Trans activist and commentator Ashlee Marie Preston was invited to ask a question during CNN's LGBTQ+ Town Hall on Thursday night. But after the opportunity was withdrawn by the network at the last minute, Preston says she made a bold choice: She decided to withdraw her presence from the televised event altogether.
"I was going to bring attention to the terror TSA inflicts on trans & non-binary bodies while traveling," Preston tweeted. "I'd rather be absent than present & silent."
\u201cI\u2019m pulling out of the lgbtq presidential town hall tonight. I was part of the program & CNN scrapped my participation last minute. I was going to bring attention to the terror TSA inflicts on trans & non-binary bodies while traveling. I\u2019d rather be absent than present & silent.\u201d
— Ashlee Marie Preston (@Ashlee Marie Preston)
In an interview with Out, Preston says she decided not to attend because she was concerned about being tokenized and that her presence could be used to shield against concerns about trans community representation at the event. She said it's a trend she's noticed more and more as her work has attracted increased attention.
"Sometimes a cosign is nonverbal, sometimes it's my attendance at a place," Preston says.
She planned on asking about one of a few topics, including the rights of sex workers (specifically for trans women and non-binary people of color), trans women being incarcerated in men's facilities, and the harassment trans and non-binary people say they face while going through airport security. Preston said her recent experience at a TSA checkpoint in New Jersey was so negative that she still carries anxiety about it.
But then CNN gave her a call today as she was preparing to attend the event. Preston recalled the conversation, saying she was invited to come and enjoy the event and told not to worry about asking a question but that they were excited to have her present.
Even so, Preston said she read between the lines: The opportunity was withdrawn.
Preston told the network producer that she didn't feel comfortable being in a space where there may be less of a chance to address issues of importance to people of various intersecting identities within trans and non-binary communities.
"Instead we get a call into a room for the appearance of being inclusive. We're not leading the dialogue and having our specific issues examined closely," Preston says. "We have to settle for this sanitized version of what queer liberation looks like and it is an act of erasure."
In the future, Preston hopes other presidential forums will be more intentional about amplifying the voices of those who are disproportionately impacted by the discrimination being experienced by LGBTQ+ people under the Trump administration, particularly transgender people of color and Black trans women.
"We're falling through the cracks of catchall advocacy, and it doesn't catch all of us," Preston says.
During the Town Hall event, an audience member also called out what she was the lack of visibility for transgender people of color throughout the evening.
"Not one black trans woman has taken the mic tonight," said Blossom Chrishelle Brown, taking the mic to call out the erasure of Black trans women. "Not one black trans man has taken the mic tonight... Actions speak louder than words."
Out has reached out to CNN for comment on this story, and it will be updated should its team respond.