Society has evolved in various aspects, but many people still lack an open mind when it comes to understanding and embracing the various gender identities that surround us.
Members of the transgendered and transsexual community face a constant struggle for equal rights and acceptance. Although there are more educational resources available nowadays, discrimination is still very much alive.
Seven years ago, Wingspan's Southern Arizona Gender Alliance, the University of Arizona's Office of LGBTQ Affairs and the ASUA Pride Alliance, among other LGBTQ organizations, created Trans Awareness Week. The purpose is to celebrate trans people, bring attention to the discrimination and violence they encounter, and provide spaces where people can come together and learn more about "the trans identities in the gender galaxy." Events like this have given Tucson the reputation of being a safer place—with loads of helpful resources—for the trans community.
"I grew up in a place that had no resources for transgendered people," said Rae Strozzo, program coordinator for the Southern Arizona Gender Alliance. "I knew that there was a trans community out there somewhere. So when I found out about Wingspan, it became one of the main reasons why I decided to move here."
Strozzo was born and grew up as a girl. But like many trans people, Strozzo did not feel comfortable being referred to as female. Facing the beginning stages of his transition in a small town in Georgia, Strozzo felt like there was no balance in his life. He was desperate for support and a sense of camaraderie.
"I maybe knew one trans person by the time I moved here," Strozzo said. "There was a lack of terminology, a lack of knowledge, and the community that I was trying to interact with did not know what to do with me. It was great to come to a place where there is a strong trans community, with places that are willing to help us when we reach out."
The first Trans Awareness Week was held almost immediately after Strozzo moved here. In the South, he had never heard of a trans event of such a caliber, so he decided to volunteer. Over time, he became more involved with SAGA, not just as a helping hand, but also as one of the many trans people who benefit from its services.
SAGA was founded in 1998. The group has provided educational, outreach and support programs for the trans community. These programs are also available for allies of the trans community who hope to eliminate society's prejudices against trans people.
"SAGA, and organizations like it, make it safe for trans people to just be," Strozzo said. "In my hometown, I wish I had met someone who was trans and comfortable about it. It would have made it easier for me. SAGA gives people who are barely starting their transition the opportunity to meet others with similar experiences, and make the situation more comfortable."
Strozzo's experiences with SAGA have built his self-esteem, and he said it is almost as though the discomfort and unhappiness he once felt have disappeared.
Organizations that support trans people, along with events such as Trans Awareness Week, make it acceptable for trans people to sort out their identity while in a safe place.
"A lot of the most important people in my life are transgendered, and it was one of the main reasons why I wanted to be involved," said Kaleb Stephens, co-director of the ASUA Pride Alliance. "And being a volunteer at Trans Awareness Week helped me be true to who I was and come out as trans."
Strozzo and Stephens both believe that speaking up and informing others about transgenderism will make society open its heart. They say some people are afraid and quick to judge things they do not understand, which is why Trans Awareness Week has a huge focus on educational panels and other activities where people can get information from the mouths of trans people themselves.
The event is held in conjunction with the Transgender Day of Remembrance, to honor trans people who have been victims of hate crimes.
"We want people to realize that the gender world goes beyond two boxes marked 'male' and 'female,'" Strozzo said. "We need to push the boundaries on how we understand gender expressions. With this event, we want people to leave with more knowledge on where we're coming from, and become our allies in fighting against discrimination."