Blogging and activism have led me in many directions these past decades, but I never imagined they would lead me to a list of 12 ‘People of the Year’ alongside Beyoncé and Ukrainian President Zelensky. And that is exactly what just happened with the November issues of The Advocate.
The Advocate, a prestigious national publication serving the LGBTQ community since 1967, uses its annual People of the Year issue to honor “the LGBTQ+ change-makers and culture-shifters that have had the most influence on the world.”
I was named to a list of 12 folx deemed People of the Year for my activism as an ally to the trans community. It is an overwhelming sort of experience. And I have a lot of thoughts on it, so buckle up.
Sue Kerr, who, like Roberts before her, won a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Blog for her incredibly inclusive Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents blog, leaned even farther into pushing forward trans issues as well as documenting trans lives (and deaths). And as a disabled advocacy journalist, Kerr also helped found a nonprofit organization called Pittsburgh LGBTQ Charities, which uses systemic support to act as a wider advocate for trans people as well.
I’ve won two national GLAAD media awards, in 2019 and 2022. But I knew I was a contender, as they say, and it was a finite situation – five blogs in consideration. This honor was not something I sought out, nor was it even on my radar. It’s been a source of anxiety to be honest – the mixed-up situation where really good things feel like ‘too much’. Still, I welcome this honor with open arms because it is yet another opportunity to lift up my trans neighbors. I do feel disconnected from this because it feels unimaginable. But so too does the unrelenting terror targeting our trans neighbors feel unimaginable. So I find a way to wrangle with this uneasy honor by going back to the reason I received it.
“This award shows the entire country what so many of us in the Pittsburgh region already knew — that Sue Kerr does incredible, impactful work,” says Anne E. Lynch, secretary, Pittsburgh LGBTQ Charities. “Her memorial posts give trans folks who have lost their lives due to violence back their humanity and honors them authentically. She counters hate with love and compassion, as can be see in the #ProtectTransKids campaigns. And even as we celebrate her and this award, we know she’s already thinking of what more needs to be done.”
Here in the Pittsburgh region, we’ve endured radio advertising terrorizing trans children. We’ve had school districts descend into hateful and harmful spaces for trans and nonbinary students. A self-styled leftie cat rescuer has mercilessly taunted her teenaged neighbor with racist, transphobic vitriol. TERFs organized a fake rally at the City-County Building. Republican candidates for US Senate and Pennsylvania Governor have used transgender neighbors as campaign fodder. Pennsylvania native Admiral Rachel Levine was mocked and disparaged by local radio shock hosts who are still on the air.
In ten months time in 2021 through New Year’s Day 2022, five BIPOC transgender folx were murdered in Allegheny, Beaver, and Lawrence counties.
- Chynaa Carrillo — New Wilmington, Pennsylvania. February 18, 2021. Age 24.
- Jeffrey ‘JJ’ Bright — Ambridge, Pennsylvania. February 22, 2021. Age 16.
- Jasmine Cannady — Ambridge, Pennsylvania. February 22, 2021. Age 22.
- Angel Naira – Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, November 11, 2021. Age 36.
- Amäriey Lèį (Myara) – Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania. January 1, 2022. Age 20.
JJ and Jasmine were killed by their own mother. Chyna was killed by a man she were dating, a man who had served eight years for killing his young wife. The murders of the other two, Angel Naira and Amairey, remain unsolved creating two literal deadly threats to other trans folx in this region, but not a threat the District Attornies or local homicide investigators put on their front burner.
Who is there to advocate for these two young Black trans women? To protect other trans folx from these homicidal threats? What media outlets will follow up on the unsolved murders? Who will say their names?
The memorial posts began in 2013 at the request of a trans friend, Jacob.
“After reading about a murder of a Black trans woman named Cemia Dove in Cleveland in 2013, I asked a trans friend in that region how I could be helpful,” says Kerr. “He asked me to write what he deemed an ‘appropriate post’ to share the news about Cemia’s death – appropriate meaning using her name, correct pronouns, not focusing on her criminal history unless it was actually salient to her death and including a photo that was respectful versus a mug shot or “government ID”. I agreed immediately and tried to meet that standard over the past nine years.”
But I also go further back to 2007 when a friend of mine, Jessi Seams, was harassed by a local group of lesbians. Jessi, a trained magician, had volunteered for a talent show benefiting our community center. She was not only rejected, but was subjected to background checks and had her identity poked, probed, and challenged far beyond any reasonable standard or reasonable doubt that trans people were at all welcome. I stood up for her. She taught me so much about gender identity. I was appalled that anyone would invoke lesbian identity to treat trans women with such contempt – my first real introduction to TERF reality. Sadly, that struggle continues to this day.
