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Willamette Community Celebrates Trans Awareness Week

Chrissy Ewald

Staff Writer

Flags left by students on the Mill Stream lawn in celebration of Trans Awareness Week. Photo by Chrissy Ewald.

The week before Fall break, the Willamette community celebrated Transgender Awareness Week and observed Transgender Day of Remembrance and Resilience. Transgender Awareness Week (TAW) is celebrated from Nov. 13-19 every year, leading up to the Transgender Day of Remembrance and Resilience (TDOR) on Nov 20. Trans activist Gwendolyn Anne Smith started TDOR in 1999 to honor Rita Fester, a trans woman who was killed in 1998. Smith [said] TDOR exists to “highlight the losses we face due to anti-transgender bigotry and violence,” and that “it is vitally important that those we lose are remembered, and that we continue to fight for justice."

For TAW, Willamette’s Trans Advocacy Committee worked with the Gender Resource and Advocacy Center (GRAC) and other student and campus organizations to set up events celebrating the trans community on campus and raising awareness of trans issues. GRAC Director Andrea Hugmeyer said TAW “is geared towards increasing awareness around the experiences, the needs and the stories of trans individuals. I think there generally is an awareness of a variety of social problems and inequities that trans people experience in our communities. I think the week helps us identify where we can be more action-oriented in uplifting the voices of folks and understanding their priorities.” This is the first year Willamette has had any formal programming for TAW—the GRAC has only existed for four years, and TAW and TDOR generally fall right before, or during, fall break. Hugmeyer said it is possible student organizations held events in previous years, but this is a pioneering year for trans visibility and recognition at the University-wide level at Willamette.

On the night of Sunday, Nov. 14, students organized an impromptu gathering in the common room of Lee house to print flyers about increasing rights for transgender students on campus. One flyer gave a list of demands for the university that would increase support for trans students. The other flyer advertised TAW events, publicized which Associated Students of Willamette University (ASWU) senators voted yea or nay on the TAW Statement that was [voted down] at the Nov. 15 meeting and called on students to lobby their senators in favor of a revised Trans Solidarity Statement, Resolution and Amendment. The flyers also call on students to gather in Jackson Plaza before that week’s meeting to “March on ASWU,” meaning show up at the meeting and give public comment in support of transgender students. Most of the flyers were taken down on Monday.

Flyers put up on various buildings around campus advertising Trans Awareness Week events and issues the Trans community on campus face. Photo by Chrissy Ewald.

On Tuesday, Nov. 16, College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) students from the Trans Awareness Week Committee set up a table in Jackson Plaza and provided chalk for students to write on the concrete. The students provided pamphlets on resources for trans people in the Salem community, gave information about upcoming TAW events, connected students to transgender health and support services—like the GRAC and its service Binders and Breast forms for Bearcats—on campus and provided links to books and online trans resources. Students also collected sign-ups for a Queer Union, which some of the tabling students are trying to restart after Rainbow Alliance went inactive in 2019, and an existing, non-ASWU affiliated club for Queer and trans students of color (QTPOC). Slogans in support of trans students checkerboarded Jackson Plaza in pink, blue and white. The tail of the beaver on the school seal was colored with the colors of the trans flag.

Chalk statements and drawings left by students in Jackson Plaza in support of Trans Rights. Photos by Chrissy Ewald.

On Wednesday, the TAW Committee held a screening of director Sam Feder’s Disclosure, a 2020 documentary film on Netflix about the history, present and future of trans representation, and misrepresentation, in the media. Disclosure features the voices of trans actors, writers and filmmakers including Laverne Cox, Lilly Wachowski, MJ Rodriguez, Brian Michael Smith and Susan Stryker.

Flags in the "Trans Garden of Joy" with messages in support of Trans students and Trans Rights. Photo by Chrissy Ewald.

Also on Wednesday, students erected a “Trans Garden of Joy” on the millstream lawn in front of the UC. A field of small trans flags waved in the chilly air, decorated with slogans like “Fight Hate with Love,” “Trans Joy is Revolutionary,” a quote by trans activist Marsha P. Johnson reading “No pride for some of us without liberation for all of us,” “Self-Love is: Radical, Powerful, Revolutionary, Sacred,” and “Blitz Wants to Know What Your Pronouns Are.” Three adirondack chairs were used to prop up signs labeling the garden and encouraging students to take flags and “spread the joy!” Students and passersby stopped to read the signs, and some picked up trans flags to carry with them.

On Thursday, Nov. 18, the TAW Committee held an Open Mic Night at the Bistro, with drinks and cookies paid for by the GRAC. Students performed songs and poetry to the audience of about fifty who crowded the coffee shop. The first performers were a quartet of openly trans students, including Seth Bell (‘22), Ash Scott and Emily Lipp (‘23), from Headband, Willamette’s tenor/bass acapella group. They sang “I, Me, Myself” by Will Wood. Next, Oakley Fielder (‘22) performed an original song, “Hey Handsome,” that he wrote last year as a love song to himself. Oakley “Oak” Phoenix (‘23) performed a combination prose and poetry piece, “Plaster-black Souls.” Alina Klepikova performed a song. Grace Goodyear (‘22) performed three poems: “Untitled,” “Ghost Story” and “Hand-me-downs.”

