The wonderful and terrible power of words: a personal journey

When we talk about words, it is nearly always in regard to words that are spoken, written, typed or signed in order to communicate with one another. What we don’t often talk about is the power of the unspoken words that we use to think and feel, whether or not we ever hear those words spoken aloud or utter them ourselves. Let me share a deeply personal example of the power of this reality and the damage it can do when children are deprived of essential, accurate vocabulary at a young age.

Growing tall, living small
I grew up in a large, working poor family in a small, conservative, agricultural town that I joke seemed to have had more christian churches than it had people, with a high percentage of Mormons—the church I was raised in. I grew tall early and I was almost always the tallest kid at school. I was also skinny and, because of the rapid growth, I lacked the agility and coordination needed for basketball until my late teens. I wasn’t bullied often, but there were the insecure boys who found it somehow satisfying to pick on someone much taller than them, even though they probably weighed a good bit more than I did and were more muscular, as well. (Toxic masculinity and male fragility start early, it appears.)

The most painful aspect of my childhood, though, had nothing to do with the treatment I received from other kids, my siblings or my family. My misery and self-loathing remained mostly hidden behind good grades and (for the most part) good behavior. I was a people-pleaser of the first order, constantly trying to prove to myself, even more than to others, that I wasn’t as sinful and broken as the church and world were making me feel I was.

A childhood adrift
I was a mama’s child and, for some reason, I was driven to be a golden child. I wanted to excel at everything and make my mom proud. But in my town, that meant Cub Scouts, then Boy Scouts along with church groups, which became gender-segregated church groups and gender-segregated sports at school and at church. I was expected by my peers to be “one of the guys”–going out partying , riding off-road vehicles, fishing and shooting guns, among other things.

The most excruciating part of this experience was the fact that, from a very young age, I knew that I didn’t fit the framework and the narratives that I was being given about what a boy should be and what I should want and aspire to, but I had no way to even consider why that might be the case. The constructed truths within the grand narrative of the church and the dominant culture of the community denied me not only the ability to embrace and actualize myself, but—pre-Internet and pre-home computer (in my working poor household)—I was denied even the words to discover and conceptualize the fact that I wasn’t a boy at all and that I wasn’t straight. Without concepts and vocabulary to understand it, I had developed the sense that something about me was very wrong and in need of fixing. I felt this at the deepest level and it affected all aspects of my life. I never formed deep, durable friend groups and thus grew up adrift in degrees of social and emotional solitary confinement. But I kept trying, at times managing to conjure some semblance of a hyper-masculine persona long enough to engage in jackass behavior that I was lucky enough to survive mostly unscathed. Not all the kids I grew up with did.

A culture of casual bigotry, misogyny and femmephobia
My only exposure to the concept of anyone being anything but heterosexual was in church of all places, where passages from the bible were deployed and weaponized in the form of hushed references to people who were “abusers of themselves with mankind.” While it didn’t register for me consciously at the time, I’m sure the toxic, mythical gender binary was ingrained in me, as well, when being “effeminate” (from the same bible passage) was lumped in with fornicators, idolaters, and adulterers. Of course, because of the hateful, bigoted beliefs inherited from adults and our churches, the only other time alternative concepts of gender or sexuality came up was in the form of slurs and insults on the playground.

What wasn’t off limits, of course, in my wholesome hometown was many of these same church-going, small-town boys making sexist comments about girls, being predatory toward them, having no concept of boundaries and—sadly and predictably since there was no real sex education offered—a number of high school pregnancies, at one point clustered within a group of the sons of regional church leadership and their girlfriends.

Through all this, I remained completely ignorant of anything related to being trans or otherwise gender-expansive. The only way I could understand my discomfort in all-male spaces at the time was to assume it was because I was really a homosexual and frightened it might show or that I would be tempted to act on those feelings. This despite the fact that, while I was attracted to some guys, I was far more drawn to and attracted to girls—platonically, romantically and sexually.

Sprouting hair and new despair
I had never tried to analyze the discomfort, bordering on distress at times, I felt when I had to get ready for church, where I was expected to wear the most traditionally masculine of clothes: button-down shirts, jackets, slacks, ties and dress shoes, all in shades of black, blue or gray. I tried to suppress and deny the inexplicable sense of longing and envy as I watched my sisters get ready, allowed and even encouraged to actually have some color in their outfits. It wasn’t until I left the church, well into adulthood, that I realized how much this factored into my dread of Sunday mornings and other church gatherings.

