Lance Hicks used to get mad when schoolyard bullies would argue with him about his race. "I used to carry around family photos to show them because I would get really upset when people would tell me that I wasn't the race that I said I was," he says, sitting on a bench in Clark Park. "Its just that idea that a perfect stranger based on how you look feels entitled to say they know more about you than you do."
Hicks has a white parent and a black parent. He also has fair skin and light eyes. So when people look at him, they often only see a white man. But his race is not the only part of his identity people often misread. Hicks, 22, has been correcting them about his gender since coming out as transgender at 15.
"In a perfect world, everyone could just look at me and know who I was," Hicks says, his sandy-colored hair twisted neatly into dreadlocks. "But we don't live in a perfect world, we live in this world, and it's more important to me to build relationships with people who care about things that I think are important and are working on things that I care about and are invested in trying to do the work that I think is important. If you don't understand my race or you don't understand my gender, that's okay as long as you can be respectful."
Growing up on Detroit's Northwest side, Hicks said he always felt like a boy, even though he loved pink and once refused to wear a dress until his mother glued a flower onto it, but started identifying as transgender when he found the word on the Internet.
Though initially his mother, the first person to whom he came out, thought he was joking, she researched the issue and became fiercely supportive, driving him to Affirmations youth group every week. There and at the Ruth Ellis Center, he found other trans youths and the support he needed.
"I kind of developed a peer group really early on of other trans and other LGBT youth and we kind of created this little chosen family," he said. "I came out so young and I had this peer group and this kind of support system around me so I was able to have a pretty positive experience during my teenage years, which I don't think is something a lot of trans people can say."
Most of the friends Hicks made at those LGBT youth centers were involved in queer youth organizing, which soon became a passion of Hicks' and helped build his own confidence. He was involved in OSASS, Oakland County Substance Abuse Services and through Affirmations, he helped organize a Midwest trans youth conference that ran from 2007 to 2009. He said the event filled a need for youth-driven transgender programs.
"Lots of times big events like that don't happen necessarily in the Midwest or aren't necessarily youth-friendly spaces," he said. "Youth are allowed to go and people will talk to you but you don't see youth organizing anything or planning workshops or doing facilitation, they are just sort of there."
The need for more active roles for LGBT youth is also behind his newest project, Detroit Represent!, which he cofounded with Rhiannon Chester last summer. Though still in its infancy and with limited membership, the project aims to teach LGBT youth of color media skills so they can take active roles in the media's retelling of LGBT-related issues.
"We felt like a lot of media representation of LGBTQ youth was either not presented by members of the community, it was kind of by other people about us, or it didn't represent youth of color," he said.
Through the program, LGBT youth teach each other media skills and create projects that are authentic representatives of them and help to make changes in the LGBT community, not just highlight them.
"Instead of just saying 'youth are homeless because people don't accept them and this is not a good thing,' maybe create a documentary piece to try to raise funds for a group that is supporting a transitional living project for LGBTQ youth," he said, "or maybe create an infographic for teachers on what resources are available for them to help support youth...something that actually creates an action toward improving the situation instead of just pointing out the problem and complaining about it."
Hicks also recently joined the board of Detroit Latinos, which has donated their headquarters for Detroit Represent's meetings. He said as someone who does not identify as Latino, he had reservations about taking on a decision-making role in a Latino organization.
"I actually felt really complicated about being on that board because I don't feel like the best person to be making decisions for an organization that serves Latino people but ultimately the reason why they were interesting in having me participate is some of the work I was doing around youth organizing and art stuff, so I think I can just kind of share some of that skill set with them, and not necessarily take on a huge amount of power," he said.
The issue of race has been central to Hicks his entire life, but he said dealing with misconceptions about his gender brought issues about his race to the surface.
"Right now I'd say my race honestly is a bigger part of my identity than my gender," he says. "When I tell people that I'm trans, automatically unless the other person's trans too, people automatically think 'oh that must be the biggest thing about you' and people always want to ask about that, so because of that I've been talking about that and thinking about that so much since I was 15 because it's all people want to hear about. There's not a whole lot left for me to say about it. It's kind of the opposite with my race because I think that people who aren't biracial often times don't realize that that's a really intense experience."
Growing up, he said his white mother and black father both wanted him to know and be proud of the fact that he was "mixed," a term he says he prefers because people automatically know what it means, but he said neither of them fully recognized how challenging it would be.
"It's definitely been a complicated thing growing up here because this is such a segregated area," Hicks says. "Most other places I've been people don't assume that there's only black and white, but in Detroit all the time you hear people say 'oh is so-and-so black or are they white?' as if those are the only two options. I never feel like I'm white or I'm black, I always feel like I'm this other third thing."
That "third" classification has brought with it challenges, like questioning stares when he's in an area mostly populated by black people, areas where he normally feels most comfortable. When he experiences racism, he said unlike those with darker-skin, he doesn't have a built-in community of people who look like him to come to for support.
"I think I'm still learning what it means to carry the privilege of being light-skinned within the experience of knowing you're not white," he says. "I do carry a lot of privilege based on the way I look. Things like racial profiling or educational malpractice and teachers assuming you're not going to work as hard or you're not as smart or getting a lower pay rate when you start a job...things like that aren't things I have to deal with as much but I think I have to deal with other things that darker-skinned black people don't."
Hicks said he may want to raise or mentor a biracial child to give him the understanding of those challenges his own parents could not.
"Not that they weren't supportive, but neither one of them could really relate," he said. "That would have been really special for me to have, so I'd like to at one point in my life be able to give that to a younger person."
His race and gender, he said, also makes it harder to find safe spaces where he feels comfortable and gets all his emotional needs met.
"As much as I am a trans person and I claim the trans community, I often times don't feel comfortable in spaces that are supposedly trans spaces because most of those spaces are by and for white people and so it makes things complicated," he said. "At the same time spaces that are mostly spaces of color are not safe spaces for me as a trans person, so it's a matter of having to kind of get the things I need from different places and recognize that it's not realistic of me to get everything I need from one place and learning to be okay with that."
With no clear major for his passion, media-based community organizing, he's bringing that same approach to his education. Studying at Wayne State University, he bobbed back and forth between degrees in social work and photography and then turned to taking classes, both on and off campus, that he thinks will help him improve his skills. He took part in one of Detroit Future Media's 20-week Media Workshops, an experience he called the most transformative of his life, and is also learning from an apprenticeship with the Boggs Educational Center in addition to working in the resource center of nonprofit Alternatives for Girls, which assists homeless and high-risk women and girls.
In some ways, Hicks is already working his dream job as much of what he wants to do for a living is involved in Detroit Represent! He said his long-term career plans may not end up looking like a normal job, but he's committed to Detroit and to queer youth and will continue to work to improve the city he loves and the youth who need access to resources and transgender role models.
"I really hope that I'm never done," he said. "I hope that I live a long time and I do a lot of things in my life. I know some of the things I want to do and I know there are things that I will definitely discover later that I don't know right now."
This story first appeared in Between the Lines, our media partner for this project.