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When they come for one of us: Central New York rallies for the Transgender Day of Visibility

Transgender Day of Visibility celebrates transgender people and their contributions to society while raising awareness of the prejudice and discrimination many in the community still face. In Central New York, the day was observed with a rally on the Parkway and Genesee Street in Utica.

By Ron Klopfanstein

Avery Pilatzke is a high school senior. He came out as transgender in the last year and a half and wants other transgender youth to know they’re not alone. 

“I’ve had a really supportive community around me,” he said. “I’m glad people in this area are willing to be supportive and educate themselves on trans issues and what we deal with on a day-to-day basis.”

Dozens of people braved the cold rain and rallied on Genesee Street and the Parkway in Utica to observe the Transgender Day of Visibility. The Oneida County Pride Association, the Herkimer County Pride Alliance, and Indivisible Mohawk Valley organized the event. The special day takes place every March 31st. It celebrates transgender people and their contributions to society while raising awareness of the prejudice and discrimination many in the community still face. In Central New York, the day was observed with a rally on the Parkway and Genesee Street in Utica.

Dozens of people braved the cold to rally in Utica to observe the Transgender Day Of Visibility. Photo by Ron Klopfanstein

Avery was joined at the rally by his father, Matthew Pilatzke, who urged people to become more educated about the subject, particularly how misinformation hurts transgender youth. 

“There is a lot of fake news when it comes to transgender people and coming out,” he told me. “There are a lot of false narratives about what transgender children go through.”

A study recently published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that Transgender adolescents had a five times greater risk of suicidal thoughts or ideation than their cisgender peers and were 7.6 times more likely to attempt suicide than their cisgender peers. (Kingsbury et al.) A 2013 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that “parental support was significantly associated with higher life satisfaction, lower perceived burden of being transgender, and fewer depressive symptoms.” The researchers also pointed out how by playing a “protective role,” parents of transgender youth “have a crucial opportunity to offset the mental health impact of societal harassment and discrimination their children receive.” (Wilson et al.)

In a Facebook post last June, Pilatzke stepped up as a parent and expressed his support for his son.

“This is a decision that did not come lightly for him or me,” he wrote. “ It has been a long road for him over the last three years to figure out who he is and what he stands for. I am immensely proud of the young man he has become and what he has overcome. For everyone else, I would hope that you learn to love and accept Avery as I do.” 

Avery Pilatzke was joined at the rally by his father, Matthew, who urged people to become more educated about how misinformation hurts transgender youth. Photo by Ron Klopfanstein

Pilatzke quickly added that his Facebook post received “nothing but support. No hate.”

Not all transgender people are as lucky as Avery. Anti-LGBT legislation has risen exponentially, along with acts of violence against transgender individuals. The backlash gained momentum with Florida’s draconian “Don’t Say Gay” bill. That legislation made it a crime in that state to be an openly gay teacher or to support LGBT students. It led to the emptying of school library shelves, a marked increase in violence and discrimination, and copycat bills in 22 states. 

Avery told me that school has been okay for him so far. He reports he has “a lot of supportive friends,” but it saddens him to see “everything in the news lately.”

Experts in the field of education agree on the importance of young people having the support of teachers as well their peers and family members. Not all transgender youth are as fortunate as Avery Pilatzke to have such an amazing father.

“The positive support that young people get from teachers and school staff can mitigate and act as a protective influence if students don’t get the support they need from family and friends,” said Patrice W. Hallock, Ph.D., Professor of Education at Utica University. “The positive influence of teachers is often overlooked and shouldn’t be. Teachers matter second only to parents in terms of positive support for the development of youth.”

Dr. Hallock underscored the importance of providing youth with a supportive environment.

“While students don’t always remember the lessons teachers deliver, they do remember how their teachers made them feel!” She also stressed that “teachers can provide affirmation by ensuring that students see themselves reflected in the curriculum.”

