By JT Perez | June 4, 2018
Transgender Advocate & Prevention Educator, Alianza of New Mexico
For some reason, I am seen as a leader. This isn’t something that comes naturally to me, but it’s a role I’ve done my best to step up to. I’ve received help in this effort from mentors, friends, community and family, and it’s made a world of difference to me.
Leadership is transformative. I’ve seen it change individuals, organizations and communities. It can save lives. It can lead the charge for social justice.
This is why I’m excited when people choose to develop their leadership skills. I believe this means not only learning to be a leader yourself, but creating opportunities for others to become leaders—especially members of the transgender community.
JT Perez is an invited speaker at ETR’s upcoming Be the Change Institute, a professional development opportunity for transgender individuals working in HIV prevention and their allies. The institute, a collaboration with AIDS United and JSI Research & Training Institute, takes place June 21-22 in Oakland, CA. Learn more here.
For any of us, the pathway to leadership is a personal journey. Our stories will be distinct, but we can learn from each other’s experiences. When I was a kid, my dad instilled in me hard work, determination and discipline when it came to sports. I was always practicing, always training, always improving, and when I played on teams, coaches would ask me to step up to team captain. I wasn’t sure why and I wasn’t always comfortable with it, but I accepted it and did my best.
In 2010, I began volunteering with the LGBTQ community. I started out as a greeter at the local LGBTQ center. “Hi.” “Hello.” “How are you?” “Welcome.” I could do that.
Gradually, I worked my way up to being the volunteer coordinator, where I found myself in situations that put me as the middle person trying to manage conflicts between different individuals. This is where I learned the importance of honoring the individuals who volunteer for any organization. Soon after the center closed, people started asking me to join local committees and boards. I felt insecure about being seen as a leader in the queer community. What did I know? Why should I be the one representing the trans community?
Two answers came up for me. First, I thought about the things my dad taught me. He was a salesman, a regional manager, someone who knew how to figure out what people needed and how to resolve conflicts. He gave me some advice that has four key elements:
He explained that when you have an effect on other people, you can multiply the good you hope to achieve. I have been following these precepts ever since I learned the importance of volunteering. I believe I need to be an example because I now understand that I have a responsibility to others.
And that brings me to reason number two for stepping up to be a leader: it’s for our queer youth. LGBTQ minors and young adults are part of our communities, citizens of our nation, and they are being harassed and bullied and discounted in so many ways. Some of them are killing themselves because they feel so lost and alone. I cannot stand by knowing that these things that happened to me—being bullied, being beat up, feeling out of place and like an imposter—are still happening to our queer youth today.
So being out as a leader in the transgender community is one way that I can make a positive difference. I want younger people to recognize who they are, know that they are okay and be proud of their unique gifts and qualities. If my story can help them achieve that sense of belonging, then I need to tell it.
I spent way too much time not understanding myself, not knowing myself, and feeling like an imposter. I grew up identifying as a lesbian. When I went to college, I learned about “transsexuals” (now considered a pejorative term, but that was the term that was used then). The focus was entirely on male-to-female transitions. I didn’t even know female-to-male people existed. I was 43 when I met two trans men presenting a Trans 101 workshop at our LGBTQ center. For the first time ever, I was able to say, “Wait. That’s who I am.”
This was much too long a journey to find myself. I don’t want young people today to feel out of place and inauthentic for anywhere near as long as I did.
So I am speaking up, I am being a leader when I am called, and I am encouraging others to lead as well. I know this team effort is working. Our trans community in Las Cruces is larger than we first thought and I think that we are visible and strong. We have three different support groups in town and we have parents who come to the support groups with their transgender children. Hopefully, these kids are going to grow up with the strength and confidence all children deserve.
We are changing their narratives. We are stepping up and empowering children and young people. We are multiplying the good by sharing our stories.
I am honored to be invited as a speaker at the upcoming Be the Change Institute (see box). I’m excited to meet transgender people from all across the country and to learn from them. I can’t wait to see what happens when we are all together, becoming better and more determined leaders.
I believe we will return to our communities more prepared than ever to Be the Change. Each of us may be only one drop in the river, but together we can create a mighty force for social justice and good.
We need more transgender leaders in our communities. We need the support of allies to make that a reality. If you’re an ally, remember, “Allyship is a verb!” So get active. Here are some things you can do.
One of the best ways to build leadership is to give our marginalized voices a chance to establish regular employment, obtain health benefits, and play a visible role in the business and activities of our communities.
JT Perez has been a transgender advocate since 2013. He is a prevention educator with Alianza of New Mexico. He appreciates the opportunity to share his personal story not only to empower himself, but also to help others feel empowered. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.