By Laraib Asim
On International Working Women’s Day, the Gender and Women Studies department arranged “Queer, Trans, & BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of color] Activism in the Adirondacks.” The event was March 8 in the Alumni Conference Room in the Angell College Center.
Women’s History month is an annual-themed celebration that outlines the contributions women have made toward American society. President Jimmy Carter originally proclaimed the week of March 8 Women’s History Week. In 1987 Congress passed Public Law 100-9 declaring the celebration be for a month instead of a week. The theme for 2022 is “Gender Equality today for a sustainable tomorrow” with the hashtag #BreakTheBias.
The event’s purpose was to highlight women’s accomplishments throughout history whilst acknowldging the “spirit of feminist activism,” according to the host. The entire staff was voluntarily participating in the event and was not being paid.
The first speaker was Kelly Leigh Metzgar, the co-founder and executive director of Adirondack North Country Gender Alliance and Adirondack North Country Gender Advocacy & Education based in Saranac Lake. Metzgar identifies as a non-binary, transgender person whose speciality is with transgender, gender non-binary, gender nonconforming and intersex advocacy.
“[She seeks] to end the stigma that there is ‘something wrong’ or unacceptable in being transgender or gender non-binary. She seeks to educate the public on gender identity and expression issues to promote understanding, acceptance of transgender and gender nonconforming/ non-binary people in all aspects of life including in schools and empolyment on the job,” Dr. Kolleen Duley said.
Metzgar talked about the difficulties of coming out.
She asked the audience rhetorically, “What is it like to live in a lie? To hide yourself from your family, from your friends. What’s it like to live in constant fear? That you were afraid of your own physical well being.”
The room was quiet as she continued to talk about living in shame, with growing guilt that something is wrong and fear of being discovered and not living up to family expectations.
“That’s really not the way you want to live your life,” Metzgar said. “But for many in my generation, that is how we grew up. This is why I do the work that I do. Because no one should have to live like this anymore.”
She talked about her life story and how she read a book about a family whose son was transgender. The book, written by a couple she personally knows, Terri and Vince Cook, inspired her to come out to her mom. She talked about the dilemma of coming out at work where she had been working in the IT department since 2006 as a man and how welcomed she felt when all her coworkers warmly accepted her.
Micaela Lynch, a student at SUNY Plattsburgh, asked how a person can identify as both a transgender and non-binary.
“For 55 years of my life, I lived as male. I’ve always gone back and forth over the binary line,” Metzgar said, answering Lynch’s question. “I was never truly male and until my transition and even now not truly female. Do I identify as female? Yes. But I am not a natural female. That was not my sex assigned at birth.”
Metzgar also talked about various challenges transgender people face in different areas such as within the criminal justice system. Prisons more, often than not, place most transgender people in male-dominated jails, placing them at risk for violence and abuse. They are disrespected because they might be misnamed and misgendered. Similarly, healthcare is an issue as doctors would refuse to help LGBT people because it goes against their beliefs.
The second speaker was Nicole Hylton-Patterson, the director of the Adirondack Diversity Initiative (ADI) also based in Saranac Lake. She completed her undergraduate at Mount Holyoke College, completed two master’s degrees as well as a PhD in ethics, cultural minority, gender and group studies at Arizona State University. Her mission is to “equip communities in the North countries with the tools, strategies, language and voice needed to dismantle systemic racism and structural oppression.”
According to the Adirondack Diversity Initiative website, “She is a Black, queer activist scholar and community organizer, who spent the last 25 years working with marginalized and minoritized communities around the world to seek justice.”
Hylton-Patterson talked about the ADI Initiative’s. According to the website, “ADI provides programming, outreach, mobilization, rapid response and public policy efforts to established educational communities, businesses and organizations and Adirondack residents. We look at what the challenges are and then focus on solutions. These solutions are focused in 5 areas: education, commerce & economy, recreation, environmental justice and public policy/interest.”
She enthusiastically summarized information regarding ADI’s programs. This included the “Bidirectional Exchange for K-12 participants,” which starts June 28 where students in the K-12 system residing in the Bronx will be participating with students from several Adirondack North Country schools to “develop their cultural consciousness.”
Sierra Smith, a SUNY Plattsburgh student who grew up in the Bronx, asked why children from the Bronx were specifically chosen for the program. Hylton-Patterson had initially chosen the area because she had a personal connection to it because she co-parents her nephews, who have since graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School. Later on, a senator advocated for the organization and arranged funding that has allowed them to expand the K-12 program to all schools in the area this season.
Another program is the Alternative Spring Break for University/College participants for students from the BIPOC community. This program allows students to “get out of the college campus and start to know the [Adirondack] region,” Hylton-Patterson said. “[They can] learn to swim, go kayaking, go hiking, learn to ski.”
Hylton-Patterson also encouraged students to look into the Antiracism Education and Mobilization Campaign (AEMC)’s which consists of “four virtual series that explores the intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality and the environment.” The AEMC also features two Anti-racism book clubs. The Cultural Consciousness Training Program is another program that is for “organizations to get their staff ready to be culturally responsive to the shifting demographics of New York state,” Hylton-Patterson said.
She highlighted that this training is not the same as diversity training since it uses “cognitive-behavioral approach to deepen understanding of culture, socialization, race and racism.”
Tyler Mccarthy-Walker, a graduate student, asked if the Adirondack Diversity Initiativewas available to SUNY Plattsburgh students. Since Plattsburgh is part of the Adirondack community, the resources are available to the students and can be found through the website where staff can be emailed or called directly.
“The community resource guide is for BIPOC and other minioritized folks coming into the region or women in the region that want to know what are the services that are available [to them],” Hylton-Patterson said.
She left with an inspiring speech encouraging everyone to keep advocating for the BIPOC communities in Upstate New York.