Carlos Guillermo Smith was the first openly LGBT member of the Florida Assembly. He served in that body until 2022, when Republican led redistricting cost him his seat. Still he speaks out on behalf of the LGBT youth particularly in regards to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ infamously cruel “Don’t Say Gay” bill whose original intention was to drive LGBT youth and educators into the closet in elementary schools, but is now poised to eradicate non-heterosexual non-cisgendered staff, students, cirriculum, and even books themselves, from the school system. He explained the crisis in straightforward terms in a recent tweet. History has taught us that “disappearing” a marginalized community from public life is a first step to making them go away through more violent, though equally systematic, means.

 “As for Texas, Alabama, and Florida, you disgrace the residents of your states with your hurtful rhetoric and laws,” Pilatzke wrote in defense of his son. “All I can say is that I am thankful that I live in a state where I can raise my son without these shameful laws impacting the mental health of those in the LGBTQ+ community.”

The truth, however, is that proponents of this particular type of social hate have brought the war to our community. Conservative Republican Congressman Brandon Williams has voted for a copycat bill that would impose Florida exclusionary policies nationwide. Another looming threat comes via a nationally coordinated extremist group called “Moms For Liberty.” This organization seeks to ban books with LGBT or racially conscious themes by targeting schools, educators, and the parents of transgender youth-sometimes even slandering them as “groomers” and offering “bounties” on their heads.  Equally stunning in its ignorance and bigotry is a quote by Republican Assemblymember John Salka who told the Joplin Globe newspaper that, “he believes some teachers and librarians are attempting to promote a ‘gay lifestyle’ by providing access to materials.”

The film The Path to Nazi Genocide, which can be seen on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website, describes how “through hundreds of legal measures, the Nazi-led German government gradually excluded Jews from public life, the professions, and public education.” This eerily parallels the current climate of repression spreading across “red states” and threatening to gain a foothold right here in the Mohawk Valley.

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, recognized the danger of hate speech because it “targets people and groups based on who they are.” UNESCO also recognizes how the hateful rhetoric of extremists organizations and their political supporters “has the potential to ignite and fuel violence, spawn violent extremist ideologies, including atrocity crimes and genocide.” 

Samantha Smith held a sign over her head that read, “When they come for one of us, they come for all of us.”

It was reminiscent of the famous quote by Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoller, who, following the rise to power by Adolf Hitler, noted with alarm the Nazi’s tactic of incrementally purging minority groups from society by choosing one group to stigmatize and demonize at a time. 

“They’re not gonna stop,” Smith said, shaking her head.

“This is Avery Pilatzke,” his dad Matthew in his Facebook post. “He is transgender. This is not a phase. This is not a choice. I am not a groomer.”

The transphobic attacks have increased so sharply that United States Attorney General Merrick Garland released a memo addressing the crisis on October 4, 2023. In it, he condemned the “disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff.”

“Transpeople are so much under attack right now that we need to stand up for them and make sure that New York doesn’t go the way of those other states,” said Abby McArthur, one of the founders of the Herkimer County Pride Alliance

McArthur is especially concerned because Herkimer County has one of the largest suicide rates in New York State in proportion to its population. 

“We’re here to say no more we want our kids to be safe,” McArthur said emphatically.

“We’re here, we’re queer, and there’s no getting rid of us,” said Julian Gonzales, one of the ralliers. “Even if you eradicate transpeople today, more will be born tomorrow.”

“We need people to educate themselves,” Julian Gonzales said. “We need to educate our neighbors, and we need to just try and be open-minded.” Photo by Ron Klopfanstein

Transgender rights are human rights,” Gonzales reiterated, “hormone replacement therapy is health care, and the more that we take away these vital resources for trans youth, the more it’s going to be dangerous. There are kids who have bad depression, suicidal thoughts and ideation, and we want to protect our kids.”

The rain didn’t dampen the enthusiasm or conviction of the rallygoers, who were pleased to note that there were no counter-protesters from area hate groups. The Friday afternoon rush hour traffic seemed equally enthusiastic about showing their support. Drivers honked their horns and gave “thumbs-up hand” signs as they passed by the cheering group.

“We need people to educate themselves,” Julian Gonzales said. “We need to educate our neighbors, and we need to just try and be open-minded.”

“It’s 2023,” Samantha Smith added. “There needs to be common sense. People just want to live their damn lives.”

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