All-One Activist: An Interview with Ariel Vegosen of Gender Illumination

I’ve had the pleasure to work with and get to know Ariel Vegosen in my position as National Events and Demo Manager for Dr. Bronner’s. When she’s not working part-time for Dr. Bronner’s running in-store demos and events or assisting with cause marketing campaigns like Fair Pay Today, she runs an independent organization called Gender Illumination, from her home office in Berkeley, CA.

Dr. Bronner’s is an LGBTQIA inclusive company and is fully committed to trans and gender queer people having equal rights in the workplace and in all aspects of society. We are proud to support Gender Illumination, a powerful non-profit organization, because we know the importance of trans and gender queer people having a platform to tell their stories. With the increase of violence against the trans and gender queer community, Dr. Bronner’s is more than ever committed to standing in solidarity and working for social justice. Gender Illumination uses education and policy change to facilitate opportunities for people to illuminate, explore, and better understand gender identity—their own and that of others—while helping to transcend binary thinking in society.

It’s pride season—and since Dr. Bronner’s flies the rainbow flag all year around in support of LGBTQ freedom—we thought it fitting to celebrate this year by highlighting Ariel’s work. I chatted with her about her work and ambition for Gender Illumination—I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did.

Practically speaking, what is Gender Illumination and what does the organization do? What are the main programs the organization runs?  

Gender Illumination is a new non-profit organization dedicated to creating safer spaces for trans, gender non-conforming, gender non-binary, and gender queer people through the tools of education and policy reform and to facilitate opportunities for people to explore their own personal gender stories and identities.  Gender Illumination runs a peer to peer and intergenerational mentorship program, rituals for those stepping into their true gender identity, name change ceremonies, coming out rituals; we also consult with faith-based organizations to create gender inclusion in current rituals, services, and ceremonies. Gender Illumination offers services, including workshops and classes, to birthing parents who live outside the binary. In addition, Gender Illumination offers tailor-made gender inclusivity trainings to businesses, corporations, non-profits, health care providers, schools, and faith-based communities.

Tell us a little bit about your own journey with gender. Is that journey complete now or will it ever be? 

Growing up I did not know the word queer or gender queer I just knew that I was different. It is very hard to understand and claim your identity if you do not see anyone like you. It is very hard without community to be able to explain who you are to the world. So when I was younger I did not have words to express my understanding of gender and I did not have role models or mentors to help guide my coming out process.  I have always believed that gender is more expansive then society lets it be. I gained a lot of wisdom and community being an edge walker – being someone who does gender differently. So while I couldn’t always name that I was gender queer my expression and understanding of myself existed as such. Thankfully as an adult I found an amazing queer and gender queer and trans community that helped me step fully into myself. I also have an incredible biological and chosen family that has encouraged me to shine. I know many people are pushed out of their homes and safety because of their gender identity and I am very aware that my family is a huge gift and a big reason I am able to be the person I am today.

In addition, through my activism on many issues from environmental justice to racial justice to economic justice to gender justice I have met amazing elders and learned about ancestors that have paved the way for my existence as an out and proud gender queer being and now part of my work is to pay that forward to the next generation. While I was not mentored in gender liberation as a youth I did receive mentorship as an adult and I am very excited to be able to mentor people younger then me and to have an entire program dedicated to mentorship. It is really important that young people know they are not alone and that there are others that have come out before them and that there will be generations after that do gender differently.

Another huge part of my gender journey has been digging into my own ancestry and learning what my ancestral background teaches about gender. As a Jewish person I have studied the 6 genders found in Talmud and I am excited to know that there is historical evidence in my own background of humans living outside the binary. I know there are many faiths and cultures that have a non-binary gender system. This is not a new concept. What is new is that we are coming into an age of more acceptance and more people being out and proud. We are at a very important time in history and I am excited to be running an organization dedicated to creating gender liberation. I was not given the opportunity as a youth to live into my full gender potential and now as an adult I am attempting to do that. I am so inspired to see that the generation after me is being given more opportunity – it helps me to believe that the work I am doing will be successful and helpful for people of all genders – cis, trans, gender queer, gender non-conforming, and the many new names people will identify as. I am proud of myself for how far I have come on my gender journey and excited to see where it will lead me next.

I fully believe that the journey of gender and identity is never complete – it is a lifetime adventure. Gender is a changing landscape and I know my experience, expression, and lived reality of gender will change as I age. I also know that as society changes our understanding of gender will change – just think about how much it already has.

What are some common things people get wrong about gender and what are some things people get right?

The main important thing for everyone to get right is respect. It really doesn’t matter what gender you are—everyone deserves respect, equal rights, and the ability to live safely. Everyone deserves to be called by the name and pronoun they choose. Everyone deserves access to health care, public bathrooms, job protection, equal rights, love, support, and acceptance. Everyone deserves the chance to experience gender as expansive. Everyone deserves to be able to express their gender how they want and be treated with kindness and respect. Our culture needs to address sexism and transphobia. We need to shift our attitudes and culture in terms of how we treat people based on gender.  Women are still treated as less then men: paid less then men, objectified, and given less opportunity. Trans people are being killed—they are given less opportunity, and they experience high rates of suicide and homelessness. Due to racism, all of this is even more oppressive for people of color—meaning on top of gender discrimination they are also faced with race discrimination. We need to address these issues on the legal level and on a cultural level. We need to shift how people perceive each other so that opportunities exist for all communities to thrive. We also need spaces for cis-gendered people to be able to expand their understanding of their own gender identity. The current gender system holds everyone back from experiencing their true potential. I do want to lift up the fact that there is a movement of people working on gender justice and liberation and that so much change has already happened. So while we are still in the struggle I can look to my elders and see how much has already been accomplished. We have more ability to be out and proud, we have more spaces to gather, we have more support groups, more organizational backing, and more legal rights then just the generation before me. I do feel like we are on a path of moving forward—one in which our future is looking brighter.

