Hate, Paint and Perseverance
*I initially wrote and published this article in my role as President of the Airdrie Pride Society. During national Pride Month in Canada, our city fell victim to a series of hateful vandalism incidents and in this piece I wrote candidly about my reaction as a visible Trans Woman in the community. I am including it here as I believe it has some very transferable messages of perseverance and maneuvering through the challenges that many in our community may face.
When my phone rang on June 22, a full year after our first and incredibly successful Pride Festival in Airdrie, I would have never guessed I was about to hear the news that I did. On the other end of the line, a family friend compassionately told me that our city’s beautiful rainbow pathway had fallen victim to hateful vandalism. A year earlier, Airdrie Pride had gotten all the approvals, done all the work, and proudly painted a rainbow pathway which, for the last twelve months, has provided an incredibly meaningful and much-needed beacon of inclusion and acceptance for so many people in our city.
I made my way to the park, honestly needing to see the damage to believe that this had happened. As I got out of my car and began walking towards the path, my brain had unconsciously flipped into a very tactical train of thought. I felt an overpowering urgency to do everything I could to cover it up and protect everyone in my community from having to absorb these messages of hate. I was lost in my head, making a to-do list. We needed to order paint. We would need more rollers. I needed to call the City of Airdrie to get permission to repaint. Walking towards the pathway, I checked the weather on my phone to figure out the next best day for re-painting.
As I approached the bright colours of the rainbow, I stopped in my tracks as my eyes connected with each piercing discriminatory word. I felt an instant sting in my stomach and the breath left my body. I had underestimated how much this would affect me. After personally experiencing so much acceptance in our community since navigating gender transition three years earlier, I was shocked that this type of hate could happen here.
As we all know, after this first incident, more have followed. It has taken some time and retrospection to figure out if I wanted to write honestly about how our city’s recent incidents of hate have affected me personally. With each act of hate, I have been listening to a persistent inner voice telling me “don’t let them know they hurt you,” “don’t be weak,” “it is just a few people,” “you need to be stronger,” “acknowledging them will only empower them.” I have even caught myself thinking of my high school football days when I was taught that no matter how tough things got, “pick yourself up and don’t let them see that you’re hurting”. Throughout the last month, this constant inner dialogue has been punishing me for succumbing to feelings of fear and sadness as I absorb this in my home.
When I was preparing for my gender transition, I had the incredible experience of meeting Helen Boyd at a conference. Helen is a talented author (“My Husband Betty ” and “She is not the Man I Married ”), a strong and influential advocate, and the spouse of a transgender woman. Her books had been the first things I read that made me feel like a happy and balanced life as a transgender woman was a possibility for me. During our conversation, I asked her what her most important piece of advice would be for my family as we embarked on our journey through my transition. Her response turned out to be a perspective that greatly helped me through the years leading up to transition and continues to empower my motivation to keep advocating for the LGBTQ2S+ community.
Helen told me how she and her spouse discovered that when they were seeking acceptance from their family, friends, coworkers, and community, people were divided 10/80/10. Ten percent of people were immediately trusting and supportive of the journey and chosen identity of Helen’s family. Eighty percent of people needed time, space and more information but were immediately kind and loving anyway, eventually whole-heartily embracing their transition. Lastly, powered by an arrogant belief of right and wrong, the remaining ten percent consciously chose to resist understanding and instead continually challenged Boyd’s transition or abandoned the relationship altogether. She looked at me and said, “We wasted too much time on the ten percent that would never try to understand.” Her advice to me, as my family embarked on our own journey of change, was to focus our compassion, patience, and education towards the ninety percent. She proposed that in doing this, we would begin to no longer see or hear those contrary ten percent.
Helen’s advice has once again been top of mind as I choose to be honest about how these recent acts of hate have affected me. There is a possibility that my vulnerability in this article may give some sick satisfaction to hate criminals. That said, I am not writing this for them. Instead, I write with the hope that my honesty will unite the ninety percent of caring and amazing people who make up the majority of our city. I hope that my words motivate others to speak up against hate, remind them to check in on friends and family in the LGBTQ2S+ community who may be struggling, and encourage everyone to take an active part in making this a better world for all. I choose to write with vulnerability and honesty in order to remind everyone that behind each letter making up the LGBTQ2S+ acronym are human beings. These are families and individuals who deserve love, respect, inclusion, and perhaps most of all, to feel safe in their home city.
