The Peace Train is on the right track again

By Elizabeth Coffey Williams

Singer and musician Sharon Katz’s dedication to social activism has been well known since 1993 when she organized the Peace Train in her native South Africa. The Peace Train transported a racially mixed chorus and band of musicians throughout the country to promote unity and help end apartheid. Combining art and activism remains deeply ingrained in Katz’s character as a dedicated agent for change.

As her friend and neighbor at the John C. Anderson LGBT Friendly Apartments, I became keenly aware of Sharon’s fierce commitment to social justice through her music and activism. The world first saw her in action when CNN cameras caught Sharon, with her guitar, fearlessly jumping from a helicopter into a remote South African village on a voter education mission. Imagine that!

That dedication was put to the test this July when Sharon was scheduled as a headline performer at the “WPI Festival on the Land Music Camp for Women and Girls” in Michigan. She was en route to the event when she learned that the organizers had restricted attendance to “women and girls biologically born female, and boys up to age 4.”

Sharon faced a difficult choice: to fulfill her commitment to the festival’s organizers or to stand up in the face of discrimination and exclusion for what she knew, in her heart, was right.

Her decision is no surprise to anyone who knows her. She skipped the festival, giving up her fees, risking the ire of the event’s organizers, and disappointing attendees who looked forward to her role as the WPI Global Music For Social Justice director/performer.

The singer-activist observed her mentor Nelson Mandela’s birthday July 18 by publicly announcing her withdrawal from the event. She still supports the festival’s goals of creating “a safe space where women could be free and not oppressed by men.” But as she told her Facebook followers, “I also understand that Trans women are women who deserve to be treated fairly and for whom safety and inclusion are also critical issues….I wish all of the women well at this festival, but I also wish all women well which includes Trans women. I feel it is time for us to be united, not separated.”

The threat to Trans women, Sharon observes, is all too real. We’ve seen too many headlines of Trans people harassed, beaten or killed simply because of who they are. It’s a concern that I have witnessed too many times as a facilitator of TransWay, sponsored by the William Way LBGT Community Center. Although we discuss a wide range of issues in our group, this fear of physical and emotional violence is a constant in our lives. 

The threats to the Trans/GNC community come from all directions. Trans folks already experience frequent slights, affronts and attacks in too many aspects of daily life. Now, reactionary legislators want to take away health care decisions from parents and medical professionals, discriminate in sports, adopt so-called “bathroom bills” and other restrictions based on bigotry and bad science. Adding to these inflammatory proposals are the anti-Trans verbal attacks from more than a few prominent entertainment and cultural figures who still claim to be our allies. Sorry folks, you can’t have it both ways!

We need more allies like Sharon Katz who back up their beliefs with concrete action. She publicly announced her decision rather than craning her neck to get a better view of the train wreck. Instead of throwing her angry fist in the air while still grabbing a paycheck, she sacrificed a professional opportunity and risked alienating some of her audience and peers. She chose, through her words and actions, to stand with her Trans/GNC siblings who sit in the crosshairs of hatred in the U.S. and around the world. Quite simply, she saw something wrong and stood up to be part of the solution rather than being part of the problem.

May we all, when confronted with such choices, find in her example the strength to stand up, heed our moral compass and make the right decisions. Do you need a lift? Try the Peace Train. It seems to be headed in the right direction!

Elizabeth Coffey Williams is a resident of the John C Anderson LGBT-Friendly Apartments. She currently co- facilitates the TransWay support group at the William Way LGBT Community Center and is a board member of the Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld Fund. As one of the original John’s Hopkins group, Elizabeth completed her transition and gender confirmation 50 years ago, in 1972. Unlike many of her peers, who were urged to “assimilate,” she remained a defiantly out and proud trans woman.