How Right-Wing Media Fuels Transphobic Violence
Kayla Denker, a trans woman, war veteran, and legal gun owner, posted a video online toting a gun in response to CPAC’s call to “eradicate” “transgenderism.” She’s become a target of an internet trans panic mob ever since.
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Read the full transcript below.
Kayla Denker is a military veteran and a trained archaeologist who has worked in the private sector and for the US Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. She is also a trans woman living in America, and every day she navigates the difficult and increasingly dangerous terrain of living her life as an out trans person — estrangement from unaccepting family, hostile encounters in public, and a growing right-wing political crusade hellbent on scapegoating LGBTQ+ people as the ultimate evil and the source of society’s ills, stripping them of their rights, and outwardly calling for the elimination of trans people from society.
Until recently, Kayla was working for the Forest Service, doing a job she loved. On March 5, however, after conservative commentator Michael Knowles openly proclaimed at the Conservative Political Action Conference on March 4 that “transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely,” Kayla posted a short video online featuring herself loading an assault rifle she legally owns accompanied by the following text: “While advocating just for trans people to ‘arm ourselves’ is not any kind of solution to the genocide we are facing, I do want to say that if you transphobes do try to come for me I’m taking a few of you with me.” Then, weeks later, on March 27, Aiden Hale, who identified as a transgender man, murdered three children and three adults in a mass school shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee, where Aiden had been a student. In the wake of the Nashville shooting, rightwing and tabloid media outlets and prominent social media accounts began to furiously recirculate Kayla’s video, lying about the origins of the video and, instead, painting a fabricated, fear-mongering narrative that connected her and Hale to a supposed network of violent and “militant transgender activists.” Immediately, Kayla’s life was turned upside down — she has been flooded with death threats and, last week, she was fired from the Forest Service. In this episode, we talk with Kayla about her life and work, the events of the past two months, and the reality of being a trans person in the US today.
The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.
Kayla Denker: Hello. My name is Kayla Denker. I am a former archeologist with the US Forest Service. Yeah. That’s really all I know how to say.
Maximillian Alvarez: Oh, right. Well, welcome everyone to another episode of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams and struggles of the working class today, brought to you in partnership within In These Times Magazine and the Real News Network, produced by Jules Taylor, and made possible by the support of listeners like you.
So as you all heard, we are joined today by Kayla, and it really is great to connect with you, Kayla, although I genuinely, genuinely wish that we were connecting under less horrifying circumstances because I know that you have been just dealing with a whole mess of shit over there and we’re going to talk about all of that. But as the message of this show, as we say every single week, there’s so much more to all of us than just our job titles and name tags and stuff. We’re all whole human beings with lives and backstories and wants and needs and pains and joys, and it’s important for all of us as fellow workers to listen to one another’s stories and get to know our fellow workers in order to better stand in solidarity with one another.
And that’s what I want to start with this episode here. We’re going to talk about the awful shit. We’re going to talk about how you’re doing. We’re going to talk about what people can do to support you and our fellow trans workers and neighbors, friends, family members who are quite literally under fucking attack in this goddamn country. But I want to start by just getting to know a little more about you. So whereabouts in the country are you? Where did you grow up?
Kayla Denker: Well, I’m originally from Fort Peck, Montana, which is a tiny little town in the northeastern corner of the state. I think it’s got a population of a thousand. It’s pretty small. We moved around a lot though because my dad worked for the government, but I still mostly spent my time in Montana. I moved down to Colorado in October to work this job for the Forest Service, but I lived most of the last 20 years in Helena, Montana. That’s where I graduated high school and everything, bought my first house, all of that.
Maximillian Alvarez: Wow. Okay. So I got to ask. Because I grew up in Southern California so basically the polar opposite of Montana.
Kayla Denker: Pretty much. Yeah.
Maximillian Alvarez: So I’m always very so fascinated by people who grew up in just vastly different settings than I did. What did you get up to growing up there in Montana?
Kayla Denker: Well, it’s a different world when you grow up in a really small town, in a very remote place like that because I never really had a concept of what the outside world was like. There was only two radio stations, an oldie station and a country station, so I wasn’t exposed to a wide variety of music types until I was much older. It was one of those towns that boomers reminisce about where everybody knows each other. The kids just run around all over town and nobody worries about them. Nobody locks their doors and all of that, very stereotypical. It did have very harsh winters. It was living like in the tundra and the wind never stopped. It was constant, and sometimes it was so powerful that as a kid, I could lean into the wind and it would hold me up. So that was always fun. But in the wintertime-
Maximillian Alvarez: That’s going to be a big no for me.
Kayla Denker: Yeah, it was different. In the wintertime, it was very lethal. We would have to cover every bit of our skin. And then since we couldn’t really cover around our eyes, we would take Crisco and rub them and put it around our eyes so it wouldn’t frostbite when we go outside because you can’t just stay inside all the time for all winter or else you’ll go nuts. But it was all I knew. I didn’t know how weird that was until I moved away.
For me, the biggest city that we ever saw was Glasgow, which is just another small town. It was just slightly bigger than Fort Peck. So when I finally left the state for the first time and saw Seattle, it absolutely blew my mind. Before that, I couldn’t even imagine something like that. It was wild.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, God, I bet. That must be a culture shock, as much of a culture shock as it would’ve been dropping my ass in the middle of frigid Montana, putting Crisco around my eyes. And you mentioned something that you can’t stay inside the whole goddamn time.
Kayla Denker: Oh, yeah.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, I was going to ask, what did you guys do?
Kayla Denker: I was a really young kid, so normal stuff that kids do. We would ride our bikes around town. In the wintertime, we would go play in the snow because it’s so cold there, or at least it was, that it would just blow around like sand because it would never get cold enough to really clump together. And so there would be snow dunes all around town, and we would dig tunnels through them and everything. It was fun. In the summertime, we mostly just rode our bikes around. I don’t remember a whole lot from back then, but I do remember that. That’s what I remember the most.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, I always keep a little notepad and pen to jot stuff down that I don’t want to forget because I’m like a dog. With cars passing like, oh, I want to ask about that or I want to hear more about that. And I just wrote on this little notepad, snow dunes, three question marks.
Kayla Denker: That’s literally what they are. It’s just like sand dunes, but it’s snow instead because it’s so cold. The little snow crystals, they don’t stick to each other so they’re just like sand.
Maximillian Alvarez: Wow, that’s wild. You also just mentioned something that really caught my eye that sounds like you’re saying that that’s not the case much anymore.
Kayla Denker: From what I understand, I haven’t been back too much, but global warming has taken away those winters. Now they’re everywhere else, really, just barely stereotypical winters. All of Montana is like that. It used to have much harsher winters and now they’re pretty standard. The winters in, say … Well, down here in Colorado, it’s about the same. I won’t say they’re mild but they’re not that harsh. There’s no more snow dunes.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. Jesus, I’m from Southern California so all of this is terrible to me. But I lived in Chicago, I lived in Michigan so I’ve experienced some cold. I feel like I’ve earned my street cred but …
Kayla Denker: I will say that the humid cold like that is more harsh. As long as you have a really big heavy coat on up there, even though it’s 40 below zero Fahrenheit, it’s more tolerable than I was ever able to because I spent some time in Virginia, and even though it never got that cold there, with the humidity, it felt colder. But maybe that’s just because I wasn’t used to it. I don’t know.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, man. When I moved to Chicago, those Midwesterners, they could pick out a California boy a mile away because they would just laugh at me. They’d be like, “Oh man, just wait until January comes.” And they were right. I was not prepared. And what I tell people now, including my family who never tire of sending me pictures of them barbecuing in January and February in Orange County, that joke never gets old to them. But what I tell them is you never get used to it. You just learn how to deal with it better.
Kayla Denker: Yeah. That’s really all it is.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. And so moving from Michigan to Baltimore, I expected it to be milder here, but it’s been, I don’t know, very jarring. I think all winter here, we maybe got snow twice and it didn’t even really stick on the ground. That’s not normal. Someone had said something, I don’t know, maybe it was just one of those lines you see on social media that sticks with you that’s like this is the coldest winter you’re ever going to experience again.
