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Listening Lab premieres new series 'TEA: the Transgender Experience in Arkansas'

Sophia Nourani

"TEA: the Transgender Experience in Arkansas," filmed in KUAF's Listening Lab, profiles the lives of seven trans youth, women and men. The first episode is hosted by Taylor Johnson and features Ethan Avanzino, a 35-year-old trans man who lives in Eureka Springs and works in the commercial airline industry. The following is an excerpt of the long-form interview.

Taylor Johnson: "So Ethan, you came out in late 2015 as a transgender man on YouTube, a very public event for you. In the video you say when you were four years old in the early 1990s, you told your mom that you wanted to be a boy. What was that experience like for you?

Ethan Avanzino: "Growing up, I always felt like I was different. And we didn't really have the language of being trans or gender non-conforming, you know, in the late 80s and early 90s. And so the best way I knew how to communicate to my mom was asking her if I could be a boy. And of course, at the time, not knowing what trans was, my mom was like, ‘Well, no’. But my mom raised me in a way that worked for everybody. I wanted to play sports with the boys. So I was able to play on the boys football team and baseball team. I wanted to wear boy's clothes. So my mom let me do that, boys tennis shoes. It was the little things that mattered to me. My mom was very affirming of me growing up. I think I'm very fortunate in that aspect. She didn't know she was doing the right thing -- but she was doing the right thing."

Johnson: "So what was your childhood like?"

Avanzino: "I want to say I was a pretty happy kid. There were certainly awkward moments. Um, I always felt like I didn't quite fit in with anybody. But I did have majority male friends. And I wasn't bullied, which I feel really fortunate for. The guys that I was friends with, I feel like they saw me as one of their own. I remember in fifth grade, my best friend had a birthday party. And my mom and I went to go, you know, knock on the door to go to the birthday party, and all these boys from my fifth-grade class open up the door and say, ‘Aw, you invited a girl to this party?’ And the rest of the guys were like, ‘No, man, she's cool. She's one of us.’"

Johnson: "You continue to live in the shadows as a trans youth up until college, when you first discovered transgender culture. Instead of embracing your identity, you remain closeted up until trans celebrity Olympic gold medal winner Bruce Jenner came out as Caitlyn Jenner in 2015. What was it about Caitlin that made you feel free enough to express your trans identity for the very first time?"

Avanzino: "So Caitlyn Jenner had her interview, it was broadcast nationally. And both my mom and my sister separately texted me saying, ‘I would love to talk to you about the Caitlyn Jenner interview.’ And I thought, oh, my God, they know I'm trans. So I called my sister and I said, ‘I got your text. And yes, I'm transgender.’ And my sister responded, ‘Oh, I was not calling about that. I just wanted to hear what you had to say about the interview with Caitlyn.' Um, okay. I'm a little bit shocked but not surprised at all. And my sister actually said, ‘I've always felt like I've had an older brother and a sister with you.’ And my sister has been supportive ever since. So I hung up the phone with my sister. And I thought, well, now my sister knows. And she's not going to keep that from my mom. So I called my mom. And I was like, well, I wasn't planning on having this conversation like this. But I just told Sam, my sister, that I'm trans. And I don't really know what that means right now. But I'm kind of working through what that means. But once I knew that I was out to my mom and sister, there really wasn't any going back. It was just a matter of figuring out the roadmap to eventually coming out on YouTube.

Johnson: "Describe how it felt coming out so publicly. Were you scared? Were you validated? Were you happy? What was the dominant feeling?

Avanzino: "So I made a video to post on YouTube selfishly because I didn't want to continue answering the same questions over and over again from friends, family, and coworkers. Truly, that was the only reason why I made it. And next thing I know, it's being shared amongst my friends, being shared amongst colleagues. I've had a couple universities reach out to me asking if

they could use my coming out video and some of their gender and sexuality courses."

Johnson: "Since then, you've been an outspoken advocate for transgender civil rights, testifying against bias bills sponsored by right-wing lawmakers in several states, including our own Arkansas, that aim to erase trans culture. More bias laws are enacted with each passing year. Why do you think this is happening, in your opinion? Why are trans folk in particular being targeted, especially at this point in history, in this current day?

