TC Tolbert had been going to the Transgender Day of Remembrance vigil for years, and he felt that the event was overwhelmingly sad. For this year's vigil and Transgender Remembrance Week, TC—who was born biologically female—created a project called Made for Flight, an empowerment project for youth and allies to remember transgender people who have been killed. Participants are given a transgender person to commemorate through writing, and those words are transferred onto kites. The kites will be displayed in various places during Transgender Remembrance Week, which starts Nov. 15, with the culminating event being the Transgender Day of Remembrance candlelight vigil at Catalina Park on Nov. 20, where the kites will be flown. Visit www.madeforflight.blogspot.com for more information.
Tell me about your history.
I'm originally from Chattanooga, Tenn., truly the buckle of the Bible Belt. ... (In) third grade, I was in the girl's bathroom, and a friend's mom said, "Oh, little boy, you're in the wrong bathroom." And I was so hurt, you know? ... When I was in the fourth grade, my best friend was in the sixth grade, and she said to me on a trip, "Hey, I know what you need: You need a sex change!" ... I went home that evening, and I remember my mom was ironing, and she asked, "How was your trip?" and I said, "It was great; I want a sex change!" And she put down the iron and started crying. She said, "If God wanted you to be a boy, God would've made you a boy." I got the message pretty clearly that I certainly couldn't have a crush on girls. ... I came out as a lesbian when I was 23. When I was about 26, I started questioning my gender identity. ... Four years ago, I started taking testosterone.
How did you tell your family?
Very carefully! ... My family was not supportive of me coming out as lesbian ... and so I had a feeling the transgender thing wasn't going to go over well, either. When I started testosterone, my mom got really upset and she said she was going to kill herself. That was a really hard time. ... She has since told me in the last year or so, "Y'know, I prayed for a long time for God to change you, and what I realized is that I needed to start praying for God to change me."
What advice would you give to somebody who is going through this?
Get support in whatever way you can. ... Here in Tucson, there are support groups at Wingspan ... and the Southern Arizona Gender Alliance. I think just having any sort of community that you can find that will say, "You're OK; you're going to be OK," is the most important thing.
Why do you think transgender people experience so much violence?
I think our existence complicates one of our most basic assumptions about stability and consistency, in that if we can change our sex, or be born in the wrong body, what is firm anymore? ...I think the reason transgender people experience so much violence is because it scares people to their core, and it's so incomprehensible for some people.
What do you think needs to change in order for people to be more accepting of transgender people?
We've heard so much about this idea of "tolerance," and I think, honestly, that idea is so tepid and just really offensive. Tolerance says, "You're other; you're different, and we'll let you exist ... over there," when I don't think that's the goal. I think the goal is moving beyond tolerance and into celebration, and into connection with people.
How does the Made for Flight project fit Transgender Remembrance Week?
I've been attending the Transgender Day of Remembrance here in Tucson for seven years. Always, it's a beautiful event, but ... I noticed year after year that the event was primarily attended by transgender people and their closest allies. ... What was happening was those very people who were experiencing violence were then showing up at this vigil to be reminded that they're at risk for this violence. It was so incredibly sad and heavy. I thought, all of these people who have been murdered didn't just die, and they weren't just murdered. That's a part of their life, but they had this whole other life outside of that which was beautiful and important. ... I wanted to shift the focus for us as transgender people ... and I wanted to bring allies into that space.