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Interview with Mahkyra Gaines, Programs Coordinator

We caught up with Programs Coordinator Mahkyra Gaines to ask some questions about how Mahkyra first connected with Gender Justice League, the meaning of gender justice, and why intersectionality and mutual aid matter in trans organizing.

What does gender justice mean to you?

Gender justice is a movement rooted deeply in my definition of liberation. To give some background, I go by the name Mahkyra, I am 21 years old. Currently I attend the Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA—I’ll graduate in June. I major in multicultural studies, local economy, and education—a lot of which is hyper emphasized on Latinx Studies, migration stories, and working with an Indigenous perspective or Indigenous pedagogy. So, that’ll come up in all of the answers I’ll be giving in terms of gender justice and what that means for me. It’s important to speak from a postcolonial theory when discoursing gender.

So this was definitely a question where I was like ‘wow…you could really go a lot of different ways in answering this.’ Like I said before, I’m really influenced by authors like Kelly Lytle Hernández, and she really speaks to settler colonial theory, a postcolonial framework that I was speaking of before. I like to think about gender under a settler colonial landscape that we currently live in and perform in. With colonialism and slavery in North America comes capitalism, and a theatrical way of capturing gender roles—which can lead to a feeling of captivity and ridgtry, and can cause a lot of sadness in people. However, while under immense pressure from society to be someone they are not, there have been powerful queer brown and Black women that I carry with me in resistance to gender oppression: Audrey Lorde, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Pine Leaf, who was a Crow warrior well known for living a life of bravery, strength, and love. I draw from the stories of those of past, present and future to influence the truth telling I speak into the world. My absolute favorite story is of Marsha P. Johnson, a Black trans woman of color, iconic in her activism and fashion. Feminist theory is important to discuss too, so patriarchy is part of this narrative, too. Anzaldúa names masculine power as a key structure that is interwoven with contemporary society. We can’t separate gender from conversations on oppression and pathways towards liberation . So, gender justice to me is this interruption and redefining of contemporary performances of gender roles: it’s equal pay; it’s autonomy over bodily choices; it’s health insurances covering gender affirming surgeries; and it’s QTBIPOC (queer trans Black Indigenous people of color) regaining access to positions of power and leadership roles.

Why does Gender Justice League matter?

For me, Gender Justice League matters because it’s an organization that directly challenges oppressive ideologies of what it means to exist, to be, and to thrive under captive environments—under settler colonial captive environments—that pressure us to perform in these very heterosexual, monogamous ways. You know what I mean? Gender Justice League advocates against higher types of oppressive structures, like the prison industrial complex, and we advocate for reproductive justice for labor unions, labor movement programs, addressing unemployment, racial justice, and leadership development. All of these come from this mutual aid framework that I really love, and that directly fills the gaps in the needs of communities.

GJL strives to meet all of these goals in this activist movement. We disrupt and challenge these dominant and toxic ideologies with what it means to just exist. We advocate for the liberation of marginalized and underserved communities that otherwise wouldn’t have opportunities to be in leadership roles or to fight for our rights, or even know how to start doing that. We give people access to this form of power to change and reshape their own lives.

How has Gender Justice League impacted your personal life?

Gender Justice League has impacted trans communities by adding power, strength, funding and education to supporting trans people. GJL provides pathways towards housing, financial assistance, employment opportunities, and community.

Gender Justice League has impacted my personal life by connecting me to nutritional resources during COVID-19, through the HUGs Food Program—delivering food and coming through in a time of need. This experience occurred before I was employed by Gender Justice League, and I was actually referred to the program by my roommate at the time. I remember the experience with the whole thing was always pleasant. On a deeper level, GJL has pushed me to further my work in connecting theory to action. It’s reminiscent of bell hooks, digging further into political values as a way to navigate personal dynamics, putting in the work to interrupt oppression as it exists.

What is the future that trans people deserve?

Oh so much better, so much more, so so so much more. I recently went to this workshop—or, this online virtual lecture—that Evergreen [college] was hosting, called “What Lies Ahead.” They had a panelist named Ty Brown, a local trans activist, who does really great work for trans and Black people as a whole in the Olympia area. They shared with me a statistic that over 350 trans people were murdered in this past year, which to me was very devastating, shocking, and hurtful, because it really portrays how our society views and treats trans people, specifically trans women. So, when I imagine what the future looks like, it’s those statistics going down dramatically, where 350 trans people aren’t killed in a year with little to no justice received; to be desired and sought after with no shame or revengeful acts of violence because of trans misogyny and homophobia; and just complete liberation from captivity. And not being shunned, because I feel like since we live in this very heterosexual patriarchal society that values when you perform in those ways—if you decide to exist outside of that—you’re either exiled or you’re forced to adopt those similar social performances. I want liberation from that lack of autonomy, to live a life without fear, and to live a life of pleasure.

Can you unpack briefly what you mean when you use the word captivity?

Captivity is a psychological and/or physical restriction of authenticity, livelihood, and self-actualization. Captivity is a word of expression that I use to describe living under oppressive conditions that create dangerous or violent living environments. You can take this definition when understanding race, gender, documentation status, (dis)abilities, incarceration, or religion in landscapes that reject a diverse set of realities and create a caste system which suggests a top and bottom ranking for who gets what, and who gets left behind. I feel captive to cisgender ideologies when someone who knows my preferred pronouns misgenders me. I feel captive to racism when I live in a highly segregated town like Olympia, Washington. I feel captive to colonialism when a white lead government tells me what I can and cannot do with my body. I feel captive to capitalism when I have to spend 90% of my life committed to labor related activities, even during a global pandemic. I feel captive to ableism when there are no subtitles on zoom or when people get frustrated when I ask them to repeat what they said when I can’t hear them. Captivity is the opposite of liberty: complete freedom to exist and breathe without restriction.

