Two weekends ago, I traveled with five other members of BQSA to Marlboro, Massachusetts, to attend the transgender-centric First Event conference.  As a young nonbinary person who is still quite early in the process of figuring out their identity, I truly believe that I needed this experience in my life.  

It wasn’t just the time I got to spend bonding with some of my closest friends at Bowdoin and it wasn’t just the new friends I made in workshops and at mealtimes. There was a feeling that I can’t put into words, no matter how hard I try, a feeling that came from being surrounded by the largest number of transgender and queer people that I’ve ever seen in one place in my life. From teenagers and young kids, supported by their proud and loving parents and grandparents; to adults and seniors—alone or with their partners and friends—they filled the hotel, the lobbies, the banquet halls, the conference rooms and the narrow hallways. The energy that I felt simply from being in such a presence was indescribable.

But as amazing as it all was, as exhilarating and validating and inspiring, it is still important for me to keep in mind what was missing. During his keynote speech at the banquet dinner on our last night at the conference, minister Louis Mitchell, a black trans man and activist, called attention to the problem that I had begun to sense earlier in the weekend. That is, while there were certainly other groups represented at the conference, the vast majority of attendees were white and presumably relatively well-off trans women. Mitchell’s speech brought to the forefront a crucial message about the nature of privilege, one that applies not just to the trans and gender-variant community, but to many other groups of people.

Mitchell spoke to several inequalities within the trans community. He talked about “passing privilege,” and many trans individuals’ tendency to look down on others who do not conform quite as well to the appearance and gender presentation that is expected of them. He talked about race and how First Event is not the only time in which trans people of color are vastly underrepresented. He talked about class and the inherent privilege held by all of the conference’s attendees simply for being there, while so many other trans people in America and around the world are homeless, or are living in poverty, or are forced to sell their bodies in order to survive. But, most importantly, he talked about why this matters.

It is crucial for all of us to engage with the parts of our identities that give us advantages in society, regardless of whether other aspects of our identities are working against us. For example, I am gay and nonbinary, but I am also white, and because of this, my experiences will be vastly different from those of a gay nonbinary person of color, or of one who is from a working-class background. Similarly, a white cisgender woman will be disadvantaged in society compared to a white cisgender man; however—and this is something that seems to be forgotten especially often in some circles—her challenges will vary in nature and scope from those faced by a woman of color or a trans woman.  

Recognizing and talking about these privileges is often uncomfortable for us, but, as Mitchell said in his keynote speech, in order to make any kind of positive difference we must make ourselves feel uncomfortable. If we can’t allow ourselves to adopt an intersectional perspective and recognize other voices are out there that are different from our own, the causes for which we advocate will never truly be able to succeed.

In today’s climate, I have no doubt that many of you who are reading this have some sort of movement that you are passionate about. Whether you are debating with peers and relatives, or calling government representatives, or attending protests or simply sharing articles on social media, there is a good chance that, as a Bowdoin student in 2017, you are currently engaging in some form of activism. While it is certainly important to involve yourself with causes that personally affect you, and to fight to end injustices that you are directly hurt by, I ask that you also keep in mind the diversity of the human experience, and the reality that others may be impacted by the same forms of oppression in different ways.  

Recognize that trans women are also hurt by misogyny, instead of equating the uterus and genitals with womanhood in your feminism. Recognize that LGBT individuals also need access to information about sexual health, instead of centering your sex education and positivity around heterosexual relationships. Recognize that people of color experience their own unique forms of oppression, instead of building your movement on the interests and goals of white people. Recognize that disabled people, and immigrants, and religious minorities, and poor people and so many others, have causes that are just as worth fighting for as yours. Recognize that they may be a part of your cause too, rather than only thinking about movements that involve yourself and people like you. Use your privilege to make the world hear their voices. Use your privilege to make change.