I remember being caught off guard at the horror I felt one day when my sister pointed at my bare chest (it was rare for me to show much skin) as I stood in our living room shirtless: “What is that?! You’re growing chest hair! You’re becoming a man!” It’s the first time I remember feeling truly hopeless and depressed. I found myself feeling more isolated as time passed and activities at church and school grew more polarized along gender lines. Skipping events started to feel better than going and having to try to pass as one of the guys—or suffer the ordeal of hanging out with them. I loved nothing more than when I’d be invited to activities with the girls—but they were so heartbreakingly few and far between. I often stayed home, a devoted mama’s child, happy to help out around the house.

The long road to awareness—and the endless road to healing
It wasn’t until my late teens, if not early twenties, that I discovered that anyone in the world openly identified as anything but heterosexual. I was nearly thirty before I spent any amount of time around someone who was openly gay when I worked at a large software company in Seattle. And I didn’t actually meet anyone I knew to be trans or otherwise gender-expansive for many years after that.

I have spent most of my adult life cycling through feeling like I must actually be gay and that I had some sort of shameful fetish for wearing “women’s clothes.” I had come out to select friends at various points over the years as gay, bisexual, a cross-dresser, etc. as the concepts and vocabulary became available to me—even though none of them were accurate or true for me. They were the only concepts I knew and had to work with. As you can imagine, this made for a sometimes rocky and difficult road for my wonderful partners who have shared their lives with me, trying to keep up with my quest to find my authentic self and live my elusive truth in a society that made it incredibly difficult, almost impossible, to do so.

The incredible gift of visibility
During my thirties, I met, worked with and grew close to several friends, neighbors, colleagues and family members who were out and proud about being gay, lesbian and bisexual. (I hadn’t met anyone, yet, who identified as pansexual, asexual, etc.) Television shows started to emerge that featured queer characters who, for the first time ever, weren’t there simply to be laughed at, demonized or victimized. I started to realize and slowly embrace the fact that I was clearly attracted to both women and men (the only two genders I was aware of at that point). I continued to identify with and be attracted primarily to women, but I would occasionally meet a man who set my heart aflutter and my skin on fire.

Sadly, it wasn’t until my early forties that I found myself in a room, organizing for racial justice, with people who identified as non-binary and/or genderqueer. It was in this space that I first learned of people using pronouns other than she/her and he/him. I had never been in a meeting or gathering where people included their pronouns along with their name during introductions and on their name tags. It was a moment of dizzying revelation and so many things started to come together from that moment on. A wonderful partner I was with a year or two later encouraged me to explore the possibility that I might be genderqueer / non-binary—even if that wasn’t the end point of my gender journey—and those conversations and that encouragement helped me feel like this emerging clarity could become a lived reality.

My life, going all the way back to my earliest childhood memories, started to make so much more sense. All the things I was so desperate to hide, the things that had made me feel isolated, broken and ashamed were things I now celebrated and I was able to look back and smile with love and compassion for my younger self who made it out and got me to where I am today: out and proud as a trans, queer person committed to intersectional social justice for the trans and queer communities, and for all marginalized and oppressed peoples everywhere.

Committing to visibility and education
I would never suggest that all trans and queer people should be out and visible. For some of us, that would put our safety, livelihood, life chances and potentially our very lives in danger. But for those of us who have the privilege to do so, I hope we’ll look for every opportunity to share the incredible, life-changing and perhaps even life-saving gifts of knowledge and visibility. Even if you yourself aren’t able to be out, at all or in a given setting, there are often subtle ways to make known the fact that you are an enthusiastic ally. I love the moments when I’m out and about in the world, breaking all sorts of dominant gender norms, and someone passes by—from small children to older adults—and I can see what appears to be a moment of raw curiosity and even revelation in their eyes and body language. Perhaps they are feeling what I felt not so many years before: a spark of curiosity, combined with the realization that perhaps the journey toward radical authenticity might be open and possible for them after all.

I try to look for opportunities to be the person for others that my queer and trans friends were and are for me by giving me the words and models for finding my authentic self and living my whole truth, fully and joyously.

If you have a child in your life, please make sure they are able to see themselves in the world and feel seen, safe and celebrated here.

In closing, please take a couple minutes to watch this beautiful video. I love you. Let’s continue doing good work in the world.

Fun Home Performance – Tony Awards 2015 (3:59, YouTube):

Here is a version with the lyrics:

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I.S. de Lis

Founder & Volunteer
Pronouns: she, her / they, them / ella en español

I.S. de Lis is a volunteer, community organizer, activist, writer, photographer, event producer and full-time student, with a double major in Sexuality, Gender & Queer Studies and Spanish. She is also the founder of Transcend.


