Updated: Nov. 11, 2019, at 2:02 p.m.
Afro-Latina actress MJ Rodriguez spoke about gender identity and discrimination at the Lisner Auditorium Thursday.
Rodriguez, who stars in FX’s television show “Pose,” discussed her experiences navigating gender identity as the keynote speaker for the Office for Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement’s 5th annual Diversity Summit. About 850 people attended the keynote at the event, which was titled “Be Bold: Learning. Unlearning. Relearning.”
Rodriguez talked about her experiences as a victim of bullying in elementary school, saying she had to resort to physically defending herself after being called the F-word as a seven-year-old. She said her family was “a little sad and surprised” at her reaction but recognized the need to intervene.
“I just didn’t know what to do,” she said. “That was the last moment in my life, I was like ‘I’m not resorting to violence ever, I’m not going to deal with someone talking to me in that kind of way and letting that inflict worry or harm on me.’”
She said she did not have the vocabulary to discuss her gender identity at that time, but added that her parents ingrained in her the idea that her existence was “worthy.”
“My confidence came back up again, simply because my parents were the ones that instilled that in me, but it wasn’t as easy as you would think it would be,” she said.
Rodriguez said she later spoke with her mother about her gender identity once she was able to better formulate her thoughts as a teenager. She said she told her mother there was “something different” about her but that she didn’t know how to express it.
“She would always tell me, ‘Oh baby, you’re fine, just go simply be yourself. Don’t worry,’” Rodriguez said. “But that wasn’t enough for me sometimes. And that was her love.”
She said parents whose children come out to them should “love them just as much as you love their before” and ask questions to better understand their child’s identity.
“I was blessed enough to have a mother and father that really embraced me,” she said. “We had our times, but I was never displaced from my home. And I know that many kids and sometimes young adults are displaced from their homes simply because of who they are.”
She said young trans individuals should not view their transition as the “end, overall be all” of their lives. She said transitioning is instead one “beautiful small portion” of their lives that will allow them to further settle into their identities.
“That’s what makes it easier for you to develop and live and be who you are in life, because if you do hold that tied to you, you will have dramatic moments – you will be closed off,” Rodriguez said. “Never close yourself off. I mean, stay away from the bad people y’all. But don’t keep yourself closed off because it will make it harder for you down the line.”
Rodriguez, who attended the Berklee College of Music, said she was unable to focus on academics because of her traumatic experiences in high school but added that being in college allowed her to settle into her “true form.” She said the school was the “musical Hogwarts of Boston,” filled with “artistic” students playing trumpets in hallways and bright pink highlights in their hair.
She said college students should not let others restrict them from being themselves but added that students should listen to their parents, who have “been here for a minute” and have wisdom to offer. She said college is an ideal time for students to better understand themselves, whether that is with regards to gender identity or other aspects of their personalities.
“I jumped off the cliff, not knowing that there was water at the bottom and felt it, and it was like, ‘Oh, I’m wet, I’m fine,’” Rodriguez said. “Sometimes that’s what you have to do, especially when you’re in college, that’s the best time to figure out who you are and sometimes it doesn’t even have to do with identity.”
Rodriguez called for students – particularly allies of the LGBTQ community – to speak up for others who face discrimination. She said “a lot” of young individuals now digitally record instances of discrimination against trans women instead of speaking up in the moment.
“When you’re on a train, you hear that thing saying ‘See something, say something,’” she said. “Well, that pertains to human beings as well.”
This post has been updated to reflect the following correction:
The Hatchet originally reported that about 150 people attended the event. About 850 people attended. We regret this error.