Beginning in the early evening of March 28and for almost 48 hoursgroups encompassing the spectrums of color and gender identities were gathered in the spacious River North offices of Dev Bootcamp. They included programmers, web developers, designers, visionaries, idealists and artistsimpassioned people with the seedling of an idea requiring a simple marriage of technology and code to nurture into web products and applications that may one day change the world for transgender and gender non-conforming communities.
The participants of Trans*H4CK Chicago clustered around whiteboards and laptops, sketching broad strokes and then fine-tuning ideas for new apps, social-networking platforms, websites and games. The atmosphere was dynamic and replete with the formation of new friendships, animated discussions and mentors and volunteers offering counsel and inspiration.
Joshua ( Hedon ) Maravelias, Rusty Cook and Matt McCarthy were collaborating on "Family by Choice"a social-networking platform where older members of the trans and queer communities can provide resources, structure and care for trans kids. "Often times, trans youth are homeless because their families are not accepting or they don't have familial role models," Hedon explained. "This idea will provide that for them. Older people can come together, adopt parental roles and take younger members of the community under their wings to form that kind of familial bond. The platform will integrate that online." Hedon added that their goal was to have a prototype by the end of the Trans*H4CK weekend with a prospective launch a month later.
Kara Carrell was focused on a whiteboard on which was detailed the elements of "No Solo"a concept based upon building a community around the idea that trans and queer people should not have to go anywhere alone. "I think there's a lot of major events that we keep ourselves from going to," Carrell said, "because of the barriers of transport and the fear of going alone. So this is about learning who is in a person's neighborhood and connecting them so they can broaden their access and ability to attend something that can help socially or with self care."
Carrollwho describes herself as a "queer Blaxican and wannabe developer"said she never likes going anywhere by herself and that her idea will help reduce the isolation of people who are new either to the city or the community. "We've started out with the idea of ride sharing," she explained. "The premise is that everybody has somewhere they want to go and we're trying to match people who might also be going to the same place, like finding a support buddy to go to a doctor's appointment who will stay with you and then get you home safely."
At the center of all this unrestrained enthusiasm was the creator of Trans*H4CK, Dr. Kortney Ryan Ziegler. In the space of a couple of hours, he had visited every corner of the room, occasionally taking the microphone to offer a few words of encouragement, running around ensuring everyone was fed or had a bottle of water and hosting an interview with celebrated game developer and critic Mattie Brice.
Ziegler conceived Trans*H4CK as a direct response to the issues that often devastate a trans person's life: the loss of a job, a home, inadequate access to healthcare, discrimination at almost every level of society and from within government programs. It is part of his uncompromising and relentless advocacy that was demonstrated and bequeathed by the grandmother who raised him in Compton, Californiaa woman who, at the same time, went to every last length to help nurture his love of technology. Ziegler said that she was not only supportive of his gender and sexuality but also his creativity and a lifetime fascination with learning.
"I was 14 years old and I went to a summer program for kids who wanted to go to college," Ziegler remembered. "There was a computer class and I went online to mtv.com for the first time in my life. As I watched the site slowly load, I just fell in love. I went home and begged my grandmother for a computer. We were really, really poor but she saved up and bought me a computer on my 15th birthday."
He was glued to it from that moment. "I taught myself how to design websites and did a lot of research on how to navigate different sorts of technologies," Ziegler said. "It changed my life. It was the first time I was able to meet teenagers who were queer in chat rooms and online and that just blew my mind."
Yet, when he was a ninth-grader at Compton High, Ziegler would often come home crying. "It was a horrible learning environment," he recalled. "I begged my grandma to take me out of that school. At that time, in LA County, where ever you lived you had to go to that school district. So she had to suffer through the court system to allow me to go to a different school. But she understood what education meant to me."
