“My gender presentation has been disturbing to some and intriguing to others,” Ignacio Rivera wrote in a piece for The New York Times’ “Transgender Lives: Your Stories,” a collection of personal narratives reflecting “the strength, diversity and challenges of the community.”
From age 15 on, Rivera’s life “as a femme-heterosexual, femme-lesbian, dyke, androgynous queer, trans masculine, transgender queer being, has been a wonderful journey with no transitional end,” the story continues.
An activist, writer, educator and performance artist, Rivera will share insights from that journey while discussing sexual freedom and self care in a pair of talks Monday, April 8 at FGCU: “Community & Spirituality: How to Survive and Thrive” is 4-5 p.m. in Edwards Hall, Room 112; a “Sexual Liberation Workshop” is 7-8:30 p.m. in Sugden Hall, Room 111. Both are free and open to the public and presented by FGCU’s Gender & Sexuality Alliance (GSA), the campus NAACP Chapter and the Office of Multicultural & Leadership Development.
“Ignacio’s work as an activist and lived experience as a queer person of color have provided them with unique insight in navigating minority identities in modern society,” said GSA President Kai Joseph Sacco. “By bringing Ignacio to the FGCU campus, we’re hoping to elevate the stories of those with different experiences and help us understand and recognize the intersections of identities within our community.”
With 45-plus members, the GSA aims to provide a place for LGBTQ+ members and allies to socialize, celebrate and share resources and experiences, he said.
“We do a lot of educational work about issues our community faces, our history and individual identities within the LGBTQ+ acronym, but I think our most important role is in establishing a space of radical acceptance and love,” Sacco said. “To believe and celebrate one another is in itself revolutionary when our community has been oppressed and outcast for merely existing. While we may not all share the same identities, we learn from and uplift one another’s experiences and learn how to best help one another in the unique issues we face.”
Rivera’s own experiences with gender identity, mental health, homelessness, poverty and childhood sexual trauma have inspired the activist to speak out, make videos and create workshops and toolkits to help others find ways to nurture their true selves, gain support through community and overcome myriad challenges to sexual liberation.
“I’m trying to expand the idea of what liberation is,” Rivera said in a phone interview from a speaking-tour stop in Vermont. “It’s something people identify for themselves, and it’s a lifelong journey. Liberation is not a specific point in time when you’re done. We’re constantly on this journey growing, examining ourselves, learning new things about ourselves and our relationships.”
Individuals in the LGBTQ+ community face diverse, unique challenges on the path to achieving that freedom. The most dominant barrier tends to be underlying societal factors that can trigger fear or shame, said Rivera, who has a master’s degree in sociology from Brandeis University and has been fighting economic injustice, racism and violence for over 20 years. Designated female at birth, Rivera prefers the gender-neutral pronoun “they.”
“We live in such a hypersexualized society that doesn’t talk about sex really,” they said. “In order to be on the path to liberation we have to be vulnerable, to admit things to ourselves and communicate them to others. We have to get to a comfortable place talking about sexuality that’s not about fear or shame. If we talked about it more openly and honestly we would have a different culture.”
Sex education, when provided, is usually narrowly focused on topics like mutual consent, teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, they said, and mostly geared to the heteronormative world view.
“If a child doesn’t fit that, we are failing them,” Rivera said.
Sure, some progress had been made socially and culturally in the last decade, they said. But people in the LGBTQ+ community still face discrimination, stigma, systemic inequality and worse. In 2018, advocates tracked at least 26 deaths of transgender people in the U.S. due to fatal violence, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
“There’s more visibility happening now, especially with trans people,” Rivera said. “We also know with more visibility comes more violence. We’re still struggling for people to accept trans people. We’re talking about a population of people that exists in the world and we know are being harmed through bullying or being murdered walking down the street. There’s been progress, but there could be so much more.”