For the past 20 years, Mills College junior Terrilynn Cantlon has had a dream: to give a voice to transgendered, gender variant and gender queer individuals by creating a place for them and their allies to come together.
With the launch of Transformation: A Community Writing Salon as part of her participation in the Institute for Civic Leadership, she is making that dream come true, one writing salon at a time.
Cantlon’s project, which has been in the works since she first came to Mills last semester, will feature four writing workshops total. The first was held March 12 in the Bender Room, marking the beginning of what she calls her life’s work.
“My primary motivation for this was for the community members themselves, people who self-identify as transgendered, gender variant and gender queer folks to be able to come together and be acknowledged and write. Writing is very important,” Cantlon said.
An English literature major and writing tutor for the last four years, Cantlon knows firsthand about the power of writing and developing a personal voice. She came to Mills as a transfer student after graduating as valedictorian from City College of San Francisco. While there she worked as a peer educator for Project Survive, which aims to end sexual violence through education, and as a member of the Gender Diversity Project.
Her list of accomplishments and honors is a long one, and includes being recognized last year as a Dr. Laura Nathan Woman of Distinction, an award given for commitment to women’s leadership, social justice and community service.
“While we have had students who are interested in gender and the experiences of people whose gender transcends the typical binary, I do not know of another student who has taken this interest and transformed it into such a tangible, practical and goal-oriented project,” said Michaela Daystar, ICL Program Director. “It is exciting and refreshing for me to be able to help support bringing a new voice to the table, to help facilitate the telling of stories that are relevant and important in the tapestry of social justice work at Mills and beyond.”
Indeed, the goals of Cantlon’s project are as tangible as the motivation for the project — addressing the exclusion and violence often faced by transgendered individuals. Cantlon credits much of her motivation for the project to Lawrence “Larry” King, who at 15 was brutally murdered for wearing women’s boots and nail polish. King was killed Feb. 12, 2008 in Oxnard, Calif. through a shot in the back of the head by a fellow classmate during class.
“It changed my life. After that day I decided somebody has to speak up for people who don’t get a chance to speak up. If somebody doesn’t speak up, there’s just another generation of Larry Kings that will come afterwards,” Cantlon said. “I think we educate each new generation of people to treat transgendered, gender variant and gender queer individuals horribly, quite honestly.”
Cantlon hopes Transformation will provide a different kind of education for the community that focuses on transgendered individuals’ voices.
Junior Nia King, a salon participant, said she believes Cantlon’s project is important because of its potential to broaden the scope of perspectives typically heard at Mills.
“Transgender women are women too, and Women’s History Month should reflect the variety of women’s experiences, not limit itself onto the experiences and contributions of cisgender (biologically female-born) women, but also queer women, transwomen, disabled women and women of color, just to name a few,” King said. King is a member of Queer Melanin, one of the student groups co-sponsoring Transformation.
“I think, as one of the queer student organizations on campus, it’s really important to me that Queer Melanin does our best to provide a safe space for queer and trans students of color and our allies. Part of that means supporting other efforts on campus to create a safe space for trans/gender queer and gender variant students,” King said.
The final salon will be held April 9, and will be a potluck where participants can wrap-up their writing and, if they wish, present their pieces to the group. Cantlon said all students and community members are encouraged to attend, even those who do not self-identify as transgendered, gender variant or gender queer.