It’s not often that you get to be a witness to history. I remember sitting and sipping coffee with Jen Richards when she and Toni D’Orsay, the Executive Director of This Is H.O.W., began to plan the Trans 100 and the list was a half-remembered dream slowly becoming reality. By the time the poll closed on Dec. 31, the voting pool had collected over 500 nominations, reflecting the diversity and splendor of the trans community.
When we spoke, Richards mentioned that even she hadn’t heard of some of the names nominated. She said the experience was like “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.” A volunteer-led, community-organized labor of love, the list took months to pare down to 100.
Richards hoped this would be a starting point to dialogue about “the extraordinary work being accomplished by so many…it’s about the whole family.”
The final 100 was announced March 31 at Rogers Park’s Mayne Stage in a joyous and tearful celebration. Throughout the unveiling, host KOKUMO worked to keep the crowd’s energy in check. Attendees riotously clapped after almost every name was called out. When Janet Mock (the former People.com editor and founder of Girls Like Us) took the stage, the energy nearly tore down the building.
In her rousing, inspiring speech, Mock argued that the event was about more than a list. The Trans 100 is about “opening a space to tell [the] stories [of transgender people].” Mock said,
“I stand here in awe, because tonight was created for us, by us…I stand here tonight at the intersections of race, gender and sexuality…I am here tonight because of the 99 other names on the inaugural Trans 100 list and the unrecognized thousands who are not on this list whose quiet acts are changing lives.”
Mock gave particular recognition to her friend and community leader Angelica Ross and paid tribute to Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, the transformative activists whose work has been an inspiration to so many. “We must write the names of those who came before,” Mock said.
“We are actively writing the chapters of our revolution,” Mock smiled through a tuft of her trademark curls.
Mock’s presence was a visual testament to what KOKUMO argued in her opening monologue: “Tomorrow marks the beginning of a new era.”
The official list was released Tuesday morning to BuzzFeed — honoring community leaders, activists, lawyers, human rights advocates, health-care providers, non-profit workers and folks across the spectrum of the trans community.
According to honoree Christina Kahrl, it shows “the work [trans people] are capable of doing.”
Although I knew I wouldn’t know many of the names on the list, I was surprised by just how many colleagues and friends were recognized. The Trans 100 was overflowing with Chicagoans, from Project Fierce and Trans Oral History Project co-founder Andre Perez to the Transformative Justice Law Project’s Owen Daniel McCarter. When McCarter and Bonnie Wade, the Associate Director of Chicago House’s TransLife Center, spoke during the list’s presentation, the theater broke into rapturous applause.
I’m often proud to be a Chicagoan, but rarely more proud than when I saw Andy Karol, Van Binfa, Baylie Roth, ellie june navidson, Kate Sosin, Nino Dorenzo, Rebecca Kling and Trisha Lee Holloway honored. I was proud to know that my city counted more honorees than any other, during a ceremony that brought together people of color, trans men, trans women, queers, genderqueers, womyn, intersex people and allies.
Many have already pointed out that the list wasn’t perfect, and it was impossible to include everyone. Richards called it “messy but special.” I call it a great start, and instead of focusing on what it’s not, I want to celebrate what it can be. I look forward to seeing more names included next year of those whose work is so often underrepresented in the conversation. As an annual event, the Trans 100’s reach promises to be infinite.
Christina Kahrl, who writes for ESPN, wasn’t worried about seeing her name included this year. “If not, it means 100 other people are doing amazing work,” she said.
Kahrl encouraged Richards from the start to make the list a way to encourage a wider conversation on the “everyday problems people face.” She wanted it to highlight issues that don’t get much attention: health care, sex workers’ rights and youth homelessness.
“[The list] takes on trans empowerment in a different way than what catches the eye of the mainstream media,” Kahrl stated. “It’s often administrative, unglamorous and unsexy, but this is the kind of work that needs done.”
I spoke with honoree Namoli Brennet over the phone as she drove down the lonely highways of upstate New York to perform at the Trans 100 ceremony. A traveling singer-songwriter who often tackles gender and sexuality in her work, Brennet said the event made her “even more proud to be a part of the trans community.”
“Nothing like this event has ever happened before,” Brennet said. “Ten or 15 years ago your role models for trans people were Patrick Swayze in To Wong Foo, these people who were loving caricatures. The Trans 100 creates a sense of possibility and helps to highlight the number of ways there are of living as a trans person.”
Joe Stevens of Coyote Grace performed with Brennet at the Trans 100 event. A West Coast native and guitarist, Stevens said via email that the list is a “wonderful acknowledgement of how far [the community has] come…We often only hear the bad news and setbacks, and I believe celebrating our successes is an important morale boost as well as a catalyst for new growth.”
Like Stevens, Dr. Kortney Ryan Ziegler was interested in the social justice aspect of the Trans 100, as a way to “create change on a large scale.” Ziegler, a Trans 100 honoree, is a black filmmaker and social entrepreneur who uses socially conscious business models to further trans empowerment and sustainability for the community.
“I mean this in terms of sustaining lives,” Ziegler stressed in a phone interview. “We have to let people know that their lives are worth sustaining. Sustainability means continuing to live.”
Ziegler said the trans community often doesn’t give attention to business and hopes to change that.
“I don’t want to seem money-centric, but it’s the world we live in,” Ziegler said. “To fund the programs we need, finances are important. We need to further our visibility.”
According to Ziegler, the Trans 100 has the power to “move the trans community forward in ways we haven’t seen before.” “It’s going to ignite a movement of continued amazing activism,” he said. “More people are going to want to rise up and do something. It’s already changed my life.”
“As much as the system is screwed up now, it becomes a moral imperative to make it right,” Kahrl said. “We’re not working for ourselves. We’re working for trans kids, for the kids who haven’t been born yet. We’re working for the future.”