Issue:  Vol. 47 / No. 46 / 16 November 2017
 

Bio highlights trans columnist's activism

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Gwendolyn Ann Smith holds a copy of her biography. Photo: Brian Bromberger
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For readers of the Bay Area Reporter, Gwendolyn Ann Smith, the longtime author of the Transmissions column, needs no introduction.

She began writing the column in 2000, a year after she created the Transgender Day of Remembrance, which is held to honor those killed due to anti-trans violence and is now observed around the world.

Smith's audience will grow with a new biography about her, "Trans/Active," written by Sophia Cecelia Leveque, published by Library Partners Press, an imprint of Wake Forest University. Leveque, 23, studying for a master's degree in library and information science at University College Dublin in Ireland, answered questions for the B.A.R. via email, while Smith gave an in-person interview.

Leveque identifies as a heterosexual cisgender woman, and discovered Smith through a Wikipedia edit-a-thon, writing an entry on her.

"About a month after President Trump's inauguration, I was looking to fight the doom and gloom, even if in a small way," she wrote. "When I read about Gwendolyn's work, I saw someone who contributed to our world through many small acts – researching and remembering the victims of trans prejudice and violence – over many years. I wanted to learn more about her, but I also wanted to share her story with everyone who shared my pessimism about the future."

Leveque picked the title as homage to Minnie Bruce Pratt's book "S/he," a pivotal work in her education as a feminist and ally.

"The title reflects Gwen's identity as a trans woman, her occupation as an activist, but also 'transactive' means exchanging or trading, which is what activist work is," Leveque wrote. "You can only change culture and policy by exchanging unjust practices."

Smith said she had some reservations about a straight white woman writing about her.

"Yes, I did a bit, but not only the white straight issue but the fact that she was a quarter of a century younger than me," said Smith. "This was almost a cultural divide, so I spent a lot of time telling her where I was coming from and what life was like when I was growing up, helping her to understand what it means to be transgender and what it's like to experience it through my eyes.

"However, it might have helped the narrative to be written by someone not transgender, to give different angles or perspectives I might not have seen or glossed over," Smith added. "After our first few interviews, I wasn't at all worried about her ability to empathize with my life."

 

Becoming an activist

Smith was raised in the San Gabriel Valley in southern California.

"I had a pretty good sense what my gender identity was," from an early age, she wrote in a recent column.

Her father was not supportive, and when Smith later told him she was transgender, he remarked, "I had worried you were going to tell me you had some sort of incurable disease or something. I don't know if that would have been better."

By age 25, she became an activist when, signing up for a free trial on AOL, she discovered an embargo on the words "transgender," "transsexual," and "transvestite," which meant no chat rooms could be set up with those terms. She wrote letters telling AOL executives "there is a financial stake in treating people fairly," and by the end of 1992 they reversed the policy.

For Leveque, this activism was one of the appealing aspects of Smith's story, "channeling frustration and rejection into community and love."

"Trans people, and anyone who doesn't identify with the binary genders, must use reserves of strength to survive discrimination and daily aggression toward them, thus teaching straight people empathy," she wrote.

Smith doesn't want to teach straight people that transgender people are just like them.

"Because we're not," she said, "but I hope the book can teach them who we are and why we deserve to be here. I want straight people to know that we are not trying to deceive them by being who we are. That when we transition or choose a new name or mode of clothing for ourselves, we are doing it to live our truth, not create a lie."

She also hopes young trans people can get a sense of the challenges older trans folks experienced in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Smith has been with her partner, Bonnie Smith, whom she met long before she transitioned, for 25 years.

"About six months before we were going to get married, I came out to her and it wasn't even a bump in the road," Smith said. "It was very surprising to me. I was taking her out to dinner, telling her there was something I had to tell her. I had photocopied the few books I could find at the library. I found a restaurant on the bus route straight home in case she ran out. When I told her, she said, 'sounds like fun.' The way she's put it to me, she fell in love with the person, not the parts. We both identify as bisexual, which helps matters. She absolutely completes me and has given me the strength and courage to be myself."

Leveque includes a list of anti-trans murders from the 1970 to the present at the back of her book.

"I wanted to honor Gwen's efforts and honor the people killed," she wrote. "Gwen's work focuses on remembrance and the power in acknowledgment; I wanted this book to reflect what I see as the thread through all Gwen's work. I also hoped that readers would see the length of the list and begin to comprehend the staggering amount of violence the trans community faces."

One of the names on the list is Gwen Araujo, a trans teen who was brutally murdered in Newark, California in October 2002. Smith felt an immediate connection because of their shared name. She attended the trials of Araujo's murderers and became close friends with Araujo's family. It took a personal toll on her, but the story made national news, with people paying attention to a trans woman brutally murdered for seemingly no reason other than being trans.

"It caused laws to be created, like getting rid of the trans panic defense in California, and was pivotal as far as trans hate crimes are concerned," Smith said. "But once the case concluded, I had to take a step back. I needed time for myself to recenter, refocus, and reorganize my priorities and, frankly, to heal after the trials."

(Araujo's killers Michael Magidson and Jose Merel are serving prison time. Jason Cazares pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was discharged from prison in 2012. Jaron Nabors pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was discharged from prison.)

Smith sees a complex relationship between the transgender and LGB communities.

"We still see, once in awhile, people wanting to cut trans people away, to distance them from the LGB community," she said. "I think that is a poor way to go. I have this radical notion that a large part of the discrimination and violence against LGBT people is done not because of what happens in the bedroom but how they appear in public and transgress gender norms. This is one of the places I see our communities having a strong common ground, so I'd like to see us work together rather than separate, which works better for hate groups."

Smith plans to continue writing and being a trans advocate.

"Last year my father died after we were reconciled, and I started to think about what I have done in my life and where my life is going. Probably turning 50 this past July also has something to do with this, as well as participating in Sophia's biography," she said. "There is greater public acceptance of us, as more people are educated about transgender people and have met us, changing their hearts and minds.

"However, the bathroom fight is part of the backlash against marriage equality. These right-wing groups need a scapegoat and they've found a new villain," Smith said. "So I'm not giving up. Once the initial Trump tweets came out banning trans military soldiers, my first reaction was, 'Damn, now I have to defend the military.' But during my break after Gwen Araujo's trial, I realized I have a voice and want to pursue my activism and my writing so to help people walk a mile in my shoes and see the world from a trans perspective."

 

"Trans/Active" is available at http://www.amazon.com.

 






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