Avanzino: "So I think the anti-trans legislation is directly tied to the visibility of transgender people. The more visibility trans folks get in the media, the more anti-trans bills there are. And I think people that are writing these bills are afraid of what they don't know. And if they don't know anybody trans, that is why they are writing these bills. I think we're at this, they call the 'trans tipping point' -- we can't go back in the closet, we are here and we exist."

Johnson: "You relocated to Arkansas from Dallas in 2020 with your spouse, David Avanzino, who you say took your birth name when you were wed. Together, you purchased a derelict mid-modern motel in Eureka Springs, transforming it into Wonderoo Lodge and Gravel bar. What's life like for you in Eureka Springs, Arkansas? What attracted you to the hills, the valleys, the nature of the Ozarks?"

Avanzino: "We first visited Eureka Springs in the spring of 2018 for Diversity Weekend. And the first thing that caught our eye was the entire town was just covered in rainbows. And it was like, what is this? You know? It's this beautiful small town in Arkansas? Is this real? We found a small cabin in the middle of nowhere, that was November 2019, we were on a plan to get back to Arkansas in five years. Then March of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic happened. My corporate job said, go home for two weeks while we figure out what this is. And I think as we all know, two weeks turned into two months turned into staying home seemingly forever. So we packed up all of our stuff from Dallas in March of 2020. And we said if they call me back into the office, we'll figure it out then, but for now we're gonna go up to Eureka. And we've been there ever since."

Johnson: "You not only operate a successful tourist business in Eureka, you work as a creative producer for an airline, a company which has earned top scores eight years in a row on Human Rights Campaign's Corporate Equality Index. What's it like to be fully accommodated, seen and heard in your professional life?"

Avanzino: "I don't have to think about my gender or sexuality on a day-to-day basis. And that may sound counterintuitive. But there is enough going on with projects and deadlines and meetings. I don't have to worry about if someone's going to misgender me or use my birth name. I can just be an employee and just work. And that is such a beautiful thing. Because if I had to constantly worry about my identity at work that would be one more thing to worry about. On top of the deadlines, the projects, and the meetings. For so long, talking about gender, sex, sexuality, religion, etc, etc, politics was frowned upon in the corporate environment. And well, it's still a dance, no doubt, there is still a dance to be done in the corporate world, but to be given the opportunity to educate is an incredible feeling. Because I'm given a platform to open hearts and minds within this bubble that I have in corporate America."

Johnson: "Because you were so visible as well as socially and politically active, you've been profiled nationally on various news sites, including CNN digital and this year by The New York Times. What have been the fruits of such publicity in your life?"

Avanzino: "The fruits of the publicity is the visibility itself. It took being a visible transgender person for me to get the courage to come out myself. And so if a story about me, or about what my husband and I are doing gives someone the courage to be themselves, then that is the fruit. There's a quote that I'm constantly reminded of: 'We plant trees under whose shade we never plan to sit under.' And that is how I feel about being a visible trans person. I may not see equality in my lifetime. But that doesn't mean that I stop working towards it. Because there is going to be a little Ethan, that is born today, that in 20 years from now, I hope that their life is better and easier than mine is. And there was someone 20 years ago that paved the way for me to be here. So

I feel like it is my responsibility to be a part of continuing to pave that path. And it's also a privilege that I hold."

That was Eureka Springs resident Ethan Avanzino, interviewed by Taylor Johnson for KUAF's new Listening Lab eight-part series "TEA: the Transgender Experience in Arkansas." TEA was filmed by Emerson Alexander, edited by Sophie Nourani, and produced by Jacqueline Froelich. To view the full-length episode, visit the Listening Lab website.

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Emerson Alexander is the coordinator of KUAF's Listening Lab.
Jacqueline Froelich is an investigative reporter and news producer for Ozarks at Large.
Sophia Nourani is a KUAF producer and reporter.
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