Saturday, March 31, marks the annual International Transgender Day of Visibility, a day meant to elevate and amplify the voices and profiles of transgender people worldwide as the fight for equality and basic rights continues to be fought across the globe.
With the campaign to defend statewide nondiscrimination protections for transgender people in full swing, we at Freedom For All Massachusetts have compiled the stories of five transgender people from throughout the state, all currently involved somehow in the movement to defend these protections at the ballot in November.
Jahaira DeAlto • Pittsfield, MA
When it comes to living in Massachusetts, Jahaira DeAlto says there truly is something for everyone to enjoy.
“Massachusetts is this glorious amalgamation of the old and the new; it’s an experiential area unlike any other. If you’re someone who thrives in a fast-paced city, it offers that. If you enjoy a more picturesque, Rockwellian experience, it offers that. It fills me with pride to be in a state at the helm in a lot of transgender rights and in marriage equality.”
A transgender woman of color who began her transition at 16, Jahaira is a student at Berkshire Community College and also does intersectional advocacy and activism in areas of gender, race, and sexuality — work she calls multifaceted. One of the biggest parts of her work is helping to, in her words, “normalize” the transgender experience for those who might be unaware of what the community endures on a daily basis.
“It’s important to be visible,” she said. “It is still vitally important we leverage our privilege to provide educational opportunities for people to learn more. The more we humanize ourselves for those who don’t think they’ve encountered a transgender person, the more we’re able to remove the stigma and fear surrounding the perception of what trans people are. Education is our greatest weapon against ignorance. After having the experience of meeting Jahaira DeAlto, you can no longer say you’ve never met a trans person.”
Pippin Shoults • Boston, MA
Pippin Shoults, one of the lead field organizers for the Freedom For All Massachusetts campaign, isn’t a Bay State native, but has lived here for just about a year, having moved from North Carolina, where he’d lived for two years previously..
“Everyone just seems friendlier here’ he laughs. “It’s like there are almost no random strangers here because we all feel like we know each other.”
As part of the FFAM campaign, Pippin works to mobilize volunteers to assist in things like calling and canvassing voters to speak about why it is important to protect #TransLawMA at the ballot this November. For him, it’s important to be in the community and to be visible for others.
“I think of being in North Carolina and not being really out. I knew people who had been harassed, and being open about who you were was hard; people who were out were my role models, and it feels important to be that for others. Lots of people have never met a trans person or have certain ideas of what it means to be one.”
Having the current law in place makes it much easier for Pippin and other transgender people to participate fully in public life; if protections were to be repealed, Pippin says the results would be devastating.
“I was there for HB 2 in North Carolina [the law which regulated the bathrooms transgender people had access to], and it empowered our opponents to be even more cruel. As far as larger implications, there are already a lot of people who are scared or uncomfortable to come out, and a repeal of law would amplify that tenfold.”
“However, my experience here so far is that people are, for the most part, are accepting. So that’s what we have to keep holding onto.”
Ben Power • Holyoke,MA
A transgender activist for several decades, Ben Power is not only active in the LGBTQ community as a speaker and organizer, but curates an impressive collection of history, the Sexual Minorities Archives. The SMA is a 43-year-old national collection of over 12,000 books, thousands of periodicals, numerous subject files, films, videos, audio recordings, multimedia, and art related to the LGBTQ community in the United States and abroad. The SMA is also home to the Leslie Feinberg Library, the entire personal research library of the legendary transgender activist and author. In 2012, Power founded the Sexual Minorities Educational Foundation, Inc. (SMEF), a 501(c) (3) non-profit organization that furthers the work of the SMA. Power is the executive director of SMEF, Inc.
“My entire life since the age of 25 has been an activist life. The work I do is important to me because it makes knowledge about our lives available to LGBTQ people. Education is the answer to solving oppression, and education is the means to equality. Grassroots community archives fill that gap in knowledge since our literature, history, and art aren’t widely taught in schools. Our queer and trans archives contribute to pride among our own communities, and are places where we can learn our own histories and the lessons of past and present movements.”
