Lives On the Line: A conversation with Z Shane Zaldivar of Trans Lifeline

Z at a protest to repeal HB2 in North Caorlina

Z Shane Zaldivar is a former Marine who has been living, working, and community organizing in North Carolina for years. He’s been an activist for 15 years in various locations throughout the South, and he’s been working with the Trans Lifeline for almost a year. André Pérez, founder of the Trans Oral History Project and Trans Lifeline Director of Marketing and Communications, sat down for a conversation with Z to get the behind-the-scenes scoop.

How did you get started in social justice activism?

Z: Even as a child, I always have been an activist in my own way. Growing up on military installations created an innate sense of justice and service. My social justice work started after being forced out the Marine Corps. I was honorably discharged under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell after allegations of my sexuality were under investigation. I started trying to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell so I could get back in uniform. While I was actively fighting for a repeal, I came out as trans, and I realized I was fighting for a law that didn’t apply to me. Projects kept coming, and I was a trained leader so I kept taking them on. 15 years later, here I am… still immersed in social justice work.

Describe the accomplishment you are most proud of in terms of social justice and community organizing.

Z: There are so many. For me what I am most proud of is the one-on-one work I have been involved in. I love seeing young leaders step up and grow, and I’m proud to just being one of many mentors along their journey. I’m proud to watch communities grow and come together for the greater good and support each other.

What went through your head when you first heard about HB2?

Z: Honestly, it was a flashback to Don’t Ask Don’t Tell for me. I have seen this all before and it never ends well…

How did you feel when you heard about HB2?

Z: My stomach hasn’t stopped churning yet.

How has HB2 impacted you and your family?

Z: My wife was seen on video (a local news station) with me at a local protest an hour away from where we lived and she was let go from her place of employment. She is having a hard time finding work so we only have my income to support us.

What have the people of North Carolina been doing to stand up to this hateful law?

Z: We have taken it to the streets. Protesting, rallying, shutting things down. We have had action events, training events, and community healing events.

How has the national response to HB2 felt?

Z: Interesting. I mean I have never been a fan of parachuting. It is still happening tho. I wish the bigger organizations that parachute into an area realized how much harm they actually do to the communities that live and work in hate-infested areas. If they truly cared, the money they spend on traveling in would go to the leadership in the affected area to continue doing the work instead of taking money out of our pockets.

How did you first get involved in the Trans Lifeline?

Z: I watched the Trans Lifeline closely at first because I was skeptical. I wanted to see what they were about. Then, I saw that they were really trying to serve the community. So after a few months of watching, I signed up and started as an operator.

Describe what you do to someone who doesn’t know how Trans Lifeline operates in 2–3 sentences.

Z: I am the Operations Support Lead, and my main function is to keep the line running. I take care of our operators and leads by providing support and making sure they have the tools they need to be successful. Doing self-care check-ins with operators is the most vital aspect of my work.

What is your own relationship to suicide, suicidality, and/or mental illness?

Z: Well, that’s a tough question. I do have quite a relationship with all 3. None of which are easy to talk about. But here goes…….. I do live with complex PTSD not only from my service in the United States Marine Corp, but also from years of childhood trauma. It has only been in the past couple of years that I have been able to talk about it.

I have had several failed suicide attempts in the past. The most recent was when I was first moved to North Carolina. I had just about sent my wife back to Tennessee and was ready to leave this world. I called my best friend from college to say goodbye, and she picked up on what I wasn’t saying. She literally yelled “NO! I do not give you permission to take your life!” She called a local crisis prevention line in North Carolina (how she found them all the way in Texas is beyond me). They provided me with help and a year long intensive outpatient program for PTSD. From lived experience, I know community members who reach out to the Trans Lifeline are literally trying to find a lifeline to keep going. That is why I devote this part of my advocacy work to them.

What is one important lesson that your work has taught you?

Z: I learn important lessons every day from doing the work — about my own internalized oppression, interacting with different community members, how the system works and how we can make it better, and what help looks like to our transgender communities. I think the most important lesson for me is we have to stay in fellowship with one another in order to meet the needs of our communities and elevate each other’s voices. As leaders, we have to create safe spaces for our community members to grow and be heard outside of community walls.

What keeps you going when the work is difficult?

Z: My chosen family honestly — the ones who harp on me about self-care, the ones who answer the phone when I need to reach out, and the ones who are always checking up on me. Behind my work are several strong folks literally lifting me up when I am too tired to keep going.

When is a time when you felt as though the work you did makes a difference?

Z: I know deep down that this work makes a difference. However, it truly wasn’t until I became an operator that I felt it in my heart. Every time I hear a caller leave a conversation better than when they called in, I know this work matters. Sometimes, months or even a year later, a person will approach me at an event because they know I work with the Trans Lifeline, and they will share the story story of their journey along with with how they held on long enough for things to get better because of talking with our folks.

Q: What would it mean to you to work for Trans Lifeline full-time?

Z: Right now I get paid a very small stipend to work with the Trans Lifeline. They can only afford to pay me for a few hours a week, but I volunteer much more than that. Whenever I am not at work supporting my family, I am making sure we keep the line going because it’s important to me.

If I was paid to work full time for the line, I would finally have the ability and flexibility to fully serve my community not only online but offline as well. I would be able to serve my community directly as a part of Trans Lifeline and also be there more for our Trans Lifeline community as a whole. It would mean I can also bring hope to all the other advocates — especially other trans people of color — that one day we can all be paid to do this work we love.

Help us expand our services by hiring people like Z. Donate today.

Lives Behind the Line is a series of interviews with people who are part of the larger Trans Lifeline community including callers, volunteers, and staff. Learn more here. If you are open to sharing your experience, reach out to André Pérez at aperez@ translifeline.org.