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Overhead Lighting: How Discomfort Can Lead to Change

Discussing authenticity and creating space with Danielle Skidmore.

I first met Danielle Skidmore back in 2018. I was at a fundraising event with some friends hosted by a gay couple at their home in central Austin. We had a quick and pleasant conversation about the weather and running with The Austin Frontrunners, an LGBTQ+ running group my friends and I were a part of. Later we became friends on social media and it was through following Danielle’s posts that I learned that she was a trans woman.

In the months and years following our first meeting, Danielle’s public profile grew quite a bit through her experience running for Austin City Council, advocacy work at the Texas State Capitol, and extensive volunteering with other progressive candidates. She now works as an entrepreneur with her own engineering consulting firm and continues her advocacy work in addition to being a special needs parent all the while sharing stories of her life through social media posts every now and then.

Those posts are what led me to reach out to see if she might be interested and able to spare some time to talk with me about what authenticity means to her, and to my surprise - she said yes! We set some time aside to jump on a Zoom call to talk through authenticity:

Sharing Stories

“As someone with a relatively public profile, how do you think about sharing your story?” I asked to start us off.

“As Queer people, we have to decide which part of our narrative to focus on when telling our stories. Even in supportive spaces,” Danielle began.

“When I speak about my trans experience, I find myself focusing on the stuff that is harder to talk about.

I’m just a middle-aged white woman! The ‘successful’ gender transition stories - or the ones that focus on people who look like me - have had their place, but it is time to broaden that and push people.”

When Danielle refers to trans people who ‘look like her,’ she’s referring to the concept of ‘passing’ or the ability to exist in life day to day without being easily identified as transgender. Her call to broaden the bounds of what is considered ‘successful’ or even ‘acceptable’ when sharing stories about the trans experience is a form of creating space. That process is easier said than done and it takes time.

“I view the action of ‘coming out' to ourselves as a gift. It takes some of us a long, long time to be able to receive that gift. That said, once you come out and are authentic - lots of people ‘come out’ to you regardless of what their story is.

They may not even be Queer, but they are actively working to free themselves from whatever shame they have about who they are, their actions, or their past. Why they have that shame to begin with may be unclear, but they feel compelled, or even encouraged, to work to move past it. I think it’s powerful.”

It was around this point in the conversation that I made a joke about taking notes and acknowledging that my face can get pretty distorted when I am listening, thinking, and typing at the same time.

“I was just thinking about how good your lighting is,” Danielle commented with a smile on her face which then brought on a very relatable discussion about how all of us had to become miniature set designers during the pandemic working to create Zoom backgrounds and backdrops that looked professional enough to do business in this brave new world that was thrust upon us.

“I’m still using overhead lighting. I really want to get a ring light,” Danielle said before we transitioned back to the topic.

Applying Pressure

“I’m usually working on the appropriate level of tensions that I can bring into conversations,” she said referring back to her advocacy work.

“I know we have to be uncomfortable to grow, but how uncomfortable can I make you? That’s a question I am asking myself regularly.”

An example of this playing out in Danielle’s life involved her position on the board of a nonprofit here in Austin. With so much legislation being circulated in the Texas legislature this season, much of which specifically targets trans youth in athletics, she felt like a statement from the organization would be meaningful in creating space for trans youth.

Danielle brought up the idea on a recent Zoom call. “I knew they were uncomfortable with the situation. With the fact that it was happening, with the fact that we aren’t saying anything, but I was still asking them as individuals to help our community.”

“I understand why people say they don’t understand why they have to think about transgender issues, but it’s important to remember the world is greater than your sliver of it. I also think when people are ‘doing the work,’ much of it has to be done privately, over time. When they are doing it, it’s hard to see it happening, even when we are watching closely. I’m not sure that we can see it.

That’s why it feels like we work to make someone just a little uncomfortable, then we stop, and then do it again once they are back to feeling comfortable.”

“When folks are being asked to acknowledge their privilege, and perhaps their bigotry, there is often a ton of shame around them. How do I give straight people straight space to process their feelings, say the things they are thinking, while also helping them realize that most of what they are thinking or asking is considered problematic by the Queer community? I believe they sometimes have to be able to say it in order to work through things.”

Going Viral

This discussion of having conversations with straight people in straight spaces brought up Danielle’s experience as a guest on the Steven Crowder show on Youtube which she ironically noted is the most visible thing she has done by far.

The video has been viewed by 13 million people, and Danielle says that she still gets messages, or recognized out in public from it despite the fact that it was uploaded in 2018. It came about randomly and Danielle wasn’t aware of Steven or his show which typically utilizes antagonistic tactics when social topics with guests.

“I was walking down the street to the post office with my son one day, and I saw some guy with a camera crew and a sign that says ‘There are only two genders, change my mind.’

I thought, “Who is this yahoo? What radio station does he work for?” She said as she laughed a bit, but shared she ultimately decided to go to the post office and then stop by if he was still there when she came back. He was, and the conversation that ensued lasted about 30 minutes and is included along with an interview with Danielle’s campaign manager and friend as well.

I’ve since watched the video and have to say that Danielle displayed every bit of what she had been describing in our conversation up to that point of allowing s

pace for straight people to ask their questions. She calmly engaged in the conversation that was definitely antagonistic at multiple points as Steven tried to bring up many “value” based arguments with the underlying goal of preserving ‘western culture’, but was overall very different from what would be considered a ‘political debate,’ that the show is known for.

The discussion ended with Danielle encouraging Steven to imagine a world where people were debating whether he was legitimate in his humanity. He misunderstands what she is saying (either purposefully or genuinely) and then proceeds to misgender her to close. Classy. Despite all this, Danielle doesn’t regret the experience.

“I went into a space where people were watching to find things out,” Danielle shared adding that Steven’s audience is primarily heterosexual and conservative. If you’re unfamiliar with political YouTube, just know it’s a big thing. Based on what I’ve seen with that space, I wouldn’t think many of the viewers were looking for a ‘debate’ as much as content that affirms their worldview, but Danielle shared there has been a number of affirming messages and emails she has gotten from people who have watched the video.

In fact, she received a letter just last week from a London viewer who below that don’t include any personal information from the sender.