When transgender activist Rae Nelson, 26, found herself in the women’s bathroom at the Arkansas Capitol Building with State Sen. Linda Collins-Smith recently, it was kismet.
It was March at the time, and the legislator was in the midst of trying to pass a bill in Arkansas to block transgender people from using public restrooms that matched their gender identity. (The bill was similar to one passed 2016 in North Carolina, triggering national outrage and leading to damaging state boycotts until it was imperfectly repealed this year.)
“I turned to her,” Nelson, of Little Rock, tells Yahoo Style, “and asked, ‘Do you know who I am?’ And she came up and hugged me like I was one of her constituents.” What Nelson said next might surprise you only if you haven’t met her before.
“So I turned to her and said, ‘I just wanted to let you know that I am a black trans woman and we are in the bathroom together and you survived,'” she recalls, laughing — which is how security reacted, Nelson says, when Collins-Smith called them over to claim she was being harassed.
“I’m a very assertive person,” Nelson admits. “Borderline aggressive, probably!”
But it’s that assertiveness that has gotten her this far on a journey of personal and political discovery that began when she was 5, told by her grandmother that she wasn’t supposed to play with Barbie dolls like her older sister. “She told me that boys don’t play with dolls, so that was my earliest realization that something different was going on,” recalls Nelson, who is studying to be a transgender-specializing nurse practitioner.
As a teen, she came out as a gay man, which her family and friends took relatively well. “But inside I felt that there was something more going on, though I hadn’t really discovered words for it yet,” she says. A turning point came in high school, when she saw a picture of Amiyah Scott, the transgender model and actress. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh, wow, a black trans woman,’ but I still didn’t think, ‘That’s me.'”
Soon after, Nelson joined the Navy Reserves and began studies at the University of Arkansas, where she met a black transgender woman. “We hit it off instantly and that’s when I realized, yes, I’m definitely trans, too, and I need to figure out what I want to do about this and how to go about it.” Around the same time, she had the chance to meet transgender author and activist Janet Mock, who directed her to a supportive website called Transsexual and Transgender Road Map.
That came just in time, as did others in her support system, as Nelson “got to the point where the urge” to transition “was so unbearable that I was suicidal,” she recalls. “It was a life-and-death point.”
Thus her transitioning journey began. In 2013, she changed her name to Rae and, a year later, with the help of a therapist, started hormone therapy. A major moment of strength came when the dean of her nursing program sat her down, said she’d noted the name change, and asked how both she and the program overall could support her transition.
“She asked if I wanted her to get faculty and staff to start addressing me as female,” Nelson recalls. “That was so affirming and beautiful.”
Meanwhile, Nelson made it clear upfront to friends and family that they could either work to accept her transition or step aside. “Some relationships continued that day,” she merely says, “and some did not.”
But there was also the matter of her starting to show female traits while still being in the military reserves, which had not yet started allowing trans service members to serve openly. “I was living a double life, where one weekend a month I’d have to pretend not to be this woman whom I said I was, and still present as a boy.”
Then, well into starting estrogen therapy, which breaks down muscle, she failed a military physical readiness test for the first time. So that settled that: She left the reserves. But by then the die was cast. With other trans service members nationwide, Nelson was starting to tell her story to the press, as part of a coordinated effort to get the military to drop its anti-transgender policy. She says she had the support of her commander, who would update her on behind-the-scenes progress.
By this point, she was living openly transgender — with just one problem. Most of her transgender friends were white. “There’s such a unique set of challenges at the intersection of black and trans issues that I felt very isolated and alone,” she says. (Major reports have shown that black transgender women face disproportionately high rates of unemployment, poverty and violence.) “My only black trans friends were through Facebook.”
Still, she would not turn back on her path. As a member of the Arkansas Transgender Equality Coalition, she began volunteering to speak publicly all over the state on trans issues and rights. “That’s what I’d been yearning for,” she says. “It felt very affirming for me and made my social transition that much easier.” She says that her politicization was as much about speaking up as a black person as a trans person. With white activists, she says, “even constructive criticism can be construed as questioning their authority. They don’t like being challenged or pushed back on.”
And then, early this year, amid the new national conservative resurgence of Trump’s election, came not one but three bills in Arkansas to try to keep trans people out of bathrooms corresponding to their gender identity. The governor called the bills unnecessary and harmful to the state, but the battle in the capitol building was still on.
That’s where Nelson spoke out before lawmakers. “I said, ‘Trans women of color are dying every year and you’re worried about what bathrooms we use? You’re trying to disenfranchise us even more,” she says.
Thanks to the efforts of Nelson and other activists, the bills have been defeated — at least for this year.
But Nelson knows that facing down Collins-Smith like she did isn’t the end of her individual or political journey. In addition to her nursing studies, she’s on the boards of Lucie’s Place, which serves Little Rock’s LGBTQ homeless youth, and of the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, named for the pioneering black trans activist from New York City. And she has no intention of leaving Little Rock. “I have the ability to have real influence on policy here,” she explains. “We girls have a safe political space here now so we don’t have to run away.”
And that’s due partly to the work Nelson’s done so far — and she’s only getting started. “I want to keep using my voice and my skill set to benefit my community,” she says. “Once black trans women are free, everybody’s free.”
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