L’lerrét Jazelle Ailith: Winnovating Transgender Youth Activism
When I was in college (Tulane University Class of 2014), I spent a lot of time on my laptop reading articles, studying for exams, but mostly reading, liking and commenting on things posted on Facebook while trying to make it look like I was still doing my work. (Look, we all know if you’ve ever pulled an “all nighter” or went to the library to “study with friends” in college that 31%-62% of your time is spent on Facebook. Trust me, I have 4 years of data on this topic.) On one such night, I remember being on my computer
trolling on Facebook …I mean…doing some research when I came across a post that caught my eye on my timeline. The post was made by a Transgender student at Xavier who was trying to raise awareness for a proposed amendment to the University’s constitution that addressed whether or not one had to be born male or female in order to be selected as Mr./Mrs. Xavier respectively (Xavier University is a historically black Catholic university located in New Orleans, Louisiana). After reading the post and sharing it, I remember thinking about how brave this young person was for pushing her traditionally conservative institution to confront its exclusion of Trans and gender fluid people in its constitution and being excited to have learned about her in the context of young Queer activism and organizing for youth of color in New Orleans.
A few weeks ago, I once again found myself
trolling on Facebook doing something online that I swear was relevant to my job when I stumbled across the trailer for the new show “The T Word” by Laverne Cox (I met Laverne Cox when she headlined the 2014 Tulane Black Arts Festival of which I was the chair my senior year of college and have since fangirled about her pretty regularly). While I was initially excited after hearing the premise of the show, I got more excited when I thought I recognized one of the faces in the trailer. Sure enough, when I watched the first episode I realized that I was seeing the lovely face of L’lerrét Jazelle Ailith, the Xavier University student who had made the call to action over the amendment to the school’s constitution, as one of the main characters that the documentary style show profiles.
I reached out to L’lerrét (on Facebook of course) for an interview about the Winnovative work she is doing for young Transgender women of color in New Orleans (and now nationally through the T-word) and she was kind enough to sit down with me for an interview.
Tell us your story. Who is L’lerrét Jazelle Ailith?
Ailith: When people ask me “who are you?” I really don’t know [because] I’m currently defining myself. I’m just a young girl trying to grow and blossom and do what she can do to effect some change in the world. I am a Queer, Trans, Person of Color and I am living authentically – wanting to love and build community with my sisters and family so we can all get to a space where we can fight systematic oppression by sharing resources and uplift one another. Right now I am trying my best to contribute to the movement. I think in every movement the youth are super important because they bring a lot of nuance to discussions and have different perspectives. I like to use my artistic abilities and my academic background to contribute to discourse and dialogue around certain issues that Trans people face, and I also have a blog. With my blog I try to bring that young perspective…I like to have it out there so people can see that a young Black Trans woman and her sisters are developing consciousness and redefining who we are in a way that will help the movement and push it further than just settling on being acceptable or getting pity from our oppressors. I talk about social justice and the intersections of being Black, being Trans, being a woman, being an academic…all of these identities and how they shape my perspective of the world.
[Interviewers note: You should most definetely check out her blog at http://llerretallure.com/]
What does it mean to be a Transgender woman in society? What does it mean to you personally?
Ailith: Society identifies persons who are Trans as those who don’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. I was born with the identity of male [so I was judged] based on the norms males are subjected to, such as being masculine, but I did not identify with those male archetypes, I was the opposite of that. Personally, I don’t believe in the term ‘Trans’. I think we just identify as Trans because we need some type of commonality amongst the oppressed people for us to be able to notice one another and come together, but for me, being Trans is just living authentically for yourself and redefining who you are for yourself. I think a lot of people, and I’m not downing people who are cis [gendered], but I think a lot of young people don’t even think about gender or a lot of the things they are forced to do that they think they are doing freely but they are not. I think Trans people were able to develop that perspective of, OK ‘we are critiquing the society around us and critiquing the way we move in the world and we have to define ourselves in the ways we wish to navigate,’ so that’s what Trans is for me. A lot of people like to say there are only Trans men or Trans women, but I think we forget gender is not a binary, it’s not concrete and there’s a whole sphere of what gender is.
Tell us about your work advocating for Trans women of color. What motivates you to do the work you do?
