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Targeting Oppression

Trans activist Ariel Howland seeks better treatment for all
Ariel Howland
Ariel Howland. Photo by Todd Cooper.

Overlaying the woodland camouflage pattern on her T-shirt, thin pink lines swirl together into a scene of butterflies hovering over cowering riot police and flames rising in the background. Ariel Howland, a recent graduate of the University of Oregon’s Department of Women’s and Gender Studies (WGS), has some major beefs with the establishment — patriarchy, homophobia, transphobia, racism, ableism, etc.

Howland, a transwoman, actually identified as a straight boy through puberty and had no gay or trans friends to speak of. Still, hearing the all-too-common “That’s so gay,” she would retort, “What’s wrong with being gay?” In high school, only just finding herself, she took great interest in politics and social movements and dreamed of being a demonstrator.

As a university freshman, Howland went through a protracted discovery process. She was bisexual, pansexual and finally transgender. WGS education confirmed her long-running subconscious gender dispute. “At first it came out of nowhere,” she says. “Then I thought more about my childhood and inner self and saw the connection with other trans experiences.”

In November 2012, Howland organized a benefit at Lorax Manor to aid grand jury resisters she knew, who were temporarily imprisoned for refusing to testify. A May Day anti-capitalist protest last year in Seattle saw clashes between police and protesters, and the FBI had been dragnetting potential anarchists. “All were very good, principled people,” says Howland, whose event educated young activists about dangers they face.

This summer, hosting a workshop at the local Trans and Womyn’s Action Camp (TWAC), Howland taught fellow activists about transmisogyny, the practice of denying a transwoman her femaleness. “Before I met Ariel, I didn’t realize there was so much commonality between being mixed race and being trans,” says Ceslie Garza, fellow TWAC organizer. “You feel like, ‘I don’t belong here, but I don’t belong there either.’”

The transgendered, Howland says, are largely exotified in popular culture, and employers discriminate against them, especially while transitioning. “The only industry where there’s a big demand for trans people is porn,” says Howland, who despises inequity, but loves sex.

After taking the yearlong Sexual Wellness Advocacy Team (SWAT) course at the university, which enhanced her confidence as a public speaker, Howland founded Beautiful, Lovely, Intelligent and Super Sexy (BLISS), a sex-positive collective, through which she challenged her peers’ sexual expectations and desires. Howland has thrown several “genderfuck” birthday parties, which she says are about “having an androgynous presentation on purpose — making gender expression a game.” People often arrive in such whimsical combinations as a corset and moustache.

With SWAT, Howland also worked to promote consent, shifting the focus of sexual violence to perpetrators and bystanders. “If there was more accountability in communities in general,” she says, “we would have a smaller problem.” Sarah Greene, a former Lorax dweller, recalls that, “At weekly consensus meetings, if something intense was going on in the house and people felt unsafe, Ariel would come and talk about it.” Howland, who completed volunteer training with Sexual Assault Support Services of Lane County, offered asides from meetings to deal with harassment and other issues.

“Ariel’s activism is on a very personal level,” says Greene, who constantly discusses her identity with Howland. “My family loves me and I’m glad they do, but I don’t have either of their experiences,” she says. Greene, like Garza, is both biracial and queer. Greene says that if her parents argue in public on occasion, as most couples do, “That puts my [African-American] father at risk of being [profiled] for yelling at a white woman.” Garza adds that, “I’ve had to experience being in a grocery store with my dad, who [is much darker than me], and people accused him of kidnapping me.”

“I take into account what I think I can contribute,” says Howland, who has focused on gender because of its familiarity, but hopes to get wiser on issues of racism and ableism, in order to be a better ally. She is also the founder of Transgender Oregon Network on Facebook.

We should “take an intersectional approach and tackle more than one issue at a time,” Howland says. “I don’t think any kind of oppression is more important than any other.”

Part of a series of profiles of trans people in the community.