Kayla Denker: I have not heard that. I always hear the reverse that this is the coolest summer that you’re going to ever experience again. But yeah, that’s a good way of putting it too.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. I don’t know. I don’t mean to go down. We got enough despair to talk about here. I don’t mean to drive us down the avenue of climate despair, but just thinking about, it’s been on my mind because it’s unseasonably hot right now in Baltimore. It went from unpleasantly chilly to just summer all of a sudden, so it’s just been on my mind a lot. But let me ask you this. So a little birdie, i.e., you, told me that you’re an archeology nerd.
Kayla Denker: I am, yes. a very big one.
Maximillian Alvarez: Okay. So did that start at an early age? Because I feel like if you’re running around Montana, you could get into some pretty cool Indiana Jones type shit.
Kayla Denker: Funnily enough, even though it’s not really what inspired me to become an archeologist, the Indiana Jones movies were my favorite movies as a kid. I watched them just over and over and over and over again. But yeah, it was actually probably when was in high school because we had moved over to Virginia and there’s not more history there but it’s more tangible, I guess. There’s older buildings and there’s battlefields all over the place, and so that got me interested in history. But what I really liked was when we went to all these battlefields and there’s objects there that you can see. There’s an impact from the battle there that you can go and you can touch it and you can interact with it. And a lot of the times, you would find musket balls and stuff. They’re in the field everywhere.
Maximillian Alvarez: Wow.
Kayla Denker: And the thing that really grabbed me was when I would find something like that, I would pick it up and I would know that the last person to touch it was the person that dropped it there, however many hundreds of years ago, for some objects, the objects I deal with now many thousands of years ago. So I would have this direct connection with that person from the past, and I just always have loved that about archeology.
So basically from the time I was in high school, I had a passion for it. I didn’t pursue it at first, unfortunately, due to familial pressure. I’m obviously a trans woman and so I was raised to be a boy. And in my family, all of the men joined the military. It was a tradition. And so I was pressured to do that from a very early age. And so I went that direction at first. But after a few years in, I realized that I really didn’t want to do that. And so I got out and I pursued an archeology degree and never looked back. If I had been smart, I would’ve pursued it right out of high school instead of just maintaining it as a hobby at the time.
Maximillian Alvarez: That family pressure is no joke though. I remember talking to a Trader Joe’s worker back home in California, Alex P. And Alex’s parents, if I recall correctly, they were Vietnamese refugees, and like my parents, they were very conservative. I’m a first generation Mexican American. And I will say for my parents, I have to give them a lot of credit for this, even though I was raised very conservative, they did push us to follow what we wanted. They were very strict in every other regard. But if I was like, “I want to be a doctor,” they were like, “Sure, go for it.” And then years later when I was in college and I was like, “Hey, I suck at being a doctor. What if I major in Slavic languages and literature? Would you guys disown me?” To their credit, they were like, “Yeah, that’s fine. Do what makes you happy.” I think they knew I was always, like you being an archeology nerd, I was always a literature nerd, and so it wasn’t that much of a surprise to them.
But we also, as a first gen family, we didn’t know that. To them it was like, oh, well he could be a professor. That’s a good job too. None of us knew how fucked higher education is and how no one gets a job as a tenured professor anymore, so that was our mistake. But I will say that for them.
But I remember talking to Alex about this and that overbearing pressure from your parents and just how … I think the longer we go into adulthood, we can almost start to forget just how big of a role that shit played in the first 15 to 18 years of our lives. So that must have been a lot when you have this family lineage weighing on you to go into the military.
Kayla Denker: Especially since I was the only male child so there was a lot of pressure put on me to carry on those traditions, to pass on the family name and all of that. Yeah, I didn’t even realize how damaging that was to me until I was much older, until I was probably in my mid-20s when I was finally able to break out of that and accept myself and start basically to become myself. I was whoever they wanted me to be before then, just purely because of that pressure and I didn’t even realize it.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, that’s heartbreaking. Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad that … because some people, I don’t know, some people go their whole lives without ever coming to that revelation or ever being able to follow it through. And I think that’s one of the things that just really breaks my heart when I think about all the people, not just in our generation, but in past generations who have had to live lives they didn’t want because of those outside pressures. Whether it was because they were gay, whether it was because they wanted to be an artist or, I don’t know, any type of profession that just was different from what their parents or society or what have you was pushing them to be like. That’s a really, really sad constant, I think, in our society, is just not trusting people to, I don’t know, pursue who they want to be, be who they want to be, embrace who they are and what they want and what they’re passionate about.
I guess like Alex P. and I discussed, maybe in our kinder moments, we could say our parents had the best of intentions just because they wanted us to succeed. They knew how unfair the world is, but that’s not always the case. I think there’s a will to dominate that just destroys so many people’s lives.
Kayla Denker: Really … Sorry, go ahead.
Maximillian Alvarez: No, no, please.
Kayla Denker: I was just going to say that you really, really see that as a trans person with unsupportive parents because here’s this thing that you realize about yourself and that when you start to transition and it brings you just so much joy for … Oftentimes, especially in my case, the first time in your adult life and then your parents disapprove of it. That’s just always been so poignant with me because they’re disapproving of your joy because it’s not what they wanted. That is just such a heavy amount of pressure and such an anti-parental thing to do I guess. I don’t know another way to put it. Because all a parent should ever want is for their child to be happy and healthy and that’s it. And when we finally are able to do that, to experience that kind of rejection from it is one of the most jarring examples of that fact of those social pressures, I think.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, no, I think that’s really powerfully put. And it’s like Jesus. Look around us right now. We can circle back to this later when we get to how the hatred and fear that is just being stoked left and right, right now. Taking, like you said, that thing that you’ve experienced and that so many kids who are just trying to embrace themselves have experienced, taking that and blowing it up to a societal level to the point that we are creating this atmosphere of hate and resentment that makes it seem like, I don’t know, being trans is the worst fucking thing imaginable that a parent could experience. And so when you do that, you do what our society has done in the past when we said it was the worst thing in the world for your kids to be gay. It was the worst thing in the world for your kid to be left-handed or have a disability.
I don’t know. I hate to say it’s a perennial feature of our fucking society, but it served feels that way. It’s like we never learned the lesson that the more that you expand that and you create those cultures of hostility, you just create pain. You just create a hell for the very people that you claim to love and that you claim you’re trying to guide back towards the light, but what you’re really doing is just killing them.
Kayla Denker: Yeah, that’s a really good point that it’s all the same sentiment, especially for queer people and gay people. But it’s also, yeah, left-handedness, things that we think are silly now were very serious back then, and parents were absolutely devastated to learn that their child was left-handed, as weird as that is. That is social pressure. So the social society puts pressure on the parent to be disappointed about some aspect of their child that the child is happy about, that brings them joy, and so then they put pressure on that child. It’s a vicious cycle.
Maximillian Alvarez: It is. I’m just really sorry that you’ve gone through that. I wanted to ask. When you were still in that pressure cooker and-
Kayla Denker: In the closet.
Maximillian Alvarez:… in the closet, being pushed to the military and all the complicated feelings that come with that, I guess around what time was that?
Kayla Denker: It was actually around the same time that I was radicalized economically speaking and started to reject the concepts of capitalism that they’re really interconnected. The societal pressures that make us think that we have to be straight and cisgendered are all very related to the economic pressures that make us support capitalism. And so I was deployed, I was in Afghanistan, and I got to see the United States’ imperial presence in all of its naked glory over there where it doesn’t even bother to maintain the facade of truth and justice and liberty and all of that that it does back home. It doesn’t care. It doesn’t care that the Afghans and everyone else overseas recognizes that we are the villains of that story because they’re just so powerful that I can just grind them into dust and that their opinions don’t matter.
So I saw all of that and I was forced to confront the fact that I had devoted my life up until that point towards serving that system that represented everything that I resented. I thought I was the good guy until that point. And it really caused me to question everything that I had been taught and led to believe was true, not just about society but about myself. And also, there had always been clues. I was never masculine enough. I always had people all throughout my life asking me if I was gay. One of the people I was deployed with straight up asked me once if I was actually trans. It was very weird. I was vaguely familiar with the concept at that time because I had been raised deeply conservative and isolated from all of those concepts. So I didn’t really understand the question at the time, but it made me look more into it.
The more I looked into it, the more I realized that yes, I am trans. So yeah, it was just a very transformative period for me, that deployment. I hate that it took a deployment for me to realize that but it did.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. That’s a hell of a … Well, multiple revelations to experience at once. Jesus.