The revolutionary potential of a quarterly trans and queer clothing swap

We recently held our seventh quarterly PDX Trans & Queer Clothing Swap and I am inspired to write about the revolutionary potential of what our community is doing with this. In June 2017, a friend tagged me in a local queer exchange group where there was a discussion about holding a clothing swap. I was volunteering at our local LGBTQIA+ center at the time and my friend and I agreed to collaborate and make something happen. Just over a month later we held the first of what would become a quarterly clothing swap.

Seeing people hold things up and immediately hear things like, “That is soooo you! You’re going to rock that!,” just never gets old.

One thing we didn’t realize when we started out is the importance and power of making it a regularly recurring event. Another is what an amazing crew of committed volunteers would form around it, with core volunteers showing up time after time and helping to make the swap not only possible, but delightful.

Community & Visibility
I recall feeling overwhelmed with gratitude and joy at the first swap as I shared space with a room full of beautiful trans and queer folks for three hours. There was a giddy excitement as attendees shared with others in the community clothing items that were once loved while finding new gems that aligned with and affirmed their desired gender presentation. Seeing people hold things up and immediately hear things like, “That is soooo you! You’re going to rock that!,” just never gets old.

Some people walk in and seem comfortably at home—as though events like this are old hat for them. Others have told me it was their first clothing swap, and still others have said it was their first time being in one place with so many other trans folks. The internet has revolutionized the ways in which marginalized folks are able to find one another, form communities of shared interest and make new friends, but there is nothing like gathering in real life and seeing so many people who share similar experiences in the world.

Community Resilience Through Self-Reliance
While straight cis allies are allowed to drop off clothing, all volunteers and attendees are members of the LGBTQIA+ community (as well as the parents of children who aren’t able to come by themselves). There is power in coming together to keep clothing in the community via a community-run event. I have had people tell me that the swap is where they get nearly all their clothing now, and this is one reason we do it quarterly—so that our community can get an infusion of fresh, fabulous fashion for each new season.

I don’t need to go into the sobering statistics of unemployment rates and income disparity for trans and gender-expansive folks—with harsher realities of course for those with multiple marginalized identities. For many in our community, clothing we feel good in is never a casual impulse buy. First, because we can’t afford for it to be, and second, because most of the clothing out there is often not made with us in mind. That being the case, it feels particularly important and gratifying to be able to keep the gems we have found in the community, shared with our trans and queer siblings at no cost.

Limiting Environmental Impact
Even for those who can afford to buy new clothing, the clothing swap allows us to reduce our environmental impact by getting maximum value out of resources that have already been expended to make the clothes we have. This is particularly important for our community because the further one is from wealth and privilege, the more directly one experiences the increasingly dire effects of climate change. We know, too, that those in the Global South are in most cases affected to a far greater degree by climate change than are those of us in the Global North, and we take seriously our responsibility to minimize our global impact.

More Good Things Ahead
There have been several times over the past 18 months when someone has come up to me and said, “I got this at the clothing swap!” Some of my own early favorites as I was coming out and transitioning were things I found at clothing swaps. With all this in mind, we are working to expand on what we’ve learned through the clothing swap and offer additional community services and events.

The inspiration for all this runs deep. Our second swap happened the October after our inaugural swap in July—and just over two months before my friend who had tagged me in that post passed away. It is my hope that my friend would be delighted and proud of what we’re doing with the swap and with everything that comes next.

Avatar of Iris

I.S. de Lis

Founder & Volunteer
Pronouns: she, her / they, them / ella en español

I.S. de Lis is a volunteer, community organizer, activist, writer, photographer, event producer and full-time student, with a double major in Sexuality, Gender & Queer Studies and Spanish. She is also the founder of Transcend.

You can’t be a passive ally

If you live in Portland, Oregon, you’re used to seeing the “In Our America” flag around town: yard signs, window decals, t-shirts and more. Right after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, any sign of hope was welcome and it felt good to see so many people willing to openly display their rejection of the racist, misogynist, transphobic bigotry coming from Washington DC (and a few golf courses and resorts…).

Not Our America
As much as the nationalist symbol that is the U.S. flag—the symbol of so much damage, death and oppression in the world—made me cringe, the many messages of inclusion overlaid on it were still heartening. I wanted to look past for just a moment the fact that, for white people here, this has never been “our America,” but land stolen through horrific acts of ongoing genocide and built on the backs of enslaved peoples kidnapped from the shores of Africa, as well as many others who have been and continue to be exploited to this day. (We have simply moved slavery behind prison walls.)

