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Jessica R. Durling braved the rain to visit our office for a conversation on seemingly common-sense ways to respect human rights, resilience and self-care for activists, and tips for aspiring allies.

This is part two of HeartWood’s #PassionProject, an interview series which aims to highlight youth voices and youth-serving organizations while providing exposure to opportunities for youth and adults alike to become positive participants and contributors in our communities.


HeartWood:

Tell us a little bit about yourself?

Jessica:

I’m Jessica Robin Durling, I’m a journalist, human rights activist, and radical sex theorist.



HeartWood:

Radical sex theorist?

Jessica:

Well, human rights activism tends to be viewed in society as more radical, so I thought you know if they’re viewing me this way, why not take it as a whole new title?

Some of the most basic human rights statements like “a trans woman’s sex, biological sex is female” tends mainly by cisgender people tends to be viewed as “GASP! How can that be? B-but what about the trans part?” and there’s a general lack of understanding around that stuff, such as what it means to be trans: someone’s sex designation doesn’t match their sex at birth- essentially a female is misidentified as male at birth, usually for having sexual characteristics that aren’t typically thought as to correlate with their sex. A female born with a penis, for example, will in our society since we only determine someone’s sex at birth based on their genitals- if a female is born with a penis they’re going to be mistaken as male, when really they’re female, and likewise for a male born with a vagina, or someone who is neither male or female or a mixture of the two.

There’s a lot of miseducation; a lot of people when they hear “transgender” think “a man in drag!” or “a male that becomes female”. You can see that with older terminology being used by cisgender people like “MTF” or “FTM” when really no, they don’t change sex, they were always that sex, they are biologically that sex.

They [transgender folks] may need to go through medical treatments like hormone therapy if they suffer from dysphoria, which happens when a female has a high testosterone level or a lot of sexual characteristics which aren’t typically associated with their sex. But it doesn’t make them male. Those statements are thought of as revolutionary for some reason, when if you just listened to trans people you would understand that. So I took on the title “Radical Sex Theorist” and also because it sounds really, really cool.



HeartWood:

How did you become engaged in this work?

Jessica:

Long ago I was a little scene, nerdy, high school student.



HeartWood:

Like the best of us.

Jessica:

Like all of us [laughs], but yeah. I moved a lot of my childhood but I spent my high school years in a rural community known as East Hants. Some of you may know that name, some of you might not have the fondest associations with it. I went to Hants East Rural High which is made up of several village communities. When I was there I was the only out trans person, and the school board demanded that trans people be segregated, that they use facilities that are neither male nor female marked. So I said blatantly “No”, I wouldn’t. They said that if they got a complaint saying that I wasn’t using them, they would suspend me, and if I kept refusing, they would expel me. So it was either be segregated or be expelled. They said “At this point, you only have one year left, come on Jessica, do you really want to get kicked out of school in your last year?”

And I said “Well if I’m cool with this then it’ll be down to the next poor child to have to suffer through this, and I’m not really cool with that on my conscience, so I’m like no, I’m not going to follow it.” Sure enough eventually they suspended me. I of course fought it, and media ended up hearing of it. Very recently trans rights legislation passed in the provincial legislation, which means it’s illegal to segregate and discriminate against trans people in Nova Scotia. The media got ahold of that and made it into a big story so the school board went “Well, we’ll make you an exception to rule!” So I’m like “No, I’m not cool with that!”, so I met with the school board, and again, then the department of education, and eventually they created new trans-friendly policy; they consulted me, the Nova Scotia Rainbow Action Project, and The Youth Project.

Now it’s not only illegal, but against department of education policy to discriminate and segregate trans people. The scary thing is that these laws are not in place in every Canadian province. A young child could be expelled from school for being trans, which is frightening to think about. That’s what got me into human rights activism.

The first time that I decided I wanted to call myself a human rights activist was when the human rights commission called me. After all of this went down they presented me a human rights award, and I thought “You know what, I kind of like that title” and I went on to lead a petition to make it easier for trans people in Nova Scotia to change their sex designation, to not require any kinds of surgery. Yeah, I guess I’m a human rights activist now. That’s what started it.