Kayla Denker: Yeah.
Maximillian Alvarez: And we definitely don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to, but as someone who also grew up very conservative, I was wondering how those dots started connecting for you. Because for me, I think a lot of it was the financial crash in 2008. In many ways, as I’ve explained on this show, that’s where the show came out of and where the work that I do now came out of. We lost everything in the recession. We lost the house I grew up in. My mom and dad were just so depressed and they weren’t talking about it.
I know, especially for my dad, there was so much wrapped up in him coming to the United States. He grew up dirt poor in Tijuana. He never really knew his dad. His mom died when he was six. He was separated from his siblings at age eight. He had a tough life. So becoming a citizen, meeting my mom, building a family and owning a home, there was so much of that American dream wrapped up in that, that when it all went away, I don’t know if that’s something you ever fully recover from, but I knew in the years afterwards, because it didn’t all happen at once. It was a slow burn for four or five years. I could just see how depressed he was and how depressed my mom was, and then I was depressed.
I graduated from college. I thought I had done everything right. I went to the best college I could. Granted, I majored in Russian literature, but still, I was like, “That’s got to be worth something,” but it wasn’t worth shit. I was a temp working in warehouses and factories. None of us knew what we were going to do.
And so the first person I ever interviewed on this show five, six years ago was my dad because I was trying to get him to talk about that stuff. We ended up talking a lot together about how our own ideologies changed through the recession. In the same way that as Catholics, we were taught to believe that the cosmos, God’s design was perfect, but it was filled by imperfect people, fallible people, people who make mistakes, people who sin, people who need to take it upon themselves to be better, but the system itself was fundamentally good. That’s how I also viewed, I don’t know, capitalism or society, right? The bones were good, the structure was good. There was just a couple of bad actors or people not working hard enough. The recession really blew that up for me because I saw how many hardworking people who had, quote unquote, “done everything right,” including my family, including the people I worked with in those warehouses. And also the people who didn’t do, quote unquote, “everything right” but who had the decks stacked against them from birth pretty much. I just saw how we all ended up in the same place and how rigged the game was. All the while I’m watching on TV, how the government’s bailing out the banks and letting them do the same shit that caused the recession in the first place while families like ours floundered. So it took something that severe for that ideological hold to break for me, for me to finally realize, “Oh shit, maybe this system actually is rigged.” So I wanted to ask what that sort of process was like for you?
Kayla Denker: Well, the moment obviously was deployment and it had a similar effect on me that it just kind of crashed everything down. But I never had a strong foundation for any of that to begin with because, it’s always difficult to vocalize this, but I was able to accept myself as trans at that time. But I’d always known it even though I didn’t have the language for it before then. The only thing I really realized once I was given that language and I started looking into it was that my situation is not unique. There’s lots of people like me, and that transition is an option. I’d always known since I was a child, a very young child, I’d experienced gender dysphoria, but I didn’t know that’s what it was. And so I basically was raised to think that things like that were just sin.
But in the back of your mind, you always know that how can it be sinful when I’ve always been this way, I was born this way. Why would it be pre-programmed with these sinful state of being. But being raised in the deeply conservative environment, I was basically taught to suppress that and to bury it deep down. But that still made sure that structure of dissonance from reality was never very sound. And so when I’ve deployed and I finally could no longer deny it, I couldn’t just keep pushing those thoughts aside. It just all crumbled. But it was definitely a bit more, that was the moment. But it was sort of slow process, definitely 2008 had an impact.
So I deployed in 2012, so it wasn’t that much later from the crash. So it’s all those events kind of blended together for me. But while I was there, I had the same realization you did that I would look around and see all of these people that are working enormously hard, the local Afghan people. And they’re not doing anything wrong, they’re just regular people struggling to survive in absolutely insurmountable conditions. And they’re still being ground into pulp for no reason whatsoever. And there was no good justification for it. They weren’t morally in the wrong, and yet they were being made to suffer because of this system. And that kind of broke me, there was actually a moment, I can trace it back to a specific moment. And it was at the end of a day, we rode in this little crappy bus between where we worked.
I was an aircraft mechanic and so we had to work at the airfield and we’d ride this little bus along the fence line of the fob between there and our barracks. And so we were going back along that at the end of the day. And there was this specific section that was on the other side of the fence was an old Russian minefield. And at this point, we’d been in Afghanistan for 10 years and this minefield was still there. The US had all of the equipment, all of the personnel to remove it. But what they did instead because it was cheaper, was to just pay the local Afghans a fee for every mine that they brought us.
Maximillian Alvarez: Jesus.
Kayla Denker: And they don’t have any training, they don’t have any tools and they’re desperate for money to survive. And so they were injured and killed from it all the time. And so we were driving past this section and I look out into that minefield and there was a little girl, she couldn’t have been older than maybe eight or nine, maybe a little younger. And she was just standing there staring at us and she was covered head to toe in mud and what looked like gore. She didn’t look injured, so the best I can guess is it was from someone else and she was just staring at us.
And I don’t know why or what she was doing, but she raised an arm. She wasn’t waving, she just raised it as we passed by and just watched us. And I could see her eyes from that bus and that hit me hard because they were just dead. Her body was perfectly alive, but her soul was dead. And there’s no justification for that, doing that to a child because you don’t spend the money to prevent something like that is just evil and the system that is evil. And I couldn’t deny that anymore. And so that’s the moment where it all kind of broke.
Maximillian Alvarez: Jesus, I’m frankly choking back tears thinking of that because it’s-
Kayla Denker: I get choked up a bit every time I recall it, which is pretty much every day.
Maximillian Alvarez: God, I can only imagine what it’s like to live with that for you, for her, for everyone involved. First of all, thank you for sharing. And I know that isn’t easy and I don’t know, I think this is one of the reasons that for all the times that we may disagree or talk shit to one another, I’m grateful I get to work with someone like Chris Hedges because we talk about this a lot when we’re in the studio, just kind of doing during downtime. And what Chris says over and over again, and he’s very blunt about it. He’s like, “There’s no such thing as a good war.” There’s like-
Kayla Denker: No, there’s not.
Maximillian Alvarez: War is only death. That’s it. And if you haven’t seen it, then that’s how so many of us are kept in the dark. That’s how we’re able to have our minds warped by bullshit Hollywood versions of what war looks like and these kind of kindergarten fairy tales of morality where things are so black and white and they’re such clear cut, good guys and bad guys. And you have politicians with a straight face who can drum up the fervor of war and send children off as they’ve been doing for since time immemorial, right? This was Eugene Debbs great speech. Even in the feudal times, it was the Lord sending the serfs out to fight for them. They weren’t fucking fighting for themselves. Working people have always been just grist for the mill in the death machine of class war and jockeying for domination and position. And there’s no way to put a positive spin on that. And I think just hearing you talk about that, I don’t know, I maybe realized more than I have ever before, just how right Chris is when he says that.
Kayla Denker: I’ve always, I shouldn’t say always, since I deployed, I’ve always stressed that war is not hell. It’s a bad term because hell is where bad people go to be punished in mythology. And that’s not who’s getting punished at war. And I know I said it before, I knew that it was a mash kit, but he said it perfectly in that, and it’s something I realized while I was there before I knew about that skit, that it’s good people. It’s people that don’t deserve it. Those are the people that get harmed and killed in war. And so that’s not hell. Nobody deserves the fate that they get at war, at least not the people that are caught in between. Certainly plenty of us on our side we deserved it, but we weren’t the ones that were getting hurt the most. It was mostly the local people that did nothing that just got caught in between.
Maximillian Alvarez: And I just keep coming back to what a heavy complicated time to be you amidst all that, and as you’re talking about coming to that revelation, seeing just the true inhumanity of war itself, but also the US imperialist led form of that in a place like Afghanistan, but at the same time finally coming to fully understand and embrace yourself and then leaving and coming back home. So I know this is going to feel like a real sharp left turn, but again, I don’t want to just make you talk about awful stuff the whole time. And I do want to make space for what you said before where there’s joy in this story too, both in terms of you finally being able to embrace yourself. But also getting to embrace your nerdiness for archeology when you came back. So tell me a little bit about that when you came back and how you… You’ve got all of this weight on you, you’ve got all this stuff happening at once, what then?
