Monica Roberts: Call of Service Lecture 2016

What follows is a transcript of the 10th Annual Robert Coles “Call of Service” Lecture, delivered by Monica Roberts on October 28th, 2016, in First Parish in Cambridge Unitiarian Universalist, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Monica Roberts is the founder editor of the blog TransGriot and TGLBQ rights activist. A video of the speech and the “Courage to Act” Panel of four local activists can be found here.

Thank you Dean O’Dair and Maxwell for the wonderful introduction and thank you to the Phillips Brooks House Association for this chance to make trans history once again and become the first trans person to receive this award.

This chance to make trans history once again and become the first trans person to receive this award

When you get into activism you really don’t do it for the awards but it is really nice when you are recognized for the work that you do & it’s been an interesting journey for me to get to this point in my life. I transitioned back in 1994 when you could count the number of cities and states on one hand that had non-discrimination coverage that had covered gendered identity. Now we are up to 17 states including Massachusetts, the District of Columbia, and over 200 locals, my hometown was one of them up until November of 2015 but we are working on that.

When I started the journey in 1994 I was working as a gate agent and supervisor at the Houston InterContinental Airport I had basically come to the conclusion that in order to be the best person I can be it was necessary for me to transition and I got the opportunity to do so in the wake of one of our pilots filing a lawsuit that she successfully won, litigated and won & that gave me the opportunity to basically say okay if I am going to do it, I need to do it now. Little did I know at that time that my life would begin when I transitioned. One of the things that I was planning on doing was just simply living my life being the fabulous black trans women that you see right now, just living my life and counting the days to my retirement from the airline industry but fate had other plans for me.

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Photo Credit: Jay Coney

One, I had a subscription to a magazine that was published right out of Waltham, Massachusetts  & the organization that was based there; called the International Foundation for Gender Education that organization published a magazine called Transgender Tapestry and it was basically to educate and inform on the trans issue of the day and also in the pre-internet days it was a way for trans folks to kind of get to know each other because they had a personal section in the back where you could send letters to different people and get to know other trans people from around the country and even the world.

So they were about to do a series of 100 out and proud trans people and so at that time, since it was a quarterly publication, you were looking at they were doing 25 trans people at the time and the early trans leaders of that period, like my mentor Judge Phyllis Frye and other leaders of the day like Jamison Green, Dana Priesing and Riki Wilchins and some of those other leaders of the day were featured in that first 25.

The question I asked myself at that time was, ‘okay where were the people who looked like me?’ I know not all trans folks are predominately white and female. So I get my answer when the next issue hits my mailbox and they actually had two people of color on that group of 25; Ru Paul and Dennis Rodman. I was so pissed off after reading that one that I resolved to be at the next gender pact lobby day which was in June of 1998, and from that point on I have been involved in activism ever since.

My goal at the time was to ensure that yes, black trans folks do exist and yes, we are capable of leading this movement and yes one of the things that bothered me at the time was not knowing as a child of historians, what our history was like. Who were our leaders? I know we had leaders, and it was one of the things that helped drive me to found TransGriot; to unearth that history. We now know on this day that Marsha P Johnson threw that shot glass that triggered the Stonewall rebellion & we also had other blow ups that happened even before Stonewall like Compton’s Cafeteria that happened & in San Francisco just a few years before that and just down the road from you in Philadelphia, gender variant kids at Deweys Lunch Counter had a sit-in that lasted for a week protesting Anti Trans Discrimination and the protest even go back to 1959 in Los Angeles in Cooper Donuts riots in Los Angeles, so we have a long proud history of protest and involvement of people of color in the movement and that is one thing I have been proud to highlight on TransGriot that we have been involved and we have some amazing leaders of color in this movement and it is now extending, that leadership, is now extending to the millennial generation and our young leaders of today like Jazz Jennings and countless other trans youth who are in some cases leading us trans elders and showing us the way to stand up for our human rights & drive that message home that trans rights are international human rights.

One of the things I also discovered as the 90s came to a close was basically that unfortunately the same ills & isms that are prevalent in the society as a whole were also prevalent in my trans community; racism, sexism that was unacceptable to me, I still believe to this day that we need to be better than the society at large as trans folks. We can be the leaders that show the greater society the way out of this morass of sexism, racism and all of that and be an example to the greater society on how to behave and respect each other as human beings.

We also at that time when we were doing these lobby days in the 90s, dreaming about a better tomorrow. We would sit down sometimes after walking on Capitol Hill and walking between the various House office and senate buildings and relaxing at the hotel later on that night or having dinner and thinking about, “Wouldn’t it be cool if one day we had open trans military service, wouldn’t it be cool if a parent had a trans child that came to them and they did not throw that kid out of their homes & instead of throwing them out they embraced them and enveloped them in love and raised them to be the best people they can be, wouldn’t it be cool if instead of people getting a slap on the wrist for unfortunately murdering our trans brothers and sisters that they got the jail time they deserved for it.”

“Wouldn’t it be cool if one day we had open trans military service, wouldn’t it be cool if a parent had a trans child that came to them and they did not throw that kid out of their homes & instead of throwing them out they embraced them and enveloped them in love and raised them to be the best people they can be, wouldn’t it be cool if instead of people getting a slap on the wrist for unfortunately murdering our trans brothers and sisters that they got the jail time they deserved for it.”

