Around five years ago, while Rachel Esters was early in her transition, she heard writer, producer, and trans rights activist Janet Mock speak at a queer-friendly church in Denver.
She remembers feeling seen by Mock’s description of her tumultuous, bountiful inner life as a Black transgender woman—and she also appreciated Mock’s willingness to admit the privileges that afforded her such a significant cultural platform, like her ability to pass as cisgender.
Esters—a retired Larimer County sheriff’s lieutenant, criminal justice reform advocate, and project administrator for the Colorado Trust—will now have the chance to curate a similar dialogue with other queer Coloradans on April 8, when she will co-moderate the Center on Colfax’s Read It or Don’t Book Group, a regular discussion forum that features prominent queer community members talking about books on LGBTQ life. Fittingly enough, the material for the April conversation will center on Mock’s 2017 autobiographical account, Surpassing Certainty: What My Twenties Taught Me.
Rex Fuller, the Center’s CEO, founded the group in partnership with the Denver Public Library earlier this year (the April event will be the second book club discussion), in large part “to expand conversations around issues of race and gender.” Too often, he says, “when people think of the LGBTQ community, they think of cisgender, white, young men, but the community encompasses so much more than that.”
At the group’s first meeting in February, they discussed Michael Arcenaux’s autobiography I Can’t Date Jesus: Love, Sex, Family, Race, and Other Reasons I’ve Put My Faith in Beyoncé. As with the meetings that will follow, a small panel—which included lead pastor at Denver’s Belong Church Jasper Peters, public health official Thera Lee Marshall II, and Denver Public Library marketing and communications specialist Devin Cochran—chatted about the book on Facebook Live and YouTube. Listeners joined the discourse as the group interwove the themes of Arcenaux’s text into their own experiences as queer or queer-allied Black men, touching on everything from the religious roots of brotherly love and personal guilt to the way Black narratives, whether trauma-suffused or joyful, are received by white audiences. Commenters made worthwhile contributions, pointing out the ways that heteronormative sexual education curricula impede everyone’s sexual health.
Fuller intends the meetings to be open to and valuable for people who haven’t finished, or haven’t even started, the book at hand. “It’s not like homework that’s being graded,” he says, but rather, “a conversation that you don’t want to stop listening to because it’s so fascinating.”
For those who couldn’t tune in, a recording of the first meeting is available on the Center’s Facebook page, where all future book club recordings will exist, too. A live ASL interpreter ensures that the discussion remains accessible.
Once it’s safe, Fuller hopes to integrate in-person gatherings into the rhythm of the club. Later this year, the group will read Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, which won a 2019 Lambda Literary Award for LGBTQ Nonfiction, A Two Spirit Journey: The Autobiography of a Lesbian Ojibwa-Cree Elder by Ma Nee Chacaby, and folk-rock singer-songerwriter Ani DiFranco’s coming-of-age story No Walls and the Recurring Dream.
In preparation for next month’s meeting, though, Esters has been taking her time reading Surpassing Certainty, savoring the storytelling along the way. A number of lines have already resonated with her, including this one: “Privacy wasn’t granted to a girl like me, who spent years standing out by merely being. It was a price I paid for being me.”
Esters says that, too often, she can feel people ogling her and other trans folks and “stripping out our humanity.” Reading Mock’s words and helping to lead a discussion on their messages, she says, is one way she can see herself—and help others see people like her—more deeply.