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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 18, 2015 - Volume 43 Issue 51
SGN exclusive interview: Trans activist Willy Wilkinson
Section One
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SGN exclusive interview: Trans activist Willy Wilkinson

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

'I decided at four that I wanted to be white and male,' Willy Wilkinson said with a laugh.

Instead, he had been identified at birth as a girl born to a white and Chinese couple. What followed from that contradiction is the subject of his new book, Born on the Edge of Race and Gender: A Voice for Cultural Competency.

Wilkinson told the SGN that he had rejected female identity from a very early age.

'Even preverbal,' he said. 'I just wasn't interested in the dresses and dolls that were thrown at me.'

At age nine, he announced that his name was Willy. This was in the early '70s, when gender issues were not part of public consciousness.

'People were not aware of gender identity,' he recalls, 'at least not in a good way. There was no support, no resources. So there was a process to get the school system and my family to accept my identity.

'Some people were very resistant. Some teachers emphatically used my girl name.' His mother took 15 years to finally come to terms with her son, Willy.

'Some people had difficulties because of the era in which they presented their identity,' Wilkinson explained, 'when it wasn't really possible to present as who you are.

'When I turned 18, it was not an option to come out as Trans, so I came out first as a Lesbian, and then as a Lesbian of color.' In the mid-'90s, Wilkinson came out as a Trans man.

In the course of negotiating his identity, he sought out like-minded and like-gendered people, and became a community activist.

'For me activism was a long process of finding my voice,' he says. 'I was raised to believe my voice didn't matter.

'It was a process of advocating for causes that were important. Cultural competency is an issue throughout society. I began to think, 'How would it be if there were policies in place that affirmed gender?'

'The more conversations I had with groups that were interested, the more I came into my voice.'

Wilkinson recounts this process in his book, sometimes with funny anecdotes, sometimes with deeply touching ones, but always with what he calls his 'larger purpose' in mind.

'I wanted to use my story as an accessible way to talk about larger issues,' he tells the SGN. 'It's more than a memoir. I wanted to illuminate larger issues that resonate within the LGBT community.

'I hope people find the book accessible and entertaining, an intimate picture, a picture we don't often talk about.'

One of the big issues Wilkinson cares about is race, and he uses his book to illustrate the privilege white and light-skinned people enjoy.

'For me as a light-skinned person, I was not targeted as much as some Trans men of color are,' he notes. 'People of color suffer extreme stress, to be targeted for their color as well as for gender.

'For example, I have a Chicano friend who was strip-searched at the Mexican border, because he was a brown man. And he was terrified. He was naked and exposed as a Trans person.

'He ended up so stressed out, he had to call off his vacation. He thought that on his way back the security person would tell all the others, and he might be victimized.'

Wilkinson expands on this observation in his book. In a passage reflecting on the simple act of walking down the street as a light-skinned man, Wilkinson writes: 'I learned a long time ago that the streets were owned by dudes who never had to think about the war on women or Trans people. I wanted to be one of them....

'And I think: This is privilege. How many black Trans men do I know who would feel comfortable walking in a middle-class neighborhood at night...?'

Wilkinson concludes his book with a checklist to assess the cultural competency of a business or nonprofit organization.

Asked what cisgender people can do to be good allies to their Trans neighbors, Wilkinson replies, 'Stand up for Trans folks if you see people mistreated, or even misgendered. Lives are on the line. Twenty-one Trans women have been murdered so far this year.

'I wish the larger community cared about Trans issues as much as they did about marriage.'

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