Some of the stuff that we were dreaming about in the late 90s has come to pass; just a few months ago, open trans military service became a reality. We now have situations in which trans kids are openly embraced by their parents. In some cases those parents have organized to basically lead the rest of the nation and bringing understanding to the rest of the country that either is really wanting to learn about these issues or are reluctant to do so or are coming along in a reluctant pace. We are now starting to see even trans kids leading the way in fighting some of these anti measures that are popping up as happen in South Dakota as happen in South Carolina and other places around the country; the trans kids are leading their elders at times and I am so happy to see that.

"Courage to Act" Panelists Photo Credit: Jay Coney

“Courage to Act” Panelists Photo Credit: Jay Coney

I have also been happy to observe in this time, that I have been 18 years and counting in this movement, the movement actually grow internationally as well. We have now gone from seeing one trans person get elected to the National legislature in Georgina Beyer back in 1998, to now six with the recent election of Geraldine Roman in the Philippines, you have in Anna Grodzka in Poland you also have tran legislators who are working to make things better for themselves and their communities in Venezuela and Uruguay. But we still have a lot of work to do, there is too much violence aimed at my trans sisters in Brazil and in the rest of Central and Latin America. We still have far too many issues of my sisters and brothers being killed in Turkey and other parts of Eastern Europe. Our trans siblings on the African continent, some parts of the African continent like Uganda and also Nigeria are being forced to leave their homelands just to save their lives because of the anti trans bigotry that has spread by right wing groups here based in the United States and that needs to cease and deses. As we know one of the people who was responsible for it Scott Lively was based in this area and hopefully he gets what he deserves in terms of some serious jail time for insighting some of that.

We have also seen, over the 18 years that I have been involved, I have also been pleased and proud to see trans folks go from being murdered in the first five seconds on a TV show to actually being featured in a TV show like Laverne Cox just was recently when Rocky Horror remake was on and you will see her again when the CBS show Doubt comes on, as mid-season replacement very soon. You also have gotten a chance to see us being involved in the political arena, we have trans folks who are working right now in the Obama administration, Amanda Simpson and Raffi Gurspan, who are working in the Obama administration helping to set policy and I think it is just a matter of time before you see a trans person that will get elected to a state wide legislature or national legislature once again. You can be proud of Massachusetts, of knowing the fact that not only your state was the first to elect a trans person to a national legislator in Althea Garrison in back 1992. I hope to see that again & sooner not later.

We do have a lot to be thankful for and grateful for in terms of the progress that we have made but I would be remiss to standing up here and not talk about one of the things that is weighing heavily on my heart as I accept this award. I think about the 23 women who are not here today, and I think about the fact that we’ve lost 23 people to anti-Trans violence that we will memorialize in a few weeks during the Transgender Day of Remembrance ceremonies. That also has a Massachusetts connection, Rita Hester was a Trans women who lived here in the Boston area and during the Thanksgiving period she was murdered. The unfortunate part of that was that Rita was demonized and disrespected by the media and most egrogiously by Bay Windows.

That so incensed the local trans community in the area that they did a memorial service on the one year anniversary of it, that memorial service was that idea for a memorial service was picked up a San Francisco based trans women by the name of Gwen Smith which became the International Series of Trans memorials that we do every Nov 20th or pretty close to that date now. But it all started right here in the Massachusetts area. This is one of the cradles of the trans right movement, Massachusetts has a lot to be proud of, you have a lot of early leadership like Marisa Cheryl Lynn and Georgina McKenize and countless others who were looked to for leadership in this community and it had a Massachusetts stamp. You can be very proud of that just as I can be proud of me being a Texan and some of the leaders also being from my home state, the early leaders of that time period, that mentored me to be able to do what I can do today.

I think about the 23 women who are not here today, and I think about the fact that we’ve lost 23 people to anti-Trans violence that we will memorialize in a few weeks during the Transgender Day of Remembrance ceremonies.

When we are talking about a Call of Service, while I kind of got into being a trans activist basically because I was pissed off about a bad article, the reality is is that public service is part of my families background. I have always been conscious of the fact that when, to whom much is given, much is required in terms of leadership abilities. I have been blessed with a lot of talents that I am happy to give back to this community that I love. I want to see the trans community survive, thrive and be the best it can be, and the only way that can happen is if we are all pulling in the same direction and working toward that common goal of being the best people that we can be individually, as group, and in our states, in our cities, in our nation and eventually the world. We have much to offer as trans people to the building of our society as a whole if we are just given the opportunity to do it, we can achieve anything that we can just given that opportunity to do so.

At that point, I thank you very much for the honor of this Robert Coles “Call of Service” award, it has been an amazing couple of days here and it is amazing to me to think that this unapologetic black trans women is following in the steps of Marian Wright Edelman, Vice President Al Gore and last year’s honoree in Alicia Garza in receiving this award. There are times where I kind of take it for granted that I am seen by a lot of people in this community as an icon and sometimes I try to blow it off, but it is kind of hard with this trophy I will be taking home.

Thank you to all of you who have seen in me the leadership abilities and greatness that sometimes, because I am so close to it, sometimes I do not even see it and thank you once again for this honor and hopefully there will be another trans person in the very near future standing by here to receive this award. Thanks!