Illustration by Meher Yeda
When Evanston resident Noé Nelli was 13, a stranger misgendered them. But when Nelli corrected the woman, they said, all they got in response was a weird look.
At the time, Nelli said they were confident about being trans. They said they always corrected people who used wrong pronouns and talked about how gender presentation didn’t have to reflect gender identity.
“Not now, but over time, I stopped being like that,” they said. “I was bullied and whatnot by peers and adults so I hid a lot of myself and I tried to be very palatable to cis people. I was always trying to be more masculine, and I stopped wearing nail polish and makeup and I stopped doing things that made me happy when I was 13.”
At 18 years old, Nelli said they would want to ask advice from their younger self — to get the chance to talk to the person who was bold, before society made them realize being visibly trans could come with danger. Still, Nelli said they don’t blame themselves for the changes in their behavior, since they were a form of self-protection from a transphobic society.
The concept of “visibility” itself carries complex meanings for trans individuals, and no one person has the same experience. Nearly a decade after the first Trans Day of Visibility in 2009, which was intended to be a day of awareness and celebration, local community members are reflecting on the nuances of visibility and its impacts.
Northwestern senior Dakota Gipson said having to pass as a cis woman is problematic as a concept, but essential to her survival. She grew up in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago, which she said is very anti-trans.
“I feel like I don’t really celebrate it, except for within my own heart,” she said. “I talk about it with people (and) I’m very much not shy with sharing it. But of course, in my neighborhood if I went home, I might literally die for doing that.”
Gipson isn’t being hyperbolic — Black trans women are disproportionately impacted by anti-trans violence. At least 19 of the 37 people killed by anti-trans violence in 2020 were Black women, according to a Human Rights Campaign report. Having to protect herself can feel heavy sometimes, Gipson said, but she also feels liberated by her identity. She’s proud of being trans, and particularly, of being a Black trans woman. She said it was incredibly special for her to realize that she is her mother’s daughter through-and-through.
“Even though I’m not really respected as a trans person in my own household, I do appreciate that I can carry on that next generation of Black womanhood,” Gipson said. “It’s really an honor to me, plus I just love (my mother) so much, so it’s really cool to mirror that but also be my own person.”
Gipson also shared this story about her mother at a virtual Trans Day of Visibility event last week, organized by NU Rainbow Alliance and Evanston Public Library. Exhibits and Creative Programming Library Assistant Halka said ze helped plan the event to bring people together, while also knowing that visibility can be a “double-edged sword.”
“Historically, (TDOV) has been a day to make sure that people are able to not forget that trans people exist and fall into the woodwork,” ze said. “Now moving forward, it really can be moving past visibility and moving towards cohesion and celebration and building together towards how we’d like to be regarded instead of just being seen.”
Halka said the Evanston LGBTQ+ community seems relatively fragmented and hopes holding events like this will encourage residents to get together and share power and resources. While ze said holidays can be a helpful touchstone, Halka also believes creating space on a more regular basis is important.
This shift toward engaging with each other — rather than necessarily being visible to cis people — is an idea shared by Northwestern graduate student Erique Zhang. At the same time, Zhang recognized the power of connecting with other trans people due to their own visibility.
On this year’s TDOV, Zhang said an undergraduate student emailed them to say how inspiring it was to see a trans person doing trans research in their department. Before that point, Zhang said they hadn’t realized they could be a role model for others. Zhang said it took them longer to figure out their identity because they saw few portrayals of trans people, and when they did, representation was often inaccurate.
“For a long time, it was like, ‘Oh, that can’t be what I am because I’m not that stereotype of a trans person,’” they said. “That’s one of the ways that there’s value in visibility — it’s giving younger people an image of transness so that they can see, yes, trans people look like this, or trans people have these experiences.”
For Nelli, being out at a young age brought its own struggles, but being around other trans people helped. During Nelli’s freshman and sophomore years of high school, they said they went “stealth,” pretending to be a cis boy in order to stay safe.
It felt like the opposite of celebration, Nelli said. In contrast, they said the trans spaces they’ve been in have provided a liberating feeling.
“I’m most myself and most relaxed,” they said. “I feel very free. I can just not even think about my presentation. I don’t have to think about my voice or anything. I don’t have a lot of dysphoria — for me, dysphoria is kind of a weird awareness of my body. But I don’t feel that when I’m around other trans folks. I just don’t feel like I have to be aware of my body at all.”
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