 2009 by trans woman Rachel Crandall-Crocker, is Transgender Day of Visibility, celebrated annually on March 31st.
I include the dates as vital context; Transgender Day of Visibility was created a decade later as a response to Transgender Day of Remembrance. A spring celebration to contrast an autumnal memorial. Together they form twin pleas, twin prayers. See Us and Remember Us.
Transgender Day of Remembrance exists because violence against us is normalized and violence against us is normalized because we are not. We are hidden, we are othered, we are eradicated and erased.
We are invisible.
When we are seen, we are in danger. We know this long before we step foot onto the dance floor at Q, long before we push past protesters at Planned Parenthoods.
So notice us before we’re on national news. Look at us before we’re in body bags. As the trans adage goes, give us flowers while we’re here. Do you even know what a trans person is?
Look, Colorado, at the heroine of Club Q, storming a gunman down with her heels, ensuring that he would not leave unscathed, that he would not go forward unchallenged.
I’ve sat at countless tables, in countless meetings, drowning in countless terrified group chats hand wringing over the possibility of a night like the one that happened at Club Q. Back when I lived in Illinois, preparations for the community Pride festival had me shoulder to shoulder with my trans brothers, sisters, and siblings preparing our contingency plans for gun violence at the headlining drag show.
In rural Illinois, violent threats constituted a nigh reliable component of our lives as LGBTQ+ community organizers. We weighed threats against realities, possibilities against certainties, darkly joked about stoning kevlar. Some of the weekend’s performers were sandwiched between us, exhausted by their own preparations for the events, the phone calls to the city, the weight of these conversations happening again and again clear on their shoulders and in their eyes.
Look, Colorado, at the caretaker coddling your babies at the daycares. Their glasses are askew. Their haircut is short and uneven, like their favorite attachment on their clippers finally snapped off halfway through the trim. They always dress in layers, the dragging side of the loose overshirts often serving as makeshift kerchiefs for your children’s messes.
I know trans teachers and trans caretakers, trans nannies and trans tutors.
We are wiping the dribble off your babies’ chins, and cleaning gravel from skinned knees. We are teaching them stage presence and decimals, we are teaching them sign language and Shakespeare.
Look, Colorado, at the healthcare worker, buckled beneath the weight of a pandemic. Her partners wait at home for her, hoping the roads are clear by the time of her commute, hoping that her mask staves off the worst from the air.
Do you see us as the nurses at your bedside, the scientists in your labs, the lifeblood of your hospitals?
Transgender technicians process your blood tests, carefully settle out the sediment into neat little lines. Transgender researchers design safety protocols, keep the hospitals running years deep into a plague. Transgender scientists run your COVID tests, hour after thankless hour. I was one of them. Now I sneak leftover fortune cookies into my roommate’s lunchbox on her way to her shift at the lab, hoping that it bolsters my quiet wishes that she ‘stay safe’.
Look, Colorado, at the grad student, at the barista, at the engineer. Look at the blue hair, at the statement necklace, at the cat food. Look at the ginger entomologist and I giggling over the heart shaped rice at the Thai restaurant, splitting the meal and splitting the check and splitting our precious time with each other.
Look, Colorado, at my loved ones gathered over hot pot for Thanksgiving. We exchange pronouns as easily as we trade pork belly and bok choy. One of us, squinting, still waiting for their new glasses to come in, asks to go by a new name for the night. It slides into our vocabulary as easily as the enoki mushrooms my roommate dumps into the pot for us to share.
Our transgender lives include rallies and parades and vigils. We go to protests and courtrooms and clinics. In the past year, between the eight of us we’ve protested the overturning of Roe v Wade, faced down transphobic bosses, come out at workplaces, marched in Pride parades, demanded fair treatment for ourselves over and over again. In the weeks to come we’ll mingle with our community as we process the tragedy of Club Q, candles cupped in fingers gone numb from the cold.
And the rest of the time, our transgender lives find us breaking bread, going to work, and finding time in between to be human.
