Opening up at age eight to the fact that you’re transgender can be tough. Especially when you’ve decided to announce it at school while standing in front of your fellow grade-three classmates.
Eli Erlick, an assigned male at birth, told his class in 2010 that he was a girl, and subsequently became a victim of assault, isolation, and violence. She was banned from using school restrooms for six years.
Her initially unsupportive parents, who ironically met while protesting, supported Erlick’s physical transition to female at age 13. She went on to cofound Trans Student Educational Resources (TSER) three years later – one of the largest transgender organizations in the United States – and has devoted her life to the well-being of transgender youth.
Erlick grew up in Willits, Northern California in a rural environment that saw no room for interpretation when it came to sexual identity. “My teacher outed me to my parents when she told them I was bringing skirts to class and wearing lip gloss,” recalls Erlick of those traumatic early years. “She turned the other students against me too, and it hurt.” Being surrounded by skinheads and KKK members wasn’t much help either, and her first boyfriend was beaten up for dating her.
Once everyone knew she was transgender, Erlick saw there was no way to opt out of how she was being treated so decided to change perceptions instead. It started with confronting awkward questions from people who cannot comprehend anything but their male or female sexuality. “Applying the term ‘born male’ to my circumstance is incorrect,” explains the 22-year-old activist. “Saying ‘Born male’ implies that we weren’t always women.”
To people who’ve never questioned their sexuality, this idea can take some getting used to, but with most discrimination beginning with ignorance toward another’s way of thinking, it’s worth taking a moment to consider.
Without a supportive community to turn to, Erlick cofounded TSER with Alex Sennello, a trans teenager from Chicago. The pair have achieved things that most people assume are not possible by young people. Legislation has been changed, policies implemented at institutions and dozens of trans volunteers have been sent into communities to help change attitudes.
While acknowledging the trans community as a small voice in the United States, Erlick believes the number of trans people may number in the millions. “Even if you don’t know it, you’ve probably met a transgender person before,” she explains.
“Visibility is not enough. It needs to be paired with action and support. Eighty percent of trans youth don’t feel safe in the classroom, and more than half have been assaulted.” Anti-transgender attitudes are fear-based, rather than ignorance-based, and Erlick feels the best approach is to convince people they have the right to be who they are. “Just let us get on with our lives. It shouldn’t affect you at all; this is our journey,” she explains. Her outspoken views have found a resonance beyond the trans community. In 2016, Teen Vogue named her the “New Face of Feminism” for her work.
The gay community has a historically established and accepted culture to fall back on. So why then, is acceptance of the trans community so far behind? An ongoing stigma is one example, perpetuated by popular culture. People are naturally scared of the ‘other’ and well-known movies have taken advantage. Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is depicted as a gender-troubled mass murderer. The killer in The Silence of the Lambs is transgender and plays into fears that a deviation from status quo views on sexuality results in mental instability.
Erlick also reminds us that it was young, transgender people of color who started the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) movement, going right back to the Stonewall riots in New York during the 1960s. Galvanizing like-minded people is relatively easy, but getting non-transgender people to support the transgender cause is essential too.
“We are not burdens on everyone else,” says Erlick. “We are multifaceted human beings that are more than capable of doing any job on the planet. Whether we identify as male or female should not be an issue at all.”