I was hopeful upon approaching the registration table at the TransOhio 8th Annual Transgender and Ally Symposium. As a queer, non-binary, trans* person trying to engage in the community, this event would provide a safe space for me to meet like-minded individuals from outside my current queer activist circle. Or so I thought.
Though the theme of this year’s symposium was “In It Together-Trans Activism and Building Coalitions,” I found little in the 40 workshops that addressed this. Most of them seemed to be depressingly non-intersectional trans how-to sessions, introductory classes that felt both redundant and outdated. Many were simply hour-long self-promotion sessions for the organizations presenting. The few that did offer insight and spark dialogue on activism and coalition-building made me hopeful, but had so few attendees that I ended up having the same conversations with the same circle of activist friends I was looking to expand.
Hosting the symposium in the Ohio Union was a great idea in theory, but the event was held on a weekend outside of the school year. There were few young people in attendance, almost no student groups, and no one I could find representing the university. As an OSU alum, I don’t find this surprising.
I have maybe two memories of any trans/genderqueer organizing on campus, and nothing in the size and scope this symposium could have had. The ability to flood the Union with almost two hundred genderqueer, trans, non-binary bodies was lost, as was the chance to engage the students and the Columbus community at large. Where was OSU, Capital, Columbus State, CCAD, Franklin, or any of the myriad high schools or community organizations that aren’t already the standard sight at any LGBTQA+ event? Where were the police, fire, utility companies, and religious institutions with whom we could build coalitions? Where was the city?
As the annual Columbus PRIDE approaches, I can’t help but see the glaring similarities. Its audience and reach is usually limited to those already most visible in the queer community— white, middle class, and cisgender. It too always falls outside of the school year, inaccessible to the majority of students who don’t live in the city full-time. Though the Parade Grand Marshal this year is Captain Lana Moore, a trans woman and a 35-year veteran of the Columbus Division of Fire, I don’t expect to see much on the ground level in terms of intersectional, trans/genderqueer issues.
Sadly, I see this following the national trend whereby transgender visibility in the media rises while the quality of life for transgender/queer folks continues to decline and their struggles remain largely invisible.
I don’t want to downgrade the importance of events like the TransOhio Symposium or PRIDE. Both provide valuable space to the communities they serve. Sharing a restroom filled with other trans* and non-binary folk was more than fitting in the current political climate of HB2 in North Carolina and similar situations in other states—it was downright emotional. Not having to explain myself or my pronouns to anyone was comforting. More comforting still was being free of the microaggressions that underlie cis/heteronormative society (but I also have the privilege that comes with being a white, college-educated 20-something).
What I do want is to be critical of is the communities I help to build and work to sustain. I want us to challenge the neoliberal discourse that seeks to force a normative identity on us. And that starts with looking towards the most marginalized among us for guidance.
Attending the TransOhio symposium from a perspective of multiple intersections has led me to want more—to demand more—from those with the power to put on such events. Having lived in the campus area both before and after graduation has made it so that I can’t see “campus” as separate from Columbus as a whole.
If any sort of trans/queer activist coalition is going to be built, it must include students. Student groups like the Coalition for Black Liberation, who presented at the Symposium, sparked a dialogue that I hope will continue to grow. As campus continues to encroach more of the surrounding communities, it’s due time we as a trans/queer community consider how to get our message across to, and engage with, the greater student community. And that is only the beginning.
What will it look like when the activism from these trans/queer coalitions spreads to students’ hometowns, or the places they will call home after graduation? Columbus is my home for now, and I want to call upon my fellow trans/queer OSU students and allies to shape the dialogue of the 2017 Symposium, which will be held during the academic year. We have a lot of work to do together. As Kaley Whalen said in her keynote address, “We must find them where they are and call them to action.”