By John Modica
Danica Roem made headlines for becoming the first openly transgender person elected to a state legislature, sparking progressive talks around the country on trans rights.
One such talk was delivered by transfeminine activist, artist and musician Lara Americo, who lectured at Rider on Nov. 8.
Americo, no stranger to politics, rose to national prominence in 2016 after the North Carolina general assembly passed the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act, known as House Bill 2, which eliminated statewide anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-identified individuals. Her work with the American Civil Liberties Union and change.org to fight the bill led to her recent features in The Washington Post, National Public Radio and Rolling Stone, and at TEDxCharlotte, where she delivered a talk on “The Illusion of Gender.”
Her talk on Nov. 8, “Queerness and the End of Toxic Masculinity,” framed the news of Roem’s victory with a reminder of the challenges trans people face in the United States. For Americo, her transition was complicated by a deep-seeded idea of manhood as “controlling or destroying anything that is feminine.”
Assigned male at birth, Americo’s father imparted on her a lack of tolerance for any behavior that strayed from traditional masculinity.
“Anger was acceptable and even encouraged,” Americo said. “Crying was never allowed for him or for me.”
When Americo found herself exhibiting feminine behavior, she was expected to suppress it. “I was forced to choose between being myself and pleasing my father.”
At 16 years old, Americo enlisted in the Air Force, which furthered her destructive attitude toward any unmasculine behavior.
“Gay people were an easy joke and trans people even easier,” Americo recalled. After fulfilling a period of service, Americo began training as a boxer, at which point her internalized self-hatred bordered on nihilism. “I hated myself. I thought I wouldn’t make it through my 20s.”
At 29, Americo transitioned from male to transfeminine. She described her transition as the death of an old, repressed self and her rebirth as Lara.
“There was no wake, no funeral; that person simply vanished.” Since her transition, Americo has encouraged others to consider how toxic manifestations of masculinity prevent people of all genders from being themselves.
“I appreciate traditional masculinity, but now my masculinity is pure,” Americo said. Masculinity can be a positive aspect of one’s character, she believes, so long as it does not attempt to impede or eradicate femininity. “I don’t believe either masculinity or femininity to be superior — I think the two should coexist.”
Erica Ryan, director of the Gender and Sexuality Studies Program, felt that a discussion of male dominance was necessary for the Rider community.
“This very particular type of gender identity is such a pressing and significant issue in American culture right now, as it hurts men and women alike, playing a part in everything from teen suicide, to the [hashtag] ‘Me Too’ campaign, to mass shootings,” Ryan said. “In searching for a speaker I came across Lara’s profile, and she was just the perfect fit.”
In addition to her talk, Americo provided students, faculty and staff with an opportunity to pose their own questions about trans issues. One audience member, uncertain about the consequences or benefits of President Donald Trump’s attempt to bar trans people from serving in the armed forces, asked Americo, as a former service member and transfeminine individual, for her reaction to the issue.
“I wanted to kick a lot of people’s asses,” Americo said. “Ultimately, I think [a ban] weakens our military. Being in the closet limits your ability to express yourself.”
Americo elaborated further that many trans people do not pursue sexual reassignment surgery, which is frequently misplaced as a major health care cost associated with trans service members.
Americo hopes that individuals of all gender identities will consider how they police their own behavior in relation to their gender. “Examine yourself and your gender presentation. Is this who you are? Or are you performing?” she said. In order for individuals to reach a better understanding of themselves, Americo believes, they must refrain from limiting how they perform gender.
For Americo, releasing herself from the limits of toxic masculinity proved to be liberating and life-affirming. Now, as a proud transfeminine individual, she said, “I invite you to have the same freedom.”
Published in the 11/15/17 edition.