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Diana Patton: On the Fight to Exist, the Power of Mentoring, and Having Fun as an Act of Resistance

Updated: Jun 22, 2023

Diana Patton (she/her/hers) is a veteran and transgender activist currently residing in Hamburg, New York. She is a co-founder of the We Exist Coalition as well as the Commander of Veterans Defending Democracy, an affiliate of Defense of Democracy. I had a chance to sit down with her in late May to catch up on the myriad of ways she is building community.

JK: Hi Diana! Thank you for making the time to talk with me today. I have so many questions for you! First off, I wanted to hear more about your work with the We Exist Coalition.

DP: I started We Exist with three other trans women: one from the great lakes region, and the others down in Jamestown. We started the coalition when Trump became president because of the anti-transgender stuff he was coming out with, mostly dealing with the military. We thought it would be a great way to combine our activism with advocacy across the state. It’s smaller now than it was a few years ago, but we still show up to teach people about trans issues. Anything that anybody needs.

JK: You are also involved with Defense of Democracy, which is a national group I believe that defends inclusivity in public education. You organized a local chapter of it, yes?

DP: Yes, I am the Erie County Chapter Chair for Defense of Democracy and I am also the Commander of Veterans Defending Democracy, which is an affiliate of Defense of Democracy.

JK: How did you get your start in activism?

DP: When I first came out as trans, I started going to support groups. I’m someone who likes to learn everything I can about what I am going through. So I started learning about transgender issues, reading medical journals, law journals, learning about all of the struggles we go through. I was reading everything I could get my hands on. When I was attending the Spectrum Transgender Group of Western New York, the two co-chairs were ready to step down, as they had been leading it for six years. Then they just appointed me and another trans woman as the chairs, and that was what got my start! Frank Goldberg (who has been missing for about eight years now), then Ari Moore, Patty, and Brian Ball of Stonewall Democrats, as well as Kitty and Cheryl (the first two lesbians to legally marry in New York State) started teaching me how to do all of this (activist) stuff. I put together my first panel when I was still a student at Hilbert, around 2010.

JK: You and I met last year when there was a contentious school board race in Hamburg. One of the things I really appreciated about you is that you show up for youth in a way I haven’t seen a lot of other activists do. You were at every school board meeting in Hamburg and Orchard Park when LGBTQ youth were put on the defensive from adult groups who organized against the districts’ gender-inclusive policies or who tried to silence queer authors and queer-centered books from school libraries. What do you see your role in paying forward mentoring and your work with young people?

DP: I always tell youth that they can contact me at any time, day or night, 24/7, whenever they need anything. Whether its advice, or just to talk or to learn about the mistakes I’ve made or the wins I’ve had. I don’t really like to be recognized for this work as I believe everyone should be doing the work. Plus I’m disabled, so I can spend a lot of my time doing it more than most.

JK: As a parent of a transgender child, I am always trying to balance how to both teach my child to stand up and fight for their rights AND how to support their mental health. We live in a country that is passing a record number of anti-LGBTQ laws, that is attacking children for being who they are, and attacking parents and providers for affirming care. Do you have any advice for parents like me on how you find that balance of protecting our child’s mental health when they have to regularly deal with people calling for their invisibility at best and their eradication at worst?

DP: Find fun! Find laughter. Find some way to take a break from everything that is serious. You have to at least make time, and you’ve got to make it about yourself, not just about the trans person. I’m constantly telling both parents and other activists, the best advice I can, which is to go and take a break. Because this stuff can get addicting. It’s not a bad addiction but it's hard to let it go. It can take you down rabbit holes at times. It can get you so angry. But you don’t want to do this from a place of anger. You can’t. Then you start attacking people instead of the issue. And you don’t want to attack people.

JK: When I saw you speak out at the Orchard Park School Board meeting (in January 2023), you were so respectful with the “other side.” I see how you work to try to change people’s hearts and minds. And I know that their vitriol has to feel like a regular attack on your personhood. How do you cope with that? Are there other things (fun being one) that help you reset and soothe?

DP: This is reset for me, because I also have PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), so this is kind of my therapy. To help helps. It helps my depression and the things that bother me. Nine times out of ten, you can’t help someone. Either they take the help or do the work. But it's that one person you help that changes everything and invigorates you to keep going. I also garden, crochet, play video games, watch movies. If I’m having a bad day, I’ll turn on Netflix and find a comedian to watch.

JK: One of the things that I’ve seen in my activism is that thriving occurs both alongside suffering and it is antithetical to activism, because if we were thriving we won’t have to be out here fighting the good fight. But there is always some oppressive force trying to stop us from thriving. So what would it look like for your community to thrive…

DP: For us to be left alone. That’s it. We have enough problems day to day to deal with. Right now, I know of two trans students, who are being attacked in our area and that just drives me nuts. I got to meet both parents of both kids and I’ve gotten them contact info for support. It’s up to them to follow through. So just leave us the hell alone. Let us be who we are going to be. This goes beyond acceptance. I don’t care what your beliefs are. You can hate me as much as you want, but just respect me. Using pronouns is about respect, it doesn’t have anything to do with your beliefs. I don’t care if you believe that I am a she but that’s respect to call me that. If you’re not going to respect me, how am I going to talk with you…

JK: I heard the speech you gave at UB when Michael Knowles came through and the message you included about American freedom. I know I don’t have to tell you this, but when people claim to be speaking on behalf of people’s freedom while actively suppressing other people from being free, the hypocrisy of that feels…

DP: You don’t get to hijack patriotism! Matter of fact, people like me, you’ll hardly ever hear me beat my chest about being a patriot. Yes, I’ll wear my veterans-wear because it's part of my history, it’s who I am, but I’m bad about remembering to put out my flag. People who bully people will raise that flag and fly it. If you are not for ALL Americans, how can you even begin to fly that flag? Historically, we have been a very oppressive nation, but it's the ideals that we can do better. That’s the #1 American ideal. That’s why our constitution is better than other constitutions. Because it can be altered or changed.

JK: Thank you Diana for doing what you do and for your time today. I appreciate all the ways in which you serve your fellow citizens.

Read the oath taken by Veterans Defending Democracy and be sure this pride month to support our local agencies fighting for LGBTQ rights. Join me as a monthly donor to uplift GLYS and check out the Pride Center’s upcoming events. Remember that Pride Month is more than “Love is Love” or “Love Wins.” As Diana has reminded me, the first Pride was a riot.

Photos provided by Dianna Patton.



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