An Interview with Rae Drew of The 7000 People Project

Executive Director of PhillyGayCalendar

Alejandro Morales: So! The 7000 People Project.

Rae Drew: That’s right.

AM: What’s it all about?

RD: Primarily it’s a fundraiser for my chest surgery. The secondary part is, I’m hoping to get people discussing the idea of self, of who we are. I think trans people go through that process, but I also that everybody goes through a process, especially when parts of your identity change, like if you lose your job or your apartment. Your identity is constantly shifting and changing. So I wanted to have a dialogue with people about what self means, while also raising money for my surgery.

AM: Why did you name it the 7000 People Project?

RD: It’s a $7000 procedure and that’s why I chose the name. The premise is to get 7000 people to donate one dollar apiece. I want to test the interconnectedness of people, especially on the web.

AM: So, for you this journey through self has been about this transition that you’re making. Would you mind talking a little bit about that?

RD: My transition has been in terms of gender, but it’s a lot more complicated than just “I was this, and now I’m that” because there’s a lot of emotional connection tied to your past experiences. Even my name, the way I present myself to the world, is changing. My birth name is Rae Ann, and for awhile it was really sad for me to know that when I meet new people, they might now know that name ever existed, even though that was who I was for 23 years! I spent a lot of time thinking about the person I was and who I wanted to become, and how I wanted to fit the pieces of my past, present and future together.

AM: So when you were 23, there was a turning point?

RD: I’ve always been at odds with my gender identity. As a child I had no way to express that, because I had never heard of a transgender person. As a teenager, I think I used escapism so I wouldn’t have to confront the issues I had. I did some drugs at that time. My identity was masked. I wore crazy clothes and bright colored hair and piercings, so people didn’t see me as a young girl, they saw me as a misfit. So I hid in that identity. Then when I went to college, it was a transition in so many ways, as an artist, as a person making new friends in a new place. I didn’t think about it consciously, but I stopped wearing crazy clothes and started wearing mens clothing.

Once college ended, I had time to sit down to think about that person I was, and the thing I kept getting stuck on was the question of my gender identity. Eventually it became all-consuming. It made me lose my mind a little bit. Then I decided to transition. I made that mental decision about two years ago, and now I’m coming out to family and friends. And then comes the physical transition, which is a time-consuming and expensive process.

AM: What kind of resources did you turn to as you were going through this?

RD: The first book I read was Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg, and when I opened that and read the first few chapters, I knew I was walking down a path I would never look back from. All these things I had been feeling had a name, had someone else who understood, and I’d never had that. It was huge. From there I read books by S. Bear Bergman, Kate Bornstein — I think, in total, I ended up reading about fifteen books on the subject. I was like a mad scientist of gender. Another book that I read before coming out to my family was Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences.

AM: So I hear you recently got engaged.

RD: Yes, I did. I’ve been with her since February of 2007. We spent three years together as a lesbian-identified couple, and now we’re continuing our relationship as more queer-identified couple.

AM: What was that change like?

RD: That was one of the hardest things I went through in this whole process. From my end, I felt an immense sense of guilt, because I was taking this really special relationship that was based in this lesbian identification — and I was proud to be a part of the lesbian community. It was definitely who I was for a long period of time; for ten years I was out as a lesbian. My partner hadn’t been out for as long, maybe five years. So she was just getting comfortable with this identity as lesbian, and having a good time with it, and I felt like I ripped the rug out from underneath her. She didn’t know too much about transgender identity, and neither did I, so there was a time when it felt like our relationship was slipping out of our grasp. I think we got to a place where we realized we had to start over and redefine things. And just like I was talking about with letting go of my old name, it’s hard to let go of who you were in a relationship, and then build a new one. But we have great communication and we love each other. She’s been my biggest supporter through the hardest parts.

AM: So you announced The 7000 People Project on 11/11/11. How’s it going so far?

RD: It’s going great. I’ve set weekly goals for the way I’m moving forward and so far I’ve been meeting them, through in-person donations and IndiGoGo. When I first started saving money for the transition, my partner got me this piggy bank, and we wrote some inspirational quotes on it, and that was kind of the starting point, and I’m still putting change in it every day. Lucky for me, I’m a barista, so people are always giving me change to put in my piggy bank. So that keeps me going. 

AM: Are you linked up with any trans advocacy groups here in Philly?

RD: I work with Gender Reel and MixTape, which is a quarterly event that features trans and queer artists. It’s somewhat of a variety show, with a sliding scale door charge. Half of the proceeds go to Gender Reel and half goes to a Philadelphia community member for gender surgery. The MixTape for my chest surgery will be in April. Most insurance companies don’t cover it and people have to pay for this kind of surgery out-of-pocket. They’re not cheap!

AM: Wow. Well, we look forward to seeing what happens with the project.

RD: Thanks! I just want to add that the project ends in May, and I’m thinking of having an identity/self conference, with workshops and panels. So that’s something to look forward to.

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