New podcast, ‘Transcripts,’ shares stories and struggles of transgender activists across the U.S.
Myrl Beam, Ph.D., a Virginia Commonwealth University faculty member, and Minneapolis City Council member Andrea Jenkins — the first Black, openly transgender woman elected to public office in the United States — are co-hosting a new podcast, “Transcripts: A Podcast from the Tretter Transgender Oral History Project,” that explores how trans people are remaking the world.
Beam, an assistant professor in the Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences and author of the 2018 book “Gay, Inc.: The Nonprofitization of Queer Politics,” is currently serving a two-year appointment as the oral historian fellow for the Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Studies at the University of Minnesota.
As the Tretter Collection oral historian in residence, Beam has been collecting local and national histories of community organizing, policy development and political activism for transgender rights. The new podcast aims to share the oral histories he has been collecting with a broader audience.
“I’m in the amazing position of getting to interview trans activists and leaders from around the U.S. about trans movements for justice, learning about trans visions for another world, and about the kinds of activism it will take to get us there,” Beam said. “I get to hear deeply nuanced, thoughtful, strategic takes on the gender binary, on the relationship between gender, policing, poverty and systemic racism, and about the limited value of formal legal equality, and a host of other issues.”
Beam hopes “Transcripts” listeners will gain an understanding of trans issues and activism beyond debates about bathrooms.
“The mainstream narrative about transgender activism is so narrow and so limited that it really does a disservice to trans people, and really to everyone, because it naturalizes and normalizes the gender binary,” he said. “I want to share the thoughtful and nuanced takes that I’m so privileged to get to learn from with a much wider audience, so that more people can think in more complex ways about trans activism and social change.”
The podcast’s first episode, “I’m seeing my liberation right now,” was released on June 24. In it, Beam and Jenkins explore stories about the challenges faced by trans people of color. The episode includes guests LaSaia Wade, founder of the Brave Space Alliance; Diamond Stylz of Black Transwomen Inc.; Gabriel Foster, founder of the Trans Justice Funding Project; Rickke Mananzala, former executive director of FIERCE; and Dean Spade, founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project and author of “Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of Law.”
“Even though transgender-themed TV shows like ‘Transparent’ and ‘Pose’ have achieved mainstream popularity, trans people still face huge barriers to employment, housing and safety,” according to the episode’s description. “In fact, many trans people of color say that their lives are harder than ever before. … [The episode investigates] how trans activists are grappling with those contradictions — and what they’re doing to change the system.”
Beam said the episode was inspired by the fact that despite positive mainstream media visibility of trans people, trans women of color — and particularly Black trans women — continue to be murdered at disproportionate rates.
“Another way of framing that question is this: What would it take to keep Black trans women safe? And not just safe, but living with safety, self-determination and joy? And the answer was clear from my interviews: the strategies of white dominated LGBT movement organizations, focusing on a formal legal equality and ‘we’re just like you’ visibility, simply do not help Black trans women in any concrete ways,” Beam said. “The deep collusion of systemic racism and transphobia that make Black trans women so vulnerable will not be solved by anti-discrimination bills or TV shows.
“And in fact this new visibility, when not accompanied by political work to challenge racist and transphobic policing, to decriminalize sex work, to create more affordable housing, to make gender affirming medical care a universal human right, can actually make people more vulnerable because trans women of color can be seen and targeted in new ways,” he said. “This message is deeply relevant in this moment, as so many white LGBT people are reminded, once again, that Stonewall was a riot led by trans people of color to protest police violence — work trans people of color continue to do, out of necessity, without the support they deserve from the mainstream LGBT movement.”
"I want to share the thoughtful and nuanced takes that I’m so privileged to get to learn from with a much wider audience, so that more people can think in more complex ways about trans activism and social change."
The podcast is funded by the TAWANI Foundation and the Minnesota Humanities Innovation Lab. It is also supported by Virginia Humanities, which provided a grant to produce an episode focused on trans activism in the South.
The first episode of “Transcripts” is available for download now and will air as part of the July 11 episode of the public radio show “With Good Reason.”
As part of his work as the Tretter Collection’s oral historian, Beam has been developing an archive of searchable oral histories of trans activists and movement leaders describing their work, and the world for which they are fighting. The archive is a valuable resource for students, scholars and community members, he said.
“So much of the mainstream narrative about gender transgression is determined by powerful, cis-dominated institutions, still even to this day: the media, schools, police, the law, doctors and psychiatrists. Institutions structured by the gender binary and for whom trans people pose a problem to be managed. It’s amazing to hear trans people tell their own stories, and reflect in complex and nuanced ways about navigating those systems, challenging them and transforming them.”
The first 25 oral histories Beam conducted in fall 2019 are available online, augmenting the first phase of oral histories collected by Jenkins, a writer and activist, who served as the Tretter Collection’s first oral historian and made history in 2017 when she was elected to the Minneapolis City Council.
Work on the podcast began before COVID-19 and protests across the country following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Yet, Beam said, the podcast is deeply relevant to the current moment.