Kayla Denker: There was still quite a bit of all of that leftover pressure from where I was being raised. I didn’t just throw it all off at once because I was scared. I mean, that’s all a very big change. So I was still in the closet for another 10 years, but I did immediately pursue archeology. I actually started while I was in Afghanistan in a sort of informal way. I wasn’t taking any classes, but I started buying archeology books and started reading up on it to decide that that is what I wanted to do. So I really settled on it while I was there and pretty much immediately I got back and signed up for classes at the University of Montana and went there in the fall and I immediately fell in love with it, that school has a fantastic archeology program.
I has some of the best instructors in the world in fact. My lithic teacher who strangely enough, I didn’t know that she was a trans woman until last year, but her name’s Anna Prentiss and she was actually not there for most of that semester because she had been invited to speak at Cambridge University in England. So that’s how big of a name she was. So it was this little tiny school in the middle of Montana. I had had some very prestigious instructors, but it just kept driving home that initial love that I developed when I was in high school. And I’ve always been pursuing that moment of finding artifacts and establishing those connections with people from the past. I got my degree, I started getting into work.
I might mostly pursued… I tried to get some private sector jobs, but for some reason right out of school I was having trouble. So I had to do seasonal work with the forest service and the BLM. My very first archeology job was for the Forest Service in Helena. And on one of the first surveys that we would do or that I did, I found a projectile point that was at least 8,000 years old. So that really sunk it in, if there were any doubts in me before then they were vanished in that moment when I picked up this thing and I knew that the last person to touch it was 8,000 years ago, that was very cool to me.
Maximillian Alvarez: Wow. I got chills thinking about that.
Kayla Denker: Right. And my field school that I went to was actually under Dr. Lauren Davis at Cooper’s Ferry Idaho. And that one had artifacts that were much older. I didn’t actually find any of them, but I did find a great basin point, which was the first one that they had found at that site, which established trade relations between those two areas. So that was pretty cool. But what one of my favorite moments was in actually 2021 when I was working for the BLM out in Oregon and it was the end of the day and we were all tired. It was pouring rain, we were just walking back to the truck and I was sort of dragging my feet and kind of kicking the mud. Because we hadn’t really done much, we hadn’t found anything.
And I just kicked this clot of dirt and out tumbles what’s called a Western stem point, and it’s completely perfect. They look like little Christmas trees. They’re like a stereotypical looking arrowhead except they weren’t arrowheads. And it was completely perfect, there were no chips, there was nothing, it had just been made and someone said it there. And that is at least 13,500 years old. And here I am holding this thing that is in pristine condition and the last person to touch it was 13,500 years ago. And that was the coolest moment for me. And also though, the significance of me as a white person finding that was never lost on me. And I’ve tried to always become more and more of an advocate for bringing more Indigenous people into archeology. Because here I am holding this artifact that is of such significant importance to the native people of the Pacific Northwest but I’m a white person. It’s kind of colonizing. And I never lost sight of that fact.
But I do appreciate that I can help their story to try and make amends for that because something that I’ve been proud to contribute a little bit to is the fact that the native people have stories that have always said that they were here far longer ago than what archeologists have been saying for a long time. Like the Cree up in Canada, they have genealogies that go back almost 20,000 years. And for a very long time, archeologists and historians dismiss that as just, “Oh, it’s oral histories. It’s not trustworthy.” But then, what was it last year, maybe the year before, they found those footprints down in New Mexico that are 23,000 years old, verifying that they really were here that long ago. And the work that I’ve done has helped in a very small way to push that further back too, because I’ve done a lot of work in what we call pre-Clovis archeology, which is what that western stem point is a part of.
Until very recently until the nineties and two thousands, it was believed that the first human beings arrived in North America about 12,000 years ago. Nobody was here or older further back than that. And that was one justification they used to dismiss all of the native people’s histories. And now we’re been able to find, and I’ve helped find all these artifacts and sites that keep pushing it further and further and further back. Like that Western stem point, that’s 1500 years older than what the archeologist that taught me claimed about when humans first got here. And so I kind of feel like I’m helping to contribute to decolonizing the story of the native people in this country. And that’s something that I’m very proud of.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, hell yeah. That’s incredible. And I can only imagine what it’s like to hold something like that in your hand and to have that realization, like you said, is like, “Wow, the last person to hold this was thousands and thousands of years ago.” That’s one of those, I don’t know, puts things into perspective moments. And I wanted to, and I could genuinely talk to you for days, but I don’t want to take up too much of your night. So I promise I won’t meander us down too long of a detour. But it just makes me feel-
Kayla Denker: I will very much indulge in that. I can talk forever about archeology.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, there’s a parallel there to what we were just talking about with your experience in Afghanistan. I mean, obviously two very different settings, but in both cases there is a sort of experience deprogramming ideology, right?
Kayla Denker: Yes. Especially someone who’s raised conservative to think that the earth is 6,000 years old.
Maximillian Alvarez: So that’s why I wanted to ask because I was like, “How did that experience as an archeologist do that same work as well?” What were you learning and having to upgrade your conceptions of the world and of the country that you’re in through doing this work?
Kayla Denker: By then I had already abandoned any Christian beliefs that I still maintained. I’d actually moved past that. Towards the end of high school, I had really sort of being very, what’s the word I’m looking for, disillusioned with those religious notions. I was still pretty conservative in a lot of other aspects, but religion wise, that had pretty much vanished by then. So there was no major revelation when I started my archeology studies about that kind of stuff. But it still was always something that I was forced to confront anytime I talked to my parents about what I did for a living, because they are still very much strongly, these conservative Christians that do believe all of that. And so I would get into fights with them a lot because they insist that the earth is only a few thousand years old and I’ve held objects older than they believe the entire planet is in my very fucking hand. So it was always very frustrating. So I didn’t really have the conflict within myself as far as that goes, but I did experience an external conflict over that.
Maximillian Alvarez: And just, I don’t know, I feel like that’s even something that there’s never a point at which we as a culture have just accepted any of that. It’s a constant battle for which sort of narrative is going to dominate. I remember my dad being so annoyed with me when my brothers and I and my dad were driving from Chicago to California and we took the kind of route that goes through the bad lands and stuff like that. And so we stopped at Mount Rushmore because we were like, “Well, we’re never going to see it again. We might as well, we’re here.” And my dad really wanted us to take it in, and I was just very unimpressed.
And my dad got so mad at me, he was funny. He was like, “How dare you not be impressed.” I was like, “What?” I was like, “It’s so far away. It’s a bunch of old dead presidents. I’m not very taken with this.” And I didn’t even know at that point the colonials’ symbology of Mount Rushmore, how we literally took over a sacred monument and put our white presidents over the face of that monument as a deliberate form of erasure. And you have to keep trying to push that back into public consciousness because the whole point is to erase it. And even if it’s the work that you and countless others are doing to just dig out from the ground, the proof that the kind of fairytale that we tell ourselves about this country isn’t true.
Or there’s so much more that people are missing, I think is so important. And I wanted to focus on that for a second because this is after all the show where we talked to working people about their jobs as well as their lives. And you’ve kind of already started giving us some of these great details, but I was just wondering if you could lift the hood a little more. For those of us who have never worked for the Bureau of Land Management or the Forest Service. What goes into that kind of work? What does a week look like for you as a full-blown archeologist working in the Forest Service or the BLM?
Kayla Denker: So archeology work looks different depending on basically who you’re working for. On the private side, it’s very much driven by businesses just trying to check a box because the government requires them to do a survey to see if any kind of projects that they’re going to build, say a power line, is going to interact and damage any sites. And how they can avoid it or avoid damaging the site. And so they’re much more fast-paced because the business wants to get it done now. They don’t even really want to do the archeology part, they have to. So you’re kind of limited in what you can do.
