This is the first edition of a new interview series called "The Q List," in which Windy City Times sits down with the creators, movers and shakers of queer culture in Chicago to highlight the important faces and happenings in Chicago's LGBTQ community.
The first interview is with Jen Richards of We Happy Trans (WHT), a website that interviews trans people from across the country to showcase positive stories of trans live and change the public narrative on what it means to be trans. In this piece, Richards talks about her website and why WHT's message is important for the trans community in an increasingly wired world.
The interview is part of a longer audio feature at www.WindyCityMediaGroup.com/pdf/WCTWeHappyTrans.mp3 .
Nico Lang: As a fan of the site, I would first like to know how it got started? What the concept was and how all of this happened.
Jen Richards: Obviously, there is a longer story, about how my experiences and how they were playing out in this kind of way that diverged from the standard narratives that I encountered prior to my own transition. But the short versionslightly more dramatic one, toois that I was on Twitter one day complaining that there wasn't a website that talked about positive transgender experiences, and a woman, a trans woman that I know from here in Chicago, this really fierce tough lady named Jasmine Jewels, said, "You gonna talk about it or are you gonna do something about it?" She said, "You've got one month. Make the site yourself."
Nico Lang: Well, no pressure.
Jen Richards: Exactly, and she is kind of scary, in a good way, so I took it seriously. Three weeks later I launched the first version of the website; that was in January. It started to grow a little bit. Then I got put in touch with Kai, who is an incredible graphic designer and a trans woman in Chicago, and brought on Noah, who is a young trans man from the West Coast, as a contributor. The three of us we relaunched the site in March, with its own special look and logo and tons of great new content. Since then, we've had over 50,000 unique visitors.
Nico Lang: So, when you are looking for people who you want to be on the site, how do you reach out to people?
Jen Richards: Well, it started out as a personal blog, like any other Wordpress, with me talking about my personal experiences. Right from the beginning, I wanted to include other voices, and I wanted other people to contribute. What I did was I came up with a set of seven questions, now I call it the "7 Questions" project; it just sounds more formal that way.
Basically, what I do is made these seven questions and I put the call out there like, "Hey I would like trans people to answer these questions, and then send me their answers. It its text, you could just e-mail it to me. It it's a video go ahead and put it up on YouTube, send me the link, and I can embed it in a post and introduce it, refer the readers to your various forms of social media, et cetera."
And right from the beginning, in fact, I think the first video came from Italy, before I even really started asking for videos. Someone had come across the site and thought it was a great idea and did a video. A lot of the ones that came in from the start weren't solicited, I just put a general call out and they somehow found me. That was really thrilling and exciting, and once we had a couple on there and it was starting to work, I started seeking out people.
I think I started with my Twitter community. I know a lot of people through something called Trans Chat, which I and a few other people host once a month on Twitter; it's a two-hour discussion on a specific trans topic. I built up a big community through that. So I just started haranguing people, trying to get them to send videos. The ones that said they were interested I wouldn't let go. From that point on, every week I would just ask "Hey, you make your video yet?" Slowly, one by one, they did. We started doing better, word started spreading and we've had over 30 contributions so far, and there's quite a few in the pipeline.
Nico Lang: How did you come to the seven-question format?
Jen Richards: I figured [if] I just put an open call out there for them to tell me their story, it would be a little too loosely structured and a lot of people really wouldn't know exactly what to say; it might make a little more anxiety-producing. Plus, I wanted to have some kind of structure not only to make it easier for the person to tell their story but then so we can compare these stories. I came up with the idea of: "Why don't we just have a set of questions? We'll have everyone answer the same kind of questions."
I always love thatwhen you see different people answering the same questions. It shows something about their personality and their style and their history, and how their narratives are different. We started thinking about these seven questions, they went through several different drafts; but always the basic idea was to get a basic sense of who they are, then to kind of frame the positive aspects of their transition, to focus on the things that went right. And also to talk about action, not just to talk about their identity but about what they are doing in the world and really who they are in addition to being trans, something beyond their gender identity.
Nico Lang: In asking those questions, what are common themes you see come out of these stories?
Jen Richards: I think what's most satisfying, in terms of comparing, is hearing these stories is how different they are. I will say that there are a couple of things that unify, I will say that a lot of the participants have a similar attitude, there seems to a be a kind of ebullience, a kind of a positive attitude basically. Granted I think that's a little bit self-selecting, the kind of people that are going to submit to We Happy Trans already have a bit of a happy outlook, and a positive transition.
But I think it's part of the reason they are having such successful transitions. These are people who take ownership of their process, and do see themselves as beautiful and worthy and want to celebrate being trans in some way shape or form. So, I do see that unity, but again, I am really astonished by the variety and the diversity of stories. It's really easy to slip into this false idea that the trans community is cohesive, that there is one trans narrative. You only have to watch two or three videos before you realize how widely varied our stories really are.
Note: This interview is part of a longer audio feature at www.WindyCityMediaGroup.com/pdf/WCTJen.mp3 .
Additionally, the We Happy Trans website is www.WeHappyTrans.com .