Dan Hildersley, aged 20, is a member of LGBT Youth Scotland's Youth Commission on Trans Rights. In this blog, Dan shares his reflections on the bittersweet nature of visibility and what 'awareness' really means for trans people as we mark Trans Awareness Week 2021 (12 November to 19 November).
When raising awareness of transgender identities, rights, history and the current issues we face, our visibility is magnified on both an individual and a global community level. For transgender people around the world today, visibility is a word with hugely varying connotations.
Our level of safety and support in our surroundings should always be the major deciding factor in choosing to raise awareness by sharing our own experiences. However, visibility is often forced upon us when we would rather not be advocates for our very existence, or when we least expect to have to explain our gender.
Whilst only ourselves can be experts on our gender identities, we have a right to remain in control of how we choose to raise awareness of them.
Artwork by Dan Hildersley
Whilst I thought about how to explain the bittersweet nature of visibility as a trans person today, I couldn’t help but think of Adam Kashmiry’s award winning stage debut, Adam, at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2017.
In an incredibly moving performance, Adam shared his own story as a trans man from Egypt who sought asylum in the UK. Not only did he raise awareness of the dangers and discrimination LGBTQIA+ people face in Egypt to this day and the struggles of transgender refugees; he also showed us how empowering being a visible trans person can be.
During his performance, a reoccurring theme was Adam’s fascination with contronyms in the English language - words that have completely opposing meanings depending on the context they are used in.
Even though, to most people, the word visibility is fairly single-faceted, I believe the experiences we have as trans people make it a much more complex concept for our community. We are visible when we are proud, and we are visible when we are at our most vulnerable.
Visibility can empower us and is often necessary to our activism. Our openness provides one another with community and role models, as well as raising our awareness of the spectrum of gender identity, which our education system rarely provides us. But visibility is also unwanted when isn’t consented to.
It can be forced upon us when an identification document such as a medical record or passport doesn’t yet align with our gender identity.
We are unwillingly spotlighted by other people in public spaces who feel it is their right to know our journeys with our gender identities so that they can decide if our presence acceptable to them or not.
We can find ourselves in situations where those around us feel confident discussing our rights whilst being completely unaware that at least one trans person is in their midst.
Here, raising awareness through our individual visibility is a risk. We can choose it as a tool to change hearts and minds, or find ourselves in danger through no fault of our own. The reality is that for as long as we still have to prove our shared humanity to those who wrongfully believe it is acceptable to debate it, this will continue to be the case.
Building awareness of the gender spectrum is something that trans people are often given most of the responsibility for. Our own efforts to raise awareness are extremely valuable but should never be at the expense of any individual’s mental health or safety.
Trans people have always been visible in fighting for and alongside those who have had (and are having to) campaign for their equality. Now more than ever, we need allies to actively improve their own awareness of the issues trans people face, and to be visible alongside us in our equality movement.
To trans folks at any stage in their self-discovery, I want you to know that, regardless of where you are in your journey, there are always ways of raising awareness whilst putting your safety first.
Being visible and vocal in an uncomfortable situation can potentially be dangerous, but many positive opportunities to feel seen and empowered are also within your reach. Being kind to yourself during research and exploration is the first and most important step to finding comfort and confidence in your own understanding of gender identity.
Raising awareness doesn’t always have to be on a grand scale; sharing your identity with someone you trust, such as a friend, family member, youth worker or counsellor is just as important. Sharing examples of positive portrayals of trans and non-binary people who inspire you, or LGBTQIA+ news sources, is a great way of raising awareness without having to share a personal experience.
As trans people we can raise our own awareness of the diversity within our community by attending transgender support groups to meet peers from different backgrounds and identities. We can connect with other trans people online, share advice and be listened to. There are so many positive ways in which to raise awareness of our community and in doing so find solidarity and support in each other and our allies.
From my personal experience, deciding to live as an openly trans masculine person has been liberating in many ways. After coming out and establishing safety and support amongst my family and friends, I strive to raise awareness of trans rights and experiences through my visual art and writing in the most honest, raw and empowering ways that I can.
On the other hand, even whilst being out for over six years, I can still be made visible in jarring, unexpected ways. Due to my own and many friends’ experiences, I am determined that transgender awareness amongst medical professionals will improve so that our healthcare systems can adequately cater for us all.
I am writing this blog in celebration of Transgender Awareness week on behalf of LGBT Youth Scotland’s Trans Rights Youth Commission. For me, this commission is a space to be proudly visible, receive support from my peers and youth workers, and use our presence and voices to advocate for all trans and non-binary people.
I hope that our actions as a commission will improve awareness of our rights and services, and in doing so improve every trans and non-binary person’s experiences of visibility in whichever form they take.
‘Adam’ is available to watch here on BBC Scotland.
Artwork by Dan Hildersley, part of ‘A Series of Observations’ project, @a_series_of_observations on Instagram. Artist profile @nathan_adlers_next_case on Instagram.