Transgender identity is difficult to talk about. This is in part because sexuality and gender identity are personal and sensitive topics for public conversation. But this difficulty also comes from a lack of education. On a language level, many of us just don’t know how to talk about trans identity.
This fact is not lost on Jackson Bird. Bird is currently the Communications Director of the Harry Potter Alliance, a fan-activist organization that uses the internet to turn a love of stories like Harry Potter or Hunger Games into organized social action. The group has figured out how to galvanize online fan passion for good, and used that knowledge to fight child slavery and battle economic inequality.
Those online efforts got another powerful, affirming video this week, when Bird, a 25-year old Texas native now living in New York City, posted a video to YouTube in which he comes out as transgender.
Any instance of coming out is one to be celebrated, and Jackson’s video is courageous. It provides a positive model for trans youth of proclaiming one’s identity with pride. It also has important messages for the straight community. What makes Jackson’s video important for heteronormative viewers is the frank recognition of how hard it is just to talk about gender identity. “For anyone who is not familiar with exactly what that means,” he says half way through his 12 minute video, “it’s basically everything I’ve just said.”
Bird takes the time to educate his viewers about how media representation has failed trans youth, how others can aid his transition, and how to simply speak to each other going forward.
But change is difficult, and education takes time. “I will be patient, I promise,” Jackson says, in a moment that calls out the deep privilege afforded by heteronormativity. “Even though I will point out that I have been being patient for 25 years.”
In the days since his video went live, I e-mailed with Bird, and asked him where he learned about gender and sexual identity growing up in Texas, why it’s so difficult to talk about gender equality, and why he decided it was time to come out.
You mention the number of times you have re-written this video, the amount of rehearsal in your head that went on throughout your life. How does it feel, having published and released it to the world?
I’ve written fragments of it for years so it feels really good to have put it all in order and made a complete script out of it. Having released it to the world is real weird. I’d been planning on releasing it on this day for so long and working so hard at various logistics that, in many ways, it just feels like what I had to do. I have to keep reminding myself that it was actually a very big deal.
I think I’m also still in shock. I’m still sifting through all the messages and stuff that I’ve gotten so I haven’t had too much time to adjust to life on the other side of coming out yet. Here and there I keep reminding myself like, “oh yeah, I can say [insert mundane part of my life] online now” because people know. It’ll be weird not having to filter things from a gender perspective anymore.
You’ve been involved in LGBT education efforts, but you’re most recent video, Coming Out, is a personal history. Why did you decide that now was the time to tell your own story?
I’ve been working up the strength to transition for five and a half years. A few months ago, I started planning the actual logistics of starting transition, which necessarily included telling the online community I’m a part of. Because my professional and social lives (as well as my internet and IRL lives) are so inextricably entwined, and because transitioning as transgender is much more physically visible than being open about your sexuality, the only way I could possibly do this without being public about it would be to quit my job, quit everything I do on the internet, stop talking to just about everyone I know, and move away or something. That used to be reality (and still is) for a lot of transgender people, but I knew it didn’t have to be for me because I’m a part of such a progressive, welcoming community. I knew they’d have my back. I just wasn’t sure about the rest of the world, the people I grew up with in Texas, my extended family. So I had to build up the strength in myself before I could share my story.
There hasn’t been a lot of education around transgender identity in the US. Where did you learn the language of gender identity?
I grew up in Texas so there wasn’t even basic sex education, let alone any discussion of LGBTQ issues. The only time I can remember a teacher ever mentioning something other than heterosexuality was when my biology teacher told us bisexual people were more susceptible to the flu.
Fortunately, my older brother always liked pushing the bounds of gender a bit too. He introduced me to Rocky Horror Picture Show, Eddie Izzard, and glam rock at a young age. I grew up idolizing anyone who rebelled against gender norms, but I had zero language to describe it and I didn’t think that any of it could apply to me. All the examples I saw were men experimenting with femininity – not women experimenting with masculinity.
I didn’t learn about the difference between the words sex and gender or that transgender people could be gay or that transitioning was even possible until I was a freshmen at Southwestern University (often referred to as the “Gomorrah to University of Texas’ Sodom” by Texans). It was a haven for liberal LGBTQA students and even had an openly genderqueer professor. Once I got some basic education, it was like seeing the world for the first time after having been in Plato’s cave. I started experimenting with my own identity and started consuming every single thing I could about trans issues. I watched documentaries and YouTube videos. I spent hours on trans Tumblrs, subreddits, and discussion boards. Once I transferred to New York University, I read every single book in the transgender section at Bobst Library. While the academic side of educating yourself is helpful, the more important thing is listening to real people and thinking critically about the complexities of all of their experiences.
You talk a lot about words in this video. From the words you used in your youth–sister, daughter, girlfriend–to the pronouns that now accurately describe your own identity. Why do you think it’s so hard to wrap words around sexuality and gender?
We’re always taught that words have power, but we don’t like words to mean different things than what we’re taught. We don’t like words to change. When we’re told we can’t say certain words because they have the potential to hurt or trigger someone or further systemic discrimination, we get annoyed at having to be “politically correct.” I think that’s a big part of why some people can have trouble switching names and pronouns or figuring out the right words to say when referring to other peoples’ identities and experiences. There’s also the fact that our basic education and media representation really sucks at explaining anything that’s not heteronormative. There’s a lot to it. We have a lot of work to do as a society. Equality for LGBTQ people isn’t going to happen when marriage equality is legal everywhere, just like we don’t live in a post-racial society just because Barack Obama is president. There is so so much more to it.
I think the most powerful moment in your video is when you state, calmly, “I will be patient.” Why is it so hard for so many people to talk about gender identity?
Huh, I didn’t expect that to be the most powerful moment at all. It’s interesting you thought that. I suppose one reason it’s hard for people to talk about gender identity is because they have a specific idea about who they think people are and it’s hard for them to rewire their brains to something else. It’s very difficult to know everything about a person, even if you are very close friends or family, but especially if the person is just someone you know of, like a public figure. It’s natural for people to fill in gaps of information by creating their own narratives that eventually just become fact in their brains. When new information is revealed that doesn’t conform to the narrative they created, it can be confusing.