Event celebrating International Transgender Day of Visibility held in Lansing March 31: “We want to build bridges, not walls”

Transgender Day of Visibility event held in Lansing ... Ian Zahren (standing in photo center), faculty advisor for the Inclusivity Club at Kee High School in Lansing, introduces student speaker Isabelle Hammell (seated at far right) to attendees at the Transgender Day of Visibility event held Friday, March 31 at Lansing Office Works. In 2021, Hammell founded the Kee High Inclusivity Club, which was the host of the Day of Visibility event. Photo by Julie Berg-Raymond.

Some of the speakers and supporters ... The Inclusivity Club at Kee High School hosted a celebration of International Transgender Day of Visibility Friday, March 31. Pictured, left to right, are Ian Zahren, faculty advisor to the Inclusivity Club; the family of Nick, student speaker Isabelle and Melissa Hammell; and Evan Graham, high school junior who spoke at the event about his experience as a transgender youth and about how SF 538 will negatively affect his and his family’s ability to continue the medical treatment he is undergoing through the University of Iowa. Photo by Julie Berg-Raymond.

by Julie Berg-Raymond

This year, the International Transgender Day of Visibility - created by transgender activist Rachel Crandall of Michigan in 2009 - coincided locally with what the National Weather Service has described as “an intense storm system (that) tracked across the state of Iowa on Friday, March 31 … (creating) quite the volatile environment for severe thunderstorms” (weather.com).

Outdoor events throughout the state, intended to commemorate the Day of Visibility - like a rally on the courthouse steps in Decorah, for example, were postponed until Saturday.

In Lansing, however, a group of about 30 people gathered in the safe shelter of Lansing Office Works that March 31 evening to hear speakers, share pizza, and celebrate the day. As attendees took their seats in the warmth and safety of the brightly lit room, while outside, gale-force winds blew and a pounding rain fell from a darkened sky, more than one remarked on a parallel that was hard to miss.

Two bills recently signed by Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds have been described as creating a dangerous and volatile situation for transgender and nonbinary youth across the state: SF 482 prohibits transgender youth from using school restrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity; SF 538 bans age-appropriate, medically necessary care for transgender youth under the age of 18.

Isabelle Hammell (they/them) is a sophomore at Kee High School in Lansing and founder, in 2021, of the school’s Inclusivity Club, which hosted Friday’s event. Hammell told those gathered that the bills “open a door to more hatred, and more issues.” A press release issued prior to the event noted that “numerous research studies have found that gender-affirming care leads to improved mental health among (young people who identify as transgender or nonbinary).” Ian Zahren, Kee High School faculty advisor to the Inclusivity Club, told attendees that lives are being put in danger by the passing of these bills.

Evan Graham (he/him), a high school junior, told those gathered about his experience coming out as transgender in 2021: “I didn’t get nearly as much hate as I was expecting,” he said. When he came out to his parents, he said, “they were accepting but confused.” Graham started transitioning in August, 2021.

Bob Raymond of De Soto, WI is the father of a transgender man, and he said, “I didn’t have trouble accepting my son’s transition; I had a problem with other people not accepting his transition. I just don’t understand where all the fear is coming from. We need to speak out; we need to let them know this isn’t going to work. We’re putting peoples’ lives in danger. It really angers me and saddens me.”

Lansing Chief of Police Conrad Rosendahl attended the event, in uniform. When invited to address the gathering, he said, “I’m here to support my community, and to learn. That’s what comes along with a life of service; you can’t be one-minded.”

The ultimate aim of the Lansing event was two-fold: To combat disinformation and misconceptions, and to inform allies how to best advocate on behalf of transgender and nonbinary youth. To those ends, a pamphlet was distributed that defined terms (“nonbinary ... means someone’s gender is on the scale between male and female”; “trans people are people whose gender identity doesn’t align with the sex they were assigned at birth”); and bullet-points described ways allies “can support trans kids.”

“The most serious misconception about transgender people and nonbinary people is that we are violent or mentally ill - usually mentally ill being used to mean ‘crazy,’” Hammell said. “A lot of people have the idea that trans people are malicious and are transitioning for reasons like to creep on kids or get a leg up in sports, which couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Graham countered another common misconception: “It’s not a decision; you don’t choose to be trans,” he said. “You always were.”

Where pronouns - and the attendant confusion many people might feel about using them - are concerned, Hammell suggested people look to online sources. “There are plenty of websites that trans people often use to test out pronouns,” they said. “Also, just finding ways to interact with more nonbinary and transgender people is a good idea. Just always try to be polite.”

Among the best ways to act as an ally and to advocate for transgender and nonbinary youth, Hammell said, are 1) Writing “snail-mail” letters or sending postcards to legislators. “Letters get seen and read more than emails,” they said; 2) donating to organizations that help trans kids - like the Trevor Project (thetrevorproject.org) and the Trans Youth Equality Foundation (transyouthequality.org). Raymond suggested contacting an organization with which his son works: One Iowa Action (oneiowaaction.org); 3) correcting someone who is saying something misleading or incorrect. “Correct them and ask more questions, to get an idea where they stand,” Hammell said. “We want to build bridges, not walls.”