The great American writer Ralph Ellison said, “When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.” We talked with some transgender persons with Tucson connections to learn about their journeys to becoming free.
Identity comes in many forms, from inherited roles thrust upon generations, to genetic characteristics, to skills and activities practiced in life, to deeply imbedded ideas of one’s own self.
“Identity doesn’t have to be a static thing,” says Namoli Brennet, a famed folk singer and former Tucsonan. “Identity can be in transition, something happening to a lot of people throughout their lives.”
For a transgender person, sexual identity assigned at birth doesn’t match the gender with which they identify. Although some trans people have the desire and means to seek hormone therapy and surgery to transition, many who identify as trans do not.
A 2016 study by the Williams Institute, a think tank at the University of California- Los Angeles School of Law, ranked Arizona 12th in the nation for adults who identify as transgender.
“A lot of people have the blind assumption that they’ve never met a trans person,” says Dianne Fremont, a Phoenix native and University of Arizona student. “A lot of people think they can spot a trans person a mile away. But chances are, you’ve met trans people and didn’t even notice. We’re out there in the community.”
Fremont’s transition from childhood boy to adult woman began in high school.
“I came out in my freshman year,” reflects Fremont, who requested a pseudonym to protect her identity. “I disappeared for the summer with my family. In my sophomore year, I came back as me, female, the whole nine yards. It was well received. It was a little rocky, here and there, but that’s to be expected. By the time I was in my junior year, it was a non-issue.”
The experiences of many students aren’t as smooth as those Fremont had. According to the GLSEN National School Climate Survey, which tracks experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer youths, nearly 60 percent of LGBTQ students felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, more than 44 percent because of their gender expression and 35 percent because of their gender.
Pima County School Superintendent Dustin Williams became aware of the challenges involving students and gender issues while he was assistant director of the Native American charter school Ha:san Preparatory & Leadership School.
“There was a small group of students who identified as transgender and they chose bathrooms depending on however they identified,” Williams explains. “There were never any issues other than those caused by the adults. The students were always most welcoming.”
As an elected official, Williams says he places student safety as a high priority.
“Regardless of how a student identifies, the most important aspect is that a school makes sure the students feel safe,” says Williams, a native Tucsonan. “We know a large percentage — around 75 percent — of transgender students feel unsafe. It could be hostility, harassment or being denied opportunities.”
It helps that awareness and prevention of bullying has grown from the days of old, when the schoolyard bully reigned, Williams notes.
“I can’t emphasize enough the importance of working together and being a unified front regardless of a student’s identity path. We want to ensure every student has the opportunity to access an amazing education and feel comfortable with who they are, with no limitations.”
Williams admits that Pima County’s reputation as a liberal base may make it easier for students to live as they want to in the community. Adults are key in making a safer world for trans students, he stresses.
“They can either help or hinder the process. Students are very accepting, but they watch the direction they get from adults. We’re not here to convince anyone, one way or another, what’s right or wrong, but to convince the community to have the students’ best interest at heart so they get the best education possible.”
Beyond the schools, Tucson has a reputation for accepting the diversity of people in the community, which makes being trans here easier.
“Tucson feels special,” observes Brennet. “It really is. I moved there in grad school and at first, I said, ‘Oh my God, what am I doing here?’ I didn’t know anything about it. But Tucson is great. It’s a place where people value and respect self-expression. It’s not only ‘I accept that you’re trans. I accept that you’re queer or whatever.’ It’s ‘I respect the courage to be who you are.’”
Now living in Iowa, Brennet became a popular artist in the Tucson music scene and was ranked “among the best folk-rock artists in the U.S.” Her music was featured in the Emmy Award-winning documentary, Out in the Silence, about the struggle of a gay teen growing up in rural Pennsylvania. Brennet’s transition came when she was evolving as an artist in Tucson.
“I didn’t feel like a whole person,” she says. “I needed to explore the process to become a more realized version of myself.
Looking back, as an artist, I needed to be in a place where I was not filtering myself. If you’re a repressed person, you create repressed art. When you start opening up to give yourself more personal freedom, I think it gives your artistic side the same freedom.”
Tucson’s lively arts scene, centered on the Historic Fourth Avenue area, drew her in.
“As a trans woman walking down Fourth Avenue, I was not the most interesting person by any stretch,” she says, laughing. “There are so many colorful people in Tucson. At the time, I felt a lot of support. I saw people living out their truth pretty fearlessly and I thought, ‘OK, maybe I can do that, too.’ Tucson is a great, great place to make your transition.
“The arts community in Tucson is really collaborative and supportive,” she adds.
Tucson’s poet laureate, TC Tolbert, self-describes as a trans and genderqueer feminist, collaborator, mover and poet. Thanks to an Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellowship awarded last year, Tolbert created a community-wide project called Trans/Space.
“For the purpose of this project, I’ve chosen to use the acronym TNBQ+, which stands for Trans, Non-binary, and/or Queer+, in an attempt to celebrate and highlight those identities that, even within the LGBTQ+ umbrella, often get overlooked or dismissed,” Tolbert says. TNBQ+ includes those who identify as trans, transgender, transsexual, genderqueer, gender nonconforming, genderfluid, intersex, agender, asexual, questioning and pansexual, Tolbert says.
Last fall, Tolbert held more than 30 TNBQ+ poetry workshops across Tucson that attracted more than 300 attendees. Participants read poems written by TNBQ+ poets and were guided in writing their own poems; they also were given a free book of TNBQ+ poetry from the mobile library Tolbert brought to each event.
Tolbert created the project to connect TNBQ+ and LGBTQ youths to the larger Tucson community, raise awareness outside the TNBQ+ and LGBTQ community about oppression they face and promote civic engagement with TNBQ+ and LGBTQ youths while fostering alliances with those outside their community.
“I hope to push back against local and systemic insistence that TNBQ+ people do not exist, while claiming the right of TNBQ+ people to take up space in a way that foregrounds the necessity, power and beauty of TNBQ+ voices,” Tolbert remarks.
Transgender Tucsonans also have a resource in the Southern Arizona Gender Alliance, which sponsors support groups and advocates for the equal treatment and opportunity for all transgender people through education and training. SAGA’s Arizona Transgender Workplace Project helps employers create more transgender-inclusive workplaces. In addition, SAGA maintains a database of transfriendly businesses, service providers, doctors and more. For those who are in transition, SAGA helps with updating official documents to reflect a new name and gender.
The University of Arizona established the Office of LGBTQ Affairs in 2007. Today*, the LGBTQ Resource Center serves students from its space in the Student Union, where students may study, eat lunch and socialize in a safe space. The Resource Center also serves faculty, staff, alumni, parents and guests of all gender identities and sexual orientations.
Fremont found camaraderie on the UA campus by joining Gamma Rho Lambda, the national social sorority for queer, trans, non-binary and allied students.
“It was refreshing to be around people who have had similar experiences to yours,” she says.
And she found love, with another trans student.
“We stumbled into one another watching a movie with people I live with in the hall,” she says. “Two weeks later, he asked me to a football game. It’s been almost two years now.”
There were awkward moments at first, because her partner was still in transition and they were viewed as a lesbian couple.
“It was hard on him,” she says. “But now that he’s no longer in transition, there are other issues, like I’m a little taller than he is!”
Fremont has no regrets about her journey into womanhood.
“Everybody was put on this Earth for a purpose,” she sums up. “I think my purpose was to have this extra journey.”
This story was written before sheltering in place procedures were implemented as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.