Give me liberty or give me… Netflix
I wanted to believe that, while clumsy, this was a visible sign that a shift was taking place—that the election of a morally and ethically-bankrupt sexual predator to the highest elected office here had finally awakened and inspired the sleeping masses.

“I don’t believe for a minute that the majority of people in the United States are heartless, hateful transphobes. But just as there is no such thing as passive anti-racism, there is no such thing as passive anti-transphobia or passive trans allyship.”

Alas, a cursory review of current headlines on any given day makes clear that the masses remain at home and uninspired, binge-watching their latest distraction on Netflix.

Deadly complacency
The first year in office (2017) of the new occupant of the White House was the deadliest on record in terms of trans people being murdered in the U.S., with at least 29 that year (1)—and we know that these numbers are always dramatically underreported, in part because “police, media and even family members will often misgender the victims” (2). And, of course, this doesn’t include all other forms of discrimination, abuse and violence that stop short of murder, but that reduce life chances and often cut lives short nonetheless. In 2018, at least 28 trans individuals were murdered, following the same disturbing trend: “all but one of the victims in 2018 were trans women, and all but one were people of color” (2).

Protestor at an anti-Trump immigration protest in Baltimore

While progress is being made, hate-driven legislation continues to be introduced at all levels of government and enacted across the private sector.

Allyship demands action—IRL
I don’t believe for a minute that the majority of people in the United States are heartless, hateful transphobes. But just as there is no such thing as passive anti-racism, there is no such thing as passive anti-transphobia or passive trans allyship. The stemming of violence and discrimination won’t come through yard signs, window decals, Facebook posts or slogan buttons, but through cisgender allies showing up IRL (in real life) at events, and working alongside and getting to know trans, non-binary and other gender-expansive folks.

Change will come and accelerate only through all of us bringing our humanity and our vulnerability with us, finding common ground, celebrating our glorious differences and forming relationships of trust. And—if we do it right—wonderful new friendships, as well.

  1. Human Rights Campaign
  2. CNN

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I.S. de Lis

Founder & Volunteer
Pronouns: she, her / they, them / ella en español

I.S. de Lis is a volunteer, community organizer, activist, writer, photographer, event producer and full-time student, with a double major in Sexuality, Gender & Queer Studies and Spanish. She is also the founder of Transcend.

Are you really a trans ally?

The best first step you can take toward true trans allyship—or frankly, just reducing the harm you’re doing to trans people—is to stop assuming gender. Ever.

Two little yellow 'minion' characters wearing blue overalls. The one on the left is saying, "Hey bro! How's it been, guy? Right on man!" and the one on the right replies, "Whoah... easy. Take a deep breath. I promise my gender won't hurt you..."

The single biggest bummer I face on a day-to-day basis is moving through the world and being regularly misgendered. And the sad fact is, it is almost invariably by people who are otherwise being friendly or polite. At my go-to grocery store, I know the staff by name and they’re wonderful. But until very recently, I was aggressively (mis)gendered there more than perhaps anyplace I’ve been. I would walk in the door and get, “Hey—there he is! What’s up, guy?” From staff I interacted with less frequently, I’d get the dreaded, “Hi sir, what can I do for you today?” I went to another store today that I visit less frequently and, when I went to pay with my card, the cashier—looking at the name—said, “Is this your wife’s card?” (Not joking, unfortunately.) When I responded that it was most definitely my own card, they seem to have realized what they’d just done and—looking embarrassed—said, “Well that is one of my favorite names! I just love it!”

One of the realities of living in the 21st century United States of America is that we were born into and are steeped daily in patriarchy, white supremacy and capitalism. And that means that we are trained from birth to see two noxious social constructs—race and gender—before anything else and make assumptions based on them. It is subconscious and instantaneous. And it takes constant, ongoing vigilance to try to overcome it.

“Okay… easy… Take a deep breath. Everything is going to be okay. I promise my gender won’t hurt you…”

One of the ways this manifests for many people is that, when faced with someone whose gender they can’t immediately, easily identify, they get what I call ‘explosive genderrhea’. It’s like their brain just starts spewing pronouns and other gendered words out their mouth, desperately trying to fit you into a familiar gender box. For me, this usually means I get, “Oh… uh… hey guy. What can I do for you, man? Oh yeah? Right on, brother! See you, dude!” I just want to say, “Okay… easy… Take a deep breath. Everything is going to be okay. I promise my gender won’t hurt you…”

I’ve been fortunate enough to work someplace where the rule is that we use gender-neutral pronouns for everyone until we know otherwise. So if we’re talking about a new client whose name is Bob, for example, we use they / them pronouns until we know Bob’s pronouns. I’ve adopted this as a rule now because… well, because that is reality. I don’t care what Bob looks like, what Bob sounds like, what Bob is wearing, etc.; I can’t know Bob’s gender or what Bob’s pronouns are until Bob tells me these things (if they choose to tell me these things). If that sounds outrageous to you, that is transphobia and it has very real, harmful consequences for trans folks like me.