Ziegler honored her fight for that education first at the University of California Santa Cruz, and then during his masters in ethnic studies at San Francisco State. It was as a part of the latter institution that Ziegler began a more personal journey outside of academia. "I identified as a lesbian until I was 21 and never felt comfortable with it," he said. "But going to grad school gave me a great opportunity to explore myself through meeting other trans people. I thought 'hey, that could be me,' but I was still very hesitant."
Meanwhilehaving read his thesisZiegler's department chair encouraged him to go for his Ph.D.something Ziegler never imagined possible. "I just didn't know if I was smart enough," he smiled. Nevertheless, by 2006 Ziegler was applying himself to his doctorate in African-American studies at Northwestern University.
At the same time, he was beginning to question his gender identity. Those questions and the search for a commonality in the struggles of his peers lead to Ziegler directing what was to become a celebrated and award winning documentary. STILL BLACK: A Portrait of Black Transmen was painted with the enduring and unforgettable accounts of six men who talked unashamedly about the struggles and consequences of living visibly. The film garnered international acclaim and won both the 2008 Isaac Julien Experimental Award at Queer Black Cinema and the Audience Choice award for Best Documentary at the 2009 ReelOut Film Festival.
Yet, Ziegler said his professors at Northwestern simply didn't get it. "There was a lot of push back to STILL BLACK," Zieger remembered. "I was dealing with people who were superstars in their field butat the same timewere bigots. They looked like me but didn't understand that I was going through a gender journey. African American studies is a new field. It discusses slavery but hasn't caught up with gender identity and sexuality."
Ziegler summed up his experiences at Northwestern as traumatic enough to push him to graduate in quick measure. He became the first person to receive a doctorate in African American studies at Northwestern but that is something he does not dwell upon. "I've left a trans queer legacy at Northwestern, but I'm still trying to grow from that as a person and move on from that experience," he said.
Today, Ziegler lives in Oakland, Calif., and is still engaged in a learning process driven by a ravenous curiosity about the unknown around him. It has continued to fuel his filmmaking. However, he has also begun to amass meaningful and lasting friendships. His Twitter account describes him as "Your new best friend." The relationships he has forged have been among the many benefits of what is now his third Trans*H4CK. "I'm an extrovert but I still have a hard time making adult friends," Ziegler admitted. "But at each one of these, I walk away with new friends, respect and a different perspective on humanity."
Even more prolific, the first two Trans*H4CKsheld in Oakland and Las Vegas respectivelyhave already produced sites such as Dottify.mea social surveying site for the trans* and gender variant communities that allows users to create anonymous identities, place themselves on a map, participate in surveys and share their stories. There's also a Trans Health Access Wiki and Trans H4CK Clothes R4ck where trans people can exchange clothes at different points of their transition allowing both economic and expressive sustainability.
As Ziegler ended his discussion with Windy City Times, in another corner of the Trans*H4CK Chicago room, trans health activist Riley Johnson was putting an app together to aggregate and automize the upkeep of trans medical referrals. "Sometimes records and provider lists aren't accurate or people aren't talking to each other across agencies," Johnson explained. "My hope is to make that process easier in that there will be one spot that will contain all the referral lists."
As Trans*H4CK wound up March 30, Johnson's idea and each of the others will be reviewed by a panel of judges. The winning design will be presented during the Trans 100 ceremony at Maynestage later that evening.
Ziegler said he is optimistic that something extraordinary will emerge from the weekend. "You know, even if nothing comes out of this, the actual experience of people of different races and colors being in this room together sets a precedent among trans advocacy and activism," he said. "Sometimes we are very separate in the work that we do even though we are fighting for similar causes, but the fact that we can exist in this space together and have different allies means we are changing ourselves internally. That has a ripple effect that can help trans people all over the globe."
Ziegler's grandmother passed on when he was 22. By that time, she had set into motion the ripples of education that became a wave to power Ziegler's own life. "Without her, I would have dropped out of school a long time ago," he said. "If my grandma was here right now, she would be in this room willing me and all of us on."