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I turn anti-LGBTQ+ comments I get into poetry, creating beauty from ugliness

Nonbinary Poet Sarah Kate Smigiel enby transgender
Courtesy Author

Nonbinary influencer Sarah Kate Smigiel writes about their gender journey and building a community with art born out of hate.

A few days before my top surgery, I wrote myself a letter to read back during the tough moments of recovery. The letter consisted of affirmations – reminders of my own worth and validity – and it served as an act of love to myself during a time that others had questioned or even derided

At this time, I was 24 years old and very fresh to the gender expansive community. I knew of binary trans folks, but saw no representation of nonbinary folks anywhere. I hadn’t yet told anyone outside of my immediate circle that I was nonbinary or that I was getting top surgery to affirm my gender because I didn’t yet have the language to advocate for myself. Being from a small rural town, I had seen so much discourse in my community, the media at large, and online about trans folks throughout my life. I also happened to grow up with a dad who was a state delegate for the Republican Party, giving me a unique peek into the inner workings of the creation and enactment of policies that went against my very being.

I had told myself up to this point that my gender-affirming surgery would be quiet and that I would keep small throughout the process, as to not make waves.

This all changed the moment I woke up from my surgery and felt the wonder of existing in a vessel that could carry my gender comfortably for the first time.

Nonbinary Poet Sarah Kate Smigiel enby transgender top surgery flowersCourtesy Author

I suddenly didn’t want to be small or quiet anymore. I decided that I would put myself out there and document my journey through recovery, so that hopefully someone else out there who felt like me could use my experience as a guidebook for their own journey and feel a little less alone.

As I shared my experiences with shaking hands and hesitation – the joys and setbacks alike – I found that I had never really been alone, just that the non-binary community needed a safe place to gather and connect. I committed to fostering that space in my corner of the internet and allowing it to grow into whatever it would become.

My online following grew as I did, and with that growth also came the presence of online hate. The hate came in waves and the volume only continued to increase as my audience did. It seemed as though the more love and acceptance for others I offered to the world, the angrier folks who stand against LGBTQ+ rights and freedoms became toward me.

At first, I wasn’t sure what to do with all of the hate. I would read it and flush with shame and embarrassment. I would dissect the comments and then type out long, educational responses, to then just delete them instead.

I knew the difference between ignorance and hate. I actually welcome ignorance on my page. We are all born in ignorance and don’t know the things we don’t know until we are exposed to them. If folks come to me with well intended questions, I will always do my best to meet them where they’re at in their education journey with no judgment. Some folks come to me because they simply don’t understand me – and that’s something I can help with while also building bridges between communities.

I realized, however, that the hate I was receiving was not something I could solve. The people on the other side of the screen didn’t want to learn anything about me or the community, didn’t care to bridge the gap of understanding, and did not have good intentions when connecting with my page.

For the first year or so of this hate, I would simply delete it to keep the space inviting and safe for those who wanted to engage in a positive way.

Then I began to wonder if there was a way that I could better serve myself and my followers than simply deleting the hate and acting like it didn’t exist.

I asked myself, “Is creating this safe bubble of non-adversity actually preparing my community for the conversations and comments THEY’LL be faced with in their lives? Surely I’m not the only person experiencing this. Is there a better way to address the volume of hatred I receive?”

Out of this conversation with myself, an idea was born that I now believe is the ultimate act of self and community care –creating beauty from the ugly in the world. I began to not simply delete the hateful comments, but instead repurpose them into affirming love letters and poems to turn back over to my community.

When I see a particularly lengthy or interesting hate comment, I screenshot it before I delete it, and save them in a folder on my phone. For a while, I would choose one weekly and use the editing features on my phone to erase away the words that no longer served me and leave behind a new and improved message of love, empathy, or kindness (and sometimes a little bit of humor, too).

Once I had enough to fill a book, I did just that, publishing, “Hate Comment Erasure Poetry” by Sarah Kate Smigiel.

After initially sharing these erasure poems on my page (and in my book) I received overwhelmingly positive feedback from my community about the experience of tangibly seeing hate bloom into love right in front of them. So, I decided to open up the transformative and creative process to my followers to be able to experience for themselves.

These days, I post one of my hate comments in my stories every week and allow others to create art or poetry and send their submissions to me. I choose some favorites each week and share them in a post, allowing my community to now see how multiple folks have interpreted and found magic woven through the words that were once hateful.

Seeing this ripple effect of positivity and widespread reclaiming of empowerment has been more moving than anything else has been during my content creation journey.

Nonbinary Poet Sarah Kate Smigiel enby transgenderCourtesy Author

People often will reach out and tell me how seeing this reframing of hate has helped them cope with their own day-to-day interactions with non supportive family, peers, or online commenters.

Knowing how many people are taking the time to participate and write these little love letters to themselves (and others) brings me right back to the 24-year-old version of me who sat down a few days before their top surgery to write that letter to read during tough times on their gender journey.

Looking back, I’ve always been someone who aims to make everything I come across a little more beautiful, even when I had a hard time finding beauty within myself.

I’ve come to realize that giving myself the gift of a body that reflects my truest self has in turn given me the gift of a community that has amplified the beauty and love I find and create in the world.

Sarah Kate Smigiel (she/they) is an educator and influencer. You can support their work by following them on Instagram at @justsaysk or buying their book, “Hate Comment Erasure Poetry.”

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