Originally published in Synthesis Weekly: June 2015
I’ve known ian Ruddell from afar for a few years, in that Chico way of having seen or been introduced to everyone at least once. During my last semester at Chico State I was lucky enough to land an internship at Stonewall Alliance, a local nonprofit dedicated to being a resource for LGBTQ+ individuals. ian, (who prefers the lowercase “i” for his name, as in his words: “ian has always been a part of my identity and I’m finally in a space where I can celebrate that on a daily basis.”), was my supervisor there. I don’t think I’ve met a more articulate person who speaks with such passion about the issues surrounding the Gender and Sexual Minority. Recently he was kind enough to come by and let me interview him, a task made all the more difficult by the fact that it was sweltering in my house. He was a great sport though, and what follows is our conversation that day. Enjoy!
Can you tell me a little bit about your background?
I guess we’re probably going to be talking more about my identity as a trans person. Not everyone’s story is the same, and mine definitely is more of a process than a story. The beginning of me acknowledging the fact that I didn’t feel like the body that I was in was right was probably starting around the age of four years old. My mom recently told me this story about when I was a kid and I came home from kindergarten or preschool, I told her that I wanted to be called Zork. She asked why Zork, that’s so odd, and my answer was because I’m an alien. I don’t feel like the other boys and girls in my class.
Because I grew up in an area that didn’t have a lot of resources and information about gender identity and even sexuality at that time, my parents didn’t know what to do with that. So they just kept letting me be a kid. A few years later I had a crush on this girl named Amanda [we’ve used an alias here]; we kissed when we were seven. I got down on one knee in front of her family members (she was Mormon so there was an audience of about ten) and I said, when I grow up and I’m a boy will you marry me? And that was the end of that friendship (laughs). So I have those little milestones in my life, in the past seeing myself in the future as a man. And it wasn’t until I came to college and started taking courses in Multicultural and Gender Studies that I realized that hey, I can be a man, I am. So I took as many classes as I could regarding sexuality and gender identity, and when I was 21 I came out to my close friends as ian, preferring male pronouns. I began my physical transition in 2013, January 18th, 2013. I kind of put off my transition for a year and a half, because I was sitting on the board of trustees and it was a very visible position. I was the student representative for half a million students, making policy decisions, and I didn’t feel like it was safe for me to be out as a trans person at that time. So a year and a half into my term I called the chancellor and told him I would be beginning my transition, and he said be yourself and I’m here to support you in any way that you need, and that’s when I came out publicly. It was actually Valentine’s Day in 2013.
What’s your role at Stonewall here in Chico?
I’m the Outreach and Education Coordinator at Stonewall. One of the main responsibilities I have is going into classrooms and agencies or various organizations that would like more information about the gender and sexual minority in general. Oftentimes I’ll go to university classes and educate briefly on language, so they know how to phrase the questions they want to ask me, and then answer pretty much any question you should never ask a trans person. It’s an educational opportunity, and I want them to have answers that will show them how to give a little more respect and dignity to others.
I really like the show RuPaul’s Drag Race, but I know a lot of the language used on that show has been a point of contention in the community. People are upset he’s using language like “tranny” or “she-male,” and his response is “that’s our word, we can use it how we like.” What are your feelings about that?
Well the fact that he even says that’s “our” word, is inaccurate. The term “tranny,” I dont even like saying it, has been used to oppress and discriminate, specifically against trans women of color. It is a slur that that demographic hears significantly more often than any other demographic, and him saying that he’s reclaiming it, he is not in a position to reclaim it. He does not identify as a transgender woman. He identifies as somebody who performs gender for entertainment purposes. Now, RuPaul as brought the queer community out into the forefront in the public eye in a way that’s significant and absolutely phenomenal, and it really changes the game in a lot of ways. But when you have that platform, when you are that influential and transformative, you can’t be using language that’s been used to oppress and discriminate, terminology that’s a blatant form of violence against a lot of people. It’s like using the n-word. I understand where he’s coming from thinking that it’s his word, but it’s not. The other term that he uses and has since rescinded is “she-male.” Again, terminology that’s been used to systematically oppress trans women. We can play with language, we can identity however we want to, but when we start identifying in ways and using language that is triggering and offensive to others in a way that oftentimes ends in murder, is not appropriate. One of out of eight trans women of color will be murdered. So saying that I’m ok using this language because I own it, I’m sorry, but you’re not a part of that ratio.
It seems like a lot of the momentum that was gained by the GSM community came from the fact that there was a unified front, which really was one main goal; to legalize same sex marriage. However, when you delve a little deeper, there’s a lot of infighting between different groups within the larger community. Would you rather each group was represented and seen for their specific goals? Or do you think it’s more important that there’s one goal, and the community agrees upon one thing that they all want?
