Slice of Life

Here’s how 3 CNY organizations are teaming up to champion trans rights

Courtesy of Shauna O'Toole

Shauna O'Toole, head of the trans advocacy group We Exist Coalition of the Finger Lakes, joined by other trans advocacy groups will hold a Transgender Civil Rights Rally in Seneca Falls on June 24.

Scattered across upstate New York are a handful of LGBTQ resources: the Hudson Valley LGBTQ Community Center, Mid-Hudson Valley Transgender Association, Pride Center of the Capital Region, Kingston’s chapter of PFLAG, SAGE Upstate and the Q Center in Syracuse.

But Shauna O’Toole wanted more visibility, especially for the transgender and gender-nonconforming communities. As the head of trans advocacy group We Exist Coalition of the Finger Lakes, O’Toole met with fellow activists to organize a Transgender Civil Rights Rally in Seneca Falls.

“People asked me why I want to do this in rural, conservative, Republican New York state. And basically it comes down to: There’s nothing for us in rural, conservative, Republican New York state,” O’Toole said. “Someone has to start. Why not me?”

Joined by Geneva Women’s Assembly and Women March in Seneca Falls, We Exist Coalition will hold the rally on June 24. The event will take place in the heart of the Women’s Rights National Historical Park, in the greenery of Declaration Park’s First Amendment area.

As mentioned by the We Exist Coalition of the Finger Lakes on its event page, this rally is a response to the dissolution of trans support by the United States Department of Justice. Under former President Barack Obama, the DOJ and the U.S. Department of Education issued joint guidance last May on how to make schools a “safe and discrimination-free environment” for transgender students.

The departments urged administrators to let students use bathroom facilities consistent with their gender identity. They also outlined obligations to respond “promptly and effectively” to sex-based harassment. Ultimately, the DOJ and DOE wanted to ensure students of all ages and all gender identities were being treated with respect in the classroom.

This past February, the DOJ revoked this guidance under President Donald Trump. It did so by emphasizing the ambiguity of the term “sex” in Title IX regulations. The argument is that “discrimination on the basis on sex” doesn’t apply to transgender-related discrimination.

“Everything is in regulation, but not in coded law,” O’Toole said. “So, by a change of administration, you could lose everything.

The idea of holding the rally at the Women’s Rights National Historical Park came to O’Toole when she attended a Finger Lakes Pride meeting. Members of the museum staff were present. Ashley Nottingham mentioned the First Amendment area to O’Toole as a potential site for activism.

Melina Carnicelli, who runs Women March in Seneca Falls, knew O’Toole from organizing Seneca Falls’ sister march to the Women’s March on Washington. O’Toole contacted Carnicelli to see if her group would support the rally in June.

Carnicelli embraces the idea that feminism should be inclusive to transgender people. For Carnicelli, We Exist Coalition’s trans advocacy is in line with Women March in Seneca Falls’ goal of empowering girls and women.

In a statement, the Geneva Women’s Assembly said it “stands in solidarity all women — not just cis women — and the friends, allies, and loved ones who also stand with women.”

While some trace feminism back to ancient Greece, the “first wave” of women’s rights is recognized as starting in the late 19th and 20th century with the suffrage movement. It wasn’t until the 1960s’ second wave that sexuality became part of the feminist conversation. The third wave of feminism brought more discourse about body, gender and heteronormativity.

Considering these different waves of feminism, Carnicelli said she believes a rally like this one is the next natural step.

“All over the world, we were somewhere,” Carnicelli said. “Whether folks were at a rally physically or by intent, the energy of that kind of solidarity certainly was pervasive all over the whole planet. That’s why we continue with our work and our vigilance.”

Evelyn Bailey, a transgender activist in New York state, said visibility of transgender individuals is a feminist concern. Along with marching in Rochester, Albany and Washington, D.C., Bailey works with the Gay Alliance of the Genesee Valley and with Empire State Pride Agenda, which worked to get an anti-discrimination law called the Gender Expression Non-discrimination Act passed in the state of New York.

Bailey stressed visibility for the transgender community is important in the same way it has been for people of color and the gay community.

Like Carnicelli, O’ Toole’s focus is on equal rights for all people. Part of this is acknowledging the range of identity within the transgender experience.

Along with New York State Assemblyman Harry Bronson, O’Toole has also invited a Muslim transgender woman, a transgender woman of color and two transgender men of color to speak.

“Being transgender crosses every racial, national, cultural divide. It’s one of the points of intersectionality where all of us are fighting for our right to live,” O’Toole said.

Trans women of color in particular are fighting for their right to live. More than 90 percent of transgender homicides have been trans people of color, according to Human Rights Campaign. More than 75 percent of these victims are black.

As of March, the murders of eight transgender women made national news this year: Alphonza Watson, Jaquarrius Holland, Chyna Gibson, Ciara McElveen, Mesha Caldwell, Jamie Lee Wounded Arrow, Keke Collier and Jojo Striker. Six were black women and one was Native American.

The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs also reported on the death of Sherrell Faulkner, a black trans woman, and Mx Bostick, another black trans person, in May.

“The last thing I wanted was for this to be an angry, white trans woman b*tch session (complaining session),” O’Toole said.

When asked about expectations for the rally, Carnicelli hopes the event will raise awareness and subsequently support in upstate New York for the transgender community.

“We’re no longer going to be the ‘other.’ We’re going to be your neighbor, your employer, your employee. We’re sitting next to you in church,” O’Toole said.

“It’ll take time, but it’s hard to vilify when you can put a face on it.”

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