- A caution, this piece shares stories of personal reflection that might be hurtful to marginalized individuals, they are intended as examples of growth of thought and how it is not ok to follow those lines anymore.
We the successors of a country and a time
Where a skinny Black girl
descended from slaves and raised by a single mother
can dream of becoming president
only to find herself reciting for one
– Amanda Gorman, The Hill We Climb
A funny thing happened to me this week while watching the inauguration, I found myself in tears, uncontrollably sobbing as times. It had nothing to do with Joe, although, truth be told having the day end with no violence gave me a much needed sigh of relief. Watching Kamala Harris, the sun shining on her face, the little sniff at the start (possibly holding back tears), the beautiful smile on her face, chin up and shoulders back – this moment was truly special and it got me. Even days later and now, I am still choked up watching it, my heart swelling at all the obstacles she overcame to get there. She is not one or two, but three firsts in American history, the first Black, the first South Asian and the first female Vice President.
I didn’t realize how much it would mean to me, a Canadian, to see a woman be sworn in as Vice President of the United States. I liken it to watching the Olympics though, that although I was never someone that could aspire to such greatness in sport I still tear up knowing everything that goes into that accomplishment. Kamala did what I wasn’t sure would be possible in my lifetime and she has opened the door for many to come after.
This doesn’t mean that it’s instantly going to be easy anyone coming after but it does mean that there is precedence. I still wait with baited breathe, as I am so well aware of the often double standard we have for women over men. There will be a magnifying glass over her, just waiting to point out any failures or ‘deficiencies’ but I have faith that she will go beyond our expectations of greatness. She may stumble but she will hold the door for so many to follow. Her triple threat of representation and her success will help pave the way for more Black, South Asian and/or females to come after and hopefully hold positions of even higher significance.
I am white, so my only tie to Kamala is that of being female and let me tell you that tie is strong. It also gave me a gift, it opened my eyes to why representation matters so much – truth be told before I intellectually understood it, but never really felt it. It’s really easy to go through life being ignorant to what it’s like to not be represented. Growing up, and still now, there is massive representation of white people in North America and globally. I grew up in a neighbourhood where we had lots of Asian/South Asian students but very little Black population. I also swam growing up, a very white sport, and had little friends (one of memory) or interactions with people of different races or even different religions except when attending public vs. catholic school.
When I say ignorant, it’s not meant to be harsh but honest. I genuinely didn’t know, and didn’t or wouldn’t put the time in to understand how it might feel if I didn’t constantly see like people around me. Whether it be coaches, or teachers, doctors, actors, those in any leadership position have always had some like connection to me. I used to think I understood because my body type isn’t the ideal, meaning I’m short and squat, thick thighs, overweight but really that’s a whole other thing. I basically cared but didn’t really care enough to push for representation of other races, cultures, etc. I didn’t have a culture of my own I felt affiliation for and because of that I didn’t/wouldn’t recognize the overwhelming representation of my race in our society and the privilege that comes with that. The reality is that people gravitate to those they feel are like them and we need to actively work against that in order to ensure proper representation is present.
I am embarrassed to tell this story but feel like it’s a good example of how ingrained, naive, ignorant the thought process can be – when Halle Bailey was selected to play Ariel in the upcoming live action version of the Little Mermaid, I got my back up. Why? I wanted someone that looked like the cartoon, some one with red hair, someone my daughter could see herself in, someone without wanting to say it, but someone white. It’s not that Halle wasn’t a wonderful singer or talented actress. She is beautiful and is sure to do a terrific job. What I had such a hard time admitting, what I would dance around, and tried not to acknowledge was the race piece. That my focus was that I wanted to my daughter to picture herself as the little Mermaid, a character I love, and if she was portrayed as Black, I was worried that maybe she wouldn’t be able to. This I have learned is white centering and is one of the systemic ways in which racism presents itself in white people.
What lies in my realization is exactly why representation matters. I was worried about my daughter being able to see herself in a role that I thought was important, but the reality is that she could just watch the cartoon and the more important reality is that Black girls don’t have the same number of opportunities to see themselves represented in the princess or lead roles. So I had to ask myself why is it more important that my daughters feels that? but not a Black child, a Latina child and Indigenous child? When you see it that way, it’s clear that it’s not more important. I was being irrational, I was minimizing the importance of representation due to my own wants and needs. I was thinking my feelings matter more than representation, and that is just wrong.
It is more important for everyone, regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender identity, to feel as though they are represented than my own personal feelings. Everyone should have moments where their hearts swell seeing someone like them accomplish a dream.
Representation isn’t just about race – watching Amanda Gorman present her poem, The Hill We Climb, was incredibly moving. I went deep diving after, wanting to learn more about this amazing presence. I watched a few interviews, and made my daughter watch some more. You would never know that she grew up with a speech impediment. The grace and ease with which she spoke was exceptional. Being a hand talker myself, I was equally thrilled to watch the use of her whole body to express her words. By now it is known that Joe Biden himself also suffers from a stutter.