But on the government side, it’s the same basic concept, but we can be more careful about it and take our time and be meticulous. So what we do, whether it’s for the BLM or the Forest Service, is if there’s going to be any kind of project on whatever public land they manage, so be it BLM land or a national forest. Like say they’re going to build a new hiking trail or there’s going to be a timber sale or something like that, we have to go in first and survey the area to see if there are any sites or isolated artifacts that are in the affected area of the project. Determine if it’s going to be impacted, and if so, how they can mitigate the damage to that site or that artifact, and then they modify the project based on that information. So most of the time it looks like I get paid to go on a hike, because a lot of times it is just a formality, where it’s an area where we know there isn’t going to be any sites, because of the landscape and the density of sites or artifacts in the area. When you do this job for a while you can almost look at an area and just know, we’re not going to find anything there, because humans are humans. Almost every campsite that you go to, formal campsite for the Forest Service or BLM, is also an archeology site because the natives, they camped there too, for the same reason that you’re camping there, it’s a good campsite. So people have used the land, the same kind of land, for the same kind of things, going back until time in memoriam.
So yeah, sometimes I just get paid to go on a nice hike, but other times we do find a site, and so then we catalog all of the artifacts, we mark off the boundaries of the site, and then we leave everything there. Because our job is not to be Indiana Jones, we don’t want to collect artifacts, we want to preserve every site and every artifact in situ, what we call it, where it has all of the data for the landscape and the soils, and how it was used and what it was used for, it’s all right there, so if anyone does want to use it for research, they can come and look at it and nothing is disturbed. And also because if it’s a native site, it doesn’t belong to us, it’s theirs, and so it’s up to them what they want to do with it, and so we just need to identify it so it can be avoided. So that’s usually what it looks like, and then we just go back and do a bunch of paperwork to record it and to make our recommendation as to how the project can be modified.
The more stereotypical archeology work that people think of, where you actually excavate and you remove artifacts, it’s a very destructive process, is not actually something that’s done by most archeologists, that’s 100% the academic side. Usually most of those are field schools, all the people doing the digging are students, and it’s managed by a college professor, and that’s where all of the academic archeology stuff happens. Which is still very useful, because that’s what pushes the narrative forward, it really analyzes the data and processes it and puts it out there for the rest of the archeological community to debate and understand and realize new things, like the fact that the Clovis people weren’t the first people on the continent, and people have been here for over 20,000 years. So yeah, basically who you work for can be very different.
Maximillian Alvarez: So I will admit that there was a small part of me that wondered, I was like, is she going to say that she does what Ron Swanson does at the end of Parks and Rec, when he gets a job for the park service and he just gets to ride a canoe around national parks? I mean, it sucks that that show ended up just leaning into its dogshit liberal politics, because I can’t watch it anymore now, but I used to really love the show.
Kayla Denker: I’ve not actually watched much of it, I think I’ve seen one or two episodes. But yeah, we joke about that sometimes, but in honesty it isn’t really, because even when we’re just doing a nice hike, we’re still doing our jobs. I get a crink in my neck sometimes because I’m just staring at the ground as I walk by, and you’re walking in a very methodic pattern, you run these transects. Usually we’re out there with two of us, we always want as many as possible, but usually it’s two. So we space out about 30 meters apart, and we’re looking about 15 meters on either side of ourselves, and we just go back and forth in a survey area, back and forth like that until we’ve covered the entire area. So there is work to it, but you’re also just hiking through the woods.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, no, I mean, Jesus. And I don’t know, I guess I have to ask, are you running into bears and shit out there while you’re doing this?
Kayla Denker: Oh yeah, oh absolutely. I actually, I should have died one time. It was actually my first season with the forest service up in 2019 in Mt. Helena, and we had just finished a survey and we were going back to the car, but we walked back a different way than where we came in, and it was in a creek bottom. And there was a lot of brush and everything, but we had just left the survey area, so this spot was within air shot of where we were working. And we’re not quiet at all, we’re very loud. And as soon as I start walking that way this giant grizzly bear jumps up out of the brush, and we both get scared shitless, and it goes running one way, and I go running the other way.
Maximillian Alvarez: Just like, ahh, both of you screaming.
Kayla Denker: I’m very lucky, I don’t know why it ran away from me, usually when you spook them like that they charge you, so I’m very, very lucky that it didn’t behave the usual way.
Maximillian Alvarez: Wow. Yeah, I don’t know, you got very lucky there. But my God, I would shit my pants just straight up at that point.
Kayla Denker: I almost did, I was very spooked.
Maximillian Alvarez: Damn. So yeah, I mean, that’s-
Kayla Denker: I almost ran into a bobcat the same way, or a similar way, I was walking a transect, and it was in these real, those thin lodgepole pines, so you can’t see very far because they’re really thick. And neither of us knew the other was there, because we were walking straight at each other, and we both rounded this little tree, and there we were, I was inches away from this bobcat, and it just jumped straight in the air about 10 feet, and I jumped backwards, and it was the same thing, we both just ran off in two different directions.
Maximillian Alvarez: Oh man, yeah. Well, because bobcat’s normally, they jump at you from behind normally, don’t they?
Kayla Denker: Yeah, they’re ambush predators. I don’t know if bobcats will hunt people, but cougars will.
Maximillian Alvarez: Cougars, that’s it.
Kayla Denker: I’ve never had an encounter with a cougar, thank God.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, I think, please don’t press your luck with that. I feel like you’ve had enough run-ins for one lifetime.
Kayla Denker: Yep.
Maximillian Alvarez: But yeah, you must have scared the shit out of that bobcat.
Kayla Denker: It had no clue I was there, I don’t know how, it should’ve smelled me or heard me, but it didn’t.
Maximillian Alvarez: Wow, yeah. But like you said, this is one of the things that I just love about getting to do this show, I mean, because everyone has such interesting work lives, and they obviously don’t all look the same, but I don’t know, training yourself to have that sharp of a vision, where you’re actually seeing stuff that 99.9% of us would just gloss over, or not look at all. You’re doing it methodically, you’re following this pattern with your partner, you’re also dealing with working out in nature where there are things that can kill and eat you. I don’t know, that’s a hell of a job in my opinion.
Kayla Denker: It’s ruined me for hiking recreationally though, because you can’t turn that off. I actually just went on a hike yesterday with my roommate, and the whole time I was just staring at the ground, basically surveying. I forget to look around and enjoy it too much. But yeah, you do develop really trained vision, I wouldn’t say it’s sharper, but you are able to recognize things. And it is funny, because the whole time I was walking along, and every now and again I did what I do on a survey where I bend over and I pick up a rock that while I’m standing looks like it might be something, but then I look at it closer and it’s nothing. And they’re like, “What the fuck are you doing?” Because I keep picking up these little pebbles and looking at them, I’m like, “I’m working.”
Maximillian Alvarez: So don’t worry about it. Yeah, I was going to say, it’s got to be a joke among your friends, they’re like, “Oh, that’s just Kayla being Kayla, let her do her thing.” Oh my God, because obviously, we’re now having this conversation in the context of you losing that amazing job, that you yourself are so amazing at, and that was so meaningful to you, and I hope that people realize. I mean, we’ve talked about from picking up a musket ball in Virginia when you were a kid, to now, there is so much meaning in that, and I feel so deeply for you to have had that experience, and I feel so angry and pissed off and, I don’t know, heartbroken to know that we’re talking at a time when you’ve been wrongfully fired from that job.
And I want to talk about that because I want to make sure that people who are listening to this understand what is happening, why it is such an injustice, and what stake we all have in showing up for you, showing up for our fellow workers in general, and especially showing up for our fellow trans workers who are losing jobs like you lost your job due to fascist attacks. I mean, it’s not like you’re being negligent on the job and putting people in danger, no, you’re being attacked and become the focus of this fucking right wing outrage machine that wants to chop heads left and right. That’s what it does, it is a bloodthirsty political machine that I think we all need to be doing everything we possibly can to fight against.
So we’re going to get there in a second, but I think it’s really, you tell me, I think it’s really important for us to walk through things sequentially, because a lot of the shit that the far right is able to do to paint you as this, I don’t know, radical, trans-militant GI Jane who’s going to, part of this larger cabal of whatever the fuck they’re on, God knows, they’re high on their own hate at this point and I don’t even think they know, they can see the logic of all of that. But I think that a lot of the wackiness and the illogic of the campaign against you depends on blurring the timeline here, right?
Kayla Denker: Yes, it does, very much.
