The Office for Multicultural Affairs (OMA) hosted Angelica Ross, an African American transgender activist and businesswoman, on Monday. The talk, which was originally scheduled as a part of the Ethical Challenges of a Diverse Society speaker series for Black History Month was rescheduled due to snow. Ross, who is also an actor and author, spoke about her own life as a trans woman as well as the creative design firm which she founded, TransTech social enterprises, and her role in the TV series Her Story.
Named a “foot soldier of the year” by former MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry in 2015, Ross started her own company in order to empower transgender and gender-nonconforming people by providing job training and workplace skills.
Ross began her talk by using the analogy of the caterpillar and the butterfly, likening it to the experience of being transgender. It seems easy when viewed from the outside, but in reality it is a painful experience. Ross, who was raised Christian but currently identifies as Buddhist, talked about how religion helped her find worth in her life and experiences.
“Buddhism put me on the path to discover my value. When my mother, who claimed to be an agent of God, told me to kill myself, she said either you kill yourself, or I will kill myself because I cannot live with the thought of you,” she said.
After this conversation with her mother, Ross attempted to kill herself by swallowing several pills.
“I took all the pills in the cabinet and just blacked out. And I woke up at some time in the middle of the night, thank God, and I was basically throwing up everything I had swallowed,” she said. “I hear so many people talking about God speaking to them... but I had this moment where I identified with God speaking to me,” she said. “But the reality is God said, “Why are you trying so hard to make me love you when I created you? Don’t listen to what they’re saying, I know you. What’re you doing? Just get up and walk, and I’ll walk with you.”
A leader in the transgender community, Ross went on to talk about what led her to start her company. She spoke about the differences between the goals of the transgender community and the greater LGBTQ community and why she felt she had to start her own trans-focused company in order to achieve the results that she wanted.
“You have trans issues that have been historically placed at the bottom, not just by the society, but by my gay and lesbian and bisexual brothers and sisters,” she said. “We have cis people who are running programs that are designed to address trans communities. Not only are they running [them], but they are also the spokespeople of organizations, the medical field, the federal government, and they’re positioning themselves as gatekeepers.”
Addressing the current attitudes within television and movies towards transgender people, Ross discussed the television series which she is starring in, Her Story.
“It’s directed by a trans person, it's acted by trans people, it features trans people on its soundtrack,” she said.
A love story, the show follows the lives of two transgender women who live in Los Angeles. In a clip of the show, which Ross played, her character and another are on a first date. Ross went on to talk about dating as a transwoman and how she makes the decision to tell someone she is transgender.
“Society has put us in the place where they feel that it’s almost my duty to tell you my personal medical, anatomy history,” she said. “It shouldn’t have to be this sort of life and death situation.”
Ross talked about the hardship she went through growing up and the reaction of her community, especially at her church.
“As soon as I started to shows signs of femininity, they started to pray on me, the pastor would lay his hands on me and pray, p-r-a-y. But what I have really come to feel is that they preyed on me, p-r-e-y-e-d,” she said. “If you can’t see the beauty in all things you don’t have the right to speak for all people... because you don’t see how I can pick up my cross and walk.”
Discussing self-acceptance, Ross spoke of a traumatic experience which led her to acknowledge her true gender identity. After her attempted suicide, Ross joined the military where she tried again to hide her true feelings.
“They hung me out the third floor window trying to get me to admit. In the time of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell [the military’s former ban on openly gay and lesbian service members], they were asking me to tell,” she said. “They were hanging me out the window by my ankles, on the third floor. And I saw my life flash before my eyes, and I knew that when I left that room that I would never, ever, ever, ever try to live my life as someone else because it nearly cost me my life... That decision you make, to give up your power, to give up your identity... is like signing your own death certificate.”
Senior Diamond Hale enjoyed the talk, saying she identified with Ross’ theme of acceptance.
"I think Angelica Ross did a phenomenal job of truly getting people to see her transgendered experience. We all go through changes in life, and we all want to love and be loved. If we see these similarities and appreciate these differences, what is stopping us from embracing our own authentic self and everyone else’s?" Hale wrote in an email to The News-Letter.