Also on Thursday, about thirty students rallied in Jackson Plaza half an hour before that day’s ASWU senate meeting to protest the senators who voted against last week’s Trans Awareness Week statement. Speakers, including Billie Henderson (‘24), Remy Gottschling (‘24) and Zeke Druker (‘24), who was one of the organizers of the rally, spoke about transphobia both at home and at Willamette. At 7 p.m., the group of about thirty students marched from Jackson Plaza into the University Center to give public comment at the ASWU meeting.

On Friday, Nov. 19, the TAW Committee held a vigil for Trans Day of Remembrance and Resilience, together with the GRAC; Willamette’s Queer student organization Rainbow Alliance; Willamette’s QTPOC (Queer and Trans People of Color) organization; members of the university’s Trans Advocacy Committee; the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA), and individual students who provided time and creativity to plan this week’s events. Hugmeyer introduced the event, explained her role in listening to, working with and advocating for transgender, non-binary and gender non-conforming students on campus. “The vigil today is to honor the ways in which transphobia has resulted in severe outcomes and consequences for transgender people. But we also seek to uplift and honor the ways in which so many trans people in our lives have positively impacted us, and modeled strength and resilience,” Hugmeyer said.

Hugmeyer introduced Oakley Fielder (‘22), who is LGBT Resource Coordinator at the GRAC. Fielder gave the history of Trans Day of Remembrance and Resilience, and explained that a goal of this week’s events was to celebrate visibility and building vibrant communities, and to recognize both lives lost to anti-transgender violence and the “resilience that carries on in students, in this community, and in other places around the world.” He then read a [Femifesto for Trans Liberation] from [Forward Together: Trans Day of Resilience], a group of trans people of color who work through arts and culture to create visibility for trans people and rights. The statement describes the connection between art and activism as vital to imagining alternative futures and inspiring change, and situates the struggle for transgender liberation as part of the ongoing project of anti-racist and anti-colonial resistance that has been going on for the past 500 years. It calls on trans activists to fight for changes that benefit all trans people, especially those the femifesto identifies as the most vulnerable in our society: “transfeminine Black, Indigenous and people of color.”

Fielder and Hugmeyer invited the group of about twenty attendees to speak. People shared the stories of trans friends they have loved and lost to violence and suicide. They described their friends as vibrant, loving and loved members of their communities who made positive impacts on their lives and the lives of others, and whose loss was a light going out. Students discussed their own experiences being trans at Willamette, including both the need to fight for recognition and fair treatment, and the love and support they have experienced from the trans community and allies on campus. More than one student said Willamette is the first place they have been able to be themselves, and that the people around them have made that possible through example and by providing support, community and safety. A student spoke in appreciation of those who advocate for themselves and “ask for more” from their community and the university, because they deserve more, and because the rights and freedoms of everyone in a community are tied together.

As the sun set, Fielder and Hugmeyer passed out indoor-safe electric candles to attendees. Attendees held the flickering candles in hand as Willamette Chaplain Reverend Ineda Adesanya spoke. She said she was “floored” when Fielder asked her to speak at this event-- normally, she said, most people only contact the Chaplain when they’re grieving, and the invitation meant a lot to her. She said she has significant experience providing spiritual care to Queer individuals and their families, and that students don’t need to be afraid to approach her because of their sexual orientation or gender identity: “I love you, and I will not harm you,” she said. “Please spread the word: I am not a place that will be harmful to you in any way.”

Adesanya then invited a speaker she knows through the [Chaplaincy Institute], an interfaith seminary and community, the Reverend Theresa “Rivka” Gevurtz, “to provide blessing and good words of inspiration.” Rev. Gevurtz is director of [Shelter for the Spirit], an interfaith spiritual center in Portland. She has served as a board member or director for several LGBTQ organizations, including the Community of Welcoming Congregations, [Neherim], [Love Makes a Family], the [Portland Lesbian Choir], [Right to Pride] and [Basic Rights Oregon].

Rev. Gevurtz talked about her perspective as the wife of a trans man, mother of a nonbinary college student and aunt of a trans woman. She discussed the disproportionate impact of transphobia on trans people of color, and the ways religion has been weaponized against trans people. She offered a trans-affirming interpretation of Genesis 1:27, and said God “recognizes that we are wondrously made, just as we are, in all of our complexity, in all of our uniqueness.” She shared stories of the lives of the five transgender people in the Pacific Northwest lost to anti-trans violence [this year]: Oliver “Ollie” Taylor of Gervais, OR; Zoella “Zoey” Rose Martinez of Maple Valley, WA; Jo Acker of Boise, ID; Jessi Hart of Banks, OR; and Rikkey Outumuro, a.k.a. Tru Starlet, of Centralia, WA.

Prior to TDOR, Willamette students first began observing the National Day of Silence [in 1998]. The [National Day of Silence], designed by University of Virginia students Maria Pulzetti and Jessie Gilliam in 1997 and organized annually by GLSEN, is observed at schools across the world. Events that are designed to help straight people understand what it’s like to be silenced by homophobia, like the Day of Silence, have gone out of vogue in recent years. Events that boost the voices of Queer and trans people, like TDOR, are more popular because they seek to substantively correct the continuing silencing of those voices.

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