April 29, 2024 | Juvielyn Ancheta

Emily Mills: make your life something to remember

"No matter who you are, know that there are people who look up to you."
Emily Mills (by James Pederson)

Growing up, Emily saw the world in a different spectrum, full of doubts, fears, and questions about life. In the 90s, there were only two genders presented – you were either a boy or a girl.

Today, Emily (they/them) is a multi-talented individual with a multi-faceted life. They are a lover of the environment, an LGBTQ advocate, a DJ, writer, magazine editor, public relations manager, skater, certified wildland firefighter, band member, and loving partner.

Emily first came out as bisexual. However, Emily felt alienated by binary ideas of gender.  Emily kept on exploring the unknown so they could finally embrace who they really are. They felt somewhat like an impostor -- an unusual feeling of neither belonging to the binary, but not seeing other options.   

Last year, Emily came out as non-binary, but they mostly prefer to use the term "queer" as they find it more suitable to describe themselves. Being confused by your own characteristics is not easy, and Emily is living proof that it takes a lot of courage to discover and embrace your true self. It is a process of exploration and acceptance. Fortunately, Emily learned from folks who came out before them -- which revealed the limitless possibilities for someone beyond the binary, who did not really identify as a boy or a girl.

As a child, Emily fought against wearing dresses and more traditionally feminine clothing, preferring what was considered "boy" clothes. They often loved to play dress-up, wearing something masculine. The most memorable part of them was participating in a Civil War reenactment, acting as a man wearing a soldier's uniform.  In college, Emily performed as a drag king for many years.  Exploring identity through these performances helped Emily find self-esteem and self-expression.  Emily still finds drag work rewarding,  as it involves community work and self-exploration.

Emily’s father’s profession required frequent moves, which created some challenges for the family. Although they were born in Winona, Minnesota, Emily also had the chance to live in Illinois, Oklahoma, and finally Madison, Wisconsin.   

Moving around a lot was challenging but did provide some opportunities for growth and change. While Emily had begun making new friends in northern Illinois with whom they felt more comfortable and accepted, it was a sudden move to southern Oklahoma--halfway through high school--that both provided a fresh start and a need to become more proactive about who they were and what they wanted in life. Fortunately, there were also people in Oklahoma who accepted Emily for who they were and wanted to become. In the middle of an otherwise far more conservative and evangelical environment, Emily found fellow queers (some out, many not), weirdos, and even supportive church elders who helped them through a rough time.

After graduation, Emily moved to Madison -- a place that has now been their home for nearly 25 years.  Their first stop was Edgewood College, a Catholic liberal arts college institution run by the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa, where Emily majored in English and minored in theater.

"This was the very early 2000s, so there weren't LGBTQ support groups or social clubs," said Emily.

After graduation, Emily met husband, Nick, in Madison, and later, their other partner, Chez.  Emily said they didn't set out to be polyamorous, but it's proven to be the most fulfilling way for them to move through the world and build relationships.

Career and community

Emily has explored various careers over time.  They worked on a ranch in Oklahoma by driving an ATV, cutting through brush, spraying weeds, and working with cattle. The ranch was owned by a lovely and amazing couple, who always had Emily's back at all times. Currently, Emily is working as a marketing and communications professional for The Nature Conservancy (TNC,) a non-profit organization focused on environmental conservation.  Through this position, Emily also got the title of certified wildland firefighter, helping with controlled burns and serving as a steward of land and the environment.

For seven years, Emily was an editor for Our Lives Magazine, the only remaining LGBTQ media in Wisconsin. They are currently serving on the Board of Directors of Our Lives Media, which is leading the non-profit transformation of the business.  Emily also performs as a DJ, plays the drums, and sometimes sings with three bands (Damsel Trash, Line, and Little Red Wolf.)   

Emily has been active with Madison Roller Derby for 12 years as a skater and public relations manager. 

“I always love to mention the Madison Roller Derby because it is a really fun sport," said Emily.  "And they do tremendous work in the community."

Emily is also a board member for Boardslide Mission, a nonprofit organization focused on connecting marginalized communities with snow sports.  

emilymills Emily, Chez, Nick and pets
emilymills Chez and Emily

Generation next

Queer life may have changed over time, but Emily believes that there are things that have never changed at all. 

“There are always some things that are sort of universal to the experience of growing up and coming out as queer,” Emily noted. 

On the other hand, there are also new challenges on the horizon. Emily thinks young people are far more likely to fight for their rights, and not stand for any rollback of those rights. 

"Young people know that equality and access are important, and should be a given, and they have more role models now than ever before."

"Although Wisconsin was the first state to pass statewide protections for gay and lesbian people, there are still inconsistencies that the legislators should be focusing on, including protections for trans people. The government should start with people who are most impacted. Those with the most challenges and the fewest protections. And if you fix that, that helps everyone. And that’s sort of the message. I wish more people understood, as opposed to getting these messages from bad actors who are trying to demonize people like me, as if I impact their life at all. I’m not causing your problems by being who I am."

"But that person who’s telling you to hate me? They are probably profiting in some way from your distraction.  Instead of hating me, why not pay attention to what they’re up to? They are causing a problem for everybody. And I think that’s a universal issue.  We see it here, we see it across the world."

Emily sees younger generations as having a lot to bring to the table: new ideas and perspectives.  

"They value intergenerational conversation, and that's important," said Emily, "given that today’s generation will serve as the backbone of future ones. Younger folks should always look to and learn their history and roots -- especially their queer and trans elders, and the fights that have come before -- because you have to know your past in order to build a better future." 

The gift of gratitude

Who would Emily thank for who they are today?  

“I wouldn’t be here without the community, without the other people in my life. None of us do this alone,” they said.

“I have a lot of dear friends … who I consider family at this point.”

Emily shared special gratitude toward their parents. 

“Fundamentally, they were always there to support me in my strong willed, weird, unusual kid ways. There were there for me when I was getting into trouble. But they were always really supporting and loving. So thank you, Sue and Rick, my parents.”

Emily also had grateful words for Patrick Farabaugh, publisher of Our Lives. 

“He was a great colleague.... someone who helped me and gave me the opportunity to get into more of the community," said Emily. "Through Our Lives, I met a lot of people, including different generations of queer and trans people.”

In closing, Emily sends a special message to her loved ones.

”Obviously, my partners have been really great through all of my changes and transitions,” they added. “Being polyamorous takes a lot of work and a lot of communication and a lot of trust. So, I absolutely thank them.”

Emily ends with a reminder that no matter what color, race, gender, or age you are, know that there are people who look up to you. Make your life something to remember and always be the greatest role model you could ever be -- not a flawless one, but a human being with beautiful bruises and scars, filled with meaningful lessons and memories. 

emilymills Emily Mills at the 2017 Fire Ball Masquerade (by Dutcher Photography)

The concept for this web site was envisioned by Don Schwamb in 2003. Over the next 15 years, he was the sole researcher, programmer and primary contributor.

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The concept for this web site was envisioned by Don Schwamb in 2003, and over the next 15 years, he was the sole researcher, programmer and primary contributor, bearing all costs for hosting the web site personally.