HeartWood:

I can’t imagine the challenge of trying to get legislation passed. How did you overcome those challenges?

Jessica:

There was definitely adults pushing against me. The principal blatantly told me that there are staff within the school that didn’t think I should have human rights. At one point I was in class and a staff member asked to speak with me outside of class, and she just spewed to me that she didn’t think I should have human rights. I was leading the GSA at time and one member told me they overheard a group of guys who were creating a small petition to make it so that I would have to use male facilities, and that if they could succeed in this quest to revoke me of human rights, they could gang beat me in the washroom, where no one else could see and there were no video cameras to record it.

So it was definitely brutal, there was definitely pushback. It became less of who is my friend and who isn’t, to who thinks I should deserve human rights and who doesn’t. Even close friends would begin to get targeted just from being my friend. Bottles were thrown at cars, catcalls were in abundance. It was something, alright. I feel it really desensitized me to bigotry towards myself, which is useful as an activist, to not take it personally, but also as you analyze it, it’s pretty scary to think about.



HeartWood:

How do you stay engaged? There’s so much hate in this world, how do you take care of yourself?

As I said, I’m pretty desensitized to it so that’s big advantage for me, one that I know a lot of activists don’t have the advantage of having. Like any activist, I do get activist burnout; sometimes I just need to take time to myself, chill with my friends. I keep my personal life and my political life very separate. I’m not out as trans in my personal life, I keep it very separate. I have friends for well over a year that have no idea I’m trans, I don’t talk about that. I’ve dated people that never knew.



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HeartWood:

What advice do you have for potential allies, and people who are interested in educating themselves?

Jessica:

That’s a hard one. Listening is such as key, important thing. Understanding that trans females are female, trans males are male. Non-binary peoples’ sex is non-binary. They are neither male nor female, or they are a mixture of the two. Use someone’s pronouns when they tell you, use someone’s name that they chose, regardless of if it says it on their ID or not. If they say they’re male or female or non binary, listen to them, use their pronouns, understand that, let them use facilities that match their gender. Don’t hold discriminatory attitudes or belief that they’re not really or not biologically that sex, because they are. As an ally it’s super important that when you hear transphobia and hear bigoted comments it’s important to speak up and say no that isn’t right. It’s important to be there for your trans siblings and your LGBT siblings as well.

A big thing about education is that you can give them the resources, you can put it there for them, give them the support, but if they’re not willing to learn, they’re not going to learn. It sucks. I try to be out there on social media, and when LGBT youth ask me “What can I do to make my parents accepting?” it’s really hard to say. All you can do is give them time and education and maybe, hopefully they’ll come around, but you can’t make them accepting.

Another thing that annoys me so much is the sort of overeager ally, the try-hard ally “You’re so brave for existing, you’re so beautiful!” as if it’s somehow a shock that I’m attractive, like I am attractive thank you very much, I am beautiful, I’m wonderful- but are you flirting with me? I know I’m brave, Pottermore said I’m a Gryffindor. I’m a human rights activist and that requires some bravery and guts, but being inherently LGBT doesn’t make me brave. That’s kind of an annoying, repetitive comment to get. So I’m thankful that I keep being trans separate out of my personal life so I don’t get that comment all the time, because it slowly grits at your ears.

If you want to compliment me good, compare me to Luna Lovegood- sorry I’m a massive Harry Potter fan, it’s my weakness. But why not actually compliment specifics of my work, not “You’re LGBT (specifically trans), you’re so brave!”



HeartWood:

What does support and community look like and feel like to you?

Jessica:

That’s a hard one to answer particularly. I understand the importance of community, and community is so important, but it’s not something I personally take too much of a part of because of my personal versus political life. I do understand it is important, you need it, because if you don’t [have community] you can begin to think that you’re alone, that you’re a freak, that you’re ostracized, an outcast. It’s important to know that you’re not alone, and that there are millions of others like you.

