by Adrienne Hunter
We paused our conversation for the sound of the tower bells to pass. While we waited, Sebastián told us about his hat, a black newsy cap. Its threadbare fabric suggested that it had been around to see much of his life unfold. It was a staple in his wardrobe when he identified as genderfuck, as he called it then.
When I first reached out to Sebastián about this oral history project, he specifically asked to speak to someone who didn’t identify within the gender binary. He wanted to be challenged in the spirit of his younger self. In that same spirit, he wore the hat that his younger and rebellious self once wore. He didn’t wear it much anymore, but wanted to wear it as a way of bringing his younger self’s fiery passion to this conversation.
Then, for that moment, the ring of the tower bells stopped. The videographer pressed record again, and Sebastián and Kai, the younger trans person with whom Sebastián was paired, resumed the conversation that we initially gathered to have. “Places like this tower, not only in Austin but these university towers across the world, speak to white supremacy, elitism, social control,” Sebastián declared. “I appreciate having this conversation today with you, at the UT tower, because you are a UT student. And it’s like yes, we are here. We are breathing. We are okay. We are beautiful.”
This conversation was one of seven intergenerational interviews held between younger and elder trans people, to speak about their experiences of forming community with other trans people. I conducted this project through The Mellon Undergraduate Engaged Scholar Initiative, a research program that supports students in creating individualized yearlong Capstone projects using community-engaged research methods. Through this process, I was lucky enough to listen to and learn about so many stories of care. I heard people describe instances of institutions neglecting or harming them, but I also heard stories about these individuals coming together with other trans folks to create spaces where they share art, food, community, and so many more resources that provided them with the foundation to keep moving.
Over the course of a wide-ranging, two-hour conversation, conducted on the steps of the tower, Kai and Sebastián discussed their lives and experiences at UT and in the city of Austin. Although he spoke of the many frustrations and obstacles he had experienced at UT, Sebastián also shared so many moments where he found community and hope with other people. As a former staff member of the Counseling and Mental Health Center, providing care to the students he worked with and listened to was a pivotal part of his job. Sebastián also found hope and resilience in the fact that he was able to have this conversation at the tower with Kai: two trans-masculine people of color gathered under the tower, in the shadow of everything it represented, to share their breaths and stories about their strength and resilience in the face of adversity.
The goal of this project was to document examples of care and community formation, and to an extent, that was done. However, it’s also clear that there are many moments of care from so many communities that will be absent from this project, and many others like it.
There was one specific moment where that question of absence became particularly potent. I had a conversation with an older gay man, who insisted that the Gay Liberation Front in Austin had centered white, gay, upper-middle class men. He was so insistent on this point, in fact, that he even suggested that other groups had not really existed, or had not existed in significant numbers to deserve the kind of sustained consideration I was proposing. As he repeated this claim, I found myself wondering: was this true? Or was it simply that many of us have absorbed a version of queer history that centers certain stories and certain experiences, even if it means eliding others?
I knew that I wanted to explore those other histories, and to think about the ways that trans people, in particular, as well as queer and trans people of color, have found support and community outside mainstream gay groups and institutions. So many of the trans people I spoke to shared examples of having to develop relationships and bonds outside of established spaces out of necessity. For example, multiple elder participants spoke about not being able to work with many gay-related non-profits in Austin and Texas because those organizations were not inclusive or affirming to trans people and their concerns. To me, it is clear that the issue has never been that these individuals didn’t exist, but that they have had to form their own communities and spaces, ones that might have needed to function in different forms and with different levels of visibility, as the pre-existing gay spaces would not put in the labor of care needed to properly include them.
Throughout my project, people shared reflections on large and visible actions, such as the collaborative, community-based effort involved in creating what is now the Transgender Education Network of Texas. However, many also described intimate actions that took place on an interpersonal level, small acts of care that helped sustain people emotionally and materially, and eventually helped foster the creativity and community bonds needed to help trans Texans survive, thrive, and organize for change. One notable example was when Sebastián described a support group he helped found for other trans people of color in the early 2000s, which met in secret after hours in the office of a local non-profit. While this might not have been visible at the time, it is clear that its impact carried on far past the one night each week they would take place.
Stories like these explored the harm that institutions can inflict on underrepresented people, but they also illuminated ways that trans people have always come together outside of and around these institutions. My hope is that this project, and the stories gathered within it, will help fill the gaps and assert the historical and continued existence of people who have sometimes been left out of mainstream gay narratives. Like Sebastián and Kai, the oral histories gathered in this archive document the breaths trans people have shared, the meals they have eaten in communion, the art that they have generated, and the spaces they have imagined. Even when the cameras stopped rolling, the conversation was far from over. As we packed our things and got ready to leave, our small group kept talking. We spent over an hour sharing experiences, and many more moments in the days to come. Kai, whom I speak to frequently, told me that Sebastián would repeatedly text them to check in and see how they were doing. I can’t help but be excited for the ways that conversation will continue, even when the tower bell keeps ringing.
Adrienne Hunter (she/her) recently graduated from the University of Texas with majors in Radio-Television-Film, Women’s & Gender Studies, and Anthropology, as well as certificates in LGBTQ Studies and Creative Writing. During her time at The University of Texas at Austin, she was heavily involved in The Queer & Trans Student Alliance, and completed a capstone project on community building among trans people in Austin throught the Engaged Scholars Initiative.