Ever heard the phrase “life is too short?” The truth of the matter is that most people desire longevity for themselves and for their loved ones, often claiming that life is “too short” as is. There is a certain level of discomfort associated with the idea of having a person full of life, with a world full of opportunity, no longer exist. The devastating reality though, is that some people do not feel that taking a next breath is worth the while. Currently, 41% of all transgender persons have attempted suicide in their lifetime, as stated by special guest speaker, Willy Wilkinson. In other words, approximately four out of every ten transgender people intentionally tried to create an expiration date for their own life.
Willy Wilkinson is an educated, transgender, Asian-American male who refused to contribute to that devastating statistic. He stands before me today, as the first transgender person I have ever met, and he does so with a smile bright enough to light the room. He reads resilience as his demeanor announces confidence and his presence radiates out enough positive energy to touch each member of the crowd. Aside from having attained a Master’s in Public Health and being an author, Willy Wilkinson also talks about the blessing of being a father to children who aren’t “indoctrinated with these ideas of what’s ‘not okay’.” He opens up the talk with a narrative from his book. “Are you a man, Dada?” says his 4-year old son, at the time. “I’m a girl but I feel like a boy, and always have,” replies Wilkinson. “You’re a transformer!” shouts his son, in complete admiration. At the time, Wilkinson hadn’t begun the sex change and he explains that it was actually one of the first time that he’d received “cool points” for being exactly who he was.
Wilkinson’s identity struggles do not stop there, though. He also struggles with his cultural identity on top of that. Wilkinson’s mother is Asian and his father is Caucasian. Prior to the medical transition, people would look at him for long periods of times, holding “exotic” stares, according to Wilkinson. He talks about how people were very resistant to calling him by male pronouns before the medical transition. After the transition, however, Chinese people begin to refer to him as “he.” He defines resulting feelings of pleasure. Further down the road, he has this experience at a grocery store whereby this “Asian passive aggressive woman” treated Wilkinson’s child as though she were “defected” because she does not look fully Asian. She compares Wilkinson’s daughter to her own daughter who came out with curly blond hair, and adds to it by making a racial remark about Puerto Ricans. As a result of this conversation, Wilkinson starts to wonder if his sex change made him seem more monoracial and he utterly “refused to partake in ‘monoracial bonding’.” He believes that his daughter reflects beautiful layered complexity.
Wilkinson then transitions into the topic of intersectionality by asking the audience what cultural competency means. To his dismay, not one person answers. He explains the importance of cultural competency, which is the ability to understand and effectively interact with diverse populations. As he elaborates upon the topic, a crowd member voices her current struggle as a Caucasian Penn State student who personally sees exclusion on the basis of skin color. She introduces herself as a physicist who is trying to increase cultural competency within an organization specifically for physicists like herself. The woman expresses her deeply rooted frustrations, as she that “committee members aren’t open to listen regardless of the fact that talented physicists are being denied on the sole basis of skin color.” Wilkinson encourages her to continue pursuing equity for her organization in an attempt to extend feelings of inclusivity for those students who are just as qualified as the rest of the physicists. He warned her, however, that if people aren’t wired to think that way, it will be hard to sway their thought processes.
At the age of four, Wilkinson asked his dad if the faces of the people on money were white men. His dad replied, “Those are all former presidents.” “I decided then, that I wanted to be a white male because that’s the only way to be powerful in the U.S.” says Wilkinson. This short anecdote speaks volumes in support of the controversial notion known as “white privilege.” As stated by Wilkinson, 90% of LGBTQ homicide victims are people of color. Is there less tolerance for LGBTQ persons who happen to be colored? Being a person of color sometimes means taking on an extra load that you didn’t ask for. It means not being understood in certain environments because in a room full of educated persons, not one person could answer the question “what is cultural competency?…..