A recent rash of hateful stickers in Madison spurs a fundraiser to support Black transgender women.
This article is the first in a new, regular collaboration between Tone Madison and Emily Mills’ newsletter, Grist From the Mills.
Content warning: This story details and includes images of stickers that use transphobic language.
Tori Vancil first found the stickers at Tenney Park back in December 2020. A resident of the neighborhood, Vancil says he was out for a walk when he saw what at first looked like a transgender pride flag design. On closer inspection, however, he saw a slogan emblazoned on the blue, pink, and white field: “Mens Sexual Rights Movement.”
He took down that and another sticker that had a cisnormative definition of woman on it—the most recent attempt by trans-exclusionary radical “feminists” (TERFs) to obscure their purpose behind seemingly benign language (see also: gender free, gender critical, etc.). As Vancil continued his walk, he says, he came across more and more of the stickers. It was especially upsetting because Vancil himself is transgender, and seeing the hateful message spread across his neighborhood park was more than a little jarring.
“This sort of hate is unacceptable and harmful,” Vancil says. “Parks are for peace and play. Parks are for respite. Parks are for walking your dog, watching the sunset, ice skating, fishing, BBQs, taking pictures. Parks are not for hate.”
Since then, Vancil says he’s found and removed hundreds of transphobic stickers, most with those same designs he initially found. He’s also rallied friends and allies to contribute to a fundraiser to counter the hateful messages. So far, with people donating $1 for every sticker found (and some making matching donations), Vancil has raised $1,600 to give to the Milwaukee-based Diverse and Resilient program, SHEBA (Sisters Helping Each Other Battle Adversity), a support group by and for Black transgender women.
“We started raising funds on January 6,” Vancil notes. “The fundraiser got traction quickly and funds started rolling in. I asked the community to match and they showed up!”
Not just a neighborhood problem
It’s a silver lining in an otherwise ugly story. The stickers have been found around the East side of Madison for a number of years, coming and going in sprees, including at the Willy Street Co-op. Co-op spokesperson Brendon Smith notes that staff first noticed the stickers on the exterior walls of the store in fall of 2019.
“We learned of a situation where a customer confronted two individuals stickering outside, but the customer was unable to identify the culprits, and the camera footage available did not provide a clear enough image to identify the specific people involved,” Smith says. The store addressed the incident in the October 2019 newsletter and posted signs on the doors affirming an “Everyone Welcome” stance. Transphobic stickers have continued to appear from time to time but are quickly taken down.
Transphobia in Madison isn’t limited to occasional vandalism, though. A lawsuit is currently pending against the Madison Metropolitan School District’s transgender-affirming guide for teachers and stuaff. Filed by right-wing lawsuit factory Wisconsin Law & Liberty (WILL), the suit alleges that the guidance is unconstitutional for advising teachers and staff not to discuss a student’s transition with parents until the student gives permission. A Dane County judge in September issued an injunction against the guidance (which is not official school policy) while the lawsuit proceeds, dealing a blow to the safety and support of transgender and non-binary students in the district, especially those who may not yet feel ready or safe to tell parents or guardians about their gender identity.
In another recent case, a transgender teacher at the east side’s Allis Elementary faced backlash, first for coming out and then for using the bathroom that aligned with her gender identity. Wisconsin hate crime laws don’t cover gender identity, nor does the state’s anti-discrimination law cover gender identity or expression (though Dane County has its own ordinance that does). A recent, statewide needs assessment conducted by FORGE shows that trans and non-binary people in the state still face high levels of harassment and discrimination in health care, in the work place, and in public.
Nationally, some 12 state legislatures are currently pursuing bills that specifically target transgender youth. Several bills would ban trans students from participating in sports that align with their gender identity, and others would “criminalize or otherwise ban gender-affirming care for transgender youth,” according to reporting by Chase Strangio, a trans activist and staff attorney with the ACLU. “Several of these bills classify any gender affirmation of trans young people as a form of ‘child abuse,’ a provision which, if enacted, threatens to imprison medical providers as well as parents and guardians who affirm their children.”
This is all happening despite overwhelming evidence that access to gender-affirming medical care saves lives. Studies and testimony show that access to puberty blockers for young trans people significantly reduces short and long-term mental health problems and incidences of suicide. As such, the bills have been condemned by major professional organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Medical Association, and the Endocrine Society, as well as the trans community and allies.
In the UK, virulent transphobia has infected mainstream media and politics. This has largely happened thanks to the efforts of TERFs who have refused an intersectional feminism in favor of twisting the language of women’s liberation into a weapon to target and oppress transgender people. Some TERF activists even have ties to far-right Christian fundamentalist organizations in the United States and are behind many of the efforts to attack transgender rights from the local to national level.
No small thing
All of this might make it seem to some like a rash of transphobic stickers is small potatoes in the grand scheme of things.
“Small minds can produce small hate symbols,” comments District 2 Alder Patrick Heck. Vancil informed Heck about the stickers, and Heck has since brought the issue before various city agencies, who have promised to remove the stickers whenever they’re found. “I was saddened, angered, and even confused when I heard about the transphobic stickers,” Heck says. “Who would take the time and energy to express their hateful attitudes on tiny stickers? I now suspect they know that their transphobia is rejected by virtually all of Madison, so they fly their hateful messages under the radar. Unfortunately, they also likely realize that trans folks and allies will recognize the stickers while many others may not.”
Even seemingly small acts have an insidious impact, most directly on their intended targets. These kinds of daily aggressions add up, contributing to the higher levels of minority stress-related mental and physical health issues for trans and non-binary folks. The targeted person and community is then forced to either absorb the offense without complaint and move on, or attempt to amplify the experience in the hopes that more people take the issue seriously. The risk with the latter strategy is that doing so will also give the perpetrators and their ideology more publicity, which is precisely what they want.
In this case, Vancil and others decided to take back the narrative. By calling out the problem while also using it to build awareness and support for trans-affirming groups and services, they’re once again reclaiming their power in the face of desperate bigotry. For allies and would-be good citizens of Madison, this incident is yet another wake-up call to the serious work still to be done to ensure and enshrine the equality and worth of all human beings.
“I hope to see the city and the parks stand up against transphobia. I hope [cisgender] Madison citizens can understand that these microaggresions are incredibly harmful and dangerous to the trans community,” Vancil says. “I am talking about your neighbors, your friends, your coworkers and classmates; Your kids’ teammate, or teacher, your grocery store clerk, your family. This sort of hate is meant to get in your brain and fester. Don’t let it. Someone spent a lot of money, time, and effort putting up those stickers, which are actual garbage. So, to whoever has been plastering these across the city…thank you! You set off a fundraiser to support Black Trans Womxn in our state.”