The problem is with the very last thing that you said, that we all want the same thing. Because that’s not true. The only thing that we all want is to be valued and treated with respect, and have that reflected in law and society. That’s the main goal. Now the ways in which we navigate achieving that goal for our own individual identities is going to be drastically different based on our own personal experience. When we have all of the various identities, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, gender nonconforming, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, pansexual, demisexual, two spirit, pangender, agender, etc… every single one of those identities is going to have a completely different experience than the letter stuck next to them on that acronym. Pulling together and cutting out the tension and infighting that we have, that needs to happen, but in order for that to happen we need to acknowledge the fact that we are different and we do need different things. A trans person like myself, I advocate part of my time working with medical professionals, making sure they know how to prescribe hormones and use the right pronouns and language, and provide the right care for a trans person. Now, a cisgender gay man is not going to have those same obstacles when interacting with a medical provider.
Can you tell me what are some of the main mistakes made surrounding terminology and language that’s used?
Sure. There’s a lot (laughs). We can start with defining terms I guess. Transgender, which is an umbrella term, the minimal definition would be someone who does not strictly identify with the sex and gender they were assigned at birth. Someone who is transsexual is someone who has undergone gender affirming procedures to better align their gender identity with their physiological self. A lot of transsexual individuals do not identify as transgender. There’s a lot of pride associated with transsexual identity, especially with older generations, because it was very difficult to even access hormones or surgeries. And before having hormones or surgeries, you wouldn’t be able to change your gender marker. So there are a lot of transgender people who don’t have surgery or take hormones, because they don’t have to. The law says you be you, and if you identify differently than it says on your birth certificate, that’s ok we can change that. Back in the day that was not the case.
Is that the case everywhere or just in California?
Specifically in California, but achieving legal rights state by state is happening much quicker than we all expected. And back to the transgender umbrella, there’s also the entire gender non conforming community. And that’s why I say “strictly” in that definition, does not “strictly” identify with the sex and gender they were assigned at birth, because there are a lot of people who identify with multiple genders, or no gender.
I want to talk for a minute about Caitlyn Jenner. When we were first talking about doing this interview, her photos from Vanity Fair were everywhere. I sat back and watched as people around me voiced their support (mostly) for her transition, and subsequent magazine cover. I also watched a bit of the interview with Diane Sawyer, and I was struck by how she (Jenner) didn’t display the wisdom or clarity I had hoped for. It reminded me that a movement can’t always choose their spokespeople, and just because we elevate this person up to be in a position to speak out, doesn’t mean they’re going to have anything particularly noteworthy to say. What are your thoughts about this issue?
I agree with what you said for the most part. I need to make a few clarifying statements. So I think it’s great that Caitlyn Jenner is able to come out now, I’m sure she probably struggled for a very long time with her identity and now she is becoming physically the person she is, and I think that’s great. It’s wonderful, and more power to her for being on the cover of a magazine. I think it’s unfortunate that her female identity is minimized to her sex appeal and physical appearance, but if that’s how she wants to present and that’s how she feels she is on the inside and wants to be on the outside, then more power to her. Do I want her representing the transgender movement, and to be the voice of trans people? No. I want to applaud her in her courage, and then I want to move on to the real issues surrounding the movement. Like homelessness, unemployment, suicide, depression, bullying, murder, and legal rights.
Who are some people that you feel better represent the movement?
Laverne Cox and Janet Mock are two of the most well spoken, articulate people. The executive director for the National Center For Transgender Equality, she is absolutely phenomenal and I’m blanking on her name. [Mara Keisling] We also have Masen Davis, the former executive director of the Transgender Law Center, Ben and Rachel Hudson from the Sacramento Health Center. We have local activists in the community here too that have very strong, powerful voices that should be represented. Of course the Kardashian chaos is going to bring this more into the public eye than any other person could.
Do you think the overall effect was a negative one, or positive?
I don’t think anyone being their true, authentic self is going to set our movement back. I think people are talking about trans identities more now than they were before. I think that can only be a positive.
Are you optimistic in general about where everything seems to be leading?
I think we’re becoming more educated than we were before, I think we’re gaining access to rights and medical care and conversations that we haven’t had access to before. But I feel like we live in a day and age when everyone is allowed to have an opinion. and everyone feels that their opinion is the opinion.
And they can broadcast it so easily.
Exactly. And I think that that leads to a significant increase in bullying, and depression. And we’re hearing more and more about these youth suicides, and that concerns me. But the more we educate those who need to be educated, not just those who want to be educated, the better off we will be.
If you had a direct line to everyone in the world and could relay one message, what would it be?
Be true to yourself, and respect others that do the same.
Where can people reach you for more information?
I’m always open to having a one on one conversation with someone that wants to learn more. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, you can call us at (530) 893-3336, we offer volunteer opportunities, internships, we also have a variety of support groups, and a counseling program. Anyone regardless of identity can use that program, it’s low cost or no cost, depending on your financial situation, so we don’t discriminate based on income. We just want everyone to be empowered here in Chico.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Thank you for keeping the conversation going.