Maximillian Alvarez: So I was wondering if you could just, I guess wherever you think you would want to start, because I don’t know, where do we start? Do we with how the anti-trans fervor has been building for years? I mean Jesus, guys, if you’re listening to this, we’re going to include links to this, you’ve heard us talk about it before on the show, we’re going to keep talking about it, but you can look at sites like translegislation.com, you can see how in 2015 there were, I don’t know, 20 anti-trans bills that were these bathroom bills, and now in 2023 there’s like 400. You’ve seen the segments on Fox News, you’ve seen the frothing rage that is being whipped up left and right about trans people just trying to exist in the world, but somehow being painted as the ultimate evil who are responsible for all of society’s ills and need to be eradicated in the most genocidal fashion. I don’t know, where do we start, Kayla, where we walk our way up to the bullshit that you’ve been going through in the past month?
Kayla Denker: Yeah, it was a slow build, basically, because due to all of that, all of that social pressure that paints us as this big enemy that conservatives need to fight against, the hatred directed at trans people has steadily been ramping up over the last few years. And so like every other trans person with any kind of social media, not even just social media, because we get it in real life too, I have been getting death threats for quite a while, through Twitter primarily, but also through my GoFundMe, because it allows people to send you email messages.
And then there’s also just, the whole years of it. When I was still in Missoula, Montana, before moving down here, there was actually a man that tried to stone me, literally. I was walking my dogs, and he said, “Hello,” whatever, and then I said hello back, and at that moment he realized, oh, that’s a trans woman, and he started just screaming all of these, I don’t know, it was religious shit, or something. I didn’t really catch what he was saying. And he started picking up these rocks from along the side of the road and throwing them at me. I guess stoning might be a bit of an overstatement, but it was still not fun to experience. And then it just continues, it keeps going like that. So yeah, I’ve been getting death threats through social media and everything.
And then finally on March 4th, at the CPAC conference, I don’t remember his name, he’s that conservative-
Maximillian Alvarez: Knowles, that little fuckwad Michael Knowles?
Kayla Denker: That might be it, he said that transgenderism needs to be eradicated, very unapologetically and clearly calling for our mass extermination. And so with all of that other climate behind me, and continuing to experience it, and then that, it just got to me. And so the next day, I have an AR-15 because, it’s all a very long story. I’m not actually that much into guns anymore, I tried to be when I was younger, because I was deeply in the closet, and when I was very young, when I was a child, I was a very girly child, obviously, and my dad tried to man me up by getting me into firearms at a pretty early age. So I was raised with that concept, of equating manliness with firearms, and so when I was in the closet and trying to desperately keep anyone from realizing that I’m actually a woman, I got into firearms to try and cover all that up.
And so I still had all those firearms, I still have this AR-15. So I picked this thing up, and I make a video where I demonstrate that it is an actual functioning firearm, because I knew that if I didn’t people would just say it’s fake, where I take out the magazine, I show that it has ammunition, and then I put it back in, and then I cycle through three rounds. And then I captioned it with, I don’t remember the exact phrasing, but I think it was, “Even though advocating for trans people to just arm ourselves is not any kind of a solution to the genocide we’re facing, if anyone does come after me I will defend myself and take some of you with me.”
It was a dumb thing to post, I shouldn’t have done it, but when you’re subjected to that much hatred, you’re desperate to make it stop. So I just did this stupid thing in a very vain attempt to try and make these people realize that I’m not a soft target, that if they did ever want to act on it, there’s a strong chance that they might get hurt. Immediately it was picked up by conservatives, which was odd because my Twitter account was never very large. I had like 1000 followers at the time. But they picked up on it, these huge conservative accounts, and immediately started painting me, claiming that I was threatening to go on a shooting.
This was on March 5th when that happened, and as soon as I saw them picking it up I deleted the post. But it floated around, because by then they’d screen captured the video, and they just kept passing it around for about a month. But it didn’t really leave Twitter until the Nashville shooting. As soon as that happened, they immediately altered their narrative a little bit to claim that I posted it after the Nashville shooting in support of the shooter, and then also tied me into some kind of Trans Day of Vengeance demonstration, and painted that as if it was going to be a riot or something, I’m not really entirely sure, and even claimed that I was leading some kind of effort to arm trans people, which is the exact opposite of what I said in the caption, that that’s not really a goal of mine, so basically painting me as this terrorist.
And then the Daily Mail picked it up. And the first article was not just about me, it was mainly about the Trans Day of Vengeance, where they picked me and Alana McLaughlin, a trans woman MMA fighter, who has a similar picture that they’ve been passing around for a long time, and painted us as the leaders of this movement and that we’re going to go on some kind of shooting rampage, or whatever. And then Alana was able to get them to take down her photo. I don’t think they changed any of the wording of the article, so they still talk about her in the same defamatory way, but they left mine up, and then later published a second article that was exclusively about me, and just continued all of that, reiterated all of those things, those lies, and continued to paint me as a terrorist. And then the Newsweek followed with another article saying the same things, then the New York Post, and then hundreds of other right wing tabloids.
So that’s when my boss picked up on it, and I don’t know if he saw one, or someone contacted him to let him know about it, but he called me and asked me about it. And I did not actually know about these articles until that point when he called me, so I was completely blindsided by this. So they immediately put me on administrative leave, and this was towards the end of March, maybe the beginning of April, I don’t remember. It was about two weeks ago. And then two weeks later, without any communication in the interim, they just fired me.
The termination letter they sent me on Friday cites those articles directly as their reasoning for firing me, despite, I did contact my boss as soon as they put me on administrative leave and sent him the screenshots showing that I did not post it after the Nashville shooting, I posted it a month before, and I didn’t threaten anyone in it. They didn’t really care, it didn’t sound like, in the termination letter, that they believed me, they believed the articles. But then at the bottom they said, I don’t remember the exact wording, but I have them up on my public Twitter account, the termination letter, that they fired me because I posted an image of myself with a firearm and, how did they phrase it? It was something like, “Threatened to use the firearm in a certain circumstance.” They tried to avoid admitting that I only threatened to use it in case of self-defense, because that’s not a crime.
Right about the same time that they put me on administrative leave I was contacted by the FBI and the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department, and not to investigate me, but to warn me of this doxing that was taking place, and to warn me that there were people that were trying to find out where I was so they could harm me. And they directly worked with me, I’ve been in constant communication with them since then. They actually tried to help me, they contacted my boss to let him know that I was not under investigation, that they were actually trying to protect me, that I didn’t do anything wrong, but that didn’t help. And now here I am.
Maximillian Alvarez: Jesus, I don’t even know where to fucking start with this, but I guess I’ll start by just again saying how sorry I am that you’ve been going through all of this, because I mean, I can only imagine the toll that this has all taken on you. I mean, I’ve seen it, I’ve seen shithead fascists and fascist enablers like Andy Ngo out there putting out misinformation deliberately. I mean, doing what shitheads like Andy Ngo and Michael Knowles do. Matt Walsh, all these people. I mean, they distort reality, they do whatever they need to do to stoke the maximal amount of hatred and anger, and like to use that as a political force for their own benefit and for the benefit of the ideology that they want to see reflected back at them in the world.
There’s so much gross stuff that’s tied up in all of this, and I’ve seen, I hope that anyone who has made it this far into listening, thank you for listening, and I hope that you can hear just in this one conversation how different the reality of this one case is compared to what you’re seeing, I mean, whether it’s the Daily Mail or whether it’s Fox News, or Andy Ngo’s Twitter account, you can’t just let yourself be led by the Ngos, by these hate mongers who have just such a blind agenda that they’re going to follow, and who they do not care how many people get hurt in the process.
So I hope, just first and foremost to anyone listening to this, that you take this conversation to heart, and then you think about how this translates to everything else that we’re seeing in this country. Even everyone who’s saying, “We’re fine with trans people, we’re just concerned about the kids.” You can excuse anything, even fascism, even genocide, if it’s done in the name of protecting the children. This is not new, this is what they have been doing to maintain or build systems of power that privilege certain sectors of society as the more deserving members of society over others.
Kayla Denker: This is what they have done when slaves were freed, they were painted as this corrupting force, this violent other that was going to soil our bloodlines and destroy our families and our communities and our Christian ways of life, I don’t fucking know. But it’s the same kind of trope that was used then, it was the same kind of trope that was used to otherize and paint in similarly inhuman and threatening fashion Chinese immigrants, Latino immigrants. There were people who looked like me 100 years ago who were lynched in places like California for many of the same reasons, or that’s what the people who killed them said that they were doing. I mean, Jesus Christ, that’s what they did to the Jews during the fucking Third Reich. I know people may roll their eyes and say, “Oh, well that was way in the past,” but it’s like, nah, bro, if you fucking look at how this works, it’s playing out right in front of you.
