The 400-plus trans* people and their allies, friends, spouses, partners and children who gathered July 27 at Ardmore Hollywood Beach in Edgewater were a living, joyful testament to how much has changed in such a short period of time. The first Chicago TransPride beach party was celebrated fewer than three miles from Montrose Harbor where the body of Selma Diaza trans* woman whose friends described as a lover of lifewas discovered in May 2011.
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The stories of trans* individuals coming out even just a few years ago often share common themes. The sheer terror of walking out in public for the first time, alienation from family members or friends and verbal or physical attacks from passers-by combined to make the experience one of profound isolation that tested courage and resilience every single day.
Small groups of trans* people organized online and met at Chicago's social-service agencies or the few trans*-friendly bars in the city. Some would arrive in their work clothes, changing in restrooms and emerging nervously as if expressing their actual gender still made them guilty of a crime.
On July 27, no one had officially declared the Ardmore Hollywood beach a "safe place" for those attending TransPride. They didn't have to. There was no pointing or staring as people arrived, laid out their towels and soaked up the bright afternoon sunshine or went for a dip in the cool water of the lake. Far from apprehension or shame, the atmosphere was one of carefree liberation as people made new friends, played beach volleyball and a community that not too long ago was shadowed and diffuse steadily grew in size and presence with each passing hour.
"We will stake a claim and join together to be visible, and proud," the event's Facebook page said. The result was precisely what organizers and trans* leaders such as Crispin Torres Carmona, Alexis Martinez, Jauna Peralta, Owen Daniel McCarter, Jen Richards and Joey Grant were hoping for. "The event really is meant to create a trans*affirming space in a place that is typically not the most trans*-welcoming," Torres said. "Being in Chicago, the beach is where you go in the summer but trans*people don't always feel as ready because they don't feel super safe and the bathrooms are not gender neutral."
"We wanted to have something to bring people together," Martinez agreed. "It's important for people to have not only political events but social events so they can build community, friendships, learn to relax around each other and just share some time together."
"It occurred to us that summer is a great time to have this kind of event," Torres recalled. "There are LGB events all over the city and the country and it was kind of strange that Chicago didn't have many trans*events that are really just for visibility and empowerment through visibility."
When planning began in June, Torres envisioned a low-key afternoon with perhaps a hundred or so people. Once word got out, more than 450 indicated on the event page they would be coming. "It really snowballed into something much bigger than I had ever imagined," Torres said. "I think it's great and so exciting that so many people are enthused about it."
Trans 100 organizer, writer and activist Jen Richards said such a marked change in trans* people's confidence as well as the growth and poise of the community are results of a number of factors. "With the rise of social media, trans* people started connecting," she said. "The more that we knew each other, and found strength in our relationships, the more we felt empowered to be visible. Then people like Janet Mock, Laverne Cox and Geena Rocero started standing up and being unapologetic about being trans*, and there are ideas like #GirlsLikeUs, Trans Tech Social, Trans*H4CK and the Trans 100. It's all happening at the same time."
For those joining the beach party, words such as "amazing" and "wonderful" were echoed with the surprised tone that accompanies any positive and unmistakable change. Filmmaker and School of the Art Institute Adjunct Professor Mickey R. Mahoney remembered a small but enthusiastic group who got together a couple of years ago. "Now, we have an official trans*beach day and this is bigger and better," Mahoney said. "I'd love to see it keep growing every year."
Meggan Sommervillean Aurora trans* woman embroiled in a very public fight against discriminationsaid she wants to see it expand beyond the borders of Chicago. "This is awesome!," she said. "We need to do events like this more often and reach out to the trans* community in the suburbs who feel disconnected."
"We are rooted in the idea that trans* people need to stay connected with one another," Torres said. "We don't spend enough time celebrating the resilience of our community. We have struggled for a long time but the whole purpose of visibility is the radical notion that if one of us can be a trans* person in public then another trans*person who is closeted knows that it's OK to be whatever you determine yourself to be."
Meanwhile, many of the beach goers gathered together for a massive group picturethe trans*class of 2014 graduating from solitude and despair into the warm embrace of community.