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Ten Questions with Rising Star Calliope Wong

Calliope Wong led a successful campaign to encourage women’s colleges to accept transgender women as students, ensuring that others didn’t face the same discrimination that she did. This year’s Rising Star award recognizes that work, and in an interview with former board co-president Thomas Donato, Calliope talks about other areas she thinks needs work, and her experience coming out as trans.

  1. You describe yourself as “noisy”. Do you feel you need to be noisy in order to be heard? At the time, I think I had to be “noisy” in order to approach Smith College and point out what was pretty blatant institutional discrimination. I used every avenue I could think of to put my story out–or at least, every avenue which I could use as a very self-conscious (and newly out trans woman!) high school senior with no previous experience in activism. Noise can be a great thing for one’s confidence in politics, so long as it serves a purpose and isn’t, you know, promoting impractical politics that do more for one’s ego than for the community that suffers needlessly. These days, though, I’m moving away from noisiness. I’m aiming to be more graceful with how I speak and engage with other people. To me, that means knowing when to start or stop speaking, where the work still needs to get done, and how to engage people of many different backgrounds with respect. Getting people together is and has always been the way to get things done.
  2. What does it mean to you to receive this Rising Star Dorothy Award? I’m happy for the recognition, and to see that people care about what I did, is of course wonderful. I do hope that we keep in mind people like Rev. Elena Rose, (who) are doing community outreach and making themselves available every day to our queer communities. That kind of dedication also calls for recognition.
  3. Tell us a little more about when you first knew you were transgender? When I first came out as trans in sophomore year of high school, I had an accidental mullet, combat boots and dresses from the thrift store, and a nihilistic attitude that made me bitter about a number of things. I don’t fault trans kids, especially the girls, for having at least a few, difficult years where you feel like you’re the only one going through this terrible thing and nothing is yours in this world. My first instinct as a young trans woman was to go into severe denial that I was a woman. I hid behind my “radical gender politics” and had a hard time getting to know myself. This isn’t to say there aren’t agender or genderqueer people, but I wasn’t and I thought I had to be. It wasn’t until I met Beth “Pidge” Flanagan and other trans women who were older than me, that I felt: “Okay, I can be a woman. It’s okay to be a woman.” History helped me understand who I am. It’s critically important that we survive until old age, folks, or else the kids after us have to start all over again and learn the things we didn’t teach them.
  4. How does it feel to have had such a positive impact on women’s college admissions policies through your “Trans Women @ Smith” movement? It’s a good feeling to know that what I pushed for, eventually reached its destination after a few years. I know my campaign is somewhat of a niche thing in the grand scheme of trans activism, but I hope there will be trans women at Smith and other women’s colleges. It sent a message that you do not do this to us without consequence–and I hope we will see a trans educational renaissance in my lifetime. Speaking of which, I’d like to catch up with Dean Debra Shaver at Smith admissions sometime. It’s been a while since we’ve talked, and I’d love to hear what she thinks after all this. 
  5. Describe some of the response you received to the campaign. Some people thought my campaign was the next big revolution in civil rights, while others questioned why we needed to focus on trans women at all–to which I replied, “You want to try living our lives?” It’s a campaign, and people will always have something to say about it. I just wanted to address a wrong, and make it right.
  6. What is the most important issue facing the transgender community today? Please note that, as someone of great privilege who’s set on attending medical school and becoming a physician, I have a little bias. I still believe that medical access is critically important for trans people to live healthy, fulfilled lives. If people were able to get culturally competent, financially accessible medical help, I think we’d have a lot more trans doctors out there.
  7. Do you see anything positive about the current political climate? No, I don’t see much that’s positive about politics right now, but it’s not useful for me to be grim about it. What I do see as positive is the fact that we can still build things for ourselves, and that the Internet makes collaborating that much easier. Time’s not up yet 🙂
  8. Do you have any words of wisdom for transgender kids? Or kids that think they may be transgender? Please find friends who are not on the Internet and mentors who are older than you, with lots of different life experiences. If you get caught up in the Internet flamewars and popularity contests, you can lose sight of what you wanted from life in the first place.
  9. What is the best piece of advice you have ever received? Ms. Kimball, one of my English teachers from high school, always told our class: “Either you’ll do it or you won’t. Only two options.” I like to think about this as the black and white of action versus inaction, that gets me motivated to take on and finish difficult tasks. The trouble is keeping (a) heavy thing (like) this in your mind. It can be painful if used in the wrong way.
  10. Where do you hope to be in five years?  In five years, I aim to be graduated from medical school, busting my chops to become either a PCP or an endocrinologist specializing in hormone research and LGBT healthcare.
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