Student leader profile: Justin Kilian

By Anthony Rentsch

Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian
(Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian)

Justin Kilian is a junior double major in women, gender, sexuality studies and social thought and political economy at the University of Massachusetts. She has been active in organizing for the transgender community not only at UMass, but in the Pioneer Valley area. Currently, she is working with Gender Liberation UMass to host a week of events focused on the rights and access that transgender and non-gender conforming people have on campus.

Talk to me a little bit about your involvement with transgender rights on campus.

I don’t like to frame it as rights; I like to frame it as justice, because that’s what it is. It’s justice for people who have been unjustly served for the longest time.

Last year I did work with Smith College – getting trans women admitted; we got that last spring, they changed the policy. So they do now accept trans women. The cultural attitude of Smith is another question entirely, but we have it in writing now, which is something. I think that was kind of my first dip into trans activism – that was real life organizing. Ever since then it has just made sense. It is about reclaiming space, taking up space in a society that allows you none. And saying I belong, I am deserving of space, deserving of resources, deserving of people’s time, deserving of people’s love. I really think that’s what all these things really say.

But the things we are fighting for are very material and very real. Healthcare is a necessity in our community, and the fact that it is not available on campus – you have to travel to Northampton, which is about a couple months to six months wait for an appointment; if not you have to travel to Springfield which if you don’t have a car, is (a long time) – is not acceptable.

Simple things that (cisgender people) don’t have to think about every day, like being able to use the bathroom every day and do it in peace, without stimulating violence and anxiety. Our community is one that is overwhelmingly ill due to the stigma that we are experiencing every single day.

How did you get brought into the Smith campaign and what ended up being your role there?

I got involved with Smith by pure serendipity. Honestly, it’s the only way I know how to describe it. I was pushed by an academic friend in high school to apply to Smith. I wasn’t really into the idea, I didn’t really want to apply to a women’s college, I didn’t think that would really be a space I found useful or important – but I did. I called their offices and asked how someone in my particular situation would go about applying.

The secretary was very nice and she told me very kindly about all the medical professionals I would need to get in contact with and that I would need letters from my gender therapist to change markers and navigate all of these bureaucratic processes.

Ultimately, (these processes) were not required because Smith is a LEEP funded institution. They don’t have to follow any rules in terms of state laws or federal laws as it pertains to gender. It’s why they are a women’s college, and it’s why they exist. So this was purely self-policed.

When I heard all of this I was very taken aback. I kind of suspected this was going to happen going in. A couple of months later I came across a post on Tumblr by (Smith Q&A) about the work they were doing and I instantly remembered my phone call and thought, “Oh, how wonderful; people are aware of this and are trying to do something about it.” I commented that I really appreciated it and that it was really refreshing that there were people who realized this was going on and were trying to change it. One of the leaders of Q&A got in contact with me shortly thereafter and asked me to write a statement for a rally that was coming up soon. And we kept in contact on and off for the next year, and then I ended up going to UMass which is right next door and I thought, “Oh, how perfect. If I am here I might as well help work with this.”

I got in contact with the leader I had been keeping in touch with and I started going to meetings. I kind of served as the outreach coordinator for the five-college area, because all the members were relegated to Smith and Mount Holyoke had just released their admissions policy. My role was to get other people involved in the activism and to spread the message and to try to utilize the community from outside of Smith’s campus into getting the administration to comply with our demands. Over time, as things changed and as people started to burn out, I became one of the leaders of the Smith campaign.

How do you feel the transgender community is able to organize and to campaign in this area?

Here is the thing: the transgender community, from what I have witnessed and experienced, is a very disheartened community. A lot of people don’t see reasons for initiating action because, what’s the point? They go about their days and are just so incredibly marginalized and used – they just don’t have any faith that things can be any other way and they definitely do not have faith that people will listen to them.

Part of the organizing work is not just organizing – it’s communal healing. It’s realizing that we do have voices and they are important and we do have lives that matter. We have to protect our humanity and our community. There are so many trans people who are homeless, who are unemployed and all of that kind of gets swept under the rug because we have this very cookie-cutter idea of the Pioneer Valley being this wonderful trans-friendly area. It is in some respects, and in a lot of respects it isn’t.

I also know that my community is a very strong and resilient one and when push comes to shove we get stuff done. It was trans women of color who started the Stonewall riots, it was trans women of color who started the Compton’s cafeteria riot in California that started the underground gay rights movement in the 50s. It’s been trans feminine people who have been fighting tooth and nail every step of the way and that is true for today. Some of the really intense high stakes organizing being done around working-class trans lives and trans lives of color is being done by working-class trans women of color, some of whom do sex work. When you activate that anger in the community there is no stopping it. It will get what it wants; it just has to get there.

Talk about how your classwork relates to your activism and how your activism relates to your classwork – what kind of connection is there between the two?

I’m a super strong believer in theory and practice, which means you do your academic work in the classroom, which enriches your activism and helps you understand what is going to work in real life. And your activism helps serve as a case study experience by which you create new theories and ways of understanding how things are in the world. In higher institutions of learning, it’s very popular to separate theory from real-life experience. Academics, even in my department, are very comfy just theorizing about things all day. But what’s the point of theory if you are not applying it and not using it to make something happen? You’re just engaging in theory for theory’s sake and you’re just having thoughts to have thoughts. It comes from a place of privilege, because there are people who have to apply it to real life to live, to eat, to survive.

For us to sit around and talk about things and to expand our minds, often using the knowledge that these people gave us out of the necessity to live, is extremely privileged. I really see what I do in both arenas as augmenting each other, because I love my theory and I love my activism and the two are meant to go hand-in-hand. Part of what I like about activism is the educating and the sharing of information.

Have you given any thought about what type of work you’d like to do after college?

I think I want to go for a doctorate in feminist studies of some sort. There’s a transgender studies master’s program in Arizona that I think I want to do.

I definitely am going to continue doing activism in a variety of forms. I actually wrote a book last summer about (the Smith campaign). It is a memoir about how we made it happen. It has not been published yet; it is in the process of being published. It is about my life and what was going on in my life while this campaign was going on. I want to write more, both academically and fictionally – I’ve been working on a bunch of other projects for a very long time. I want to do some playwriting.

I want to actually start up an organizing group wherever I end up landing. There’s no one way to organize or one way to do activism. The way that we are doing this right now is because it is the practical way in which things will get done, in the time that we need them to get done. But that is not the only way, and it is not by any means the most effective.

Anthony Rentsch can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Anthony_Rentsch.