Has the course and tone of discourse surrounding gender fluidity and expression shifted during the past six months since the 2016 Presidential Election? If so, how?

We are in really trying times. The Trump administration is a threat to Trans lives. This administration is turning back legislation that protects Trans people. We have to stay vigilant to ensure the safety of our marginalized community. We can not stay silent, we have to speak up and act up. We also need to pay attention to how sexism is back on the rise because Trump is an incredibly sexist man. If our President can get away with objectifying women and repealing the fair pay and safe workplace order and taking away funding to Planned Parenthood it opens the door for higher levels of violence and discrimination based on gender throughout the country. The rate of violence against all women—cis and Trans women—is increasing, especially against women of color. We can’t ignore the seriousness of the times. We can’t allow this administration to undo the work of years of activism. We have to continue to push for safety, protection, equality, dignity and access to basic needs.

With circumstances for genderqueer and non-binary people evolving so quickly, do you foresee a time when it’s common courtesy to ask a person what are their preferred pronouns as much in Kansas as it is already becoming in Manhattan and San Francisco? 

In my dream vision of society throughout the USA and internationally I am aiming for a time in the near future where asking people their pronouns is a normalized part of society. I think it is important to realize that language is a changing paradigm. Just thirty years ago the word queer was still considered a slur and for many elders this word still carries a lot of trauma and pain. Today many people in the LGBTQIA community proudly use the term queer. This is just one example of how language has evolved.  Once a week I teach 9th graders a curriculum about gender diversity and my students have new language that is unique to their generation. Gender is an evolving landscape and I do believe in the not too distant future asking someone their pronoun will be a normal part of society. I think we have more work to do to get there. We still need more education, training, and equal legal rights to ensure that culture can shift to be more inclusive.

I learned recently that in the sea, there are myriad species that transform genders multiple times during individual organisms’ lifetimes. How does nature in the wild serve to educate people about acceptance and affirmation of human gender-diversity? 

The wild is filled with what humans would consider queer. As an example, male sea horses give birth and the female lions hunt. It is a very human experience to have to navigate roles based on society’s creation of gender. This is not to say that biology does not play a part in our experience of the world. Rather it is to say that humans are the only animal to assign value based on biological characteristics and then insist that biology means certain things when in actuality even in biology sex has never been a binary system. In addition sex and gender are not the same thing.  We are the only animal that harms one another based on gender and race. We created these systems of gender and race to control each other. You can look at animals to see that our behavior of killing each other over skin color or gender identity is irrational. Other animals do not burn down habitats, bomb each other, or tear down trees. Humans have a very bizarre way of engaging with the natural world and each other. I think we can look to the animal kingdom to remind ourselves that the way we do gender and race is a social construct—one that we live out in very real ways but one that can be shifted and changed.

You have co-run a Gender Blender camp at Burning Man for several years. Tell us a little about this project – what is its mission, who is involved, and what role does it play within the larger festival? Any exciting new plans for the camp in 2017?

This year is going to be our best year yet! Gender Blender is hosting anti-oppression trainings and a support group for Trans people at our camp, located at 7:45 and E. We are throwing a Gender Blender smoothie party and a safer space play party, as well as partnering with other queer camps to create more visibility and safety across Burning Man.  Many people think Burning Man is safe by definition but in actually every year Trans and gender queer people experience harassment and sometimes physical violence. Our camp serves as a safe space and as a way to educate and give space for people to explore gender.  This is our 9th year at Burning Man and my 13th year burning—in fact I am hosting a Burn Mitzvah as part of the radical ritual theme to celebrate my years there.  So far, we are still the only camp out of thousands of creative amazing spaces to specifically serve the needs of the Trans and gender non-binary community as well as to educate and create libratory spaces for all genders. I look forward to the day when we are one of many. TransFOAMation, our sister camp, is taking on the theme of gender liberation this year—which is powerful because it shows that we are moving in that direction and that this year there will be more visibility and safety for LGBTQIA people.

You’ve been a panelist at two LGBTs In The News with Thom Senzee events. Can you tell us what the last event was like and why Dr. Bronner’s and Gender Illumination sponsor the panel series? How are public events like this important?

I was on both the Transcending Stereotypes in the Media Panel and the Panel on Bisexuality. Both these panels serve as tools of education. The first panel focused on how we can overcome stereotypes in the media of Trans and gender non-binary community and the second focused on bi and pan-sexuality. We sponsor these panels because these panels give space to voices that are often marginalized and create powerful discussions. I am thankful for the opportunity to support such important work and I am very thankful to Dr. Bronner’s for their on-going commitment to environmental and gender justice and all around liberation.

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Frankie Higgins

Frankie Higgins is the National Events and Demo Manager at Dr. Bronner’s and supports the LGBTQ community throughout San Diego by working with events/organizations such as San Diego Pride, She Festival, Front Runners & Walkers 5K Pride Run, LGBT Weekly, LGBTs In The News and the Hillcrest Business Association.

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