When Daisy James was 15 years old and first came out as a trans woman, she was forced to advocate for herself out of a need for survival, she said. As one of the “few trans folks” in Stoughton schools, she knew no one could advocate for her and her needs the way she could.
She pushed past the barriers of being forced to use a bathroom for which she did not identify, past students’ remarks and rumors; and parents calling the school and expressing concern that she was using the female locker room.
Today, at the age of 17, James has turned her self-advocacy into national advocacy. In November, the Stoughton High School senior was nominated to the National Youth Council for the Gender and Sexuality Alliance Network (GSA).
The organization, which was founded in 1998, hopes to empower and train “queer, trans and allied youth leaders to advocate, organize and mobilize.”
She is one of six people in the nation accepted to the role. James will push for equity in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and gender nonconforming (LGBTQ) community on a national level by drawing on the work she has done here in Stoughton and Madison.
“I believe that we (lack) the voices of transgender women in activist spaces and I believe I can incorporate my views from an intersectional lens that can bring a perspective from someone who is constantly working to center trans needs in my community and across the country,” James wrote to the Hub in an email.
James said she sees her activism as a personal duty rather than a choice.
At SHS, she worked with administrators to implement a gender neutral bathroom. But after realizing the bathroom was going to be inside the nurses office where students would have to ask permission to use it, she continues to go to school board meetings to advocate for a more accessible location.
“That could put you into uncomfortable situation,” James said. “You have to communicate with folks just to go to the restroom.”
James represented Stoughton at the Youth Social Justice Forum for the past year and has been active on the Dane County Youth Forum. In August 2019, she invited Percy Brown, the Director of Equity and Student Achievement for the Middleton Cross Plains Area School District, to speak at a SASD school board meeting. Brown is known as a civil rights educator and has a special lecture series on systemic racism in Madison schools.
James wanted Brown to speak to educators at SHS about systemic racism throughout Wisconsin.
Standing in front of her women’s studies class, James gave a presentation focusing on the exclusion of transwomen in feminist conversations and scholarship. She gave a call to action for more resources and support for transgender people in schools and in the medical system.
Ann Ash, a student counselor at SHS said when she first met James four years ago she was struggling, but as James embraced who she is, Ash said she saw her transform into a “brave, strong and driven person and social activist.”
“I have been a school counselor for 23 years, and I have never seen anyone make the kind of personal gains that Daisy has over the past four years,” Ash said in an email to the Hub. “I think her mere presence in the building has given others the courage to embrace who they are. Her bravery has made SHS feel a bit safer for anyone who identifies as other than cisgender.”
Every year the National Youth Council for the GSA Network helps organize the National Gathering, a meeting of students from all over the nation who come together to collaborate, share stories, exchange resources and deepen their solidarity and commitment to social justice, according to the GSA website.
This year the focus of the National Gathering is empowering and uplifting trans and queer leaders of color, James said. That is an issue she is passionate about.
“I’m here to acknowledge the work that my ancestors put in place to harm these folks and I’m going to use my privilege to uplift folks who society wants to silence,” she said.
James said it is rewording when others realize that being transgender is an actual identity and not a choice. But it can be exhausting having to use her own experiences to educate the people around her. She said it a lot of “emotional labor.”
After James graduates in the spring and moves on to cosmetology school, she still hopes to advocate for students and community members in Stoughton.
She wants to advocate for a black student union and create more youth lead organizations. There is a lack of resources in Stoughton for trans folks and communities of color, she said. And she’d like to see her fellow community members be able to find those resources right here in Stoughton.