How can Gender Justice League make an impact in the lives of Washingtonians?

GJL is already doing that. We are demanding and creating a space that prioritizes, empowers, and uplifts underserved Washingtonians and—if you think about it collectively—Washingtonians as a whole. The civil state of Washington benefits a lot from the activism and the work that GJL does. A lot of other states don’t have organizations like GJL to lead and spearhead this work, so you see less progressive movements happening. Not that they don’t exist, but the work that is being done is set back because of that. So, I think Washington as a whole benefits a lot from what GJL does, especially because GJL comes from this intersectional framework. I know there’s this critique of the nonprofit industrial complex as well, and so there’s this whole political conversation about nonprofits, but I think that GJL comes from this intersectional framework that seeks to uplift everybody, and we’re not in it just for like the grants and for the funding. We are really taking all of these oppressive structures at the root, critiquing them, and finding ways—whether it be in policy or community needs, like giving out food—and trying to fill those gaps. We are already doing that work.

Have you ever participated in Trans Pride? What did you think?

Yes, I have been to Trans Pride. I went with my ex-partner in 2019, and it was a sacred space that I valued deeply. To be seen, visibly, with other folks whose life journey through gender is reflected in mine was a powerful experience. Trans people have always existed, but rarely have our stories been shared in a honoring way, or have we been seen in ways that show the nuance in our communities. Trans Pride is a place to connect to resources, make friends and be within a safe place. I hope to attend again soon.

Why is intersectionality important in organizing and achieving trans liberation?

I think it’s important as a whole when you’re considering social justice and equity work, but specifically for trans liberation, going back to this postcolonial theory…when you think about the greatest impacts of patriarchy, heterosexuality, and cissexism, I really like to honor and uplift and speak about Indigenous people. Specifically, all of the queer, trans, and Two Spirit peoples who don’t have a platform to speak on what they’ve been through and what they’ve experienced. So, you want to come from this intersectional framework where you’re taking critical race theory and postcolonial theory, and even Marxist theory, to fight for liberation—as well as for everybody. Like Marsha P. Johnson said, there’s no liberation for some of us without liberation for all of us. When I think about the work that GJL does, we come from this intersectional framework of thinking about all oppressed people from all backgrounds, all document statuses, all racial and ethnic cultures. It’s really important for equity and social justice work as a whole, especially with gender justice. Intersectionality is super important because when you think about dismantling and challenging these dominant oppressive ideologies that restrict us and hold us captive within our own bodies and within our own minds—coming from these multiple critiques, different perspectives and stories, and diverse testimonies—it’s super important to uplift, honor, highlight, and to advocate for, because if you get your own freedom or liberation, that’s cool, but if somebody else is still struggling and being held captive, or being oppressed in certain ways, do you really have liberation? Is that really what liberation is?

So, trans people come from many different walks of life—we come from different geographical places, different document statuses, different families, different languages—you can’t just fight for a specific type of trans person. You have to fight for all trans people. You need to uplift everybody. That’s the point of mutual aid, that’s the point of coming from this collective framework, that’s the point of community building: even if you don’t come from similar backgrounds, it’s still important to hold, honor, and appreciate others’ life stories, because they’re just as important as your own. Patriarchy and capitalism want us to be separated. They want us to fight with one another. They want us to see our differences instead of our similarities. A part of challenging and dismantling these structures is to see ourselves in another person.

How do anti-racism and racial justice intersect with trans justice?

It’s a collective thing: oppression comes from interwoven structures, which serve to keep us all subjugated, to keep us all restricted within the ways in which we live our lives. It’s all connected in these ways—capitalism, patriarchy, colonialism—all of these structures work together to keep those in power, in power (traditionally, that is, those who fit into the mold of a model citizen in the United States, which the idea of that has always been the “hard-working” white cisgender male). You can not pick and choose the oppression that you want to challenge or dismantle. It doesn’t work like that. If you want to be anti-racist you have to be inclsuive of all genders, if you want to be pro-trans justice you have to be inclusive of all races. Those intersections of race and gender will cross paths down the line in liberation work. Kimberly Crenshaw explained it best in her analysis of intersectionality. Check her out. The two can not be seperated, and if you do separate them, you are creating new avenues of discrimination.

What does trans organizing look like in the next under the Biden administration, and as we center BIPOC lives?

Prioritizing the sanctity of Black lives and Indiginous sovereignty. Biden, Bush, Obama, whoever the fuck, always push against the status quo. When any president attempts to normalize violence and destruction, challenge your local politicians and federal representatives out of their comfort zones. Email them, call them, do what you need to do to communicate the tragedies that are occurring globally. Organize trans communities to be educated on national and global inequities. Do the work it takes to hold ourselves accountable to our humanitarian morals and aspirations for the future. Put Black and Indigenous people in leadership positions, keep them there, and help them navigate systems that were not created with them in mind. Put your money where your mouth is, provide housing for BIPOC, provide cash assistance and mental health therapy. Organize in such a way that the most impacted are highlighted and empowered.

Anything else you didn’t get to speak on that you would like to share?

Please continue to support Gender Justice League and the work that we do! Keep a BIPOC employed and fed. Hahaha. Join our Advocacy Team or sign up to be a volunteer: we would love to have more folks be part of our team!