Em VanderLinden, away from xir work at Center On Halsted, is pretty similar to how xe is at the Center, which has been xir home away from home since July 2013 in Princeton University's Project 55 fellowship.
( Note: "Xe" and "xir" are the gender-neutral pronouns that VanderLinden prefers. "These pronouns stand in contrast to a binarist system of identification. I also use they/them pronouns while speaking," VanderLinden said. )
Thus, VanderLinden spends considerable time talking about social justice and dismantling the prison industrial complex, xe said. "I laugh at videos of animals, especially small fuzzy ones and goats. And, I am re-emerging as a Star Trek fan. I think that show tackled interesting concepts of justice and equity, especially for its time. I recently decided that if the lawyer thing doesn't work out, I should be a critic. But instead of judging things based on their artistic merit, I will call out problematic elements in them. I can hardly watch a TV show without pausing to talk about the systems of oppression it upholds."
But VanderLinden, as xe leaves the Center, is heading to Boston to start law school at Northeastern University. Xe was the community and cultural programs fellow at the Center.
"The best thing is to work with community," VanderLinden said of xir stint in Chicago. "I have been able to learn from so many advocates in Chicago and am honored to have been given this opportunity. I'd say the worst thing is how personal the work is. I never really take off my work hat; I strive to continuously work for the trans community and am continuously trans. The work-life balance, I feel, is incredibly elusive in public interest work. However, I wouldn't have it any other way."
VanderLinden, 23, who is queer and tags xir gender identity is genderqueer, lives in Uptown and is dating Alex, "an incredibly talented art therapist," xe said.
"Most of my work [at the Center] is supporting the weekly discussion groups, as well as coordinating the cultural events we put on. I have been involved in Trans Day of Remembrance and National Latino AIDS Awareness Day events, as well as other community-specific work. My highlights would be expanding programming for the trans community, as well as spreading awareness of trans and specifically non binary gender non conforming identity within Center on Halsted."
"This fellowship paired social justice-minded recent graduates with public-interest organizations nationwide," VanderLinden said. "The fellowship also provides a cohort to share experiences with, and to have meetings with other leaders in public interest fields."
For xir work, VanderLinden was named one of Windy City Times' 30 Under 30, awarded in late June.
"I think gender non-conformity is such a wide field, with so much room for exploration and possibility," VanderLinden said. "The gender binary is incredibly constrictive, and I think is a relic kept relevant by present hierarchies. The gender binary is a divisive tool that is prescriptive and ultimately harmful. It is definitely harmful to anyone exhibiting gender variance, but I also think it is harmful to those who unquestioningly sit on either side of the constructed see-saw.
"I think my work has been on a person to person level of raising awareness. While trans people are getting more recognition, non binary identities are still relatively new concepts. My non binary identity focuses on the space between the binary definitions of 'man' and 'woman.' My identity means that I identify with neither, and furthermore see the classification of genders and sexes as problematic. By living outside of the gender binary, I reject the limitations of biological determinism and societal gendered norms. In my work as a future attorney, I want to both represent and be representative of the trans community as a lawyer."
The trans community has been under the mainstream media spotlight of latenot often favorably.
"Sheros like Janet Mock and Laverne Cox have done public interviews and responded to icky questions," VanderLinden said. "Advocacy groups like Lambda Legal and GLAAD have published guides on treating trans people with respect. However, many people, including people within community, are in growing pains. We all are unique individuals, so one identity label won't cover us all. We each have different aspirations and experiences. I think what is coming ahead is hopefully space for everyone to be able to authentically tell their story. I also hope policy changes are coming up, like inclusion of trans-related health care and protections against employment discrimination. I also hope we can gain rights for immigrants here without papers, abolish caceral systems, and confront other oppressions. We have intersecting identities and need intersectional movements."
VanderLinden said xir coming out as a genderqueer person is nonstop, never ending.
"I try to play with gender and gender expression, which causes a lot of misgendering in my daily life," xe said. "Sometimes, those opportunities can be educational, and I can take the time and emotional space to explain my pronouns and how to refer to me respectfully. Other times, I just need to move on. I sincerely believe in the fluidity of our identities. I haven't always identified as queer and genderqueer. And, I don't expect I will always identify in the same way. I want us as a community to give ourselves room to love ourselves and to love our growth."
VanderLinden said xe wants to use xir eventual law degree "to work within an unjust legal system to help defend and advocate for trans people," xe said.
Xe is uncertain if that will take the form of one-on-one advocacy or more of an "impact litigation" type, xe said. "I see the legal field as one with extreme power imbalance, and I want to do my part to help tip the scales back down."