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Danni Askini Is About to Mix It Up in Olympia

The head of Seattle’s Gender Justice League is having a Harvey Milk moment.

By Matthew Halverson March 28, 2016 Published in the April 2016 issue of Seattle Met

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Danni Askini photographed at 12th Avenue Arts, in Capitol Hill, on February 24, 2016.

Image: Mike Kane

Danni Askini spent a lot of time in Olympia this winter, putting the kibosh on half a dozen bills that would prohibit trans people from using the bathroom of the gender with which they identify. “We’ve been moving the ball forward to address things like hate crimes and access to homeless shelters,” she says. “And now we’re talking about where we can poo.” While fighting for acceptance since her high school days in rural Maine, humor has buoyed Askini, the executive director of Seattle’s Gender Justice League. And it’s something she’ll no doubt lean on this fall as she fights to become the first transgender woman to serve in the Washington State Legislature. Where for once she’ll get to back bills rather than kill them. —Matthew Halverson

I never came out of the closet.
The closet burned down around me.

I was a sophomore in high school when I told my family that I was going to transition, that I knew myself to be a woman. They said, “Yep, that’s a thing that we’ve known since you were little. We were just waiting.” But the reaction by students at my school… It was a very white school and very homogenous, largely working to middle class. So being different in a gendered way really made me stand out to a lot of people, which made me a huge target.

I heard a lot of things as a 15-year-old that most 40-year-olds couldn’t handle; a lot of victim blaming, a lot of “if I wasn’t so flamboyant.” If I hadn’t quote-unquote “chosen to be this way.”

I get calls from trans people who are sexually assaulted or harassed on the bus by strangers while other bystanders do nothing or laugh. I don’t think people understand how deeply, emotionally devastating that is to have nobody stand up for you when someone is assailing you.

I’ve done this work in Mississippi and Alabama. I’ve done it in South Carolina and Georgia. I’ve done it in California and New England. I’ve done it in the Midwest. I’ve talked to a lot of people around the country, and what I’ve learned is that the lack of acceptance just comes from a lack of familiarity. When you move past that familiarity and get to know who trans people are, humans are capable of an incredible amount of empathy.

One of the powerful things that trans people provide to non–trans people is an example of what it means to be true to yourself. It takes an immense amount of courage to transition.

Why do we have no elected officials who are trans? It’s not because we’re not capable. It’s not because we’re not as smart, as hard working. It’s that we live in a society that devalues our presence, our existence.

Forty-one percent of trans people attempt suicide at some point in their life. It was true for me. When young people take their life I’m filled with a sense that I could have done more. I could have educated more. I could have hustled more. I could have reached more people.

I’m more interested in having productive conversations with the public than with lawmakers who I’m not going to be able to persuade. I just don’t think there’s anything in a single conversation that is going to move them. I don’t know that I, as an advocate, am going to be the person who’s going to reach them. I’m not the best messenger. I’m seen as biased. I’m seen as having an agenda.

I can’t let things that happen in Olympia become personal, because then I have no bandwidth to sit with people who are suffering and be present for them. I only have so much emotional capacity.

How do I cope? I’m a fighter. I definitely have a scream-in-it pillow. I have a rooftop deck that I go and scream off of. People probably think I’m yodeling or something. I have a lot of really amazing friends. I’ve built an amazing community. We support each other, we spend time together. We are snarky. We make jokes. We laugh at the irrational fears that people have.

I pass really well right now. That has afforded me a great deal of privilege. I don’t experience the same resistance or fear or concern or skeptical looks.

But that hasn’t always been the case. A couple years ago I had a bone marrow disease called aplastic anemia, and I ultimately had to have a bone marrow transplant. That was a terrifying experience. But the hardest part about being sick, as strange as it sounds, was the fear of being misgendered. I got really thin. I didn’t have many curves because I didn’t have any body fat. I looked terrible. Losing my gender, losing that ability to be perceived for who I see myself as, was profoundly devastating.

Star Trek was hugely influential when I was younger, partly because of the utopian future it presented. It helped teach me the difference between differences and being different. Being different means there’s something in the middle that you’re not a part of. Differences means that we’re all kind of circles floating in the universe. 

Harvey Milk said, “You gotta give them hope.” And I think my job is to go around the state and give trans people hope that we can do this. We are shifting things. We are creating possibility.

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