A few weeks ago, I braved the Chicago cold to meet Jen Richards for an early afternoon brunch at Kopi, the eclectic cafe in Andersonville that bills itself a spot for "travelers." Richards is a regular there, and I treked up from Pilsen to grab coffee and a breakfast burrito, which (if nothing else) were absolutely worth the trip. I've interviewed Richards a few times before, as I consider her work to be one of the true shining forces in Chicago queer activism and her work with the trans community a personal inspiration. Richards helped create We Happy Trans, an online platform that showcases trans voices and experiences through videos, blogs and other media. We Happy Trans has been covered by the Windy City Times, Advocate and the New York Times, and I was beyond thrilled to be one of the first to grill Jen about her new project: the Trans 100.
Because I had a lot of questions for Jen, we generally skipped the small talk to let me politely interrogate her, between bites of delicious burrito.
Nico Lang: How did the Trans 100 come about?
Jen Richards: As with so much else, it was born during a sleepless night and in collaboration. Earlier in the evening a friend of mine, Toni D’Orsay, Executive Director of This is H.O.W. in Phoenix, AZ, posted the following on Facebook “I am seeking to create a Top 100 Trans people list -- sorta like the Forbes list, but built around activism and making a difference in the lives of many trans people”, and asked for nominations. I loved the idea, threw in a few names and went to bed. As soon as my eyes closed, my mind started working out the potential impact of such a list, outlining all of the possible ways to formalize it, potential objections, how to make it a resource rather than a popularity contest, and the conditions under which I would be comfortable attaching We Happy Trans to the project. I got back up and started chatting with Toni, who was equally restless. We quickly came to an agreement on the terms and wrote copy for an announcement. I brought in Kai, the designer and admin of We Happy Trans, and by 2:00 a.m. we had set up an online form. We had over a hundred nominations in the first 24 hours.
NL: What is the nomination process for the Trans 100 and what have the responses been like? Have you gotten more or less than you expected?
JR: The public was invited to submit nominations via an online form, including the nominee’s name and city, as well as an endorsement. We received approximately 500 nominations before we closed the poll on December 31st. Given that nothing like this had been done before, I really didn’t have any expectations. Not even a wild guess.
NL: How do you think the kinds of nominees you've been seeing are reflective of the trans community?
JR: Startlingly diverse, which is wonderfully reflective of the community. What surprised and delighted me most was how many of the names that had received multiple nominations I had never heard of. That was like being at a party with all of your friends and then realizing there is a whole other room full of their friends whom you haven’t met yet.
NL: What personal heroes or inspirations do you hope to see make it into this year’s pool? Who would you like to see honored?
JR: My work has always been about the community as a whole. We Happy Trans was designed so that even if a casual visitor didn’t watch any one particular entry, they encounter a variety of faces, the collective impact of which is a seismic shift in the public’s perception of trans people. The hope with having a curated list of trans people, listed alphabetically rather than ranked, is that we give further evidence to both the banal commonality of the trans experience and the extraordinary work being accomplished by so many. It’s about the whole family.
That being said, it is the trans women of color that stand out for me personally. No group is at greater personal risk. Nearly all of the murder victims mentioned each year at Transgender Day of Remembrance are trans woman of color, and violence against them constitute a disproportionately high percentage of all crimes against LGBT people. They uniquely stand at the intersection of nearly every prejudice and systemic injustice operating in this country. However, being personal friends with Toni, with Janet Mock and Angelica Ross, or Precious Davis, KOKUMO KINETIC, and Trisha Lee Holloway here in Chicago, watching Laverne Cox and Isis King, regularly reading Monica Roberts, having interacted with so many other similarly amazing women, I’m struck by the abundant, overflowing vitality, the humor, creativity, ambition, and humanity of these women as individuals. They’re not an “at risk population”, a demographic or statistic. They’re my friends, my colleagues, my sisters, some of whom face extra challenges because they happen to be trans women of color, and all of whom I want to see succeed. My small part is to help set the stage, but have no doubt: this is their show.
NL: How does the Trans 100 tie into your work with We Happy Trans? How do you feel they are part of the same mission?
JR: It’s a natural extension. We Happy Trans is about showing the variety and vitality of trans people, telling our own stories, sharing our triumphs. The Trans 100 formalizes that recognition. With so much being accomplished in our community, and with the stakes so high, we cannot be content with token inclusion in other lists. Just as We Happy Trans shows the successes and positive experiences that popular media has yet to show any interest in, the Trans 100 will be a showcase for incredible work that would not otherwise be recognized.
