I was a teenager in Atlanta, Georgia in the early 2000’s. I wore my clothes a few sizes too big and waited in line for the newest sneakers on Saturday. My southern-born dad taught me to say yes ma’am and no sir. My southern-born mom helped me say prayers before I ate and before I slept. Sometimes we’d go to visit my grandparents in rural Georgia and pass by the cotton fields I had learned about in school. Black bodies adorned the expanse of green and white. I’d always think: So much has changed. Why are they still there?
I was a pretty normal kid. I had friends, ate a ton of fast food, and I loved going to the movies. I was a naive and ignorant high school student, and of course, completely unaware. I was abnormal too. Abnormally good at basketball. Abnormally good at making good grades. And that’s how I ended up in private school.
In one of the elective classes, my favorite English teacher decided to show us Paris Is Burning, the 1990 Jennie Livingston documentary about the 1980’s drag scene in New York City. He didn’t disclaim the movie. There was no preface. He just came into class and put it on, like it was any other day.
But it wasn’t any other day. What was I supposed to be looking for in this movie? What to examine? I knew that a gay boy liked boys and a gay girl liked girls. And if something was stupid or disappointing or silly or feminine when it wasn’t supposed to be, you could call it gay and people would understand. I knew that some people in the world were gay and that the people at my church said they wouldn’t ever go to Heaven. At 16, that was all I had. But despite my hyper-masculine, evangelical upbringing, I didn’t feel like that was right. Not in my heart. And though the feeling was small, it was true to my soul.
I watched the entire movie in awe. I had never even been to New York. Drag. The ball circuit. Being gay in America. Being trans in America. The intersectionality of those identities and being a poor minority. It was an entire world I never cared to notice. The movie included a profile on a trans woman, Venus Xtravaganza, who talked about her life, her struggles, her dreams. It ends with detailing her violent murder during an intimate encounter with a man. I cried. And every now and again, I still think about her, and my heart is sore.
The Human Rights Campaign keeps a record of how many trans women die by hate violence every year, and has for several years. Reports as early as 2014 now estimate the life expectancy of a trans woman in America to be between 30 and 35 years of age. The State of Tennessee recently had what many consider to be a significant breakthrough in legislation that protects trans people in hate crime scenarios. I’m aware of these things because I keep up. And I keep up in large part because a long time ago, a kooky teacher at a hippie school decided to show a film that I suspect he knew would change our lives.
Education is failing us in a lot of ways. And the nation is failing minorities, especially LGBTQIA people. Young students deserve an education that is representative not only of themselves and the people in the world around them, but that also reflects on and informs them about the important issues today’s society faces.
We need school administrators, curriculum specialists, and policymakers who push the boundaries, who prioritize inclusivity, and unabashedly denounce the status quo. Perhaps more than anything, we need educators that our children can trust. The kind who can put on a tough and honest movie with no disclaimer in a class of diverse students on any given day. I developed into who I am because of exposure. Oh, how much we stand to gain from simple and honest exposure to long-suppressed ideas and conversations.
I have trans friends, now. I try to learn as much as I can from them, genuinely, without being dense. I set my Medium account to alert me when new articles about trans rights are published. I think about the lives of Marsha P. Johnson and Peggie Ames. I want, so desperately, to be good. To be better than I was. I watch the world on a screen, as so many of us do, and can’t help but notice the steady propagation of violence against trans people. The silence in the face of abuses to which we bear witness. Paris is still burning, for me. I watch the world and I can’t help but think that so much has changed. Why are we still here?
Image Credits: All images via Sexual + Being/Unsplash