Among Ben’s impressive resume is being the founder of the first ever transgender male support group in the New England region – the East Coast FTM Group – and he was the co-founder of the first New England Transgender Pride March and Rally. These many accomplishments, along with myriad other reasons, are why Ben feels it is important for all the people of Massachusetts to stand up for nondiscrimination this fall and vote to keep transgender rights in law.
“There’s no reason why as Americans trans people shouldn’t have 100% equal rights. To have them possibly taken away is an outrage, and that option being on the ballot is crazy. How and why does the majority get to vote on the rights of a minority? If these rights are repealed, it would be another attack on the transgender community that will lead possibly to more calls to suicide hotlines, more harassment and hate crimes, more ugliness. It would be a black eye on the state’s image. I’m concerned about the welfare of my own friends. There’s only so much harassment and cruelty someone can take before they get very disheartened. We need to totally and unapologetically hold onto our rights here.”
Samantha Brank • Amherst, MA
Samantha Brank is quick to answer when asked what it is she loves most about living in the Bay State.
“I grew up here, I have all my friends and family here, and that’s a big support. Plus, people are a lot more liberal and accepting here than they are in other places.”
As a transgender woman, Samantha says the the opportunities she’s been given to educate the public aren’t ones she takes for granted, and works hard to make sure she is an effective communicator.
“I’m fortunate in the opportunities I’ve been given. For me, broadcasting and showing that transitioning is possible, and it’s not as taboo or stigmatizing as people make it out to be. My main goal is to spread awareness and exposure, and bring up all the important things and show people we are the same as everybody else.”
The existing protections in MA law have given Samantha a sense of peace: “Being trans is hard enough, it feels like we’re always being judged; it’s something always in the back of your head. Having legal protections and ability to take recourse, it allows people to live more comfortably and confidently in public because they know the law is on their side.”
“To take this law away, it would affect my confidence going out into public. My security of knowing when I go to apply for a job or get a cup of coffee, I could be targeted for who I am. It takes us back to the dark place we’ve worked to come out of. Having that legal thing taken away it’s going make people feel not supported or accepted, or our identities are’t real.”
Graysen M. Ocasio • Salem, MA
As publisher of The Rainbow Times, New England’s largest LGBT newspaper, Graysen M. Ocasio is fully connected with his region’s LGBTQ community, and it is that reason he feels blessed to call Massachusetts, particularly his city of Salem, home.
“I love how free I can be here. In Salem, when I came out as transgender I immediately had the support of all of my colleagues, starting from the mayor’s office all the way down to neighbors of mine. In Salem I feel protected; protection and acceptance brings happiness, and happiness makes people thrive.”
A Latinx transgender male, Ocasio feels it is important to be visible because of the impact that his story and others could have on those who may be concerned about coming out and living their true identity; his goal with the paper is to educate and inform above all else.
“What we produce at The Rainbow Times is the opportunity to educate others about what our community is about. My life could be seen by a young person who may be coming to terms with who they are, or who feels invisible, helpless, or isolated due to a lack of support of their authentic selves. By being visible, I could be impacting or saving one of those lives. If a youth can identify with me, particularly a Latinx or trans youth, and can see I am able to live a ‘fulfilling’ life, then I have done my job.”
“It is also important to be visible because there are other people who don’t know a lot about transgender lives and have a preconceived idea that we are ‘different.’ We are equal — we live, we strive, we want happiness and health and respect, we want to matter, and we want people to understand as we go through life, and as we love, live, and age we want to ensure we are seen.”
As voters head to the polls this November to decide on the fate of transgender rights in the Commonwealth, Graysen hopes that they will keep the fact that people’s very existences are on the line.
“I want them to know they’re voting to grant or deny someone’s rights based on them living in their authentic selves. That shouldn’t be considered when it comes to basic human rights. on These are our lives, plain and simple. They’re voting in terms of someone being able to find a job, use the bathroom, or be treated fairly in housing and public spaces. They are voting to deny or allow a trans person to lose or gain those most basic rights. Exercising simple tasks and being afforded personal safety as any other citizen, is important to all of us, and it should not be up for scrutiny. My life and the lives of so many others depend on it Civil rights for any marginalized community should never be up for a popular vote, but since they are, I would pray compassion and humanity lead in the hearts of those casting this vote.”