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Riki Wilchins

Gender Activist

Washington, DC

I’m sure I lost plenty of jobs because of who and what I am. But I also believed in Jesse Jackson’s admonition that the only answer to discrimination is excellence, and over two decades I seldom wanted for work.

Alice Walker advised women and minorities “never be the only one in the room,” but being a transgender I seldom have that luxury. And being gender non-conforming, I’m usually hyper-visible as well.

Back in the 1980s, “transgender” was still a very new word—there were few of us and even fewer who were out. Like most people, my response to isolation and visibility is to want to fade out and blend in. But while this might get me by, I learned it would never get me ahead.

I had dropped out of the final year of my PhD in clinical psychology when it became clear that, even in Manhattan, there weren't a long list of people anxious to be treated by a therapist who had changed sex. This was just as those funny new “personal computer” boxes had started to hit the market.

I bought a new PC and armload of books, and taught myself programming. But I had no place to sell my skills. I knew IBM’s corporate headquarters at 57th and Madison sold computers and software, but no programming services. Half nauseated with a combination of fear and self-consciousness, I put on my best suit, walked in and asked for the manager.

Five minutes later he was looking me over frostily as I explained that I could program software for potential customers so his store – and the nine others like it – would sell a lot more computers.

In three years, I had a million-dollar consulting firm employing a dozen programmers. Alas, when IBM exited the retail business, it collapsed overnight.

So I decided to market myself as a programming consultant to Wall Street. I became an expert in user interface, especially how to improve the legibility of trading displays.

Banking and brokerage is a cutthroat business; I knew there would be discrimination. I’m sure I lost plenty of jobs because of who and what I am. But I also believed in Jesse Jackson’s admonition that the only answer to discrimination is excellence, and over two decades I seldom wanted for work.

By the mid-1990s, I semi-retired to work on transgender civil rights. Back then transsexuals were expected to stay quietly in the closet and try to “pass.” This made political advocacy nearly impossible. And indeed there was none.

Then Brandon Teen was brutally murdered (memorialized in the Oscar winning movie Boys Don’t Cry). The mainstream news coverage was awful, and the gay (not yet “LGBT”) community ignored it. I was outraged – that could have been me and many people I knew.

I'd never heard of transgender people doing street protests, but I organized four dozen activists to fly in to Falls City, Nebraska for memorial vigil outside the courthouse where Brandon’s murderers were being tried. The local Neo-Nazis spit on us and tried to run us down and the Sheriff had to be called in. But today, there’s a nationwide Transgender Day of Remembrance to honor hate crimes victims.

The next year, over 100 of us organized a National Gender Lobby Day. No one had ever heard of transgender people on Capitol Hill educating their Members of Congress. I honestly thought we’d get arrested, especially the male cross-dressers – in high heels and dresses – would have to use the Women’s Rooms. But it all worked out. And the 19th Lobby Day will be held this year.

At nearly every important junction in my life, I’ve had to lean in against that empty, sick, scared feeling we all get and tell myself, “Oh right, I know this feeling – I'm doing something new.” And now, I’m no longer always the only one in the room.

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