As a child, Adria Stembridge remembers looking through picture books of hairstyles in a salon lobby on Baxter Street while her mother was getting her hair cut. There, she saw a lady who had long black hair, and Stembridge told her mother she wanted hair like that. However, she was soon disappointed as her mother told her little boys don’t have haircuts like that.
Stembridge, who identifies as a transgender woman, grew up in Athens in the 70s and stayed until the early 2000s when she moved to Atlanta, where she now works as a senior applications developer at Emory University.
Although Stembridge said she didn’t have a strong awareness that she was a girl when she was younger, it was definitely something she was interested in. However, she knew others wouldn’t understand her feelings.
“I kind of learned early on to internalize and not share what I was feeling about wanting to be a girl, or identifying as a girl,” Stembridge said.
If she shared her feelings, Stembridge risked being attacked due to transphobia.
In 2020 the Human Rights Campaign recorded more reported violent deaths of transgender and gender non-conforming people in the United States than it has since it started tracking those numbers in 2013. This year, they recorded 32 reported violent deaths.
Trans Day of Remembrance (TDOR), which takes place annually on Nov. 20, is meant to memorialize those who have been murdered because they are trans.
Even though she kept all of her feelings inside, Stembridge said the children at school still sensed there was something different about her, and they did not hold back on their cruelty.
By the time the late 80s and early 90s rolled around, Stembridge said she found herself really angry. She hated who she was and didn’t have any kind of outlet. Then she discovered the Athens punk scene.
“Punk was very angry and loud and brash, and I needed that,” Stembridge said. “It really helped me to know that it’s okay to be angry.”
Playing punk music also allowed Stembridge to get in touch with some of the questions she had about herself and her gender. In 1992, she was part of the punk outfit Vomit Thrower, and for one of their shows, Stembridge decided to put some black makeup on her eyes before the performance. She found the experience terrifying but also “super liberating.”
After that, Stembridge started to wear makeup and skirts on stage more and more throughout the mid-90s. However, one of her bandmates at the time tried to discourage her from wearing those things because he was concerned for her safety, Stembridge said.
“If I had gone walking around downtown dressed like I was for a show or something like that, I might risk myself being mugged or attacked or worse,” Stembridge said.
The view of transgender individuals was drastically different in the 90s than it is today. As Stembridge simply put: “being trans in the 90s sucked.”
One major difference is how trans individuals are viewed within medicine. In the late 90s, Stembridge ended up doing a lot of do-it-yourself medical care, such as herbals, in replacement of hormones, that didn’t work, and estrogen patches from overseas pharmacies. Many doctors wouldn’t prescribe hormones or surgery to trans individuals unless extremely strict and narrow guidelines were met.
In contrast, an interview with Riley Kirkpatrick, who identifies as a trans man, had to be rescheduled because he was teaching a kid from the youth group at Athens Queer Collective how to administer his own testosterone-shot at the original time of the interview.
Kirkpatrick, who cofounded the Athens Queer Collective, moved to Athens about 10 years ago from the Pacific Northwest. He started his transition pretty young, so not a lot of people can tell he’s trans when they meet him, he said.
This posed an unexpected problem when he moved to Athens because people in the LGBT scene thought he was cisgender and he had trouble finding a trans community. Kirkpatrick said he even regretted moving to Athens during his first two years here because the LGBT community and culture were so different from the Pacific Northwest.
As Kirkpatrick acclimated and found his group in town, he started to notice some holes within the LGBT community that he wanted to fill because it was very centered around cisgender white gay men at the time, he said. Enter Athens Queer Collective.
Kirkpatrick started Athens Queer Collective because he noticed there wasn’t a lot of support for trans people and LGBT youth in town. Within Athens Queer Collective, he started a trans support group and youth group which blew up almost immediately.
Kirkpatrick said he really enjoys helping people find their community and helping kids with transition-related tasks, like teaching them how to do their hormone shots. When he was transitioning around 20 years ago, there were no Facebook groups or Google, so he felt really isolated. Now he wants to use all the resources he has to help others, he said.
“It feels really good to me to be able to, honestly, to like hold space for the younger versions of myself,” Kirkpatrick said.
Although circumstances are undoubtedly better now for trans people than they were 20, or even 10, years ago, there is still a major stigma surrounding trans individuals which results in an abundance of violence toward the group.
Stembridge has attended a few TDOR events over the years. She said they were always nerve-wracking because, with so many trans people in one place, there was an amplified worry of being attacked, especially in the early 2000s. Luckily, nothing bad ever happened at the events she attended, Stembridge said.
Stembridge eventually stopped going to the Atlanta TDOR event because of the presence of police officers. She said she was uncomfortable with cops at the event because they were there “to pretend they had our backs.”
The disconnect between the police’s actions and their words was very clear when the name of Scout Schultz, a nonbinary student who was fatally shot by Georgia Tech police in 2017, was read at a TDOR event where police said they had the backs of the transgender and gender non-conforming communities, Stembridge said.
During Trans Awareness Week, which ends on TDOR, the Athens Queer Collective has a fundraising campaign to help fund its LGBT youth group, trans support group and group for queer and trans people of color. Donations can be made here.