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OutRight Action Gala Highlights Trans Lives

Zimbabwean activist Rikki Nathanson, “Transparent” cast honored

Zimbabwean transgender activist Rikki Nathanson, OutRight Action International’s Felipa de Souza Award honoree, addresses the May 7 Chelsea Piers gala.
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OutRight Action International, championing the rights of LGBTQ and intersex people around the globe since 1990, raised trans visibility high at its annual awards gala on May 7, honoring Zimbabwean trans activist Rikki Nathanson and TV’s “Transparent,” as well as lesbian business leader and activist Beth A. Brooke-Marciniak.

“I thought I was femme queer,” OutRight’s executive director Jessica Stern said at the Chelsea Piers event, “but only to feel butch after following [the cast of] ‘Transparent’ and Rikki Nathanson.”

Nathanson, honored with the Felipa de Souza Award (named for a 16th century Brazilian woman persecuted during the Portuguese Inquisition for acknowledging her relationship with another woman), shared her harrowing story of being arrested in 2014 for using a women’s restroom in her hometown of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe — surrounded by police, carted off to jail, forced to strip naked, mocked by officials as “a poor excuse for a woman,” and held for three days. She not only successfully pursued acquittal, but sued the government of then-President Robert Mugabe for violating her constitutional rights.

In 2015, Nathanson founded Trans* Research, Education, Advocacy & Training, or TREAT.

“Zimbabwe is a beautiful country,” Nathanson said, “but it is steeped in transphobia, homophobia, and corruption.”

In a horrifying backlash against her pursuing her own defense, her home was broken into and she was beaten in her bed. When she later attended a conference in the US, her home was invaded again so she applied for asylum here and it was granted — miraculously given the hostility of the Trump administration to asylum-seekers in general and transgender people specifically. Unlike too many other asylum seekers, however, Nathanson’s persecution back home was amply documented.

“In these are dark times,” she said, “we still cling to that sliver of hope and knowledge that we the LGBTQI community are resilient, tough, and smart…. We not only survive, but grow and even flourish in our fabulousne­ss.”

Nathanson is already hard at work in DC as the HIV prevention and outreach coordinator for Casa Ruby, which serves homeless transgender youth.

“Transparent,” the groundbreaking Amazon Prime series that began in 2014, was honored with the OutSpoken Award for its “heart, humor, and acceptance” as well its “queer actors and crew,” said OutRight board member Suzanne Rotondo.

Cast member Tracee Lysette raised a few eyebrows and even more consciousness when she said, “I was a sex worker just a few blocks south of here and took the money from turning tricks to invest in acting class.” Of “Transparent,” she said, “We are witnessing herstory… the first trans story built with trans people at every stage of development.”

Alexandra Billings, also from the show, introduced herself as “a 57-year-old, mixed race, bi queer trans lesbian.” A survivor living with HIV for more than three decades, she recalled the pain and neglect she encountered during the earliest decades of the epidemic and said, “All of us stand on the shoulders of the human beings we have lost.”

Honoree Beth A. Brooke Marciniak, global vice chair for public policy at the accounting firm EY with responsibility for its operations in 150 countries, talked about coming out eight years ago and said, “No one of us is as good as all of us” and that learning to be “partners is a 21st century skill.” She stressed the need for businesses abroad to promote cultures of tolerance “within their four walls” to affect the often homophobic cultures that their employees go back home to in the evening.

OutRight’s Stern wrapped up the evening with a stirring call to action, saying that the right wing is not going away.

“We cannot let them out-spend and out-organize us,” she said. “This is why OutRight matters. Outright is a powerful antidote to all those who support hate.”

Stern called for “solidarity” with LGBTQ communities around the world, which “starts with listening to each other and supporting each other. It means if you’re American, you must think internationally. It means if you live with privilege, you must think of others.”

Then, she added, “Everyone can be an activist.”

The OutRight gala took place just 10 days before the world marked the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia.

Updated 2:25 pm, May 23, 2019
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