Marcelle Cook-Daniels (1960-2000) had two traits that set him apart from many other Black trans leaders.
The first and most important trait is that he didn’t think of the world in the categories so many of us now organize our lives around. He was able to see and support individuals beyond their demographic labels, yes, but he also understood that individuals often lead lives that are intimately involved with others who may “belong to different categories.” Some of this viewpoint came from his own interracial partnership, where class similarities and world outlook far outweighed the racial differences. His personal relationship was also where he learned to greatly value the type of partnerships in which people worked together for a single purpose, using each partner’s strengths to bolster and fill in the other partner’s strengths; he and his partner Loree Cook-Daniels were proud of their ability to set joint goals and then play different roles in order to reach them.
That was the approach they took when the first, 1995 and 1996, FTM conferences divided trans people from their partners, restricting partners from many workshops and offering vastly different agendas (including some that were offensively stereotypical, such as scheduling “shopping”) to non-trans partners. Having had over a decade of being treated as equal partners in a lesbian couple, the sudden experience of having people tell them they were now different and unequal was jarring and unacceptable to both Marcelle and Loree.
Luckily, an opportunity to create a different path soon came. Gary Bowen, an American Indian transman who had founded American Boyz on the East Coast, agreed that the best and fastest way to advance the trans community was to include SOFFAs – the newly-coined term for Significant Others, Friends, Family and Allies. He also expressed a strong interest in having an FTM conference on the East Coast, since both the previous conferences had been on the West Coast. Despite now living on the West Coast themselves, Marcelle and Loree saw the new conference – which Gary Bowen named True Spirit, partly in honor of his Native heritage – as an opportunity to establish an inclusive approach to organizing for the trans community. They lobbied hard for Gary to expand his vision to a national conference, sweetening the deal by offering Loree as an unpaid, half-time staffer (supported, obviously, by Marcelle) in exchange for the expansion. Gary agreed, and Loree and Gary spent the next several years working closely together from across the country (a possibility that had only recently emerged as the result of the internet) to build both the True Spirit conferences (held annually from 1997 to 2002) and American Boyz itself.
Marcelle, in addition to bankrolling one of AmBoyz/True Spirit’s key staffers (Gary continued to finance himself), stepped into other roles as needed. At least once, he provided the credit card guarantee the conference hotel required, served as Security Director and Treasurer (which at that point was a high-stakes job, since many conference registrations were paid in cash), and took on miscellaneous other, mostly-behind-the-scenes, tasks as needed. He was immensely proud of the conferences: they provided a model in which all members of the community felt equally welcomed, and yet where differences were acknowledged and met: practically every demographic group, including people with disabilities and Arab-Americans, had their own liaison, many of whom developed identity-specific resource lists. The conferences also all had at least one person of color chair or co-chair the conference, once Gary gave up that role. This is remarkable in part because it wasn’t explicitly planned; it was only in retrospect that anyone noticed that aspect of the leadership.
Of course, it wasn’t all rosy. Marcelle took a lot of pushback from other people of color when he opposed a proposal to waive all conference fees for people of color. He felt that it was unfair and an exercise in stereotyping to change the existing policy of providing scholarships for those people – of any race – who were low-income and could not afford the conference fee. As a middle-class Black man who was helping underwrite the conference, the proposal also made him feel invisible. He also was challenged for not giving a speech in 2000, when Loree became the first partner to ever keynote a transgender conference. He was immensely proud of what he and Loree had together achieved by that speech, and devastated that others could not see that the keynote was for him — a background kind of guy who described himself as “the SOFFA’s SOFFA” — as much his achievement as Loree’s. These experiences, among others, made him feel unseen and unvalued for who he was as an individual, apart from his skin color and gender. They were part of what led to him taking his own life later in 2000.
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