And we’ve actually, us trans people have seen that this before. This is not our first time dealing with this because we were among the first victims of the Holocaust. Way back immediately, when the Nazis took power in Germany, their first thing that they did was to march in and destroy the Hirshfield Library at the Institute of Sexology, which was the leading edge of research into trans medical care.
That single act set back medical care for us and transition procedures by a century. Everything we have now was reinvented. They had it back then and it was all destroyed. And then after that, they continued to persecute us just like they persecuted the Jews, and eventually shipped us to the concentration camps as well with the people with the purple, the pink triangles weren’t just gay men, they were trans women because they classified us as gay men because surprise, the Nazis didn’t recognize the existence of trans women.
And I believe men were put in there under a, I think it was the black triangle, which is what they did to divergent women or something like that. Yeah. So we’ve seen this before.
Maximillian Alvarez: And it’s like, I don’t know. I mean, I’m constantly trying to understand this, not because I think that people who are, because when… I mean it’s like war we were describing. There’s another thing that I’ve heard, not just veterans like yourself, but also people like Chris had just described to me, is that war is that kind of unstoppable force that you see how it eats people and who they become in the midst of war, because there’s no other way to be in war.
Kayla Denker: Right.
Maximillian Alvarez: And I feel like that’s what I’m watching. And I want to be very clear to people who listen to this show, you know, listen to our past episodes. I do genuinely believe there are a lot of well-meaning, good working people out there who are just dipshits. Maybe they can be shaken out of prejudices. Maybe we have to assume that there are a lot of folks in our workplaces, in our families who can be brought to the light, who can at least learn to see that as laborers’ enduring message tells us “An injury to one is an injury to all,” and just the bosses use division within workplaces to pit workers against each other, they’ve done it with the same kind of categories we’ve talked about.
They did it when women were entering the workforce when black people were entering the workforce. Latinos, undocumented migrants. I mean, they always try to find ways to pit workers against one another and see one another as the enemy. And so we don’t actually focus our collective attention on the bosses who are exploiting all of us and pocketing the difference, yada, yada, yada.
There are similar kind of dynamics at work here, and I just implore people to think about how and why you are being so berated, daily, by certain segments of society to believe that your fellow, your neighbors, your fellow workers, your parishioners, the other people at your school board meetings, that they are your enemy. That they are the cause of all the kind of destruction that we’re seeing and feeling, whether that be half a century of wage stagnation or corporate pillage and all the products we use just getting worse or inequality getting worse. Take your pick, climate change with everyone’s sense of existential sense of self and being in the world.
There are a lot of things that seem wrong in the world and there are a lot of culprits who are responsible for that. And there’s also a larger system that they benefit from that is responsible for that.
So just ask yourself, what incentive made the people in those positions of power and the people who serve them and blah, blah, blah, don’t you think they may have a vested interest in convincing you that your trans coworker is the evil of society? And if you all just band together and pretend like you’re Matt… Matt fucking Walsh, I hate this fucking guy.
But I think the thing that he does that’s very telling is, and I’m curious to hear what you think of this, Kayla, as not just a trans woman but a veteran.
Because I feel like what Walsh is doing is he’s trying to tap into this nightly sense of purpose. And he knows that he’s addressing a population that has many reasons for losing that sense of purpose, because we’re all playing in a rigged fucking system. Again, things are getting worse for working class people.
I’m not excusing everyone for their hatred and bigotry. Again, I’m thinking more of the working people that I talk to who may just hear this shit on Fox News and may not think too critically about it. But I think that there is this sort of sense that really the problem with our society is just that we don’t have a cause to fight for anymore, and that this is something that where people can regain that lost manhood, that lost sense of purpose, that cause worth dying for because that’s the language that they pit it in.
It’s just like, “Oh, I will die a thousand deaths and I’ll kill a million trans people for this righteous cause,” and it just feels so forced. But I think the reason for that, at least in my opinion as a cis dude trying to make sense of all this is just like, is he speaking to that void?
And I worry how attractive that is to people who have other reasons for feeling it. And I don’t know, as a veteran, does that hit you in the same way?
Kayla Denker: Oh yeah. Because it’s the exact same thing that they used, to make us try and make us hate the enemy and just Afghan people in general, because people recognize, like you’ve pointed out that things are fucked up. Things are very wrong in so many ways, but they don’t want to… The people in power, the ruling class, and then people who benefit from them like Matt Walsh, they don’t want the system that’s causing those problems to change.
So they have to direct that energy away from fixing the real problems into something else, something else that won’t hurt them, and gets to allow them to direct all of that anger and rage in the populace towards a scapegoat.
It’s a classic fascist tactic if they do it, it’s a cornerstone of fascism. And that’s why they target these minorities because they are seen as disposable aspects of society.
They’re always small, minor, they don’t have as much political power because they’re minorities.
We have as trans people, we have absolutely no representation in government. The highest representation we have are a handful of state level legislators. And when I say handful, I mean I think there’s maybe five in the entire country.
We have nothing at the federal level at all. We have no political power, no voice. So we are a very convenient scapegoat, because there’s no one on a national stage that can speak out on our behalf, at least no one from our demographic.
And so that allows them to direct all that rage at us and in their mind hopefully destroy us. And then that’ll keep all the masses distracted, and not lose anything significant in their minds.
Maximillian Alvarez: And just like, I don’t know… Fuck those people. I’m sorry I guess to close the loop on the rambling rant that I went on, what I’m trying to say to people listening to this is I know that I preach, and try to show in the conversations we have for this show, we talk to conservative folks all the time, is that we do have a lot more in common as working people, than we have with people Elon fucking Musk, with Jeff Bezos, with Clarence Thomas and the billionaires that support him and corrupt our entire system, yada, yada, yada.
So that message still very much applies, but I also want to be very clear, there are always going to be people we can’t reach and there are always going to be people, whether they are snitching to the boss and trying to undercut a union effort or whether they are genuinely so bigoted, hateful or for whatever reasons, just cannot unlock themselves from that hatred of trans people like that, that they’re too far gone.
And so then the conversation changes. It’s how do we build up, I don’t know, a herd of buffalo? Again, laborers’ strength is in our numbers. How do we build a strong enough front to defend ourselves and our coworkers against those very real threats, to isolate the worst, most reactionary members of the working class along with enough that they do not cause real harm, and that they don’t disrupt the movement that we’re trying to build here.
So you have to draw lines in the fucking sand, I guess is what I’m saying to people. And we are well past the point where all of us need to pick a side here.
Again, I’m going to go back to all the great tropes of labor. Which side are you on? This is a which side are you on moment? There is no sideline here. If you are on the sideline, you are letting this fucking fascism brew and grow and it’s going to make it that much…
It’s going to cause that much more pain in the interim and death in the interim. And it’s going to make it that much harder for us to fight when you finally get it through your fucking head that this is not going away.
And I guess the other thing I wanted to address before I let you go, Kayla, and I’m so grateful to you for taking this much time to chat with me. I really am.
Kayla Denker: I have a lot of time on my hands.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, I guess you got time on your hands. But you also said something that really resonated with me, and I’m not drawing a false equivalence here, but I’m just saying as a perpetually scary-looking Latino guy, who has looked this way my whole life, but now I’ve leaned into it. I have a shaved head, I’ve got tattoos and piercings.
So at some point I was just like, “All right, fuck it. This is how the world sees me anyway, I’m just going to lean into it.”
But I like the way I look. But even so you said something about well, you posted that TikTok and it was dumb, you shouldn’t have done it, but I don’t know, I mean when you were literally watching someone at CPAC, a spineless little like Michael Knowles, because then he tried to backtrack and he said like, “Oh, I never said we got to eliminate transgender people from society. We have to eliminate transgenderism from society.”
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. I was like, “Well, take it to its logical conclusion, fuckhead, you were calling for eugenics, you were calling for the elimination of a sector of people.”
Anyway, we won’t go down that road. But I don’t know, when you’re watching that on TV, and you’re seeing all the shit around you, you’re seeing from the legislative level to the level of media to the violent interactions that you can have with people at any given point on the street.