Personally, I definitely do go to Youth Project events, which I’m very happy that that community is there. The LGBT Youth Project is an organization for LGBT Youth in Halifax; they have drop-ins and other groups for LGBT Youth, [ages] 25 and under. That’s in Halifax, Nova Scotia (2281 Brunswick St, Halifax, NS B3K 2Y9, Canada). I very much recommend it. When I grew up, me and a closeted friend went to a trans youth support group that they had. It was my first time meeting other out transpeople. I was sitting there like “Woah, others, others in person, in real life that are standing in front of me- what is this? Other out youth!” That was an incredible experience for me. I don’t know what I would have done if I never had that community back then. I would have been a much more solitary person with a much less optimistic outlook. When I was in the closet I definitely made some trans online friends that I still have on my personal Facebook today that I occasionally talk to because it’s so important to know that you’re not alone and there are others out there. Human beings are very social animals. We have a pack mentality, we socially imprint on others, and it’s so important to have that community there. We are not solitary animals.

Global Village online communities are wonderful. I started an online trans social group. I don’t check it as much as I probably should, there are other people moderating it so I’m not particularly worried. Seeing that community come together when it does appear on my Newsfeed or in my notifications makes me smile a little.



HeartWood:

Do you think Halifax is a good place to be for LGBT youth?

Jessica:

It’s better than a lot of rural communities around Nova Scotia I’ll say that. There are definitely still discrimination issues, there’s no covering that up. But when I first stepped on my university campus I thought “Did I die and go to heaven?” I couldn’t believe that such an accepting atmosphere existed, compared to what I was used to. That is wasn’t a consistent fight and struggle for survival. There’s happiness, there’s friendships, all those things exist.



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HeartWood:

Is discrimination more of a problem from older folks or younger folks?

Jessica:

Thankfully I live in Halifax now, so it isn’t like it used to be. Back when I lived in a rural community it tended to be different. With younger folks it used to be more vocal harassment, more violence, more plotting to beat me up, those sorts of things. With older folk it was more institutionalized, let’s discriminate, segregate, take away education opportunities, and more using the system rather than what we consider physical violence. Both acts are very violent and can kill in very different ways.

There are plenty of accepting older folks, usually they’ve grown up with more miseducation. I’ve met lots that are wonderfully accepting and are trying their best to learn, and absolutely want to learn. I’ve met some very unaccepting older folks and very accepting older folks. In International Development, which is my minor, we learned that three generations is what it takes in a human rights struggle to learn, to un-learn, to grow up without those stereotypes. It takes three generations, which is an interesting theory, that we will one day achieve a world without those stereotypes believed, but it will be something I will never fully live to see. But it’s also something I can live to create. It’s an interesting idea.

Something I’ve noticed with people over 50, their morality seems heavily tied with legality. So just pointing out that discriminating against trans people is illegal in Nova Scotia, and trans peoples’ rights are in the Nova Scotia human rights act, can surprisingly shift their opinion quite significantly. Where in our generation there seems to be quite a dissonance between legality and morality, which in the older generations that dissonance doesn’t seem to be there.

With my mum, I know she wasn’t accepting at first, like at all. She was the model of unacceptance. But after time, after education, a couple years later she became very accepting and now is the model of acceptance essentially. Changes do happen, they might not be terrible in a sense forever, you just have to give them the education, give them the time. There are resources on the Youth Project’s website.

I personally love metaphors, it might be able to click for them, to bring in how harmful transphobia, biphobia, homophobia is, how it kills. Learning how much it hurts when these things happen can definitely help influence them.



Interested in learning more about radical sex theory and how you can get involved in human rights activism? Luckily Jessica is a self-professed social media addict. You can contact her Facebook page, Jessica R Durling or tweet at her @elmsjustice. Although she claims drawing is beyond her, you can also check out her co-authored series of LGBT and human rights related web comics via 2Punk4U on Facebook.



Do you have a #PassionProject you’d like to share? Contact us at lauren@heartwood.ns.ca!