Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honour to interview Andrea Zekis, a cartographer and transgender activist from Arkansas, USA. She’s executive director of the Arkansas Transgender Equality Coalition and consultant to the Human Rights Campaign in Arkansas. Hello Andrea!
After several attempts to live my truth, I came out as a transgender woman at age 30 and proceeded to make a series of changes in my life. I became a much more open, fun loving person, who got divorced and changed my faith, my career and my outlook on life. I went from someone with a serious fear of heights to a stilt walker. I listened to the person inside and those times in my life when I was present, and built my life around those moments.
Now, I have a very satisfying life professionally and personally, and never expected it would happen in the American South. I’m an outlier, but from my experience, I see an incredible world of possibility for other transgender persons. To quote New York, New York, “If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere.”
The concept of a transgender-led statewide organization, Arkansas Transgender Equality Coalition, seemed like a far-fetched idea, and its founding is the most incredible effort I have ever taken part in. I started as a support group leader in Little Rock for the Center for Artistic Revolution, but as I kept on seeing folks experiencing discrimination and living in fear, there was a greater need to work on rights issues.
I played a key role in getting Senator Mark Pryor’s support for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in 2013, the Keep Fayetteville Fair campaign in 2014 and I continue to support the Human Rights Campaign’s Project One America, which is a major initiative to advance equality in three Southern states.
There is need for more education and need for more transgender inclusiveness in the state’s businesses and organizations to make positive change happen. The political system in Arkansas is more aware of transgender persons than ever before, so progress to advance transgender rights on the state and local levels are being fought back by groups who are against equality and legislators who do not want to see LGBT rights in Arkansas.
At the same time, transgender persons still encounter a lack of acceptance at home mostly due to religious difference, high rates of suicide and difficulties in getting employment due to a lack of anti-discrimination laws. There’s a need for healing and need for grassroots efforts which include transgender persons in advancing rights for all.
|Andrea shows how much she loves her adopted Arkansas|
as she prepares to meet with lawmakers in Washington, DC.
The state level varies from state to state, so a state like California which has a much larger and heavily funded LGBT movement and often more supportive lawmakers can get more done for the transgender community than a state like Arkansas. Here, the transgender community has had mild success in coalition with other groups, only to see the many of those wins wiped out by oppositional forces. Lawmakers want to limit our ability to get protections written into the law in this state.
We’re now seeing discrimination based on sexual orientation starting to follow down that same path. The movement is stronger together. I saw that through the effort to pass ENDA through the U.S. Senate, where a transgender inclusive bill passed in 2013 where past non-inclusive efforts failed. Right now is the time where transgender people don’t just have an opportunity to promote its cause, but an opportunity to lead.
Now if we’re talking about someone who is able to captivate the imagination and hope of a people like Harvey Milk did, there are more people who fit that role. The best example is someone like Laverne Cox, who might have more of an Ellen Degeneres impact on American society than a Harvey Milk one.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in the American society?
While the extensive violence and discrimination facing transgender women is related often to their transgender status, I also recognize that American society still has a long way to go when it comes to ensuring equality for all women. It’s okay for a woman to dress as a man, but not often socially acceptable for men to be seen as women, because there are still sections of American society that view being a woman as degrading. That’s paraphrasing Madonna.
Arkansas is a state where it helps to know people to navigate the process, so I connected with local organizations and met other transgender persons. It takes a village to raise a happy and healthy transgender woman.
|One of Andrea’s favorite hobbies is stilt walking.|
Here she is in front of the Clinton Presidential
Library in Little Rock.
Mara Keisling at the National Center for Transgender Equality has incredible leadership, surrounding herself with immense talent to get positive results for transgender persons.
I see what Andrea Bowen at Garden State Equality, Harper Jean Tobin and Raffi Freedman-Gurspan at NCTE, Danni Askini and Tobi Hill-Mayer at Gender Justice League, Brynn Tannehill at Spart*a, Courtney Gray at the GLBT Center of Colorado, and Marisa Richmond at the Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition can do, and I get inspired.
If I have had a mentor within the movement, it’s Andrea Bowen. I don’t think I’m doing what I’m doing today without her and her ability to coach others to step outside their comfort zones and get the job done. I admire and respect transgender women who can coach others to be who all they can be.
Monika: Could transgenderism be the new frontier for human rights?
Andrea: It is. The next frontier though will be envisioning and establishing rights for non-binary persons within the transgender umbrella. The promise of non-binary rights would mean substantial freedom for all persons, including transgender women. I’d rather see no gender marker on a driver’s license than any at all.
I think TV shows like Orange is the New Black, TransParent and Glee have brought forth more positive and relatable transgender characters. What an amazing time we live in today.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
I know there’s a lot of great resources out there and many transgender women look for advice online from their peers, wanting to compare themselves and their progress, but there’s really no replacement for listening to yourself. Listen to your heart. I found a time in my life when I was truly happy and used it as the basis of a starting point to build my life from there.
Listen to yourself, use those things your heart is telling you to move forward, celebrate the small victories in your life and don’t give the haters the time of day. Life is short. Relieving the gender dysphoria in your life is so important. Get to a point when you’re okay with you. Don’t worry about what others think. If you’re like me, you’ve listened to what others have thought you should do for years, and what did that get me, nowhere. Move on to something more amazing, alive and vibrant. Move on to you.
All the photos: courtesy of Andrea Zekis.
The main photo credits: Arshia Khan.