I don’t know, I mean, what else are you supposed to do? Just cower in fear? And that’s what resonated with me is because I remember apologizing a lot myself, for proving stereotypes right, or I don’t know, in my mind as a teenager or even in my early 20s, giving people reason to justify their fears of me just by, I don’t know. I mean being a kid, being dumb, maybe wearing my pants too baggy, or speaking too loud in public, and then I would feel like, “Oh, that’s on me. That’s my fault. I got to really rein it in.”
But that’s the condition that marginalized people of any sort of stripe are put in.
Kayla Denker: That is true.
Maximillian Alvarez: When you live in that society where a certain segment is dominant is when your existence is second class, at best, or criminal at worst, you are always already guilty until proven, not even innocent. You’re guilty until proven, not a threat.
And that could be black women not able to raise their voice, otherwise they’re immediately going to be stereotyped. Or guys who look like me, I don’t know, you better button up your shirt and do your best to try to prove to society that you’re not the scary Latino that everyone thinks you are, right?
As a trans person, what is it? Just hide under a rock? Don’t go out in public? Don’t be yourself anywhere that anyone can see? Is that really all that we have left?
And I guess it doesn’t do anything to really call out the hypocrisy of these people because it’s not about… Because hypocrisy presumes that there’s a rationality that can be reached and people could come to the light when they see that their views are irrational. That’s not what this is about.
This is a fundamentally… Fascism is a fundamentally irrational system. That’s what feeds it. So you’re not going to kind of get people to renounce their fascism just by pointing out the fallacy of their arguments, or anything like that.
But I don’t know. You do see how the power works because you, as a trans woman living in a society that is telling you, “We are coming for you.” You can’t even post a little TikTok in a country that claims that guns in self-defense are totally fine. It reminded me of the Black Panthers in 1967 when they showed up.
Kayla Denker: It reminded me of that the entire time.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, so they show up with shotguns and magnums to the California State House and suddenly Ronald Reagan and every Second Amendment-loving politician suddenly gets really interested in gun control.
Kayla Denker: Yeah, it’s been very frustrating. No, you’re right. Yeah. There’s this pressure when you’re a minority that you have to be perfect at all times, and you have to protest your oppression and marginalization in the right way.
And what’s even worse when you step out of that and you don’t do what they want you to do, or do it the right way, is that the people who already hate you, they already hate you, that’s not what hits hard.
What hits hard is that the people that you thought supported you, the people that you thought were on your side, all of a sudden turn against you because you didn’t do it the right way, you’re no longer the model minority that they want.
And that’s actually been, since this all started over the last two weeks, that’s been the majority of the messages that I have gotten. Not even hate mail, not me, not even death threats. It’s been people telling me that they sympathize with me, that they understand why I felt, why I did it, but I still deserved what I got, because what I did was wrong, that I was not doing… I was speaking out against what is being directed at me and other trans people in the right way.
And that hits the hardest.
Maximillian Alvarez: Jesus, I’m so sorry that’s how people have responded to this, because it’s like, again, I want to shake people and I’m sorry I’ve been yelling and screaming so much. I mean, I hope, I really hope it hasn’t overtaken the conversation here.
Kayla Denker: Oh, it’s okay.
Maximillian Alvarez: But I mean, this is what I mean about the hypocrisy thing. I mean, it’s still important to see the hypocrisy and understand what it tells us about the state of power in our society. I think that’s the importance.
It’s not like you’re going to convince the hypocrites that they’re being hypocrites, and they should stop being hypocrites.
But the hypocrisy belies the inner workings of power in this country. And I guess for everyone listening, I’ll explain what I mean, is you could have a situation Kayla’s where again, this is purportedly what the NRA is all about. This is what the Second Amendment’s all about.
You can have glasses-wearing mustachioed white dudes across this great land of ours with literal bumper stickers saying essentially the same thing that Kayla said in her post, which is like, “If you want to take my guns, you could try. But I’m taking a few of you with me.”
I’m pretty sure I’ve seen bumper stickers with that exact phrasing on it, and it’s so commonly accepted. It’s so like, “Oh yeah, that’s fine, that’s just guys being dudes,” but one trans woman posts it, and suddenly it’s bedlam. And that, again, you’re not going to get anywhere by pointing out the hypocrisy of that.
But you see how that power structure is at work, where yeah, trans people do not have the same ability to even be angry or even have self-defense.
So then what’s the end point of that? If trans people can’t even defend themselves by the same rules that other non-trans people in this country are purportedly allowed to defend themselves, then they have nothing, then they are nothing but sitting fucking ducks for a murderous mob to roll them over or to, again, their only permitted existence, by the logic of these fascists, is to exist underground.
And that’s it. And again, I just implore any cis person listening to this, any person who’s just hoping that this will go away, that they’re thinking that they don’t know enough about it to have an opinion, just go with your gut. Just be in solidarity with other people trying to live their fucking lives. And I think that that’s what we’re talking about here. And you’re going to have to get off the sidelines. You’re going to have to pick a side and you’re going to have to show up for one another. And I wanted to end on that note.
Kayla is just, again, I wanted to thank you for spending this much time talking with me, and it’s been a real rollercoaster.
Kayla Denker: Thank you.
Maximillian Alvarez: Because I feel like we’ve gotten some really fun, joyful parts and some really dark shit. But I’m just so grateful to you for chatting with me.
But I want to end on that point of just what kind of final messages do you have for people listening to this? And also very importantly, what can people who are listening to this do right now to support you, to stand in solidarity with you, and to stand in solidarity with our fellow trans siblings all across this country and beyond?
Kayla Denker: I actually want to deviate slightly from what we’ve talked about, but it is still… It’s still one of the most important ways that people can support us. And that is to just love your children.
Because throughout all of this, everything that I have endured since I came out, and then especially over the last few weeks, is made much more difficult by the fact that I don’t even have my parents to support me.
And so I just want to tell any parent out there, if your child has not come out, and if they ever do, just love them and support them and make sure that they know that you accept them. That is the crucial part.
And if you already have, just hug your child a little bit harder tonight for the rest of us that don’t have that, that’s really all I wanted to say.
That’s the best way that you can support us, is to make sure that the next generation doesn’t go through what we are going through. Make it end here. End here with our generation, and no one else has to endure it.
No one else has to grow up with what we have, and they have a joyful future. Give them that.
Additional links/info below…
- GoFundMe: Help Kayla with Legal Fees and Survival
- Kayla’s Twitter page (public), TikTok, and YouTube channel
- Trans Legislation Tracker
- Peter Wade & Patrick Reis, Rolling Stone, “CPAC Speaker Calls for Eradication of ‘Transgenderism’ — and Somehow Claims He’s Not Calling for Elimination of Transgender People“
- Adam M. Rhodes, The Appeal, “Anti-Trans Bills Flood States in ‘Centrally Coordinated’ Attack on Transgender Existence“
- Maximillian Alvarez, The Real News Network, “The New Lavender Scare is an Attack on the Working Class“
- Lexi McMenamin, Teen Vogue, “How to Stay Safe as a Trans Student in School“
- France 24 ENG, “Activist Erin Reed on the ‘Sustained fear Campaign’ Behind US Anti-Transgender Laws“
- Death Panel podcast, “The Gray Lady vs. Trans Life w/ Vicky Osterweil
- Fenit Nirappil, The Washington Post, “The Right Exploits Nashville Shooting to Escalate Anti-Trans Rhetoric“
- Madison Pauly, Mother Jones, “Inside the Secret Working Group That Helped Push Anti-Trans Laws Across the Country“
- Thaddeus Morgan, History, “The NRA Supported Gun Control When the Black Panthers Had the Weapons“
Permanent links below…
- Leave us a voicemail and we might play it on the show!
- Labor Radio / Podcast Network website, Facebook page, and Twitter page
- In These Times website, Facebook page, and Twitter page
- The Real News Network website, YouTube channel, podcast feeds, Facebook page, and Twitter page
Featured Music (all songs sourced from the Free Music Archive:freemusicarchive.org)
- Jules Taylor, “Working People Theme Song
- Post-Production: Jules Taylor
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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Maximillian Alvarez is editor-in-chief at the Real News Network and host of the podcast Working People, available at InTheseTimes.com. He is also the author of The Work of Living: Working People Talk About Their Lives and the Year the World Broke.