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Aurora Higgs shares her story in hopes of reshaping Virginia

Aurora Higgs stands for a portrait photo
Aurora Higgs has spent her career advocating for LGBTQ+ inclusion and protections in Virginia. She said her power comes from her story, which she uses to educate cisgender heterosexual people about the struggles that queer people endure everyday, especially Black trans nonbinary femmes in the South like herself. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

In 1969, protests over the treatment of the queer community by police came after The Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City, was raided. The ensuing rebellion has become a rallying point for LGBTQ+ rights.

To mark the anniversary of those events, VPM News is highlighting some of the queer leaders in Richmond whose work has had a direct impact on the lives of other LGBTQ+ Virginians.

When Aurora Higgs addressed a crowd of Richmond protesters in June 2020, she was wearing a small trans pride flag in her hair and a determined look on her face.

Higgs was advocating for the inclusion of trans people in the Black Lives Matter movement and called upon each member of the assembled crowd to value and protect the queer Black folks putting their safety on the line to protest police violence.

“We are here tonight to show the system that we will not be intimidated. That we are here. Some of us are queer and some of us are not,” Higgs said. “To all people here, cis, het … we are here together and that’s what counts, and this is exactly what they did not want.”

Ellen Nicholas, a friend of Higgs’ since high school who attended several rallies with her that summer, said her public speaking is captivating.

“She is someone that people are just naturally, magnetically drawn to and want to be a part of her life and to support her,” Nicholas said. “That's such an amazing power that she has because of the community she represents. So, she's able to bring people into something bigger, just by being herself.”

Higgs has spent her career advocating for LGBTQ+ inclusion and protections in Virginia. She said her power comes from her story, which she uses to educate cisgender heterosexual people about the struggles that queer people endure everyday, especially Black trans nonbinary femmes in the South like herself.

Higgs was among the inaugural cohort to serve on the governor’s LGBTQ+ advisory board, which makes recommendations to Virginia’s executive office about issues related to the queer community. Previously, she served as a board member of the Virginia League of Planned Parenthood, and last year was the director of programs at the LGBTQ+ nonprofit Diversity Richmond, where she helped employees organize a strike to protest conditions at their thrift store. Additionally, she organized the Say Her Name march in the summer of 2020 to honor Black women killed by police.

Higgs also was invited to assist another queer leader in the commonwealth, Del. Danica Roem (D-Prince William), in passing several pieces of legislation related to transgender rights in Virginia, including a bill to make transphobic discrimination by medical providers illegal. According to a 2020 study by the policy group Center for American Progress, about 30% of transgender people report postponing or avoiding medical treatment due to discrimination from medical providers.

“These [anti-discrimination] laws don't stop people from treating you badly. But they do give you a basis to stand on if you want to air a grievance,” Higgs said. “I testified, I tried to humanize it, and it was largely unopposed.”

Kyle Mason served on the governor’s LGBTQ+ advisory board at the same time as Higgs. They said her intersectional perspective was invaluable in setting up the board’s organizational structure.

“She is a person whose advocacy is unapologetic and strong [and] is so sincere. And I think that she brings an incredibly unique perspective,” Mason said.

Higgs at home

Higgs grew up on the southside of Richmond with her parents and younger sister. She first came out to her family as gay when she was seven years old and was lucky enough to have a supportive home environment. Her favorite uncles, who eventually became her role models, were also openly gay throughout her childhood.

“They're the reason why I'm as strong and as actualized as I am, because they were my models when no one else had it. People my age didn't have those models close to home, let alone models that were already approved by their parents,” Higgs said. “I miss my uncle Click so much, and there's so many times where I wish I could have him, a Black elder femme, to help me through some things.”

In middle school, Higgs came out to her peers and in her junior year of high school — in 2009 — was appointed president of the schools’ Gay Straight Alliance club. That’s when her advocacy work around LGBTQ+ issues began.

“I was always really vocal. I think it just had to do with the fact that I could have overwhelming empathy and compassion for being disadvantaged,” Higgs said.

After graduating from the Maggie Walker Governor’s School, Higgs studied marketing at Virginia Commonwealth University.

She began working in VCU’s equity and access services office in 2016, and through that role was invited to give her first lecture on her experience as a Black trans nonbinary person in academia. She said that opportunity opened the door to a whole new career.

“I didn't realize that people were just waiting for somebody who was brave enough to talk openly,” Higgs said. “I've always been that kid. I've always been the person who raises their hand in class to talk or share or read aloud or do all those things. And so, I just had an innate comfortability with public speaking.”

In 2019, she received a master’s degree in education, planning to spend her career making academia a more inclusive space for LGBTQ+ educators and students.

“I wanted to keep some of the things about education and higher ed that I loved, while also allowing it to be more equitable. But sometimes the system is bigger than you are,” Higgs said.

Higgs is currently in a doctoral program at VCU, studying the intersection of media, art and text — especially in queer spaces. But she’s moved on from working exclusively to reform academia and instead uses her skills to communicate her story to companies across the world seeking equity training and presentations from people with diverse perspectives for their employees.

According to a UCLA study, 46% of LGBTQ+ employees have experienced discrimination in the workplace; 38% reported experiencing workplace harassment.

As vice president of clients and operations for Human Inc., an international consulting firm, Higgs discusses data with corporate clients on the challenges faced by their LGBTQ+ peers in the workplace. Once they have that information, Higgs said she uses her platform to encourage those in charge of the workplace to improve the inclusivity of their policies toward gender- and sexual-identity minorities.

“People often in corporations use a mixture of lack of evidence and data, plus their own personal feelings, to keep workplaces from being equitable,” Higgs said. “My job is not to turn a capitalistic institution into a compassionate one. It's to help give people within those capitalist institutions ways to get by.”

But sharing her story comes with a cost. She’s usually the only Black and openly trans person in these spaces, and she said that it’s not easy to bear your soul to people who might not sympathize with your story.

“It just feels like I'm still the one trailblazing in a lot of ways. And I don't say that in the good way. Trailblazing is not fun. It's not glamorous,” Higgs said. “Imagine yourself in the woods, in the thick of it, you're getting cut up, you don't even know if you're going the right way. And everyone's trusting you and your survival depends on you getting through that. But there's just nothing and everything seems to be in opposition with you. That does not sound fun.”

But after every lecture she gives, Higgs said at least one person approaches her to thank her for saying what they couldn’t.

“People come up to me, and they're like, ‘I've never heard anyone be able to talk like that here, because everyone here is an employee, and you're an outside speaker,’” Higgs said. “Maybe, managers will get a spark in their head and do something a little differently.”

Higgs used to donate much more of her time to advocacy, but she said she’s pulled back from that role now due to the burn out that comes from constantly performing such emotionally taxing work.

“I am somebody who preaches queer joy and radical hope, while also feeling hopeless and feeling undervalued, and feeling like I don't even know how I'm going to survive, let alone how I'm supposed to ensure other people like me survive,” Higgs said. “Saving the world, that can mean you save one person. And that one person can be you.”

Find more stories from the queer leaders series here.