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Shannon and Me: How Seeing a Local Trans Icon Opened Up My Own Journey Into Visibility

By Jacquii Cooke| Multimedia Specialist

I began my transition journey before even knowing what Transgender was. This was not a widely used word circa 1992-1993, my senior year of high school. Even though we all seemingly straddle the spectrum of identities and orientations, it was then (and still is to a great extent now) a hush-hush society as far as anything related to sex is concerned. It was a world in which I had no visible representation of what it is to be a Trans woman. It was a lonely and bewildering time of questioning my mere existence. Why am I so different? How is it that everyone else is so normal and I am not? What kind of freak am I?

These and many other questions pervaded my thought process, compelling me to seek answers. I needed someone to show me that I was not alone in the questioning, as it were. I craved an example–other than RuPaul strutting to “Supermodel (You Better Work)”–that there could be the possibility of me: a proud member of our Two-spirit, Trans, Intersex, Gender-expansive Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (2TIGE BIPOC) community. And I needed to see visible evidence with my own eyes. Gratefully, that happened.

My very first “aha!” moment was when I saw the beautiful Shannon DeVaughn, known then as The Million Dollar Look,” a Trans woman drag performer from Knoxville, Tennessee. I was seventeen: young and naive, a curious pre-blossoming caterpillar whose cocoon had not yet formed, using a fake ID to get through the crowded line and into The Carousel II club.

Shannon was beautiful. She was in the wind. She was flitting all about the stage: spinning, twirling, giving life, sensual smiles, and gracious nods of acknowledgement. She was glamouring the house down BOOTS! She was the room’s sole butterfly, instantly becoming my inspiration as I and everyone else in the club that hot summer night was captivated and in awe.

I saw not only Shannon’s pastied breasts, her flowing golden locks as metaphorical wings, but literally felt in that moment an extremely new, impossible (yet obviously possible) example of who and what I could be. I saw confidence and courage. I saw a reflection of what I AM. I saw a woman of the Trans experience!

By simply being proudly and unashamedly visible in her authenticity, Shannon gave me the encouragement I so desperately needed as a loner teen. Her mere visibility inspired me to perform at the Carousel’s Wednesday talent night show a few weeks later. 

Before then, I was the introverted techie in my high school drama club. I installed various lighting in the school auditorium, ran the light board, shone the spotlight on the play cast, along with a slew of other busy-work production tasks. I was excited to be part of our school productions in whatever capacity I could be: there was a semblance of inclusion behind the scenes. My inclination was to not have that spotlight on myself. And then I met Shannon, who, as the first Trans woman I’d ever seen, was the definition of an icon: a person who influences your life for the better, inspiring the liberation and motivation required to be your best self.

Performing drag on a stage of absolute acceptance was my introduction to a life of creation and a catalyst for my metamorphosis into Jacquii Chenyneh Kween Cooke. At the end of the day, though, through Shannon’s unapologetic visibility, I came to realize that this is no costume I wear. I couldn’t really take the drag off. I didn’t want to take it off. The experience allowed me the honesty to say, “I’m not a man. And I don’t want to be a man. I cannot be a man.”

I had begun to blossom into myself as a proud Black Trans woman. I only wish for my fellow Trans siblings to blossom comfortably and feel at home in their truth and own skin as well.

During this LGBTQIA2S+ History Month, I encourage exactly that. I’m unsure of the turn my journey would have taken had I not seen Shannon demonstrating the possibility of being a Trans woman so many years ago. I’m grateful that she stood firm in her authenticity to be the Trans visibility my seventeen-year-old self needed. She remains iconic in my mind because of this simple refusal to be disappeared into the shadow of secrecy and shame.

As another Trans icon, Lourdes Ashley Hunter, says, “I want to be seen, affirmed and celebrated as a whole damn person… I want to wake up without the threat of violence!” This is what Trans icons bring, having fought for a seat at the roundtable of inclusion for not only themselves but for our entire 2TIGE community. Shannon DeVaughn is white, but her display of pride empowered me to display my own pride as the 48-year-old Black Trans woman I have grown to be today. My aim is to one day be considered an icon myself, as I, on behalf of Trans Empowerment Project, continue my work to champion joy, equity, and thriving into the lives of the most marginalized of us within the greater LGBTQIA2S+ community.


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