By Guest Blogger Gretchen Rachel Hammond
Gretchen Rachel Hammond is a senior staff writer for the Chicago-based LGBTQ publication the Windy City Times and the 2015 recipient of the prestigious Lisagor Award. Hammond has also written novels like The Last Circle.
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” Marcel Proust
When I was asked to clean out my closet, I was hesitant and for reason.
Coming-out as transgender? I’m not sure it applies to me or anyone along the LGBTQ spectrum because we are however we define ourselves from the moment of birth. It’s accepting that fact and encouraging others to do so that is the problem. Closets are fashioned by the carpenter which is society. It is the carpenter alone which would have us use them.
I essentially had two moments of personal acceptance.
The first was when I arrived in Chicago in 2007 having spent 37-years running in such a desperate need to flee from my identity that the inevitable journey towards it took me across the Atlantic Ocean and to the United States.
After I completed the surgical part of my transition on the same day Barack Obama was inaugurated as President in 2009, I knew that the rest was going to be a continual work-in-progress.
However, I no longer wanted to label myself as a transgender individual.
With a self-assured, cantankerous voice I would tell people that the strictest definition of the word ‘trans’ as a prefix to crossing or moving from one place to another, one state to another meant that I had been there, done that and I had no desire to add what I, at the time, considered a scarlet letter to my identity.
So for the next two-years I lived a stealth life and tried my best simply to blend in with the rest of society—to find and keep a job, a partner, not to limit a night out bar crawling to those few which welcomed transgender people and to walk down the street with my head held high rather than in its habitually lowered state. I was not always successful.
Then I got a phone call from Dr. Mark Johns. He wanted to know if I’d be comfortable speaking to a class of future psychologists and therapists at Chicago’s Adler University. Mark was a man who literally changed my life by helping me to stop running. I owed him one.
Before I entered the small classroom, I stood outside the downtown campus chain smoking in a delusional attempt to suppress the frantic desire for flight rather than a commitment I’d made to Mark to fight through my reluctance to tell my story. It was not one I was comfortable relating. It isn’t now.
Nevertheless I found myself in front of thirty-plus sets of eyes all wondering what I was doing in their classroom since Mark wanted my purpose to be revealed through my lecture. I rose from my seat, clutched my hands together and, in a barely audible voice, decided to cut right to the chase.
“Hello, my name is Gretchen Rachel Hammond and I am a transgender woman.”
I sounded like I’d been physically dragged to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous.
I have since covered the transgender community for the past two-years as a senior staff writer for the Chicago-based LGBTQ publication Windy City Times.
These days I wonder why I was so ashamed of the word even as I mull whether going back to a stealth life is going to be necessary if I want to take the next steps in my career.
I consider myself so very fortunate to have met with and written about transgender individuals across the country and doing so has been as rewarding as it has been heartbreaking. Reflecting upon the community today, my feelings of overwhelming pride are often tainted by frustration.
So many stories each carrying their own lessons, each an individual representation of the often horrific experiences and awe-inspiring victories over insurmountable obstacles that have shaped this community and could empower it to take its rightful place not as society’s untouchables, jokes and targets for discrimination manifested in both outward and unspoken cruelty which is neglected by both the mainstream media and the politicians who are swayed by it but as the very best of humanity combining multifaceted talents and passions in the arts, sciences, business, activism and advocacy with the kind of singular courage that has taken the worst blows society has aimed and, in tenacious defiance, never remained beaten down by them even in the face of overwhelming poverty, as targets for systematic police and judicial abuse, imprisonment, physical violence and a murder-rate that any rational person would call an epidemic, yet those who do not attend or acknowledge the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance the community is forced to hold because of those it remains blind to.
So before I tell my own story, I would ask you to consider that of ‘Mama’ Gloria Allen—a beloved Chicago advocate and one of our elders who shaped the love of the women who raised her and the brutal assaults she suffered as a child and in Stonewall in 1969 into tender lessons to be applied at the charm school she ran for homeless trans and gender nonconforming youth at the Center on Halsted in Chicago.
Consider Monica Jones who spent most of her adult life behind bars and now has taken her story of rampant, heinous abuse by the Chicago Police Department (CPD) all the way to the United Nations both in separate meetings in Geneva and New York.
Consider Eisha Love who was arrested in 2012 after she defended herself from the threat of violence by a gang member and has since spent three years and six months in the all-male Division Nine dungeon of the Cook County Jail without trial. Let me repeat that: three years and six months without trial.
While the United States consistently and pompously berates countries like China and Iran for their human-rights abuses without ever once looking inward, Eisha has fought against the kind of mental and physical cruelty that would destroy even the sturdiest among us and still manages a radiant smile every time she receives a visitor.
Consider Monica James who was arrested by Phoenix, Ariz. police for the crime of being present on a city street and then forced to make a choice between jail and religious indoctrination. Instead she fought for her liberty and now travels the country talking about her own experiences of being convicted for “walking while trans.”
Consider Kinley Preston whose formative years were a tapestry of homelessness, drug use and police abuse. She now runs a hugely successful beauty salon in North Chicago and was recently honored by the YWCA as a New Look of Leadership.
Consider Meggan Peterson who for the past five-years has not been allowed to use the bathroom at work and is engaged in the legal fight of her life so no one else will have to suffer the same humiliation, or Landon Wilson who was promoted by the navy just before they discharged him because he is transgender, or Donisha McShan—as if jail had not been degrading enough, the halfway house which followed would not acknowledge or allow her to be acknowledged as female until she fought back with Lambda Legal and won her case.
Consider Owen Daniel-McCarter who has selflessly applied his wisdom and expansive knowledge of the law into the Transformative Justice Law Project (TJLP) which, among its many activities, assists transgender individuals with navigating the expensive and bewildering bureaucracy of changing one’s name and gender marker on an official ID and brings hope to those transgender people who still remain incarcerated while engaging in a relentless fight for prison abolition.
Consider Papi Edwards, Taja Gabrielle DeJesus, Bri Golec, Lamia Beard, Ty Underwood, Yazmin Vash Payne, Penny Proud, Kristina Grant Infiniti, Mya Hall, London Chanel, Mercedes Williamson, India Clarke, KC Haggard, Shade Schuler, Amber Monroe, Kandis Capri, Elisha Walker, Ashton O’Hara, and Tamara Dominguez and Keisha Blige who have all fallen in the United States in 2015 alone in a wholesale slaughter of transgender individuals. Society used up these important human beings and then tossed their deaths aside or excused their murderers through misgendering and/or criminalization by the mainstream media. They are heroes. In the fight to live and be recognized as themselves, they made the ultimate sacrifice.
My fight to live and be recognized as “a professional looking woman, probably in her mid-forties, tall but odd posture and a bit of a bizarre choice in hair color but nothing particularly special or different about her” pales in comparison but it is the sort of perception I had dreamed of ever since I was a child.