One of my favorite photos of all time is a bewitching 1970 image of a young queer person reclining on the edge of a fountain. Her large coat is pulled down to her forearms, splayed dramatically beneath her. She’s wearing flared slacks, boots, a white tunic-like shirt, and a medallion. Her dark hair is short and boxy; she’s giving photographer Kay Tobin a familiar, clever smile. You can probably see the photo on this page, but it feels almost more meaningful to describe it. I also have a history-crush on her.
The iconic subject of Tobin’s photo, Sylvia Rivera, was an orphan, Latina trans person, self-described drag queen, sex worker, and tireless advocate for homeless and queer youth. Today, we would probably just call her a “trans woman,” but based on many of her interviews, Sylvia didn’t like labels all that much.
Alongside her friend Martha P. Johnson, Sylvia founded STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), and battled for trans-inclusion on the frontlines of LGBT activism. She struggled with homelessness and addiction, and eventually died of liver cancer at age fifty. If alive today, she would be sixty-seven.
March 31, Trans Day of Visibility (TDV), began in 2009 as a way for trans communities and organizations to celebrate trans humanity, and demand its recognition. This is not to be confused with November 20, Trans Day of Remembrance, founded ten years prior, which calls upon us to mourn and honor the trans folks murdered each year. Bookending the traditional winter season, these holidays are like the big stone lions outside the New York Public Library; between them an infinite depository of past and present, always ready for the next contribution, the next visitor.
I’ve visited this amorphous trans library a lot, reading books and articles, watching documentaries, and gazing at photographs. More recently, I’ve tried harder to conceive of how I might make my own small addition to it.
The past year has been a total education for me. Not only have I been actively visible for my most prolonged period since college, but I’ve been visible as both a trans individual and a trans son.
When I came out to my mom in 2011, we embarked on an intense, years-long conflict that nearly ended in estrangement. In 2015, we began slowly collaborating on a book incorporating both our perspectives, At the Broken Places: A Mother and Trans Son Pick Up the Pieces. Though there is still much we disagree on, my mom and I hoped the project would help heal our family, and be a resource to others (especially parents and guardians) who couldn’t see a way forward. My mom was remarkably willing to be a visible parent, to open herself up to outside criticism by revealing her periods of grief, disapproval, and confliction.
Our travels to events, readings, and conferences put us in direct contact with the professionals and families we wanted to reach. Rather than my previous audiences of progressive college students, these new crowds were filled with everyone from college counselors and psychologists to young trans people and their conflicted parents or guardians. Oftentimes, I was asked questions that seriously challenged me as a trans boy and a son. People wept as they spoke about the daughter they haven’t seen in years, the gender-creative foster child they were trying to understand better, or a kindergartener in their class with a parent unable to accept a new name preference.
Nearly all trans people have a complicated relationship with visibility; it can be emotionally exhausting, unsafe, and simply make you feel one-note or objectified. As LAMBDA Legal Trans Rights Project Director Dru Levasseur states in our book’s appendix of interviews, “taking care of yourself and staying alive is doing enough for the community.”
For me, like many others, TDV is about double-checking my gratitude towards pioneers like Sylvia Rivera, and taking stock of my self-care and the advocacy it may or may not involve. In one of my first published pieces of writing for Next Magazine, I interviewed a mentor of mine, Tony Ferraiolo. Tony is a trans man who’s worked for years with trans and gender-variant youth, and spoken extensively across the country (he’s the subject of the 2014 documentary A Self-Made Man). In our discussion, he expressed hope that the new generation of trans youth and allies will remember those who paved the way for them, “as I will never forget who paved the way for me.”
So while Trans Day of Remembrance demands we recognize trans lives lost to aggression and hate, Trans Day of Visibility elevates our collective history (including said deaths), and calls us to consciously partake in movements to address physical, emotional, cultural, and political violence towards trans folks.
I sometimes regret being as moderately visible as I’ve become. I have body issues. I don’t like seeing or hearing myself on TV. I use hats as an aesthetic crutch. I choose to be visible in educational environments because it leads to interesting, difficult, and—hopefully—productive conversations. I choose to be visible because it’s a privilege to have that choice, and because I wouldn’t be here without the people who paved the way for me. I’d be happy to be a penny in the fountain behind Sylvia Rivera.
To co-opt and bastardize the final line of Angels in America, the Great Work continues.
PS: Trans Student Education Resources has a great simple list for ways to get involved and educated on TDOV.
About the Author
Donald Collins is a trans advocate, writer, and recent cum laude graduate of Emerson College. His culture and commentary writing has appeared in PopMatters, Salon, and Next Magazine, among others. Visit his website.