When I objectively step back and look in the mirror, I can’t deny that I have many traits that our patriarchal, cis-heteronormative society has trained us to see as belonging to “men”. (I put that in quotes because it pertains to the very narrow, specific conception of masculinity and manhood that is privileged in our society.) So I know that for people who haven’t done the work to unlearn that oppressive acculturation, their default is going to be to misgender me. I don’t hate them for that because I know where it’s coming from. But that just means they have some work to do and they need to get on with it in order to do less harm in the world.

When I get dressed in the morning, I have much more complicated math to do than before I came out as trans. It used to be, “Is this going to be comfortable and appropriate for the occasion?” Now it is, “I’d love to wear this because it is most comfortable and I feel great in it… but maybe I’d better wear this instead—plus more makeup and accessories—in hopes of reducing the number of times I get misgendered today…” I’ve been late to things on more than one occasion trying to solve that story problem in the morning.

In closing, it is common to hear people talking about a person’s “preferred pronouns.” My pronouns aren’t a preference. They’re my pronouns. Saying ‘preferred‘ makes it sound like using them is optional—and it isn’t. It’s a simple matter of accuracy and respect.

Here is perhaps the best, most beautifully-written article I’ve found on this. Please take a few minutes to read it.
What You’re Really Saying When You MisgenderThe Body Is Not An Apology

Avatar of Iris

I.S. de Lis

Founder & Volunteer
Pronouns: she, her / they, them / ella en español

I.S. de Lis is a volunteer, community organizer, activist, writer, photographer, event producer and full-time student, with a double major in Sexuality, Gender & Queer Studies and Spanish. She is also the founder of Transcend.

On rejecting tolerance—and acceptance, too

You may wonder why an organization like Transcend would dedicate our inaugural blog post to rejecting not only tolerance, but acceptance, as well. Some might wonder exactly what we’re up to if we’re not looking to generate more tolerance and acceptance for trans, non-binary and all gender-expansive people. That’s a fair question, and I’m guessing some of you already know the answer—because you have probably felt as we do and arrived at the same conclusion.

tolerance /ˈtɒl(ə)r(ə)ns/ – NOUN
1. The ability or willingness to tolerate the existence of opinions or behavior that one dislikes or disagrees with.

2. The capacity to endure continued subjection to something such as a drug or environmental conditions without adverse reaction.

Oxford English Dictionary

We are not here to be tolerated or even accepted. We are here to be respected and celebrated.

We reject the notion of tolerance and acceptance because our humanity is not up for evaluation. Our existence, dignity and human rights are not contingent on the tolerance of others and we are not here to be accepted. We are here to live our lives—full, rich, nuanced lives—on our terms, in community with those who see, love and respect us for the whole human beings we are.

We will tell our own stories, record our own histories and claim our place in society, now and in the future. We will also continue working to uncover and amplify the stories of our ancestors, elders and siblings that have been hidden away for far too long. We have always been here and we will always be here—standing together in pride and in power.

acceptance /əkˈsɛpt(ə)ns/ – NOUN
1. The process or fact of being received as adequate, valid, or suitable.

2. Willingness to tolerate a difficult situation.

Oxford English Dictionary

For those who say they have never met anyone who is trans, genderqueer or otherwise gender-expansive, we reply that you have. We are your family member, your friend, your colleague, your classmate, your community member… If you believe you have never met anyone who is trans, there is a very good chance that you have and that they simply did not feel safe sharing this part of themselves with you.

The work we do at Transcend, in solidarity with other organizations and individuals, is not for our communities alone. As we work for a world that celebrates the nuanced realities of human experience, we are working to free everyone, regardless of their gender, from the suffocating, dangerous and too often violent expectations and limitations of the mythical gender binary.

We hope you will join us in the celebration.

Avatar of Iris

I.S. de Lis

Founder & Volunteer
Pronouns: she, her / they, them / ella en español

I.S. de Lis is a volunteer, community organizer, activist, writer, photographer, event producer and full-time student, with a double major in Sexuality, Gender & Queer Studies and Spanish. She is also the founder of Transcend.