Colorado, you need to get used to transgender people, now. Not as a concept, not as a political belief. We are not something to grieve in the theoretical space. You need to know of the existence of transgender people as solidly as you know the earth. You need to understand our existence as fact.
Transgender people are not a thought experiment, not a gotcha, not a talking point. We are not a demographic for cisgender people to show off their inclusivity, not a vocabulary term to include in a list.
We are a simple fact of existence. Allyship is not theoretical tolerance for the concept of transgenderism.
What are you doing to engage with us? To feature us? To hear us? In the most well-meaning of spaces, to the most well-meaning of people, I am constantly having to explain who and what I am.
If you fly a progress pride flag, if you have a trans flag on your lapel or on a sticker on your office window, then can you define ‘transgender’? Can you define ‘nonbinary’? Do you understand the unique challenges that people with those identities face in your field?
Do you understand why the tragedy at Club Q happened? Do you understand what it will take to prevent the next one?
Come to our events. I know you’re probably scared to do so, but understand what we’ve been doing for decades, what civil rights activists for all groups have had to do for centuries now. We are gathering at vigils, at protests, knowing the risks, knowing the danger. Stand in solidarity with us.
Do your kids know their pronouns? Do you know yours? Do you introduce yourself with your pronouns?
Introduce your kids to trans media. Check out books and other materials from the library on trans people, and ask the librarians to help you find ones you may not have heard of. Purchase what you can, give them away as gifts. Spread the good word.
If you want to call yourself an ally, then start acting like it. If you’re appalled by this tragedy, then start acting like it. You’ve thought. You’ve prayed. We need action.
The Colorado LGBTQ+ community spent Transgender Day of Remembrance 2022 mourning even more than the expected losses of the past year. These losses are untenable.
Transgender mourning and transgender joy are two sides of the same coin. As a community, we suffer the depths of mourning for our lost transgender siblings when we recognize the joy they have been robbed of. So many of us already start living life as our true selves at a later age, taking on our true names and identities long after our cisgendered counterparts. Then violence continually cuts our lives even shorter.
We deserve so much more than to be censored, to be truncated, to be invisible.
We deserve the full abolition of all legal precedent for discrimination against us. The law takes so many ugly shapes, especially against transgender people of color. From reproductive rights to prison abolition, almost all activist issues massively impact transgender lives. Laws that seek to kneecap our community outright are only the beginning of our oppression at the hands of the state. Allyship is directly confronting and challenging local, state, and federal legislation that threatens trans lives and championing the unambiguous guaranteeing of full civil rights for all.
We deserve to move unimpeded through life, with fully guaranteed healthcare for all ages, including trans youth receiving the medical intervention that they desire.
We deserve to exist safely in our communities, unthreatened by the hate and fear of those who seek to destroy our peace.
We deserve to be seen as fully realized human beings, with lives worth fighting for.
Colorado, what you do not see are the children who sidle up to me and whisper secret names. They bequeath these treasures to me, a stranger, ask me about binders and hormones and how I got to be so tall. A young man, barely coming to my hip, tells me that he’s going to get a suit someday. A high schooler, dangly and lean, twists their hair nervously as they admit that they’ve never met a grown-up who uses pronouns like their own. A kindergartner, brash and bright, declares that she knew I was a boy-girl, that she could tell I was a boy-girl from my voice and my necktie, and that she’ll be a boy-girl tomorrow, probably, if her mom says that it’s okay.
Sounds good, I tell her. See you tomorrow.
The new glasses will be here soon. The cat’s owner has returned to town. R Bar is holding their vigils and fundraisers. The hot pot has been washed and put away for next year. We brewed more coffee. Relit candles. Woke up again.
I have given you, allies, your task. You have witnessed here a version of us, one of our stories, one single example out of millions. Make the choice to keep watching. Make the choice to not look away.
To my siblings, I offer this promise, prayer, and pledge: someday, we will not be defined by our invisibility and our grieving. We will be seen, and we will be known for our joy.