OutSmart readers have chosen Emmett Schelling as this year’s Most Prominent Trans Male Activist. Gracious to a fault, this unrelenting trans advocate has earned every accolade coming his way.
As a fierce promoter of equal rights, Schelling first served as the president of the San Antonio Gender Association (SAGA). For the past two years, he has served as the executive director for the Transgender Education Network of Texas (TENT), the largest statewide organization serving Texas’ transgender/nonbinary/gender-diverse (or “gender-fluid”) community.
As a non-profit organization, TENT advocates for inclusive transgender/nonbinary/gender-fluid policies across Texas on both the municipal and statewide levels. TENT also works to empower trans, nonbinary, and gender-diverse Texans through an array of educational programming—including panels, workshops, and public speaking events. These programs help community members and allies deepen their own understanding of the trans community as they become aware of the barriers to full access and inclusion faced by trans individuals.
As the tip of TENT’s activist spear, Schelling’s professional life is demanding. On any given day he can be found speaking with political leaders, medical professionals, lawyers, social workers, or students and their parents. He’s been featured in numerous Texas media outlets, and in national publications such as Newsweek, The Hill, Slate, and The Huffington Post.
Is Schelling’s work making a difference? “In the two years Emmett has been the executive director of TENT, he has made great strides in advancing our mission of furthering gender-diverse equality in Texas. We are happy to have him,” states Erika Richie, TENT board member, popular activist, and model Mama Bear.
Born in Seoul, South Korea, Schelling was adopted as a toddler and grew up in a conservative and deeply religious middle-class family in the Midwest. But that predictably safe path to adulthood had a slight detour as Schelling began his journey to become the proudly out trans man he is today.
“My first memory as a child is launching into a [very atypical] tantrum at the age of three or four when my mother tried to make me wear a dress,” Schelling laughs. “As I grew into childhood, I refused to wear a shirt. That did not go over well with my family, so we found a compromise: bib overalls.”
Schilling’s transition was not a “ta-da!” moment, he says, since he had always been masculine, and often chose the company of other male kids. “My sister said after I officially came out to her, everything made so much more sense about who I was,” he explained.
As TENT’s first executive director who is also non-white, Schelling realizes there is a disproportionate danger for trans, nonbinary, gender-diverse people of color. He and TENT are tackling this head-on.
“People of color, particularly black trans women of color, face obstacles that their white counterparts do not. This is why TENT has committed to do all of its programming through a racial-justice lens, with an emphasis on an intersectional approach,” Schelling says. “We need to educate people about the trans community as a whole, and who we really are. It’s a sad day when we need to ‘humanize’ any group to help them live free of discrimination and harm. There’s an aggressive push now to erase people from society just because we don’t know or don’t understand their journey,” Schelling notes. “Our mission at TENT is to change all this.” —Kim Hogstrom
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