Luc Malik Bensimón was in the news this month. He’s one of the plaintiffs in Lambda Legal’s lawsuit against the state of Kansas over its refusal to change gender markers on transgender peoples’ birth certificates.
“My identity as a man has been put on hold… so, short and sweet, I’m here today because I would like to be male all across the board,” Bensimón said when it was his turn at the microphones in front of the Robert J. Dole United States Courthouse in Kansas City, Kansas. “And for future situations, for other trans individuals, I don’t want them to have to go through the struggle and frustration that other trans individuals are going through now.”
Seeing Bensimón on TV, I was struck by the distance he’s covered since the first time I saw him, lip-syncing to some song I can’t remember, on stage at a motel banquet room in Salina during that city’s second annual Pride celebration in 2014. He’s still performing, but his role in the life of LGBTQ Kansas has evolved to include all sorts of different stages.
During the years I was reporting and writing No Place Like Home, most of Bensimón’s activism felt to me as if it belonged under the public radar, such as the time I witnessed him at the annual TransKansas conference, facilitating an intimate workshop for other men in various stages of transition, talking about how taking testosterone would change not just their bodies but their emotions.
But I’ve kept an eye out as his work became more visible. Like so many other LGBTQ Kansans, Bensimón’s activism is driven less by a desire to be out front than by a simple willingness to step up because no one else does.
“I went to a Democratic meeting and there was nobody representing my precinct – no committee man, no committee woman, nothing,” he says. “They asked me if I’d like the seat and I said yes.” When he moved out of that apartment and into a house in a different precinct, same thing.
“People keep asking me am I ever going to run for office and I’m like, ‘I’m good,’” he says. “I was at a Democratic meeting and someone said, ‘If you’re on a precinct committee, that makes you a politician.’ I didn’t really want that, but, you know.”
If Bensimón wanted to run for office he could, because he has endured circumstances much more brutal than politics.
Growing up in Topeka, his mother prepared him for tough times ahead. He has a mild form of cerebral palsy, and she warned him: “People aren’t going to ask you how you got cerebral palsy; they’re going to kick you in the shins.” From kindergarten through sixth grade, he says, “I got run home every day. I was the only African-American in the school. They kept rubbing my arms, thinking I was dirty. It’s an uncomfortable feeling to be the only person of color in the school, and they just think you didn’t clean yourself very good.”
School might have been the least of his worries. He had the kind of childhood that is at once unimaginably painful and, judging by the number of kids in the Kansas foster-care system, all too common. Bensimón ended up in that system, too. How he got there and how he navigated his way out is his own story to tell. Until he’s ready for that, suffice to say it’s the kind of life story that would inspire anyone to never give up, to keep pushing through, to keep growing and keep becoming who they really are.
What he does say publicly are things like: “I’ve been through a lot in my life. I pulled myself out of something that could have caused me to be a statistic. I’m a survivor.”
He’s now 46. “I worked and got everything together,” he says, “and learned to love me regardless of whether anybody loved me or not.”
But it took him a long time to understand his gender identity.
One thing was for certain: He always liked girls. “Everything I did was masculine. There were people who would tell me all the time, ‘You’re too aggressive. You’re too assertive. Yes, girls can be aggressive, girls can be assertive, but you are ridiculous.’ People kept telling me that and I would get offended. I was confused. I just thought I was a stud lesbian.”
That began to change when Bensimón started performing as the drag king T. Raynbow.
“My drag career just took off. I was winning titles, traveling and performing. It felt too natural for me to be on that stage – in my mind, I’m not a male impersonator, I’m a man.”
Bensimon had a conversation with Stephanie Mott, who had started the Kansas Statewide Transgender Education Project, about whether he might be trans. He started going to meetings of the Topeka Transgender Alliance, did research, and started taking an estrogen blocker.
Then, he says, “Once I took that first dose of testosterone, my body said, ‘Yep, this is it.’”
Bensimón and Paula Keiser, an early pioneer of trans activism in Kansas, began driving around the state and giving presentations at colleges and anywhere else people wanted to be educated about gender identity.
“In the beginning I was totally clueless. I had no idea where this journey was going to take me,” Bensimón says. “I was like, I’ll do it because they asked me to.”
One day on the road he and Keiser walked into a small-town Walmart – he can’t remember where – and everyone stared at them.
“We went through the store, got what we needed, got to the checkout and it was a very uncomfortable feeling. When we got in the car she said, ‘I want you to know, don’t think for two seconds that I don’t understand what that’s like for you. What they saw was a white woman coming in with a black man.’ That’s what they saw.”
Everywhere he went, Bensimón was the only person of color.
“I was struggling with the race situation. I wanted to know where the people of color were,” he says. One night Keiser emailed him some information about Black Transmen Inc., a Dallas-based national empowerment and advocacy organization.
Bensimón went to the organization’s annual conference, where he found a new family.
“That’s when I met a group of people who looked like me, had stories similar to mine,” he says. “Usually when you go to a conference, you meet people and network, then you come back home and it stops. When I got off the plane that first year coming home, I took my phone off of airplane mode had 15 messages that said, ‘You better message me when you get home.’ ‘Have you landed?’ I’ve never had that.”
Over the last five years, he says, someone from BTMI calls him nearly every day.
“They’re helping me educate you guys about what it’s like to be a trans person of color.”
Kansas needs a lot of work in that regard.
“I keep getting called a sell-out, because people think I should not be telling my business to a room full of white people,” Bensimón says. “When I first started doing a lot of activism work, I reached out to trans people of color and said, ‘Hey if you’re interested come to a meeting.’ People would say, ‘We appreciate what you do, but we don’t put our business out there. If it works for you it works for you. I just want to transition and be left alone.’”
But it was Bensimón, along with another trans person of color, Nyla Foster, who were brave enough to sue the state of Kansas and to talk about it in front of TV cameras. One other plaintiff, Jessica Hicklin, is incarcerated, and the fourth is identified only as C.K.
“We were so fortunate to be able to work with KSTEP, Luc and the other plaintiffs we have – Nyla Foster, Jessica Hicklin and C.K. – to partner with people who have been on the ground in Kansas to do this,” says says Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, the senior attorney at Lambda who came to Kansas to file the suit. (Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner is serving as the local co-counsel.)
Only Kansas, Tennessee and Ohio don’t allow transgender people to correct the markers on their birth certificates. Lambda Legal sued Ohio earlier this year; Tennessee’s another story.
“There was a window of time 10 years or so ago, when people were allowed to correct their birth certificates on a case-by-case basis. But because of state government changes – for example in the Brownback administration – that ability got restricted,” Gonzalez-Pagan explains.
“All of our plaintiffs have their individual stories and reasons, but all of them are harmed by the very existence of this policy,” Gonzalez-Pagan says. “Ultimately every single transgender person born in Kansas is negatively affected by existence of this policy that doesn’t reflect them as who they are.”
For Bensimón, serving as a plaintiff represents a turning point.
“I feel like I have finally made it to the activism threshold because I started receiving nasty stuff,” he says. Before news of the lawsuit broke, he says, “I hadn’t been getting ugly messages, no ‘You better watch your back.’ I started getting them two hours after I did that press conference. And I wasn’t afraid. My brain said: Are you sure this is where you want to be? And I said: Yep.”
Listening to people like Luc Bensimón tell their stories, always leads me to the same thought: Trans people – especially trans people of color – are infinitely braver than the tiny politicians who keep trying to prevent them from life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
C.J. Janovy is the author of No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas. Follow her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.