Owen Daniel-McCarter looks back on a decade of organizing in Chicago | Feature | Chicago Reader

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Owen Daniel-McCarter looks back on a decade of organizing in Chicago

“We live in a world that for the most part still doesn’t acknowledge that trans people exist.”

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O wen Daniel-McCarter is a longtime activist, lawyer, and Chicagoan. As one of the founders of the Transformative Justice Law Project of Illinois and the outgoing executive director of the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance, Daniel-McCarter has fought for the past decade to make this city and state a better place for trans people to live. He's guided me and many other Chicagoans on legal matters related to trans identity, and he's taught me how to build a community that works towards trans liberation. He's leaving Chicago for Vermont later this spring; recently he took some time to reflect with me on his years of organizing here.

What's your relationship to Chicago? How has Chicago shaped your activism?

I grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I moved to Oak Park between sixth and seventh grades. My mom was in graduate school in Milwaukee. After getting her PhD, she got a job at the University of Illinois at Chicago and we moved down here. I think people in Chicago shaped my activism. My mom is a rabble-rouser. I tagged along to picket lines, volunteered in a tutoring program at StreetWise in the late 90s, worked at Jobs With Justice, and was part of my mom's activism in the Chicago Coalition to Protect Public Housing.

The first time I heard of you was at the University of Vermont, which we both attended. You founded the Translating Identity Conference (TIC) roughly a decade before I arrived. Early on, TIC was formative in shaping my trans identity. I met the writer Eli Clare and heard the activist Miss Major speak there. Who were some of the first trans people you met and the first trans spaces that shaped you?

I grew up with a lot of queer people in my life. I have some recollection of hearing that one of my childhood babysitters was transitioning and then learning more about trans folks in college in an anthropology class. I remember wanting to know everything about gender fluidity.

I was drawn to books like Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg and remember reading Sylvia Rivera [cofounder of Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries] for the first time in the anthology GenderQueer, edited by Joan Nestle, Clare Howell, and Riki Wilchins. The first trans person I remember meeting was Dean Spade [law professor and founder of Sylvia Rivera Law Project]. I went to a conference at Brown called Transecting the Academy around 2002 and I remember Dean making connections about how systems of punishment and control are linked to gender and racism in the U.S. legal system.

You are one of the founders of the Transformative Justice Law Project of Illinois (TJLP), a collective of radical social workers, lawyers, and activists who provide legal services to the trans community, focusing on low-income people and people of color. Why did you see a need to create this organization?

I wanted to learn from Dean and his work at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP) in New York City [which provides legal services for trans people]. I went to law school at the City University of New York. I started volunteering for SRLP and then interned there. My power and privilege meant that my life was removed from the criminal legal system. My understanding of racism, mass incarceration, and the LGBT movement was largely through a white lens. At SRLP, nearly everyone I worked with had had some contact with the criminal legal system. I will never forget the first time I went to a maximum-security men's prison to visit two women locked up there. It was my experience in New York that shaped what would become TJLP. With so many LGBTQ people locked up, particularly trans women of color, I didn't understand why there weren't organizations doing criminal defense work for queer and trans people. TJLP was born out of the clear need to reduce the harm of that system on our communities.

One of TJLP's ongoing programs since 2011 is the Name Change Mobilization, which takes place the last Friday of every month at the Daley Center. It's how I legally changed my name, which was such an affirming moment in my life. Why is the role of naming so important in trans communities?

We live in a world that for the most part still doesn't acknowledge that trans people exist. Often conversations about who we are or what we need to survive begin with getting cis people to acknowledge that trans people are real. Our goal isn't always to pass as cis people. From basic health care to partnership, family, employment, and education—we have less power, access, and autonomy for the sole reason that we are transgender.

I've had the honor of being part of this project that has helped literally thousands of people legally change their names and other aspects of their identity documents over the past decade. I changed my own legal name here in Cook County at the Daley Center just like you did. The role of naming in the trans community is about reclaiming power. It's about being able to self-determine how we want to be seen and recognized. There is an important distinction between changing our names and having that choice legally recognized. Many people aren't able to legally change their names because they don't want to, they're not out to their employer, or due to criminal barriers. Whether the state of Illinois recognizes it or not, our names are changed when we say they are.

What has helped you survive as a trans person into this stage of your life?

Trans people have helped me survive and thrive. I have been blessed that my closest friends, queer family, and partners are queer and trans people. It's so healing to have relationships where your queerness isn't a barrier to intimacy, where you can be seen as a full person. I can't imagine getting to where I am now as a person, an organizer and a dreamer without these last 11 years in Chicago.   v

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