Although you may look at these two individuals and only see their success, it is important to acknowledge the struggle that comes with either of these speech afflictions. Part of human nature can be to focus on what could go wrong or how hard something might be to accomplish; in focusing on this we hold ourselves back. When we don’t have people to look up to, people that feel like us, look like us, our dreams can seem impossible. Watching Joe get his words out, taking pause when needed or Amanda lead with such grace shows all those with similar struggles that they shouldn’t allow that one thing to hinder or define them. By that I mean, that all the positions that require constant speaking, whether it be teaching, acting, spoken artist, leader, lawyer – there are so many others are now more imaginable than before; this is representation in action.
Another piece of representation that came up with Biden was in his first executive orders which included “all persons should receive equal treatment under the law, no matter their gender identity or sexual orientation”. This will help ensure that transgender individuals are protected against discrimination. It is a stepping stone to help ensure that same sex couples are entitled to the same rights and benefits as opposite sex couples. It is important because it is saying that everyone is valued and deserving of equality. Having greater protection of rights for a group that is under represented is essential to providing a safe space for these individuals.
One needs only look at the suicide stats, that 1 in 3 transgender youth attempted suicide in 2015, compared with the average population of 2.5% and more recently 1 in 20 during the pandemic (Mental Health Commission report/Canadian Mental Health Association), it is clear that we need to do a better job of ensuring transgender individuals know they are valued and cared for, by providing support and inclusion.
One of the outcries that has come out, is from groups concerned with transgender female athletes and their inclusion in Women’s sport. This has gone as far as the ridiculous hashtag #BidenErasedWomen and the claim that there is some ‘new glass ceiling’ for girls/women in Sport. Let’s just think about the hashtag for a minute, Biden Erased Women, that because his administration wants to recognize ALL women, this somehow is erasing us? Does this make sense to anyone? It’s like people are picturing a Tootsie situation, when transgender people are only trying to live true to themselves.
There are already guidelines and testing in place by the NCAA and the IOC for transgender athletes. These levels are the ones where you would think there would be concern, because of the high level of achievement. The idea that a transgender girl or woman takes away or lessens the ability of a cis-gender girl or woman to succeed, is the same line of thinking that someone else thriving or doing well makes you less likely to also succeed or do well; which I think we can all agree is nonsense.
The ability for athletes succeeding is much more based on their privilege, access to programs, parental support, their drive, their commitment and natural ability – it has little, to nothing to do with their competition.
The reality is that life for a transgender individual has enough obstacles without cis-gender people putting more on them. Being a swimmer I can only imagine just how hard it would be for a transgender athlete to be comfortable and open. The very nature of what we wear in swimming shows the entire body. It is enough pressure on individuals to fit certain ‘ideal’ body types without having the added requirement of not fitting the uniform. If someone is brave and comfortable enough with themselves to identify as being transgender than we should celebrate and welcome them, not turn them away.
I will admit when the idea first came about of allowing transgender individuals to use the bathrooms or change rooms that matched their identity I was nervous, and questioned the potential abuse/invasion of girls locker rooms. I envisioned a teenager wanting to get their kicks by claiming their preferred identity to be female, and literally in writing this out, I am hearing how absolutely absurd that line of thinking is. It would require someone to wholly commit their formative years to an identity that doesn’t match theirs. An identity, being transgender, that is often met with hostility, bullying or worse, violence. An identity that has been/can be mislabelled and/or mistreated as a mental illness. Yes, of course it would make sense that one might to pretend to be this, you know to just, to potentially see a girl undress? Yes, this sounds very logically (please note intense sarcasm). I actually was talking this point over with a friend and they mentioned that if that it’s hard to believe that this is really a concern, as many people claiming that, are the same that brush off mysogynistic locker room talk, as boys will be boys. These people tend to be the same and that messaging is completely hypocritical, so it’s really that they just don’t like, or want to try and understand transgender individuals.
The thing about the argument that transgender individuals would behave in such a way, or that there would be abuse or perversion potential comes from fear. Yes, if a grown man walked into a restroom where my 8 year old daughter was in, I would be concerned, but at that point I could accompany her. The fact is the pedophiles/abusers tend to prey closer to home but that is another discussion entirely, one that should not even come up when discussing transgender rights. The fear that people have about transgender, is that it makes them question themselves, what they know and realize how much they don’t know.
The unknown in life, the out of our control is what is the most terrifying. When we are faced with something we don’t understand or can’t imagine being, we, as humans, tend to shut down. It’s hard work to put yourself in another’s shoes, to be open to their struggle and their pain because so often we have our own things that we are trying to deal with, but does that make it ok to deny the rights of other humans just because we as individuals can’t do our own work, NO. No, it is not ok, in case you were wondering.
Biden acknowledging the rights of gender identity and sexual orientation and his choice of Rachel Levine, a openly transgender person as the Assistant Secretary of Health, is sending a clear message that everyone belongs within the government. Everyone has a stake in the success of a nation and everyone should have a voice in it’s future. Representation is necessary for Equality to exist.
I am not expecting the new Administration to be perfect, but I will say the start has was one for the books. I know for me it gave an opportunity to lean into myself. To explore feelings and ask questions, I am grateful that it opened my heart to more understanding; I hope others feel the same. My biggest wish is that we see more, more diversity, more celebration of our differences and more commitment to represent all people.
‘We are striving to forge a union with purpose
To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and
conditions of man
And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us
but what stands before us
We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,
we must first put our differences aside
We lay down our arms
so we can reach out our arms
to one another
We seek harm to none and harmony for all‘
– Amanda Gorman, The Hill We Climb