Ailith: I am a senior in college right now and when I entered college I wanted to be a pharmacist. It wasn’t until the summer of 2012 when I started examining my gender and really questioning who I was because I just felt so different and unhappy and
discouraged. I dealt with that for about a year, then the summer of 2013 I did an internship in Michigan and it was a science and humanities internship so I got to talk to people who were in the humanities and gender studies fields. It was so fascinating to me so I started doing more research in my community and understanding that I was Trans. Seeing Laverne Cox and how my representation wasn’t what people were saying it was fired me up to really build! Here at Xavier University of Louisiana, I have no community, so when I got back to New Orleans, I linked up with BreakOUT! which is a youth LBGT organization that fights the criminalization of Queer youth in New Orleans. Their agenda was so inspiring to me and the fact that we got opportunities to talk to other Trans women around the nation was just wonderful and I blossomed so much. I felt validated and empowered and I knew that would be really important for others as well, so I’ve been trying to use my academic background to push that for others so we have a community of social justice advocates for Trans youth of color.
What keeps you doing the work you do?
Ailith: In order to do the kind of work where you help those who are victimized and oppressed by society, you have to get yourself in the mindset of not operating under a capitalistic tyrannical system and reinforcing those ideals. If you can’t understand that materialistic poverty is not something that is the end of the world…that having few material resources is not the end of the world and striving for “success” is actually damaging to certain communities if you don’t go back to them, without
understanding that then you can’t do work in certain communities…let’s take Laverne Cox for example. Laverne Cox could have taken her success and kept it, but she didn’t do that, she goes back into her community and helps our community out. What she has done is used the master’s tools to achieve success in this capitalistic system and then gave it back to her community. So if you can see how that is so important, then you can see what drives me and really helps me get through school. There are many times when I think ‘alright I just want to drop out’ but understanding that there is a way to revolutionize the spaces we are in and what society tells us we have to do is really motivation in my work. I just want to see our community not struggle to try to fit into a society that wasn’t made for us to fit into. It’s a fallacy that we think [outsiders to the system] getting money or getting material things have broken the system or have broken the code – we haven’t really.
What is the biggest obstacle you have overcome? How did you overcome it?
Ailith: I think the biggest obstacle for me would have to be the point where I started hormone replacement therapy. Before I started hormone replacement therapy I was totally fine, I was living and loving it, then I started hormones and…we have these expectations to look like cis women and be like cis women and it took a long time for me… I’m still working around it, that desire to look like the ideal cis woman. I think it really hurts me and the movement and hurts the stances I take if I can’t love myself as is. I preach that we need to be defined by how we want to be but then at the end of the day I look at myself in the mirror and realize that I’ve internalized shame, but it’s through the love and bonds I’ve formed with my sisters that we’ve talked through issues and it’s really helped me to feel more validated and worthy and remind me there’s nothing wrong with me and that the
world needs to get on my program.
What is the importance of Trans inclusive spaces? What do you get there that you don’t get in your everyday life?
Ailith: Recently I went to the Black Trans Revolution summit which invigorated me so much. Being around people who think like you, act like you, who live similar experiences to you…it feels so much more powerful and you feel like can’t nobody tell you nothing! Being in these spaces is so affirming, so empowering, you see your community, your people all around you interacting and loving and saying, ‘Look sis, I see you and your issues’. Navigating spaces that aren’t Trans-validating, where people don’t acknowledge you is very hard..you seem like you’re on your own and you have to fight just to be seen. When I’m in spaces with other Queer people and my truth is acknowledged, people see me and they respect me, but in my everyday life, I’m not really seen. I have to fight to be seen as the woman I am.
What song would you choose as your theme song?
Ailith: My theme song would be “Drum Life” by Brandy. It talks about you being born inside of a drum and you living your life in that drum and you should love it and dominate the world…basically walk to the beat of your own drum!
What is a quality you love to see in others? Why?
Ailith: I appreciate honesty, but I guess that could be a double edged sword. I appreciate it because you are able to see people for who they are, and we’re able to work our issues out because we are all on the same page, but on the other side there are people who are brutal with their honesty. At the end of the day though, I think a lot of the issues we have is because people want to hide things, they don’t want to be open and honest about themselves and their intentions.
What words would you give to young trans folks who may be struggling with coming into their identities?
Ailith: Don’t be afraid to ask questions and to reach out. I think a lot of the work we are doing of trying to increase visibility isn’t effective because a lot of the girls who are visible are standoffish and don’t want to give advice to the younger girls, and a lot of the younger girls don’t want to ask for help. I think one of the biggest steps is reaching out and wanting to get knowledge and trying to understand other people, especially those who came before you and creating a chosen family for yourself.
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