Today marks the 12th annual International Transgender Day of Visibility. WUOT's Claire Heddles spoke with Jack Knoxville, founder of Trans Empowerment Project and former Knoxville mayoral candidate, about being trans in Tennessee and how he's celebrating the day.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
JACK KNOXVILLE, GUEST: This year what we're doing is we have a Glow Up for Trans Visibility event which is both a makeup and dance party and it's really to help folks who are out or who may be exploring their gender identity to come out and join us in a way that feels amazing and we can feel celebrated and just embrace the beauty of humanity that exists across the gender spectrum.
CLAIRE HEDDLES, HOST: For people that aren't in the LGBTQ community, something like your virtual Glow Up event might just seem like an online party. What do you think makes these kinds of events important for the trans community here?
KNOXVILLE: You know especially after spending the last year in quarantine, there are a lot of trans people who have existed in homes where they didn't have that acceptance and have not been able to be ourselves for at least the last year. And so to be able to finally find that commonality and be able to come out and celebrate who we are, it's just really about building community and fellowship and having a really good time and feeling seen for the authentic human that you are, rather than the facade that maybe you have to exist as when you're not in these safe spaces.
HEDDLES: You're a long-time activist and a former Knoxville City Mayor candidate, can you tell me a little bit about your journey from the political sphere to founding Trans Empowerment Project?
KNOXVILLE: I started my own medical transition in around 2014 for the first time in my life I had access to healthcare as an adult and was super excited to be able to transition and I would call a lot of different offices around Knoxville and more often than not the experience was the same where I would call a provider and say hey, I wanted to see if I could get in as a new patient and they're like, "Sure, what do you need to be seen for?" I'm like, "I'm a trans guy" and they're like, "oh I'm sorry sweetheart we're actually not taking new patients anymore."
So I went online and was trying to find somebody somewhere has got to see me, like this is ridiculous. I couldn't find anybody in East Tennessee but what I did find was a website for the Planned Parenthood in Asheville, North Carolina and it was very intentional and specific about if you are in Kentucky, South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia or Tennessee, we will see you. But being that it was a 110-mile drive, that is not the most accessible thing in the world and so I was only able to do it a couple of times.
From there, I started hearing about what disparities and situations that other folks were dealing with especially among the trans community members here in Knoxville and I started to see some commonalities and themes of dysphoria and depression and feeling invisible and not having community and not having support, and that's when I knew what was next for me was starting Trans Empowerment Project.
HEDDLES: There's all this discussion in the news, among state lawmakers right now about trans people, but very few transgender voices in that discussion. So I'd love to hear from you, what would you like to see from lawmakers to better support the transgender community here in Tennessee?
KNOXVILLE: All of the sports bills and everything else, what those messages do are they're telling trans people we're not allowed to win. If we win, it's because we're devious and we've got some magical tool in our back pocket. The magic is that we've been able to push through the harm and the trauma and all of the obstacles in our ways and we are still winning. And so instead of discouraging people from being able to be our authentic selves, we need to be encouraging and actually celebrating the fact that people are finally finding the freedom to be our whole selves.
HEDDLES: That was Jack Knoxville, founder of Trans Empowerment Project. I'm Claire Heddles, WUOT News.