NYC Pride’s 2023 The Rally was electric. New York was warm, windy, and had rained the previous day. The crowd trickled in, trans and rainbow flags billowing off their backs like capes. It felt bittersweet. To be surrounded by strangers who felt safe. Who felt like home. And knowing the year that we’ve endured together. The attacks on our rights, our lives, our humanity, still fresh in our minds. 

It Gets Better’s Youth Voice, Hailey, took the stage to share her story. One that spoke to our collective struggle, while highlighting the struggles that often go unnoticed. 

Hailey is a transgender rights activist, writer, and staunch abolitionist of the systems that perpetrate violence against Black trans women. Defined by her childhood in Colbert County, Alabama, her work seeks to center folk from the rural South and Appalachia-regions that have always been forgotten in the national conversation surrounding LGBTQ+ rights. Hailey is a student and Hodson Trust Scholar at The Johns Hopkins University, where she studies Sociology and International Studies on the Global Social Change and Development Track. In the future, Hailey hopes to work in International DEI Consulting, aiding NGOs and the international non-profit sector in their own inclusivity.

Here is what she said…

My name is Hailey Saya Tomlinson, I’m a proud transgender woman, and this is my story.

I grew up in rural Alabama. And when I say rural, I mean like, so rural you hallucinated banjos playing to accompany the cicadas and humidity that persevered nightly. So rural, a neighbor was a foreign concept. and it’s a miracle I escaped without a country accent. I spent the first 7 years of my life content, playing in creeks and forests without so much as a blip of fear, hate, or gender concepts.

I could sit up here and tell you the depressing parts of my childhood, comparing them to my mostly peaceful life I’m able to live now. I could give a speech about how, as a Baltimore college student with access to gender affirming care and most days spent without abuse, I’m 1000% sure that it gets better. But I’m not. It’s more complicated than that, and though I’m incredibly thankful for the life I am able to lead now, to say I don’t have my doubts about our future would be a flat out lie.

“I could tell you “it gets better,” because it did for me. But it didn’t for everyone else.”

The national LGBTQ+ movement has not only forgotten about the differences in the trans and gay experience and too often placed white gay men as the spokespersons for an incredibly diverse community, but forgotten about the kids in my home state whose lives haven’t gotten better time and time again.

I graduated high school the year before Alabama’s Don’t Say Gay or Trans, Anti-trans bathroom, and anti-trans sports bills came into effect. I was too young to deal with the KKK at our first pride and too old to experience the current legal battles that are being waged against kids just using the bathroom. And I still had a hard time. I got death threats, protests in my name and abuse at every corner.

I barely made it out alive, facing half of what the kids today have to deal with.

I can’t imagine a world where I look like this and I’m forced to use the men’s room with my peers. I can’t imagine a world where teachers are permitted to misgender me and belittle me daily. A world where “Hailey” wouldn’t be on my public high school diploma— not just because of administrative policy, but because I probably wouldn’t have made it to graduation.

And yet, I don’t hear about this anywhere. Who here has heard of HB 322? SB 184? Who is fighting against it? I know that what’s happening in America for LGBTQ and particularly transgender rights is a lot.

I think it’s valid to remove yourself from media cycles and try to live peacefully as much as it is to fight diligently against regression on the street or in a courtroom.

But what I don’t think is valid is to claim that you care and are working to address LGBTQ+ rights in the U.S. if it doesn’t include places like my hometown of Colbert Heights, Alabama. Places where you wake up to news about Florida and Texas without a murmur of the atrocities being committed in your home state. The atrocities that get worse daily. 

Our work has failed to address complex cultural and social attitudes unique to Alabama. We have failed to empower underfunded and spare rural LGBTQ+ organizations, particularly those led by trans people of color. There is blatant national silence on issues like the 11th Circuit Court upholding anti-trans bathroom bills across the South. And not to mention… conversion therapy still has not been banned— and one of my closest friends in middle school needed that. He was the son of a pastor, came out as bi, and then was shipped off to someplace in southern Alabama where I’m sure he was abused until something snapped.

He has never spoken to me after he left that summer. It’s been 7 years.

So yes. I’m not 1000% hopeful. But if we can begin to unite, including all of us everywhere– everywhere, including Alabama and rural america– in our fight for progression, we can make “it gets better” a reality for everyone, and I might be able to claim that I am 1000% hopeful, one day.

“In our fight for progression, we can make ‘it gets better’ a reality for everyone.”

I want to thank my amazing family and friends for supporting me throughout every step of my transition, particularly my amazing Mother, my best friend, and my mom away from home. Rosario, Jassie, and Emily, I love you. I also want to thank the amazing folks at the It Gets Better Project for supporting me as a part of their Youth Voice Program.

It makes me so happy to see all of you here today, listening, fighting for a way forward. Thank you for existing, thank you for fighting, and thank you for being you. Happy pride.