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Arts & Culture

Ryka Aoki speaks as part of Trans Week

Professor of English and gender studies discusses storytelling, advocacy in intimate talk

Contributing Writer
Tuesday, November 11, 2014

“By being yourself, that can sometimes be the greatest gift of strength you can give to others,” said Ryka Aoki, professor of English at Santa Monica College and of gender studies at Antioch University.

Ryka Aoki, an esteemed trans writer and professor of English at Santa Monica College and of gender studies at Antioch University, addressed a small group of students in an intimate talk at the Brown/RISD Hillel Monday evening.

Aoki’s lecture was the keynote address for this year’s Trans Week.

Stories and biographies emerged as recurring motifs throughout her talk. Aoki discussed the difficulty of determining what to include in her biography, tying that challenge to something larger: the struggles trans people face in achieving autonomy over telling their own stories. A “directive to focus on certain aspects of our identity is forced on us,” she said.

While trans people know who they are, she added, they often have to define and justify themselves — a tiring vigilance that takes time away advocacy and other activities.

Aoki used this motif of stories and self-definition to frame the overarching theme of her talk, which was a call to action. While she lauded safe spaces — citing her talk as one  — as places for trans people to find refuge, she said such spaces cannot serve this purpose alone. Safe spaces need to be used not only to react to societal injustice, but also to address it through action, she added.

Aoki criticized what she called a culture of hero worship in the queer and trans communities, citing Laverne Cox as a high-profile individual who is often praised for her activism in the trans community.

“There are always a few people who are badass and do everything,” she said. “That cannot last. We’re burning people out.”

Instead, she emphasized that teamwork is essential to effect change. “We’ve got to let people take a break.”

Aoki exhorted students to channel their “Ivy privilege” for the sake of advocacy. While it is unfair in some ways, she said, many Brown students will become leaders in their fields simply due to their status as Brown grads. She added that students do earn this privilege to a certain extent, and rather than rejecting it, they should take advantage of it to incite change.

“You know hard work. Some of you sickos actually enjoy it,” Aoki said. “You need to channel that. … That’s what we need.”

Aoki followed her talk with a reading of two of her poems and a question-and-answer session. Students asked her about issues of community, identity and reconciling being a private individual with public advocacy.

Aoki said though she does not write for the sake of advocacy, “when I write my poetry, a trans person is going to find me.”

“By being yourself, that can sometimes be the greatest gift of strength you can give to others,” she said. Sometimes, she added, leading a happy, fulfilling life is itself an act of rebellion.

She also emphasized the importance of not letting a single aspect of one’s identity eclipse every other part of an individual. “You can enjoy making scrambled eggs without it being some gendered thing.”

Trans Week, which is run by GenderAction and sponsored by various organizations on campus, is currently in its fourth year. The week “was started because of the lack of visibility within the queer community and the general campus for people who are trans or don’t identify as cisgender,” said Sana Teramoto ’16, one of GenderAction’s leaders.

Trans Week continues through this week and into next. Events include a film screening and discussion about Laverne Cox on Tuesday night, a workshop entitled “Beyond Pronouns” on Thursday and  a workshop on cissexism led by Minority Peer Counselors next week.

Teramoto cited the importance of Trans Week for educating Brown students. “Instances of transphobia even happen at a place as generally great as Brown,” they said. “We as a campus need to do a lot better.”

Teramoto asked Aoki specifically to keynote Trans Week because she is a trans person of color. “Even within the trans community, those of us who are people of color often get left out, so we really wanted to bring in someone who could speak about that experience.”

Aoki herself expressed support for Trans Week, describing it as a “signal beacon” — a way of exposing GenderAction to the wider Brown community. She explained that making students aware of the trans community on campus will help more isolated trans students.

“Even if they never come to the queer events, they’ll know they’re not alone,” she said.

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  1. The Muppets said it. Joan Jett said it. Aoki said it. Be yourself. Doesn’t matter who you are – if you can be yourself, whoever that person is, and for whatever reasons it’s hard to be that person sometimes, you help others be themselves too.

  2. Crud Packson says:

    So, is transfat still something to avoid?

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