Jay Duffy is an attorney at the Clean Air Task Force.
Environmental advocacy is mostly invisible work, but occasionally I’m required to step into a more conspicuous role. Last month, I was among a handful of people chosen to join U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar, who represents the federal government in cases before the Supreme Court, at Georgetown Law’s Supreme Court Institute. We were there to prepare a long-time climate advocate, who would be presenting an oral argument in West Virginia v. EPA. I had argued a portion of the case when it went before the D.C. Court of Appeals last year. In the niche world of appellate climate advocacy, I had arrived. It was invigorating.
When I arrived home to Boston, I found my inbox filled with press inquiries and requests to sit on panels to parse every word the justices might utter while hearing the case. One request struck me, however. The person sending it invited me to speak about the case’s implications on climate regulation and asked if I had suggestions for diversifying the panel. Over the years, my body had become more angular, my beard grew in, and my hair fell out, yet it still surprised me that a core part of my identity had become invisible.
Like many of us, I am on an endless journey of figuring out who I am, where I fit, and what I can contribute to the world around me. I began my journey as a tomboy in a backward baseball cap playing on the family farm. Then I was a women’s rugby player at the University of Vermont whom everyone called “Duff.” Then I was a law student at Villanova, where I barely mustered the courage to walk into a meet-and-greet in an ill-fitting men’s brown suit, melting beneath the glaring heat of a hundred confused stares.
It was during law school and shortly thereafter that who I was came into unbearable friction with what seemingly everyone around me would have found more comfortable. At this point, I had not changed my name or my pronouns. I had not started hormone therapy. I was a 27-year-old law student with short hair and my chest bound so tightly I would lose my breath. People mistook me for a teenage boy and giggled when I told them my age or profession.
This is not a set of circumstances anyone would choose if it wasn’t for an undeniable truth: I am a trans man, and I have always been trans, whether I recognized it or not.
During the period when I was experiencing the most dissonance, I joined the school’s environmental law journal. As an editor, I received a flood of submissions to review. I read and read and asked for more. Looking back, it is entirely obvious why scholarship exploring society’s failure to celebrate and protect Earth’s beautiful gifts resonated so deeply with my own struggle. Instead of feeling celebrated for discovering my truth, I was tiptoeing as to not upset society’s expectation of someone born female.
With a new passion to use the legal system to protect the planet for the benefit of all its inhabitants, I became braver personally and professionally. I changed my name. I challenged unabated drilling in the Marcellus Shale at the Clean Air Council in Philadelphia. I got top surgery. I worked on my first Supreme Court case, writing a brief in Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA, arguing that companies must control their climate pollution instead of passing it along to the rest of us. I got married, I had two kids. I participated in a nine-hour oral argument before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing in American Lung Association v. EPA, that an underhanded effort by the Trump Administration’s to extend the life of coal-fired power plants was antithetical to the Clean Air Act.
Things have come full circle. To the outside world and for those with whom the conversation has not naturally come up, I look like a straight, white, cisgender man. My outward appearance now renders largely invisible my true identity as a trans man. I am proud to come out here and share that part of myself with the world. Why? Because visibility matters. It matters to those who are struggling to navigate their own gender. It matters to those who have embraced the worst stereotypes and misconceptions of who trans people are instead of understanding that we are just as different and diverse as our cisgender counterparts.
People, just like the planet, seek equilibrium. If we keep polluting into the air, the world will change to our detriment. If we respect and appreciate the gifts the planet has given us, we can live sustainably. Likewise, if we try to stifle gender expression and identity, we will create anguish. But oppression can’t change the truth each individual holds. In just three months this year, lawmakers in dozens of states have drafted 240 anti-LGBTQ bills, most targeting trans people. Yet, dictating which bathrooms we use, criminalizing medical care for trans youth, and banning trans girls and women from playing sports will not make us disappear.
We all hold pieces of ourselves back due to external pressure. We obscure the truth. When this happens, we all lose out. Trans people have overcome immeasurable struggle to share their genuine selves with the world whether their identity is obvious or not. This is something to be celebrated. This is something to aspire to.
If your eyes are open to it, you can find beauty all around you. This, however, requires that you are willing to accept and support it in all its forms and not just your own version of it. There is nothing more beautiful than someone or something embodying its true nature. There is endless and renewable power to be found there.
The views expressed here reflect those of the author.
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