So, here is my truth:
These aggressive hateful acts of vandalism have hurt me. For the first time since my transition three years ago, I have felt fearful in my community. I have found myself unconsciously on edge and with a heightened awareness of my surroundings. I have caught myself investigating additional security options for my family’s home. As I walk my dog every evening, I have noticed myself walking faster and looking over my shoulder at every sudden noise, jumping at every bicycle bell. I caught myself standing in my driveway, not wanting my kids to see that I was worried, as I contemplated taking down our Pride Month decorations to avoid becoming a target. Over the last few weeks, every time after I stood in front of a camera for a media interview, I have mentally prepared myself on the drive home for the inevitable offensive statements and illogical arguments against the validity of my identity sure to appear in the comments section once the news story was published. I have felt myself wading through waves of fear followed by waves of anger in the knowledge that the cowardly hateful acts of strangers have had this effect on me and on others in my community.
“It is only a small group of people”
Over the last month, I have heard this statement from a great deal of very well-intentioned, loving allies and friends. In media interviews, I have repeated these words, almost trying to convince myself that they should help me to feel better. I promise all of you that I want, more than anything, for this statement to make me feel safe and weaken the anxious sting in my stomach that has been relentless since standing in the park digesting the first hateful words.
Unfortunately, what I can’t get past as an open and visible transgender woman in our city, is the reality that it only takes one person to harm me, my family or someone else in our community. As someone who has anxiously stayed hidden for most of her life, I feel sick thinking of those on a similar journey of self-acceptance who may be silently digesting these events alone and letting them have any power to reinforce that their truth is not possible.
When I went through my transition, I did the work to prepare for a life that was potentially going to get more difficult. I held no romantic view that everyone out there would accept, like or understand that I know who I am. That said, I do believe that we all have a duty as human beings to respect and trust each other’s belonging in our world. “Only a small group of people” that would go to these extremes to attack a community which, at its core, is about inclusion and acceptance, is one small group too many. To the supportive ninety percent, we need to continue our momentum as a larger community to counter these actions with solidarity and love to ensure we create a more positive reality and an accepting space for others to step up and take their authentic place.
Focus on the Reaction – Not the Action
As news of these hateful actions hit social media and television, I was shocked at the number of messages of solidarity and support that we received. Every positive social media post, every phone call and every email provided the perspective I needed and intensely reinforced that we are not alone. The LGBTQ2S+ safety net is woven deeply through our city, our province and across our entire country. As unfavourable as this experience has been, it has also highlighted the support system that exists and has caused me to feel more connected to the LGBTQ2S+ community than I ever have.
To all of those out there who have felt similarly hurt by these actions of hate, and to anyone silently digesting this alone, try my strategy: focus on the community’s reaction to these events instead of the actions of hate themselves. This experience has strengthened my belief that the supportive ninety percent will be there whenever we need them. It has solidified my confidence that when we need to take a break, our allies are right by our sides and will continue to drive for inclusion and equality for all of us.
These aggressive acts in my home have been my first true test of strength since transitioning three years ago. Before this experience, I was unsure of how resilient I would be if faced with these challenges, and I was uncertain if resistance such as this would cause me to retreat. However, what I am sure these assailants don’t know is that all the demons they are attempting to bring back to life in spray paint are demons that I have already defeated. I have spent thirty years disentangling and combating every deep-seated, ingrained stereotype and have never been so sure of the woman I am. I have navigated a million obstacles and battled internalized fears that were orders-of-magnitude more challenging than anything they can put in front of me. Through this last month, I have realized that those years of hard-fought self-acceptance have established a secure foundation that cannot be broken. The family, friends and community that stand with me provide me with unlimited fuel to stand tall and continue to do everything I can to be a voice and role model in our community. This self-awareness is what now provides me with the trust that my strength to maneuver through these challenges will not fluctuate.
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, by the triumph over it.” -Nelson Mandela
I did not take our pride decorations down. I recognized that I know how to turn fear into courage, and empowered with this knowledge, I will never stop being a voice for inclusion, equity and acceptance. I will never be silent against hate towards the LGBTQ2S+ community or any other marginalized group or human being. I will forever trust that the ninety percent is with us, and together, we have the power to drown out the hate and build a safety net that not a single person will slip through.