I struggle with a fundamental understanding of why people resist honoring and embracing transgender and nonbinary identities. I ‘get it’ in terms of the arguments that they posit, I get that they are punching down to cope with their own fears and uncertainty, and I certainly grasp how ignorance works to derail compassion. But I just cannot understand how otherwise progressive people, especially feminists and queer folx, can fall into this rhetorical trap. I have never for a single moment felt like my identity as a woman was erased or invalidated by someone else’s identity as a woman or nonbinary. I’ve never felt compelled to date anyone or prove my allyship through sexual intimacy.
All of those things have happened with cisgender men at multiple times throughout my life. Nobody cared, if they even noticed. Spare me your faux tears.
This year, I was approached by the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation – they want to intentionally acknowledge a LGBTQ landmark. Great. But they are focusing on the site of the former Bloomers bar on the Southside, current home of the Hot Metal Faith Community, a Christian church. I objected strenuously to selecting a “lost women’s space” and an active Christian space as the very first landmark. I explained that this would empower the TERF’s who are fixated on lost women’s spaces and somehow blame trans folx for that loss. I also believe that giving Christianity that honor is a horrific idea. I don’t dispute the impact of Bloomers on LGBTQ history, but the damage of giving them first at-bat on this process is not an acceptable tradeoff. I’ve been arguing this point for months and continue to ask the organization when they will start a public conversation. It is important enough for me to keep being a PITA about it with historians. I proposed they start with the Pitt Men’s Study which certainly has much more historical significance and I’m sure the University of Pittsburgh will welcome the honor. I hope this is the sort of allyship The Advocate intended to recognize. I haven’t really mentioned it until now, but I’d rather be labeled a pesty irritant than take a risk that LGB progress will come at the expense of trans and nonbinary neighbors. Also, at the expense of anyone harmed by Christianity which pretty much means all LGBTQ folx, right? Why is this so hard?
It is important to acknowledge where I find hope that this can get better. In my case, it comes from the four teens who worked on the #ProtectTransKids project – Ke’Juan, 15; Ace, 16; Esai, 17; and Legend, 17. They are blunt about their everyday experiences, but find faith and encouragement all around them. This is a video clip of three of these amazing young people who were present at the reception on Protect Trans Kids Day in Pittsburgh.
“It’s important Sue was named to this list for her non-stop efforts to support and amplify voices of trans youth,” says Ace, a 16-year-old trans masc Pittsburgh student.
“Trans youth deserve the same kind of support and advocacy that cis youth receive,” says Legend, an 17-year-old LGBTQ student activist in Pittsburgh. “It isn’t enough to just tolerate things that are going on with the children around you, you have to support and advocate for them as well.”
I also find hope in this message Ke’Juan recorded a few months prior to the reception
I find hope in my nibling who acknowledge the ugliness of transphobia, but share with me the bewilderment of why people go there. I hope that we can all hold on until Gen X hands over the reins to Gen Z. And my youngest nibling are actually Generation Alpha and that’s incredibly hopeful.
“Sue has been a force in our region for longer than I can remember. She’s a fierce advocate for the underdogs in our city and she works hard to amplify the voices of Pittsburgh’s queer young people in particular,” says Devin Browne, Pittsburgh Public Schools world language teacher and GSA advisor. “Her work through Pittsburgh LGBTQ Charities to raise awareness around the need to protect our trans kids has had an immeasurable effect on Pittsburgh and southwestern Pennsylvania.”
It is somewhat bonkers that a 52 year old white cisgender lesbian is a person of the year. I turn and look at this with skepticism. And it finally hits me, after countless revisions of this blog post, that I’m devastated that trans lives are under such relentless assault to the extent that my act of speaking up is considered so revolutionary. I know that what I do is important because false modesty is a silly artifice, but it doesn’t seem “Top 12” level. It shouldn’t be. There should be lots of people, lots of cis white lesbians doing this work. I shouldn’t stand out.
But I do. So let me use these minutes to remind you that trans kids need you to step up now.
I hope these youth can count on your investment in their lives, in their futures.
Request a sign AND stickers AND pens bit.ly/ProtectsTransKidsSigns
- GoFundMe bit.ly/YardSignsFund **Preferred
- Venmo @PittsburghLGBTQ
- Paypal bit.ly/PayPalPLC
- Facebook.com/PittsburghLGBTQ – Click on Donation
- Checks made payable to ‘Pittsburgh LGBTQ Charities’ and mailed to 1439 W. North Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15233.
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