NL: What do you hope to accomplish with the Trans 100? What kind of impact do you hope that this will have on the trans community? How do you hope to give back?
JR: The media is failing in its coverage of trans issues. That isn’t going to change until trans people are included at the table, are in conversation with journalists and writers, are themselves writing, collaborating, producing, and directing. But none of that can happen unless we are visible, unless we can be found. With the Trans 100, no media outlet, no university, no conference, no LGBT organization, can ever again claim that don’t know where to look.
NL: Where are you at currently in the Trans 100 nomination process? When do you expect to announce the folks who will be included in it?
JR: We were originally going to have a round of public voting. However, I couldn’t figure out a way to make that logistically feasible, and Toni rightly pointed out that there would be no way to keep voting within the trans community. She is now putting together a committee to curate the list. They will look through all the entries, contact nominees for their permission to participate, research who is doing what kind of work where, and develop breakout lists to spotlight certain populations. This approach will also help mitigate the popularity contest aspect of public voting and keep the focus on the work being done, rather than the personality of the participants.
NL: How will the people who are included in the Trans 100 be honored? What publicity do you plan to do?
JR: The list will live as a designed publication, available electronically and in print, containing a short bio, image, and links, for each honoree. There will also be a dedicated website, TheTrans100.com, with links, resources, and periodic profiles of honorees. The list itself will be a sharable PDF, one I suspect that will be distributed widely, and any related content will be cross-posted across all available platforms.We’re now looking for financial and in-kind support in order to host events in both Phoenix and Chicago, with special guests, live performances by trans artists like Namoli Brennet, an internet simulcast, and an exclusive unveiling of the list a few hours before publication. We’ve chosen March 31st as the release date in order to coincide with International Transgender Day of Visibility, an event with which this effort is in perfect alignment.
NL: Do you hope that the Trans 100 will be a yearly event? How do you foresee it changing for next year’s nominations?
JR: Absolutely. We would like to repeat this schedule annually, with nominations due December 31, focusing on those having made an impact that previous year, and publication on March 31 to lend further weight and content to the Trans Day of Visibility. It’s not inconceivable that such an event, once established, would grow quickly and draw widespread attention. The challenge will be to stay rooted in the community. If these efforts don’t result in positive change for those most at risk, then it’s little more than vanity. There’s a place for that of course, and lord knows I’d love to rock a Versace gown on anyone’s red carpet, but this isn’t it. Toni and I are doing this as a form of activism. We’re trying to create a resource.
NL: Why do you think that surveys of LGBT community leaders like the Out 100 historically include so few trans people?
JR: A collision of factors. We are a very small percentage of the population, and that lack of visibility is compounded by an historical tendency of trans people to disappear, to acclimate fully and the cut ties to the community. It’s an understandable impulse, and one often motivated by concerns for safety or even a requirement to access care, but unless a few of us step out, live visibly as trans people, unless those of us with privilege to fight for those with less, unless all of us band together and amplify each others’ voices, then we’ll never be more than a token inclusion. Every organization or publication that anywhere lays claim to serve or reflect the LGBT community needs to take notice: the “T” will no longer be silent.
NL: With these annual announcements, what impact do you hope this will have on the media coverage of trans people? Why is it so important that trans people be included in our dialogues?
JR: No matter how well intentioned, the fact is that no one can more effectively tell our stories than us. Wherever there is a lack of direct experience, there is cliché and projection. Reports on media coverage of trans issues make it unequivocally clear that those clichés are negative and damaging, and those projections are steeped in anxiety and fear. All of that disappears once there is direct experience.
NL: Why is it important to tell trans stories?
JR: Writer Jenny Boylan, in her 7 Questions video for We Happy Trans, quoted her own mother: “You can’t hate anyone whose story you know.” That’s a powerful truth, and any reduction in the hatred of trans people is a victory. I’d take it even further though, and say that you can’t help but love someone whose triumphs you’ve witnessed. We need to tell those stories too.
NL: What is the story you want told about you? What do you want people to remember?
JR: My story isn’t particularly unique or significant, and I generally prefer working behind the scenes. I’d be quite satisfied to be little more than a footnote in the history of a movement, the need for which will seem absurd within a few generations. I’d like to be remembered as a good friend to those in my life, but I haven’t been available to really enjoy and share with those people who have long supported me. I very much look forward to the day when I can step away from trans activism and simply live my life.